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Plato's Symposium ('other halves' and 'soulmates')


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Has anybody else here read this?

 

I read it recently (wanting to know a bit more about what 'romantic' vs. 'Platonic' love might imply) and found it super interesting! Quick summary: there is a party attended by Socrates and friends, who are tasked with giving a speech praising love. I found Aristophanes' speech particularly interesting, as it seems to relate directly to popular western conceptions around 'romantic' love (modern ones as well: think Hollywood movies!). Apparently it's where we get terms like 'other half' and 'soulmate' from. Also (and this is where it gets more relevant to aros, IMO) it illustrates that notions about single people as being in some sense broken/lacking/unfulfilled/not fully realised as human beings (and I guess we are all familiar with these sorts of popular notions!) may have quite deep roots in western culture. You can read the whole speech here: http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/sym.htm. Or, failing that, the 'TL;DR' is:

 

Aristophanes tells a kind of 'creation myth' about humankind, saying that we were originally beings comprised of two heads, four arms, four legs, etc. - but were then divided in half by the Gods, to punish us. And so, ever since then, we subconsciously desire to return to our original 'whole' state - through the act of (romantic) love. Here's a relevant quotation re. that:

 

Quote

Suppose Hephaestus [Blacksmith to the Gods], with his instruments, to come to the pair [of lovers] who are lying side by side and to say to them, 'What do you mortals want of one another?'


They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: 'Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night in one another's company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt and fuse you together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul, instead of two--I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire and whether you are satisfied to attain this?'--


There is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.


And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. 

 

Interesting, no? I read the above and thought: I don't desire that at all! (being bound to another person forever; total extinction of individual autonomy? Yuk!) But I'm not sure that that's a typical reaction, as many 'allo-romantic' people do seem to desire something like it? (y'know, that whole normalised cultural phenomena of wanting to do everything together and be together all the damn time with a romantic partner!)

 

Thoughts? 

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People do always feel that they lack skills, intelligence, are lonely or feel inadequate etc. It is extremely comforting to think we can become an idealised superhuman being and have what we think we lack just by making the right human connection. For example instead of thinking they lack the people skills to be a great merchant and feel bad about it, they have an instant solution, once they meet their soulmate who originally got that part, they will be complete and perfect. Much easier than taking responsibility for your own personal development and learning new skills.

 

The visual image is probably based on conjoined twins. If you take that description literally, conjoined twins match that relatively simple portrayal.

I guess when someone had children with medical conditions that were unexplainable by their healers, they just needed to understand why. And parents probably were comforted by the thought that their children are not switched/cursed/marked by evil forces but in fact, are the original perfect beings we were all meant to be before we had to be punished for something.

 

And people love stories, the strange, the unexplained, that's why freakshows, ufo magazines, click bait articles and trashy tv documentaries make so much money, no matter how advanced medicine is. I suppose lot of the stories about mermaids, changelings and werewolves, and whatever these guys meant to be are the result of then unexplained medical phenomenons...

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 2016-11-05 at 10:54 AM, Cassiopeia said:

People do always feel that they lack skills, intelligence, are lonely or feel inadequate etc. It is extremely comforting to think we can become an idealised superhuman being and have what we think we lack just by making the right human connection. For example instead of thinking they lack the people skills to be a great merchant and feel bad about it, they have an instant solution, once they meet their soulmate who originally got that part, they will be complete and perfect. Much easier than taking responsibility for your own personal development and learning new skills.

 

That makes a lot of sense. I also think there is a strong urge in all of us to find human connection. We are pack animals after all. Our survival historically has dependen on belonging to a group. So there might be a tendensy to just focus that urge of not being alone into finding the one person who will always be your companion and provide all your needs. That seems kinda far from how we have evolved revolutionary though. Humans did not live two and two alone in the wilderness. That would be way too few.

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oh that's actually a nice find. romantic notion is something that is not learned, it's in our existence, for those who are romantic at least heh. I thought that language like this was only first seen much during the rise of recorded literature like Shakespeare plays and etc. but it's here in Plato's time too, if Aristophanes had words to describe romantic drive before it was made popular by print, then surely it is not a construct of culture! and if I can see that I lack it, I know that it is a part of my birth nature rather than some thing I should learn to have. 

 

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54 minutes ago, cute kitty Meow! Mewo! said:

if Aristophanes had words to describe romantic drive before it was made popular by print, then surely it is not a construct of culture!

 

I think it's both, in a sense.

 

Perhaps Plato was a victim of his own success here! The speech 'by' Aristophanes (by Plato, really) is so eloquent as a literary accomplishment and powerful as a metaphor that it gets lodged everafter in the popular consciousness and taken as some kind of blueprint for an ideal expression of love (romantic love). There is a positive feedback loop initiated between popular intrinsic notions of what love ought to be and whatever cultural reference points are seeming to reflect or celebrate them. Which I think you can argue wasn't really Plato's intent here. If you read the whole of the Symposium, Socrates' speech (and Socrates can basically be taken as a proxy for Plato's final verdict on any given topic!) sketches out the highest and ideal form of love as to cultivate love for the divine. And you needn't necessarily take 'divine' in a religious context here. I take it more along the lines of love for nature, cultivating a wisdom towards nature, understanding and living in accord with it, in all its infinite manifestations, a la Spinoza. Or, a la Einstein's wanting to know the 'thoughts of God' as he was creating the universe; and wondering if the dictates of logical necessity and perhaps ethical expediency gave any scope to freedom of expression during that act of creation.

 

The popular notions of 'Platonic' love don't really seem to capture that. It gets distorted into something else; something that still centers around a personal, human-to-human relationship, just generally one without the sexual and/or romantic aspects; which serve to distinguish it from the human-to-human relationships outlined in Aristophanes' speech, but IMO don't really capture what Plato had in mind, and contrived to express through Socrates, as the highest expression of love. You can argue that Plato saw human-to-human loving relationships (romantic, sexual, or otherwise) as a valid and important stepping stone on the way to towards the fullest realization of love; but not as the final destination that popular culture seems to see them as.

 

But, y'know, that's just me, always read the thing for yourself and make your own mind up!  :D

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On 05/11/2016 at 9:54 AM, Cassiopeia said:

People do always feel that they lack skills, intelligence, are lonely or feel inadequate etc. It is extremely comforting to think we can become an idealised superhuman being and have what we think we lack just by making the right human connection. For example instead of thinking they lack the people skills to be a great merchant and feel bad about it, they have an instant solution, once they meet their soulmate who originally got that part, they will be complete and perfect. Much easier than taking responsibility for your own personal development and learning new skills.

Personally I've never understood the idea of an individual over a "team" in this kind of situation. Even where a single person might be able to complement in one area of one's life the idea of the same person for all areas of life just seems entirely irrational.

 

On 05/11/2016 at 9:54 AM, Cassiopeia said:

The visual image is probably based on conjoined twins. If you take that description literally, conjoined twins match that relatively simple portrayal.

I guess when someone had children with medical conditions that were unexplainable by their healers, they just needed to understand why. And parents probably were comforted by the thought that their children are not switched/cursed/marked by evil forces but in fact, are the original perfect beings we were all meant to be before we had to be punished for something.

It's extremely unlikely that you'd get conjoined twins who were a male and a female though. So this would work a lot better for homo than hetero couples.
I'd suspect that "cursed" would be the more usual conclusion. Possibly helped that the Greeks had a bit of a thing for polycephalic animals.

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