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Plato (427-327 B.C.E.)  
 
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The Symposium

The Symposium, with its seven different speakers, gives a wide-lens perspective on the theme of love in fifth-century Athens. It is symptomatic of Greek society that these men assume that love as a serious emotion will ordinarily mean love between males. Their views should not be regarded as those of a narrow coterie: A host of other writers amply demonstrate that much of what they say was common coin not just in Athens but throughout the Greek world.

The dialogue is organized not as a debate, but as a series of panegyrics on love. The first speaker, Phaedrus, is naively enthusiastic and routinely utters the clichés of popular opinion. Love is inspirational: As an incentive to honorable conduct, it is a more potent force than family, social position, or wealth. It encourages bravery in war since no lover would want to disgrace himself in his lover's eyes by running away in battle.

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Here Phaedrus makes his famous boast that "an army of lovers" might defeat the whole world. We may note that what gave love its prestige in the Hellenic world was the idea that lovers would, on occasion, sacrifice their lives for one another. This is the crucial idea that was to remain central to discussions of love among Greeks throughout antiquity.

Lovers who were comrades in battle or allies in opposing political oppression were regarded as most likely to manifest this supreme virtue. These had perforcedly to be men. On this account, Phaedrus downgrades the love of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Romeo and Juliet of classical mythology. He gives as his reason that Orpheus does not die for his bride, but sneaks into Hades alive; moreover, as a musician, he does not measure up to the masculine ideals of a military society.

Nevertheless, Alcestis, who was willing to die for her husband Admetus, demonstrates that on occasion women are capable of love in its most heroic form. But the great exemplar of this tradition is Achilles, who died to avenge Patroclus.

During his speech, Phaedrus leaves us in the dark about whether he is speaking of "Platonic" love or consummated affairs, though a reference to Aeschylus' play shows that he was familiar with the view that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers in the physical sense. (The only objection Phaedrus has to the Myrmidons is that Aeschylus made Achilles the erastes, or lover, whereas in Homer, he is the more beautiful of the two men, and therefore more eligible for the role of eromenos, or beloved.)

Pausanias, the next speaker, tackles the ethical question that Phaedrus had ignored. He does this by introducing a famous distinction that has haunted Western moral thought for more than two thousand years: the distinction between "higher" and "lower" forms of love. To this end, he has recourse to an inconsistency in Greek mythology.

Traditional myths had two different accounts of the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In one, she was the daughter of Uranus (whose name meant "Heaven"), sprung from the foam when his son Cronos castrated him and threw his member into the sea. In the other, she was the daughter of Cronos' son Zeus by the Titaness Dione.

Pausanias connects these myths with the fact that Aphrodite was also worshipped under different names--Aphrodite Urania (the "Heavenly" Aphrodite, daughter of Uranus) and Aphrodite Pandemos (the "Common," that is, promiscuous, Aphrodite). The second kind of love is purely physical and includes the desire for women as well as boys.

The higher love, on the other hand, has an ideal, spiritual component and is directed only to young men who are beginning to develop beards and intellect. In making this claim, Pausanias was going directly against popular Greek opinion that held that boys were suitable love objects only until their beards grew since they then lost their feminine beauty.

Pausanias counters this widespread prejudice with an appeal to the moral ideal of fidelity since only those who love mature males will be capable of forming lasting attachments that will endure throughout a lifetime. (At the time of the Symposium, Pausanias' affair with Agathon, the host at the banquet, had lasted at least a decade.)

So far it is not apparent whether Pausanias' higher love involves a sexual element. He clarifies this point in the second part of his speech when he looks at the subject geographically. In Thebes, Elis, and Sparta, he claims, there is no restraint on physical relations, and youths may freely gratify their lovers.

In Asiatic Ionia, on the other hand, the absolute rule of the Persians discourages love affairs among their Greek subjects since such relations might lead to political revolt. (To establish this, Pausanias invokes the examples of the Athenian tyrannicides, Aristogiton and Harmodius.)

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