Written by Nickolas Pappas, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There’s a story about love in Plato’s Symposium that captures the feeling of romantic love superbly, like a Valentine to everyone who’s ever had that experience. This may be why the story is one of those pieces from a Platonic dialogue (like the Atlantis legend) that people know about even if they don’t know it’s from Plato.
Within the Symposium the story is told by Aristophanes, in real life a comic playwright, in this dialogue also someone relaxing at a dinner party with Socrates and others and wondering where love comes from. He says the first human beings were double creatures: a big head on each one, with two faces looking in opposite directions, and a spherical, four-legged, four-armed body.
These first people were contented things but they thought they could conquer heaven, and to punish them for their arrogance the gods decided to weaken them. Zeus and Apollo cut every happy four-legged double-faced human into a pair of single-faced bipeds—needless to say, unhappy ones. Misery defines existence for people like them, which is to say people like us. You have had half of you amputated. You’re all phantom pain.
The story slides out of mythical past into the literal lives of those hearing it. You’re only half alive until you come upon that one that you used to be joined to. No wonder you embrace each other, trying to go back to your original condition.
Sex is part of that reunion. The gods planned it that way by moving the first split humans’ genitals around to their front sides, so people could stimulate each other as they hugged and find some relief. And yet, as Aristophanes tells the other guests at this dinner party, sex isn’t everything even in this earthy tale. These couples want something else when they find each other. They may not have the words for their yearning, but what they most crave (isn’t this romantic?) would be to find themselves reconnected into a single being.
There are other notable details in the story. It seems to acknowledge sexual orientation as few works did before the modern age. For this reason there’s a musical number based on the story in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But even though Plato is unembarrassed by same-sex desire, the taxonomy of sexual identities is an addition to the story, whose main message is that love comes from a crisis long ago. You used to be half of a large complete person, and you never will be again.
Later in the Symposium Socrates offers an alternative theory about thoughtful lovers’ redirecting their erotic desire to worthier objects like social institutions, and then every species of learning, on up to the philosophical understanding of beauty itself.
But even without this theory, Plato’s readers have dashed cold water on the fantasy from Aristophanes. How would you ever find that Ms or Mr Right, if this were true? You don’t know what to look for. It’s impractical to try embracing everyone in the world to see if it will give both of you that special spark.
Let’s say you find someone special. You might reach for words that justify your love – witty, kind, sings like an angel – but according to this story, they’re excuses. The vital decision of whom to join with for life is a decision you made for no other reason than that this is your missing half. Maybe this explains why some long-time couples can only shrug and say they grew up together.
That seems to be the end of it: some recognition of romantic passion on one side, unsexy common sense as the alternative. The true romantic isn’t really silenced by these reasonable objections, because after all, everyone knows the right person is hard to find. (What else would it mean for there to be a right person?) You can still go on dreaming the dream of romance. There’s no law that says you have to be reasonable.
But Plato has more tricks up his sleeve than common sense. He’s more of an underminer than a naysayer. What if the danger with the story of Aristophanes were not that you never get together with the right person, but that you might?
Look at three details in the story that could seem extraneous. Imagine Plato putting Aristophanes on the couch in the psychoanalytic sense instead of the couches that the ancient Greeks reclined on to eat. As Aristophanes spelled out his myth, the double creature that was divided to create you and your special lover had two faces that looked very much alike.
When those first beings were cut in half, Apollo stitched them up leaving only one scar, the navel, and he turned their faces so that they would always look down at themselves and see this reminder of their old separation.
Turning their faces meant that they no longer saw their sex organs (this was prior to their movement, so they were on the other side), meaning these half-people pined for each other without hope for relief, and not knowing what to do together when they did meet up. So then the gods put them through a second operation, moving their genitals to the front side where people could see them. Romantic longing then acquired the new accompaniment of sexual intercourse.
If you were this storyteller’s shrink, you might circle back to some of these points. The story works fine without them, so what are they doing there? Romance is still romance, and the picture of someone you desire as someone you share a body with continues to be a compelling fantasy. “So why did you throw in the part about looking down at your belly button?”
Aristophanes shrugs it off. A fun detail. You tell a story like this and you throw in a little reality as if it’s supporting evidence. The gods cut you apart from your other half so they leave a scar. “It’s a joke!”
But the navel really is a scar, you point out, and it really does show where you were separated from someone else, namely your mother.
“I wasn’t thinking of that!”
“Wait a minute.” You’re not the type of therapist who interrupts, but you want to stay on track. “Why did you say the two faces were alike? People fall in love all the time with people who don’t look like them. But you know who does look alike? A mother and her child.”
Things never move this fast in real-life treatment. For dramatic purposes I’m having you resemble the type of analyst who shows up in movies with a gotcha question that rips away the veil of illusion. But then this Aristophanes is not a real-life character. Plato composed the story that Aristophanes told, making it up out of thin air or taking elements from someone else’s invention. He planted these clues in the story, hints that this is not really about a mythical past and other kinds of beings. If you try to tell a story about powerful one-on-one romantic feeling that goes beyond explanation, you will end up telling the story of returning to your mother.
Plato didn’t know the kinds of things that modern psychologists know. He had little idea of how the brain works. (He did know that thinking happens in the brain, and that a disease like epilepsy, despite being called “sacred,” had its origin in the brain’s material physiology.) But he had made close studies of the people around him, and he observed the characteristics of those who struck him as unbalanced – the form that inner conflict took in such people, or the socially unacceptable sexual desires that lurked in people’s souls and often appeared in their dreams. He had the delicacy to pick up on the resemblance between unquestioning erotic love in adulthood and the infant’s unquestioning mother-love.
Anyway, Plato didn’t have to be all that original in ascribing incestuous wishes to people. A year or two before he was born, the Athenians watched Sophocles’ great tragedy about Oedipus, whose mother/wife Jocasta says “Men have long slept with their mothers in their dreams”—not as if she were revealing anything new, but as something commonplace.
Bringing this revelation into a description of romance is a way of saying that this man or woman you feel so in love with is a substitute. The story had warned that you might need to find a replacement to love, because common sense says that you might not ever find your other half.
By linking it to infantile desire, Plato changes the whole image of falling in love. Instead of the long familiarity of growing up together, we’re talking about an older familiarity that says “I never grew up.”
What about the third detail? It’s awkward and it slows down the action to say that people were split in half, only later to have their genitals moved around so that they could see this fact about themselves, becoming sexual creatures in the process. As part of a streamlined narrative, it is clunky. But it does click as psychobiography. After the first separation from your mother, you languish, helpless. As a child you experience yearning without knowing where it comes from. Only in puberty do you become aware of yourself sexually, as if for the first time seeing your genitals for what they are.
Sure, it’s impractical to think that there is a single person just right for you. From philosophy’s point of view, as Plato understands philosophy, those other attacks on romance still hold true. But he is also canny enough to write a rival’s tale of romance that spills the beans about the forbidden desire behind it. If you want to see what’s wrong with that cult of romantic love, he’s saying, listen critically to the stories that people tell about it.
The legacy of romantic love is an old one. Valentine’s Day reminds us of that fact every year. Plato reminds us that there’s also an ancient legacy of exposing romantic love as something very different indeed.