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Love is an eternal theme in literature and culture. Its sources come from ancient times. It is not for nothing, that two outstanding Greek writers, Plato and Sappho investigated love, Eros and gave mortals advice on how to deal with it.
Cult of Knowledge and Cult of Femininity as Origins of Eros
Plato disclosures a physical love. Firstly, it narrows horizons and aspires only to pleasure. Secondly, it brings to grasping relations. The only desire of a loving human is to enslave the object of love. Plato’s love helps to pass the first steps of the philosophical road. According to Plato, the tragedy of intimate love is eternal, because it often overshadows the main thing: body overshadows soul, a separate human and his beauty overshadows the beauty of the truth and being. The truth of love is to follow the way of love like philosophical way and see the soul behind the body, everlasting beauty of virtue, and idea behind the beauty of transient love. And such way will bring to good. This is the main point in Plato’s understanding of Eros. Thus, he gives advice not to avoid Eros and love, but to treat them as a means of reaching good and virtue.
Sappho uses particular epithets to depict Eros. In fact, such epithets are common to a person, which has fallen in love. Such a state of deep affection is described as languorous and bittersweet. The point is that Eros is depicted as a god of double nature: kind and severe, bitter and sweet. When Eros captivates somebody, Sappho advises addressing Aphrodite for help. The goddess can hear only the voice full of love. Only such a voice can achieve heaven because love is the highest feeling. If somebody calls the goddess with a languid, passionless voice, she will remain deaf to helpless supplication and no help will be obtained.
The Symposium is Plato’s philosophical book. It deals with many topics, one of which is love. Its form represents a group of speeches by a group of men, gathered at a symposium, an all-male wine party. The most honored speaker is Socrates. He says: “The only thing I say I know is the art of love“ (177d8-9). He claims that he was taught by Diotima, by her philosophy of love.
The topic of love is closely associated with knowledge, and Socrates highlights that to become a Philosopher, in other words, a Lover of Wisdom, is the highest point to long for. Eros is felt for a person, but afterward, contemplation accompanies it. So it turns into an appreciation of beauty, existing in beloved, and even into an appreciation of beauty as it is. Physical attraction is not considered to be an essential part of love.
The main point of interlude in the Symposium is that love excites neither the possession of the beautiful, nor of the good, but it entails striving for them.
Concept of Platonic Love
The speech of Socrates, representing the concept of Platonic love, can be divided into the part dealing with the nature of Eros and the part dealing with the effects of Eros. The essence of love is striving for something that lacks. The effect of love represents a movement upwards for contemplation of eidos, which is the highest purpose. Thus, Eros is interconnected with Eidos, love with knowledge and wisdom. The unity of erotica and vision of the forms begets spiritual strive for the beautiful, and consequently, to the Beauty itself. The ideas of Diotima of Mantinea, a female seer, make ground for a concept of Platonic love. Socrates calls her “the one who taught me the art of love” (201d5).
Eros is intermediate, it is not full knowledge or complete ignorance, moreover, Eros is between gods and mortals. The mythos about the birth of Love proves it. The god Resource was seduced by the goddess Poverty, thus Eros was born. He shares the natures of the parents: need, lack from mother and craftiness, intelligence from father. So he lacks beauty and goodness. Diotima then proceeds to the human world. Most humans are ignorant. Some are ignorant of their ignorance, but others realize it. Those mortals, who understand their lack, strive for wisdom. If they have a desire to gain wisdom, they are called lovers of wisdom (204b). After that, Diotima describes the erotic activity, teaching a lesson in “the correct way to go or to be led by another to the art of love” (211b7-c1).
The effects of Eros can be found in people, seeking that is good forever because it will bring happiness and well-being; striving for the beautiful and longing for immortality; and contemplation of eidos.
The risk is associated with the notion that real happiness is immortal. Humans can achieve it only by begetting for children and begetting in the soul. Only in the last case, men find true, real happiness. Mortals try to preserve the object of their happiness by means of giving birth. Eros longs for immortality and good through the beautiful (207a). If Eros lives within the body, temporal duration is achieved, procreation, sexual reproduction. If he lives in the soul, virtue is born. The love of a single beautiful body regenerates into a love for all beautiful bodies, and, at last, into the love for the beautiful. The beauty of knowledge leads to a love of wisdom, and the highest stage is achieved. It represents the Beauty itself, immortal, eternal.
Sappho’s View of Eros
Sappho was famous for her love poetry. Inspired by the ancient cult of femininity and freedom of feelings, she glorified Eros and attracted attention to his double nature: that of giving luck and that of torments. “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me sweet-bitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up…I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me…” (Sappho). In her poetry personal emotional experience is intertwined with the depiction of feelings and scenes, created by her vivid fantasy. Sappho’s lyric is based on motives of love and separation, intense passion, naked feelings, expressed with extreme simplicity and vividness. Eros in her perception is a terrible primordial force. The very epithet “sweet-bitter” implies that Eros is beautiful, but cruel towards his victims.
Eros possesses Sappho. Every time he attacks her, Sappho feels confidence ruining. All sensations leave her, and she raves and dies. She calls herself “one whom the Muse of Love hath betrayed!” Passion destroys one organ of her body after another, like a disease. The soul is not given as many places as in Plato’s conception. Sappho’s art is straightforwardness and sincerity. It is truthful. She does not shame any feelings.
Sappho’s object of passion is inaccessible. “Do I strain, nor I hope on passion’s wings” (Sappho). Before Sappho, Eros did not flame. He excited feelings, warmed heart. He was inspired for sacrifice, tenderness, voluptuousness, bed. But he never reduced to ashes, destroyed. Everybody, who experienced him, was given courage, delight, and sweetness of regrets.
Thus, love brings confusion and perplexes. It combines oppositions: delight and bitterness. Eros represents a double-face idea and should be treated with carefulness, but Sappho advises everybody to experience Eros. After the storm, unembittered clear skies can be found. And gold dreams settle in the devastated heart. The dark power is turned into delight. Gnawing fire turns into light. And Sappho’s poetry turns into the triumph of the soul. There is no point in resisting Eros; on the contrary, only experiencing him shows real depth of life.
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Thus, we see that Plato and Sappho had somehow different approaches to Eros. While Plato advised thriving for the beautiful, ascent to wisdom and eternity, Sappho glorified immersion into depth of passion, dark powers of delight and tournament. The purpose of love as the attainment of immortality borders on the longing for enjoyment and possession of knowledge adjoins possession of beloved objects. Plato assumes Love as Good, and Eros in Sappho’s poetry represents a force of double nature, bitter and sweet at the same time. In conclusion, ancient Greeks considered love an essential part of human life and devoted it to their hearts and minds.
Plato. “Symposium.” Classics Archive. Web.
Sappho. “Quotations.” Web.
Sappho. “The Torments of Love.” Online Library of Poems. Web.