A group of Athenian aristocrats attend a party held by Agathon to celebrate his victory in the drama festival of the Dionysia. They talk about love until the drunken Alcibiades bursts in, and decides to talk about Socrates instead. 'Symposium' gives a picture of the sparkling society that was Athens at the height of her empire. This classic discussion on love is presented in its ideal medium.
First let me once again sing the praises of Robin Waterfield whose guidance through Plato's Republic and Gorgias I would term essential. While other editions of these three dialogues were at hand, Waterfield's stands head and shoulders above the others, for he has a gift for making the dialogues and the characters in them come alive so that the whole experience is more like reading a novel than a work of philosophy.
According to Benjamin Jowett, "Of all the works of Plato the Symposium is the most perfect in form, and may be truly thought to contain more than any commentator has ever dreamed of; or . . . more than the author himself knew." This may seem a bit overblown, but there is certainly more than meets the eye of the uninitiated reader if Waterfield's introduction and notes are any indication.
Symposium is quite literally a third-hand account of a banquet that was given by the tragedian Agathon to celebrate the festival prize won by his play the night before. (All of Agathon's work has been lost.) There were many people attending this party, seven of whom delivered after-dinner speeches on the subject of "Love." Love in this dialogue is both treated philosophically and personified as a god. Three of the speakers are well known to us: Socrates of course, comic playwright Aristophanes and the political leader Alcibiades. The host Agathon also spoke, along with Phaedrus, Pausanias and Euryximachus. Probably more apparent in Greek than in English translation, these speeches were noteworthy because each reflected a different literary or rhetorical style and each approached the subject of Love from a different angle.
After all the speeches were given honoring Love in one way or another, and in which Love was recognized as being both attractive and good, the real philosophizing began. Love and philosophy became more or less identified with each other. And jumping straight to the bottom line, after posing the question, "What do humans gain from Love?" the conclusion was that the object of Love is the permanent possession of goodness for oneself.
In the course of all this speechifying and philosophizing, both directly and through Waterfield's contributions one learns a great deal about each of the participants and their relationships with each other and to Athenian society. All in all it is quite an interesting look at the ancient Greek mind at work.
it made me feel like i've never been born and I was having a re-birth while reading it.
I'm now androgy thanks to Plato and crew!!!
It is a discourse on love and how it affects humans - and why.
Each of the participants in the banquet is, in turn, to deliver a speech about Love. And deliver they do...
Eryximachus, first up to bat, laments that so little poetry has been dedicated to the topic of Love. Phaedrus, in honorable Greek tradition, reaches into the past and recalls what Hesiod and Parmenides, among others, had to say. Love is the eldest and most beneficent of the gods. Then he launches into an explanation why the love between men fosters and supports honor and virtuous behavior. (A common theme at this banquet, which makes me wonder why the Christians permitted this text to survive. Thank goodness the Christian crusade against "sodomy" is ebbing into impotence.) Phaedrus unfavorably contrasts Orpheus' love for his wife with Achilles' love for Patroclus (and can't resist asserting that Achilles was the bottom, not Patroclus, because he was the fairer, beardless and younger; he doesn't use "bottom", but in the Greco-Roman world, those are the attributes of the "passive" partner in a homosexual relationship - I've heard some conversations like this at drunken parties, but Achilles usually wasn't the subject of the gossip).
Pausanias then holds forth on the distinction between noble Love, expressed for youths who are "beginning to grow their beards", and common Love, whose object is women and boys. (At this point I'd be wondering if somebody had slipped something into the wine. But I'd be listening closely.) He gives a lengthy and closely reasoned moral argument in favor of this. I wonder how it would go over in the House of Representatives?
Eryximachus, in a return engagement, is a physician and reinterprets Pausanias' moral distinctions in terms of the concepts of "healthy" and "diseased". In a process of what appears to be free association (was Plato smirking while he was writing this?), the good doctor throws in music, agriculture, astronomy, divination (OK, pass the blunt over here again), ... .
Finally, he turns the floor over to the playwright Aristophanes, who clearly had brought his private stash to the party. For he commences to explain that originally mankind had three sexes. Moreover, primeval man was round, had four hands and feet, two faces on one head, etc. etc. In his LSD dream, this primeval man was so powerful that Zeus was envious and smote primeval man in twain. With some cosmetic work by Apollo, which is described in fascinating detail, and after a few false starts, voilà , mankind as we know it. Which explains, of course, why we are always looking for our other half. Instead of being helped away to a sanatorium, Aristophanes goes on to explain how the original three sexes of primeval man fit into the picture. Enjoy! I know I did.
After this gobsmackingly strange speech (which would have had me trying to figure out where he hid his stash), the boys engage in some good natured banter, and then Agathon takes the floor. He makes a bad start, and then it goes downhill from there. Let's just say that Love had better not drop the soap in the shower when Agathon is around. (I know Plato was laughing up his sleeve on this one.)
Now it is The Man's turn - Socrates steps to the plate. He goes into his usual "Ah, shucks" routine and then starts asking Agathon questions. Please see my review of Plato's Phaedo to see how that goes. After Agathon agrees with everything Socrates says, Socrates launches into a long story, the upshot of which is: the only true love is Love of the Absolute! (This sounds more like Plato than Socrates, but no surprise there.)
Upon which Alcibiades comes staggering into the room. After a brief argument with Socrates about which of the two has the greater hots for the other, Alcibiades stumbles up to the plate. He sings the praises of Socrates' virtue, nobility, fortitude and pedagogy. This speech, if authentic, is one of the most detailed glimpses into Socrates' life we have and is fascinating.
As literature, Plato really surpassed himself in this dialogue - even the weakest speeches (from the point of view of content and wit) were most savorously eloquent. And all were entertaining, each in a very distinct way. While I personally find Plato's physics, metaphysics and epistemology to be absurd and his politics to be frightening, the man could turn a phrase and draw a convincing characterization through speech. While I am completely unconvinced by claims that the Symposium can be viewed as a novel, one can, nonetheless, read it with great pleasure as a purely literary product.
By the way, is any of that wine left?
(Re-read in Benjamin Jowett's translation.)
(*) A possibly amusing sidenote: The participants take a vote and decide "that drinking is to be voluntary, and that there is to be no compulsion" (they decided this only because so many of them were hung over from the previous evening!). One pauses at the idea that some of the brightest lights of Western culture comported themselves in their middle age like frat boys on a Saturday night... One of Socrates' many reported virtues was he could drink everybody else under the table and walk away into the dawn perfectly sober.
Along with each of the speeches we get small insights into how gatherings were conducted in ancient Greece, and how different members of the social fabric interacted (it’s also nice to see that the methods for curing hiccups hasn’t changed in the last 3,000 years). Plato, being a student of Socrates, gives him a better part in the exchange than the others there, but I’m not sure I would want to attend a gathering with the man. The way he employs his Socratic dialogue easily paints him as being “that guy.” Nobody wants to be “that guy.” As far as the writing, Benjamin Jowett’s (1817-1893) translation of Plato’s treatise was published in the late 19th century and still holds up rather well. It’s only flowery in the intro (which takes up a third of this book), but then settles down when you get to the good stuff. All in all, not bad but not riveting either.
While perusing a review of [Death in Venice] (dreadful tale, yet another fag-must-die-rather-than-love piece of normative propaganda) written by my GoodReads good friend Stephen, he expressed a desire to read The Symposium before he eventually re-reads this
Stephen wrote: "Damn...can you do a quick cliff notes summary or maybe a video lecture? I would much rather take advantage of your previous suffering than have to duplicate it."
So this boring poet dude wins some big-ass prize and has a few buds over for a binge. They're all lying around together on couches, which is as promising a start to a story as I can think of, when the boys decide to stay sober (boo!) and debate the Nature of Luuuv.
Phaedrus (subject of a previous Socratic dialogue by Plato) gives a nice little speech, dry as a popcorn fart, about how Love is the oldest of the gods and Achilles was younger than Patroclus, and Alcestis died of love for her husband, and some other stuff I don't remember because I was drifting off, so got up to see if I would stay awake better on the patio. It was a little nippy that day.
So next up is the lawyer. I know, right? Ask a lawyer to talk about love! Like asking a priest to talk about honor, or a politician to talk about common decency! So he pontificates about pederasty for a while, which made me uncomfortable, so I got up to get some coffee. I may have stopped by the brandy bottle on the way back out, I can't recall.
So after the lawyer tells when *exactly* it's okay to pork a teenager, the doctor chimes in that luuuuuv is the drug, it's everything, man, the whole uuuuuuuniiiiiveeeeeeeeeerse is luuuuv. Who knew they had hippies in those days? I needed more brandy, I mean coffee!, and the text of my ancient Penguin paperback was getting smaller and smaller for some reason, so I went to
Then comes Aristophanes. Now seriously, this is a good bit. Aristophanes, in Plato's world, tells us why we feel whole, complete, when we're with our true love: Once upon a time, we were all two-bodied and two-souled beings, all male, all female, or hermaphroditic. When these conjoined twins fell into disfavor, Zeus cleaved them apart, and for all eternity to come, those souls will wander the earth seeking the other half torn from us.
Now being Aristophanes, Plato plays it for laughs, but this is really the heart of the piece. Plato quite clearly thought this one through, in terms of what makes us humans want and need love. It's a bizarre version of Genesis, don'cha think?
So there I was glazed over with
Now really...is there anything on this wide green earth more boring than listening to a poet bloviate? Especially about luuuuv? Blah blah noble blah blah youthful yakkity blah brave *snore*
Then it's Socrates's turn, and I was hoping Plato gave him some good zingers to make up for the tedium of the preceding sixteen years of my life. I mean, the previous speech. It was a little bit hard to hold the magnifying glass, for some reason, and it kept getting in the way of the brandy bottle. I mean, coffee thermos! COFFEE THERMOS.
I'm not all the way sure what Plato had Socrates say, but it wasn't riveting lemme tell ya what. I woke up, I mean came to, ummm that is I resumed full attention when the major studmuffin and hawttie Alcibiades comes in, late and drunk (!), and proceeds to pour out his unrequited lust for (older, uglier) Socrates. He really gets into the nitty-gritty here, talking about worming his way into the old dude's bed and *still* Socrastupid won't play hide the salami.
Various noises of incredulity and derision were heard to come from my mouth, I feel sure, though I was a little muzzy by that time, and it is about this point that the
When I woke up under the glass table top, the goddamned magnifying glass had set what remains of the hair on top of my head on fire.
The moral of the story is, reading The Symposium should never be undertaken while outdoors.
And yet spoke you beautifully, Agathon, he said.
Back in the late 1990s a cowpunk band named The Meat Purveyors had a song, Why Does There Have To Be A Morning After? It detailed stumbling around in the cruel light of day, sipping on backwash beer from the night before and attempting to reconstruct what at best remains a blur.
The event depicted here is a hungover quest for certainty. The old hands in Athens have been tippling. Socrates is invited to the day after buffet. The Symposium attempts to explore the Praise for Love which occupies such a crucial yet chaotic corner of our earthly ways. There is ceremonial hemming-and-hawing about the sublime and then Socrates steps into the fray. All is vanity, Love is a bastard child of Poverty: the attempts at the Ininite and Eternal only reflect poorly on our scrawny and fleeting tenure.
A treatise on the nature and purposes of love; not my favorite subject, to be sure, but still interesting enough. I like the structure of several people talking around the point and one tying it all together; this seems like the most useful way to address such a massive and amorphous subject. I do quite like the conceit of Love as the messenger and mediator between gods and mortals. If you believe the prudish introduction, the rest of it is mostly leading toward the Platonic ideal of beauty, with a perverted comic bit tacked on the end, but I'm inclined not to believe the introduction, and to consider the comic bit something of an illustration of Socrates's earlier points, which is rather neatly done.
The problem for me is that philosophy is surely about ideas which are themselves constructed out of language. Dinosaurs, or evidence for them in the fossil record, are not linguistic constructs - but philosophical ideas would seem to be.
I don't mean that ideas themselves are entirely linguistic. I can have ideas that involve non-linguistic elements - for example I can mention a landscape that I could never fully describe in all its visual richness - and which there would not be words to sufficiently describe even if I had an eternity to do so (though that is arguable come to think of it, as assemblages of pixels can describe extraordinarily rich visual scenes - sorry bit of a side track).
I don't even mean that philosophical concepts have to be made of language. It may well be possible to conceptualise ideas beyond the constraints of language and, as it happens, I think we can do that. The problem is, of course, that once you try to communicate any such ideas to anyone else you have to reduce them down to linguistic constructs (or perhaps logical constructs but I would say that logic and maths are languages too, albeit, like French, not languages that I am at all fluent in).
It goes back to things like your "moral facts" which intrigue me but, so far, I am just not convinced of it. Dinosaur fossils sure - facts. You can poke them with a stick, measure them and compare them to other fossils etc. Moral facts, they don't seem to be solid enough to have convinced Plato of the wrongness of slavery.
I find this sort of reasoning from "moral facts" problematic. It comes down to how Plato and Aristotle might have defined an "inferior person". For much of human history, and certainly for Plato's contemporaries, "inferior" might simply mean "from a tribe that was defeated in battle". Military success thus defines superiority. What fact could be used to show that this view is false?