What Plato’s Symposium might have said to us more than 2,300 years after it was first written
I recently had occasion to write something about American composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade for Violin, Strings, and Percussion,” based on Plato’s dialogue “Symposium.” So I took the opportunity to reread the Symposium (“Plato’s Sympo-sium,” translated by Seth Benardete with commentary by Allan Bloom; University of Chicago Press, 2001) one of the classic texts on Greek homosexuality, to see what it might have to say to us after 2,300 years.
The setting of the dialogue is a banquet to celebrate the victory of the young playwright Agathon at the annual drama festival in 416. After everyone has eaten, one of the guests suggests that they deliver speeches in praise of Eros love or desire.
So the theme of the dialogue is Eros what it is, where it comes from, why it is good, what its effects are, etc.
Since most of the guests are homosexual or bisexual, the Eros praised is same-sex Eros. More specifically, it is the pederastic Eros that supported the civic and martial training relationship between an older and a younger man commonly encountered among the citizen class in Athens.
But despite the current belief that pederasty was the only form homosexuality took among the Greeks, a careful reading of the Symposium suggests that they also recognized what we would think of as egalitarian or age-concordant homosexuality erotic and loving relationships between mature adults.
At least one of the speakers, Pausanias, is clearly homosexual in our modern sense. He distinguishes between a common kind of same-sex Eros by which men are drawn both to women and beardless young men, and a more masculine, mature “Uranian” Eros “that has more sense,” by which men are attracted to older youths only after their beards have begun to grow.
“Those who start loving a youth at this point in time are in a position I believe to be with him and live with him for their whole life and not laugh at him and then run away to another” younger man, Pausanias says.
Pausanias exemplifies what he praises since he has been the lover of Agathon, now around 30, for more than a dozen years.
It is part of the continuing influence of the “Symposium” that the term “Uranian” was picked up and used by 19th century European gay men to describe themselves and their erotic desires. They did not have to await the word “homosexual” to understand and identify themselves. The term occasionally survives into current use as in Eric Garber’s bibliography of gay science fiction, “Uranian Worlds.”
The next speaker to suggest anything like modern homosexuality is the comic playwright Aristophanes. Aristophanes tells a fanciful myth to explain where Eros comes from. It seems that there were once three types humans male, female and androgynous, all spherically shaped. But they became arrogant and proud and Zeus determined to cut them all in half, producing present-day humans.
As a result, the male half-humans sought for their other male half, the female halves sought each other, and the halves of the androgynous human sought their opposite-sex half. They longed to hold one another and be together always in an effort to regain their wholeness.
Aristophanes seems to think that his myth applies to pederasty i.e., relationships between men and youths but if each male half is seeking his original other half, the two halves would be the same age, so the myth better explains age-concordant homosexuality, something he and certainly Plato probably realized. It is worth pointing out, too, that his account is one of the few before the 20th century to offer equal appreciation for lesbian love.
Finally, after each speaker has delivered his eulogy of Eros, a drunken Alcibiades, the handsomest man in Athens, barges in uninvited and instead of delivering a speech praising Eros, insists on speaking in praise of Socrates.
His tongue loosened by drink, Alcibiades blurts out that when he was young he repeatedly tried to sexually seduce the older Socrates. He contrived to wrestle nude with him, invited him alone to dinner, had him to stay overnight and wrapped his cloak around them both and hugged him all night, all unsuccessfully. This reverses the “pederastic” model of the older pursuer and younger pursued.
Alcibiades’ pursuit of Socrates may have been unusual since he was attracted by Socrates’ apparent wisdom, but his speech along with Pausanias’ and Aristophanes’ calls into doubt the prevalent notion that Greek homosexuality was only that of an older lover for a far younger man. In addition, some Greek vases show youths sexually approaching one another and the late Greek pottery expert Keith De Vries reportedly collected vase paintings of adult male erotic relationships.
It is apposite to recall too that in the first speech at the Symposium, Phaedrus mentions the then-current belief that Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad were lovers. But the Greeks were not sure which was the older lover and which the younger beloved. Apparently it did not occur to anyone that they might have been the same age.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 11, 2006.