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pg 153. THE ANDROGYNE(Symposium 189c–193e)

Plato's fictional account of a drinking-party, or symposion, is one of his liveliest works, and it has spawned, over the centuries, a host of imitations and a whole genre of sympotic literature.

An otherwise unknown Apollodorus relates, long after the supposed event, what he has heard about the sayings and doings at an aristocratic all-male drinking-party. The occasion was the first victory, at a dramatic festival, of the playwright Agathon. Exceptional not just for his writing but also for his charm and beauty, the host Agathon was the centre of attention, lionized by all but especially by his lover Pausanias—until, that is, Socrates arrives, for once not scruffy and unshod but beautifully dressed and perfumed for the occasion. Since the other revellers are suffering hangovers from the previous night, they decide to dispense with the usual drinking spree; instead they will entertain themselves by making speeches in turn in honour of Love. Other gods have received encomia by the score, but Love (or Eros) none to date. Six speeches in praise of love follow, culminating in that of Socrates, who claims he is relating the teachings of a priestess called Diotima. In the next myth, 'The Birth of Love', Diotima will pointedly correct a key theme from the speech our present myth belongs to: that made by the comic poet Aristophanes.

Trumping the previous speaker is part of the game, and Aristophanes, speaking fourth, announces that he will improve on the contributions from the doctor Eryximachus, and from Agathon's lover Pausanias. What follows is an enchanting folk-tale—comical but not laughable—akin to some of Aesop's fables, and to the myth in Protagoras' speech ('The Origin of Virtue'), in so far as it offers an aetiology, or 'how-it-came-about' story. The lifelong love and attachment of one human being to another is explained by an elaborate fantasy that present-day humans are each half of an original whole, comically described as round, eight-limbed, four-eared, and so on. These original wholes, subsequently cut in half by pg 16Zeus to curb their ambitions, were either all-male, all-female, or 'androgyne', that is, part-man, part-woman. Once separated, the halves desire nothing other than to be reunited. Thus a present-day male will seek his counterpart, who will be male or female depending on whether the tubby, eight-limbed original of which he is a half was all-male or 'androgyne'. Similarly a woman will seek, as her lifelong partner, either a woman or a man, depending on the nature of the whole of which she was originally a half. The poignant description of a person's search to be reunited with their lost half, and the celebration in Aristophanes' narration of the unaccountable desire for lifelong union (192c–e), cannot fail to strike a chord—however anachronistically— with a modern romantic sensibility.

Earlier and later speakers at the party focus exclusively on the celebration of homosexual desire, attraction, and love, in keeping with the ethos of the symposion as an occasion for parading and fostering attachments between older, often married, men and young, beautiful boys. Many have doubted that the notion of sexual orientation as a fixed personality trait can be found in Greek fifth- and fourth-century society, and Aristophanes' just-so story is unusual in seeming to presuppose that an individual is, by nature, either homosexual or heterosexual, and in either case in search of a single, lifelong partner. But this is not the feature of the folk-tale singled out for comment by Socrates in the mouth of Diotima. While Aristophanes emphasizes and celebrates the particularity of love, the attachment to another whose ground is mysterious even to the lovers themselves, Diotima will insist (205d) that love must be grounded in a desire not for one's lost 'twin', but simply for the good. The need to transcend the love of particular individuals and to aspire to a love and knowledge of Beauty itself forms the second myth from Symposium.


189'All right, then, Eryximachus,' Aristophanes said. 'Actually, I am planning to adopt a different approach from the one Pausanias and you took in your speeches. It seems to me that people have completely failed to appreciate how powerful Love pg 17is; otherwise, they'd have built vast temples and altars in his honour, and would have instituted enormous sacrifices. Instead, what actually happens is that he gets none of this, although he deserves more of it than any other god, since there's no god who looks out for mankind's interests more than Love. He supports us and heals precisely those ills whose alleviation constitutes the deepest human happiness. So what I'm going to do is try to introduce you to his power, and then you can pass the message on to others.

'The starting-point is for you to understand human nature and what has happened to it.* You see, our nature wasn't originally the same as it is now: it has changed. First, there used to be three human genders, not just two—male and female—as there are nowadays. There was also a third, which ewas a combination of both the other two. Its name has survived, but the gender itself has died out. In those days, there was a distinct type of androgynous person, not just the word, though like the word the gender too combined male and female; nowadays, however, only the word remains, and that counts as an insult.*

'Secondly, each person's shape was complete: people were round, with their backs and sides forming a circle.* They had four hands and the same number of legs, and two absolutely 190identical faces on a cylindrical neck. They had a single head for their two faces (which were on opposite sides), four ears, two sets of genitals, and every other part of their bodies was how you'd imagine it on the basis of what I've said. They moved around in an upright position, as we do today, in either of their two forward directions; and when it came to running, they supported themselves on all eight of their limbs and moved rapidly round and round, just like when acrobats perform that circular manoeuvre where they stick their legs out straight and wheel over and over.

'The reason there were three genders, and the reason they bwere as they were, is that the original parent of the male gender was the sun, while that of the female gender was the pg 18earth, and that of the combined gender was the moon, because the moon too is a combination, of the sun and the earth. The circularity of their shape and of their means of locomotion was due to the fact that they took after their parents.

'Now, their strength and power were terrifying, and they were also highly ambitious. They even had a go at the gods. Homer's story about how Ephialtes and Otus tried to mount cup to heaven to attack the gods is really about them.* So Zeus and the rest of the gods met in council to try to decide what to do with them. They were in a quandary: they didn't see how they could kill them and blast them out of existence as they had the giants, because that would also do away with the veneration and sacrificial offerings the human race gave them; but they also didn't see how they could let them get away with their outrageous behaviour. After thinking long and hard about it, Zeus said, "I think I can see a way for the human race to exist, but to be weakened enough to start behaving with dsome moderation. What I'm going to do is split every single one of them into two halves; then they'll be weaker, and at the same time there'll be more in it for us because there'll be more of them. They'll walk about upright on two legs. If in our opinion they continue to behave outrageously," Zeus added, "and they refuse to settle down, I'll cut them in half again, and then they'll go hopping around on one leg."

'With these words, he cut every member of the human race in half, just as people cut sorb-apples in half when they're egoing to preserve them, or cut an egg in two with a hair.* Then he told Apollo to twist every divided person's face and half-neck round towards the gash, the idea being that the sight of their own wounds would make people behave more moderately in the future. He also told Apollo generally to heal their wounds. So Apollo twisted their heads around, and pulled the skin together from all over their bodies on to what is now called the stomach (think of purses being closed by draw-strings), leaving only a single opening in the middle of the stomach, which we call the navel, where he tied the skin up pg 19into a knot. Then he smoothed out most of the wrinkles and 191fashioned the chest with the help of a tool like the one shoemakers use to iron out the wrinkles in leather they've got on a last; he left a few wrinkles, however, the ones in the region of the stomach and the navel, to act as a reminder of what happened all that time ago.

'It was their very essence that had been split in two, so each half missed its other half and tried to be with it; they threw their arms around each other in an embrace and longed to be grafted together. As a result, because they refused to do banything without their other halves, they died of starvation and general apathy. If one of a pair died while the other half was left alive, the survivor went in search of another survivor to embrace, and it didn't matter to it whether the half that it fell in with was half of what had originally been a female whole (it is the half, not the whole, that we nowadays call female, of course) or of a male whole.*

'Under these circumstances, they were beginning to die out. Zeus took pity on them, however, and came up with another ingenious idea: he changed the position of their genitals round to their fronts. Up until then, their genitals too had been on the far side of their bodies, and procreation and birth hadn't involved intercourse with one another, but with the ground, clike cicadas.* So Zeus moved their genitals round to the front of their bodies and thus introduced intercourse between two human beings, with the man as the agent of generation taking place within the woman. His reasons for doing this were to ensure that, when couples embraced, as well as male–female relationships leading to procreation and offspring, male–male relationships would at least involve sexual satisfaction, so that people would relax, get on with their work, and take care of other aspects of life.

d'So that's how, all that time ago, our innate sexual drive arose. Love draws our original nature back together; he tries to reintegrate us and heal the split in our nature. Turbot-like, each of us has been cut in half, and so we are human tallies, pg 20constantly searching for our counterparts.* Any men who are offcuts from the combined gender—the androgynous one, to use its former name—are attracted to women, and therefore most adulterers come from this group; the equivalent women eare attracted to men and tend to become adulteresses.* Any women who are offcuts from the female gender aren't particularly interested in men; they incline more towards women, and therefore female homosexuals come from this group.* And any men who are offcuts from the male gender go for males. While they're boys, because they were sliced from the male gender, they fall in love with men, they enjoy sex with men, and they like to be embraced by men. These boys are the ones 192who are outstanding in their childhood and youth, because they're inherently more manly than others. I know they sometimes get called immoral, but that's wrong: their actions aren't prompted by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity. They incline towards their own characteristics in others. There's good evidence for their quality: as adults, they're the only men who end up in government.*

'Anyway, when they become men, they're sexually attracted bto boys and would have nothing to do with marriage and procreation if convention didn't override their natural inclinations. They'd be perfectly happy to see their lives out together without getting married. In short, then, men who are sexually attracted to boys, and boys who love their lovers, belong to this group and always incline towards their own innate characteristics.

'Now, when someone who loves boys—or whatever his sexual preferences may be—actually meets his other half, it's an overwhelming experience. It's impossible to describe the affection, warmth, and love they feel for each other; it's hardly can exaggeration to say that they don't want to spend even a moment apart. These are the people who form unbroken lifelong relationships together, for all that they couldn't say what they wanted from each other. I mean, it's impossible to believe that it's their sex-life which does this—that sex is the pg 21reason they're each so eager and happy to be in the other's company. They obviously have some other objective, which dtheir minds can't formulate; they only glimpse what it is and articulate it in vague terms.

'Imagine that Hephaestus came with his tools and stood over them as they were lying together, and asked, "What is it that you humans want from each other?" And when they were unable to reply, suppose he asked instead, "Do you want to be so thoroughly together that you're never at any time apart? If that's what you want, I'd be glad to weld you together, to fuse you into a single person, instead of being two separate epeople, so that during your lifetime as a single person the two e of you share a single life, and then, when you die, you die as a single person, not as two separate people, and you share a single death there in Hades. Think about it: is this your hearts' desire? If this happened to you, would it bring you happiness?" It's obvious that none of them would refuse this offer; we'd find them all accepting it. There wouldn't be the slightest doubt in any of their minds that what Hephaestus had said was what they'd been wanting all along, to be joined and fused with the one they love, to be one instead of two. And the reason for this is that originally that's exactly how we were—whole beings. "Love" is just the name we give to the desire for 193and pursuit of wholeness.*

'As I say, in times past we were unified, but now we are scattered; Zeus punished us for our crimes in the same way as the Spartans did the Arcadians.* So the worry is that, if we fail to behave towards the gods with moderation, we'll be further divided, and in that mode of existence we'd be no different from those profiles on tombstones, sawn in two down the line of their noses. We'd be half-dice.* That's why it is everyone's duty to encourage others to behave at all times with due reverence towards the gods, since this makes it possible for bgood rather than bad to come our way, with Love as our leader and commander. No one should oppose Love, and to get on the wrong side of the gods is to oppose Love. Anyone who has pg 22brought Love round to his side will find, as if by chance, the love of his life, which is a rare event at the moment.

'I don't want Eryximachus to treat my speech as a satire and imagine that I'm talking about Pausanias and Agathon. It may cwell be that they do in fact belong to that category and are both inherently masculine; but what I'm saying applies to everyone, both men and women. We human beings will never attain happiness unless we find perfect love, unless we each come across the love of our lives and thereby recover our original nature. In the context of this ideal, it necessarily follows that in our present circumstances the best thing is to get as close to the ideal as possible, and we can do this by finding the person who is our heart's delight. If we want to praise the god who is dresponsible for our finding this person, it is Love we should praise. It is Love who, for the time being, provides us with the inestimable benefit of guiding us towards our complement and, for the future, holds out the ultimate assurance—that if we conduct ourselves with due reverence towards the gods, then he will restore us to our original nature, healed and blessed with perfect happiness.

'There you are, Eryximachus,' Aristophanes said in conclusion. 'It may have been different from yours, but there's my speech on Love. As I said, I'd be grateful if you didn't try to find any humour in it, and then we can listen to all the eremaining speakers—or rather to both of them, since only Agathon and Socrates are left.'

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
189d happened to it: despite Aristophanes' fame as a comic poet, the fantasy that follows is Aesopic, aetiological folklore rather than learned comedy. The analysis by Dover (1966) of the antecedents of and echoes in Aristophanes' speech could hardly be bettered.
Editor’s Note
189e as an insult: it meant a coward, someone lacking in full manliness.
Editor’s Note
189e forming a circle: I follow the punctuation and interpretation of J. S. Morrison, 'Four Notes on Plato's Symposium', Classical Quarterly, 14 (1964), 42–55. The fifth-century philosopher Empedocles had also spoken of a former race of quasi-humans 'with faces and chests on both sides' (fragment 61 Diels–Kranz), but there is little resemblance to Aristophanes' theory, since for Empedocles these people were grotesque, not perfect: they were of the same species as creatures who were half-human, half-animal. Again, in fragment 62 Empedocles spoke of a former race of 'whole-natured beings', but they seem to be completely round, whereas Aristophanes' proto-humans have limbs.
Editor’s Note
190c really about them: see Homer, Odyssey 11. 307–20 (and the Index of Names under Ephialtes). In Homer's account, Ephialtes and Otus were huge giants, so Plato is having Aristophanes reinterpret Homer's story.
Editor’s Note
190e with a hair: it is possible to cut a hard-boiled egg in half with even a human hair. The point of the comparison is that the matter was easy for Zeus: it takes no more than a hair to cut an egg, and it took Zeus hardly any effort to cut our ancestors in half.
Editor’s Note
191b or of a male whole: it would be pedantic to point out that Aristophanes has missed out surviving halves of androgynous wholes: we get the point.
Editor’s Note
191c like cicadas: it is not quite clear what Plato thinks cicadas get up to, but in any case he is wrong: they have perfectly normal sex.
Editor’s Note
191d our counterparts: turbots and other flat-fish, Plato suggests, look like rounded fish which have been sliced in half. A 'tally' (sumbolon) was half an item given by a host to a departing guest; the host retained the other half, to show that the guest would always be recognized and welcome back in his house.
Editor’s Note
191e adulteresses: since marriages were mostly arranged, rather than being love-matches, a sexually consummated love-affair would tend to involve adultery.
Editor’s Note
191e from this group: this is the only extant reference in classical Greek literature to female homosexuality.
Editor’s Note
192a in government: both politics and homosexuality were largely upper-class concerns. This aside rather awkwardly interrupts the sequence of thought (halves of all-male originals when they are boys … and when they are men …). Plato undoubtedly included it for the echo of the comic motif (e.g. Aristophanes' own Clouds 1088 ff.) of accusing public figures of homosexuality. Aristophanes' theorizing may also contain a caricature of medical views such as those in the Hippocratic treatise On Regimen I, 27 ff., where the virility of manly men is explained by their having gained a greater quantity of male parts from both their parents (and mutatis mutandis the femininity of feminine women is explained in the same way).
Editor’s Note
193a pursuit of wholeness: it adds to the sadness of Aristophanes' doctrine of unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing that he is the only one of the named protagonists of the dialogue who is alone. Phaedrus is with Eryximachus in some sense (176d, 177a ff., 223b, Phaedrus 268a), the affair between Pausanias and Agathon was notorious, and so in its own way was that between Socrates and Alcibiades.
Editor’s Note
193a the Arcadians: our knowledge of Arcadian history and the fluctuating relations between Arcadia and Sparta is so patchy that one hesitates to deny categorically that this could refer to some incident prior to the dramatic date of Symposium (416). Nevertheless, it remains the case that the most likely event took place in 385, when the Spartans razed the city of Mantinea in Arcadia and dispersed or 'scattered' the population. If this is the incident Plato is referring to, he is being anachronistic; but anachronisms occur in nearly all his works. On the issue, see H. B. Mattingly, 'The Date of Plato's Symposium', Phronesis, 3 (1958), 31–9, and K. J. Dover, 'The Date of Plato's Symposium', Phronesis, 10 (1965), 2–20.
Editor’s Note
193a half-dice: dice were commonly used as tallies (see note on 191d).
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