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The ancient Greeks’ wisdom regarding sexual orientation

As history unfolds, people tend to regard earlier eras as being surpassed in practically all areas of cultural activity, the most obvious one being technology — “progress” regarding which, incidentally, seems to me to be proportional to retrogression in other spheres of culture, specifically self-understanding: the more gadgets there are to be fascinated by, the less human beings reflect upon, and gain a comprehension of, themselves as human beings (a topic for another post).

The area of human existence that I am thinking of here, however, is sexuality, more particularly the different genders or sexual orientations of discrete individuals. I know the debate about whether you are a heterosexual woman or man, or a homosexual woman or man, or a bisexual person, is as old as the hills, and usually boils down to the “nature” (today: genetics) versus “nurture” (cultural influence) debate, where religion is one of the strong cultural influences in question. The strange thing is that the ancient Greeks and Romans were far more “enlightened” about this (in particular about the difference between hetero- and homosexuality) than people are today — something that came across graphically in the recent television series, Spartacus, where the producers had done their historical research fairly thoroughly.

While chatting to some architecture students the other day, I had cause to relate to them an ancient Greek narrative about the origin of eros — erotic love, as opposed to philia (friendship) and agapé (divine or godly love). The story in question is told by Plato in his dialogue, The Symposium, and he puts it in the mouth of the Greek comedic playwright, Aristophanes, who was one of the participant-characters in this fictional account of a Greek drinking party (what a symposium originally was) dedicated to the philosophical discussion of a chosen topic, in this case eros or love.

I don’t have the space to dwell on every participant’s contribution to this debate (Socrates’s being highly significant, because it represents Plato’s own view). Aristophanes’ account is most pertinent to the question concerning the grounds of one’s sexual orientation, however, in addition to explaining many widespread popular myths about the nature of love between people (such as the belief, pervasive in religion and pop music, for instance, that “love will make you whole”, where the precise nature of such putative “wholeness” is usually conveniently ignored).

The answer that Aristophanes (in The Symposium) gives to the question, what love is and where it comes from, is more or less as follows. In the beginning, he said, human beings were not, as they are now, two-legged, two-armed and one-faced beings — each was double that. In other words, imagine two people standing back to back — every human being was like that, but in some cases the composite being consisted of one half that was masculine and the other half feminine, while in other cases the two halves were of the same sex, either two masculine halves joined into one, or two feminine halves fused in this way.

These beings were immensely strong, according to Plato’s Aristophanes, and moved fast by rolling in cartwheel-fashion where they wanted to go. Then — and this is a shrewd insight into human “nature”, which has still not changed — they got to the point where they were so enamoured of their own strength that they decided to scale the slopes of Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods lived, in order to dethrone the entire pantheon of gods. As they were rapidly ascending the mountain, Zeus, the chief god, gazed down upon these hubristic beings, and decided to teach them an unforgettable lesson.

Being the god who was master of the weather, Zeus lifted his hand and directed his lightning bolts at the approaching four-leggers, neatly slicing each one in two at the spine. Imagine the ensuing scene, where all the halves of what were formerly unified beings were lying on the ground, crying and bleeding to death because of the gaping wound all along their spines. Witnessing their sorry plight, Zeus took pity on them and healed their wounds, but refrained from putting them back together again.

In the confusion each severed creature had become separated from what was its own “other half” before, and once their wounds had been healed by the supreme deity, they wasted no time searching for this other half, which was by no means easy to find because of the chaos that ensued when they were so cruelly sundered into two pieces. And this, proclaimed Plato’s character, Aristophanes, is where eros comes from: love in its erotic manifestation (remember that there are other kinds as well) is simply the drive to “find your other half”, or to complement yourself into someone who feels somehow “completed”.

The genius of this mythical account lies in this: remember that in their four-legged state our human predecessors were said to be sometimes of one sex (male or female), and sometimes as comprising both sexes in one. Hence, if you were split into two, and after having the back-wound healed, what “other half” would you be looking for? Obviously sometimes one of your own sex (woman or man), and in other cases someone of the opposite sex. Insofar as Plato’s character, Aristophanes, claimed to be giving an account of the origin and nature of eros, it is nothing less than brilliant, because it captures the feeling one sometimes has (however misleading it may be) that you would find in someone else your “lost complement”, or “other half” who would make you “whole” again, and it also offers an explanation for the undeniable fact that some people experience themselves as being homo-erotic and others as being heterosexual.

After all, as most (if not all) gay people, man or woman, would tell you, they ARE gay; it’s NOT as if they CHOOSE to be gay, as some religions make them out to be doing. Who would, in a homophobic world such as ours, choose to be gay if your inclination is otherwise, or even “neutral”. And Plato gave us a wonderful account, in narrative, mythical form, to understand this.

One may object that this is “just a myth”, and as such is without any persuasive force. To this I would respond by pointing out that, as many thinkers have argued (including Carl Jung), there are profound truths about human beings to be found in the wide panoply of myths in all cultures. For example, Jacques Lacan saw in this Platonic myth (of the four-legged beings) of hubris, loss and the search for union, an expression of what he claimed to be the fundamental condition of the human subject — that we, as humans, are characterised by “lack”, and that this underpins our never-ending quest for fulfilment or jouissance.

Anyone interested in the broader ramifications of this theme can read my paper: “The subversion of Plato’s quasi-phenomenology and mytho-poetics in the Symposium”. Janus Head 11(1), (American Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts), Copyright © 2009 by Trivium Publications, Amherst, NY, pp. 59-76. Available online.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

6 Comments

  1. Claire Claire 6 August 2014

    Thank you for the article. It’s a beautiful tale. Hedwig and the Angry Inch did a song called The Origin of Love, I believe based on this myth, though many other gods are involved. It’s become one of my favourite songs and if I may share it, here’s a link to a video on dailymotion:
    Hedwig & The Angry Inch – Origin of Love by disastr2000

  2. Bert Bert 7 August 2014

    Thank you, Claire, I did not know this song. I think you are right about it being ‘based’ on the ‘myth’ Plato recounted.

  3. Claire Claire 7 August 2014

    You’re welcome, Bert. I do feel a bit of a dunce though, I looked into it further and it turns out Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not an actual band. It’s a fictional band for a book written by John Cameron Mitchell, there’s a 2001 film based on the book and it’s on Broadway this month. Silly me. Still, it’s a beautiful and well-performed song mentioned previously.
    PS This is only my second post ever on thoughtleader, I believe I shall refrain from posting in the future to avoid the conical cap!

  4. Bert Bert 7 August 2014

    Claire, anyone as articulate as yourself SHOULD comment on TL. Besides, anyone could make that mistake, and it’s still a moot question, whether it was actually a mistake. Is a band who performed a song in an ad hoc fashion to illustrate a book, or in a movie (i.e. assembled as a band for this particular reason only) any less of a band than any other band? It is still a band, albeit a short-lived one. Thanks for your additional research – I would never have guessed; I just enjoyed the song via the link you posted.

  5. Trevor Trevor 9 August 2014

    After listening to Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Serenade after Plato’s Symposium’ I ran off some notes on Aristophanes, Pausanias, Eryxsimachus (?), Agathon, Socrates – and the latter’s apparent interest in finding a same-sex complement, if I recall. I also found something profoundly true and ingenious about Aristophanes’ ‘myth.’

    Characterising these philosophers’ (any philosophers?) arguments through music, though, did seem a bit odd. Bernstein was something of a polymath, however, so maybe he tried to remain true to the spirit and content of each contribution – through the medium of music!! (The Serenade has been quite highly rated as far as I can gather. Wonder what the School of Athens would have made of it.)

  6. Bert Bert 11 August 2014

    Trevor, thank you for this – I have never heard Bernstein’s ‘Serenade after Plato’s Symposium’. And who knows, maybe you’re right about his reasons for doing this!

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