A Plea for Alcibiades, or, How to Philosophize with a Bottle
My contribution to our symposium on the Symposium, which unfortunately doesn’t answer Rufus’s questions. Or for that matter any questions at all.
“What shall we say,” asked the Epicurean, “about the Symposium?”
“In the 21st century, we are like the last of the dialogue’s speakers. There’s little left to say,” said the Stoic.
“That rhetorical trope was ancient when Socrates used it,” said the Cynic. “It’s amazing how people grow more verbose, not less, as history moves on. Decent folk would shut up already.”
“Here’s something original, or at least relatively so” said the Academic. “Unlike what many people assume — our patron included — the Symposium is straightforwardly anti-homosexual.”
“Impossible. The homosexual did not exist until the nineteenth century,” said the Postmodernist. “Everyone knows that.”
“If ‘the’ homosexual did not exist until the nineteenth century, then certain passages from the Symposium are surpassingly hard to explain,” said the Academic. “Consider Aristophanes’ myth about the origin of love:
And so, gentlemen, we are like pieces of the coins that children break in half for keepsakes… and each of us is forever seeking the half that will tally with himself. The man who is a slice of the hermaphrodite sex… will naturally be attracted to women …. and women who run after men are of similar descent. But the woman who is a slice of the original female is attracted by women rather than by men… while men who are slices of the male are followers of the male, and show their masculinity throughout their boyhood by the way they make friends with men, and the delight they take in lying beside them and being taken in their arms. (Symposium 192d-e)
“What do we call a person with a fixed disposition toward loving members of the same sex? A homosexual, of course. Aristophanes even gave these people a mythic, and possibly a sincere, medicalized etiology: an origin story, written on the body, clear as the navel on your belly. It drew its force from cultural and moral norms as much as from any ‘pure’ science. As such, this is biopower to the letter. It couldn’t fit the bill more perfectly if Foucault himself had been present at the origin, dissecting hermaphrodites and twisting their genitals around.”
“Work he would presumably have enjoyed,” said the Cynic.
“But this stuff isn’t anti-homosexual,” said the Stoic. “Pausanias found homosexuals brave, civic-minded, sound in judgment, and excellent choices to teach young men. Even the pederasty wasn’t as bad as I remembered it, for Pausanius said that men must take youths as lovers only after their beards came in (181c-d). This sounds nearly right, even by recent, very severe age-of-consent standards. Aristophanes, when he finally got over his hiccups, seemed only to agree with all this.”
“Aristophanes,” said the Academic, “was also roaring drunk — for the second time in as many nights. He broke the rules of the party, and his mind was clearly addled. His tale of the origin of love can’t possibly be taken seriously, although some, embarrassingly, have done so.”
“Aristophanes didn’t say he was drunk,” said the Stoic. “He had eaten too much. That’s why he had the hiccups.”
“In every age,” said the Cynic, “and in every language, drunks always say very the same thing: ‘Ahm not drunk! Ahm not drunk!’ In fact, that’s just how I learned to say it in French. Late one night in Paris, after I’d done some especially heavy… philosophizing… I was coming home on the Métro when I heard the call of a fellow philosopher: Chuis pas bourré! Chuis pas bourré!”
“The Cynic, I fear, is right,” said the Academic. “Aristophanes was drunk. And we must also consider the wider picture, which casts even more doubt on the whole idea of Men without Women. The first part of the Symposium is homosexual, homosocial — and grossly gynophobic.
“Recall that before the real discussion even began, they sent the flute girl away. It’s a telling move. She wouldn’t have been a speaker in any case, but she was the only significant female figure in the early part of the story — if ‘significant’ is quite the right word. Flute girls were an ordinary part of the entertainment at symposia, and the simple act of sending her off, possibly to the confined and usually dark and dingy women’s quarters, I think was meant as a clue to where the sense of the dialogue can be found.
“Also remember the discussion of Aphrodite Pandemos, the love goddess of all the people. Even bringing her up was something of an insult. Common knowledge, unstated in the Symposium, held that her temple was built entirely with the proceeds from the cheap, state-run brothels. For the first part of the dialogue, at least, homosexuality was the preferred modality. Heterosexuality was vulgar.
“However, as I said, the Symposium was a failed attempt to construct a male-only model of love. No one got it quite right, and indeed, the speeches seem to have gotten worse, not better, as the evening wore on.”
“Is there no hope for ever understanding love?” asked the Epicurean.
“All the speakers’ attempts failed outright,” said the Academic, “until Socrates introduced Diotima. Now she, not Socrates, was the real Socrates of the dialogue. By contrast, ‘Socrates’ was just an Agathon: superficially beautiful, but amounting to nothing. That’s what all men are, without women. Socrates brought female wisdom, which he clearly loved, into a male homosocial space. That female wisdom put everyone to shame.”
“Socrates was the only straight guy at a gay bar,” said the Stoic.
“Socrates would have been the only straight guy at a gay bar even if he also happened to be Liberace. He was contrary by nature,” said the Postmodernist.
“What, though, does Diotima advise?” asked the Academic. “It’s not contrariness for its own sake. Why, she says that love points at immortality, and that, as far as carnal love is concerned, only the heterosexual type achieves the goal:
This is how every mortal creature perpetuates itself. It cannot, like the divine, be still the same throughout eternity; it can only leave behind new life to fill the vacancy that is left in its species by obsolescence. This, my dear Socrates, is how the body and all else that is temporal partakes of the eternal; there is no other way. (208a-b)
“Diotima represents the overthrow of the homosocial discourse, which had been hegemonic,” the Academic continued. “You’re all going to die, Diotima said, unless you come to Woman, and thus homosexuality stands lower, not higher, on the great chain of being. Only Woman offers immortality.”
“Homosexuality isn’t a lifestyle,” said the Cynic. “It’s a deathstyle.”
“We moderns can be so crude,” said the Epicurean. “If you must say something barbaric, at least say it with panache, like Diotima did.”
“But did she really condemn love between two men?” asked the Skeptic. “She did seem to believe that it was at least a link in the great chain of being.”
“Undoubtedly so,” said the Stoic. “It’s a link — as long as their love remains sexless. The real proof of what I’m saying is in Alcibiades’ speech. Frankly, his speech would be a total mystery if it did not amount to an authorial denunciation of homosexual sex.”
“Fine, Socrates refused to sleep with him,” said the Skeptic. “But that’s not a condemnation of gay sex per se. All it shows is that Socrates had ascended so far up the Platonic ladder that he no longer had any need for sex. It’s an encomium of Socrates, not a condemnation of anything.”
“Oh please,” said the Postmodernist, “When you praise anything, there’s always a hidden condemnation. Especially in sex. As a great hero of mine once said, ‘The dogma of the Immaculate Conception only maculated conception.'”
“It’s true that Alcibiades’ speech is an encomium of Socrates,” said the Academic. “The others asked for it, and he delivered. But look at the terms of that encomium, and look at who gave it, and you will see that no one at the symposium understood Platonic philosophy as well as Alcibiades, with the possible exception of Socrates himself. Not only did Alcibiades praise Socrates, but he praised Socrates in terms that were worthy of the the man and his ideas.”
“We should not doubt that he speaks the true philosophy, then,” said the Stoic. “Difficult as it may be to hear.”
“Alcibiades,” said the Academic, “is usually made out to be an unworthy lover, but this is deeply unjust. Though drunk, he spoke the truth. He even admitted his own drunkenness, which Aristophanes could not do. And then he did something still more remarkable: he gave a clear exposition of the Ideal, and how it relates to his love for Socrates. This love for Socrates was certainly not based on physical beauty. It sprang from an inner beauty, precisely as Platonic philosophy demands. Socrates was therefore wrong to deny Alcibiades’ love, and even more wrong to favor the insipid Agathon. Seriously, can you recall a single interesting idea from his entire speech?”
“Precisely what I mean,” said the Stoic. “The only explanation I can see is that the physical act itself stands condemned, so much so that it outweighs all else, including philosophy itself. Agathon, then, gets Socrates’ love, but not his physical love. Alcibiades gets nothing — merely because he wanted the physical act. Otherwise, Socrates’ rejection is totally inexplicable, because Alcibiades was perhaps his only true equal at the symposium.”
“I think,” said the Capitalist, “that Socrates was a very bad economist.”
“Why bring up economics at a time like this?” asked the Academic.
“It is what I do, after all,” said the Capitalist. “But if Socrates was so wise, why did he not grasp the principle of diminishing marginal utility?”
“Or for that matter differential calculus?” asked the Cynic.
“Oh my,” said the Academic. “Now I fear you’re all in your cups as well.”
“Quite so,” said the Capitalist, “but hear me out. Socrates seemed to think that even the first marginal unit of a lesser-valued good becomes positively evil whenever it is in the presence of a greater-valued good. In real life, though, this is typically not the case. You may prefer one good over the other, but if you’re offered both, you’ll still usually take both. It must be proven that the one good is somehow destructive of the other before you’ll refuse them together — like the gift of a pet bird and a pet cat at the same time.
“Can love possibly be so contradictory? This seems to be what the Platonic philosophy entails. In the paradox of value, the Platonic lover is the one who, on discovering diamonds, declares that he will do entirely without water. In doing so, he robs life of much of its variety and interest, and misses the point of the paradox entirely. He also ignores Diotima’s own maxim that a lower type of love conduces to and encourages the higher ones. Why not want at least a little of something that encourages the greater good?
“Yes, yes, there are diminishing marginal returns to all goods, even love, but that doesn’t mean we must make room in our hearts only for one type. In fact, it means just the opposite — to maximize utility, or to most nearly approach the Good (as Plato would term it), we must diversify, not unify, our loves. To be a well-rounded person, you should love many things.
“Love the Good and the Just. Love ideas, and mathematics, and Forms if you will. Love earthly justice. Love music, architecture, and literature. Love science. Love beautiful souls. Love beautiful bodies, regardless of the part you play in Aristophanes’ fable. Balance them all, so that you always love, but never love immoderately. Isn’t that obviously the more flourishing life?
“In the real world, it’s simply not as if, for one love to gain, all other types must lose. That’s just the sort of zero-sum thinking that I’d like to see buried forever, if I could, and in all areas of human action.”
“Ah, but some things,” said the Cynic, “are immortal.”