Msnowe's Blog

Aristophanes’ Story (As told by Socrates), while reading Bellow

Posted in Aristophanes, Bellow, Desire, Plato, Ravelstein, Symposium by m.snowe on June 23, 2008

Back in political philosophy class, M.Snowe read Plato’s Symposium. Thinking it was fairly good, we remembered most of the lessons taught along with it. This weekend, we were forced to begin reading Ravelstein (and when we say “forced” it’s implied that it’s required reading, not that M.Snowe would ever pass up an opportunity to at least start reading something new). Ravelstein, published in 2000, is a novel centered around a political philosophy professor of much renown who’s best-selling book propels him to wealth and fame. So naturally, the Symposium must be cited somewhere in the book–it was only a matter of time. The narrator, a friend of Ravelstein, talks about perhaps the most hilarious, serious, and memorable part of Plato’s discourse on the nature of the human condition in the Symposium. It is Aristophanes’ myth on the nature of desire.
Note: This is not actually Aristophanes, but Plato writing about the character of Aristophanes within the Socratic story. Aristophanes’ actual writings, such as his play, Clouds, are wonderfully funny, satiric, and worthy of a read–but this story is meant to be something that Aristophanes might say–not what he actually did.
So here’s the brief synopsis:

Aristophanes, when it is his turn at the symposium to explain his beliefs on the nature of the human condition with special emphasis on desire, tells a story of the gods and the original state of humans. He claims that people once possessed two pairs of legs, arms, and two heads, etc. They were “rolliepollie” people–they rolled around, and also possessed two sex organs–some with a male and female, some with a pair of the same organs. They were intelligent and happy, and completely whole. They required nothing, and therefore set their sights on the one thing they did not have: god-like status and power, unlike their rulers on Mount Olympus. Their ambition was fierce, and the people began to try and roll up and overthrow the gods. Seeing this, Zeus threw down his lightning bolts upon the people. It did not kill them, but it split them all into two–making them beings exactly as we are today, with two legs, two arms, walking upright, and with one sexual organ. It is because we as humans remember our previous state as “whole beings”–perfectly joined to one another–that we cannot be satisfied, and seek out our other “half.” The gods then threatened all people that should they seek to overthrow again, we would be split again, and continue to be less whole and more desirous of completion than we even are now.

Of course, Aristophanes’ story is flawed in that it does not explain the origins of desire–if the “whole” people weren’t pushed by desire to overtake the gods, then we would still all (according to fictional Aristophanes) have four arms and legs each. But the story does try and explain the desire of us two-legged, single-sexed people. The most tragic part of Aristophanes’ story, and Plato’s Symposium is the irretrievable completion and simultaneous human striving for wholeness, for any scrap of it that we can grasp, knowing full-well that the possibility of fulfillment is a momentary hold at best. But that is the nature of desire–without the absence of something, there is no desire for it. And without an absence to strive for, our condition would be more tragic than our current reality. And that’s why M.Snowe doesn’t understand some people’s hopes for a heaven (usually religious people).

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