Plato, The Symposium

“…Love is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire. Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty.”

Plato, The Symposium

Written between 385 – 370 BCE, the Symposium is one of Plato’s most famous works, and is appreciated for its dramatic literary form as well as its philosophical reflections on the compelling subject of erotic love. Plato’s Symposium portrays an evening in ancient Athens at which some of city-state’s most illustrious citizens – including the philosopher Socrates, celebrated authors of comedies and tragedies, and the military general Alcibiades – gather to give speeches in praise of the god Eros.

Painting by Anselm Feuerbach of Plato’s Symposium depicting the arrival of Alcibiades

Although, with the exception of Diotima, the main characters in the Symposium are historical figures, the Symposium is not believed to be a record of an actual event and the speeches are not believed to reflect the actual viewpoints of Plato’s contemporaries. Rather, each of the speeches was written by Plato and should be understood as fiction; this means that we cannot attribute any of the arguments about love that are expressed in the Symposium with certainty to Plato. This is important to note since Aristophanes’ speech, due to its remarkable beauty, is often excerpted from the Symposium and read out of context, with the ideas attributed to Plato, while it is often assumed that the character of Socrates was a mouthpiece for Plato’s ideas.

François-André Vincent, Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates (1776)

Although the relationship between Plato and the character of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues is complex, the point that we cannot attribute arguments made by a fictional character to the author of that character holds true even of the viewpoints expressed by Socrates in Plato’s works. The assumption that the character of Socrates was a mouthpiece for Plato has been challenged by classicists in general and has been challenged with respect to the Symposium in particular by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Indeed, Nussbaum has gone so far as to suggest that the Symposium may be read as a critique of Socrates by his former student. On Nussbaum’s reading, the Symposium – and especially the speech of Alcibiades – unflatteringly depicts Socrates as so attached to abstract ideas that he is callous towards and cannot love individual people. This reading of the Symposium can be found in Nussbaum’s book, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, and is explored in the video lectures for this module.

Martha Nussbaum

The reading by Plato can be found below.

Audre Lorde’s reading of “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”
Audre Lorde

“The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects—born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic”

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) was an award-winning poet, an influential feminist and womanist theorist, a civil rights activist, a professor, and one of the founders of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Lorde’s writings in feminist theory frequently confronted the racism of white feminists. For example, in one of her most famous essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde argued that the unacknowledged racism and heterosexism of white feminist academics was tacitly dependent on patriarchal logics of domination and was thus destined to fail or, at best, could only benefit a small minority of privileged women. Another of Lorde’s widely-read essays, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” is similar to “Uses of the Erotic” in that it explores how women of colour can channel often denigrated feelings in empowering ways.

Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and would die of this disease in 1992. In the years between her diagnosis and death, she wrote extensively on disability and illness in conjunction with her ongoing reflections on racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions.

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, and Adrienne Rich in 1980 

In many ways Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” is as far removed from Plato’s Symposium as we can imagine: not only was it written over two thousand years later, but it is a lesbian feminist text whereas Plato’s work focuses on love between men and is at times misogynist. Nonetheless, Lorde refers to the ancient Greek concept of eros in her essay, and shares with Socrates and Diotima an understanding of erotic love as ideally spiritual. In particular, Lorde elevates the erotic above what she sees as merely physical, vacuous, instrumentalizing or “pornographic” forms of sex. Lorde also follows Socrates and Diotima in seeing the erotic as an experience that extends beyond physical sex. While for Socrates and Diotima, eros is ultimately a spiritual pursuit or philosophy, for Lorde, the erotic is like a condensed bead of dye that, once cracked open, can seep into all aspects of our lives, infusing them with colour.

In “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde compares the erotic to a sensual description of colouring margarine with yellow dye.

In distinguishing between the erotic and the pornographic, Lorde is building on and transforming a distinction that has been used in courts of law to protect sexually explicit art and literature from censorship. Defenders of sexually explicit art and literature have insisted that while such work is “erotic,” the very fact that it is art means that it is not “pornographic,” and thus it should not be censored in the ways that pornography tends to be. Where the line between sexually explicit art and pornography lies has been famously difficult to determine, however, raising the question of whether this is a legitimate distinction at all. For some, the erotic/pornographic distinction is elitist, relying as it does on notions of “high art.” Erotica is said to have artistic merit or aspirations and to entail an aesthetic experience for the viewer or reader. In contrast, pornography is said to aspire, not to be art, but rather to be a mere masturbatory aid.

A cartoon shows a man reading the sexually explicit literary writings of Henry Miller on the left and watching pornography on the right. The reading of sexually explicit literature is labeled “erotic” whereas the consumption of sexually explicit material online is labeled “pornographic.” Miller’s writings were censored for their explicit sexual content but also defended as art. When the man is reading Miller his face is composed and he is apparently not aroused; he remains in an intellectual register while engaging with art, even when it is explicitly sexual. In contrast, when the man looks at pornography he not only has a less composed facial expression but a box of tissue on hand.

As you listen to Lorde’s reading of her essay, consider what you think about this distinction between the erotic and the pornographic and what Lorde does with it. Do you accept a distinction between pornographic and erotic experience, or would you defend pornography as itself a source of erotic pleasure? If you accept the distinction between the pornographic and the erotic, how do you understand the difference? Do you see the erotic as an empowering experience, as Lorde describes?

Audre Lorde reading “Uses of the Erotic”