Homoeroticism in Plato’s ‘Symposium’

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A time honored classic, Symposium represents almost everything we know about ancient love and can be adapted to the principles of modern day love as well. For those unfamiliar with Symposium, Plato recounts a dinner party held between lively scholars, culminating around one central question: What is love?

Though the Symposium mostly serves as a philosophical discussion on the ethics of love and desire, it can also be used to analyze the ways in which Ancient Greece regarded homosexuality. Often, Greece, with Athens at its core, is remembered to have been ostensibly friendly towards homosexuality, as it was so common during that time period. Though this isn’t distinctly the case, it is true that they did have an acutely different atmosphere regarding such relationships compared with now. Homoeroticism in Athens was considered natural, albeit unsuitable, especially among the gentry.

It is best that any reader take what these scholars said not as the truth, but as something that was considered truthful at that point in time. Almost every one of the speeches in Symposium discusses love between man and man more than it does man and woman, the reason for this being that women were so intellectually oppressed at the time that it wasn’t even considered they could have feelings or love like men could.

For example, Pausianas, a Greek geographer and Agathon’s lover, discusses the duality of the god of love. He claimed that there are two kinds of love: celestial and common. Briefly, he proposed that common love was part woman and part man, and applicable only to the attraction felt for someone’s appearance. Celestial love, he claimed, was only for men, because it revolved around a kind of knowledge that women would never possess — knowledge of the heart, and of the self. A modern reader can certainly find his claims to be ridiculous because we know that all genders are equal.

Furthermore, a telling aspect of the respect — if you can call it that — that Greeks had for homosexuality can be found in Aristophanes’ speech when he says, “And women who are offcuts from the female gender aren’t paticularily interested in men; they incline more towards women … and any men who are offcuts from the male gender go for men.” Aristophanes’ speech revolves around the concept of soulmates, where he claims Zeus had fused two people together and split them apart. This opinion is particularly nuanced, accepting the existence of lesbians as well as gay men.

No matter if you’ve read the Symposium, want to read it, or never plan to read it at all, we should perhaps borrow some of the philosophies that Plato recorded in matters of acceptance towards the complex spectrum that is sexuality. Gender is but a barrier created by our society. Stop considering love as a notion that only exists for two people of differing sexes, rather, something that “is present in everything that exists.” Because, if love is as fluid as Agathon suggests — “good evidence for the compatibility and fluidity of his form is provided by his grace,” — shouldn’t humanity’s concept of sexuality be fluid as well?