The word symposium has come to denote the coming together of great minds on important matters, usually hosted by colleges or scholarly societies. But in ancient Athens, where and when Plato composed the piece, a symposium was a far less dignified affair – it was merely a bunch of dudes getting hammered. No, really! A symposium was a gathering of men for the sole purpose of imbibing spirits – presumably ouzo.
In any case, Plato’s Symposium is the fictitious account of many prominent Greek figures tying a few on and delivering monologues on the topic of love. Aristophanes was among them, a prominent comic playwright of the era, and his account is deemed to be the comic relief of the piece. He sets the humor aside here and changes the subject:
Our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. There was a kind composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female. The form of each person was round all over; each had four arms, and legs to match these, and two faces perfectly alike. The creature walked upright, and whenever it started running fast, it went like our acrobats, whirling over and over with legs stuck out straight, swiftly round and round.
Now they were so lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods. Thereat Zeus and the other gods were perplexed; for they felt they could not slay them, nor could they endure such sinful rioting. Then Zeus said “Methinks I can contrive that men shall give over their iniquity through a lessening of their strength.” So saying, he sliced each human being in two.
Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half in longing for his fellow would come to it again; and then would they fling their arms about each other and in mutual embraces yearn to be grafted together. Thus anciently is mutual love ingrained in mankind.
Well, when one happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life.
No one could imagine this to be the mere amorous connection: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express. Suppose that Hephaestus should ask “Do you desire to be joined in the closest possible union, that so long as you live, the pair of you, being as one, may share a single life?” Each would unreservedly deem that he had been offered just what he was yearning for all the time.
We pass our whole lives together, desiring that we should be melted into one, to spend our lives as one person instead of two, and so that after our death there will be one departed soul instead of two; this is the very expression of our ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Love.