by Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, PhD
3. Eros Across Time and Space
In Antiquity, Eros was imagined as a deity, and this deity was envisioned in a number of correlated ways. Most of these are rehearsed in Plato’s dialog dedicated to Eros, The Banquet, or Symposium. The background for this dialog is an Athenian practice of love known as pederasty, whereby, in a two-month retreat, an adult man initiates a young man into the arts of loving. Participants in the banquet, Athenian men of various age groups, are invited to commend Eros. Their interpretations correspond to a range of perspectives on love still held today. Phaedrus describes Eros as one of the oldest gods, also known as Titans, because they represented forces of nature whose power was sovereign over human life. This interpretation assumes that Eros is a cosmic force. As a natural element, Eros is similar to other Titans: Aeolus for the winds, Uranus for the sky, Cronus for time, and Gea, or Gaia, for the Earth.
Other participants in the all-male banquet include the legal expert Pausanias, Socrates’s youthful and handsome disciple Agathon, the physician Eryximachus, the playwright Aristophanes, the philosopher Socrates, and young Alcibiades, another disciple of Socrates who arrives drunk. Pausanias’s interpretation associates Eros with Aphrodite since he was sometimes seen as her son. He brings up Aphrodite’s spiritual and erotic aspects, claiming that a balance of both is advisable. Agathon describes Eros as a youthful and handsome god, which tends to associate love with the effervescence of youth and the process of reproduction. Aristophanes associates Eros with the durability and uniqueness implied in the construct of “the other half.” Legend has it that ancient humans had two faces, four legs and four arms. They were of three kinds: male, female, and male/female. Zeus cut them in halves because they were too arrogant. Eros is the force that attracts the two severed halves to one another: to form durable, self-contained couples made of two men, two women, or a woman and a man. This interpretation appreciates the value of monogamy and same-gender love in a way that could be used by today’s advocates of gay marriage equality. The more holistic Eryximachus associates Eros with the state of health in one’s life: medicine, music, and astronomy are love’s allies, provided they are well practiced.
Socrates’s turn eventually comes, and, as is typical of Plato’s dialogs, he recaps the inconsistencies of others and provides a more comprehensive interpretation. The philosopher invokes the wisdom of another philosopher, Diotima, a woman who answered his questions when asked. “Eros,” Diotima claimed, “is neither young nor old.” The lesson reads, as Socrates continues to explain to the others, that he is a mediator between the desirer and the desired, the human and the divine, the young and the old, the beautiful and the ugly. He is the force that guides humans towards the beautiful, which inspires humans to desire knowledge, and therefore coincides with the good. This union of good and beautiful is what one wants to keep forever, Socrates reports, as he refers back to Aristophanes’s appreciation for same-gender love. The question arises: how do same-gender and other-gender unions last in time? The union of men and women produces descendants. The union of men and men is of a more elevated character because it produces ideas and philosophical dialogs. The explanation of why Diotima forgot the union of women and women never comes. Yet, Alcibiades, who is drunk, undermines the teacher’s argument by claiming that it’s the body of his disciples that Socrates desires, not their mind. Socrates replies that Alcibiades is jealous of Agathon. This exchange refers to the construct that under the effect of wine and other Aphrodisiacs, humans can become more honest with themselves about their desires.
The Symposium anticipates the mind/body split that’s part of Plato’s philosophy and the post-classical era so eagerly picked up. Notably, the union of women and women is not mentioned in the lesson that concludes the dialog. This epistemological deficiency is correlative to the absence of women in flesh and bones from such dialogs. From female philosophers and teachers of the time, including Sappho, we know that the union of women and women was very fertile. The Thaisoi of ancient Lydia specialized in the education of young women. There this union produced ideas, poems, music, and art; and, most of all, a philosophy that advocates the freedom to love for people of both genders. Women educated in the arts of love became aware that one finds beauty in whatever one loves. As disciples of Sappho, young women learned to admire Helen’s practice of freedom in choosing a partner. They experienced love as a vibration that encompasses the whole being. And allowed love to last in one’s heart though memory, poetry, music, and nostalgia.
Eros became Cupid when the Romans became Hellenized enough to adopt Greek deities, and adapt them to their mentality. Cupid is often represented as a winged putto whose arrows convey the Roman rhetoric that love is a form of conquest: a rhetoric the poet Ovid ironically adopts in his manual, The Art of Love. While Eros is envisioned as an energy, a vibration, a force that connects those in love, Cupid is more materially-oriented and practical. Eventually, he becomes coupled with cupidity, or the desire to acquire unnecessary riches and capital. In another legend, Eros/Cupid falls in love with Psyche and marries her. Paganism in the Roman Empire was not conducive of sacred eroticism because cynicism prevailed and pleasure was not experienced as a path to enlightenment. When Christianity became institutionalized, the divorce of the sacred and the sexual became final. The new institution was held together by the myth of a sacred conception without deflowering. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception de-eroticized the feminine and exiled women who enjoy lovemaking from the realm of the divine.
To be continued . . . come back next week, same time.
Sending much love and all good wishes to all of you and your loved ones. Thanks you for listening and opening up. Stay tuned for more coming. With all good wishes for a happy spring and summer. Thank you!