On a cool Autumn evening in Athens, Socrates, Aristophanes, and several other friends got together for a celebration at the house of Agathon, the young playwright who had recently won First Prize for Tragedy at the theater festival. After dinner they agreed that they would not drink very much this night, since, for the most part, they were all still hungover from wildly celebrating Agathon’s victory the night before. Instead, they decided to pick a topic and each one in turn would entertain the others with an oration. The subject they agreed upon was Eros, the god of Love.
When Aristophanes’ turn came, he began by saying that he intended to praise Love in a way completely unlike what had been said so far. “Mankind,” he said, “judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love.” If they did, he continued, the world would be full of temples and altars paying him homage: yet there are none, even though Love, of all the gods, is the most friendly to mortals. Aristophanes would therefore take it upon himself to elucidate Love’s great power:
To begin with, it is necessary to know that in the beginning humans were not as they appear now. They were originally dual beings, with four arms, four legs, and two faces on one head facing in different directions. There were three sexes then: male-male (produced from the sun), female-female (produced from the earth), and male-female (produced from the moon). They were round like their parents, they moved by means of revolving like their parents, they were very large, very strong, and very ambitious. At length, they levied war against the gods, seeking to dethrone them!
Zeus and the other gods thought about annihilating them with thunderbolts, but that would mean the end of all the sacrifices and worship which the gods really liked! Yet they could certainly not ignore all this insolence and impiety, and leave them unrestrained. So Zeus came up with a way to both diminish their strength and keep them pleasantly occupied. He decided to cut them in half, like an “apple which is halved for pickling”. He did so, and then had Apollo heal their wounds, turn their faces about, smooth out most of the wrinkles, and tie up their skin in a knot, now called the navel.
Real love, according to Aristophanes, is thus the craving to be one again, in body and soul, with our lost half, and when we find our actual other half we are lost in amazement and cannot bear to be out of each other’s company even for a moment. However, Aristophanes warns, if we are disobedient to the gods the possibility exists that we will be cut in half again and have to go about our lives hopping on one foot with half a face! “Wherefore let us exhort all men to piety, that we may avoid evil, and obtain the good, of which Love is to us the lord and minister.” For it is Love which gives us the most benefit, leading us forward in our search for our other half, and promising that if we are pious “he will restore us to our original state, and heal us and make us happy and blessed.”
For Plato’s Aristophanes, Eros is a kind of gift from the gods, in a sense a ‘consolation prize’, to help us heal the wound which the gods have been forced to inflict: a wonderful gift for the enjoyment of those who now live in obedience to the gods. His funny yet comprehensive story accounts for the whole variety of sexual tastes without having to condemn any. It gives a reason and motivation for virtuous and ethical behavior. Most importantly, it is the first speech of the evening which makes Eros erotic. Aristophanes actually talks about desire and hugging and orgasms, subjects which the previous speakers shied away from. His fable brilliantly and delightfully captures the way we actually feel when we love one another – the lustfulness, the passionate longing for wholeness, the sense of wonder, the wish to remain this happy for all eternity, all of which will be taken up again and spectacularly expanded by Socrates when his turn comes.