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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Symposium - Plato, Christopher Gill I suppose one should read some Plato to be considered an educated person. I really want to be an educated person, but this is an example of a book I would never get around to reading if I weren't pushed by some situation outside of myself. In this case the push came from a book group of which I am co-organizer. I am fortunate that the group has attracted participants with knowledge of the classics that exceeds my own. Therefore, my rough impressions from reading the material have a chance to be enhanced by the group's discussion.

One comment I heard toward the end of our group's discussion was that we hadn't talked much about love given the fact that the book is about love. That pretty well describes the book for me. It's a long drawn out description of an all night bull session among the intelligentsia of 4th Century B.C. Classical Athens, and the topic of the evening is love. Monologues are given by five different individuals with Socrates being the last with the ultimate conclusion that love is a desire for the perfection of the soul. He describes the pursuit of this goal passing from the love of many to the love of one, to the love of the soul, and then to the love of knowledge and wisdom, thence to laws and institutions, and finally to the forms. The goal is something above us, something Else (with a capital “E”).

After Socrates is finished a drunken Alcibiades enters the room and gives a sixth monologue about love that is in debased contrast to the lofty words of Socrates. I've learned from previous reading of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and Plutarch's Lives that Alcibiades was a famous, and later notorious, Greek who subsequently changed sides multiple times in the Peloponnesian War.

All the characters in the story are real life Greeks of the classical era. Plato wrote this book about thirty years after the time of the story, and was thus writing from the perspective of knowing about the fall of Athens to the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War. The dialogue as written by Plato is constructed to reveal themes that deal with the spectrum of issues and problems of Greek society in his troubled times.

The following are some lecture notes published by The Teaching Company. I found them helpful and decided to leave them here in case any readers of this review want a more detailed "blow-by-blow" account of the book.

Lecture Fourteen
Symposium—The Pride of Love
(from: "">Plato, Socrates and the Dialogues" by Michael Sugrue, Ph.D., published by The Teaching Co.)

The Symposium rightfully holds the position of the greatest dialogue after the Republic, due both to its wonderful poetry and to its treatment of multiple themes, the key of which is love. Among the dramatis personae, we will encounter many familiar names from other dialogues, as well as some famous figures from Greek society of the time. Again, the target of the dialogue, set at an all-night drinking bout, is what Plato takes to be the errors in the teaching of the Sophists, which has corrupted the youth of Athens. Thus, we can expect Gorgias and the other Sophist teachers to come in for a dialectical beating here, and we are not disappointed. Likewise, the poet Aristophanes and the political leader Alcibiades (both enemies of Socrates) are held up to ridicule by Plato as a kind of pay-back for their role in Socrates’ death. The crux of the dialogue is love, or more particularly, what is the best kind of love. The characters other than Socrates are used to show gradations of misguided, self-seeking and ultimately futile love. Plato skillfully does this not only with his poetry, but the physical actions and even disguises in which he places the characters. In the end, the disinterested, higher, “sober” love of Socrates shines forth as the other players essentially sink into an abyss of drunkeness and ignorance. A careful consideration of this magnificent dialogue will reveal other themes that Plato often played on dealing with the entire spectrum of human (Greek) society of his troubled times.

I. After the Republic, the Symposium is considered to be the greatest of the Platonic dialogues. The main theme is love, but other important themes are introduced, especially towards the end.
A. There are levels of symbolism which must be analyzed in the context of the other Platonic dialogues.

B. Many of the interlocutors and characters of the Protagoras (see Lecture 10) are present in Symposium. Also making an appearance is Aristophanes, the great comic playwright, and also Alcibiades.

C. The setting is a banquet in honor of Agathon, a young poet (taught by Gorgias, the Sophist) whose tragedies have just won first prize in an Athens religious festival.
1. Socrates gets into his good clothes to go to the party. But he stops along the way because he has fallen into a contemplative reverie.

2. The early discussion of the seating arrangement is important because of the idea of the proximity of bodies (cf. to the Platonic idea of the proximity of souls). It must also be understood in light of the homosexuality of that stratum of Greek society in that late 5th century B.C. time period.

3. We must also keep in mind the “corruption” theme, since these young men are either poets or have been educated by Gorgias, or both. They decide to give speeches in honor of the god of love, Eros. This is Plato’s device to reveal their souls from what they love.

4. Socrates comes in late and sits next to Agathon (which means “good” in Greek). This is in itself symbolic.

5. They decide not to let this degenerate into a wild drinking party, since they are still hung over from the last night’s carousing. This shows their immoderation and “bronze” love that features self-indulgence. There is a “soul-sickness” afflicting these people.

II. One after the other, the men give their speeches to Eros, straddling piety and bodily interests and desires.
A. Phaedrus, beloved of Eriximachus, student of Hippias, makes a very uninspiring speech, in which the gods or souls are never mentioned. It seems he didn’t learn anything from Socrates. His speech praising selfish, calculating love is well received. It is clear he has a “small” soul and has no concept of real love.

B. Pausanius, lover of Agathon, praises selfish, pederast love. He advocates changing the nomos (law) of Athens in favor of the homosexual lover.
1. He is speaking like a sophist, trying to gratify himself and change the external world rather than to concentrate on his soul.

2. The guests at the banquet applaud the speech which is slightly better than that of Phaedrus.

C. The next speaker is Aristophanes, the comic playwright.
1. We must recall that Aristophanes has targeted Socrates in his plays, making fun of him and even making him look like a Sophist or worse (cf. to the Apology, where Socrates says his real accusers are the poets and playwrights who have made him appear to be a Sophist).

2. Thus, Plato is getting his “revenge” by showing Aristophanes in a bad light.

3. Aristophanes is unable to speak due to his over-indulgence. There is a short comic interlude when Aristophanes begins to hiccough and asks Eriximachus to cure him and/or speak next. This hiccoughing and the cure of sneezing are symbolic of “spasms” of desire that characterize Aristophanes.

4. Eriximachus, a doctor, begins to speak of the unity of opposites as the goal of the soul. However, he is really interested in what gratifies him (in this case, homosexual love which is really the unity of the same).

5. Eriximachus’ speech is, like the first two, rather mundane, selfish and aimed at the body, compared to the ones that will follow.

D. Aristophanes now gets his turn to speak. He begins by talking about mythos (poetry or religious myth) which in his opinion supersedes the physical, mechanical view of the first three speeches.
1. He tells the myth that humans used to have a connection of bodies: two faces, one head, four arms and four legs. These humans tried to scale the heights of Olympus, and Zeus split them in two.

2. Thus, humans are seeking completeness, their “other half.”

3. This really means that Aristophanes is half a man, who desires strongly and wants to gratify them in a maximal way.

4. Humans are basically impious monsters who are now split in two. Aristophanes exemplifies this with his pursuit of Dionysus and Aphrodite.

5. This is actually a very unbalanced, “un-Greek” conception of the soul and self.

E. Agathon is next to speak, and his speech is better than all the preceding. But he is a student of Gorgias, so we can expect corruption. He is very narcissistic and his speech to Eros is really a speech or encomium to himself.
1. He uses the Gorgian formula, which requires no thought whatsoever. The adjectives and phrases could
apply to anyone or anything.

2. He likens himself to the great Homer. He has won the prizes, and is totally in love with himself, not seeing that this is false love.

3. He really has no identity, because he doesn’t need other people (other than to fawn over him).

4. At the end of the glittering speech, Socrates gets in an ironic line about Agathon’s praise of himself, disguised as praise to the god, Eros.

F. Socrates is next, and starts out by saying (with ironic understatement) that he doubts if he can measure up to the speeches of Aristophanes and the others.
1. He says that he learned about love from an woman prophetess named Diatina (in Greek, “the honor of God”). He states that love is a daimon, connecting the human and divine.

2. The speech is actually a poetic mimesis of a Socratic dialogue within the larger dialogue. It is not like the rhetorical speeches of the others.

3. He defines, or rather describes, love as a longing (therefore, it cannot be a god, since gods do not lack for any completeness).

4. Love is mostly a desire for the perfection of the soul (bodies might enter into it, but that is not the focus). Diatima leads him up the “ladder of beauty,” which leads to the image of the final beauty in the beloved.

5. Thus love moves from the love of many to the love of one, to the love of the soul, and then to the love of knowledge and wisdom, thence to laws and institutions, and finally to the forms. The goal is something above us, something Else (with a capital “E”).

6. In the soul of our beloved, we see the image of the perfect beauty and love, which is outside of time and space.

G. Everyone except Aristophanes stands and applauds. Aristophanes (who is now completely drunk) wants to rebut Socrates. But before he can do it, Alcibiades enters (recall that he was responsible for the loss of the Peloponnesian War because of the ill-fated Sicilian expedition; he is bad, daemonic, traitorous, corrupt).
1. He represents the exact opposite of Socrates: disordered and evil, but outwardly eloquent and charming.

2. Socrates is really Diatima’s “daimon of love.”

3. Alcibiades enters drunk and dressed as the god Dionysus and places a laurel wreath on Agathon (Dionysus is the god of wine and also of tragedy and comedy).

4. He recognizes Socrates and wants to place a wreath on Socrates (“there is no head like this in all of Greece”), even though Socrates makes him very uncomfortable.

5. He invites everyone to drink deeply. He goes on about Socrates, and the crowd asks him for an encomium on Socrates. Alcibiades, in delivering this speech, first discusses his attempt to seduce him for homosexual love (thinking he would get Socrates’ wisdom).

6. Socrates begins to emerge as the daemon of love, who does not care about the body or other human urges. He (Socrates) seeks the higher, purer love.

7. This encomium really becomes a speech of accusation. Alcibiades accuses Socrates of hubris, of being non-human, of being too good. Since Alcibiades is in the form of a god, he can get away with this accusation of the partially divine daemon.

8. At the end of the speech, the revelers (the demos) fill the room and the drinking picks up. Socrates’ gets both the tragic poet (Agathon) and the comic poet (Aristophanes) together with him. They eventually pass out; only Socrates remains sober.

9. Socrates is arguing that the same poet can write both comedy and tragedy. Plato is saying that Socrates is the new tragic hero, yet he lacks a tragic flaw.

H. Thus we can see that this great poem about love is also about politics, art, rhetoric and the soul.



The dialogue Symposium


Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Chapter XI (this discusses the historical Socrates and his circle and makes references to several passages in Symposium)

Questions to Consider:

1. Compare and contrast the treatment of the theme of love in Symposium (a middle dialogue) and Phaedrus (a late dialogue). Do you detect a maturity of Plato’s concept in the latter?

2. Compare Diatima’s “ladder of beauty” with the “divided line” of Republic.