The Symposium and Sappho: Love is virtue; love is divine

All you need is love,” The Beatles famously sang. But what is love? And what does it mean to have it?

The ancient Greeks had some thoughts on the matter.

A Lovely Debate

Plato, in his Symposium, presents a series of views on Love, the capital ‘L’ signifying Love as the god, Eros. Now, a symposium was a Greek event where men of public standing gathered for drinking and intellectualizing. It’s kind of like an early frat party, except with a more lasting influence than its modern variants on the ideals of so-called Western Civilization.

Women were not welcome in symposia, being regarded as “common” and “irrational.” This reflects the ancient Greek patriarchal norms.

Decision-making by privileged white males tends to persist to this day. This is changing as we realize the value of diverse voices, just as chords are richer than single notes. And although women were not welcome at the proverbial table in ancient Greece, their impact on ideals of love is still felt.

Let’s get this party started

The Symposium is recounted by a narrator, Apollodorus, who is three and four times removed from the events of the story. Whether his telling has fidelity is unknown; perhaps Plato is trying to illustrate the “un-knowability” of love without seeking the truth of it in one’s self. Indeed, Apollodorus begins by chastising his companion:

“When I hear…the talk of rich businessmen like you, I get bored and feel sorry for you and your friends, because you think you’re doing something important when you’re not.”

Those sassy words turn us to thinking about Love as a higher ideal, which Plato certainly favoured. So, we turn to the party and hear a variety of speeches, which variously turn describe Love as:

  • physical, affecting social honour and ability to be courageous and happy
  • either common or divine, the latter of which excludes women and boys (Aside: we’ll leave the questions around pederasty to another day) . Goodness of character is more enduring than physical attractiveness
  • infused in everything and is all around, extending to all aspects of human and divine life
  • driven by a yearning to find one’s missing half, after the humans were cleaved from their original form by fearful gods
  • drawn to the soft and beautiful because if its innate sensitivity. It bypasses the tough, essentially presenting as a shiny perfect thing that requires neither grit nor work to achieve

In each of the orations, Love is described as other-oriented, projected on external individuals and objects. It is something to be acquired, influenced by, or completed by. They do, however, ascend in Love’s sophistication, moving from the base toward the divine, and presaging Diotima’s stepladder.

Love is a ladder

Socrates then sets the record straight, not by offering his own account, but by recounting a conversation with the priestess Diotima. Yes, Plato hacked the symposium, giving a woman the ultimate word – except that she doesn’t get to use her own voice. Socrates speaks for her, and we can only hope his recounting is accurate.

Diotima teaches Socrates that love isn’t black-and-white; there is nuance and grey area in between, and this is a good thing. Humans aren’t binary, especially in matters of the heart. Love is described as the son of a heavenly father and poor, earthly mother, bridging the divine and the human. He is not a god, but a “great spirit,” who is always poor, sleeps rough, is always in need, but who is also brave and resourceful.

Plato was writing circa 385 BC, but this sounds rather like the future Jesus Christ: human and divine by parentage; ordinary in his everyday life, compassionate and able to abide with the hurt and the suffering. He is Love. Would the New Testament writers have been influenced by this philosophical work? It seems there is a direct line between the ancient Greek philosophers and the mysteries of Jesus Christ.

Love is immortal

Plato’s potential influence on future beliefs notwithstanding, Love is shown as perfect and imperfect, rational and irrational, wealthy and poor. It has a space for us all.

Diotima suggests that highest form of Love is “acquiring good forever,” that is, achieving immortality. She surprisingly identifies reproduction as the object of love, as the nearest humans come to immortality. Yet children are not their parents, and objectifying them as such denies their own essential humanity.

Indeed, “immortality” is illusory because it serves an earthly concern, making it appear both limited and narcissistic; that is, concerned with one’s glory among humans over transcendence. Buddhism is still many years away, but surely becoming good is more worthy than acquiring good?

However “poetry,” or art, is presented as superior to procreation, and in terms of one’s inner journey this may be true. Creative practice is often predicated on a search for truth, on grappling with the uncomfortable, and of making something meaningful that outlasts our earthly form.

For Diotima, it seems, Love is a journey of shedding earthly concerns, moving ever toward the divine. Creative practice can move us through the stages. Consider:

Love of (lack, taking, objectification) becomes

Love for (selfless, giving), to simply

being Love

In realizing our divine nature, we shed our earthly concerns and, paradoxically, realize immortality. In Socrates’ telling, Love is a destination, a transcendent journey. The searching is key, and through our searching, we gift the world with our unique poetry.

Speaking of poetry

The immortality of poetry is perhaps best embodied by Sappho, fragments of whose poetry have survived against the odds for 2,500 years. Her reflections evoke an entirely different feeling of the nature of love. Evocative and visceral, and powerful in their simplicity, the fragments convey a yearning and passion familiar to the every-person.

Moon and the Pleides go down.
Midnight and tryst pass by.
I, though, lie
Alone.

Peace, you never seemed so tedious
As now – no, never quite like this.

Potent scraps such as these friendship and romance, to love requited and not. Tender and vivid depictions of nature present love and passion as most natural state of being. The connection to nature is lost on Plato, who instead seeks an intellectualized ideal, a divine removed from the messiness of life. His is something to strive for; hers is something to be in.

You give me fever

For Sappho, being in love is like being in a state. Revealing another aspect of human nature, she depicts love as illness. Consider:

That impossible predator,
Eros the Limb-Loosener,
Bitter-sweetly and afresh
Savages my flesh…

…Eros, with a stroke,
Shattered my brain.

Or,

Because my tongue is shattered. Gauzy
Flame runs radiating under
My skin; all that I see is hazy,
My ears all thunder.

Sweat comes quickly, and a shiver
Vibrates my frame. I am more sallow
Than grass and suffer such a fever
As death should follow.

Crazy, Fever, Addicted to Love, and countless other popular songs move us with their yearning, laments, lovesickness, and obsessions. These themes draw a direct line back to Sappho.

As it happens, Plato’s Alcibiades himself has got a bad case of the blues.

Back to the party

As Socrates ends his speech, Alcibiades crashes the party, drunk, jealous, and messy, literally having just missed Socrates’ point. He idolizes Socrates, and is frustrated that the great teacher takes no notice of the younger man’s physical beauty. Alcibiades contrasts with Socrates’ advanced love, while showing revealing how far most of us must journey to find Love –– if we can even first become conscious of doing so.

Alcibiades represents love as an obsession, as servile. Yet as the party breaks up, Socrates continues drinking with Alcibiades and they converse. Perhaps the master teacher impressed some wisdom on his charge. Curiously, Alcibiades is not pathologized as “irrational” or “moody,” as women too frequently are.

The beauty of virtue

Surely such acceptance is part of love. But Love as an ideal is much more. It cannot be intellectually taught, and there are no shortcuts to knowing it. It is a personal journey, an ascension toward the divine.

In Diotima’s stepladder, the physical gives way to the intellectual, which gives way to the divine, allowing for true virtue rather than an image of. But need love be intellectualized to be authentic?

While Plato’s intellectualizing and Sappho’s sensuality seem divergent, the two find common ground in “goodness,” where beauty is virtue – and virtue is beautiful. Sappho writes,

              The gorgeous man presents a gorgeous view;
              The good man will in time be gorgeous, too.

These ancient Greek writers show the timelessness and complexity of defining and experiencing Love. Love is circumstantial, personal, experiential, intellectual, divine. Love is also messy, complex, tragic, unrequited, passionate. Love makes for great love songs, and the corollary, songs of heartbreak, lament, and yearning. And, the practice of being good, striving for truth through creativity, and ceding to a power greater than ourselves are part of the process.

Goodness is lovely and loving. Love is heady and heartfelt. And, love is all you need.

One thought on “The Symposium and Sappho: Love is virtue; love is divine

  1. Pingback: Human flourishing: Aristotle on how to live your best life | Teresa Stolarskyj

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