The greatest hope of all: Aristophanes on human nature in Plato's symposium

Classical Quarterly 63 (2):567-579 (2013)

Authors
Anthony Hooper
Durham University
Abstract
In recent years there has been a renaissance of scholarly interest in Plato's Symposium, as scholars have again begun to recognize the philosophical subtlety and complexity of the dialogue. But despite the quality and quantity of the studies that have been produced few contain an extended analysis of the speech of Aristophanes; an unusual oversight given that Aristophanes' encomium is one of the highlights of the dialogue. In contrast to the plodding and technical speeches that precede it, the father of Old Comedy structures his own speech around a fantastic fable in which he tells how humans, having originally taken the form of comically grotesque ‘circlemen’, assumed their present shape after being divided in two for their impious actions against the gods. This story forms the basis of his discussion of Eros, which he claims is nothing more than a desire to return to our original form . One study on which commentators continue to draw heavily for their own interpretation of Aristophanes' encomium is that of Arlene Saxonhouse. As the title of her article suggests, central to Saxonhouse's analysis is her interpretation of the Net of Hephaestus passage , in which Aristophanes suggests that, if offered the chance to be welded together with their beloveds and so become circlemen once more, all humans would leap at the opportunity, thinking that this would be all of the fortune that they could ever desire. For Saxonhouse this passage, more than any other, demonstrates that, on Aristophanes' view, our original nature is one of perfection. According to Saxonhouse, our original form is the telos of human existence and the standard by which we judge the good life, because she understands circlemen as being self-complete beings entirely free from desire and need. Put simply, to be a circleman is to be a perfect being. Eros, on this reading, as the desire for wholeness, is to be praised because it reminds us of our deficiency, and instills in us a desire to actualize our potential for perfection. But unlike Socrates' encomium, which ends with the lover realizing their potential by possessing knowledge of the divine, Saxonhouse believes that the Net of Hephaestus passage lends a tragic end to Aristophanes' speech. For Saxonhouse it is Plato's dirty trick that he turns Aristophanes into a tragedian
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DOI 10.1017/s0009838813000104
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The Fragility of Goodness.Martha Nussbaum - 1988 - Journal of Philosophy 85 (7):376-383.

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