Compare Aristophanes' and Diotima's speeches in Plato's “Symposium”. You should analyze each one carefully, thinking about the context, themes, structure, images, language, and references to other texts already studied in our class, as well as the role of each passage within the Symposium. From your analysis consider if those ideas have permeated our contemporary conception of love and how. Feel free to use contemporary references such as novels, quotes from movies, news articles such as Modern Love in the NY Times. Notice that both speeches are very rich and you have limited space to write about them: choose the features in them that you find more interesting, and talk about them in detail.

A little love, now and then

Ancient and contemporary Greeks in conversation

The speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium is notable in that its central metaphor survives to the present day. Though people are not generally aware of its attribution, in its genericized form it is part of contemporary discourse. Audiences require no explanation when hearing the title character in the film Jerry Maguire utter “You complete me” to the one he loves. Nor does she, but rather is overcome by the sentiment. It is a poetic formulation, the idea that human loneliness and the need for companionship are borne of estrangement from our original selves and that this eternal dissatisfaction was meted out by a higher power when we overreached our bounds. We had it, we blew it, we lost it. A later formulation of the same idea, the Old Testament tale of Adam and Eve, has achieved even wider cultural currency. In the conceptions of both Genesis and Plato's Aristophanes, companions share a connection rooted in the physical. Where Adam suffers the loss of a rib as raw material for the construction of his Eve, in Aristophanes the bonds between pairs of humans exist from the outset, as they share eight-limbed bodies, and the pain of their later separation is suggested by the bodily aspects of their forcible disjunction (26, 190E-191A). It is as though Aristophanes is responding to Eryximachus in kind, medical explanation for medical explanation.

Why has this metaphor retained its appeal? Plato's Socrates knows, because Diotima has taught him that ”…we divide out a special kind of love, and we refer to it by the word that means the whole — 'love'; and for the other kinds of love we use other words” (51, 205B). Today's discourse works the same way: unless they specify otherwise, two people talking about “love” are almost always talking about romantic love between two people. And Aristophanes' conception of love, focused as it is on the emotional experiences of individuals and their ideal states, meshes well with Romanticism (a precursor to our lowercased term), even as his story undermines the very etymology of the word “individual.” Upon finding each other, two matched dividuals “are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don't want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment” (28, 192C). We identify with this description because it is the very same experience we ourselves seek. Love is, by Aristophanes' lights, “the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete” (29, 193A). It would seem there is something timeless about the notion.

Socrates, speaking last and only after much characteristic self-deprecation, aims for a different sort of timelessness. Rhetorically, if not factually, he gestures away from himself as the source of any wisdom he may possess. Instead, he positions himself as having thought as his fellow revelers do until he received the wisdom of Diotima, prefiguring both the impact he wishes his speech to have and the distinction that speech (in the voice of Diotima) will soon make between the roles of lover and beloved (49, 204C). (Of course, the rhetorical layer of abstraction pointing to itself also points up Plato's role as the true author of all of Symposium's speeches.) Diotima's speech begins, like Aristophanes' and thoroughly redolent of Aesop, with reference to god and myth. The properties of Love are initially explained as a hybrid of the properties of Love's parents. The speech's approach begins to depart from that of Aristophanes, however, when Socrates first interjects to ask a question of Diotima (49, 204B). From that point onward, the speech becomes recognizably Socratic, with the clever inversion of Socrates in the role of the student. Diotima asks so that Socrates might struggle toward the answers himself; as the character doing the speaking at this point in Symposium, Socrates affords the same luxury to his listeners, with the added benefit of providing his own answers moments later (an understandably proferred shortcut — after all, he knows they've been doing some drinking).

Aristophanes and Socrates both trade in abstractions, but the nature of the abstractions differs. Aristophanes relies on striking images and metaphors that are pleasurable to essay. That the whole of love can be explained in terms of paired permutations of sun (male), earth (female), and moon (both), that Zeus “cut those human beings in two… the way they cut eggs with hairs”; that Apollo created the navel as a result, is all persuasive in the same way any other origin myth is persuasive — which is to say, better at a glance than under close inspection. Socrates, on the other hand, is ready for his close-up. Once the Socratic portion of Diotima's speech is underway, the debate begins from definitions and first principles and follows a chain of dialogic discourse and stepwise discovery, along the way subsuming the speeches that have gone before in a symphonic synthesis. Aristophanes, for instance, is quickly deconstructed and dismissed in terms of Diotima's established chain of logic (52, 205E). This moment in Diotima's speech is a rich site for comparison between the intellectual capacities of Aristophanes and Socrates; the latter can dispatch the former's ideas as rapidly as that, and it is because the abstractions of Diotima (which is to say, Socrates) are less for artistic purposes and more for conceptual ones. That is to say, Diotima reaches for abstractions not to avoid confronting faulty logic, but rather when the complexity of an idea demands a level of abstraction, as for example drawing a distinction between the “object” and the “purpose” of love (52, 206B). This prepares the listener as well as possible for her explication of the ultimate progression of love, for the conception of Beauty “itself by itself with itself” with which her speech concludes (59, 211B). Having seen how Socrates makes a detailed logical argument, it is hard upon returning to Aristophanes to interpret it as anything more than a potent metaphor.

When Socrates speaks in the guise of Diotima, he is disguising more than his voice. His view of love places heavy demands of anyone who would try to understand and enact it, as Diotima says: “But as for the purpose of these rites when they are done correctly — that is the final and highest mystery, and I don't know if you are capable of it” (57, 210A). Socrates attempts, as per usual, to lower his apparent status (and thereby hearten his friends) by having Diotima preface her remarks with “Even you, Socrates, could probably come to be initiated into these rites.” But it remains apparent that achieving such a level of enlightenment is open only to the very few. Otherwise, if everyone could reasonably aspire to direct cognition of abstract beauty, which concrete individuals would be left to engage in concrete acts, to give literal “reproduction and birth in beauty” (53, 206E)? A society consisting solely of the enlightened would have to either compromise or die out. Aristophanes, by contrast, has a more egalitarian view in which any two people (for the most part, of any genders) can potentially be a match and achieve love. End of story.

The novel Middlesex presents several views of love over the course of the last century. In one, a brother and sister move from Greece to America, getting married on the ship over and swearing their only knowing American relative to secrecy. In another, a neighbor's daughter almost marries a priest before realizing he is the wrong man. Her realization hinges on the romanticized medium of Saturday matinee movies. In one of the movies she sees, a man played by a Claude Barron goes off to war in the desert because the woman he loved married another man who proves a poor choice. She goes to the desert and finds Barron, wounded, to confess her love. His reply, before dying:

'I went into the desert to forget about you. But the sand was the color of your hair. The desert sky was the color of your eyes. There was nowhere I could go that wouldn't be you.' (189)

A few pages later, another film viscerally reminds the neighbor's daughter of her non-priestly suitor, and suddenly she knows who her other half truly is:

She doesn't want to be a priest's wife or move to Greece. As she gazes at Milton in the newsreel, her eyes fill with tears and she says out loud, 'There was nowhere I could go that wouldn't be you.'” (193)

This archly romantic phrase figures at one more juncture in the novel, pertaining to the main character, who is born (unknown to anyone until puberty takes a strange turn) with a hermaphroditic condition, thanks to his/her brother-and-sister grandparents. After being informed that she is in fact a he, he runs away to San Francisco to try out his new identity. In this context, seeking and failing to find the self-love of his own other half, his suffering takes on a richer, more harrowing meaning:

Mostly I hung around the mimosa grove, in growing despair. A few times I walked out to the beach to sit by the sea, but after a while I stopped doing that, too. Nature brought no relief. Outside had ended. There was nowhere to go that wouldn't be me. (473)

Middlesex navigates family, gender, identity, and love — frequently blurring the boundaries of the familial, the friendly, and the romantic — through several generations. In so doing, it illustrates aspects of Aristophanes' quest for one's other half, as well as aspects of Socrates' quest for something more significant than a particular beautiful body. If Middlesex is relevant to contemporary life and love — and the decision of the Pulitzer committee would strongly indicate that it is — then the ideas it explores, old though they be, must themselves also be relevant today.

Works Cited

  • Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. Macmillan, 2003.
  • Jerry Maguire. Dir. Cameron Crowe. Perf. Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Renée Zellweger. 1996.
  • Plato. Symposium. Trans. Nehamas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1989.