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.

The Symposium II: Pausanias

While Phaedrus had spoken from the point of view of the beloved, in defense of the god Eros as a pathway to virtue (courage and manliness), Pausanias, the old lover, posits a new thesis that all love does not merely lead to virtue. Instead he identifies that it is the behavior of the lover that is the determining factor in the question of virtue. He says there are two kinds of love -noble and base, and it may vary depending on how one behaves when in love. Pausanias is a defender of pederasty, an apologist for the lover, not the beloved, and his interest is with the laws to promote and defend the lover.

On the one hand, Pausanias’s speech is a praise and a defense of Athenian nomos, law or custom, but on a much deeper level it is a call to change the Athenian laws to protect and defend lovers, perhaps here read as “lust” over and against the beloved. Unlike Phaedrus, he is silent on the question of self-sacrifice for love, what the Romans might have called “passionate” love, and what Phaedrus calls virtue. Love compels men to virtue, but Pausanias argues that not all acts of compulsion for love are committed virtuously.

Phaedrus, as a beloved and a defender of beloveds, is satisfied with the law and therefore he provides us with the shortest speech. However Pausanias is a lover who must compete with others and therefore he must draw upon the recourse of the law for external support over and against his more attractive counterparts. Pausanias gives us the longest speech. He must perfect and extend the law to make it better for him, as a lover.

Pausanias is a greedy person, in his apology for pederasty, and is a defender of the most “rational” form of love. The lover must be allowed to do as he wishes, as it is for the good of the younger boys to look upward, as they might have at a hero, in order for the act of love to be virtuous or base. Erixymachus will take up this theme in the next passage.