Aristophanes or Love, Sexuality and Women in Plato's Symposium



           Comic playwright and poet of Ancient Greece, Aristophanes (c.444-c.385 BC) was a contemporary of Socrates (c.470-c.399 BC) and of Plato (c.428/427-c.348/347 BC). He is the most famous representative of Ancient Greek comedy as only his plays are available to us today. The comic writers of that period enjoyed a freedom of speech which Aristophanes made the most of and regularly got into trouble with a few politicians who felt they had been ill-treated in his plays. These particular ad hominem attacks, that is to say personal attacks which consist in ridiculing a public figure by representing him or her on stage, were commonplace in this very popular drama. For example, in The Clouds, Aristophanes nastily made fun of Socrates. Despite this, Plato, Socrates's most famous disciple, gave Aristophanes a part in his philosophical dialogue The Symposium.

Aristophanes voices a striking myth and certain theories which lead the discussion towards a strange and yet pragmatic analysis of love and sexuality which - although rooted in a specific time frame and geographic space - still speaks to us today.


In my short analysis of Plato's Symposium, I will mainly focus on themes such as homosexuality and women such as they are described in Athens during the classical period of Ancient Greece. In many respects, Aristophanes's discourse is disrupting and revealing, both by his assertions and by the tensions he creates in the general economy of Plato's dialogue dedicated to Eros (the Greek god of Love) and therefore his discourse impacts all the other discourses on eroticism.


Homosexuality and pederasty

      In his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault points out that homosexuality such as we understand it, that is to say an egalitarian amorous relationship which unites for an inderterminate period of time two people of the same sex who have more often than not more or less the same age, is a quite recent idea. This vision of homosexuality seems to be equivalent, up to a point, to the amorous heterosexual relationships of a modern Western couple.

      In any case, this view of homosexuality shows a concern for the equal treatment of the various terms and conditions of conjugal rights and sexuality and calls for tolerance in individualistic societies which allow a certain autonomy to people in their amorous choices and at any rate put forward a relativisation of the link, which surely no one finds natural or obvious, between love and reproduction. However if filiation and the technical possibilities of artificial procreation (Medically Assisted Procreation – M.A.P - and surrogacy) are sometimes the basis of homosexual couples's demands, it is perhaps because the minimization of the reproductive function of love sometimes conflicts with the desire to witness a stricter equality between the different kinds of conjugal relationships: a claim which involves, for homosexual couples, the desire to start a family which goes beyond the desire of being recognized as a couple and having a relationship. 

    Michel Foucault also criticizes the all-too widespread stereotype which consists in presenting the Greeks of the Antiquity as enthusiasts of male homosexuality. Admittedly, many hasty readings of Plato's Symposium seem to confirm this statement. However, strictly speaking, in The Symposium, the readers are given an account of quite another kind of relationship. Indeed, pederasty for the Greeks is in fact a more casual relationship which has a limited duration and concerns two men, one of which is older than the other: a mature man who is considered as the dominant partner, the lover or the erastês, and the other who is a young man who has a passive role, the beloved or the erômenos.

       Hence, we find ourselves with two definitions of one word: 'homosexuality' which in fact refers to two different kinds of relationships. On one hand, we are made to understand with Foucault that it refers to a historically anchored reality - in the way it is lived today. Then, in a wider acceptance or definition of the term, which can be applied to all civilizations, it is defined as a physical and emotional attraction for someone of the same gender. However, we cannot help noticing that its practices are varied and that there are different ways of living one's homosexuality. In the study of this dialogue dedicated to the praise of Eros, the love of young men is cultivated by older men therefore I will speak of 'homosexual pederasty'.

      Aristophanes, in the speech he is assigned by Plato in The Symposium, explains that among men who search for the 'love of men' [i] , there are two different parties which correspond to two age groups: first the adolescents who 'take pleasure in having sex with men and uniting with them' [ii] ; and the mature men or 'wholly-constituted men'  who, far from taking interest in men or women their own age, look for 'young boys' [iii]. Pederasty is thus understood as a very specific homosexual relationship since it involves two men who do not have the same age or the same status. Therefore one must differentiate between the point of view of the erômenos who is looking for a sort of mentor and a short-lived amorous relationship and the point of the view of the older lover or the erastês who is attracted to adolescent men.


      Pederasty in the Antiquity must not be confused with our contemporary view of homosexuality because the latter does not last for a specific and short period of time, concerns as much women as it does men and does not necessarily involve an age difference, or a difference in status, rights or roles in the amorous relationship - differences considered as normal in the inegalitarian society of the Greek Antiquity.


        However, as soon as Aristophanes begins to speak, he feels the need to set himself apart from the unqualified praise of pederasty previously uttered by two of the participants and tells Eryximachus and Pausanias that he wishes to say something quite different. Pausanias, in a speech which is a masterpiece of rhetoric and hypocrisy makes himself the defender of pederasty. He thinks there are two types of Eros. One is inspired by the celestial Aphrodite, goddess of beauty who, according to Pausanias, has a sort of respectable virility despite her femininity because she is said to have been conceived solely by her father. This Eros inspired by Aphrodite is the most beautiful love and causes the most illustrious men to love young boys. On the other hand, the Eros which is inspired by the vulgar Aphrodite only leads to heterosexual relationships for which Pausanias does not hide his contempt. More importantly, Pausanias asserts that pederasty necessarily entails - according to the laws of the city-state (the polis) - the beloved's voluntary slavery. The beloved or the erômenos must submit himself to his lover's desires (the erastês) without protest. Eryximachus merely follows up on Pausanias's thesis, adding cosmological reflections which help to comprehend, according to him, the influence of love in the harmony of the world. Aristophanes on the other hand seeks to distance himself from a widespread thesis which is seemingly accepted by the present aristocracy at this banquet in which the lover behaves with his beloved like a tyrant with his slave. All in all, the comic poet Aristophanes does not agree with this tyrannical and aristocratic Eros and consequently his discourse becomes complex and tricky because his discourse is framed by an aristocratic praise of pederasty.




Aristophanes on the role of women and his criticism of misogyny

        One of the disagreements between Aristophanes and the other speakers -with the exception of Socrates – is his refusal of this scornful attitude towards women, an attitude which is ostentatiously adopted by certain Athenian aristocrats. Aristophanes wrote the play The Thesmophoria around the year 411 BC mostly to make fun of Euripides's legendary and infamous misogyny. Aristophanes's comedies stand out in part because of the important roles assigned to women (as political leaders for example). The beautiful Athenian woman Lysistrata, character of the eponymous play also written around 411 BC, calls for women to withhold sex from their husbands so that the men will stop fighting. The play depicts a particularly difficult moment for Athens during the interminable Peloponnesian War and in order to end it Lysistrata proclaims 'To stop the war, do not give yourselves to your husbands'.


       I am also reminded of Aristophanes's play Peace in which Aristophanes castigates all war enthusiasts. In yet another play, The Assemblywomen or Ecclesiazusae (c.392 BC), the female character Praxagora [iv]  manages to organise an 'ecclesia' that is to say an assembly of citizens with the power to create laws. In the play, this 'ecclesia' is composed only of women. This inversion of roles is of course a well-known strategy to provoke laughter and the fact that in Greek drama the female characters are played by men obviously creates an extra comical effect. However, the comic devices do not eclipse the militant pacifism of plays such as Peace and Lysistrata. Moreover, in the Assemblywomen, it is the ugliest and oldest female citizens who are allowed to choose whichever male partners they wish. Aristophanes thus invites us to ironically interpret the all-mighty power of the erastês, the mature man who feels entitled to complete power over the bodies of young men, a doctrine defended by Pausanias in The Symposium under the name of 'voluntary slavery of the beloved' (v). 

     After all, if men of a certain age feel that the law allows them to act as sexual predators, why shouldn't it be the same for mature women? This all-powerful 'cougar' is the logical counterpart to the erastês and provides a critical commentary of this vision of pederasty conceived as the 'voluntary slavery' of the younger man. In the play, the women of the assembly can perhaps make one smile but in fact their representation brutally highlights the comical absurdity of Pausanias's doctrine. I think that this explains why Aristophanes is unable to speak immediately after Pausanias's speech. The 'hiccup' (vi) which prevents him from speaking has probably less to do with his bad digestion of wine and food and more to do with a hysterical laughter on hearing such a ludicrous doctrine of Eros. Moreover, Aristophanes is the only one in The Symposium to even speak of female homosexuality.

       Despite the many things which set them apart, Aristophanes and Plato have at least one thing in common: the refusal of the misogyny which characterises their social class. Plato asserts for example that, in the ideal aristocratic government he advocates in his Republic, the 'philosopher king' could also be a 'philosopher queen'. The theme of women as political leaders, developed by Aristophanes in some of his plays, is taken very seriously by Plato who considers that men and women have the same intellectual and political abilities.


The Symposium also highlights the intellectual role of women since the assembly of men, gathered at Agathon's place to celebrate the prize he has just won for his tragedy, are not worthy of Eros in the sense that they all turn out to be ignorant on the subject of Eros. It is a woman, Diotima of Mantinea, who is not only the sole person sufficiently wise to teach Socrates a lesson but also the only one who can make a true speech on Love and the only one to give Eros such an honourable praise.


Aristophanes's myth in Plato's Symposium

     To construct his argument Aristophanes relies on a myth which recounts the beginning of humanity and the circumstances of the simultaneous birth of love and sexuality [vii]. One must put two human beings back to back and imagine that in the beginning they formed a single being: a sort of 'ball' with four hands, four arms, four ears, two faces etc. According to this myth, there were three kinds of human beings: completely male, completely female, or androgynous – that is to say half female and half male. Because they had two of everything, these beings were much stronger than we are now. Pride led them to believe that they could dethrone the gods of Olympus and so they rebelled. The gods's reaction was swift yet very ingenious. This original humanity's punishment prevented them from repeating their offence as they were cut in half by Zeus himself. The punishment inflicted was a measure of caution because, once weakened, mankind could no longer be tempted to overthrow the gods again. Apollo was then put in charge of healing their wounds and of placing the cut, visible by the scar - the navel - on the front of the body so that mankind is constantly reminded of the gods's punishment.


    Immediately, each split 'piece' of humanity went searching for its missing half and was constantly haunted by a longing for the unity of its original state. However, when this new human being found its complementary part, he or she stayed by its side lamenting, desperately embracing its other half in despair and finally letting itself die. Faced with this dangerous situation in which mankind was  soon to be wiped out and witnessing the fear and frustration provoked by their impossible desire of  fusion, Zeus was forced to act: 'Moved by pity, Zeus chooses a more viable alternative: he moves the sexual organs to the front of the body of these human beings' (viii).


       Aristophanes explains: 'The aim of Zeus was the following. If, during intercourse, a man was with a woman, there would be a a perpetuation of the species; however if a man is with a man, the two beings would find satisfaction, they would be calm once more, they would shift their focus back to action and concern themselves with other things in their lives.' (ix) He sums up his remarks: 'Therefore love stems from this distant time and is thus an attempt to assemble the two parts of our ancient nature in order to heal human nature'. [x]. Therefore to love is to look for one's original half. The simultaneous birth of love and sexuality is the product of various factors: the unique constitution of the first human beings, their immoderate behaviour which led the gods to punish them by cutting them in half followed by Zeus's attempt to make bearable the frustration caused by this separation by creating this love in which sexuality allows a feeling of 'finding the other' once again, by the fusion of the bodies and through pleasure.


The various types of sexuality and Aristophanes's instructive contradictions

    This myth justifies various types of sexuality: heterosexuality, homosexuality - including female homosexuality which shocks the present assembly of predominantly misogynous men who subscribe to Pausanias's idea of pederasty. Aristophanes claims: 'all women who were originally separated from another woman do not pay attention to men; on the contrary, it is women they are attracted to and it is from this species that lesbians originate from' [xi]


    The three categories of this primitive humanity are therefore supposed to explain - by means of this genealogy of love - three types of human sexuality. Men who love men originate from the completely masculine primitive being, lesbians from this original humanity which was solely female, and finally heterosexuals originate from the division of the original androgynous being. Aristophanes suggests that all these sexualities have their rightful places. However, when one looks closer, things become strange and incoherent. Yet, the fluctuations in his theory are instructive.

     There are numerous tensions and contradictions. First of all the supposed hierarchy, which puts pederasty on a pedestal and places heterosexuality and female homosexuality in a subordinate position, visibly stems from social prejudice and persistent misogyny rather than a reasoning linked to the nature of this love expressed by the myth. It is interesting to notice that heterosexual love - which originates from the original androgynous being - is presented to us as unfaithful and whose sensuality is uncontrollable. Moreover- states Aristophanes- all the males who are the result from a splitting of the compound which was then called 'androgynous' are always looking for the love of women and it is because of this species that most husbands cheat on their wives and the same goes for the women who, searching for the love of men, cheat on their husbands.


      But there are even more disconcerting elements in this theory. If it is true that love stems from a desire of fusion with this 'half' with whom we originally formed a unit, there should logically be a balance as to the age between all of these lovers- or at the very least individuals who have the same age should be allowed to love each other unashamedly. Yet the love of men who love other men is the odd one out because it is presented exclusively in the form of pederasty which by definition involves two men of different ages. If we concede that the initial compound already involved an age difference, the psychoanalytical interpretation which consists in making the mother the 'lost half' of all human beings as shown by our navel - also recalling the cut or the separation which originally gave birth to all present humanity - would seem correct since it also entails an age difference. But such an interpretation of Aristophane's theory, as interesting as it might be, contradicts the hierarchy he prones and his marked preference for pederasty.

    The other important tension is that the pederastic relationship (supposed to be ephemeral) is presented as if it were a relationship which should ideally become a long-term relationship. Aristophanes, describing this love between men, specifies that two male lovers 'would be satisfied spending their lives together' hence giving up marriage and procreation. However, a long-term male homosexual relationship was frowned upon by the Greeks. It is even considered as shameful because it implies that one of the two men remains passive during the sexual act. Aristophane's also points out that to be considered as an effeminate man is 'defamatory' [xii] and this is yet more evidence that his speech lacks consistency and is to be taken with a pinch of salt. We are also aware that the couple Pausanias (erastês) and Agathon (erômenes) were frowned upon by the Athenians who accepted short-lived male homosexual relationships but were not ready to accept a long-term one (which would in fact be closer in many ways to male homosexual relationships today). Quite a clear and normative link between sex, gender and sexuality [xiii] seems to arise from these critical views of pederasty.


    Throughout history, heterosexuality is the type of sexuality which is associated to the widespread assimilation of sex and gender. Hence the problem of pederasty in which the erômenes is a man who does not obey the rules attributed to his gender for a certain period of time since he takes on the woman's role. If this relationship is short-lived, it is almost tolerated but if the pederastic relationship turns into a long-term relationship and is therefore what we would call a homosexual relationship in modern terms, then the sex and gender of the erômenos no longer correspond and he is considered as an embarrassment.


Three Eros's and two types of fecundity 

      So what do these contradictions teach us about Plato's conception of love? At first sight, Plato seems to be on the side of those who claim that there is a link between sex, gender and sexuality. For Diotime, the only kind of sexuality in which intercourse seems legitimate is heterosexuality and she links sex and gender with the functions of the erastês (man/activity) and erômenes (woman/passivity). Thus, Plato finds a way for his main spokesperson to discredit Aristophane's myth in one fell swoop. Diotime states: 'There is indeed a tale which claims that looking for the other half of oneself is love. But I say that love is about neither half nor whole...'

   Clearly Plato does not agree with Aristophanes's theory and therefore rejects all justifications of homosexualities whatever form they take. Nevertheless, it seems safest to consider that all the dicourses in The Symposium are meaningful even if they do not directly express Plato's own beliefs and even if they are erroneous. They act as signs, beyond their value of truth. Plato breaks with the misogyny of his contemporary environment and finally when he picks up again the link between sex, gender and sexuality for the 'popular Eros', he refuses to apply the same principles for the 'philosophical Eros' because the latter is neither physical nor concrete and no specific rules can be applied to the erastês and the erômenes: no imposed norm for the relationship between those who have united (man with man, man with woman or woman with woman), no specific criteria concerning the age difference because spiritual fecundity does not depend on the reproductive organs.

     Yet ideal love for Plato does not correspond to the popular conception of love: the true lover is the one who cultivates the philosophical Eros and uses sexuality as a stepping stone towards the absolute and not a way to obtain pleasure and/or offspring. Alexandre Kojève, a Plato scholar, had a interesting reading strategy for those wishing to tackle the works of the Athenian philosopher: 'Plato hides what he thinks just as much as he reveals it' [xiv]: this could not be more true. Among the contradictions and tensions which can be found in Aristophane's discourse, one can see a few converging points which emerge and allow us to better understand the platonist position adopted by Diotima. First of all, one must be reminded of the aristocracy's prejudices in favour of pederasty, prejudice to be found in Pausanias and Eryximaque's speeches, reasserted in a different way by Agathon, the beloved of Pausanias and then by Alcibiades, a flamboyant warrior and disputed politician [xv] who would have liked to become Socrates's erômenes.To describe this particular vision of love, one can speak of an 'aristocratic Eros' quite different to the popular Eros and the philosophical Eros to which Diotima refers to.


      My hypothesis is that Diotima's general thesis is open warfare on this 'aristocratic Eros' and it is best illustrated by her outrage at Pausanias and his doctrine of voluntary slavery - quite an oxymoron - of the beloved. And to further discredit this pederasty, Plato gives the defenders of this cause an ambiguous even contradictory discourse in which pederasty eventually resembles our modern day homosexuality. By proceeding this way, Plato knows full well that their speech becomes shameful in the eyes of the Athenians. His strategy allows us to understand why, despite adjustments and clarifications, critics often interpret The Symposium as a mere promotion of male homosexuality. Secondly, we must also be aware of a certain contempt or in any case a minimisation of sexuality's reproductive function for the benefit of pleasure - which implies acting on one's desire - often hidden behind a show of elaborate romanticism. Aristophanes remarks that these mature men: 'by nature do not interest themselves in marriage and making children, but the rule (of society) compels them to' [xvi].


     In other words, if the obligation of complying with custom was non existent, these erastês who love other men would no longer be bisexual and would abandon all reproductive sexual activities. Yet it is clear that the reproduction of the species and a high demography are two of the central goals of the Ancient Greek city-state. Anything which contradicts these goals is to be discredited. Insisting on the sterility of those who practice pederasty is an efficient way to counter the prestige of the aristocratic Eros- especially when it defines a long-term relationship and not a specific time-period in one's life: a sort of rite of passage. And last of all, there is a clear divide between on one hand a conception of love expressed by a woman (Diotima) focused on the act of reproduction and on the other hand a vision of love expressed by men -notably Pausanias- in which the search for pleasure comes first and eclipses all fecundity. Plato, by including Pausanias in his dialogue, also reminds his readers that the real Pausanias had actually written a praise of sensual pleasure.


           Diotima defines love as the desire of 'procreating and giving birth in beautiful conditions' [xvii]. She draws a distinction between the corporal fecundity of the popular Eros which corresponds to a heterosexual relationship which leads the couple to make children thanks to a spiritual fecundity which she calls the philosophical Eros.The latter is a platonic kind of love (without intercourse) which does not mean that it is without sexuality. But the sexual desire is contained, sublimated and used to create a zeal in the search for truth, in the creation of what is beautiful or in the writing of laws. The popular Eros restores the prestige of heterosexuality but Plato is quick to demonstrate the limits of its 'effective sexuality'.


  The philosophical Eros which corresponds to what we now call 'platonic love' can indeed resemble the platonic pederastic relationship but it would be erroneous to reduce it to that because the relationship between Diotima and Socrates for example  enter this category which is in fact compatible with all sexual modalities. Plato - unlike Pausanias who exclusively links pederasty and pedagogy - thinks that a man who is driven by the philosophical Eros can also teach a woman or that a woman driven by the same kind of love can help a man give birth to beautiful ideas. Consequently, faced with these different types of Eros, both fertile in their own way according to Diotima, Plato highlights a particularly sterile Eros which he considers to be politically and pedagogically destructive: this aristocratic Eros can easily take the shape of an other Eros described in The Republic as tyrannical: a passion which becomes obsessed by more and more uncontrollable and violent desires, haunted by an insatiable search for pleasure.


    This does not mean that for Plato an attraction for someone of the same sex is bad – far from it! In The Symposium and in other of Plato's dialogues such as Lysis for example, Socrates never ceases to delight in the presence of beautiful young men. The philosophical Eros does not involve a sexual act and can be both heterosexual and homosexual and age difference is unimportant. The erotic ardour which does not lead to sexual reproduction, gives up all physical contact in order to impregnate souls. Maieutics, the art which consist in helping the minds give birth, is more efficient because the body is not involved in the process of fecundation. Such is the the true meaning and the spiritual scope of what we now call 'platonic love', too often considered as a simple absence of intercourse.




    Distinctions between sex, gender and sexuality, heterosexuality, homosexuality, pederasty, between (re)production, sterility and destruction, between popular Eros, philosophical Eros and this aristocratic Eros, the latter pressurized by the tyrannic disorder of desire and object of Plato's criticisms, between the futile and politically pernicious quest for pleasure, popular aspiration for procreation and the philosophical importance of the fecundity of the soul,  are all equally determined by a situation and a time in which the success of a population is measured by its birth rate and its economical growth. Plato's arguments are based on the necessities of his ideal Athenian city-state.


   However, the inconsistencies of Aristophanes's remarks shed light on what love means in Plato's Symposium. Indeed, if one really wishes to fight against misogyny and miseducation - sources of political unrest - one must break away from an exclusively masculine and pederastic conception of love and forbid oneself to take too seriously the normative link between sex, gender and sexuality particularly when referring to the philosophical Eros. The way we love impacts the body politic and the higher spheres of the spirit. Praising love is a task that one must fulfill by avoiding prejudice and groundless norms. That is why if one really wishes to define love, one must assert and promote the woman's point of view. Diotima feels that the sexual act is not only for pleasure but also and especially a slow gestation period leading to the birth of a child, a work of art or even a spiritual state. But in doing so, she also reasserts - this must be emphasized in order to remind us of the original unity of both sexes expressed by Aristophanes in his myth of androgynous beings - the importance of paternity and maternity in the popular Eros. It is difficult to see where these roles fit in the doctrines of Pausanias and Agathon! Thereupon it is impossible to speak of parenthood for these aristocrats who eliminate the status of the parent for the benefit of an adult who resembles an all-mighty child whose search for pleasure is unrestrained. Conversely, in the philosophical Eros, there are spiritual fathers and mothers in the sense that all philosophers are, in a sense, the spiritual children of Socrates, Plato and Diotime.


[i] The Symposium, 191e – 192b

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] The dinner party exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, is one of the first 'epic' feminist works of art which pays a tribute to mythical and historical women of achievement. Judy Chicago quotes Praxagora among the 999 famous women whose names are inscribed on the Heritage Floor on which the table rests.

[v] The Symposium, in Pausanias's speech, see 184b – 185c.S

[vi] Ibid, 185c-185d.

[vii] Ibid, 189d-192c.

[viii] Ibid. 191b.

[ix] Ibid. 191c.

[x] Ibid. 191c-191d.

[xi] Ibid.. 191e.

[xii] Ibid. 189 e

[xiii] See Elsa Dorlin, Sexe, genre et sexualité ; PUF, Philosophies, 2008.

[xiv] This concept is broached by Jacques Lacan : Le séminaire VIII : Le transfert

[xv] See Jacqueline de Romilly's work: Alcibiade ou les dangers de l’ambition, ed Tallandier, 2008.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid. 206e


DIDIER GUILLIOMET teaches philosophy at the Lycée François 1er in Le Havre (France). He has contributed to the Dictionary of Inequalities (Armand Colin, 2014) and Fanny Capel's book: Whose crazy idea was it to ruin the school system? (Ramsay, 2006) and his latest article was about Friedrich Hayek. Didier's numerous activities also include spoken word, experimental music and he suffers from an obsessive-compulsive travel planning disorder.