Aristophanes’s hiccups have stopped, so it’s his turn to speak. Before he begins, he jokes with Eryximachus about the “orderly” effect of the “sneeze treatment” on his hiccups. Then he starts his speech with a discussion of the history of human nature. He explains that humans used to look very different than they do now. For one thing, there were three genders—male, female, and androgynous.
Aristophanes, the comedy writer, seems to be giving the rather pompous doctor some good-natured ribbing. Then he switches to a somewhat more serious tack by engaging in mythmaking—telling a story of human origins unknown in previous Greek literature.
Humans were also shaped differently, Aristophanes says. They used to be round, with four hands, four legs, two faces, and two sets of genitals. They tumbled around in a cartwheeling fashion. They were also very strong and ambitious and even made a plan to attack the gods. To stop this from happening again, Zeus decided to cut each human in half. The resulting half-humans clung to their other halves, wanting to be reunited and neglecting to do anything else. Humans started dying off as a result.
Aristophanes’s story does have a comic element and clearly isn’t meant to be taken completely seriously, yet he’s driving toward a serious point about love, rooted in humans’s deep-seated desire for unity.
Aristophanes continues that Zeus redesigned human bodies so that they were capable of having intercourse with each other. This is how “the innate desire of human beings for each other started”—the drive to unite two original halves and heal the wound in human nature. Those men who were originally part of an androgynous whole are, as a result, sexually attracted to women; the opposite is the case for originally androgynous women; and those who were halves of a female whole are attracted to other women.
Aristophanes offers an explanation for the origins of sexual attraction in humans; Zeus provided this outlet so that humans could find the satisfaction of temporary union with one another and then go about their lives, rather than pining fruitlessly forever.
Those who were halves of a male whole, however, are attracted to other men. Aristophanes describes these as “the best of their generation” because they are “naturally the bravest.” They are bold and masculine, so they also seek out these qualities in others. While “convention” may force such men to get married to women and have children, they could be quite content to spend their lives partnered with other males.
Classical Greek culture didn’t tend to view heterosexual marriage as a context for romance or deeply erotic passions, so Aristophanes’s theory doesn’t see homoerotic desire and “conventional” marriage as mutually exclusive. In any case, Aristophanes portrays men with homoerotic desires as the most masculine, or else they would not be attracted to “manly” qualities. At the same time, Aristophanes devalues women, making it clear that they’re only fit partners for lesser men.
Any person who finds his or her “other half” is overwhelmed with love for that person, Aristophanes goes on to explain. It’s not just sexual intercourse that people desire, however; they can’t even articulate to themselves all they want. But if Hephaestus could offer to weld lovers together for eternity, they would realize this is what they’d always wanted, echoing their original state as whole creatures. Thus, “‘love’ is the name for the desire and pursuit of wholeness.”
Aristophanes concludes by saying that the best earthly realization of this innate longing he’s been talking about “is to find a loved one who naturally fits your own character.” If people revere the gods, then Love will lead them toward this healing union with another person.
Aristophanes’s view, that love is the search for what is most like oneself, will contrast sharply with the view that Socrates expresses later.