Aristophanic Tragedy

In Z. Giannopoulou & P. Destrée (eds.), The Cambridge Critical Guide to Plato’s Symposium. Cambridge University Press. pp. 70-87 (2017)
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In this paper, I offer a new interpretation of Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium. Though Plato deliberately draws attention to the significance of Aristophanes’ speech in relation to Diotima’s (205d-206a, 211d), it has received relatively little philosophical attention. Critics who discuss it typically treat it as a comic fable, of little philosophical merit (e.g. Guthrie 1975, Rowe 1998), or uncover in it an appealing and even romantic treatment of love that emphasizes the significance of human individuals as love-objects to be valued for their own sakes (e.g. Dover 1966, Nussbaum 1986). Against the first set of interpreters, I maintain that Aristophanes’ speech is of the utmost philosophical significance to the dialogue; in it, he sets forth a view of eros as a state of lack and a corresponding desire for completion, which is the starting-point for Diotima’s subsequent analysis. Against the second, I argue that Aristophanes’ speech contains a profoundly pessimistic account of eros. Far from being an appreciative response to the individuality of the beloved, eros, for Aristophanes, is an irrational urge, incapable of satisfaction. It is this irrationality that precludes Aristophanes’ lovers from achieving the partial satisfaction of erotic desire that is open to their Socratic counterparts through their relationship to the forms.

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Suzanne Obdrzalek
Claremont McKenna College


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