(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - An Excerpt from the 'Symposium' by Plato

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Mirror of Eros. Bronze mirror with outer lid showing Eros embracing Dionysus, 4th century BC. Recovered from a tomb in the necropolis of Aigai at Vergina, Central Macedonia, Greece.

From Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Footnotes omitted.

5.7 Plato, Symposium 178A–185C, 189C–193D, 199E–212C, 216A–219E

This dialogue describes a dinner party held at the house of the tragic poet Agathon on the occasion of his first dramatic victory, in 416 B.C.E. Following a suggestion by his beloved Phaedrus, Eryximachus proposes that each guest deliver a speech in praise of the god Eros. The speeches are recounted many years later by a character named Apollodorus, who was not present but heard about the party from a guest named Aristodemus.

[178] They all agreed with Socrates, and told Phaedrus to start. Aristodemus couldn’t remember the exact details of everybody’s speech, nor in turn can I remember precisely what he said. But I can give you the gist of those speeches and speakers which were most worth remembering.

Phaedrus, as I said, began something like this: “Eros is a great god, a marvel to men and gods alike. This is true in many ways, and it is especially true of his birth. He is entitled to our respect, as the oldest of the gods, as I can prove. Eros has no parents, either in reality or in works of prose and poetry. Take Hesiod, for example. All he says is that in the beginning there was Chaos ‘. . . and then came the full-breasted Earth, the eternal and immovable foundation of everything, and Eros.’ Acusilaus agrees with Hesiod, that after Chaos there were just these two, Earth and Eros. And then there’s Parmenides’ theory about his birth, that ‘Eros was created first of the Gods.’ So there is widespread agreement that Eros is of great antiquity. And being very old he also brings us very great benefits. I can see nothing better in life for a young boy, as soon as he is old enough, than finding a good lover, nor for a lover than finding a boyfriend. Love, more than anything (more than family, or position, or wealth), implants in men the thing which must be their guide if they are to live a good life. And what is that? It is a horror of what is degrading, and a passionate desire for what is good. These qualities are essential if a state or an individual is to accomplish anything great or good. Imagine a man in love being found out doing something humiliating, or letting someone else do something degrading to him, because he was too cowardly to stop it. It would embarrass him more to be found out by the boy he loved than by his father or his friends, or anyone. And you can see just the same thing happening with the boy. He is more worried about being caught behaving badly by his admirers than by anyone else. So if there were some way of arranging that a state, or an army, could be made up entirely of pairs of lovers, it is impossible to imagine a finer population. They would avoid all dishonor, and compete with one another for glory: in battle, this kind of army, though small, fighting side by side could conquer virtually the whole world. [179] After all, a lover would sooner be seen by anyone deserting his post or throwing away his weapons, rather than by his boyfriend. He would normally choose to die many times over instead. And as for abandoning the boy, or not trying to save him if he is in danger—no one is such a coward as not to be inspired with courage by Eros, making him the equal of the naturally brave man. Homer says, and rightly, that god breathes fire into some of his heroes. And it is just this quality, whose origin is to be found within himself, that Eros imparts to lovers.

A nude youth plays the aulos for a banqueter. Attic red-figure cup by the Euaion Painter, c. 460–450 BC. Paris, Musée du Louvre, G 467.

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