Friday, December 18, 2015

Adventure classics – The party's topic was love, sweet love

The Symposium
by Plato
Last Friday’s post about the world-famous drinking party Plato re-created in The Symposium left readers in doubt about the actual drinking going on. Although accounts differ, however, initially the guests decide to drink lightly, in consequence of several of them still being hung over from the previous night’s partying. So here we are at an all-male party and with little wine and no women, even the flute girl having been dismissed for the meantime. How will the guests entertain themselves? If you guessed, turn on ESPN for the latest sports, sorry, wrong era. In 4th century BCE Greece, however, instead of watching football, the guests vote to tell stories. And the topic for the evening is love.

As I’ve mentioned before, Plato wasn’t the only ancient Greek writing memoirs about his mentor, the fourth century BCE philosopher Socrates. His contemporary Xenophon also wrote a Symposium, in a somewhat naughtier vein. Plato’s, you might suppose, would be more serious. And it is. Except when he puts comedy playwright Aristophanes onstage with the strangest story about the origins of love ever imagined and makes me wonder whether it might have been Plato who actually wrote the fantastic story he put into Aristophanes’ mouth.

(Not that Aristophanes needs much help writing stories. His Lysistrata is still inspirational after more than 2,000 years, as witness its newest incarnation in Spike Lee’s current Chi-Raq satire.)

As each guest’s turn at storytelling goes round the table, Aristophanes’ turn comes early. But he begs off, claiming to be incapacitated by a bout of hiccoughs. Maybe he really is hiccoughing badly. Or perhaps, given the ancient Greek reliance on physical comedy, Plato is caricaturing the playwright as Aristophanes had caricatured the chief guest, Socrates, in his plays. Or since Socrates was among the guests still waiting to speak, perhaps Aristophanes just wanted time to think of an extra special story to tell.

After a few more guests have had their say, Aristophanes declares himself cured of his hiccoughs and begins to treat of, as he says, the original nature of man, when “The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two…(this) primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways…and the remainder to correspond.”

These original beings could move by walking upright, but they also had the ability to roll when they wanted to move especially fast. And they were very strong, so strong that they attacked the gods.

At first the gods wanted to destroy them, but realized that would leave no one to sacrifice to them. Instead, they settled on cutting each human into two pieces, to weaken them. The result was that each half-person spent his (or her) life seeking its other half.

“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself,” Aristophanes says, “the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy…and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love…And if we are not obedient to the gods, there is a danger that we shall be split up again and go about in basso-relievo, like the profile figures having only half a nose which are sculptured on monuments.”

And perhaps Socrates, who has yet to speak, says to himself, wow, how am I going to top that one?

Which leaves Adventure classics waiting until next Friday to finish this December of spirited adventures with Socrates’ story and what came after. And wondering at the camaraderie between the playwright and the philosopher he could caricature so viciously in his plays. One of Socrates’ friends, a guest who has yet to enter, will make just that point. And others, even Plato among them, will lay some of the blame for Socrates’ execution at the playwright’s feet.

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