Aristodemus: One more thing, Glaucon. Apollodorus further recounted that in the morning while Socrates, Agathon and Aristophanes conversed about comedy and drama, he overheard another set of speakers. Apparently on the other side of the dining hall, a flute-girl entered with some commotion, attracting the attention of a slave who just refilled the water krater. The final exchange is as followed.
Slave: Ah, finally, the sweet scent of your freshly spiced pea-soup. Sad, only now, at the end of our master’s celebrations that someone put their ladle in your broth.
Flute-girl: (Turning back to him): It was a paltry sauce, really, and now I must, like you, clean my leaky pot. (Flute-girl raises her tunic, grabs a cloth from the basin and cleans her vagina) Truly, though, an unsatisfying ending to your symposium.
Slave: I see you make reference to my master’s coy humor, granting us the right to host the party just before the men dismissed you. Well, I take no blame for their lack of taste, choosing to glut themselves on words rather than you and your colleagues’ cakes and figs.
Flute-girl: Thank thundering Zeus that wretch Alcibiades arrived and put an end to their buggering nonsense.
Slave: It was a lot of clap-trap.
Flute-girl: Imagine those spoiled rots knowing anything of Eros. That snub-nosed prick being the worst of them, a thief of my mistress’ own yarn… I can’t wait to tell her what he did tonight, hiding in her wool like Odysseus, making her golden sheep into some nobody’s – oh, what did he call her? – stillborn lambs.
Slave: I believe it was something like god-honored. Diotima, yes?
Flute-girl: That’s right. What a farce. God-honored. What’s wrong, philosopher? Can’t admit your torch was lit by a whore’s hearth? What a strange puppet, that Socrates, and my lady, a powerful ventriloquist, throwing her honey all the way across town, so that those useless asses could lick it up. (Sitting down to count her coin.) Wasted, this evenings efforts were, on words.
Slave: (Pouring the two of them a drought of wine) Well, at least you avoided Alcibiades’ sausages. I had to clean them all through his tirade, stinking of drink and farting something unholy. Now, he sleeps in the garden, having stumbled there to take a piss, already dirty again with mud between his toes and wet moss in his hair.
Flute-girl: Stupid prig. (Leaning in to whisper.) The girls say his torch is split and won’t light so he is always stumbling in the dark, sometimes needing slaves to bring him and the girls home. Damn shame, that crooked cock.
(The two toast and sip just before the noise of the streets begins to louden. In the background Aristophanes and Agathon fall asleep, leaving Socrates to sit by himself.)
Flute-girl: (Setting her drink down and collecting her coin.) Well, another cock crows and I am off to the market to deliver the goods to my lady.
(Flute-girl tosses a tip to the slave before sauntering toward the exit. In the background, Socrates gets up from the newly sleeping Agathon and Aristophanes so that the flute-girl and the philosopher meet in the doorway. The latter appears to offer the former escort.)
Flute-girl: Well, walking alongside is better than having you behind me. But, let’s set things straight, you codger. What were you on about, belaboring that faulty image of my lady last night.
Socrates: Yes, I agree, I may have mesmerized the men with your Calypso’s enchanting songs and, so, to purify myself from her magic, we should begin again. If we are going to, as you say it, ‘set things straight,’ ought we first to define the straight? Otherwise, we may perchance discuss the curved, taking a round-about route to the issue rather than the straight. In order to avoid this wayward pathway, do you not think it is necessary my sweet and gentle nightingale, to give me a definition of the straight? Be careful not to just tell me this is straight or that is straight, gesturing to every instance of the straight that you, in your work, must come across. Rather, give me a definition which makes clear what is straight in all appearances of the straight? Flute-girl: Oh, for fucks sake, just walk, I’ll have none of your billy goat’s breakfast.
Okay, so this semester, after the first day on the Allegory of the Cave and bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress (where the main point is to get students to see education as a form of personal transformation and awakening to their own power), I decided to start my Human Nature course with issues that highlight the importance of sex, gender and sexuality (with reference to how these are obviously tied to race).
Yet, an imagined interlocutor may ask: “Why start a course on Human Nature with feminist texts? Shouldn’t you begin with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant…any of the big guys who help us understand that we are all beings who share a common trait? Aren’t we all rational souls reaching toward the good (Plato/Aristotle)? Aren’t we all thinking things, somehow otherwise than our bodies (Descartes)? Can’t we all discover the universal which reveals the human duty to see each other as dignified rational agents (Kant)? Come on, Danny. Aren’t you doing your students a disservice by beginning with gender issues? You aren’t teaching them the history of philosophy, let alone the main themes about human nature. You can’t start this way! Yes, we get it. Sexism is a problem that some students need to know about. It’s a hot topic, for sure! Lots of students currently care about gender and race issues but, come on, you need to teach them about the human condition, not the particularity of the feminine condition or other forms of embodied diversity, not the particularity of your/their own political agendas!! Take my advice, if you want to rock the boat, lady, begin with the standard accounts of human nature so that they have a solid foundation before getting into the tricky contemporary issues. Only in this way can they make a properly informed decision about human nature, which isn’t tainted with your liberal politics!”
And, so, I imagine myself smiling and nodding at this person, thinking all the while: “Ah, okay, you self-righteous prick.” I would think that but then remember that they are thinking this way because they truly don’t understand. They, too, care about teaching and learning and they have been taught and believe whole-heartedly that the history of ideas can be extracted from the history of patriarchy, sexism, racism, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, etc. They believe that at the core of things the beauty of philosophy and the ideas it advances can be saved from such historical problems.
And, so, I genuinely smile and begin again:”Dear friend, you may be right that the history of ideas is important and that philosophies like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant are helpful and important and that students should engage them. Nonetheless, all those so-called “standard” or traditional accounts of being human were written by men and perpetuated by men as obviously right or worthy of, at least, consideration. Where are the voices of women and people of color? What have they said about what it means to be human? Why is it that when women write about the human condition and it just so happens to emphasize sex, gender and sexuality as relevant, it is seen as “particular” or not “standard” but that when men write about the human condition without discussion of the relevance of sex, gender and sexuality, it is seen as a more relevant account or seemingly a neutral theory? I don’t get it? Why aren’t the accounts of these men, also particular, also steeped in their own biases, their own political agendas?”In other words, whether we begin with Plato or Kant or contrariwise de Beauvoir, we are beginning with philosophies that are unique to the individual and their experience of being human. As you will see when I come to blog particularly about Plato and his erotic world, he, too, was radically concerned with understanding and engaging with what has historically been deemed the “Other” to reason, the mad embodied weak feminine, while someone like Kant advanced the dignity of the human person while also explicitly emphasizing that woman is ‘less than’, dependent on men for their freedom, they are needy. See, many men who are considered to be the traditional philosophers have gendered philosophy, constructing the so-called neutral ideas with an eye to valorizing the status of their own privileges. Aristocratic “swinging d#cks” who had the leisure and support, could see themselves as disconnected from the body, they are minds and, unlike women and those consigned to the working class, they are ‘otherwise’ or ‘more than’ their embodied condition. They possess the ability to conquer the irrational feminine other, discipline it into submission.
Student project for the section. Human Nature Spring 22
The task of being human, from this masculine privileged position, is dominance over the “Other” and so the so-called neutral view of being human seeks to “enlighten” women and other marginalized groups to the their awesome power, their amazing autonomy, objectivity, knowledge which creates and sustains an instrumentalized world where all things that aren’t human [read white male] are things to be used, appendages to the Good of the Subject. In short, this seems like a pretty particular view of the human condition, a view that seems to excise some pretty fundamental aspects of being human, twisting and perverting those things in to problems.
Student projects for this section of Human Nature Spring 22
So with this particularity in mind, I don’t think it odd to begin with authors like Simone de Beauvoir’s (=SB), Genevieve Lloyd (GL), Luce Irigaray (LI) and Marilynn Frye (MF), women who take seriously the construction of the history of ideas from the site of dominating and repressing the Other, the so-called overcoming of the animal/nature in man, the irrational, the multiplicity, the messy, the chaotic. Unlike those who are regulated to the sphere of the natural, the domestic, the emotional, the dependent, men can be neutral, objective, rational, political, free and independent and as such the ideal human is a man. So, beginning with SB students engage her arguments about how human beings seem to be tethered to binary systems of thought wherein there is the Self and the Other wherein historically men have seen themselves as the Subject while women are always defined relative to him. She is a particularity, while he is the universal and neutral. He is independent, autonomous (whether that be in life or in relation to the body), while she is dependent and needy. This dependence is both construed as one’s who are in need of others for their good but also one’s bound to the body. She can’t escape her embodiment and, as such, she is subject to her emotions, her physical precarity. Ultimately, she, as tied to the body, becomes the marker of sex. As opposed to the neutral being, she is the sexed being and, as such, she is responsible for being the site of sex and sexuality. Obviously, then, she’s essentially the sex object, the inessential thing to be used versus the essential human being able to transcend such things. He’s the ‘more than’ while she is the ‘less than.’
Student projects for this section of Human Nature Spring 22
As we work through the Introduction to the Second Sex, the goal or the light bulb moment, I am hoping to foster, centers upon understanding that the construction or demarcation of woman is not about what women are in themselves but that woman has always been defined relative to men whereby women are compelled to fit or conform to this image of herself. As SB says, “One is not born a woman but becomes one.” And so, I loved reading the following from a student who tied SB to Plato and bell hooks’ understanding of the nature of education:
“De Beauvoir’s essay is somewhat acting like the sun in the “Allegory of the Cave”, exposing the systematic structures of oppression that encase us all, but we are often unable to see by ourselves. De Beauvoir writes how “bourgeois women” are in “solidarity with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians”, bringing us back to hooks’ point on the importance of discourse on a subject and interpersonal connection to bring about meaningful change (de Beauvoir 8). In remarking about the “solidarity” of women with men over other women, de Beauvoir is remarking on the lack of any such discourse, perpetuating the patriarchal cycle. Of course, in order for there to be discourse, awareness of the systemic oppression must be present in the first place.” Student reflection from Human Nature Spring 22
Another student wrote:
“Throughout these readings I began to feel hopeless. Beginning with Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I started to realize how this idea of gender and sexuality governs every aspect of my life. How engrained it is in me from my comfort level around different people, to the way I decide to dress, even down to the positioning of my feet. The battle between wanting to be found attractive but also not actually wanting that kind of attention. I felt really trapped and was questioning every thought I had and wondered where it came from and why it was even there to begin with. And if that thought was really me or something I had been conditioned to think. Throughout this frustration my next thought was to fully rebel, not conform to anything, to never wear makeup again, never do my hair, to stop wearing bras forever (honestly though, why do they even exist?). But then I remembered that part of the discussion in class when Dr. Layne asked, if that isn’t still participating in this patriarchal system. And she’s right. So then how is it even possible to break free? If conforming perpetuates these ideals, but so does rebelling? I felt stuck in that cave that Plato was talking about, just staring at the shadows on the walls and even though I knew they weren’t real, I still couldn’t leave.”
Keeping in mind, that through the course of the course, I hopefully help students gain a variety of possible ways we might resist these constructions (ideas and tools from authors as diverse as hooks, Lorde, Plato, Lugones), for the present moment I want them to keep unpacking the barriers, the prisons that all persons associated with Otherness are often locked into. Consequently, the next two classes are centered on Lloyd, Irigaray and Frye, who each contribute to showing the ubiquity of sex and gender not only in philosophy but in almost everything we do.
Student Project for the Unit
Of course, Lloyd and Irigaray’s texts are difficult for students insofar as both demand a background in the “traditional” philosophy that I haven’t given them – concession to the above prickly interlocutor. Nonetheless, they were able to follow the basic ideas, seeing how the Pythagorean Table of Opposites, Plato’s myth of Timaeus, Aristotle’s Form and Matter or Bacon’s horrifyingly gendered discourse about the active power of science to for nature to reveal herself, expose her naked corpse, are discourses which are saturated in demonizing the feminine. In other words, philosophy and the construction of “Reason” has always and repeatedly been steeped in gendered discourse, a discourse picked up and carried over into our conceptions of knowledge and truth. “Reason” for many philosophers has been construed as something other to feminine Nature or Chaos, other to the passive object it seeks to expose. Reason [read the rational male] is able to disconnect from the body; Reason [read rational male] is the Form that gives shape to the empty feminine matter; Reason [you get it] must be hard and penetrating, getting to the real in all that confused mess that is nature, discovering her powers so that we can wield them to our advantage. Reason is about real knowledge versus all those other forms of thinking or knowing which are more subjective, oh those silly soft sciences. We ended that class with the question of whether the idea of Reason was itself something constructed with an eye to valorizing masculinity as that which dominates the other and, if so, does Reason necessarily need to be thought of so narrowly. What would Reason look like outside of patriarchal conceptions of power, of needing an Other to subject?
“Lloyd’s paper she mainly focused on that what is considered rational or reasonable is also associated with masculinity. In the other paper we read for that day, any theory of the Subject by Irigaray, I honestly didn’t understand much of it when I first read it. This was mainly due to her “mimicry” style of writing she used, to undermine and expose contradictions (the only way to be rational is to write the way scholars do). But one thing in her paper that I did resonate with was the idea of “reflection of the subject onto the other”. I think there is often a power dynamic between the “subject” and the “other”, the subject feels compelled to control the other, and the other feels compelled to follow. This is not only unjust for the other, but it causes problems on the subject’s side too, like insecurity about not living up to the norm. This is why I believe this “reflection” of the subject happens, its because the subject is insecure about there own subject-ness, and they will lose power otherwise.” Student quote from Human Nature 22
Finally, the last day of content was Frye’s Sexism who famously begins her essay with a problematic but regularly advanced idea that sexism is about making decisions based on irrelevant distinctions like sex and or gender. Yet, this definition does not satisfy her. Rather, the text revolves around exposing the fact that sex and gender are always relevant in almost everything we do whether it be in how we introduce persons, talk to them, socialize, work, forms we fill out, ways we dress, etc. Sex marking and announcing is everywhere, inescapable and it is demanded, we must announce and mark ourselves at all times or we are unintelligible. Bows on babies are a must. Don’t you know that we must know what genitals a baby has – put a damn bow on that thing! Otherwise how will I know how to treat the baby?
Student projects for the section. Human Nature Spring 22
Frye, of course, connects this to the demand that we constantly perform our gender, a performance which is regarded as natural in those who conform to the gender/sex binary but as a performance in those who don’t. In other words, the natural is shown to be constructed as also a performance and, as such, she further questions the ‘naturalness’ of the sex binary, helping students see the possibility that sex itself has been reified into a binary, a binary that men (and those conforming to the patriarchal system) exploit so as to reinforce the ‘naturalness’ of domination, objectification and the subjection of women as ones who ‘by nature’ should be consigned to the world of being the domestic and reproductive rather than productive. This leads to Frye’s conclusion and the subject of another essay she advanced, Compulsory Heterosexuality, where she emphasizes that the sex gender distinction is related to the particular sexuality of the masculine, a sexuality based on the need to dominate. One student noted this and wrote:
“We ended the class on the topic of masculinity being tied to heterosexuality. A man’s sexual preferences are associated with his masculinity, therefore if one does not identify as being straight his masculinity is questioned. Why is being heterosexual considered normal when there are other ways for one to have sexual pleasure? Why are we obsessed with reproductive sex? Dr. Layne explained that the reason for this is because reproductive sex allows us to reinforce the idea that we need two genders, and support a system of domination and control for men.”
In the end, you can see that we had a lot of fun the first few weeks of class. Ultimately, students have not yet engaged explicitly with “erotic philosophies” but, rather, they are being shown the grounds for why erotic philosophies which emphasize connection and contact, a life of seeing the beauty of transformation and change, of being the kinds of beings who are both/and, both a something and a nothing, both a unity but also a multiplicity, have been silenced and erased under the conditions of patriarchal, phallogocentric, racist, colonialist, capitalist, heteronormative systems. In other words, if we are to live the kind of lives advance in Plato’s Allegory or bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress, we must see how men have historically created a world were all there is is domination, where the only power is ‘power over’ others versus empowering power. Such an “empowering power” under the conditions of patriarchy (all systems grounded in binary oppositions where one side must dominate the other) is silly. As my dickish interlocutor might say:
“Don’t be so naive, Danny. Your philosophy is so feminine, so touch-feely. Don’t listen to her, the “real world” does not care about such silly fantasies of love and connection. They are beautiful myths but, kiddos, they don’t really matter. What matters is conforming to the systems in place and becoming someone who matters. Someone in power or otherwise you will mean nothing!”
Basically, my silly interlocutor does not see the value in disrupting “real” value, the “real” truth that we must control, categorize, know, reduce, excise, discipline…. rather than live in a strange liminal space where ignorance and confusion, suffering and joy, contradiction and paradox are the “real” world. Oh, silly man, don’t you know these are the conditions for the so-called neutral being, the autonomous being, the dominating being. In the end, the erotic world troubles this childish conception of the human by simply exposing its frailty, i.e. the Subject, the seemingly neutral and autonomous human [male] pretending to be the fount of all knowledge, needs us to accept their truth, their reality, needs us to support them. What happens when we stop? When we laugh at their precarity? When we begin to smile at all their dickishness and its very real impotence, its inability to really mean anything because in can not be or become or produce any real value outside itself and its own narcissism, its own self-loathing.
I would like to end with a few more art projects that several students created for their assessment of the short unit.
Poem by Student 1
Philosophy of human nature
To some that might be a real major
Walked into the class as a stranger
Sat down with a bunch of teenagers
Read some mysterious text
Bell Hooks do we know who was next?
De Beauvoir on the Basis of Sex
Hold on man let me get to the text
“in many black settings I have witnessed the dismissal of intellectuals, the putting down of theory and remained silent. I have come to see that silence is an act of complicity, one that helps perpetuate the idea that we can engage in revolutionary black liberation and feminist struggle without theory.”
In summary Bell Hooks stated this
Ignorance is bliss
If you’re not trying to help the problem
Then your butt needs to be on the list
De Beauvoir hey now look what about her?
Second sex woman, many, different, other
“ she is determined and differentiated in relation to man while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the subject he is the absolute. She is the other.“
Who said the woman was the other?
Things that we need to uncover
Equality for one another
Painting by student who identifies as a white cis male He expressed during class discussion, that the conditions of patriarchy leave men, like himself, with a dark whole in their hearts. Another poem by a student:Is it the infinite road for power?Or the prime instinct for significance?Are we just a collection of experiences?Or the authentic author of our actions?Have we lost ourselves in the search for truth?Or have we killed the man for seeing the sun?What is a planet without water?What is love without sacrifice?What are males without females?What are females without males?
In the 2nd century AD a literary author and philosopher, Lucius Apuleius, crafted a story that allegorizes the relationship between the human soul (psyche) and desire (Eros). This happens to be the first real day of class for my students and this is the first year that I have used this text as the opening of the semester. The following translation was available for students: http://www.john-uebersax.com/books/Uebersax-Cupid-and-Psyche-2018.pdf
While ostensibly a classical romance story, the myth of Psyche and Eros can be analyzed allegorically from a (Neo)Platonic perspective, outlining in broad strokes some amazing details about what it means to be human. Beginning first with the comparison between Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Psyche, Soul, I argued that Aphrodite is comparable to the Form of Desire while Psyche is her embodied image. The form/image distinction has a long history in Platonism and so I used the two erotic feminine principles to emphasize the idea of there being an absolute, eternal or unchanging principle or Form that substantiates the particular, temporal and changing image or reflection. To put this in more Neoplatonic language (and, yes, it’s okay if you just hear “blah, blah, 25 cent word, blah…” because I am about to use some fancy cocktail party jargon), arguably, Psyche represents the living image of the noetic reality of Life, i.e. the intelligible-intellective principle of Neoplatonic metaphysics. Soul (Psyche) is that which images the form of Life in eternity and absolute being via its own descent into the psychic world of temporality and becoming. To return to more student-friendly language, Aphrodite qua Absolute or Perfect Desire can also be identified with Absolute or Perfect Life, life which is always life (pure relation that can always substantiate connection), never dying, never becoming anything other than itself, life. Contrariwise, Psyche, as Aphrodite’s embodied image, is life which is attached to its other, to death and becoming otherwise, life that struggles to be what it is, eternal insatiable desire (relation that can never quite perfectly connect). Psyche’s life is the life of the soul that must reach out for itself, always attempting to touch but never quite grasping or realizing her own divinity, her own perfection. In the myth, Psyche’s beauty rivals Aphrodite’s. It seems that human beings desire or find themselves more attracted to temporal, embodied beauty or life than to the Idea of beauty (absolute Life). Aphrodite’s anger gestures to our own misdirected desire. We ought to love divine beauty, the transcendent erotic principle, but, ultimately, we cannot help but to gravitate to the beauty of this world, particularly the spectacular beauty of Soul in its animation of the World and ourselves. I like this idea because human beings aren’t conditioned to think or value the immaterial or transcendent. We, like those in the story, find ourselves looking for beauty and life in the embodied, material and immanent. In fact, it may be the only way we can ever access it. We see the beauty of a dancer and we cannot help but remember or recall absolute beauty. Her movement, her grace, allows us momentarily to see that ‘something’ more. She is beautiful, but that beauty shines in such a way as to remind us that what graces her, what shimmers on the surface of her lived being, constituting our attraction, is the eternal. That is what it means to be a soul in this world. We are the beings that must move, think and create in time, but, in that moving, in that creativity, we express the divine beauty of the eternal. Next, there is Eros’ descent and Aphrodite’s hope that the Soul should be married to something ugly. What should we make of this? The descent of the absolutely erotic (the Form of Desire, Aphrodite’s original progeny) into the world of becoming is a fascinating account of the divine coming to the plane of the temporal. At first, the goal is to unite the Soul to that which Aphrodite thinks is lesser to her, the sensible. This expresses the straightforward fact that the soul’s original and premier love is or should be body and material life. Our first love, so to speak, is the fraility of dying and living in such a way that we, despite having an eternal soul, are far from divine. Nevertheless, due to Eros’ fortune, our lot is not to be attached to the material simply, to that which could never satisfy the soul completely. Rather, Eros’ own fall for Psyche suggests that the Soul will love Love itself, be attached to loving, to the erotic power that constitutes the Soul’s divine beauty versus mere attachment to corporeal beauty. In some ways, Eros and Psyche, both children of Absolute Beauty and Life Itself, mirror Aphrodite – they are forms of desire, whether it be perfect desire or the insatiable desire of the human soul. Yet, Eros and Psyche are also other to Aphrodite in their descent into the World – Psyche by necessity and Eros by divine decree. As two parts of same and other, Psyche is that power of the human soul qua human soul, while Eros is the power of the human soul qua offspring/wife of the divine. In other words, Psyche by herself is the highest desire of human beings; she solidifies the beauty of the temporal and the embodied. Moreover, when joined with Eros, absolutely transcendent desire, she connects with the eternal and incorporeal. Now, before Psyche and Eros are wed, Psyche feels the pain of despair and loneliness so much so that she contemplates suicide. Everyone admires her but no one marries her. Again, think of this qua what it means to be human. There is the highest part of ourselves, which is too much, seemingly unattainable, the beauty of the soul and its desire for the good. Yet, often we don’t think we can attain such beauty. We, like the suitors, settle for the less than, for the average, for a wedding to the lower parts of our soul. Most of us never come to identify with the highest, most beautiful part of the Soul. We settle for the average form of life and as such there is a part of us that always struggles, despairs, feels useless and worthless, going uncared for and neglected. Yes, that part of ourselves that struggles against the mad sea of despair, that part that cries with a sense of meaninglessness, that is the beauty of our psyche. She weeps from a lack of connection and a lack of knowing what she really is, the wife of perfect desire for the Beautiful and the Good. In the end, our soul must take a leap of faith, as Psyche did with Zephryr, finding herself in such a leap at the temple of Eros. Her/our faith that there is something other than our despair, our lack of connection, is what makes possible for true flourishing and enjoyment of the soul. I truly love this image. The soul’s beauty is both in its despair but also in its faith in the ‘more than’, a faith that there is true connection and authentic touching carrying us to the sacred, the house of authentic desire. Yet, recalling that the soul is not Absolute, not Aphrodite, she will not perfectly enjoy or settle into her life with Eros. She becomes lonely, she still needs her sisters, those parts of the soul attached to the material. Many philosophers who have attempted to analyze this part of the myth, often identify the sisters with things like anger, jealousy, the imagination etc. The soul often desires its own faults. Remember, as sisters they image or appear like Psyche too. In other words, they are different forms of Life, different ways of being in the world, souls that married beneath or lower than Psyche’s own marriage to Eros, a god. They are the parts of our soul that marry the material, marry the emotions and desires that come with only identifying or loving the sensible. We ought to love the sensible but not at the expense of the transcendent. The sisters are those parts of us that want true eroticism but fail, because we seek for it in places where it is not, namely in physical union, objectification, money, reputation, etc. Moreover, the sisters act as a temptation. They tempt Psyche into needing to see, needing to objectify the divine, turning him into a ‘thing’, a monster. Here we are invited to recall that Psyche’s flourishing with Eros was a time of intimate trust where the relationship was not about physical sight or touch but about authentic connection and communion. Eros wanted to be her equal. Seeing him, objectifying him as transcendent or even as a mere totem is to force Psyche, on the one hand, into seeing herself as unworthy or, on the other hand, seeing him as unworthy insofar as he could be seen, as the sisters implore, as a monster. Ultimately, our souls are always tempted into turning the divine love in us, as black feminist essayist Audre Lorde put it, into plasticized sensation. This is the human condition. We have the beautiful before us, loving us, but we cannot help but be tempted to hold it, to grasp it, to know it and in such desire we burn our beloved, scare him away. And so our souls despair once again. Psyche wanders in search of her beloved, pained and broken, angry with herself for having betrayed the divine to which she was so happily wedded, however briefly. She wanders without solace for a long time, seemingly forever. Then the divine takes pity on her, offering her challenges so as to see if she is worthy of her other divine half. The challenges often resemble intellectual activities of sorting, sifting and categorizing, symbolizing that the soul must come to the divine through philosophical activities like dialectic. (Plato often compared philosophy to activities like sorting or collecting.) Yet, even in these activities, Psyche is not alone. She is assisted in her journey by the divine, whether it be embodied in the smallest of insects or in advice that allows us to predict calmer waters. In this trust, we are reunited with the divine erotic. When the soul rises to the challenges of this world, knowingly assisted and roused by the divine, she finally becomes immortalized, held in the eternal embrace of Eros. In other words, the myth allows us to see that the soul is that which achieves its own immortality, its own absolute beauty, in loving and being married to the highest parts of herself, a task that incorporates both her own despair, loneliness and need. That descent is part of her/our power. Our soul is beautiful and transcendent precisely because she/we is/are also imperfect and insatiable. We must embrace and love for always, or absolutely, both our transcendence but also our immanence, never objectifying either, never turning the sensible or the immaterial into things. Rather, we are tasked with being married to the erotic, which can never be seen but only loved and we are called to have faith in the stability of that connection even in our darkest hour. The soul is that which always loves in such a way that it ascends and returns to the home, to the beloved, who welcomes us despite our waywardness, despite our need for help, perhaps even because we acknowledge that need and therein transform it into power.
*Erotic is a technical term for the soul’s desire (which transcends the sexual) and internal resource and even poverty, i.e. the fire within that is both nurturing but also destructive. This blog will attempt to unpack this Platonic idea but, for now, one should follow the advice of feminist poet and essayist Audre Lorde, do not confuse the erotic for the pornographic.
*Pedagogy simply means one’s methodology for teaching.
So, the first chapter of the book (after the Intro that is) focuses on a lot of the work I do in my course entitled The Philosophy of Human Nature. In that course, I am required to equip students with a basic understanding of both the main currents of philosophical responses to the question of what it means to be human but also to prepare them to internalize the Socratic dictum “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Teaching at a Jesuit university for most my career, I can say that I am, at my core, devoted to the idea that education, if it is to be called education, is about caring for the souls of the students sitting before me (yes, I said soul – I find that many people’s reaction to that word reminds me of this). This is also one of the fundamental values of Platonism. What years of work on this ancient tradition have taught me, though, is that education and teaching people to live the examined life has nothing (or little) to do with the content – in the sense of simply knowing it. In other words, my goal, in each of my classes, is not to pour facts into their heads like empty chalices and then congratulate myself for having given them my wisdom. Rather, I try to mirror Socrates who, in the Phaedrus (a Platonic dialogue on the power of Erotic madness), emphasized the power of love and caring for the individual in need before them. Consequently, in my lectures (and, yes, I am still old school and sometimes find myself lecturing) I try to speak in such a way that I am talking to each student as an individual, looking for that idea that causes them to ‘wake up’ to what it means to be human (don’t worry the answer to this is not neat or easy but I will talk about this some other day in detail). As the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said “many live as if they are asleep, turning aside to their own worlds.” So, if I am to believe Heraclitus, the goal is to wake them up, help every individual see that there is a common and shared human experience, that we are all part of something altogether amazing and revelatory and that somehow the examined life, the philosophical life, is part of that. Helping students see this is not something easily done. I am never sure what the student needs to hear or what will help them recognize the wonder of what it means to be and the unending dialogue that can ensue once we truly come to grips with what it means to be human. Everyday I walk into my classroom and hope that I will find a way to inspire each and everyone of them to discover their own fire, their own internal resource, that power that will motivate them to question, create and engage with the world and others, that power that will always sustain and nurture them even in the toughest of times. As Plato wrote the highest or divine study is “suddenly brought to birth, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, it is born in the soul and thereafter it nourishes itself” (Ep. VII 341c–d). I take this idea very seriously. I do not believe I teach anything or that any teacher teaches anything. All we can do is offer what I call ‘little appetizers’ for inspiration. The student does the rest. I find that idea can scare some, make them feel the heavy weight of responsibility. When a professor says that they will not teach them anything, the honesty of that can be frightening and downright confusing. When my oldest son complains about a teacher, I remind him of that responsibility: “Si, learning has nothing to do with who your teacher is and everything to do with your comportment to them and the things they are trying to say to you.” Honestly, Si typically rolls his eyes and mutters something under his breath when I say things like this to him. Often this dismissal makes me sad because that same piece of advice often works so well with others, mostly college students. Since Si is one of the people I love the most, more than any student in my classroom (though I do love each of them), I feel ineffective and impotent. Yet, the different response of my son helps me remember the basic truth. I am not a teacher if by teacher you mean someone who can uniformly be all things for all people, dispensing wisdom that will universally be met with aplomb. Some people just don’t have ears to hear; or my voice or way of communicating doesn’t work for certain individuals; or in the case of my son, I am his mother and, well, I can’t say anything he won’t want to rebel against. All I can do, in his case, is wait and hope and pray that one day he will meet his Socrates, one day he will be inspired to see the power and resource he has lying within. See, my own ineffectiveness before my own son reminds me of what I will be arguing for throughout this blog and book. As erotic souls we are those strange creatures who are both resourceful and impotent. As I will discuss in more detail when we examine the nature of the erotic in Plato’s Symposium and Diotima’s narrative regarding the birth of eros, each one of us is a both/and, a well of inspiration and fire alongside a nothingness, an emptiness, a horrific lack that can crush our very core, a destructiveness that can consume our desire to be otherwise, to be our erotic selves. Our task is to learn to live with that, to be inspired and motivated by that strange uncanny beauty in the face of pain, trauma, meaninglessness and, as philosopher F. Nietzsche said (albeit for different metaphysical reasons) “say yes to it.” Affirm and transform, despair and feel joy all at the same time. Yet, how that is possible, how the philosophy of the erotic is based on a fundamental way in which we conceive of the human soul and its reality, that is a discussion for another day. For now, I am satisfied for the moment and will take a shower, get ready for the day and hopefully find a tiny piece of joy that I can share with you tomorrow. Have the fun and be the Good. until soon, D
Once I learn how to navigate WordPress, this site will be devoted to exploring the power of the Erotic from antiquity to contemporary intersectional feminist theory! Wish me luck as I figure this all out!