November 26, 2016
GSI Jerilyn Sambrooke
The Figure of the Child and Plato’s Symposium
The child is the ultimate representation of possibility, innocence, and love. Perhaps the aforementioned characteristics contribute to Plato’s decision to personify “Love” in B. Jowett’s translation of the Symposium. In Socrates’ monologue, Socrates chronicles Love’s life from conception; introducing Love’s parents and explaining their characteristics to deepen the audience’s understanding of Love's origin. In an elaborate extended metaphor, Love is personified and given not only parents but a personality and a purpose. From two distinct individuals, a child named Love is intentionally conceived and reared to display particular characteristics of two parents. In the speech, Socrates credits the story to a woman called Diotima.
As told in the Symposium, a god named Poros (meaning Plenty) and a woman called Penia, or Poverty, conceive Love on Aphrodite's birthday, after a begging Penia seduces (in a consensually unclear manner) a drunk Plenty with intentions of improving her status through the pregnancy. While Poros (Plenty) represents excess in all things, including wealth, pleasure, and wisdom; Penia (Poverty) represents poverty in both riches and reason. Both parents are personified in that their names represent their character traits exactly. Love embodies characteristics from both parents. Love is poor in material wealth and is “always in distress,” never at peace, yet always searching for answers. Plato explains that because of being conceived on Aphrodite’s birthday, Love shares her passion for beauty and sees her as a mentor, further shaping his values. Children are the products of their environments, with values and temperaments determined by parents and mentors.
The father of a god and a mortal, Love classifies as neither. Because of who his parents are, Love incorporates features of both Poverty and Plenty. Through his parents, Love is introduced as an oxymoron, as the state of poverty and the state of plenty are two complete opposite conditions. Through the development of the figure of the child, the audience sees several smaller rhetorical figures employ.
Through the figure of the child, Plato assigns the experience of love an original and consistent story, function and purpose. Just as no two relationships are alike, no two people will experience love exactly the same way. Love’s personification reinforces his multidimensional and complex nature. In personified form, ambiguity is allowed in the description of Love. Specifics such as mortality and goodness do not need to be concrete. Additionally, the figure of the child reinforces the innocent nature of Love. Love's characteristics are a result and responsibility of his influences, Poverty, Plenty, and Aphrodite. Plato writes, "... He is never in want and never in wealth; he is a mean between ignorance and knowledge, and of this too, his birth is the cause; for his father is wealthy and wise, and his mother is poor and foolish." Love's parents are to blame for his shortcomings and to thank for his quirks. The oxymoronic parents contribute to the fickle spirit and nature of love, while the influence of Aphrodite helps maintain stability and focus on beauty and passion.
When love is depicted as a child with only basic traits, Plato allows for a life of possibility for Love. In the monologue, the audience learns that like his mother, Love has no shoes and no home, but rather finds home in many different places. Unlike with an inanimate figure or an older figure, children represent growth and possibility. While Love does not inhabit a single home, it will be possible for him to find a home in many different places. The human power given to Love through personification is magnified through the figure of the child because an additional emphasis is placed on the creation and the creators of Love.
Ultimately, the child encompasses Love’s delicacy, complexity, and power while acknowledging capacity for success and failure; life and death. Both the child and love represent the epitome of beauty, making the child an exceptional figure.