The Symposium III: Erixymachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates, and Alcibiades

Erixymachus follows Pausanias, only after Aristophanes is overcome with a fit of hiccuping -an appropriate interruption for the famous comedian who once mocked Socrates in The Clouds. 

Erixymachus praises Eros as the akin to the superiority of the medical art, over and above the legal craftsmanship of Pausanias. Recall that Erixymachus is a doctor, and is a follower of Asklepios. His primary concern is for health and balance. Eros, in his opinion, is harmony. Not unlike in music or sickness, love is a coming together -a harmony from opposing consonances. He maintains the dichotomy established by Pausanias, but expands the focus of Eros to include a power over all living things, a biological deity over the earth.

Following on this, and after recovering from his hiccuping fit, Aristophanes begins his speech, the first of the second half of the speakers. He tells a myth praising Eros. His story, which he begs them not to laugh at, is of an ancient history of humanity -a creation myth in which there were three sexes of early humans. There was an all male sex, an all female sex, and a more androgynous sex. The sexes are comical, round and doubled in body types. When they once began to plot an overthrow of Zeus, Zeus decides to slice them all in half so that they can have one other roaming around the world that would make them feel whole. The women who long for women are lesbians, the men who long for men are homosexuals, and the rest who wish to procreate are heterosexual. His tale ends with an invocation of the gods and a warning to men to obey the gods.

Agathon, the winner of yesterday’s Linnaea festival, recounts a speech on the beauty of Eros. He claims that all previous speeches praised humans in love but did not address the question of what or who Eros is. Agathon claims Eros is the youngest of the gods and is drawn only to the young. To him, the object of love is beauty in its budding time of season. His speech is much praised by the group until Socrates begins questioning his thesis and forces Agathon to admit that Eros cannot be beautiful.

Socrates states that he cannot give a speech praising eros the way others want him to and instead he recounts an interaction he had with Diotima from Mantinea. It is revealed that eros is not a god, but is in fact a daemon, or an intermediary between men and gods. It is also revealed that there is a divine and a human form of love, an example of what some have called an example of Plato’s theory of the ideas (eidos).

The dialogue concludes with Alcibiades explosively intruding onto the scene and giving a speech not in praise of Eros, but rather in praise of Socrates. He is envious of Socrates and Agathon, as Agathon decides to lay near Socrates. After this bombastic moment, everyone drinks into the night and falls asleep, leaving just Socrates, Agathon, and Aristophanes. Socrates stays awake trying to persuade them that the same man must know comedy and tragedy, that a tragic poet must necessarily also be a comic poet. Aristophanes and Agathon were compelled to agree but they fell asleep, first Aristophanes and then Agathon. Socrates goes out for the day and at night he takes himself home.

As You Like It, Act I

Scene 1

At the outset, we encounter Orlando, an English spelling of the French hero named Roland (of Chanson de Roland, or the “Song of Roland”, the great French heroic poem from the reign of Charlemagne) bemoaning his state of affairs to the family servant Adam in an orchard. The setting is far from the court in a country estate, and news of the court does not come well -the old Duke Ferdinand is banished by his younger brother and has taken up in the forest of Arden with a band of merry men like Robin Hood. The new Duke Frederick has claimed the lands of the Duke Ferdinand’s loyalists so he lets them wander. The time period is unknown, it is perhaps a-temporal, though through textual evidence we can conclude the setting takes place after Robin Hood during a time in which France and England live well together in a mythic context, devoid of Christian allegory but rife with allusions to classical antiquity.

As with other Shakespearean plays, Shakespeare steals much of the story from another playwright, in this case Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde. In Lodge’s play, the setting of the opening scene is explicitly in an apple orchard.

A good play to compare with As You Like It is King Lear. Consider that at the opening of King Lear we are concerned with the perpetuation of the perfect regime. King Lear has united the kingdoms and is attempting to divide his kingdom in a way that is fitting for the future, to ensure a lasting regime. His enemies are subdued and two of his daughters are set to be married to noblemen, and he decides to divide the kingdom unequally between his daughters, with preference given to his chosen daughter, Cordelia. However, the much-discussed “love-test” to which he subjects his daughters fails and Lear is left to the extremities of his kingdom, seeking out the nature of men and kings. However, in As You Like It, we find that the patriarch has already died -Rowland de Boys (or “of the woods”) and, according to the youngest son, Orlando, Oliver, the eldest brother, is giving all of the fruits of their father’s bequest to Jacques, the middle son, while Orlando receives no education. Curiously, Orlando identifies education with “profit” and “gain” -has Jacques “profited” from his education? To what extent might he be worse for his education? His character only appears in Act 5, scene 4. While King Lear is a tragedy about the retreat of a court into nature, As You Like It is a flattering pastoral comedy of the same kind.

However, Orlando desires his portion of the inheritance in order to become a “gentleman” and Oliver bitterly relents, giving Orlando “some part of [the] will” (1.1, 70-75), only after Orlando has physically grabbed Oliver by the throat. Orlando is not afraid to use force if necessary. He is not merely concerned with profit for its own sake, but Orlando is also more physically fit than his brother, capable of overtaking him rather than persuading him. Enter the wrestler Charles who informs Oliver that Orlando plans to come in disguise to challenge Charles, for he would not have been old enough to compete, and Oliver commands Charles take down Orlando in the wrestling match, because Orlando is a “villain”. In private confession, Oliver states that he hates nothing more than Orlando, though he doesn’t know why. We are exposed to Oliver’s resentment for his brother by acknowledging that he is “gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved…” (1.1, 155-160). Yet still he would like to kill his brother in his rage, and resents his natural talents and favorability. As Orlando’s name suggests, he is chivalric or gentlemanly by nature.

Shakespeare is a classical writer, devoted to holding up a mirror to nature rather than providing a kind of salvation for mankind to relive its “estate” or the burdens of life, unlike the project other moderns like Francis Bacon or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic followers. He exposes nobility, baseness, villainy, and heroism for the audience to consider, as pure contemplation is one of the highest Aristotelian virtues. One can make the argument that Shakespeare has a civilizing effect on his audience, as the goal of identifying a common virtue and a common vice is also the highest end of civilization.

Scene 2

We meet Rosalind (“beautiful rose” or rosa linda in Spanish), daughter of the banished Duke Ferdinand, as she lugubriously laments her “estate” to her cousin Celia (meaning “heavenly”) who is the daughter of the usurping Duke Frederick. She tries to tell Rosalind that she must love Duke Frederick for he will include Rosalind in his estate. In order to reverse her melancholy state, Rosalind decides to “devise sports” such “falling in love”. Celia advises Rosalind not to love a man “in good earnest” (2.1, 50-60). Instead Celia advises that they mock the blind lady Fortune, who does not distribute fate equally, to which Rosalind disagrees and claims that she refers to Nature rather than Fortune. Fortune gives gifts of the world, while Nature is organic.

Touchstone enters (a smooth rock used to test whether a rock is of quality gold or silver), but they are distracted discussing the merits of fools until Le Beau,a courtier, tells them that they are missing much of the sport but can still catch the end. Le Beau points to three able bodies brothers who were killed or left with broken ribs at the hands of Charles. Touchstone says it is hardly a sport for ladies but Rosalind asks that they watch the violent and dangerous sport. When she first sees Orlando, she notices how he is too “young” but he also looks “successfully”. Upon speaking to the ladies, Orlando says he has no friends and nothing in the world, so his death would not be a loss in the match. Charles taunts Orlando, and Orlando throws Charles, knocking him out or possibly killing him, either way rendering him incapacitated. Astonished, Duke Frederick asks who Orlando is, to which he responds that he is the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys. Dismayed, Duke Frederick (the usurping Duke) notes that the “world esteemed thy father honorable” but Duke Frederick still found hime an “enemy” (1.2, 214-215).

Neither Duke Frederick nor Oliver recognize natural greatness, meritocratic values. Both resent those who are excellent and successful because of prejudices or past transgressions. Is Shakespeare showing us the character of the tyrant?

An argument can be made that the moment Rosalind and Orlando find love is when she places her necklace round his neck and he claims “my better parts are all thrown down, and that which here stands up is but a quintain (a dummy wooden post used in jousting), a mere lifeless block” -the first of many connections between wrestling and falling in love. At the same moment Rosalind claims that her ‘pride fell with her fortunes’ and that he has ‘overthrown more than his enemies’.

To make mention of the many homoerotic undertones of the play, the love between Rosalind and Celia (who is taller) are described as unique. For example, their loves are described by Le Beau, the courtier, as “dearer than the natural bonds of sisters”.

Le Beau warns Orlando of the usurping Duke Frederick’s intent to be rid him and also his jealous wrath towards Rosalind due to the people’s praise of her virtues and their pity for the loss of her father. Le Beau bids Orlando farewell: “hereafter in a better world than this I shall desire more love and knowledge of you” (1.2, 273-274).

Scene 3

The final scene of Act I opens with Celia trying to reason away Rosalind’s affection and Rosalind swooning madly over Orlando.

Suddenly, Duke Frederick enters in a fury and demands that Rosalind leave his court. If she is not gone in 10 days, she shall be put to death. Rosalind asks once what she has done, and the Duke responds that he does not trust her, she claims that mistrust alone is not a punishable offense, and the Duke responds that she is her father’s daughter and that is enough to banish her. Once again, Rosalind responds that “treason is not inherited”. Celia also tries to persuade her father stating that she and Rosalind have been like Juno’s swans and have slept together -doing everything together- therefore she must also be accused of treason. However Duke Frederick notes how the people value Rosalind’s “silence and patience” and he calls his daughter a “fool” for she will “seem” more virtuous to the people. Duke Frederick is always concerned with his image among the people, in desiring his daughter to appear more virtuous rather than behave virtuously in earnest. Celia states she cannot live without the company of Rosalind.

In grief Rosalind and Celia decide to retreat to the forest of Arden to find Duke Ferdinand. Celia will cover herself with dirt to look like a peasant and Rosalind, since she is tall, will dress like a man to be called “Jove’s own page”, Ganymede (who was a Trojan shepherd boy swept up by Jove disguised as an Eagle to serve as his cupbearer and attendant). While Celia will be called Aliena (meaning “stranger”). The purpose of their disguises are for protection -Rosalind becomes the homoerotic disguise of a boy called Ganymede and heavenly Celia becomes a stranger. Celia also notes that this will help as she will no doubt be trailed by members of the court. Lastly, Celia decides to “woo” Touchstone the “Clowne” into joining them: “Now we go in content to liberty and not to banishment” (1.3, 134-135). Why does Celia even suggest they bring the clown with them? Could it have some relationship to their discussion Fortune and Nature in Scene 2? Or could it be connected to the fact that her father called her a “fool” twice before banishing Rosalind. It should be noted that he never explicitly banishes Celia.


Notes on Athenian Democracy

The hero Theseus was rumored to have instilled the democratic sensibilities in Athenians during the Bronze Age when he brought the twelve districts of Attica (an area capable of housing twelve different cities) together and in so doing he limited the rule of the kings. He recognized certain families as Eupatrid, or “well born” and created the Council of Areiopagos. However Athenian democratic law can be traced to the Archon, Solon. Solon’s leadership as an Archon grew due to increasing tensions between rich and poor, making it so that all debts were canceled and that people could not be sold into slavery as collateral if they could not pay their debts.

This new class system, divided into four categories, lasted for two hundred years before the aristocracy overthrew the democracy. Peistratos convinced the Athenians to give him a bodyguard which he used to take the Acropolis and establish a tyranny, tracing his lineage back to Neleus, the father of the Homeric hero Nestor. He was exiled three times but returned and died a tyrant until his sons established their tyrannies: Hipparchos was killed and Hippias ruled an oppressive tyranny until he was banished and Kleisthenes of the Alkmeonid family took over as king and established new laws, including the famous ostracism laws where the Athenians would banish one man from Attica for ten years.

Over the years, Athens became increasingly more democratic with committees chosen by lot, voting eligibility opened up to the third class, and the public regularly reviewed the activities of public officials through the council of five hundred. The golden age of Athens was not long lasting, however the memory of it has endured largely due to the great writers like Plato and Aristotle, along with Herodotus and Thucydides, who kept alive the spirit of Athenian excellence, while maintaining a healthy skepticism towards the corrosive tendencies of a democratic regime.

Egypt, Persia, and the New Regime: Book III

Book III of Herodotus’s Histories is concerned with the internal battles among the barbarians -a competition for the best of men among the Egyptians and the Persians. Per usual in Herodotus, he presents multiple perspectives and defends one or the other, as in the case of the Greek and Egyptian defense of Helen arriving in Egypt for the Trojan War, contra other barbarian nations that claim she stayed in Ilium for the war.

Persia Conquers Egypt

Cambyses, son of Cyrus, wishes to claim Amasis’s daughter as his wife but Amasis (Pharaoh of Egypt) fearing that Cambyses hopes to take his daughter only as a concubine, sends instead another girl. When Cambyses discovers this truth, he makes war on Amasis. However, the Egyptians present a false version of the story according to Herodotus. Amasis sees safe passage from the Arabians -a culture that worships only Dionysos and Ourania (Heavenly Aphrodite) and heavily values pledges made between men.

The Persians meet the Egyptians and prior to the battle, the Egyptians bring out the sons of Phanes, a defector, and slit their throats into a jar of wine and drink the wine before battle as punishment. Years later, Herodotus claims to have visited the grounds where this battle took place and discovers that the Egyptian skulls are more brittle than the Persian skulls due to increased exposure to sunshine from baldness and shade. Upon invading Egypt, Cambyses orders the corpse of Amasis to be defiled, contrary to both Egyptian and Persian custom.

Elsewhere in Book II Herodotus claims the Egyptians to be the “wisest men on earth” but the Ethiopians are rumored to be the “tallest and most beautiful” people in Book III. Cambyses tries to march against the Ethiopians but they run out of food and withdraw. Upon retreating, Cambyses descends into madness unjustly killing many Egyptians. He then stabs a sacred cow in Egypt, and kills his brother, kills one of his sisters that he married, and other fellow Persians. Croesus is still an advisor to him like Cyrus. Cambyses suffers from the “sacred disease” from birth, today called epilepsy. He tries to kill Croesus after Croesus councils Cambyses to behave with more forethought and he kills the servants protecting him (successfully). However, he soon longs for Croesus, but Cambyses also commits strange acts such as digging up the graves of the dead and inspecting them, and also entering sacred temple spaces.

The Madness of Cambyses

According to Herodotus, Cambyses was mad because he laughed in the face of his cultures own customs, and this is mad because every man believes his own cultures customs to be the best. At one point, when Darius ruled he brought forth Hellenes who said they would never eat the remains of their dead, and then he brought forth Indians who do eat their dead and asked if they would burn their dead. They responded that he shut his mouth! Herodotus defends Pindar for stating in his odes that “custom is king of all” (3.38).

Herodotus also details the Lacedomians invasion and war with Samos along with other Hellenistic city-states. A man who looks and acts like Smerdis appears in Egypt and the Magi revolt against Cambyses encouraging the people to follow Smerdis (ironically the same name and appearance of his brother). Frightened and in sorrow over the senseless past loss of his brother, Cambyses jumps on his horse intending to ride out into battle but his blade stabs his leg and he believes himself mortally wounded in Ecbatana. There Cambyses dies when his flesh became gangrenous, leaving no heirs.

A Conspiracy to Overthrow Cambyses and the Magi

A conspiracy of seven men seeks help from Darius to storm the palace and claim Persia. Darius advises that they act immediately: “…many plans cannot revealed in speech, but only in action, just as there are plans that can be described, but nothing glorious comes from them…For where a lie must be told let it be told. We strive for the same goal whether we lie or tell the truth. Some people lie hoping to gain by convincing their listeners to believe them; others tell the truth hoping that trust will thereby be placed in them. Our goal is the same, though the methods we practice to reach it may differ. If there were nothing to gain, a truthful man would be just as likely to lie as a liar would be to tell the truth. Now then, we will see to it that any guard watching the gates who is willing to let us pass will be rewarded in the future; but whoever tries to resist us let him be marked as our enemy, and then let us push our way through and keep to the task at hand” (3.72). Darius, a keen political man, is concerned with the end goal, not as much with the means by which one arrives at it -such as by lying or telling the truth. The ultimate goal to is rally a herd of people to follow.

The Persians lead a revolt against the Magi slaying as many as people by beheading them. This is till celebrated by Persians (Iranians) today.

Establishment of A New Persian Regime

The conspirators are thus left to persuade the people of the best form of government. Otanes provides a defense of democracy, the rule of the majority, and he uses the insane rule of Cambyses and the Magi as examples of how the nation cannot be governed by a single man. Therefore he argues to elevate the majority to the regime”for the many is the whole” -also translated as “the plurality is really the totality” or “in numbers is everything.” Otanes claims that human nature is corrupt when given such luxurious power that is accountable to no one, and that therefore a Monarchy cannot be sustained as any man will be corrupted.The Monarch possesses all good things and therefore becomes envious and paranoid when the best of men confronts him, and he commits brute force on women and overturns ancestral customs. Otanes is concerned with number fundamentally (3.80).

Next, Megabyzos is not concerned with number, but rather with ridding themselves of a tyrant, however at least a tyrant knows what he is doing, while the common people have no idea was they are doing -the “mob”. “How could someone who has not been educated, who has never seen anything good or decent, be knowledgeable about anything? He pushes and shoves and stumbles into affairs without thought, like a raging torrent” (3.81). Megabyzos defends an oligarchy as the best of men to rule.

Finally, Darius defends a Monarchy. He claims that if we compare the best of three regimes: the best democracy, the best oligarchy, and the best monarchy -monarchy invariably surpasses the other two. Darius does not make his argument based on endurance of the regime, but rather he makes it based on virtue ethics. In an oligarchy many men strive to achieve excellence and thus private rivalries become public hostilities, and when the people rule, incompetence prevails. They form compacts with one another and this incompetence goes on until one steps forth as the leader, and therefore monarchy redeems the democracy. Lastly, Darius asks from where did our freedom come from? Since neither from the people or from a group of men, it came from a monarchy. Therefore Monarchy should prevail (3.82).

The irony of the situation is that in making the decision, the men constitute an oligarchy -a chosen few of men who decide by a majority vote that Darius’s conception of the best regime is superior. Onates also, like a monarch, preserves his own family from political repercussions and the laws of the city. The regime that establishes a future regime for the barbarian Persians, is a blend of three best regimes.

The Kingship of Darius

The remaining four men decide in favor of Monarchy but Otanes addressed them stating that he would relent only if his family would not be required to submit to the new Persian King -a tradition lasting to Herodotus’s day. They decided to ride their horses outside the city and the first horse that made a noise, his horsemen would be king. Darius decided to rig his kingship by having his servant tie his mule to a gate just outside the city. That morning it happened as planned along with thunder and lightning from the sky -and the remaining men prostrated themselves before Darius. Another story told by other Persians is that his horseman rubbed the genitals of another horse and put it before the horses nose once outside the city. Therefore Darius became ruler of all of Asia- except for the Arabs who had formed an alliance rather than submit to slavery. He divides the kingdom into 20 sections and establishes a tribute system.

Customs of the Indians and the Conquering of Babylon

Herodotus lists the customs of the Indians such as the many people with different languages, the black skin like the Ethiopians, cannibalism, camels, heat of the sun and so on. India is the furthest East in the inhabitable world, Arabia the furthest to the South.

Darius lays siege to Babylon employing similar tactics to Cyrus when they try to revolt. However a soldier, Zopyros mutilated himself and pretended to defect to Babylon. Once he gained their trust, he opened the gates and let in the Persians to conquer Babylon. Darius then impaled 3,000 of the highest ranking Babylonians.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.