In Plato’s The Symposium, Socrates and a handful of others after attending a dinner party decide to give a panegyric to Love (that is, to give speeches on the excellence of the god of Love). Several of the examples in this dialogue relate to homosexual-type love, men and young boys; however, the ultimate stated goal is not to seek these relationships for physical desires but to ascend beyond these desires to reach the highest goal of understanding ultimate beauty and goodness.
Phaedrus begins and notes that Love is one of the the oldest gods, and if all were moved by his power, society would be great because the lover always takes care of the beloved. Pausanias then makes a distinction between two Loves that are joined with the two Aphrodites (Heavenly A. and Common A.). The common Love cares only for meeting bodily desires, while the Heavenly Love searches for the excellence of the soul. So relationships with boys are okay if they are for the mutual attainment of excellence and not just from physical desire or greed. Next, Eryximachus, a doctor, speaks of love being the source of harmony in life, whether in a healthy body (balance of the elements–hot-cold, wet-dry, etc.) or music (balance of the notes) or other.
Aristophanes then gives the background of why people are attracted to one another. At the creation of humanity there were 3 types of people–males, females and hermaphrodites. They were circular in form with double the amount of appendages of current humans, having 4 legs, 4 arms, 2 heads, etc. These beings made the gods angry so Zeus decided to split them in half, with the belly button being where the extra skin was sown together. The males were made two males, the females, two females, and the hermaphrodites a male and female. As such they longed to be joined together again. The male-males became homosexuals, the female-females became lesbians, and the hermaphrodites became heterosexual. There is a comment regarding attraction to young boys that seems to make the male-males at the top of those three groups. Those who form life-long partnerships are those that have found their other half, and they desire nothing but to become again and remain one flesh in this life and in the next.
Agathon, a poet and the host of the party, speaks next about the nature of Love then his gifts. Rather than being ancient, Love is of the youngest gods because he rests so easily on the young flees before old age. Agathon goes on to explain Love’s sensitivity, suppleness, goodness, self-control, courage, and beauty. He is the source of all kinship and relationship.
Socrates chides the others for attributing everything good to love whether it applies or not. He then takes Agathon through a quick dialogue to develop these points: Love exists only in relation to some object (e.g., “Father” to child) and that the object must be something of which he is a present lacking. He then applies it against Agathon who said Love loves beauty and goodness. For if Love loves something then he lacks it, so Love lacks beauty and goodness. This being so Love cannot be a god because all gods possess these traits. Accordingly, love is a spirit half-god and half-man, who serves as an intermediary between gods and men. He was begotten as the son of Poverty and Contrivance on Aphrodite’s birthday. From Poverty he is lacking, but from Contrivance he is always seeking. One must not confuse Love with Love’s object.
The only object of men’s love is what is good (because they do not truly desire what is harmful to themselves). Accordingly, love is the desire for perpetual (therefore, immortal) possession of the good. The function of this love is procreation in what is beautiful, whether physical or spiritual. When procreating one touches on divine beauty and is endowed with a touch of immortality. (E.g., animals protect their procreation because the young are their piece of immortality.) Immortal spiritual children are the work of the wise (e.g., Homer’s poetry).
The process of attaining to the highest goal is this: start observing beauty from the sensible world and use these examples as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim–from physical beauty to moral beauty to beauty of knowledge to supreme knowledge of absolute beauty. Young boys seem to be the model of physical beauty so focus first upon them to find the step to moral beauty. If men find ecstasy in mere reflections of beauty in gold or boys, how much more in beauty itself. He concludes his speech with this: “Do you think that it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself.” (212c ff.)
Alcibiades comes late to the party, already drunk, and will not speak about love but only about Socrates, but really he is explaining his desire for Socrates. He tells of how Socrates’ orations enrapture him and of Socrates’ high character. He then tells of how he tried to engage Socrates in (what seems to me) a homosexual relationship, but was rebuffed at each step by Socrates. [It seems that this desire is a foil for the true enlightened relationship that Socrates sees as proper.] He also notes several of Socrates’ exploits in battles.
Since this is partially in narrative form it is a little hard to know what Plato wants us to do with the speeches before Socrates, but after talking to a friend here that’s been working through these texts, he commented that we should use the advice of Socrates to understand the ones before him. That is, consider the lower, incomplete forms of love, beauty, and goodness and use those as stepping stones for higher understanding. So the earlier discussions give us ideas about the nature of love and relationships although they are not wholly complete or accurate. I’m exactly sure what to do with the spheroid people who are divided up, but it is an interesting insight into sexual preference.
Ultimately, the goal my professor had in having us read this was to capture Plato’s concern with how people are to ascend above this world to the absolute. It is through consideration of those things that have the absolute within them and to ascend your thoughts ever higher to the untainted vision of beauty. I can see how later theologians took to this model of understanding. I believe it is quite common in the Greek tradition.