Poetic Manipulations: Aristophanes’ Speech in the Symposium
By Michael O’Tool


Much of the success of Plato as a philosopher can be attributed to his ability to present philosophical reasoning and moral education in the guise of entertaining dialogues and scenarios. No other philosopher matches Plato in the ability to provide works that are as comic as they are philosophical. Yet even more significant when discussing Plato is that the philosophical rigor of his works is not compromised by the entertaining format in which they are written. His works are important to the reader in our time primarily as philosophical texts, and the validity of Plato’s reasoning must be examined just as in any other work of philosophy or literature. In a work such as the Symposium, in which the comedic aspect of the dialogue is emphasized so greatly, it becomes difficult to discuss the text in terms of its philosophical value. Indeed, there are many characteristics of the Symposium that leave the modern reader with a number of doubts and unresolved ambiguities. Not least of these difficult passages to interpret is the speech of Aristophanes, which occupies a central place in the work.

Placed as it is among the vacuous sophistry of the first few speeches and the empty rhetoric of Agathon’s speech, Aristophanes’ contribution to the discussion of love is one that is both entertaining and emotionally powerful. The emotional impact of Aristophanes’ story prompts many readers to immediately declare this piece as a masterpiece, a work of genius that brilliantly employs mythology to provide a moving explanation for human love (cf. Note 25 to the Hackett edition). But does Plato intend Aristophanes’ speech to be a poetic masterpiece, or rather is he attempting to show that poetry is not able to adequately explain a philosophical concept such as love? In order to answer this question, one must not only examine the text of the Symposium, but also consider other sources which help to elucidate the attitude which Plato held toward poetry and its relation to philosophical reasoning. Book X of the Republic details much of Plato’s views towards poetry that are informative in determining his attitude towards Aristophanes in the Symposium.

Book X of Plato’s Republic is a fairly one-sided dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon that serves as an interesting conclusion to the work. The dialogue falls into two main sections, one a discussion on why it is best for poetry not to be admitted into the ideal city, and the other a discussion on the immortality of the soul. Both sections are relevant for my interpretation of Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium, but the first topic discussed by Socrates is especially elucidative of Plato’s attitude towards poetry in relation to his theory of forms. Two philosophical conclusions on the nature of poetry are reached by Socrates in his inimitable question and answer format. The first conclusion is that poetry is a type of imitation, "concerned with something third from the truth." (602c) According to Plato’s theory of forms, it is the craftsman or hero who imitates the ideal form of an object or characteristic. The poet, who in turn imitates the object of the craftsman or the characteristic of the hero, is thus making an imitation of an imitation. This argument both disparages the worth of poetry and criticizes the skill of the poet. Poetry becomes nothing more than a distraction, taking us not closer to the ideal form but one step further from it. The poet as well is disparaged, for in making himself appear to have knowledge that he does not truly possess, he misleads those who are easily deceived by persuasive rhetoric. The second conclusion reached by Socrates is that poetry arouses certain emotions that are indicative of an "irritable disposition." (604e) The person influenced by poetry abandons rational thought, instead letting intense emotions control decisions and actions. In Plato’s vision of the ideal city, this would lead to an unstable situation, one in which intellect is replaced by emotion. According to Plato, it is philosophy, not poetry, that should be the educator of the masses, for philosophy is the only activity which contemplates the ideal forms – and thus, philosophy is the activity which comes closest to discovering the true nature of things.

In assessing Plato’s intention in the speech of Aristophanes, there are a number of factors that must be considered. The placement of the speech in relation to the others, the language and tone of Aristophanes’ remarks, and the reactions of the other characters are important in determining the significance of this speech in relation to the Symposium as a complete work. One of the greatest difficulties in interpreting the Symposium is the fact that Plato’s ideas of poetry and of love are quite different than the ideas of most modern readers. This makes it necessary for the reader to judge the relevance of the speeches based not on his or her own ideas of poetry and love, but on Plato’s own unique ideas of these concepts. Assuming that the conclusions on the nature of poetry formulated in Book X of the Republic are Plato’s own, then I believe that one is able to use these conclusions as a means of determining Plato’s intent in the speech of Aristophanes. Specifically, we should ask: is the speech of Aristophanes an example of the type of poetic imitation that is criticized in the Republic, and does this speech arouse emotions in its listeners which take the place of rational thought and should be otherwise suppressed?

It is my opinion that Aristophanes’ speech does share many characteristics with the type of poetic imitation that is criticized in the Republic. Inferring from the speech itself, as well as from the short dialogue immediately after the speech, I believe that Plato’s intent is to express the inadequacy of poetry or mythology when used to explain a philosophical concept such as love. The mythological story that Aristophanes uses to explain the human need for love is one that could only have been invented to serve the interests of his own argument. Even considering the significant role which mythology played in the lives of the ancient Greeks, the story which Aristophanes offers is in a much more fantastic and whimsical tone than much of Greek mythology. The poetic inventiveness of Aristophanes’ story is exactly the kind of deliberate manipulation that Plato criticizes in the Republic:

"... the poetic man also uses names and phrases to color each of the arts. He himself doesn't understand; but he imitates in such a way as to seem, to men whose conidtion is like his and who observe only speeches, to speak very well. He seems to do so when he speaks using meter, rhythm and harmony ... So great is the charm that these things by nature possess."--(601a-601b)

Plato’s characterization of Aristophanes as one who uses poetic manipulation to justify his arguments is further illustrated by the reaction of Erixymachus to the speech. Erixymachus is the only one of the guests present to provide his personal opinion of the speech, saying in an emphatic and simple way, "I found your speech delightful, … so I’ll do as you say." (193E) This is significant in that Erixymachus is characterized as a man of little philosophic temperament, his speech barely making sense let alone providing any intelligent observations on the nature of love. Thus by portraying Erixymachus as the only one to give praise to Aristophanes’ speech, Plato further emphasizes that the speech is not to be taken seriously as a philosophical argument. Socrates’ mock praise of Erixymachus directly after the praise of Aristophanes further emphasizes this point, by making Erixymachus appear even more ridiculous to the reader (194A).

Although Plato does highlight the inability of poetry to present a philosophically reasoned argument, nevertheless I think that there are many aspects of Aristophanes’ speech which Plato does wish to present as valid ideas. It is not so much the conclusions that Aristophanes draws in his speech that are contradictory to Plato’s own ideas, but rather it is the way in which Aristophanes justifies his conclusions that strike Plato as contrary to philosophical reasoning. It is significant that Plato, when speaking of the types of poetry to be banned from his ideal city in the Republic, gives Socrates these words:

"... only so much of poetry as is hymns to gods or celebration of good men should be admmitted into a city."--(607a)

Seeing a relationship between this passage and Aristophanes’ speech, I would say that those aspects of the speech which deal with reverence towards the god Love can be inferred as Plato’s own. Thus that part of Aristophanes’ speech that focuses on the proper praise and respect that is due to the god should not be disregarded simply because the philosophical reasoning is absent. Aristophanes ends his speech with such a praise to the god Love, which is one of the most memorable passages in the entire work:

"If we are to give due praise to the god who can give us this blessing, then, we must praise Love. Love does the best that can be done for the time being: he draws us towards what belongs to us. But for the future, Love promises the greatest hope of all: if we treat the gods with due reverence, he will restore to us our original nature, and by healing us, he will make us blessed and happy."—(193D)

Such a memorable and moving passage as this one need not be thought to contradict the views of Plato. It is not that type of poetry which Plato forbids in his Republic, for a passage such as this does not conform to Plato’s idea of a poetry that arouses harmful emotions. Rather, this poetry would raise emotions that Plato seeks to foster in the Republic, a reverence for the gods and a desire for a happy and blessed life.

The mythological story that Aristophanes uses to explain the presence and the meaning of love in our lives does not reveal the true nature of love as effectively as the philosophical inquiry of Socrates, but nevertheless it is an improvement over the previous speeches of Phaedrus, Pausanias and Erixymachus. Aristophanes’ speech is pivotal in the progression of the dialogue in the work, for he is the first speaker to inquire into the nature of love itself, rather than simply be content with explaining its effects or uses. The speech is extremely effective in clarifying the role that love plays in the lives of human beings. However, the most significant thing that is missing from Aristophanes’ speech is an adequate explanation of the nature of the ideal form of love. It is Aristophanes’ attempt to explain love through the medium of poetry that makes it impossible for him to make any valid arguments concerning the nature of love. Because the reader is left without any real consideration of the love’s true form, the speech heightens the reader’s anticipation for the speech of Socrates. Perhaps all too cruelly, Plato first makes one wade through the rhetoric of Agathon, heightening the reader’s anticipation even further until one finally hears the word from Socrates himself.

Works Cited:

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. HarperCollins Publishers, 1968.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehemas & Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989.