179. Eros vs. Thanatos, Part 6: Memory vs. Oblivion in Plato’s Symposium

Thanatos, death, has swallowed many things into oblivion. It undoes and thwarts so much growth in the world. It may ultimately prevail…but Eros, love, isn’t going to make it easy.

Plato, in his dialogue on love Symposium, does a lot to connect love to memory and life. In the introduction we learn that Apollodorus, a devout follower of Socrates and lover of wisdom like Socrates himself, will be narrating, from memory, the story of the symposium that occurred. He is narrating it to a friend who appears to stand in for the reader. He can do this so well because, as he says, he recently told the story to Glaucon. But originally he heard it from Aristodemus, another devout follower of Socrates, who also loves wisdom. We begin to see that love has a role to play in preserving the memory of something and rescuing it from oblivion.

Aristodemus’ narration also included Socrates’ recollection of Diotima’s account of Eros or that spirit which exists in-between the mortal and immortal. This account tells us that Eros has the power to drive all mortal life towards immortality so it can, to some extent, possess the good forever. Consider this powerful passage in which Socrates recollects a portion of Diotima’s speech:

“Marvel not,” she said, “if you believe that love is of the immortal, as we have several times acknowledged; for here again, and on the same principle too, the mortal nature is seeking as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is only to be attained by generation, because generation always leaves behind a new existence in the place of the old. Nay even in the life, of the same individual there is succession and not absolute unity: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval which elapses between youth and age, and in which every animal is said to have life and identity, he is undergoing a perpetual process of loss and reparation-hair, flesh, bones, blood, and the whole body are always changing. Which is true not only of the body, but also of the soul, whose habits, tempers, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears, never remain the same in any one of us, but are always coming and going; and equally true of knowledge, and what is still more surprising to us mortals, not only do the sciences in general spring up and decay, so that in respect of them we are never the same; but each of them individually experiences a like change. For what is implied in the word ‘recollection,’ but the departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all mortal things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another? And in this way, Socrates, the mortal body, or mortal anything, partakes of immortality; but the immortal in another way. Marvel not then at the love which all men have of their offspring; for that universal love and interest is for the sake of immortality.” (translated by Benjamin Jowett)

Mortals must participate indirectly in immorality by leaving behind an image of themselves through offspring, great works, or great deeds: something to be remembered by. Diotima suggests that immortality may indeed be achievable should one follow Eros to the extent that one’s soul has a vision of the eternal Beautiful Itself. Such a vision would directly transform the soul and, rather than leading to mortal images of immorality, would make the soul actually immortal. In Plato’s Phaedrus this vision of the Beautiful Itself is described as a recollection. 

Some of these ideas are present in Plato’s Republic where we learn that those who love wisdom in this life will, when given the opportunity in the afterlife to choose what kind of life they will lead next, remember enough to understand the complex implications of the lives being offered and will, like the warrior Er who died and came back to life, not drink from the River of Lethe (forgetfulness) and make “a good crossing.”

Take note that in all these examples love isn’t just connected to memory; it is connected to living passionately for something. We truly remember by passionately living in the guiding light of that which is remembered. For example, to love Socrates is to remember him; and to remember him is to love wisdom and do philosophy. The obsessive love Apollodorus and Aristodemus have for Socrates does help them remember him. But it also leads them to act differently: they end up radically changing their lives and come to take philosophy seriously. Apollodorus states that before he met Socrates he was drifting “aimlessly.” But once he fell in love with Socrates he saw that he “was the most worthless man on earth” and gained a new purpose and passion. Plato, of course, loved Socrates as well and wrote many dialogues to help us remember him. And our engagement with these dialogues facilitates a love of wisdom that can lead to virtuous action. The stories live on, the ideas live on, and we have an active role to play in a process of renewal which continues to evade the oblivion of death. Indeed, this essay itself is part of the renewal.

Stepping back from Plato’s specific examples we see a general notion emerge: love, in helping us remember and passionately act, aids life in its escape from the jaws of forgetfulness and death. 

Think of the things you have loved through your life and how this love has helped you remember them. Also, think of how this memory has contributed to the preservation of your identity over time. To be sure, some details are always left out or even lost forever: Aristodemus himself forgot a few speeches despite his intense love of Socrates and philosophy! But when we love something we can hold onto it more and, in this holding, we can resist the constant coming to be and passing away of both our bodies and minds that Diotima described above. Lastly, think about how love has led you to strive for so many things and, in doing so, contribute to the preservation of these things.

Of course, these insights should give us pause to consider what it is that we love. Eros gets its value from the value of that which it pursues. So we don’t want to end up loving the wrong things and thus forgetting the good in ways that lead to vicious action. Such a path makes us more selfish, less lovable, and therefore more forgettable. But good people touch others with the beauty of their virtuous actions and altruistic motives. They love the right things and thus become lovable themselves. And this enables them to live past their death through the others they touched.

Thanatos may ultimately prevail…but Eros isn’t going to make it easy.

For parts 1-5 of Eros vs. Thanatos, go here.

One reply on “179. Eros vs. Thanatos, Part 6: Memory vs. Oblivion in Plato’s Symposium”

  1. Pingback:Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Vintage 2020) | A Just Recompense

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