Archive for the ‘on Symposium’ Category


(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




“Should one, then, not deem happy any human being for so long as he is alive; but must one look instead, as Solon has it, to his end? But if it indeed it is necessary to posit such a thesis, then is in fact a person happy when he is dead? Or is this, at least, altogether strange, specially for us who say that happiness is a certain activity? But if we do not say that the dead person is happy —and this is not what Solon means either —- but say rather than someone might safely deem a human being blessed only once he is already removed from bad things and misfortunes, this too admits of some dispute. For it is held that both something bad and something good can befall the dead person, if in fact they can befall the living person who does not perceive it —-for example, honors and dishonors, and the faring well or the misfortunes of his offspring and descendants generally.

But these things too are perplexing; for someone who has lived blessedly until old age and come to this end accordingly, it is possible that many reversals may occur involving his descendants just as some of these descendants may be good and attain the life that accords with their merit, but others the contrary. Yet it is clear that it is possible for these descendants to be of varying degrees of remove from their ancestors. Indeed,  it would be strange if even the dead person should share in the reversals and become now happy, now wretched again. But it would be strange too if nothing of the affairs of the descendants should reach the ancestors, not even for a certain time.

But one must return to the perplexity previously mentioned, for perhaps what is now being sought might also be contemplated on the basis of it. If indeed one does have to see a person´s end and at that time deem each person blessed, not as being blessed [now] but as having been such previously —how is this not strange if, when he is happy, what belongs to him will not be truly attributed to him? [This strange consequence] arises on account of our wish not to call the living happy, given the reversals that may happen, and of our supposition that happiness is something lasting and by no means easily subject to reversals, while fortunes often revolve for the same people. For it is clear that if we should follow someone’s fortunes, we will often say that the same person is happy and then again wretched, declaring that the happy person is a sort of chameleon and on unsound footing.

Or is it not at all correct to follow someone’s fortunes? For it is not in these that doing well or badly consists. Rather, human life requires these fortunes in addition, just as we said; yet it is these activities in accord with virtue that have authoritative control over happiness, and the contrary activities on the contrary.

The perplexity just now raised also bears witness to the argument, since in none of the human works is anything so secure as what pertains to the activities that accord with virtue. For such activities seem to be more lasting than even the sciences; and the most honored of them seem to be more lasting, because those who are blessed live out their lives engaged, to the greatest degree and most continuously, in these activities. This seems to be the cause of our not forgetting such activities. Indeed, what is being sought will be available to the happy person, and he will be such throughout life. For he will always, or most of all act on and contemplate what accords with virtue, and he —- and least he who is truly good and “four-square, without blame” — he will bear fortunes altogether nobly and suitably in every way.

Now, many things occur by chance, and they differ in how great or small they are.  The small instances of good fortune, and similarly of its opposite, clearly do not tip the balance of one´s life, whereas the great and numerous ones that occur will, make life more blessed (since these naturally help adorn life, and dealing with them is noble and serious). But those fortunes that turn out in the contrary way restrict and even ruin one´s blessedness, for they both inflict pain and impede many activities. Nevertheless, even in the midst of these, nobility shines through, whenever someone bears up calmly under many misfortunes, not because of any insensitivity to pain but because he is well-born and great souled.

And if the activities have authoritative control over life, just as we said, then no one who is blessed would become wretched, since he will never do things that are hateful and base. For we suppose that someone who is truly good and sensible bears up under all fortunes in a becoming way and always does what is noblest given the circumstances, just as a good general makes use, with the greatest military skill, of the army he has and a shoemaker makes the most beautiful shoe out of leather given him. It holds in same manner with all the other experts as well. And if this is so, then the happy person would never become wretched —nor indeed would he be blessed, it is true, if he encounters the fortunes of Priam. He would not be unstable and subject to reversals either, for he will not be easily moved from happiness, and then not by any random misfortunes but only great and numerous ones. And as a result of such things he would not become happy again in a short time; but, if in fact he does, he will do so in the completion of some lengthy time during which he comes to attain great and noble things.

What, then, prevents one from calling happy someone who is active in accord with complete virtue and who is adequately equipped with external goods, not for any chance time but in a complete life? Or must one posit in addition that he will both live in this way and meet his end accordingly —- since the future is in immanifest to us, and we posit happiness, wholly and in every way, as an end and as complete? And if this is so, we will say that those among the living who have and will have available to them the things stated are blessed —-but blessed human beings.

Let what pertains to these things too be defined up to this point.”

(NE, 1100a10-1101a22; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

1) What are we to make of this striking subsection? What is its argumentative “spirit”? Isn’t it in its ENTIRETY extremely odd and perplexing? For instance, isn’t it surprising to find Ar. begin AND end a subsection by asking so many questions himself? Is he pushing us in this direction, after having set the “rules of the game” by means of his three crucial previous digressions? Could he be starting to TEACH us to puzzle? For isn’t a QUESTION, rather more active than a STATEMENT? And isn’t Aristotelian happiness a kind of ACTIVITY? Doesn’t a QUESTION allow us the freedom to, in the end, think for ourselves? In similar fashion, didn’t Socrates question so that he did NOT have to write? Isn’t the QUESTION, the foundation of classical philosophical dialectics (and thus conceived in a crucially different sense than that found in the ontological structure of Heidegger’s Dasein and its capacity to question; Introduction to Being and Time)? But WHAT are we puzzling about here that makes this subsection so STRANGE? Isn’t it about the most difficult of topics, namely our temporal finitude and ultimate DEATH? Indeed, how CAN we be happy as humans if we are mortal and MUST die? In this respect, won’t this subsection turn out to be KEY for Aristotelians intent on challenging the APOLITICAL Heideggerian conception of finitude? And in this regard, why are we here SO concerned with the temporality (QUANTITY) of our lives (somehow reaching old age unscathed), rather than with the QUALITY of our lives? For, isn’t the WHOLE ethical point “HOW we live our lives”, rather then “HOW LONG we live our lives”? And, don’t TYRANTS live really really long (see below)? Is this part of the troubling political fact surrounding the question of temporality and finitude (pace Heidegger´s own dramatically apolitical notion of time in Being and Time)? Just recently, didn’t Mubarak outlast many? And, ethically speaking, surely HITLER outlived many much more righteous men, didn’t he? So, under this perplexing view, are we to count a life as worthwhile ONLY until we reach 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 (like Abraham who only until THAT advanced age was given forth his promise)? Or put yet another way, were previous cultures less happy because their average life expectancy was much less then ours? Are WE moderns happier because “we” —–well, really only those in developed countries—- DO in fact last much longer (even if connected to all sorts of medical machines)? Haven’t we, ironically, simply given greater chance to chance to act upon us as Ar. had pointed out in our previous commentary?

But returning to the tone/spirit of the subsection, isn’t it ALL kind of spooky? I mean, aren’t we sort of dealing with communications with, or at the very least, referring to the dead (albeit, close kin in particular) and similar issues? And that it IS so, is shown in the even STRANGER subsection XI (“Do the fortunes of the living affect the dead”) which follows immediately? Doesn’t Ostwald allow us to see how far he misses precisely the tone of the whole passage in his footnote 44 and his reference to Burnet´s interpretation of Aristotle? But, how are WE, specially we moderns born out of the secular transfiguration, to take this in (see quote Professor Taylor below)? For surely there seems to be not a single expression of irony or laughter in Ar.’s presentation, is there? Could we not say, that indeed it is HERE, more than anywhere else in the NE, that we actually find one of the most valuable and explicit examples of Ar.’s philosophical generosity towards the life of the noblest of citizens (as is clear by the example given here of Solon)? For isn’t Ar. truly going out of his way in his attentive respect for the beliefs held by traditional leading citizens and THEIR concerns about temporality and happiness? How so? Because isn’t the concern for temporality of great IMPORT to the serious citizens of a political community? Isn’t it the case that for THEM the family, specially, is the locus of an endurance and immortality beyond the ephemeral appearance of any of its individual members (contrast, Diotima´s “The Ladder of Love” speech in Plato’s Symposium)? For wouldn’t a Solon ask: what of a long life WITHOUT a family? What could that be FOR? Mustn’t the individual see beyond him/herself in order to truly achieve happiness?  And moreover, aren’t great leaders, the greatest of leaders, truly thus remembered by all for the SACRIFICES they make in dedicating themselves whole-heartedly to the PUBLIC good? Isn’t this PRECISELY why Solon, the lawgiver, is remembered till this day even beyond the boundaries of his native Athens?  And aren’t those who give up their lives for US in battle, in the crucial defense of our divergent REGIMES, thus remembered as well for exemplifying the virtue of courage by giving themselves for a greater cause than mere life? Isn’t this, in part, why Ar., as we shall see, also refers to Simonides the poet in this very subsection by referencing his appearance in Plato´s dialogue Protagoras (which deals precisely with the question of courage and sophistry; 339b)? For isn’t Simonides famous for his elegies to the fallen dead in the greatest of Greek battles, the most famous being that written as remembrance of the Battle at Thermopylae, and which reads:


Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here

We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”

(see below)? And we know quite well that elegies and eulogies are far from being the same, don’t we? Actually, in terms of eudaimonia, don’t they stand at extremes?

And so that we may be believed, isn’t the example of Solon here central in THIS regard? Don’t we find precisely THIS concern in Herodotus´s account of Solon —made reference to by Ar. himself? Doesn’t Herodotus allow us to share in the context of Solon’s words? For, we come to know how Solon, in one of his “voyages” outside Athens, came to be questioned/confronted by a tyrant named Croesus? And, doesn’t Croesus indeed know that Solon´s international fame was such as to be considered one of the Seven Sages of Antiquity? But, what does the Tyrant ask in relation to the topic of the NE? Isn’t the question precisely that of the NE as a whole? Doesn’t the TYRANT ask WHO is the happiest human known to be so by Solon himself? And, before dwelling more intimately in the dialogue that ensues between law-giver and TYRANT, mustn’t we mention also that we see in Plutarch’s “Life of Solon” the radically opposite un-Aristotelian tone and sense of fundamental respect by a philosopher towards traditional concerns and beliefs? Don’t we have to contrast here Ar.´s way of proceeding prudently, with Thales outright (effective, yes), but shocking (mocking?) “unveiling” of Solon’s beliefs as regards the possibility of a serious interconnection between one´s  having a family and reaching the highest human happiness available to us?  Isn’t Thales’s’ trick truly outrageous from a much more moderate Aristotelian perspective, namely telling Solon that one of his children has DIED, when in fact it is simply a TEST:

“Thus every answer heightened Solon’s fears, and at last, in great distress of soul, he told his name to the stranger and asked him if it was Solon’s son that was dead. The man said it was; whereupon Solon began to beat his head and to do and say everything else that betokens a transport of grief. But Thales took him by the hand and said, with a smile, “This it is, O Solon, which keeps me from marriage and the getting of children; it overwhelms even thee, who art the most stout-hearted of men. But be not dismayed at this story, for it is not true.”

(my emphasis; p. 419; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Solon*.html; not to mention Thales’s own inconsistencies on the topic.)

Isn’t this example, in part, what makes us clear as to why Thales is considered a Pre-Socratic? For didn’t’ the Socratic revolution, as told to us by Cicero, BRING philosophy back to “earth” via its political concerns? And in parallel fashion, don’t we see Ar. living up to the presuppositions of the founder of Political Philosophy, Socrates, who already knew of his Second Voyage as the KEY to a certain departure from philosophers such as Thales and Anaxagoras? Moreover, leaving aside the fact that a similar “outrageous” test appears as well in the Bible (young Isaacs divinely commanded sacrifice by Abraham at the age of 90+!), don’t we sense as we read this subsection that is it specially the spoudaios who would find Thales’s un-Aristotelian attitude quite “distasteful”, to put it mildly? Or put yet another way, in striking relation to the beginning of Plato’s Republic, don’t we find here Ar.’s bowing to elder citizens such as Cephalus —whose name actually means “head”, as in the expression, “head of the family”—– rather than seeking their direct questioning? And in this regard, don’t we need also recall that THIS more prudential tone is precisely the tone set by the elder Plato in his much more mature, and politically realistic, dialogue, The Laws? For isn’t THAT political dialogue undertaken by a stranger (obviously Socrates, though it is striking that Plato feels the need to cover up such obviousness), and two elder citizens who are quite advanced in their lives and thus closer to death? And isn’t this TONE, that which characterizes the forgotten yet masterful work of Xenophon? Are we surprised then NOT to find Xenophon being read in current Academia?


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Filosofía política clásica; el modelo socrático y aristotélico como respuesta a las encrucijadas modernas.

El interés principal para esta propuesta de investigación ——como aspirante a su departamento——- es la de hacer una defensa profunda de lo que representa la filosofía política clásica como posible respuesta a la actual crisis del liberalismo moderno occidental. Dicha investigación se enfrentaría conceptualmente a los defensores del proyecto de la modernidad que buscan las condiciones universales para la defensa de nuestras democracias en una teoría comunicativa (Habermas), y a aquellas posturas que buscan hacer explícitas las condiciones fundacionales imaginarias e hipotéticas para una teoría de la justicia (Rawls). Por otra parte, aunque esta investigación ve la importancia del serio y profundo cuestionamiento radical a la razón moderna que plantean las obras de Nietzsche/Heidegger ——–que en su conjunto incluso llegan a cuestionar el proyecto occidental de racionalidad política fundado originariamente por Sócrates—– esta considera que la falta de una reflexión política sostenida permite a los neo-nietzscheanos post-modernistas (Foucault, Derrida) una ilusoria victoria conceptual que permanece incompleta, que es imprudente (en el sentido Aristotélico de phronesis), y que por ende es altamente peligrosa para la salud general de la comunidad política. En contraposición, afirmamos que es en la obra ético-política de Aristóteles que se da la máxima expresión de lo que representa la filosofía política clásica como contrapropuesta. (1)

Dejando de lado las múltiples interpretaciones que puedan haber surgido de Aristóteles, lo cierto es que al centro de la argumentación detrás de esta investigación radica una lectura que se funda en el pensamiento de Leo Strauss (y en particular, de su estudiante Thomas Pangle). En general el reto neo-aristotélico se ve enmarcado dentro de una tradición aún más amplia que se puede comprender hoy en día como la del “movimiento socrático”. Este movimiento de retorno retoma con seriedad el evento socrático ejemplar, a saber, el de la fundación de la reflexión filosófica de lo político por parte de Sócrates. Comprenden ellos que en efecto hay un segundo Sócrates que se ha distanciado de las presuposiciones apolíticas de los pre-socráticos, presuposiciones que llegaron a conformar la postura conceptual del primer Sócrates interesado exclusivamente en la pregunta por la naturaleza (physis). Esto es lo que es conocido como la “segunda navegación” de Sócrates (Fedón, 99c). Strauss lo resume así: “Socrates was the first philosopher who concerned himself chiefly or exclusively, not with the heavenly or divine things, but with the human things”; Strauss (TCaM, 13).  Es por ello que para lograr una real recuperación del reto del pensamiento político clásico se debe recurrir a la ya mencionada perspectiva que ve el debate antiguos-modernos como el conflicto fundamental para las aspiraciones de una verdadera filosofía política que tenga respuestas concretas, prudentes y sabias a nuestras crisis. (2) Sin embargo este retorno comprometido y serio al racionalismo de la filosofía política clásica tiene ya desde su comienzo diversas variantes interpretativas. Esto se puede ver claramente en la triple comprensión que se da de Sócrates por parte de Platón el filósofo dialéctico, por parte de Jenofonte el escritor militar y por parte de Aristófanes el comediante. La evidente tensión entre estas apropiaciones socráticas se ve claramente hoy en día en el contexto filosófico universitario en la medida en que Jenofonte no es considerado, como sí lo era en la antigüedad (por los romanos, por Maquiavelo, por Hobbes y por Shaftesbury), como un pensador digno de un estudio serio, profundo y continuado; sobretodo por la recuperación del valor de la retórica como lenguaje privilegiado de lo político. (3)

Ahora bien, la excepción a esta regla de exclusión silenciosa, es precisamente la propia tradición straussiana. Al recuperar la multiplicidad de lenguajes socráticos, y muy especialmente la obra de Jenofonte, la tradición straussiana gana una interpretación enriquecida de los clásicos, y en particular, de la obra aristotélica. El retorno recuperativo de la filosofía política clásica por parte de la tradición straussiana por lo tanto permite el planteamiento de preguntas olvidadas. Por ello a la base de esta interpretación surge la pregunta fundamental que el discurso filosófico moderno ha relegado al olvido, a saber, la pregunta misma de ¿por qué la filosofía? A la importancia de las preguntas heideggerianas tanto por el sentido del ser como por el “¿qué es la filosofía?”, se enfrenta una pregunta aún más fundamental y originaria en términos políticos. Es decir, el “qué es” de la filosofía sólo se puede comprender cabalmente una vez hayamos realizado una investigación prudente del “por qué” de la necesidad del filosofar dentro de la comunidad política. Leo Strauss ofrece cierta claridad acerca de esta pregunta que funda las posibilidades del saber filosófico una vez se ha liberado de su “amnesia” frente a la filosofía política clásica: “The philosophers, as well as other men who have become aware of the possibility of philosophy, are sooner or later driven to wonder, Why philosophy? Why does human life need philosophy? … To justify philosophy before the tribunal of the political community means to justify it in terms of the political community, that is to say, by means of a kind of argument which appeals, not to philosophers as such, but to citizens as such.” (mi énfasis) (4) Sin duda la academia, en gran medida, no ha escuchado este llamado. (more…)

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On the unconscious needs underlying the relation between the ill and their caretakers.

One of the difficulties which lies at the basis of much possible conflict between the ill and caretakers is this. Most of us seem to unconsciously desire in our lives someone who will be there for us in the worst of times, those times where usually no one would want to be with us! For supposedly, this kind of thinking goes, everyone wants to be with you when you are rich and beautiful and young and powerful. One of the most dramatic examples of such a desire can be found in the work Like Water for Chocolate link where the youngest daughter cannot marry because tradition holds she MUST take care of her aging mother. Having many children is a way of assuring one’s future security.


And in this same vein, this is why marriage vows include for better and FOR WORSE. For, according to the “normal” way of seeing things, being there in the worst of times must be somehow enforced as NO ONE would want such a thing! This kind of thinking is highly distorted. However, one thing is true, being in those situation which include the “for worse” part, specially in the case of illness (but think also of the case of unemployment) does not usually mean that BOTH parties find themselves worse off. Usually when one person falls ill, the other does not; when one person is unemployed, the other is not.


When one of them actually falls ill, then the ill person actually might find —or at least he thinks he has found—- what he deeply desired, namely, someone who unconditionally loves him. But on the other hand, the caretaker finds something radically different, not only that someone does not care for him —for many caretakers are left alone to care for their loved ones—- but also deeply and unconsciously they come to realize that no one will be physically able to take care of them if they in fact become ill! This helps to understand the anger felt by the mother in Like Water for Chocolate. (Not to mention the meeting of other needs which will not be met, such as those regarding sexuality, the possibility of a family, ….)


The only path towards ameliorating the caretakers condition in this respect is for her to come to a clear understanding of how problematic such a deep desire for having another take care of her —–even when the situation does not involve illness— actually is. This holds true for the ill person herself as well. For we humans, as Aristophanes’ discourse in Plato’s Symposium tells with fine comic revelation, are deeply afraid of living a life of true self sufficiency, and by this I mean, primarily, a life of reflective self-sufficiency. In this respect, one can say that caretakers and the ill are in need of a serious reconsideration and understanding of those deep desires which in normal conditions remain constrained, but which in times of crisis come to the fore as they had never done so before. If unprepared for this appearance, the likelihood of growth in true and deep friendship under such circumstances is close to nil.


I think these reflections hold some of the central keys to understanding why it is that Aristotle ends his considerations on friendship —-–some of the most famous and powerful in the history of reflections on friendship—– with what appears to be a very strange question, namely: Do we need friends more in good fortune or in bad? (Nicomachean Ethics, IX, 1170a21) True happiness might include friends, but might point beyond our everyday distorted considerations of what friends are. And however that may turn out to be, one should and must be one’s own best friend.

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  Just as Socrates covers up his physical ugliness through his unusual use of “fancy slippers” (174a), so Aristophanes covers up the tragic nature of his brief speech on the nature of human erotic longing with the temporary soothing elements of comic myth. In this sense Ar. shares, as we shall see, Freud’s own pessimism regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered fundamentally on the erotic intermingling between lovers. For Freud, as we already know, “the weak side of this technique  of living is easy to see … it is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (CiD, 270). But before looking more closely at the way this pessimism finds expression in Aristophanes’ speech, we must seek to briefly situate the comedian’s words within the whole of the Platonic dialogue. In doing so we should keep in mind the fact that it is not Aristophanes the author of The Clouds who speaks, but rather Plato appropriating the comedian’s way of life for his own purposes.

  That this concern is central in trying to understand the comic’s speech can be clearly seen in that Ar. is mysteriously silenced by Plato at different crucially climatic points of the dialogue. The first of these occurs just after Socrates has finished recollecting Diotima’s complex words concerning the possibility of an ascent to “the beautiful in itself”. Diotima’s speech not only explicitly mentions and rejects Aristophanes’ myth ———due to its distancing itself, allegedly, from the goodness of the lovers involved (206d-e)——– but also involves a starting point in the ascent that stands in outright conflict with the comedian’s understanding of what is involved in the erotic interrelation between lovers. For Diotima the initiate in erotic understanding “first of all … must love one body and there generate beautiful speeches. Then he must realize that the beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body; and if he must pursue the beauty of looks, it is great folly not to believe that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. And with this realization he must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this erotic intensity for only one body, in the belief that it is petty” (210a). For the Diotimian lover the uniquely beautiful body of the loved one is not only interchangeable with others, but is linked  to a kind of brutishness unworthy of those engaged in ascending towards “higher ground” (and those who believe this bodily interchangeability is not so problematic, must grapple with the fact that it also holds for the individual soul of that human being which we love as no other (210d)). Now, what is extremely suspicious from the stance of the defender of Ar.’s speech lies in that, once Socrates has finished speaking, we learn that the comedian does not only NOT praise it, but moreover is just about to speak when Plato silences his reservations via the entrance of the bodily beautiful and drunken Alcibiades. (212c). Perhaps Alcibiades’ speech will retake elements of Ar.’s myth, but perhaps too Alcibiades will not fully express the comedian’s deepest reservations. Now, however that may turn out to be, it is likewise suspicious that towards the end of the dialogue Plato once again is quick to silence Ar. In the culminating conversation between Ar., Agathon and Socrates, conversation in which the latter is trying to “compel” (223d) the other two to admit that the tragic poet is also a comic poet, Ar. , by the magical hand of the author, is the first to be “put to sleep”. Socrates, in contrast, goes on sleepless to the Lyceum. How to understand this? Is their a hierarchy between the different speeches, Socrates’ being the culminating one? Does Socrates speech take up and complete Ar.’s, just as Pausanias claimed to complete Phaedrus’? Does Ar.’s speech present itself not as a dialectical “stepping stone” for what is to follow, but rather as a sort of broken bridge which divides two different ways of living one’s erotic life? Could one then not say that Ar. sleeps first for he somehow knows that his speech has already accomplished what Socrates is trying him to compel him to admit, namely, that comedy and tragedy are two sides of a circle eternally split for us humans who are continually torn between the bitterness of tears and the sweetness of laughter.

  The  competition  between Socrates, who is characterized by his ‘strangeness’ (215a), ‘outrageousness’ (175c) and ‘oddness’ (175a), and Ar., is further made clear by the starting point each takes up in order to the clarify our erotic involvements. While Socrates, unlike in the Apology, claims to have “perfect knowledge of erotics” —— a knowledge expressed not by him but by Diotima (177d) ——– Ar. speaks from his own personal, perhaps lived-through, opinion (189c) (although it is also important to remember that Ar., of all the speakers, is the only not paired with any other as lover to beloved). Moreover, both speakers seems to hold allegiance to very different gods. Socrates lets us know that Ar.’s “whole activity is devoted to Dionysius and Aphrodite” (177d). Ar. is concerned with two very particular Olympians: on the one hand Dionysius, the only god who knows of death and a subsequent rebirth, the god of wine and music (music being “exiled” from the dialogue, while wine is “moderated”), the god of excess which Agathon calls upon to judge the rivalry between him and Socrates (175e), and on the other hand, Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of delicate feet born asexually from the genitals of Uranus after having been conquered by Cronos, the goddess who commits adultery with Ares, god of war, and is made to pay for it by Hephaestus, to whom we shall return. (It is noteworthy that Ar. seems to avoid Pausanias’ clever and complex split between the Uranian and Pandemian Aphrodites, a split which leads to controverial dualities such as those of beloved/lover, passive/active, body/mind and, their social expression in conventional roles such as those of the “machismo/marianismo” dichotomy in a Latin American context). These two gods, which are mysteriously absent from Ar.’s speech itself, stand in outright contrast to the Apollinian values of self-knowledge and moderation, values which partly characterize the behaviour of Socrates.

  Aristophanes’ linkage to the love of wine, and thus to Dionysius, is made clear from the very line which marks his entrance. Celebrating Agathon’s victory he drank not moderately, but rather like a human sponge, taking in so much that he has become completely soaked. (176b). Aristophanes is not by any means a measured  Athenian gentleman. His disordering presence becomes even more evident precisely when his turn to speak arrives. If Socrates rudely interrupts by his bodily inacitivity the dinner to which he is invited (174d), Ar. rudely interrupts by his bodily activity the original order of the speeches. Just when Pausanias has finished his sophisticated speech on pederasty, Ar. reveals that hiccups have gotten the best of him. Hiccups, we are mysteriously told, due to “satiety or something else” (perhaps wine?) (185d). Eryximachus, the physician who had played a key role both in ordering the whole banquet (177d), and in moderating the dangerous effects of wine (176d), sets out to cure the poor comedian’s sudden illness. Medicine rescues the comedian by putting forward the strongest of cures known to hiccuping, the soaking outbursts of sneezing. Once Eryximachus’ “doctoral” speech come to an end (presumably with Ar. hiccuping and sneezing throughout), the comedian ironically challenges the doctor’s claims to understanding the nature and erotics of the body. He says: “so I wonder at the orderly decency of the body, desiring such noises and garglings as a sneeze is; for my hiccuping stopped right away as I applied the sneeze to it” (189c). That Ar. is not by any means thanking his doctor, is made evident by the laughter of all those present;  a laughter which comes into conflict with the seriousness of the doctor who fights back by way of an aggressive challenge. Eryximachus will become the guardian of comedy; “you did have the  chance to speak in peace”, he tells Ar. (189b). The comic poet becomes now the doctor who must cure the excessive anger which bursts easily from the moderate physician. Ar.  seeks a truce (as in his work Peace), claiming to want to start from the beginning: “let what has been said be as if it were never spoken” (189b). (An apology which seems to imply that the previous speeches have somehow gone wrong.) Eryximachus, in turn, demands that the poet give a rational account (‘logos’) of eros; a demand which, if fulfilled, would reduce the speech of the comic to pure silence.  Ar. will speak in another vein, it is one which involves story-telling, imaginative interaction and poetic creativity; much the same things we feel are neccesary in speaking about one’s love for that other who makes us feel “head over heels”. Finally, the comedian shares with us his one big fear; Ar. is not afraid of saying laughable things, that is to say, things which can be shared by all of us who somehow feel ourselves identified with what is said —–things which, besides, represent a gain for the poetic Muse (189c)—— but he is afraid of saying things that are “laughed at”, that is to say, things from which we think we can distance ourselves and judge from a higher plane than that of our vulnerable and tragic condition (189b).




  At the outset  I argued that Freud and Ar. investigate the viability and shortcomings of the highly risky human possibility which centers the attainment of happiness on a radical emphasis in the life of erotic  sharing between two individuals. But besides this similarity, what is more amazing still, is that we find in Freud a passage in which he makes us recollect Ar.’s own mythological comprehension of the power of Eros in our lives. For Freud: “ a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, …… in no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one … (thus) we can  imagine quite well a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests …. but this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist” (CiD, 298). For Ar., once upon a time, such state did “exist”, and his story stands as imaginative “proof”. It  is a story which allows us to re-’collect’ the  genesis of human erotic longing. Only through its understanding can we come closer to comprehending that force in us which strives to reach out for another’s physical and psychical partnership.

  The brevity of the speech stands in stark contrast with its complexity. Too many issues are brought together and unfortunately, I cannot, nor know how to, deal with many of them. Therefore, I propose first to put forward some questions regarding a few of the most relevant aspects within the myth, and second,  to zero-in more closely on one of these aspects, namely, the central issue which links Ar. to Freud’s ‘community of double individuals’..

  Some of the questions one could  consider in trying to begin to understand the comic speech by Ar. are: i) Why are the circular gods of nature ——– the sun, the earth and finally the moon as intermediary between both—— gods from which the circular beings are born (male, female, androgynous respectively) (190b), quickly transformed into the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus whose origin is not even discussed (190c)? How to understand the needy nature of the Olympic gods (particularly Zeus) who wisely, after being perplexed, come to realize that by destroying the circular race of protohumans they will end up destroying their ‘other half’, namely, the one which honours and praises them? Is the Zeus mentioned here identical with the Olympian Zeus of tradition? And if so, then why so much emphasis on his deliberation (190c), his perplexity and his pity (191b)? Moreover, why, if Socrates has told us that Ar.’s god’s are Dionysius and Aphrodite, do precisely these gods not appear in the mythical narration of the genesis of eros and our permanent illness? Furthermore, why is Zeus made to speak three times in the present  “says” (190c), “supplies” and “rearranges” (191b), while the rest of his speech is in the past? Does this imply, as in Freud, that somehow the process of civilization, although comprehensible to a certain extent regressively, is nevertheless a process which has constituted us in a radically imperfect and incomplete way, a process that is, in other words, ‘here to stay’? Finally, is the process of what Ar. considers the unjust splitting up by Zeus, a split which seems to link sexuality to shamefulness,  comparable to the “unjust”  process of religion in Freud’s own perspective, a process which links sexuality to guilt? How could one link this new reference to shame, to the shame of the lovers of honour which one finds in Phaedrus’ speech? ; ii) How to understand the fact that the circular beings, who seem complete in themselves, nevertheless are, from their very mysterious conception, made to lack something so that they are taken over by “proud thoughts” which make them try to overturn, not the natural gods, but the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus (190b)? How do they end up getting this overwhelming desire for power into their heads in the first place? And if not their own fault, then why are they punished for something which presumably is not in their power to modify? Moreover, what is one to make of the status of the ‘androgynous’ original kind which has mysteriously disappeared, leaving only its reproachable name behind (189e)? Is it reproachable, not for Ar. who in the Lysistrata  reaches peace through a Panhellenic strike of wives, but for the Greeks in general due to their view that men are superior to women? Could one link this ‘androgynous’ type to Freud’s views on bisexuality, particularly as it finds expression in each individual?; iii) How can we understand Ar.’s intention of including in his speech a concern for all human beings by focusing on human nature in general (189c-d, 190d, 191c-d), and not just a few who have the ‘real’ key to loving? Does not Ar. then miss the fact that loving IS somehow or other inevitably linked to the customs (‘nomos’) within which it develops; so that for instance loving between Canadians, Latin Americans and Japanese is really quite different?; iv) What is the relationship between the, ironic, yet serious reference Ar. makes to pederasty as the only activity which prepares men to political office, but does so by setting aside the very procreation of the species and thus endangering the very subsistence  of the city (192a)?; v) Is Diotima’s critique concerning the ethical nature of lovers one that radically undermines Ar.’s position? (For instance, we think there is something odd in saying that Eva Brown was the ‘other half’ of Adolf Hitler) Moreover, don’t we conceive of lovers likewise as somehow seeking out to become friends in terms of character?; and finally, vi) given that each half of the circular beings, I think,  must have been generated simultaneously in time, and that in their original form they each had their  own set of everything, except for the head which was shared by the two opposing faces, could one not then somehow link these creatures to Freud’s notion of narcissim by looking at the following passage in which he discusses the relationship between love and hypnosis: “we see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissitic libido overflows onto the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love-choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like ro procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissim.” (GP, 143). (one could also look at the Phaedrus  (252e) where the beloved becomes a mirror image of us, a divine mirror image that is) Would one not have to consider then the complex relation between self-love and the love of others?

   Not having the space, nor the understanding to even start to provide some answers to these questions, I would like instead to focus now on Ar.’s claim that the power of Eros lies in its providing us with the greatest possible happiness any human being could ever expect to achieve in this world. As he puts it: “Eros is the most philanthropic of gods, the helper of human beings as well as a physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189c-d)”.  According to Ar. we humans can allegedly reach happiness via erotic involvement, but it seems, not just with anybody. Eros represents this regressive possibility by allowing us to catch a glimpse of our ancient nature (also, but differently, Phaedrus 250 ff). Unlike the tragic results of the first operation by Zeus, operation which culminated in the painful death of the two newly severed parts which were left to cling unto each other, dying “due to hunger and  the rest of thier inactivity, because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another” (191b), (a  reminder of the cicadas in the Phaedrus (259b)), for us who are the  “beneficiaries” of the second more complex Apollinian operation, sexuality has been brought to the fore. Having placed the genitals, the “shameful things” in Greek,  in the front (191b), we can move beyond clinging by now engaging in sexual activity. Through the latter the previous oneness can be, only temporarily for sure, remembered once again. Eros’ power allows this, and it is because of it that we must thank, praise and sacrifice to this god’s, usually  taken for granted, divine presence (189c). But sexual interaction with just anyone will not lead to the happiness which reminds us of our past protohuman “fulfillment”. We must permanently search for that other who matches the jagged features of our patched up bodies (191a). Eros is then  “the bringer-together of their (that is to say, ‘our’) ancient anture, who tries to make one of two and to heal their (that is to say, ‘our’) human nature. Each of us is a token (‘symbolon’) of a human being ….. and so each is always in search of his own token” (191d). Ever since we become old enough to feel the erotic longing for another’s patches, we turn into permanent seekers of what in Spanish we call “mi otra media naranja”, that is to say, that “my other half-orange” who will complete our fruit like original nature in which we ressembled the natural gods. The Greeks here preferred to speak of apples (190e).

   And if ever we are so lucky as to be allowed by Eros to find that other who strikes us wondrously with friendship and erotic love to the point that, now,  we “are unwilling to be apart from one another even for a short time” (192c), then human bliss seems to reach its highest possible peak. The other’s presence modifies one’s own self-perception and that of the world in a way in which both are mutually enriched; we feel ourselves enhanced in a world which suddenly opens itself to new, previously unseen, possibilities. Nietzsche captures this optimism beautifully: “the lover is more valuable, is stronger …. his whole economy is richer than before, more powerful, more complete than in those who do not love. The lover becomes a squanderer, he is rich enough for it. Now he dares, he becomes an adventurer, becomes an ass in magnanimity and innocence; he believes in god again. He believes in virtue because he believes in love; and on the other hand this happy idiot grows wings and new capabilities, and even the door of art is opened to him” (WtP #808) (The very same wings that the lover of the Phaedrus will grow in one of the most beautiful passages of all the Platonic dialogues (255ff.))

  But unlike Nietzschean optimism, Ar. and Freud seem to have reservations. Freud, as I have said from the outset, centers  his critique on the loss  of the beloved. Ar., though  aware of this danger, provides a more devastating critique by looking at the problematic functioning of erotic desire itself. The lucky lovers who are finally able to reach each other, presumably following several painful misses and rather uncomfortable fits ——— for Ar. makes it clear that this reunion is not what normally happens at present (193b) ———- these lucky lovers nevertheless seem to desire something more. This something, Ar. jokingly says, one could not conceivably take it simply to be the delight of sexual intercourse with that other half which seems to fit, ‘just right’, in yourself: “as though it were for this reason —-of all things—– that each so enjoys being with the other… but the soul of each wants something else” (192c) But that ellusive ‘something else’ which the soul of each wants for him/herself, that cannot be easily put into words. Just as it so happens when one is asked why one loves his/her, hopefully, ‘real’  other half, there comes a point where you cannot quite “explain”, and instead just feel like saying, “Can’t you see why?, well that is really odd”.

  Nevertheless Ar. challenges this silence, the same silence which Plato forces on him, by providing us with a riddle to be solved. The riddle, like Oedipus’, concerns humans, but unlike the King’s, Ar.’s concerns a dilemma which is brought to light by looking at our desiring nature. The riddle is spoken by yet another Olympian god, Hephaestus, the weak god of fire and crafts/arts (techne). It is he who chained Aphrodite and Ares for having committed adultery; chaining them, not to bring them eternal bliss, but rather eternal boredom. Hephaestus seems, tragically, to seek welding as punishment (Od  315). This god is made to ask us humans what we really want out of love, and, just as Zeus was perplexed with the attitude of the circular beings, so we humans stand perplexed by Hephaestus’ question (192d). He must therefore not only rephrase the question, but very directly answer it in doing so. Would we not really desire just to become one once again, our belly wrinkles giving way to a stronger sphericity? What more lovely than reaching this “golden state” capable even of denying the individual death of its members, so that even “in Hades you (that is to say, we) would be together one instead of two?” (192e). Would this not be the ultimate happiness, that which involved a shared immortality?

  The riddle, and riddles one would think are so because they are, presumably, very difficult to answer, is to our perplexity immediately answered in the affirmative. It seems as though nothing would be more desirable for us, ill halves, than to permanently rejoin that other whom Eros has granted us, finally, to reach. However, we should remember that even the protohumans though fused to their extremities, nonetheless did not seem to have seen themeselves as part of a Paradise in which nothing was lacking. Even human sphericity finds itself lacking, striving to move beyond its original condition. Oneness reaches beyond itself, although of course it reaches out more powerfully with four arms, four legs, not just two of each. And moreover, what distinguishes our humanity lies precisely in that,  like it or not,  we will forever remain as halves in constant search for that which we lack. Desire flourishes precisely due to this incompleteness which moves us beyond ourselves. The feverish conditions which evolve out of the absence of the loved one seem to move in the same direction. If Hephaestus’ riddle were not only answered in the affirmative, but actually set in place, our human condition as we know it, fragile and ill as it may be, would come to a permanent end. Letting Hephaestus do his work would turn out to be a punishment much severer than that of Zeus who intended to break us down once more, leaving us “hopping on one leg” ( 190d). Seeking to become spherical again requires the death of Eros’ presence in our lives. And Ar. hints to this towards the end of his speech in a paragraph which links past, present and future possibilities: “our race would be happy if we were to bring our love to a consummate end, and each of us were to get his own favorite on his return to his ancient nature. And if this is the best, it  must necesarrilly be the case that, IN PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, that  which is closest to it is the best; and that is to get a favorite whose nature is to one’s tastes” (193c) (here a specific reference to the  pederasts, but shedding light, I believe, into all the different kinds of relationships). Ar. qualifies his appeal to a return to oneness by continually using the hypothetical ‘if’, as in ‘if this is the best’. But as I have argued this undoubtedly is not the best desirable course for us humans to take. Our present circumstances cannot be done away with, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to have been otherwise. At best we should seek out to reach the sweetness of that other who allows the growth of  those beautiful wings characteristic of the highest kind of lovers in the Phaedrus (251e); but, at the same time bitterly knowing, or perhaps feeling, full well that Eros’ presence immediately sets us humans in the web of a dilemma which maybe Sophocles, a tragedian, can better help us to understand. Eros is like ice, we delight in having it, yet its presence is a reminder of a painful reality, that of our constant neediness:

            “Like children that beneath a frosty heaven

            Snatch in their eagerness at icicles

            (First they are ravished with this latest toy;

            Yet soon they find it hurts their hands to hold

            That icy thing; and yet how hard to drop it!)

            Even such are lovers too, when what they love

            Tears them between ‘I would not’ and ‘I would’” (Lucas, 224)


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