Thursday, April 27, 2017

Plato: The Symposium

Overall Analysis and Themes

The prominent place the Symposium holds in our canon comes as much as a result of its literary merit as its philosophical merit. While other works among Plato's middle-period dialogues, such as the Republic and the Phaedo, contain more philosophical meat, more closely examining the Theory of Forms and intensely cross-examining interlocutors, none can match the dramatic force of the Symposium. It is lively and entertaining, with sharp and witty characterization that gives us valuable insight into the social life of Athenian intellectual circles.

From a philosophical standpoint, the Symposium is also far from bankrupt. Not only does it give us some insight into the Theory of Forms in Diotima's discussion of the Form of Beauty, but it also gives us a number of varying perspectives on love. Significantly, we see Plato rejecting the romanticization of sexual love, valuing above all an asexual and all-consuming passion for wisdom and beauty. Ultimately, he concludes, the philosopher's search for wisdom is the most valuable of all pursuits. In the Symposium, Plato values philosophy, as exemplified by Socrates, over a number of other arts which are given as points of comparison: medicine, as exemplified by Eryximachus, comedy as exemplified by Aristophanes, and tragedy as exemplified by Agathon.

The series of speeches in praise of Love are not simply meant as beating around the bush that leads up to the main event. They mirror Diotima's discussion of the mysteries, where she suggests that one can approach the truth only through a slow and careful ascent. Similarly, we can see each speech, with a few exceptions, as coming closer and closer to the truth. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that Socrates alludes to all the foregoing speeches in his own speech, as if to suggest that his words could not be spoken until everyone else had said their piece. This staggered approach to truth is also reflected in the framing of the narrative, whereby we are only able to gain access to this story through a series of narrative filters.

We should note that Socrates is the exemplar of the lover of wisdom and the lover of beauty, but is neither wise nor beautiful himself. In this way, he best represents Love, which Diotima describes as a mediating spirit that moves between gods and men. Love himself never has anything, but is always desirous of happiness, beauty, and wisdom. The same is true with Socrates. Those who follow his lead will not necessarily attain wisdom, but will find fulfillment in a life-long pursuit of wisdom. The state of having attained wisdom is represented by Diotima, not Socrates, and she speaks through Socrates as a god-like and unapproachable figure.

There is also some discussion as to exactly what is being discussed in the Symposium. The Greek word eros leaves the matter ambiguous as to whether we are discussing love in the normal, human, sense of the word, or if we are discussing desire in a much broader sense. The later speeches in particular tend toward this broader interpretation. Diotima gives what is perhaps a satisfactory answer by suggesting that, while all kinds of desire might be considered love, we normally restrict use of that term to one particular kind of desire, the desire that exists between two human beings.

Philosophy aside, however, the Symposium still makes a terrific read. Aristophanes' myth is delightful, Alcibiades' drunken antics are entertaining, and the whole narrative shimmers with life. We also get a very clear sense of the dynamics of sexual attraction and courtship--both male-male and male-female--in ancient Athens, and we are given a beautiful portrait of one of the high-points of the Athenian scene: the symposium.

N.B.: There are no natural breaks in the text as Plato wrote it, so these notes on the text have been divided artificially, sections beginning or breaking off where a new theme or topic is introduced or dropped. Because page numbers may vary from edition to edition, these sections have been demarcated according to the Stephanus numbers, the page numbers from the 1578 complete works edited by Henri Estienne ("Stephanus" in Latin). The Stephanus numbers are the standard page references in scholarly work on Plato, and most editions of his work contain the Stephanus numbers along the margins.


The dialogue opens with Apollodorus agreeing to tell an unnamed companion who is a rich businessman the famous story of the party held in honor of Agathon to celebrate the success of his first tragedy. Apollodorus retells the account he gave to Glaucon (Plato's half-brother and main interlocutor of the Republic) who had in turn heard of the party from some other, less reliable source. Glaucon had thought Apollodorus had been in attendance, but Apollodorus points out that the party took place many years ago, when he and Glaucon were just children. Apollodorus had heard the story from Aristodemus, one of the guests at the party, and had also checked some of the facts with Socrates himself.

The story begins with Aristodemus encountering Socrates, who has recently bathed and put on sandals--things he rarely does. Aristodemus inquires as to why Socrates is all dressed up, and Socrates answers that he is going to dinner at Agathon's. Agathon's tragedy won him first prize at the Lenaean festival the previous day, and while Socrates shunned the large crowds of yesterday's celebrations, he promised to join Agathon today. Socrates invites Aristodemus to join him, and while Aristodemus is at first hesitant about dropping in uninvited, Socrates persuades him that he must come.

Aristodemus and Socrates head off toward Agathon's together, but Socrates keeps falling behind, lost in thought. Socrates urges Aristodemus to go ahead, saying he will catch up. As a result, Aristodemus arrives at Agathon's without Socrates and is welcomed in alone. Agathon is delighted to see him, saying that he was looking for him yesterday so as to invite him. Aristodemus explains that he came upon Socrates' invitation, and is surprised to find that Socrates has not caught up with him. Agathon sends out a slave to find him, and the slave returns, reporting that Socrates is standing on a neighbor's porch and will not come in. Agathon orders the slave to go and fetch him in, but Aristodemus insists that Socrates be left alone: he will come of his own accord when he has finished thinking.

Aristodemus joins the other guests and they begin eating. Among those assembled, there is the young Phaedrus, Agathon's life-partner Pausanias, a doctor named Eryximachus, and the great comic playwright Aristophanes. The meal is halfway over by the time Socrates finally appears. Agathon encourages Socrates to join him on his couch so that he may share in the wisdom that came to Socrates on the neighboring porch. Socrates remarks that if wisdom could flow freely from the wiser to the less wise, Socrates should be the one benefiting from sitting near Agathon. Noting the mocking tone in Socrates' voice, Agathon suggests they might test one another's wisdom later that evening.

After dinner, Pausanias takes responsibility for organizing the drinking. All the guests but Socrates have participated in the wild revelry of the previous night and are feeling rather hung over. Eryximachus recommends that they not drink too much this evening in the interests of their health. He suggests further that they send away the flute-girl, who was to be their entertainment, and engage instead in conversation. He had been speaking recently to Phaedrus, who had lamented that the poets compose songs of praise to all the gods but Love. Consequently, Eryximachus recommends that each person present, starting with Phaedrus, make the finest speech he can in praise of Love.


The "symposium," translated literally as "drinks-party," was a central and highly ritualized part of Greek social practice. The party takes place in a square room, the andron, which is the main room in the men's part of the house. Guests at the symposium, who are always freeborn adult males, recline on couches, two to a couch, arranged in a square that allows easy conversation. The party is sharply divided into two parts. First, there is the meal, which is not a particularly ritualized affair. Once the meal is done, the drinking begins. First, the guests are cleaned and perfumed by attendant slaves, and then unmixed wine is poured out and tasted, while the guests sing hymns in honor of the gods. One member of the party--Pausanias in this case--is appointed "symposiarch," and determines in consultation with the other guests exactly how much wine will be drunk and to what extent the wine should be mixed with water. Normally, the subsequent drinking is accompanied by conversation, singing, and speeches. Male and female slaves provide music and other entertainment, and serve as "escorts," flirting with, though rarely having sex with, the guests. That Eryximachus sends away the flute-player suggests that this party will be more serious than normal, and philosophical discussion will take the place of erotic stimulation.

The Symposium is framed by several levels of narrative distancing. Apollodorus tells the story to his companion, but the story he tells is actually a retelling of the story he told Glaucon. This story has in turn been gleaned from Aristodemus, and confirmed by Socrates. Glaucon also notes that he has heard a version of the story. Plato, the actual writer of the dialogue, is nowhere found in this cast of characters, so there must be a further level of retelling by which Plato himself learns the story. All this framing serves two immediate purposes. One is to suggest the extreme importance of this dialogue. It is being discussed years after the fact, there are many versions floating about, and everyone wants to hear the story told. The other purpose is to distance the narration from the events themselves, suggesting that Plato's dialogue is not a direct transcription of factual events so much as an imaginative retelling that is probably more fiction than fact. The characters in the dialogue are celebrating a victory for the dramatist, Agathon, and the dialogue itself is a drama, though it treats of philosophy rather than tragedy. This framing also reflects another theme of the dialogue, which is the difficulty of attaining the truth. There are several layers of narrative, and in the story itself we get several different speeches. In both cases, we are given the sense that truth is not something we can be given, but something that must be sifted through, something we must work to acquire.

Agathon's victory comes at the Lenaean festival, one of the dramatic festivals that were so central in Ancient Greek society. Tragedians such as Aeschyllus, Sophocles, and Euripides competed in these festivals presented in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ritual dance, and patron of drama and poetry (Plato, too, wrote some plays, though none of them survive). The winner of the festival became a major celebrity, and was widely celebrated.

Plato was generally skeptical about poetry, and we find expression of this mistrust in Socrates' sarcastic remark to Agathon about his great wisdom. Tragedy purports to lay wisdom upon great crowds of people directly and immediately. As this dialogue and its framing devices suggest, Plato is of a mind that wisdom is something that must be worked toward, not something that can be given easily. Socrates suggests that wisdom is not something one can gain by osmosis, simply by sitting near someone wiser than oneself. Implicit in this suggestion is the claim that tragedy does not transmit wisdom, and that only careful philosophical thinking can be a successful teacher.

We find further evidence of this claim in Socrates' delay in arriving at the party. He gets lost in thought and must stand still where he is and think until he has worked his way through a problem. This kind of inner dialectic is clearly common with Socrates, as Aristodemus is already familiar with it. We might liken Socrates' behavior with that of the stereotypical "absent-minded professor" who cannot deal with day-to-day activities as a result of being so caught up in intellectual pursuits. Socrates does not feel compelled to abide by social norms, valuing philosophy over propriety.

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