Many Ways to Love, but Only One Right Way – The Symposium by Plato – OGB #6

In Plato’s The Symposium that we read for the Online Great Books seminar, ancient Greek partygoers choose not to drink the night away, again (text is translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff). Instead, these philosophers and tragedians and comedians have a friendly competition: everyone gives their own praise of love. But whose idea of love is true?

After hearing from five others, Socrates goes last. Though his explanations are usually complicated, his praise of love seems most rooted in truth and reality.

DISCLAIMER: I am no Plato scholar. This interpretation is compelling and is open to debate. And also, note that normal intimate relations in ancient Greece look a bit different than today.

Here is a summary of the six speeches, each of which builds on ideas as they respond to the previous speaker:

  1. According to Phaedrus, there is one type of love, which is virtuous and good.
  2. According to Pausanias, there are two types of love: good since it aims to obtain virtuous, soulful things. But the other kind of love is bad since it is shallow, bodily, and uncommitted.
  3. According to Eryximachus, love is the balance and harmony between bad and good love. The virtue of love depends on how the lover controls the direction of love.
  4. According to Aristophanes, love is the desire by one half to its missing other half. Humans were split from one being into two parts. And love is the force driving one to find its counterpart.
  5. According to Agathon, love is simply the best of all good things, including young, delicate, just, moderate, and brave.
  6. According to Socrates, love is a spirit that compels us on a journey to produce immortality by appreciating higher levels of beauty. The lowest level of love is for one beautiful body. The quest for immortality here results in human children. Then the smart person will grow that love of one body into all beautiful bodies. This love grows into a love of beautiful souls, then beautiful customs and activities, then beautiful knowledge. At this stage, the quest for immortality combines the person with beautiful knowledge into birthing good ideas. The highest level is an appreciation of Beauty in its pure form, the essence without grounding in time, space, or example. A person attains the highest level of love and immortality by beholding Beauty and birthing true virtue.

After Socrates’s speech, Alcibiades, the comedian, comes in, drunk from partying. He squeezes himself between Socrates and Agathon as they were flirting. He tells a story that serves as proof to which to test the accuracy of the love speeches.

Alcibiades describes the love that overcame him for handsome Socrates, which became lust for body and power. Socrates rebuffed the attempts until he explained the Alcibiades’s beauty wasn’t enough for Socrates’s offer and pursuit of pure wisdom. He admitted his love to Alcibiades, but Socrates didn’t give in to any seductive advances. Now, Alcibiades often erupts in a jealous rage while still lusting for Socrates’s good looks. But Alcibiades has learned to respect Socrates’s natural character, moderation, and fortitude. He also appreciates Socrates’s ideas and knowledge as the best way to become good.

This story makes sense. Assuming the story is true, let’s put it through the six ideas of love:

  1. Phaedrus’s love is not true because Alcibiades’s love changed forms.
  2. Pausanias’s love is not true because Alcibiades maintained two types of love at once.
  3. Eryximachus’s love is not true because Alcibiades was not in control of the direction of his love.
  4. Aristophanes’s love is not true because Alcibiades and Socrates had a love for each other, but the drives were not compatible as expected from two halves meeting.
  5. Agathon’s love is not true because Alcibiades’s love drives him to appreciate something better than love itself.
  6. Socrates’s love makes the most sense. Alcibiades started with love aimed at Socrates’s good looks. But he then climbed the ladder of love to now appreciate higher levels of beauty: Socrates’s soul and knowledge. Alcibiades’s love itself was not good, but it compelled him on a path to enjoy pure Beauty and produce the good.

Alcibiades puts is best:

If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they’d strike you as totally ridiculous… If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at this arguments. But if you see them when they open up… if you go behind their surface, you’ll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They’re truly worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They’re of great–no, of the greatest–importance fo anyone who wants to become a truly good man.

The Symposium, p. 503

The Symposium is a masterful story rich with profound ideas. But only Socrates’s concept of love emerges as the victor in the battle for truth.

More names = more power – OGB #5 Babylonian Genesis by Alexander Heidel

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God.png

Enuma Elish is a Babylonian creation story that outlines a god Marduk who destroys an evil dragon, saves the day, and earns dominion over all the other gods. To transcend the other gods, Marduk incorporates their names and powers into his own being. The only way to really capture the essence of Marduk is to say his 50+ names. These names and what they symbolize are literally the best things in the world.

To earn similar powers, we can embody Marduk in our daily life. We can go out and courageously fight evil. Find the dragon, slay it, earn the treasure, save the town, and then go do it again.

We can clearly see similarities between the following attributes and the attributes of the Christian God that came along after Babylon and Enuma Elish. This is a fascinating precursor to modern religions and world-views. The language we use today to describe the most powerful things has been around for centuries. This fact gives us a perspective of awe at our ancestors: they were more creative than we give them credit for. And we owe more respect to how their ideas have shaped our world.

(all quoted from “The Babylonian Genesis” by Alexander Heidel)

Come, let us proclaim [Marduk’s] fifty names! …

The provider of pasture land and drinking places, who fills their stalls with plenty;

Who with his weapon, the rain flood, overcame the enemies;

Who saved the gods his fathers in distress…

At his command let there be creation, destruction, alleviation, mercy

(Heidel)

Then all of Marduk’s other names are now listed with their specialties: some are below. These names and what they symbolize are the most powerful things in the world. I bolded similarities between the names and the names of the modern Christian God.

Marrukka verily is the god, the creator of everything;

Namtillaku, the god who restores to life;

Namshub; the bright god who brightens our way.

Asaru, the bestower of arable land, the creator of grain and legumes,

Asaralimnunna, the mighty one,

Tutu, the author of their restoration;

No one among the gods can equal him.

Ziukinna, the life of the host of the gods;

Ziku, the maintainer of purification;

The god of the good breath (of life), the lord who hears and answers (prayer);

The creator of riches and plenty, the establisher of abundance;

Who has turned all our wants into plenty;

Agaku, the lord of the holy incantation, who restores to life the dead;

Who created mankind to set them free;

Shazu, who knows the hearts of the gods, who sees through the innermost parts;

From whom the evildoer cannot escape;

The administrator of justice, who puts an end to crooked speech;

Who in his place discerns falsehood and truth.

Epadun, the lord who waters the field;

The ruler of heaven (and) earth,

Gilma, the bond that holds the family together,

Agilma, the sublime,

Nibiru shall be in control of the passages in heaven and on earth,

May he shepherd all the gods like sheep.

Let (man) rejoice in Marduk,

Reliable is his word, unalterable his command;

The utterance of his mouth no god whatever can change.

(Heidel)

Marduk speaks with the power of creation and authority. Everything else comes from his ability to speak into being. This is a reminder that our own words have the power to create or destroy, so use them wisely!

Back to the beginning: Reality From Language – OGB #4 Genesis by Robert Alter

Reality is how we talk about it. In times of chaos and change, it’s helpful to backtrack to some fundamental order and start over. Genesis (translated by Robert Alter 039331670X) is one example we can read to remind ourselves what’s real.

Bottom Line Up Front

What if reality is a chaos soup: cells and atoms bouncing around. Humans evolved to survive and thrive in the chaos soup over many lifespans. To do this, the collective consciousness of humanity started to recognize patterns in the chaos. They did this by bootstrapping a biological tool: language.

This tool gave the emergent human collective brain a way to set order from the chaos. Humans recognized the cells and atoms consistently bouncing around into a drinkable source of water. We named “stream” as a “drinkable source of water.” This shared understanding gave power to each individual within the collective to navigate the world using “streams” for drinking water and finding fish. This ability is so powerful and so unlikely that it seems God-given. Genesis explains the origin of reality as the use of language. Furthermore, the text relies on the same tool to communicate itself down through generations of humans.

Example

In Genesis, God speaks reality. In the first six days, God creates things. The biblical text follows a structure of God “saying” things, then God saying the words, which results in: “so it was.” Creation comes from speaking into being.

“And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was.” (Alter, 4)

Since the steps of “saying” and “so it was” are separated by an “and,” it’s not clear whether God does two actions or one. It seems as though the speaking suffices without any other action. Speaking is the magic here: by invoking language to call a pattern of chaotic soup into a name which can then interact with other named things. Humans can then navigate this system of named representations much better than the chaos soup.

Every word has meaning and contributes to reality. How we use language builds our world. Being honest and speaking truth builds a more durable reality.

Was language the reason why reality exists as it does to us today? Could God use any other tool to create this reality other than language?

Where new stuff comes from and if this matters: OGB #3 Theogony by Hesiod

eros
Source

Throughout history, things come from other things. Offspring emerges from parents. Physically, matter changes forms. Metaphysically, things change into other things. How does this happen? Consider two explanations.

  • (A) all stuff is already created
    • Thus, new things emerge by splitting up the existing stuff amongst them
  • (B) new stuff emerges from old stuff
    • Thus, new things emerge as distinct from the old stuff

The Greeks thought of the changing process as a force with a personality: a god: Eros. Eros was the god of love and sex. Through Eros, parents beget children and things become other things. In Theogony, Hesiod pulls together all the popular stories of his day into one meta-narrative. In doing so, he explains where things come from and how they change.

AH-HA

Let’s consider (A) and (B) in some examples from Theogony.

1. Earth produces Sky, Mountains, and Sea.

This seems to be (A). Our planet Earth includes features like sky, mountains, and sea. Thus, Eros can split up Earth into those parts sky, mountains, and sea.

2. Night + Darkness = Day and Brightness.

This seems to be (B). Night has a quality of darkness, which is the absence of light. Day has a quality of brightness, the opposite of darkness. Seemingly, Night does not have the qualities that Day has. So, Night produces something entirely new when Day emerges.

Alternatively, maybe the Greek idea of Night included brightness, and Eros split it up into two: Day and Night. Certainly, in modern language, a “day” can refer to either the daytime and brightness for 12 hours, or the full scope of brightness and darkness for 24 hours.

3. Earth + Sky = Titans, Cyclopes, and Hundred-Handers.

This is not clear whether it’s (A) or (B). The offspring of Earth and Sky seem to have personalities and “souls” like humans do. Whereas Earth and Sky should be like non-living material. How would conscious life emerge from pure physical matter except as new emerging from old, like (B)?

However, the Greek beings Earth and Sky are actually beings that are closer to living than non-living material. This makes (A) more possible to have Titan beings emerging from other living beings.

4. Theia (Titan, “goddess”) + Hyperion (Titan, “he who goes above”) = Sun, Moon, and Dawn.

This is closer to (B) but not clear. This doesn’t make sense in a modern perspective. How could two Titans, beings closer to humans than materials, produce the non-living material Sun, Moon, and Dawn? This appears like the opposite of #3: non-living things emerge from living beings.

Summary

Hesiod does not detail how beings are born or how things become other things, whether through (A) or (B). But Theogony still ties together an important narrative to explain the high-level transfer of ideas and concepts among beings. It shows generally where things come from.

In our modern day, we delve into science to explain the world. As we discover the micro-steps that details how matter changes at a small scale, let’s keep the big picture in mind, like Hesiod did. Maybe it’s ok to build and believe a story that leaves out the details but gives us an explanation of the world at a higher level.

The meta-narrative story explains what’s human: OGB #2 Theogony by Hesiod

Hesiod

In Theogony, Hesiod pulls together all the popular stories of his day into one narrative. Since it’s one narrative explaining the common thread of many narratives, let’s call it a meta-narrative.

Meta-narrative = an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. – Oxford Dictionary

AH-HA

The Greeks wanted one narrative story that tied together all the common stories of their day. Through the one common meta-narrative, the Greeks found knowledge of their shared human condition.

The stories of Theogony include the massive Titans, the powerful Zeus, the forethinker Prometheus giving knowledge to man, and the gods’ punishment in response: the first woman Pandora who unleashes a box of evils upon humankind. Lightning bolts tore the sky and babies emerged from the force of love. From top-down, these stories justified worldly events and human behavior.

From bottom-up, a narrative is formed by human biological processes that interpret the world; these processes manifest as human behaviors; these combine into archetypes (“good” behaviors and “bad” behaviors); archetypes then map to language in a narrative story.

Different human people groups create different types of stories. This is because the biological processes and worldly events differ. Humans in arctic adopt different behavior than those in the desert.

But even in disparate people groups, common narratives emerge. For example, many groups strangely spoke about the common Flood Myths. Since the events and behaviors in the Flood narrative appear so widely, a catastrophic flood may have occurred and affected many humans in recent history. Or, many humans have experienced a tragic calamity that destroyed lives and resources. So, a flood should be in our human meta-narrative.

Humans thus share a common drive to “prepare for the flood,” by sacrificing present pleasure for the future benefits: e.g. by working to exchange time for money, or by social distancing to trade short-term contact for long-term health.

Summary

Narratives emerge from many different groups. A meta-narrative like Theogony incorporates all narratives. Thus, it explains what’s common among all of the narratives it uses. The commonalities are what we share. What we share is what it means to be human.

The limits of believability and Greek rhetoric battles: OGB #1 Euripides

I recently joined Online Great Books, “an online community developing classically educated men and women using the Great Books of Western Civilization.” Thus far, we have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus, Euripides, and we’re about to start Plato. Each month we have a virtual seminar to discuss ideas that we found interesting. In parallel, I’m also in a seminar to discuss creation stories; we have read the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Theogony by Hesiod.

I love it. I highly recommend joining if you are able. Or at least trying it out. I’m reading more and thinking critically. And I’m appreciative of the great things that persist.

In meditating on and discussing these works, certain ideas pop out to me. Some as “AH HA!” and some as “WTF!”.

Thus this is the first of a series of meditations on the ideas from great books that apply to life today, inspired mostly by the ideas of others in my seminars: #037 and #creation. Thanks team!


 

Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, and Hippolytus

Euripides is known as the last great tragedian. This is probably because he pushed the limit of storytelling. His characters acted rationally enough while pushing the limit of believability. I think he fills the role of the last tragedian because anyone trying to one-up Euripides would have had to jump over the line into ridiculousness.

WTF

What’s the edge of what humans can do? Race 26.2 miles: easy to believe. Race 3,100 miles: less easy to believe.

In Medea, Medea is a powerful, rash, and logical woman who has used selfish acts to get her way. She betrayed her family by killing her own brother to help Jason, her husband. Later, Jason betrays Medea and their marriage oath by taking a mistress. In response, Medea plots and then murders his mistress by tricking her to wear a fancy dress that burns into her flesh. Medea then kills their own children. And literally rides off with their bodies unburied into the sunset on a chariot while Jason looks on in horror.

The storytelling is masterful because even though Medea toils between feeling pity for her innocent children vs. anger in cold blood, she can understand both sides: mercy and revenge. However, she is consistent in her behavior and self-justification by always acting to fulfill revenge. But, even though she commits heinous acts, her anger is believable and justifiable. She follows her anger to the end but justifies her decisions every step of the way. Medea’s character straddles chaos justified into order.

What would Euripedes’ successor have to do to make the sequel to Medea? Tricking Jason into eating his parents? Maybe infanticide in revenge was the evilest but most plausible act by the Greeks. Anything beyond this would reach parody beyond believability.

AH HA:

Battles of rhetoric with witty insults from emotional confrontations are universally enjoyable for us to watch. Euripides includes two levels of battle. Phase one involves long paragraphs of one character going at the other. Then phase two is one-liners back and forth in quick succession. The play acted out seems like a real battle. Each shoots at one another with their slings and arrows from a distance. Then they get closer, fighting hand-to-hand, jabbing and countering.

In Alcestis, Admetus has a chance to save his life from his fated death. Death, personified, pursues him. A god saves him by telling Admetus that he can save his own life by picking a family member to die in his place.

This may seem like a strange thought experiment, but it’s applicable to today. Who decides who lives and dies if a COVID-19 outbreak hits an underprepared hospital without enough beds?

Admetus first asks his parents, who refuse. Then he asks his wife Alcestis, who accepts and dies in his place. Props to Alcestis for going the honorable route: I think this is why the play is called Alcestis, to honor her sacrifice.

Anyway, after Alcestis dies, Admetus confronts his father Pheres about why he wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his son. The following insult battles are compelling. Keep in mind, this was ancient Greece and not Shakespeare.

Part of Admetus’ soliloquy to his father as a “battle phase one”:

  • “Go on, get you other children – you cannot do it too soon – who will look after your old age, and lay you out when you are dead, and see you buried properly. I will not do it. This hand will never bury you.”

Medea and Jason share some blows back-and-forth from their story as well as a “battle phase two”, after Jason confronts Medea about their kids.

  • Jason: “O my poor children, what a vicious mother yours has proved to be.”
  • Medea: “O my poor boys, what a sad end you’ve met, thanks to your father’s failing.”
  • J: “It was not by my hand they died.”
  • M: “It was, though, because of your own arrogance and your new-saddled marriage.”

Summary

  1. Stories throughout history still capture our interest by maintaining believability while pushing the limits of what’s possible. Anything outside of believability enters into comedy and parody.
  2. Intellect and wit can be used as an attack, similar to physicality and technology. Throughout history, we appreciate and enjoy fights, either with swords or words.