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Plato's symposium on loveReporting a drinks-party at which learned Athenians discussed Love, Plato’s famous philosophical text was given to him by his older brother, Glaucon, having obtained accounts from secondary sources who were told about it by Socrates and another guest. The symposium was hosted in 416 BC by the tragedian Agathon to commemorate his victory in a drama competition, the Dionysia: Socrates was executed in 399 BC and, around 20 years later in about 380 BC, Plato composed The Symposium.

Plato’s Symposium on love was supposedly re-introduced to the West at the Florentine Council of Ferrara in 1438, when Cosimo de Medici shared the manuscript recovered from Constantinople before its fall. Much discussed since then, it attracted the opprobrium of Neitzche, Heidegger and Popper, and the support of many more including Alfred North Whitehead who described all subsequent Western Philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Many modern philosophers believe that the most succinct (and according to at least a few, the most accessible) post-modern critique of this work was produced in 1932 by four Marxian commentators including, importantly, Zeppo.

Presented as a philosophical discussion set to music and running intermittently throughout the 1932 film “Horsefeathers,” each of the four Marx Brothers presents a different contribution made by one of the major participants in the original Athenian event. This foray into Classical criticism runs in parallel to, but somewhat independent of, the film’s main plot in which antagonists from Darwin College attempt to steal football plays to win a grudge match against their arch rival, Huxley College, whose president is played by Groucho Marx. The link between 19th Century biologists Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), is not explored in this black-and-white comedy feature.

The sequences can be viewed online.

Zeppo, the handsome one, romances Connie Bailey (played by Thelma Todd) by singing a Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby song entitled “Everyone Says I Love You.” Wholly smitten, Zeppo plays the part of Phaedrus in the Symposium, demonstrating that participant’s argument that Eros inspires the lover to win the admiration of his beloved (although in this case, in her boudoir rather than on a battlefield). Employing a logical fallacy called Argumentam ad Populam (Latin: appeal to the people, implying truth in popularity) the matinee idol attempts to explain how she should submit to his romantic overtures because everyone, apart from the object of his affections, knows the depths of his ardour:

“Everyone Says I Love You;
“The cop on the corner and the burglar too;
“The preacher in the pulpit and the man in the pew
“Says I love you.”

She looks unimpressed even as he expands the group beyond government, the criminal underworld, the clergy and civil society to include the young and the elderly, sailors at sea, different socio-economic strata and even other species (non-human) that supposedly vouchsafe his love for her:

“Everywhere, the whole world through:
“The king in the palace and the peasant too,
“The tiger in the jungle and the monk in the zoo
“Says I love you.”

Still she is unconvinced. Several scenes later Harpo, although mute, nevertheless manages to summarise the position of Pausanius, a legal authority who argued that Love comes not from Aphrodite Pandemos (‘common to all the people,’ and by implication sexual and vulgar) but rather Aphrodite Urania (of the Heavens), and so pure Love is ever “free from wantonness.” Harpo whistles the tune accompanied on his harp, while clutching a bouquet of flowers which he then feeds in a most pure and un-wanton manner to his cart-horse while nibbling on the blossoms himself.

Chico, giving a piano lesson to Connie Bailey (still played by Thelma Todd), assumes the rhetorical posture of Alcibiades, the handsome Athenian statesman, orator, general, turncoat and lecher. In The Symposium, Alcibiades aspires to physically seduce Socrates but he is rebuffed and humiliated. Similarly, Chico, in his stage-Italian accent, begins his definition of Love while leering suggestively:

“Everyone says I love you:
“The great big mosquito when-a he sting you;
“The fly when he gets stuck on the fly-paper too
“Says I love you,

“Every time the cow says-a moo,
“She a-makin’ the bull a-very happy too;
“And the rooster when he hollers cocka-doodle-e-doodle-e-doo,
“Says I love you.”

Chico strays temporarily into describing Love as a money-making strategy before returning to lust:

“Christopher Columbo, he write the queen of Spain a very nice-a little note,
“And-a he’s a-write “I love-a you, my dear”
“And he gets himself a great big a-boat:
“He’s a wise-a guy.

“What do you think Columbo do,
“When he’s-a comin’ here in 1492?
“He say to Pocahontas acky-fatchie-gatchie-goo,
“That means ‘you little son of a gun, I love you.’”

Overcome by his lower passions, Chico breaks into baby-talk and tickles her chin as Connie Bailey recoils: his and Alcibiades’ attempted definition of Love has failed. (Analogies between Thelma Todd’s character and various personae in Plato’s Symposium remain as yet unaddressed by scholars).

In the song’s fourth and final musical utterance, Groucho assumes the mantle of Socrates who was told by the female seer, Diotima of Mantinea, that while true Love unites people in order to better worship the Divine, Love is more usually based on artifice and deception driven by the desire to procreate. Groucho lounges under a parasol at the front of a small boat, strumming his guitar as all the hard paddling is contributed by Connie Bailey (also played by Thelma Todd). Ever the cynic, he cuts to the chase:

“Everyone says I love you,

“But just what they say it for I never knew.

“It’s just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who

“Says I love you.

“Take a pair of rabbits who

“Get stuck on each other and begin to woo;

“Pretty soon you’ll find a million more rabbits who

“Say I love you.

“When the lion gets feeling frisky and begins to roar,

“There’s another lion who knows just what he’s roaring for!

“Everything that ever grew:

“The goose and the gander and the gosling too;

“The duck upon the water when he feels that way too

“Says quack quack quaackkkk!”

Interrupted by a passing duck, Groucho concludes this reprised philosophical discussion and expresses his victory (in a manner recalling Bishop Berkeley) by throwing his Gibson guitar overboard.  The modern Symposium is over.

Among philosophy students the debate still rages over who should be credited with introducing Plato’s material into a Paramount Pictures comedy. Co-writer Bert Kalmar (1884-1947), also responsible for the 1923 hit song “Who’s Sorry Now?,” was not known for his command of classics, having run away from home at age ten to work as a magician in a tent-show. His tin-pan-alley song-writing partner, Harry Ruby (1895-1974) was a failed baseball player turned vaudevillian pianist. Co-writer Will B. Johnstone (1883-1944) was educated as a cartoonist and known for his popular ditty “How Dry I Am,” rather than for more conventional scholarship. That leaves the fourth man on the writing team, S. J. Perelman (1904-1979), whose witty, literary swordplay, larded with recondite references, enchanted readers of The New Yorker for more than 30 years. The author of “Dawn Ginzberg’s Revenge,” and “No Starch in the Dhoti, Sil Vous Plait,” may have been responsible. Or Groucho himself.

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Published: Feb 25, 2011
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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3 replies to this post
  1. Steve,
    Just when I think you have already displayed your most incisive and imaginative wit, you fire off another volley that delights even more. I enjoyed the song (I did indeed pull up the You Tube version) and the wonderful pictures my imagination conjured up of toga clad discussions in Athens. You may be the Chesterton of our age.
    Warm regards,

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