McLuhan and Plato 8½ – Gigantomachia in the Symposium

Plato’s treatment of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias (the battle of the gods and giants over the nature of reality) in the Sophist is discussed in McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia. In the Symposium, Plato repeatedly reverts to the topic but more allusively:

You must begin your lesson with the nature of man and its development. For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as [we have] at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two…

The number and features of these three sexes were owing to the fact that the male was originally the offspring of the sun, and the female of the earth; while that which partook of both sexes was born of the moon, for the moon also partakes of both.1 They were globular in their shape (…) since they took after their [spherical] parents. Now, they were of surprising strength and vigor, and so lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods; and the same story is told of them as Homer relates of Ephialtes and Otus,2 that, scheming to assault the gods in battle, they essayed to mount to high heaven.3 Zeus and the other gods debated what they should do (…) Then Zeus, putting all his wits together, spoke at length and said: ‘I can contrive [a way] that [this now spherical mankind], without ceasing to exist, shall give over their iniquity through a lessening of their strength. I propose now to slice every one [of the three kinds] of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs [instead of circulating].4

Our original form was [spherical and of three kinds] as I have described, and we were entire [whole]; and the craving and pursuit of that [now lost] entirety is called Love [Eros]. Formerly, as I have said, we were one; but now for our sins we are all dispersed [cut in ½ by the gods] (…) and we may well be afraid that if we are [again] disorderly towards Heaven we may once more be cloven asunder [down to ¼].

Diotima: ‘You are a person who does not consider Love [Eros] to be a god.’
Socrates: ’What then can Love be? A mortal?’
‘Anything but that.’
‘Well what?’
‘As I previously suggested, between a mortal and an immortal.’
‘And what is that, Diotima?’
‘A great spirit, Socrates: for the whole of the spiritual is between divine and mortal.’
‘Possessing what power?’ I asked.
‘Interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one. (…) God with man does not mingle: but the spiritual is the means of all society and converse of men with gods and of gods with men, whether waking or asleep. Whosoever has skill in these affairs is a spiritual man; to have it in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical. Many and multifarious are these [interrelating] spirits, and one of [the greatest of] them is Love.’

Notable characteristics of Plato’s thoughts on the gigantomachia are displayed in these passages:

  • Being — reality — is 3. In the Symposium: sun-earth-moon; male-female-hermaphrodite; immortals-mortals-spirits. In the Sophist: gods-giants-child. The 3rd is always the fundamental mixture or bond of the other 2, the ‘both together’.
  • The main question‘ concerns the relation of 3 to 2. On the one hand, the 3 cannot do without the two: it is their combination or harmony and without them it itself would not be.5 On the other hand, the fall into 2 represents the loss and even the death of the 3. The 3rd lives through death.
  • Human beings have an original relation to the 3 even under the reign of the 2 (“as in common arts and crafts”). For the 2 and the 3 imply each other. The 2 requires relation (a 3rd factor!) in order to be 2 — “the medium is the message” — and the 3 requires the 2 in order to be 3 (both because it is their harmony and to avoid falling into an undifferentiated 1) — “the medium is the message”.
  • Division — 2 — is the mark of revolt against the original configuration of the 3. The amelioration of the revolt consists in the re-version or re-turn from the point to the sphere, from linearity to circularity, from the mechanical iteration of the limit, the πέρας, in search of the ultimate limit, to the end-less circular generation of the original forms (subj gen!): the ἄπειρον.6 
  • The possibility of reversion and retrieval is original due to the interrelating power of the third form. Humans are this power — and its denial. Zeus: “I propose now to slice every one [of the three kinds] of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs’…7

What is at stake in and through these 3-fold descriptions is ontological perception — the perception of Being (dual genitive!). The transition to this perception cannot succeed by way of beings — even by piling Ossa and Pelion on Olympus. Instead, a flip or Gestalt-switch must be made to come from Being — ‘where’ we always already are, of course — to beings.

The means or medium of relation to Being is first of all at work in Being. Otherwise it could not be. It is through this dynamic third that beings first of all eventuate from Being. It is on the same pathway of ‘from’ that beings are able to take the course of ontological perception.

Ontology as big-B Being and the ontic as little-b being are linked by the 3rd which is at work in Being, and in being, and in-between Being and being.

Plato in describing Being itself is at the same time describing the way to  Beings for beings. But the way to = the way from.

Ontological perception situates itself in the 3rd through what McLuhan designated as “pattern recognition”. 

The pattern recognized is that of the prior 3-fold. Dual genitive.


  1. The moon partakes of both the sun and the earth, since it illuminates like the sun, but does not do so from itself, like the earth.
  2. Ἐφιάλτης (“nightmare”, literally “he who jumps upon”) and Ὦτος (“insatiate”) were the Aloadae, the sons of Aloeus. Their plan was to pile 3 mountains (Olympus, Ossa and Pelion) on top of one another to gain access to the heavens and to confront the gods in battle there. This version of the gigantomachia joins it to the story of Babel and the resulting disbursement of the sexes by Zeus in the Symposium version of the gigantomachia is cognate with God’s disbursement of language through the destruction of the tower of Babel. The three mountains of the Aloadae are mentioned in Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1) before the ‘brothers’, Hamlet and Laertes, kill each other in a similar way to the mutual slaying of Otus and Ephialtes brought about by the gods.
  3. A surprising variation on the Aloadae cycle had them, instead of rude giants, as culture bringers in the role usually assigned to Prometheus. Here they were priests of the muses, founders of cities and teachers of culture. This variation of the Aloadae myth serves to bring Prometheus into the context of the gigantomachia.
  4. The result of Zeus cutting each of the 3 original sexes in half was that only 2 sexes remained. The halves of the third sex of the ‘both together’ gender were now either male or female, just like the halves of the all-male and all-female ones. In this way, the originally 3 kinds of humans lost their family relation with the sun, earth and moon, in regard to their shape, mode of motion and number. But notably, what Zeus decreed in this way merely reiterated what the 3 genders of humans had already de-cided on their own, namely, to cast aside their original relation with the gods, as expressed in rites and sacrifices, and to attack them instead.
  5. “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” (‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951)
  6. The ‘unlimited’ is end-less circularity, the ‘limited’ is repetitive linearity attempting to find its de-finitive end. What is at stake is the nature of the πέρας. Is it transitive or, in the end, intransitive?
  7. The transition from 4 legs (‘supports’ or ‘grounds’, as well as ‘modes of motion’) to 2 amounts to a denial or forgetting or slaying of the mediating 3! Hence it is a denial of the 3-fold gigantomachia form of Being — even while carrying a gigantomachia out!