Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XVII

Two Kinds of Music and the Two Aphrodites in Plato’s Symposium…

The Celestial and the Vulgar Aphrodite…

Medicine as Music…

A Healthy Climate…

     The theme of the two kinds of music, to which we shall return in due course, was regularly conjoined with that of the “two loves”.  The latter was commonly mythologized as the opposition between the two Aphrodites and Eroi, and was another enduring literary and philosophical topos.

Like just about everything in classical antiquity that does not go back to Homer, it originates, once again, in Plato.  The locus classicus is Plato’s Symposium, the Banquet, that is, set at the house of Agathon in celebration of his winning of the laurel for dramatic poetry.

A banquet being, comme d’habitude, the prelude for some diverting post-prandial conversation, one of the guests proposes that each should rise in turn and offer a speech in praise of Eros, the great god of love.  The first to so oblige is Phaedrus, to whose speech the next speaker, Pausanias, objects, however, that “we should not be called upon to praise love in such an indiscriminate manner”.  Rather, as he continues:

If there were only one Love [Eros; here, the common noun as well as the god], then what you said would be well enough; but since there are more Loves than one, you should have begun by determining which of them was to be the theme of our praises.  I will try to amend this defect; and first of all I will tell you which Love is deserving of praise, and then try to hymn the praiseworthy one in a manner worthy of him.  For we all know that Love is inseparable from Aphrodite [a pun:  allegorically; biologically], and if there were only one Aphrodite there would be only one Love; but as there are two goddesses there must be two Loves.  And am I not right in asserting that there are two goddesses?  The elder one, having no mother, who is called the heavenly Aphrodite–she is the daughter of Uranus; the younger who is daughter of Zeus and Dione—her we call common; and the Love who is her fellow-worker is rightly called common, as the other Love is called heavenly. (Symposium 180c f.)

Pausanias then goes on to explain the moral implications of the parentage of the two goddesses:

The goddess who is the mother of this [the vulgar] Love is far younger than the other, and she was born of the union of the male and female, and partakes of both.  But the offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part—she is from the male only;…and the goddess being older, there is no wantonness in her.

Having been born of a father but no biological mother—like Athena from the head of Zeus, and indeed like most of the redeemer-gods of antiquity, including Jesus—the heavenly Aphrodite has no taint of feminine sensuality about her, and neither does the Love that she engenders.  That love, accordingly, is itself “masculine” and of the “masculine”:  of the promising youths who are befriended by elder sages so as to inculcate within them virtue, wisdom, and a love for philosophy, but more generally of “the masculine” as a symbol of reason and its spiritual kin in the invisible world of ideas.

By contrast, “the Love who is the offspring of the common Aphrodite is essentially common”, as Pausanias scoffs, tautologically.  “His is the love of the body rather than the soul”, of “money or political power”, and other “seductions”, that being in themselves impermanent, can hardly inspire an amity that is other than fleeting and self-interested.


The next encomiast of love in the dialogue is Euryximachus, a physician who (in accordance with a psychological type that was long ago diagnosed by Jung) is utterly incapable of distinguishing himself from his professional persona.  After applauding Pausanias’ observation that there are two kinds of love, Euryximachus thus addresses them while at the same time “honouring his own art of medicine”:

In the body there are by its nature these two kinds of love; the state of bodily health and the state of sickness are confessedly different and unlike, and being unlike, they have loves which are unlike; so the desire of the healthy is one, and the desire of the diseased is another.  As Pausanias was just saying, to indulge good men is honourable, and bad men dishonourable; so it is with the body.  In each body it is right and proper to favour the good and healthy elements (and that is what is called the practice of medicine), and the bad elements and the elements of disease are not to be indulged but discouraged.  That is what the physician has to do, and in this the art of medicine consists:  for medicine may be briefly [!] described as the knowledge of the loves and desires of the body, and how to satisfy them or mortify them; and the best physician is he who is able to separate fair love from foul, or to convert one into the other; and he who knows how to eradicate and how to implant love, whichever is required, and….

Euryximachus, as you can see, is a man of titanic pomposity, so absorbed with the importance of what he does, that he finds in everything that is worthy in the world an analogy to it, and he draws that analogy in such obvious, exhaustive, and excruciating detail as to induce drowsiness.  We’ve all met his type at parties.  I quote this passage at length for no other reason than to give you an example of Plato’s comic art, a feature of his dialogues that is too often overlooked.

In any case, even Euryximachus must eventually get to a point that Plato wants his readers to ponder.  As he continues, he notes that he who

can reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution and make them loving friends, is a skillful practitioner.  Now the most hostile are the most opposite such as hot and cold, bitter and sweet, moist and dry, and the like.  And our father Aesculapius [legendary founder of medicine], knowing how to implant friendship and accord in these elements, was the creator of our art…Anyone who pays the least attention to the subject will also perceive that in music there is the same reconciliation of opposites; and I suppose that this must have been the meaning of Heracleitus…for he has it that the One is united by disunion, like the harmony of the bow and the lyre…What he probably meant was that harmony is attained through the art of music by the reconciliation of differing notes of higher or lower pitch which once disagreed…For harmony is a symphony [in Greek, literally “a coming together of sounds”], and symphony is a kind of agreement…In like manner, rhythm is compounded of elements short and long, once differing and now in accord; which accordance, as in the former instance of medicine, so in all these other cases music implants, making love and concord to grow among them; and thus music, too, is a science of the phenomenon of love in their application to harmony and rhythm…

This salubrious harmony shows the heavenly Aphrodite at work, whereas the state of sickness, the body’s inordinate love for one extreme or another, is the handiwork of the bad physician, the earthly Aphrodite.


Here we can observe well enough how the foundational mytho-philosophical topoi of antiquity develop and attract originally unrelated ideas into their orbit. We should remember (inasmuch as we have encountered it so many times) the primordial cosmogonic mythos, according to which the creation of the world consists in the ordering of an original state of “chaos” in which the elements earth, water, air, and fire, as well as the contraries cold and hot, wet and dry, were in a state of “war” or mutual aggression, invading each others provinces.  The rational allocation of the elements to their proper jurisdictions and the pacification of their hostilities is a state that was conventionally described as “Justice”, “Love”, or “Harmony”.

Euryximachus now merely applies to the health of the body the same musical metaphor.  Just as the elements of which everything material in the cosmos is constituted were originally in a state of chaotic opposition before being disposed by the cosmogonic Logos in symphonic harmony, so the elements of which the human body is composed (the four “humours”, as they came to be called) transgress each others boundaries when the body is in a state of disease, until the Physician (whom the self-congratulatory Euryximachus thus compares to the Creator) composes its morbid strife.

Euryximachus cannot fail, of course, to expand upon the analogy:

…Whence I infer that in music, in medicine, and in all other things human as well as divine, both loves ought to be watched as far as may be, for they are both present.  The course of the seasons is also full of both these principles, and when, as I was saying the elements of hot and cold, moist and dry, attain the temperate love of one another and blend in chastened harmony, they bring to men, animals, and plants health and plenty, and do them no harm; whereas the wanton love [i.e., of the “vulgar Aphrodite”], getting the upper hand and affecting the seasons of the year, is very destructive and injurious, being the source of pestilence, and bringing many different kinds of diseases on animals and plants; and also hoar-frost and hail and blight are wont to spring from the mutual disproportions and disorders caused by this love, which to know in relation to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies and the seasons of the year is termed astronomy.

Here, then, we see the cosmogonic mythos extended to meteorology and beyond, to the health of nature in general:  like the pre-cosmic state of chaos, like the diseases of the human body, the extremes of climate (tempest, flood, frost, famine) and the pestilences they cause are the consequence of the disharmonies caused by the vulgar Aphrodite.  (As you can see, the impulse to rationalize climatic anomalies long antedates our modern myth of “global warming”.)

Being a self-absorbed windbag, Euryximachus is the perfect character to put into whose mouth a statement of universal correspondence, since for him, everything must correspond to his own profession of medicine.  And indeed it does:  the whole health of the cosmos is dependent upon the harmonizing of the seasonal extremes, which harmony is carefully sustained by ministrations of the right sort of love from the Arch Physician, the celestial Aphrodite.  But if the vulgar Aphrodite should sneak into the universal consulting room or relieve her on her cosmic rounds, the world develops symptoms of hoar frost or drought, and everything in it sickens with pestilence, blight, and disease.