Plato’s Symposium is one of the most well-known and highest praised pieces of Greek literature in their lush and beautiful history. The writing consists of a group of men, led by Socrates, that have attended a symposium, or a drinking-party within the house of Agathon. Each man at the party must deliver an encomium, a speech in praise of Love (Eros). Throughout the night, the guests tell us of the origins of true love, finding “the perfect one”, and sexual desire in Ancient Greece. All the stories are well told and with much impact, but one of the tales stands
out amongst the rest, the speech of Aristophanes. His speech is known as Plato’s greatest literary achievement among many scholars worldwide. It is seen by many as comic relief, or a perfect example of satire in writing. Aristophanes begins to talk about the origin of humans, homosexuality, and heterosexuality, while trying to urge his fellow partygoers not to mock or make fun of his speech. Aristophanes’ speech to Eros is an incredibly important piece of literature and one of Plato’s best works. Aristophanes’ speech to Eros shares many characteristics with many other Greek
etiological myths. An etiological myth is a myth that explains an origin, or more particularly how an object or a custom came into existence. Aristophanes’ speech is categorized as an etiological myth because Aristophanes tells the rest of the symposium about why humans are destined to search endlessly for their “perfect one”. As the myth goes, humans were created twice as they are now, two heads, four arms, four legs, two sets of genitalia, etc. But humans were growing far too strong and tried to overthrow the Olympians. For punishment, Zeus made a vital decision to cut
the humans power. “Then Zeus, putting all his wits together, spoke at length and said: ‘Methinks I can contrive that men, without ceasing to exist, shall give over their iniquity through a lessening of their strength. [190d] I propose now to slice every one of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs. If they continue turbulent and do not choose to keep quiet, I will do it again” [190e]. This split is the origin of humans as we are today. And with this split by
Zeus, humans are destined to search for their other half for all of time, destined to find their wholeness in life, which is made very clear throughout the speech. There is many other etiological myths that have the theme of love in them, such as the myth of Apollo and Daphne in which Apollo has fallen endlessly in love with the daughter of the river god, Daphne. Apollo falls deeply in love with Daphne after Eros shoots Apollo with a golden arrow. Apollo chases Daphne until she cannot continue on.
When Apollo finally reaches Daphne, her father transforms here into a laurel tree, and Apollo is cursed to love and devote his life to it, as to why the laurel is Apollo’s symbol. There are many more myths that feature love in them but they all feature the same reoccurring themes, creation, fall and redemption. At the beginning there is always great power or great love involved, such as the three species of humans, trying to overpower the gods in Aristophanes’ speech. Then, a great down bringing, such as Zeus cutting the humans in half or Eros shooting Daphne with the arrow of led, forcing her to be repulsed by Apollo for all of time.
But always in the end, they rise from the ashes, humans began to find their sense of wholeness again, and Apollo continued to love and worship the laurel tree. The stories themselves may be quite different but the characteristics behind the love etiological myths are quite similar at a closer glance. Aristophanes’ speech is Plato’s Symposium is considered by many to be humorous and categorized as a Greek comedy, but in fact should be taken seriously. Aristophanes’ speech is rather famous for how unique it is to the rest of Plato’s Symposium.
The rest of the men at the table do not add any comedic detail in their speeches so Aristophanes stands out amongst the rest as he is rude and mocks the others with crude gestures through their speeches. For example, when Aristophanes begins to hiccup throughout Pausanias’ speech and gargling and sneezing throughout Eryixamachus’ speech, it is quite rude and humorous. While Plato uses Aristophanes as what looks like comic relief throughout his writings, Aristophanes’ speech is quite complex and thought provoking, emphasizing the human connection involved with Eros.
It is easy to dismiss Aristophanes’ speech as mere comic relief as the rest of the symposium does, but with further analyzation of his speech, Aristophanes’ wishes his fellow colleagues would take him sincerely. “My good Aristophanes,” replied Eryximachus, “take heed what you are about. Here are you buffooning before ever you begin, and compelling me to be on the watch for the first absurdity in your speech, when you might deliver it in peace” [189b].
Aristophanes then silences his audience and starts his speech to the god, Eros. Perhaps Aristophanes is treated this way because of this rude behavior during the previous speeches given, but either case, Aristophanes tells his speech in powerful fashion and in much detail, although quite strange and exotic, his story means well and has a powerful message.
If this passage from Plato’s Symposium was overlooked as comic relief, history would have lost this golden piece of Greek literature and one of Plato’s best passages of writing. Ultimately, Aristophanes’ speech from Plato’s Symposium was one of the best pieces of literature to come out of Ancient Greece. It shares many characteristics with other etiological myths with the same theme and shows that it is more than mere comic relief.
The entire piece itself is a treasure but Aristophanes’ segment pushed it into the next level. The playful passage offers much to learn about human desire, sexuality, and the idea of becoming whole by finding love. Aristophanes’ speech will continue to be picked and prodded at as it is critiqued over the years to come but it truly is Plato’s best work with the message he sends through this piece. Plato’s Symposium will continue to last the test of time and continue to show the world a perfect example of stellar Greek literature.