Plato’s Redemption

A precursor to anyone that is new to my blog, I had a personal beef with Plato earlier this spring, and you can read more on that here.  However, with this post I’m here to admit that my displeasure with Plato was ill placed, and this is his redemption.

The Symposium, written by Plato between 385 and 370 BC, was focused upon the purpose and nature of love, and is the origin of the idea of Platonic love.  Within The Symposium, love is discussed in a set of eight speeches, by some of the greatest philosophers of the time, Socrates included.  One of the eight speeches contained within, was by the Father of Comedy, Aristophanes, who warns the following before going into his speech itself:


“You are right, said Aristophanes, laughing. I will unsay my words; but do you please not to watch me, as I fear that in the speech which I am about to make, instead of others laughing with me, which is to the manner born of our muse and would be all the better, I shall only be laughed at by them.”  Aristophanes himself is basically warning the group that his speech may be more ludicrous than humorous.

In due time, he launches into an explanation describing how people who have found their lover, soul mate, life partner; what have you, feel whole and why they in fact feel whole.

With that introduction, I want to hand it over to Jad and Robert from Radiolab, where I heard this beautiful rendition of Aristophanes speech.  I’ve also quoted Robert’s interpretation below, so if you can’t listen or want to read along, you can.

“Once upon a time, he says, people were not born separate from each other. They were born entwined, kinda coupled with each other. So there were boys attached to boys, and there were girls attached to girls, and of course, boys and girls together in a wonderfully intimate ball.  And back then we had eight limbs. There were four on top,  four on the bottom, and you didn’t have to walk if you didn’t want to. You could roll, and roll we did. We rolled backwards and we rolled forwards, achieving fantastic speeds that gave us a kind of courage.

And then the courage swelled to pride.

And the pride became arrogance.

And then we decided that we were greater than the gods and we tried to roll up to heaven and take over heaven.  And the gods alarmed, struck back!  And Zeus, in his fury, hurled down lightning bolts and struck everyone in two, into perfect halves. So all of a sudden, couples who had been warm and tight and wedged together; were now detached, and alone, and lost, and desperate, and losing the will to live.

And the gods see what they had done, worried that humans might not survive or even multiply again. And of course, they needed humans to give sacrifices and to pay attention to them, so the gods decided on a few repairs. Instead of heads facing backwards, or out, they would rotate our heads back to forward. They pulled our skin taut and knotted it right here at the belly button. Genitalia too, were moved to the front, so if we wanted to, you know, we could.

And most important, they left us with a memory.  It was a longing for that original other half of ourselves –the boy or the girl who used to make us whole.  And that longing is still so deep in all of us, men for men, women for women, men for women, for each other, that it has been the lot of humans, ever since, to travel the world, looking for our other half.  And when, says Aristophanes, when one of us meets another, we recognize each other right away. We just know this. We’re lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. We won’t get out of each others sight, even for a moment.  These are people, he says, who pass their whole lives together, and yet if you ask them, they could not explain what they desire of each other.

They just do.”

The beauty of Robert’s interpretation sent chills down my spine when I first heard it, and I listened over and over again, and have been contemplating his rendition compared to Aristophanes version since.

One of the fundamental human needs is affection.  An intimate, respectful, and private affection; we all long for it.  From the moment that we’re born, we look for affection.  At first, the parental affection, then the middle school infatuation; to the first loves and so on.  Some spend their lives searching for their other half, some find them early on in life, and some find them and are whisked away from it for multitudes of reasons.

But one thing to remember, is that when you find your other half, that one with the four other arms, your perfect halved sphere; you’ll do anything and everything to preserve that.  You will have highs and lows, happiness and occasional sadness; which will foster a sense of respect, intimacy, and love.  And, if you’re one of those who’s asked what your partner and yourself desire; you won’t have to explain it to anyone, because deep down, you know that you just do.

Authors note:

Should you want to read The Symposium, there is a copy available from MIT, located here.  Or, an audiobook can be found available on LibriVox.


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