In the middle of Plato’s dialogue the Symposium, Aristophanes follows several others, all of whom have been tasked with giving speeches on love or eros. Aristophanes prefaces his speech, once his hiccups have subsided, by saying that he will speak in a different way than those that proceeded him. Rather than giving a speech, Aristophanes provides a poetic or mythic account of origins of human nature and the essential role that eros plays in our fulfillment and even piety.
Originally, Aristophanes says all individuals are actually two people combined as one . Physically, he says we are like little round globes, each with two heads, four arms and four legs. Seemingly self-sufficient and complete unto ourselves, we think that we might rival the gods in our power. To demonstrate our error and to remind us of our obligation to piety, Zeus cuts us in half. He closes the wound by drawing all of our skin together and knotting it where our navels now are. Correspondingly, he turns our heads so that they, facing the front, can see this scar and be reminded of what we have lost. Those who were once whole are now halved and knowing their loss, they spend their lives searching for that person who might once again complete them.
Our desire, or eros, says is then born into humans, calling us to seek out that which will once again make us whole (191d). Sex, the act wherein our eros is most manifest, allows individuals to relive the experience wherein two individuals know themselves as one. However, Aristophanes notes that the moment of sexual intimacy is a kind of riddle behind which lies an oracle or prophecy (192d). In other words, the erotic activity of sex mediates or reveals something about the nature of the divine and its relationship to us.
While Aristophanes says that this oracle exists regardless of one’s sexual preference (191d-192a), he makes explicit reference to the reproductive role of sex between men and women (191c), a point that might remind us of where the wound of our navel actually originated. Pushing the image, one might realize that the roundness of Aristophanes’s first people is akin to that of a pregnant woman about to give birth and that as outlandish as Aristophanes’s speech might seem, we all actually were two in one prior to our births.
Socrates has not yet given his speech, but at the start of the dialogue he announced that love or eros is the only thing that he understands (177b). Further, in the Theatetus, he describes himself as a midwife, as someone, who while not able to give birth himself, helps others give birth to the ideas with which they are impregnated. Mixing metaphors and now dialogues, we might have a window into the oracle that Aristophanes suggests lies behind the riddle of love and sex.
All individuals, regardless of sex and sexual preference, desire to be made complete – they desire to return to the point at which they began, when they were part of a whole that was larger than themselves. At this stage, however, like babies perhaps still in the womb, we did not understand the degree to which we would be deficient in and of ourselves, incomplete and not of ourselves, but of another. Prior to the moment in which we are aware that our desire or our eros signals our lack of self-sufficiency and need for another, we are like little globe people, roaming the earth imagining that we are somehow complete in ourselves. The child within us has to be midwifed. We must be separated from our tremendous hubris or pride and made to see what it really is. Socrates thus asks everyone he meets about the thing that they, even if only secretly, think that they understand and take pride in knowing. In doing so, he reveals to them that their knowledge is incomplete, and, moreover, that its “truthfulness” neither depends on nor comes not from them, but from another source, a source that he too is seeking for and which he believes will complete us all.
Our belly buttons should remind us of our mothers as our source and beginning. Aristophanes says that they should further remind us of of the gods themselves, a further source to which we might return and which might complete us in a way that we once knew, but but did not yet understand. It is as, T.S. Elliot says, “to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
Sex of course is a means for reproduction and so in this way a reminder that we are not born self-sufficient and complete. In addition, though, and more broadly experienced, in the Phaedrus, Socrates refers to an erotic madness, such that in the height of one’s desire one seems to be “out of their mind,” to experience something that transcends one’s capacity to explain or describe, but which is filled with joy. This seems to be the oracle to which Aristophanes points us. In this moments, eros shows us something that exists beyond us and which we cannot fully possess nor even articulate, but which we might wish to hold on to forever.