OPINION: A classic take on the philosophy of love

IF you need some inspiration for Valentine’s Day, I suggest you lay aside your copy of Romeo and Juliet, your collected works of the Romantic Poets, your Fifty Shades of Grey and read some philosophy.

Greek philosophy. Plato’s Symposium, to be precise.

Philosophy, a beautiful word, comes from the Greek philosophia, meaning ‘love of wisdom’, and as far as the wisdom of love goes, Plato’s Symposium is a treasure-trove.

Composed some time in the early  4th century BC, the Symposium records an evening of heavy drinking and much talking some 30 years beforehand when a group of Athenian intellectuals got together for a night of partying.

Taking turns, each reveller presents their views on love, passion and desire, and as the wine flows so do the stories.

Amid all the talking, some tales stand out,  gently coming to mind from time to time, whispering sweet nothings in the ear.

One such tale is told by Aristophanes, the bawdy king of ancient Greek comedy whose story, while fantastical and truly mythical, is arguably the best definition of a soul-partner around.

Grasping to describe the indescribable, Aristophanes claims that true love began when humans were composed of two beings fused together: some were two males joined together, some were two females and others were comprised of a male and a female.

These strange creatures were spherical and had, of course, four arms, four legs and two faces, and moved around by rolling. 

Odd in appearance and, we could assume, a little uncomfortable in their miraculous bodies, the roly-poly people were happy.

Why? Because they were together. They were whole. But as is often the case with fairy tales, these people upset the powers that be – Zeus, in this instance – and they were punished by being cut in two.

Bereft and continuously in search of their original partners, the roly-poly people spent their miserable days looking, waiting, pining for their other half, for the person who had once made them whole.

Those who were never reunited simply faded away, while those who found their original partner found endless joy.

Such is Aristophanes’ definition of a soul-partner.

Such is his attempt to explain the lover’s expression of ‘feeling whole’.

For those of you who haven’t as yet been reunited with your other half, solace comes in a tale told by the wisest of all philosophers, Socrates.

His story, he claims, was told to him by a woman, Diotima, a mysterious female sage who instructed him in the wherewithal of matters pertaining to the heart. 

For Socrates, according to his source, the god Love, that most troublesome of divinities, was spawned from the most unlikely of circumstances.

Love’s mother, the goddess Poverty, an uninvited guest at a party thrown by the gods, went to beg at the gates.

Spying a drunken reveller, the god Cunning, Poverty seduces him and a baby is the result: baby Love.

The moral of Socrates’ story? Love is a combination of his parents. He has the need, the want and the pain of his mother, for according to Socrates desire is the embodiment of need; it involves the search for something we lack.

So, Love is a shoeless, homeless beggar, rejected by the world, in need of care and in need of something – someone – to take care of him. But Love also has the resistance, determination and cunning of his father.

He is a survivor and despite the obstacles in his path, he fights, schemes and plans for the achievement of wholeness, for the ultimate source of happiness.

In short, the offspring of Poverty and Cunning fights for love. Sometimes, like his mother, he is shunned and sometimes, like his father, he triumphs.

So whether you are a happy or haunted roly-poly person, reunited with your other half or still searching, enjoy the day and the gifts of love.

And remember that love is a baby, a tiny, demanding, mischievous, winged little being who may drive you crazy at times but ultimately needs nurturing to grow.

Dr Marguerite Johnson is a senior lecturer in classics at the University of Newcastle. She will speak at the Newcastle Museum on Thursday night from 5.30pm to 7pm.

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