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The Convoluted Underpinnings of Plato's Symposium

Thursday, October 21, 2021 - 12:02

This chapter divides nicely for blogging into the four main topics: Plato’s Symposium, Plato’s Laws, the presence and absense of specific erotic motifs in different kinds of material, and f/f erotics in humorous literature. We really see the power of a work of this depth in how it can tease out meaning by extensive comparison among themes and sources.

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Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 2a: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Plato’s Symposium

One of the more intriguing classical Greek texts that includes f/f erotics is the mythological narrative included in Plato’s Symposium about divided beings and eros being “seeking one’s other half.” Following Boehriner’s standard approach, she begins by examining the historic and literary context of the work and discussing what the purpose of the passage is within that larger context. While the Symposium is presented as a conversation between actual historic figures (contemporaries of Socrates, the nominal host of the titular symposium), and while it is presented as occurring in the context of an actual historic event (a symposium to celebrate the literary achievement of one of the participants), it is vital to understand that not only are the speeches and dialogues in the Symposium not an attempt to transcribe actual conversations, they are not even necessarily intended to represent the actual ideas and opinions of the figures to whom they are attributed. Rather, this is a formal “set piece” in which the fictionalized participants represent character types, presenting a carefully designed sequence of formal speeches of a particular genre intended to build to the author’s (Plato’s desired goals and conclusions). (Keeping in mind that Plato is not one of the fictionalized participants.) Within this context, it is important to realize that the “other half myth” should not be understood as a literal philosophical position (even apart from it being a “myth”) belonging either to Aristophanes (the fictionalized character in whose mouth it is put), or to Artistotle (the fictionalized host of the event in which it is presented ), or to Plato (the author of the text of the Symposium). Rather it is a rhetorical creation intended to serve a functional purpose within the work as a whole.

The participants have been instructed/created to present speeches on the nature of eros. There is a discussion of how to understand the meaning of eros within this particular historic context, with a suggestion that it should be understood, not so much as “love” but more as “appetite, a temporary state of desiring physical fulfillment that goes away when satiated.” Several of the fictional participants make their presentations on the topic, following the formal structures of the genre, then the participant identified as Aristophanes breaks the flow of the format by telling an “origin myth” for the nature of gender and sex, which includes a recognition of f/f couples alongside m/f and m/m couples.

In Boehringer’s analysis, the Aristophanes-text is designed as a precursor and contrast to the presentation of the Socrates-character (which is presented as a reporting of the views of the priestess Diotima). Prior presentations focused on eros operating within the sexual sphere. While the Socrates/Diotima presentation views eros as the force that inspires people to move from satisfying physical appetites (such as sex) to satisfying the appetite with abstract, elevated virtues, the Aristophanes presentation takes something of a bridging middle ground, viewing eros as a driving force where unification/closeness is the goal and sex is only one path to that goal.

The myth itself can be summed up roughly as follows. In their primordial state, human beings were spherical creatures with four legs, four arms, and two faces. They came in three types: male, female, and hermaphrodite. Because the humans made Zeus mad, he punished them by slicing them all in half. Each half (now having 2 legs, 2 arms, and 1 face) wanted nothing more than to be reunited with their other half. But this reunion—locking the pairs in tight embrace—resulted in them being unable to do anything else, so they began to die of hunger and inactivity. To remedy this, Zeus moved their genitals to the front of their bodies so that they could satisfy the desire/appetite/eros for reunion via sexual activity and yet be productive and healthy beings. Each half-human longs for reunification with a being that represents their original “other half”, the half-male beings longing for another male, the half-female beings for another female, and the half-hermaphrodite beings longing for another half-hermaphrodite of the corresponding opposite sex.

Rather than being a serious and sincere philosophical theory, this should be understood as a somewhat humorous treatment of a view representing (but not necessarily reflecting) an “ordinary populace” view of eros. But while the presentation is comical, it also contrasts with the previous presentations on eros in that it treats sexual desire and gratification, not as the central driving feature of eros, but as something of a “make do” substitution for the actual goal of physical reunification. Sex, then, is something the split-humans use to give them the intimacy needed to continue living and to be productive social beings. It is not the eros-as-appetite that disappears once satisfied (or remains eternally unsatisfied). But neither is it the force described by Aristotle/Diotima that continuously pushes humans to reach for ever more abstract and elevated satisfactions.

Boehringer walks the reader through the various stages of this mythic event and the consequences at each stage for erotic categories and motivations. The feature that is most often fastened on by later analysis is how the myth sets up m/f, m/m, and f/f couples as equivalent and “natural”, depending on the nature of the original primordial being they descend from. But another feature, at the step-by-step level of analysis is a distinction of gender categories and physiological-sex categories, for at the stage after the split but before Zeus provided genitals, the longing to reunite was defined by the nature of the original primordial being but not by the presence of a specific type of sexual organ. Nor can one determine a half-being’s sex/gender based on the sex/gender of the being it desires, as all combinations exist. Once genitals are included in the mix, then the consequences of sexual union are differentiated: procreation for m/f pairs, the ability to return to one’s creative endeavors for m/m pairs, while f/f pairs are overlooked in this part of the myth. (Note: the logistics of how m/m beings and f/f beings give rise to descendants of the same nature is also overlooked in the myth.) Some of these logical consequences and contradictions are discussed.

Boehringer presents a fascinatingly detailed diagram showing the category relationships of the “primordial humans” and the “current humans” with regard to sex/gender and the hierarchical evaluation of the consequences for sexual and social behavior in the resulting state. Within this hierarchy, men resulting from m/m beings are the “most manly” and eros drives them to active lives and politics. Men and women deriving from m/f beings are driven to marriage and procreation. While women deriving from f/f beings are omitted from consideration, for the most part.

With regard to categorization, Boehringer points out that the myth begins with three types of beings (mm, ff, and mf), then produces two sexes (men and women), but belonging to three types of erotic categories (m/m, f/f, and m/f). Within this system, there is no concept of “same-sex vs opposite-sex” as categories, nor are there categories defined by “attraction to women / attraction to men” or by “attraction felt by women / attraction felt by men”. Nor is there, in essence, a clear category difference between “men” and “women” as the beings derived from primordial mf beings are treated more similarly to each other than they are to beings derived from mm or ff beings respectively.

The discussion now moves to a specific consideration of where the beings descended from primordial ff beings fit into the scheme of things. In comparison to the descriptions of the state of things for former mf and former mm beings, there is only a brief description of the state of former ff beings: “Women who are split from a woman [i.e., a primordial ff being], however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and hetairistriai come from this class.”

Despite its brevity, this description still exists in parallel with descriptions of the other two categories. It contains a specification of origin (the primordial category), a declaration of desire, mention of a subgroup displaying a particular sexual behavior associated with excess (e.g., “adultery” for the former mf beings). With regard to desire, MF beings produce “men who seek women” and “women who seek men”, mm beings produce “men who seek men”, but the ff category is the only described by negation: “[they] pay no attention at all to men” only then noting that they are “oriented more towards women.” This description seems intended to operate from an assumption that the present (i.e., post-split) assumptions about “natural” behavior must be taken into account. By default, women are assumed to seek men, and if this isn’t the case it must specifically be noted.

But the Greek text has another distinction between these descriptions. Former mf beings “love” (philein) each other, using the verb that carries a meaning of long-term affection and attachment. Former mm beings “diokein” each other, using a verb that carries sexual implications. But former ff beings are the subjects of an external force; they “have been turned” toward each other. (Recall that the overall theme of the Symposium is “eros”, so there is an underlying implication that these are all forms of eros in some sense.)

Each of the three categories includes a statement defining a subgroup of the class that stands out in some way. For the former fm beings, these are “moixoi” (m) and “moixeutriai” (f) which, from other contexts, we know refer to adultery or other forms of illicit sex. Former mm beings, it is suggested, may be “anaisxyntoi” (shameless men), a word attested elsewhere. But former ff beings may be “hetairistriai”—a word uniq ue in the classical Greek corpus.

Boehringer spends a couple of pages delving into the linguistic context of this word. In brief, it is a double-derivative of the root “hetaira” which, in a literal sense, is part of a gendered pair of nouns hetairos/hetaira meaning “(male/female) friend, companion” (though of course the feminine version developed a contextual meaning of “a courtesan, a mistress”). There is a case to be made that Plato invented the word “hetairistriai,” playing off of the reputation Aristophanes had for linguistic invention. The “courtesan” sense of hetaira occurs only in the context of women’s relations with men. The masculine hetairos only ever appears in the neutral sense of “friend, companion.” But the related verb “hetairein” occurs in the classical period only in the sense of male prostitution. So one can’t use a preponderance of the evidence to try to triangulate on the meaning of hetairistriai. Does it carry a sense of sex work? Or a neutral sense of companionship?

The parallelism in the descriptions of the three erotic categories make it clear that not all women-desiring-women are hetairistriai, just as not all male/female pairs are adulterous. So regardless of any further nuances of meaning, hetairistria is not categorically mean “homosexual woman”, even though later authors interpreted it in that sense. The implication from the parallelism is that a hetairistria is a woman who experiences desire for a woman that goes beyond the accepted norms of behavior.

Another point where parallelism is incomplete is in the internal structure of the erotic category. The category of former mf beings is divided into “men” and “women”. The category of former mm beings is divided into “paiderastes” and “philerastes” (lovers of boys, lovers of men) with an assumed age differentiation between the couple. But there is no differentiation within the category of former ff beings, neither of age nor of active/passive, nor of masculine/feminine. Thus, if we follow the logical structure of this set of descriptions, there is a space for a category that is undifferentiated “women who desire women” which is not viewed as outside socially accepted expectations. This category cannot be merged with former mm beings into a category of “homosexuals”, nor can it be merged with female former mf beings in a category of “women”.

Having described and cataloged the concept of “women who love women” within this origin myth explaining the power of eros, the question remains how this category had relevance to the overall philosophical program that Plato conceived in the Symposium. The mythological explanation attributed to Aristophanes is not a descriptive exposition of the state of erotic relations in contemporary Athenian society. There are a number of gaps and misalignments, particularly with regard to m/m relations, but also in regard to its unrealistic depiction of former mf beings as equivalent in nature. The attribution of this presentation to Aristophanes also misaligns in essential points with the content and attitudes of the plays of the real-life author of that name. (For example, none of his plays make any reference to the possibility of sex between women, although sexual humor is a continuing thread in his work.) Boehringer suggests that the purpose of the fictional-Aristophanes is to “set up” the improved, pure vision of eros put into the mouth of fictional-Socrates, where eros becomes divorced from the goal of sexual union and independent of biological sex. The world picture presented by fictional-Aristophanes (and thus by the authorial-Plato) cannot escape the realities and hierarchical judgments of contemporary society (thus clearly identifying a hierarchy of “goodness” among the three erotic categories). Relations between women must be mentioned for completeness’ sake, but are the most distant of the categories from anything of relevance to the social life of Athenian men—the only category of genuine importance to Plato. But this very disinterest in the importance of the category of women-loving-women makes significant the fact that it is accounted for at all, and treated in a neutral fashion.

From all this, Boehringer’s conclusion is that—despite its distance from everyday real life—the origin myth put into the mouth of fictional-Aristophanes reflects an everyday social reality in 4th century Athens regarding the existence of female homoerotic relations, the distinctiveness of this group as a category from other gender/sexuality categories, and the probable reality of the homogeneity of the category, in contrast to male homoerotic relations.

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