In Plato’s classic text Symposium, a group of notable men attending a banquet exchange speeches on different topics. One of the most notable of them is about love, and the origin of man, which we will take a look at in this post.
The quotes in this post were part of Aristophanes‘ speech, and are fascinating because they give us a look at issues of human sexuality, duality, and man’s relationship with God(s). It can also be thought of as a parable about what God does when man gets too cocky, and how man is taught lessons.
In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.
There was a time in the past where humans were much more than they are now – different in both form and movement, where a “third sex” existed that was the union of male and female. The form of the body was drastically different and facilitated great speed.
Symbolically, this union seems to represent a sort of ideal of human existence. To have the powers & strengths of both the feminine and the masculine would quite make a person “rounded” in the way the body is described here. With two faces, such a human could observe anything in any direction and perceive much more about the world. The use of the phrase “double nature” implies that this kind of human does not embody any duality, but is simply one with itself.
Also important to notice here is that at the time these unified beings existed, there was still man and woman. As we’ll see in a moment, the gods who will have to contend with this situation themselves embodied men and women in their personages.
Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three;-and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.
These unified humans were so powerful they even rose to being a potential threat to the gods. The gods were in a conundrum: kill them and lose the sacrifices they gave, or “suffer their insolence” which the gods simply could not do. It was important that man be beneath the gods in terms of power & ability, and abilities which might facilitate man challenging the gods were not good for either man or the gods.
The more powerful man is, the more he assumes himself capable of. Aristophanes notes that “the thoughts of their heart were great”, meaning that man was not wicked, but man was emboldened by his power. This is definitely a recognizable human quality: getting cocky, and drunk with power.
It is interesting here that originally, woman was of the earth. Much later in most cultures, woman was associated with the moon and indeed Greek mythology has numerous goddesses associated with the moon.
At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.” He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however, in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state. After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, being the sections of entire men or women, and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.
Here is the story of the gods forming the present state of the human body, and how it was made out of the previous united state. The most notable parts here for me are that the face was placed so that man could only contemplate a part of himself and thus “learn humility” – through his incomplete knowledge of himself. And second that the division invented in a man a strong drive towards his other part. The orientation of the genitals & the sexual drive was necessary to prevent the race from dying off, as they would otherwise simply embrace until they died of hunger and self-neglect.
Separated man and woman is far less cocky: they must spend a great deal of their time just trying to reproduce, and to learn more about the world around them given how severely their vision had been restricted. Far more difficult to challenge the gods if you are concerned with this sort of thing day to day.
In short: humans have been put in their place, and no longer represent a threat to the gods.
Longing for the Other Half
Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saving. When they reach manhood they are loves of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children,-if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him. And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side, by side and to say to them, “What do you people 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 to be in one another’s company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you 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.
Plato describes the origin of homosexuality & heterosexuality with this, as well as explaining what it means to be androgynous; and how it relates back to the the desire for union with the other half. It is not strictly about sexuality, and for the most part it is only the gods that know that the true longing is for reunion with the other half.
Now we see that the separation created by the gods, which seems to have so limited man, also bestowed a gift: love, and the satisfaction that comes from rejoining. A duality has been formed, and there is a definite kind of delight in the balance formed by that duality, as opposed to what you might consider the emptiness of the previous lack of duality.
But my words have a wider application-they include men and women everywhere; and I believe that if our loves were perfectly accomplished, and each one returning to his primeval nature had his original true love, then our race would be happy. And if this would be best of all, the best in the next degree and under present circumstances must be the nearest approach to such an union; and that will be the attainment of a congenial love. Wherefore, if we would praise him who has given to us the benefit, we must praise the god Love, who is our greatest benefactor, both leading us in this life back to our own nature, and giving us high hopes for the future, for he promises that if we are pious, he will restore us to our original state, and heal us and make us happy and blessed.
The perfect conclusion to any story about duality is the search for reunion: the striving for it. Aristophanes speaks of “perfect accomplishment” of love, which we can be fairly certain probably does not exist, but represents an excellent aim to pursue, even if it cannot be obtained. Much like formation of a perfect ashlar – this journey to get there is something that we derive great benefit and hope from.
- Symposium by Plato, Internet Classics Archive