Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic

INTRODUCTION: Plato’s Symposium is one of the author’s middle-period dialogues composed, according to scholarship, sometime between 385 and 370 BC, some thirty years at least after the event that it commemorates, taking advantage of its temporal remoteness to capture a moment of the past as objectively as possible. Some commentators – F. M. Cornford, for example – have yoked the Symposium with the Republic. Like the Republic, the Symposium takes as one of its themes the proclivity or proclivities of the soul. With the Phaedrus, the Symposium, both by itself and through the medium of Neo-Platonist commentary, exerted enormous influence on Christian philosophy, especially its theory of the soul. Thus in Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony (356), readers find the desert monk describing the desire of the awakened soul for union with God in metaphors that would not disturb the text of the Symposium were they to be inserted there. When the religious contemplative focuses on “the source and origin of happiness,” it happens that, “our mind… becomes gentle and calm, illuminated by the angels’ light,” whereupon, “the soul, aflame with the desire for heavenly reward, breaks… from its dwelling in the human body” and “hastens towards heaven.”

Certain hazards attend the study of Plato’s dialogues. Often the declared topic yields in the dialectical exchange to a new topic, attained by subtle processes of association that are not obvious on a first reading. The previous topic never disappears, but finds its sublimation in the new topic, which now contains it even as it supersedes it. The reader must keep the parallel strands in mente while making progress through the text, or the meaning will vanish. Such is the case in the Symposium, where the announced topic is Eros or Love, but where the necessary topic turns out to be beauty, and finally the Absolute Beauty, the celestial magnet that draws Love from the earthly towards the heavenly realm, just as it does in Athanasius’ biography of the saintly Anthony. Indeed, Love and Beauty barely exhaust the range of themes and topics of the dialogue. Structurally, memory is a theme, just as, again in an unspoken way, the hubris and nemesis of Athens in trying to impose its hegemony over Greece are themes.

In considering the Symposium, sensitive readers should keep some historical dates, relevant to the dialogue’s composition, in mind: The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC); Agathon’s First Prize in the Tragic Competition (416 BC); the Athenian genocide against the Melians (415 BC); the failure of Athenian campaign against Sicily, led by Alcibiades (413 BC); Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta (413 BC); the end of the Peloponnesian War – the Athenian surrender and the Spartan occupation (404 BC); the trial and execution of Socrates (399 BC); and finally the composition of the Symposium (between 385 – 370 BC). The war, which is in progress, midway through its course, provides the haunting background of the dialogue, all the more so because no one on the occasion refers to it. The coincidence that the discussion of Love occurs in the same twelvemonth as Melian massacre demands to be considered. The silence becomes almost deafening.

Sensitive readers should also keep in mind that the participants in the dialogue belong to the opinion-setting elite of Athenian society, who, in assembly, voted to sustain the war, one of whom, Alcibiades, directly urged the genocidal punishment of the Melians when they refused to be incorporated in the Athenian League. In Plato’s authorship, the individual dialogues rarely yield their full meaning when taken in isolation. The dialogues collectively tell the story, not only of Socrates, but of Athens, in the second half of the Fifth Century BC. Plato traces out a pattern of large-scale spiritual and political causality in which the moral character of opinion-makers and trend-setters determines the fate of their nation. Plato criticized the myth-poets, but in his epic of Athens he might well be illustrating what Zeus tells Athene in Homer’s Odyssey, Book I: “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly.” The discussion will return to these opening observations in the “Remarks” after the exploration of the dialogue. The discussion assumes no detailed familiarity with Plato’s text, but only an educated person’s general awareness of it. Summary and commentary accompany one another. The quotations come from Benjamin Jowett’s translation, which is widely available.

I. THE “FRAME.” Symposium begins with a “Frame.” APOLLODORUS OF PHALERUM is the narrator, accosted by an unnamed Friend, who asks him to tell the story of the famous drinking party. The Friend, however, has it wrong: The party did not take place recently, as he supposes, but many years before; the confusion, which is important, stems from the Friend’s having heard the story at third hand, transmitted by people who are not practiced, apparently, in the art of memory. Memory (Mnemosyne) is fallible unless systematically cultivated; the truth, once in the hands of the mortal creature, is perishable, so that deliberate steps must be taken to preserve it. Apollodorus notes how the “busy” character of Athenian life militates against coherent memory hence also against coherent knowledge by leaving those who join it in a state of confusion. These themes – the perishable versus the permanent or the mortal versus the immortal, intellectual disorder versus intellectual order, and falsehood versus the truth – are all destined to return regularly in the sequence of speeches and exchanges of the dinner party itself.

The difference between Apollodorus, or ARISTODEMUS, from whom Apollodorus had the story, and the Friend, who has the facts wrong, forecasts the difference later in the dialogue between SOCRATES and everyone else – or, in Socrates’ speech, between DIOTIMA and Socrates himself, as a much younger man. Those who can remember share and enjoy a virtue, which is not shared and enjoyed by those who cannot remember and who therefore forget. Apollodorus presents one other important theme of the dialogue when he says to the Friend, after accusing him of being a distracted busybody who “accomplishes nothing,” “You in your turn probably think me an unfortunate creature, and you are probably right, but my feeling about you is not a matter of opinion, but knowledge.” One point of philosophy, it turns out, is to trade opinion (doxa) for knowledge (episteme); nor is the distinction purely academic – it is moral. Forgetfulness, which abets opinion, is, as Plato sees it, immoral.

II. ARISTODEMUS meets SOCRATES on the way to AGATHON’S House. The story that Apollodorus tells to the Friend, and that, on the previous day, he had told to GLAUCON, comes not from him but from ARISTODEMUS OF CYDATHENAEUM; thus Apollodorus is telling Aristodemus’ tale, as best he can, from memory. In so doing, he preserves something meritorious that can be of benefit to those who acquire it. Readers should note that they are in the same position as the Friend, ignorant of the facts, likely distracted, yet standing to benefit from real knowledge. Aristodemus, so the story goes, met Socrates afoot of an afternoon, on his way to the house of Agathon, the tragic poet. Aristodemus noted that Socrates was unusually garbed – he wore sandals on his feet, where he customarily went barefoot, and fresh clothes – and had just come from the baths. We begin to learn something about Socrates, who corresponds in the dialogue to the hero of the epic or to the protagonist of the tragic poem. Socrates is, in his way, a Bohemian, who scorns the typical trappings of a “successful” type; yet Socrates is not disorderly, but extremely deliberate and generous in his demeanor and deeds. He invokes an old saying (another memorious act) to convince Aristodemus to come with him to Agathon’s celebration, even though Aristodemus has not received an invitation.

Before the two can reach Agathon’s door, however, Socrates suddenly stops in his tracks. It seems that an intellectual problem has seized his interest; and it is his wont, on such occasions, to stay perfectly still until he figures through whatever the puzzle might be. (Readers will encounter another story about this behavior, later in the dialogue, told by ALCIBIADES.) Aristodemus comes to the party alone, and a bit embarrassed, having to explain to Agathon that he has come with Socrates who, however, stands outside, immovable. It is not until later, after dinner, that Socrates finally appears. The topic, Love, is proposed and the order is set for the speakers.

A definition seems appropriate: The Greek word is Eros, a regular noun that is also a proper name, belonging to a more or less literary or allegorical god, variously characterized, as in the speeches; the English word “erotic,” derives from the Greek stem. The name Eros suggests sexual love, love-longing, infatuation, excitation, and related phenomena. As orgiastic arousal, Eros communicates with Dionysus, the tutelary god of the Lenaia, the festival during which the tragic competition takes place annually. Eros stands in some contrast to philia, which suggests affection and friendship without the sexual connotation. Philia yields philosophia, “philosophy,” the “love of wisdom.” The first speech belongs to –

III. PHAEDRUS. All of Agathon’s dinner-guests belong to the literary circle of Athens, and therefore also to the elite circle of the city, although apart from Agathon and Aristophanes (the comic poet) none is an artist of the first or even of the second order. Phaedrus begins by offering a mythic pedigree for Love, much renowned “on account of his birth.” He borrows from the theological poet Hesiod to show Love’s genealogy. Love “has no parent,” as Phaedrus says, because it is one of the aboriginal gods that emerged primordially from nothingness along with Chaos, Night, and Earth. Love deserves praise, Phaedrus argues, not only for its primordial character but for bestowing greater benefits than any other god: “there can be no greater benefit for a boy than to have a worthy lover from his earliest youth, nor for a lover than to have a worthy object for his affection.”. The pairing of a lover and his beloved gives rise to nobility in both, Phaedrus claims, through “shame” and “ambition”: a lover would be ashamed were the object of his affection to detect him in some unseemly deed and he thus has a motive to refrain from such a deed; and by corollary, as he wants to be seen by the beloved in the best possible light, the lover has a motive for undertaking ennobling acts. Only Love impels people to die for another, as in the famous cases of Alcestis and Achilles.

“I maintain,” Phaedrus concludes, “that Love is not only the oldest and most honourable of the gods, but also the most powerful to assist men in the acquisition of merit and happiness, both here and hereafter.”

Before taking up the subsequent speech, readers might do well to consider one or two of the weak points in the case made by Phaedrus. One is that Phaedrus makes hardly any attempt to suggest a causal relation between his account of Love’s aboriginality and his invocation of it as an apology for pederasteia, the custom by which adult males took adolescent males as sexual partners. Excusing the erotic opportunist appears to be the first motive of Phaedrus’ likely self-exculpating speech. Phaedrus conjures the god to justify the opportunism. Another weak point of the speech is that, in assuming that the custom requires justification, Phaedrus tacitly admits that it is vulnerable to criticism. Socrates will later return to just this matter. Again, there is something self-serving in Phaedrus’ apology, since it is not at all clear that either shame or ambition, by itself, provides a sufficient basis for a civic morality. Worldly ambition has already come under attack, in the “Frame,” where Apollodorus links it to confusion.

Plato implies by subtle indirection, once the reader has encompassed the whole dialogue, that the decency of good acts ought to be enough, by itself, to induce one towards them; likewise, the evil of ill deeds ought to be repellent enough all by itself to deter one from committing them. Therefore what one needs is, not a sense of shame, but knowledge of good and evil and a capacity to feel guilt and organize repentance. Nor is it clear what the criteria of a “worthy” lover might be, or for that matter what would make the beloved a “worthy object for… affection.” Presumably every lover, and for that matter every seducer, advertises himself as “worthy” just as every pursuer sees some worth in the object of his pursuit. But being the first speaker is difficult. Phaedrus now yields the floor to –

IV. PAUSANIAS. Subsequent speakers always have the advantage of building on what the previous speaker has said or of taking issue with it. Pausanias, who was famously the life-companion of Agathon, does both, building on certain of Phaedrus’ motifs and correcting one of his major premises. First Pausanias argues with the condition set down for the speeches, or panegyrics, saying that the requirement for “simple” praise inadequately serves Love because Love has not a simple but a double nature. Pausanias proposes to sort out the double nature of Love. The two Loves, he says, spring from the two Aphrodites – one “Heavenly” and the other “Common.”. The Heavenly (Uranian) Aphrodite is older and “had no mother” while the Common (Demotic) Aphrodite is “the child of Zeus and Dione.” In Pausanias’ scheme, the Heavenly Love is supreme and venerable while the Common Love is without criteria and thus ignoble and reprehensible.

“The Love which goes with the Common Aphrodite,” Pausanias says, “is quite random in the effects it produces, and it is this love which the baser sort of men feels.” The common love drives men to women as much as to other men; and it has to do with procreation. Pausanias indeed claims that the Common Love’s followers prefer the objects of their interest to be “as unintelligent as possible.” The Heavenly Aphrodite (older than the Common) by contrast concerns the male sex only, which Pausanias characterizes as “stronger and more intelligent” than the female sex.

From this point, Pausanias’ speech resembles Phaedrus’ speech while elaborating various details at greater length. Pausanias gives us in succession: A survey of attitudes toward pederasteia; the distinction between lovers whose interest leans to boys and those whose interest leans to youths, the latter ranking, in his estimation, above the former; and the claim, essential to his argument, that the love inspired by the Heavenly Aphrodite dignifies behavior which onlookers would otherwise judge undignified. As to the last: Pausanias claims that the Heavenly Love licenses a lover “to forswear himself with impunity.” Pausanias’ panegyric, while baroque in comparison to that of Phaedrus, is subject to the same criticism: Namely that it is a self-serving justification of anything that anyone does under the claim of following the Heavenly Aphrodite, especially when he says, “there is… no absolute right and wrong in love.”

Again supposedly, the Uranian lover enlightens the beloved, as no one else can, but by what objective criterion might a third party judge this intention? Pausanias nowhere adduces such a criterion. At one point, Pausanias argues that, even were a youth deceived by a false lover, who really had not the slightest interest in edifying him – but who only, as one says, “wanted his body” – the youth would nevertheless have done well, as he would have demonstrated his own openness toward the “right” kind of lover. (But “there is… no absolute right and wrong in love.”) This is a blatant excuse for seduction.

Yet one theme, at least, in Pausanias’ haughty and self-serving panegyric, will be taken up later and transformed positively by Socrates – the notion that Love has to do with permanence and that it transcends the processes of procreation, decay, and death. The next to speak should be Aristophanes, who however suffers from hiccups and must yield to –

V. ERYXIMACHUS. Without taking explicit exception to anything that Pausanias has said, Eryximachus nevertheless turns the praise of Love in a new direction, and widens the definition of the concept. Eryximachus, whose name means “Belch-Fighter,” is a medical doctor, a physician in the conventional sense, but he is also a scientist, a student of nature, in the older Ionian sense. He mentions Heraclitus, for example, whose physics of constant change in the earthly realm he seems to endorse. Eryximachus declares Love to be “a great and wonderful god whose influence extends everywhere.” In a medical context, Eryximachus says that Love is a force for balancing opposites; a healthy body expresses the influence of Love in that all the organs are in a proper relation to one another. Physicians cure the body when they “implant love.” Music, too, exhibits Love at work, for Love is the power that forms the concords, a mutual agreement of the parts of the musical performance. Eryximachus links Love to Art, saying that all existential difficulties require the intervention of “a skilful artist.”

That Love is linked with beauty, the central concern of art, is a point that Socrates will later take up – in a more coherent way than Eryximachus. Now Eryximachus also says that the order apparent in religious observance, or “sacrifice,” is a manifestation of Cosmic Love. While Love is “multifarious,” it is most evident when its action has as its object something that “is good and whose fulfillment is attended by sobriety and virtue, whether in heaven or earth.”

Thus, while Eryximachus seems to endorse elements in the speeches of Phaedrus and Pausanias, his metaphors transform base motifs into concepts less tainted by egocentrism and lasciviousness although this is not to say that Eryximachus makes a particularly coherent speech. Nevertheless, for Phaedrus and Pausanias Love is a god, one who licenses; while for Eryximachus, the gods, including Love, are our “masters,” at whose behest we try to live “in harmony and concord with our fellow creatures.” The next speaker is –

VI. ARISTOPHANES. All of the characters in the dialogue are presumably actual people, but none more so, after Socrates himself, than Aristophanes, the comic poet, many of whose plays have survived. Of course, Aristophanes is exactly that, a comic poet, and his professional interest in irony and japes ought to induce readers to approach his speech with caution. Even so, given that Eryximachus has previously invoked art as an exemplary expression of Love, readers ought seriously to attend the genuine artist’s contribution to the topic. Aristophanes, fully in character, tells a story. The tale is quite fantastic: The original human beings were odd, wheel-like, double people, Aristophanes claims; some were doubly male, some doubly female, and some hermaphroditic, combing the male and female. Robust and aggressive, they made war on Heaven. Zeus, reluctant to destroy them because the gods enjoy the fruits of human worship, punished them by dividing them in half. The now independent halves immediately longed for the divided part.

This halving explains, Aristophanes says, the three forms of the erotic drive: Those who descend from the all male creatures long for the male, and those who stem from the all female creatures long for the female, while those who stem from the hermaphrodite long for the opposite sex. “Each of us is the mere broken tally of a man, the result of bisection which has reduced us to a condition like that of a flat fish, and each of us is perpetually in search of his corresponding tally.”

Where Phaedrus and Pausanias had privileged the male-male relationship (forgetting apparently, the native debt that each owes to the female), Aristophanes makes sexual orientation a matter of moral indifference: “Whenever the lover of boys — or any other person for that matter — has the good fortune to encounter his own actual other half, affection and kinship and love combined inspire in him an emotion which is quite overwhelming, and such a pair practically refuse ever to be separated even for a moment. It is people like these who form lifelong partnerships, although they would find it difficult to say what they hope to gain from one another’s society.” The important phrase is “people like these.” Where Eryximachus de-particularized the manifestation of Love too much, Aristophanes adjusts the generalization, extending the notion of a dignified Love, whose goal is good, to both sexes, rather than restricting it, by means of a dubious sophism, to the male sex only. “Let no man set himself in opposition to Love,” Aristophanes says toward the end of his quite beautiful speech.

Aristophanes’ speech contains a reference to the tragic sin of hubris. The doubleness of the aboriginal double men, says Aristophanes, meant that they were a particularly robust and aggressive race. Aristophanes traces a Greek version of the Tower of Babel to the double men: “Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods.” This Homeric reference is a fleeting hint that Plato has in mind the devastating war with Sparta, initiated by Athens, but it is once again a supremely indirect reminder. Indeed, the motif of the splitting might also point indirectly to the war and more particularly to the massacre of the Melians by the Athenians in 415, the year of the drinking-party.

The Athenians murdered the Melian men and sold the women and children into slavery. This halving of the Melian race redoubled anti-Athenian sentiment among the opposing and drove the war into its second phase, which turned out so badly and yet also so justly for Athens. In the end it was Athens that militarily, economically, and morally found itself halved and halved again until its meaning in Hellas had dwindled away.

Near the conclusion of his speech, Aristophanes adds: “And if we are not obedient to the gods, there is a danger that we shall be split up again and go about in basso-relievo, like the profile figures having only half a nose which are sculptured on monuments, and that we shall be like tallies. Wherefore let us exhort all men to piety, that we may avoid evil, and obtain the good, of which Love is to us the lord and minister; and let no one oppose him – he is the enemy of the gods who opposes him.” Here is an echo of the phrase of Eryximachus, that, men should seek to be “in harmony and concord with our fellow creatures.” AGATHON – whom, as we have remarked, was the life-companion of Pausanias – is next on the schedule, but before he can give his speech, there is a brief dialogue between him and Socrates.

VII. SOCRATES and AGATHON — AGATHON’S Speech. The upshot of the exchange between Socrates and Agathon is that Socrates takes up a flawed element shared in the arguments of Phaedrus and Pausanias, that bad behavior is only reprehensible when observed by a superior. Socrates wants to know (this is what he asks Agathon) whether one ought to be equally embarrassed on being caught out by one’s inferiors. The implied answer is, yes, one ought, if the badness in a shameful act be itself the object of moral analysis. Before Agathon can answer, however, Phaedrus interrupts, warning that Socrates is a devilishly keen dialectician who can manipulate others into admitting anything. Of course, Phaedrus has private motive in interrupting the nascent “Q & A” because Socrates’ question implicates his – Phaedrus’ own – earlier remarks.

Phaedrus, not incidentally, had said that the “benefit” bestowed by Love was that Love filled lovers with shame for bad acts and ambition for good ones; Agathon has just said, in so many words, that he would hate to be seen acting badly by his superiors. This notion is a variant of the one put forward by Phaedrus and shows that Agathon and Phaedrus hold the same ethical position essentially. They have a relative notion only of good and evil. If the act were bad, why would the actor not experience guilt on being seen by anyone, whether of higher station or lower station, or equal station to his own? Phaedrus is a moral relativist and so is Agathon.

Agathon disdains to respond to Socrates, but rather prepares the way for his own contribution in praise of Love. Agathon, like Aristophanes, is a real person (little of whose work has survived, however), and the eloquence of his speech may therefore be taken as a reflection of his artistic talent. Rhetorically it is a polished and clever contribution. Agathon makes use of rhetorical reversal, arguing against Phaedrus (and Pausanias) that Love is the youngest, not the oldest, of the gods. Indeed, Agathon denies that the violent and repulsive deeds ascribed by the poets to the Gods could ever have happened had Love been present, and that they must have stemmed, therefore, from Necessity rather than Love.

No, says Agathon, Love is not old but young, indeed perpetually young: “It is the nature of Love to hate old age – and not even to come within long range of it.” Love is also “sensitive to hardships” and “extremely sensitive.” Love, in Agathon’s representation, has a cherubic and impish character. Love, says Agathon, is uniquely the master of itself, while everyone else “willingly obeys Love in everything.” Love is the genius of art: “As soon as this god was born, love of beauty gave rise to all manner of blessings for gods and men alike.” Agathon seems to follow Eryximachus is placing Love in charge of “festivals, dances, sacrifices.” Etcetera, etcetera… The rhetoric becomes its own point in the final paragraph of the speech. This leads to –

VIII. Socrates’ Dialectic with Agathon. Socrates claims that he would never have agreed to make a contribution, if Agathon’s speech in particular be the model of what everyone expects: “If it is to be after this fashion,” he says, “I can’t do it,” referring to the flowery style, the rodomontade, of Agathon’s panegyric. “I am quite willing to tell the truth in my own style, if you like; only I must not be regarded as competing with your speeches, or I shall be a laughing-stock.” Socrates says most importantly that only as long as the listeners want but “a plain statement of truth about Love,” will he consent to speak. Note the implied juxtaposition of Socratic Truth against the flowery opinions of Phaedrus, Agathon, and the others. Socrates now asks whether he might put a few questions to Agathon, who is agreeable. Socrates had wanted to do this before Agathon spoke, but Phaedrus preempted it. Socrates now wants to know whether the Love that Agathon describes is an isolated entity, sufficient unto itself, or whether it indeed manifests itself in a relation to something.

Is Love – Socrates asks – the love of something, as a father is the father of a son or daughter; or is it possible that Love is Love of nothing? Of course not, Agathon replies; Love must have an object. Well then, Socrates rejoins, Love necessarily means love of something, whereupon Agathon agrees.

Socrates wants to know one thing more, specifically “does Love desire the thing that he is love of, or not,” the notion of “desire” implying a lack of the thing desired. The force of logic requires Agathon to assent. Having established that Love is (a) love of something and (b) desires what it lacks, Socrates wonders about the nature of Love’s object. After much prodding, Agathon declares that what Love desires in beauty. Ah, retorts Socrates, but if Love desired beauty and therefore lacked it, how could Love be beautiful, as Agathon said in his speech? Moreover, if what is beautiful were the same as what is good (which Agathon admits), then Love would be no more good than he is beautiful. Yet Agathon (and everyone else) has claimed that Love is good. To the pointed claim that it appears as though the speakers up until now don’t seem to have known what they are talking about, Agathon can again only assent. Socrates now consents to deliver his own speech –

IX. Socrates. A. One of Socrates’ perennial claims is that he himself knows nothing; that, whatever he knows he knows only on the authority of other people. His speech takes the form, characteristically, of a report of what his teacher, DIOTIMA OF MANTINEA, once taught him about Love. We thus descend into memory, to the time when Socrates was the same age as Agathon is now. One of the first lessons that Diotima taught the young Socrates was to beware of false dichotomies: The opposite of beautiful is indeed ugly but not everything that is other than beautiful is ugly. Similarly while the opposite of knowledge is ignorance not everything that is not-knowledge is ignorance. There are, as Diotima claims, middle states. For example, one might be in the state of “having true convictions without knowing the reasons for them.” Diotima astonishes Socrates by telling him that Love is not a god at all, despite the prevailing opinion. Who believes that, Socrates wants to know? We do, says Diotima, much to the surprise of Socrates.

Love, insists Diotima, belongs to the category of beings (daimonai) which are in between the human and the divine. Such beings “interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods, prayers and sacrifices from the one, and commands and rewards from the other.” She adds that, “Spirits [daimonai] are many in number and of many kinds and one of them is Love.”

Love stems from Poverty and Contrivance, was born on Aphrodite’s birthday, and so became her follower; he is “poor… hard and weather-beaten, shoeless… and lives in want.” By the same token, lacking so much, Love “is full of resource and a lover of wisdom” who “schemes to get, for himself, whatever is beautiful and good. Gods are not lovers of wisdom (philosophiai) because they already have wisdom; the ignorant are not lovers of wisdom because they never suspect that they lack it. Who then are the lovers of wisdom?

B. “Obviously” says Diotima, “they [the lovers of wisdom] are the intermediate class, of which Love among others is a member.” Since “wisdom is one of the most beautiful of things,” and since “Love is love of beauty,” it is the case that “Love must be a lover of wisdom, and consequently in a state half way between wisdom and ignorance.” The young Socrates has mistakenly equated Love “with the beloved object instead of what feels love” and that is why he characterized Love as “supremely beautiful.” This was an error, now corrected. Later on, Diotima gets Socrates to articulate the generalization that “Love is desire for the perpetual possession of the good,” the wise and the beautiful being one with the good. Readers should note that the Socrates-Diotima dialectic aims to separate the erroneous from the true. Plato had introduced the theme of “opinion versus truth” already in the “Frame,” where Apollodorus makes it clear that he trades in sound judgment, not opinion. One point of philosophy, it turns out, is to trade opinion (doxa) for knowledge (episteme); nor is the distinction purely academic – it is also moral.

C. Having arrived at the true definition of Love, it remains to say in what activity Love characteristically expresses himself. The answer, broadly, is “procreation.” This is a direct refutation of the claim made by Pausanias (also implicitly by Phaedrus), earlier in the dialogue, that same-sex relations alone properly express the action of Love. (The “Heavenly Aphrodite,” according to Pausanias, is strictly homoerotic.) Indeed, the real “object” of Love is not to idolize beauty that already exists but “to bring forth beauty.” This is because: “Procreation is the nearest thing to perpetuity and immortality that a mortal being can attain. If, as we agreed, the aim of love is the perpetual possession of the good, it necessarily follows that it must desire immortality together with the good, and the argument leads us to the inevitable conclusion that love is love of immortality as well as of the good.”

The “only way” in which a mortal being can “perpetuate itself and become immortal” is through “procreation, which secures the perpetual replacement of an old member of the race by a new.” Remarkably, knowledge partakes in this same strife of mortal hence perishable things to perpetuate themselves beyond their mortal limits: “Forgetting is the departure of knowledge, and recollection, by implanting a new impression in the place of that which is lost, preserves it, and gives it the spurious appearance of uninterrupted identity.” Thus all procreation is not biological, since there is such a thing as spiritual begetting, as when audacious minds make beautiful poems or meritorious laws or valuable syllogisms; “all poets… and craftsmen” are in this way “begetters.” In fact, spiritual offspring are more refined and less perishable than biological children – or so Diotima asserts. (There is a good deal more, over which we skip.)

D. Diotima now describes how the budding philosopher rises from ignorance to knowledge by way of right opinion. In Diotima’s discourse, the philosopher’s initiation (teletai) occurs under the grand metaphor of “The Ascent to Absolute Beauty.” The discipline of the philosopher consists in steady movement from the bodily to the spiritual, from the physical to the intellectual, from the empirical to the conceptual. (Mere sensory impression is the equivalent of opinion, while intellectual apperception approaches knowledge.) The philosopher seeks beauty and first finds it in one particular beautiful person; after awhile, he sees that the physical beauty of one person resembles that of another and makes the first abstraction: That physical beauty has specific manifestations but a general character or image. Next the determined seeker after beauty sees that spiritual beauty is more beautiful than physical beauty, that a good character is more pleasing than a bad one even if the bad one come tricked out in a gorgeous package (so to speak).

From here, the pursuer of the quest will remark that spiritual beauty can manifest itself not only in people, whether bodily or spiritually considered, but also in customs and institutions. One might think of the ceremonies of hospitality in Homer’s Odyssey. Of course, the beauty in “morals” is the same as the beauty in physically beautiful people, but to grasp this identity one must achieve an even greater degree of abstraction than previously in the concept. One must strip away all particularities and leave only what is essential to beauty. Seeing that the beauty in “morals” is less perishable and less mortal than physical beauty of beautiful people, the philosopher then recognizes that beauty communicates with what is immortal. By abstracting rigorously, the lover of wisdom finally arrives at the pure concept, the transcendental idea, or form, of beauty. It is this, the “Absolute Beauty,” that becomes the philosopher’s touchstone for all other aesthetic and ethical judgments. Socrates concludes his presentation, but now comes an interruption from –

X. ALCIBIADES. Alcibiades appears “crowned with a thick wreath of ivy and violets, from which a number of ribands [sic] hung about his head.” He sports the usual accoutrements, that is, of Dionysus. He is obviously drunk and admits it. From the philosophical heights Plato has dropped us into the sensual depths; from the realm of the Apollonian he has tumbled us down into the realm of the Dionysian. Orderly discussion (Logos) has been violated by debauchery personified. Alcibiades further breaks the continuity of the dialectic by fawning over Socrates and aiming his jealous ire at Agathon, next to whom Socrates is seated. “Be quiet,” is Socrates’ response. Eryximachus manages to extract from Alcibiades the agreement to make a speech in praise not of Love but rather of Socrates himself.

The speech is itself disorderly since Alcibiades, not to mention that he is drunk, praises with one hand while accusing with the other, serving against Socrates the charge that he is a magician who throws spells over people, agitating them “as if… in religious frenzy” and forcing them to see that they are “a mass of imperfections.” (Phaedrus had previously made a similar remark, in the form of a warning to Agathon.) Yet Alcibiades admits that he has learned to stop his ears to Socrates’ words, as Odysseus stopped the ears of his crew with wax against the sirens’ song. Socrates, says Alcibiades, possesses “self-control.” and never yields to erotic overtures – especially those of Alcibiades. Next Alcibiades tells about Socrates as a soldier. One night on campaign Socrates stood outside his tent, stock still, for a day and a night contemplating some philosophical problem. Socrates was a hardy soldier, brave in battle. Yet Alcibiades repeatedly refers to Socrates as “ugly,” as resembling a Silenus or a Satyr.

The remark by Alcibiades permits the sensitive reader to locate him on Diotima’s philosophical ladder – namely at the lowest rung, where is shares the company of Phaedrus and Pausanias, who are also under the enthrallment of their senses, unable to conceive of beauty except as the cosmetically desirable object of carnal lust. Alcibiades is notorious for his anti-social behavior and vandalism. Infamously, he once disfigured the Herms, images of Hermes, which served as signposts on the city streets and on the roads outside the city walls. The Herms were sacred objects whose desecration was tantamount to a sacrilege.

After a brief exchange between Socrates and Alcibiades, the arrival of a “crowd of revelers” – followers of Alcibiades, all – throws the party into complete turmoil; their obnoxious presence puts an end to the attempt at rational discussion. Most of the guests drink themselves into back into a stupor, save for Socrates who maintains sobriety despite having imbibed as much as anyone. (How is it that Socrates alone can resist inebriation? Whence this power? We recall that Eryximachus had praised “sobriety” in his wayward speech.) As morning announces itself, Socrates goes to the Lyceum, where he washes, spends the day as he usually does, and in the evening goes home to bed and family.

REMARKS: The drinking-party honors Agathon’s victory in the tragic competition during the sacred festival known as the Lenaia, which took place annually in what on the modern Western calendar would be the month of January. The Lenaia honors Dionysus, in whose accoutrements Alcibiades appears when he crashes Agathon’s party near the end of the dialogue, followed a short time later by his uninvited and thoroughly disruptive followers. The Lenaia belongs to the tacit symbolic structure of the Symposium. In his classic study Dionysus: Myth and Cult (1933), Walter F. Otto explains that the festival takes its name from the Lenai, synonymous with the Bacchae and the Maenads – in Otto’s words “the frenzied women worshipers of Dionysus,” among whose duties is “the worship of the phallus.” In Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, Dionysus appears in Thebes, his birthplace, as a triumphant military campaigner, having previously subdued Asia, all the way from India, under his implacable rule.

Euripides wrote The Bacchae, his last play, around 405 BC, in the year just before the Spartan victory over Athens. The Bacchae reaches its climax in a classic sparagmos, when the god-intoxicated women of the city, led by Agave, mistake King Pentheus (her own son) for a lion and rip him to pieces. During the course of the action, as Dionysus systematically disrupts civic order, the Theban men, except for Pentheus, dress like women to join in the worship of the militant god.

Contemporaries knew Alcibiades as a notorious cross-dresser, along with Agathon. In Plato’s text, when Alcibiades trespasses on Agathon’s occasion, he is dressed not only to give reference to Dionysus, but also, as Plato writes, in effeminate “ribands.” A costume amounts to a disguise. If Alcibiades assumed the appearance of a flit or a fop, the sensitive reader should take care that the disguise does not deceive him. According to Plutarch, who attributes to Alcibiades “the love of rivalry and the love of preeminence,” the subject of his biography played a key advisory role in the Melian massacre, urging it as policy. Plutarch writes (early Second Century) that Alcibiades “picked out a woman from among the prisoners of Melos to be his mistress, and reared a son she bore him.” Lest anyone see this gesture as “an instance of what they called his kindness of heart,” as Plutarch hastens to add, “the execution of all the grown men of Melos was chiefly due to him, since he supported the decree therefor.” Alcibiades qualifies as a Bacchant not in any campy way, but in the most brutal imaginable way, as Euripides represented the Dionysiac women in The Bacchae.

The hypothesis that Plato had The Bacchae in mind in composing the Symposium hardly strains credulity. Plato might well have had a second Euripidean play in mind, The Trojan Women, first produced in 415 BC, the year of the Melian massacre, on which it likely comments. In making such a connection, moreover, one calls attention to the political implications of the Symposium, an aspect of the dialogue that commentary often misses. Insofar as Eros is desire, and insofar as desire has degrees, the taxonomist will identify concupiscence as the lowest form of the impulse, just as Diotima does in her lecture. Concupiscence is not only a psychological proclivity in the individual; it is also a political proclivity of the state rampant – but in both cases it indicates a type of deviated transcendence. Just as, in Euripides’ myth, Dionysus traveled east to west from India to Greece, so too Alcibiades first urged and then led the ill-fated Athenian expedition to conquer Sicily as a whole, westward from Greece, so as to flank the Spartan enemy from that direction. That campaign began just after the Melian massacre. The muddled thinking about Eros displayed by the speechmakers in the dialogue stands for a larger – a tragic – muddled thinking that led to the deserved humiliation of the city once celebrated as the mind and conscience of Hellas.

For just that reason, as it seems, G. R. F. Ferrari, in his contribution to Richard Kraut’s Cambridge Companion to Plato (1992), entitled “Platonic Love,” begins with the statement that “the speechmaking in the Symposium is rooted in bad faith.” For one thing, Phaedrus’ contention that Love has hitherto not received from the poets his due portion of praise runs to the preposterous. The poetry of Anacreon and Sappho had celebrated the power of love in full measure. There would seem to be a measure of deliberate forgetting in Phaedrus’ complaint of a noteworthy lack. For another thing, as Ferrari points out, although the proposal to make speeches aims at moderating the guests’ vinous intake – they are already inebriated from the previous night’s debouch. Ferrari thus refers to the “insalubrious motive for self-control.” Linking the Symposium to its near-contemporary among Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedrus, Ferrari invokes the latter’s central metaphor of the Charioteer of the Soul and his Two Horses. Whereas the black horse embodies desire as appetite – or, once again, concupiscence – the white horse embodies desire as yearning for the transcendent.

The Charioteer must control the black horse, who tends to drag the chariot in a downwards motion to the objects of his gross hunger. Supposing the Charioteer reins in the black horse, letting the white horse lead, he will rise not only to the heavens, but to the back of the heavens, where, in the Heaven beyond Heaven, he will glimpse the Forms, which are the equivalent of the Absolute Beauty. Nevertheless, the Charioteer can never entirely subdue the black horse, which invariably drags the chariot earthwards. The very awe, which the Forms inspire in the Charioteer, distracts him from the practical job of keeping the two horses in balance, so that his course falters. In his descent, the Charioteer’s vision of the Forms loses its clarity. He must struggle to remember them. As Ferrari, argues, two types of memory and two types of forgetting are in play. A healthy polity requires that the lawmakers respond to the tug of the Absolute Beauty, but it also requires them to remember the limits of perfection in the mortal realm. Practical memory comes mainly from tradition. Not only have the participants in the drinking party forgotten the Absolute Beauty, supposing they ever saw it; they have also forgotten tradition. Alcibiades’ vandalism of the Herms, belonging in the background of the dialogue, is an act of destructive aggression against tradition.

In an essay (1937), “On the Doctrine of Eros in Plato’s Symposium,” Professor Cornford (1874 – 1943) underscores the political significance of the dialogue by linking it with the Republic. “In the Republic,” Cornford writes, “Plato divided the soul into three parts: the reflective or rational, the spirited or passionate, and the concupiscent.” In this distribution, “each so-called ‘part’ of the soul is characterized by a peculiar form of desire.” According to Cornford, the Symposium revisits the topic of the three types of desire. “We are now to learn,” he argues, “that the three impulses which shape the three types of life are not ultimately distinct and irreducible factors, residing in the three separate parts of a composite soul, or some in the soul, some in the body.” No, but “they are manifestations of a single force or energy, called Eros, directed through divergent channels towards various ends.” In this way instruction becomes a key issue in the development of the Platonic argument – or initiation, which is the word that Diotima uses in the reported conversation with the young Socrates.

The aspiring philosopher or lover of wisdom needs a competent and trustworthy mentor to lead him systematically through the stages of abstraction whereby he might gain his vision of the Absolute Beauty, which is also the Absolute Good, and the Absolute Truth. Of the vision itself Cornford writes: “As in the Republic, the union of the soul with Beauty is called a marriage – the sacred marriage of Eleusinia – of which the offspring are, not phantoms like those images of goodness that first inspired love of the beautiful person, but true virtue, the virtue which is wisdom.” The guide resembles the parent, who, leading the son or daughter to the altar, give him or her to become one with another. Plato’s reference to the Eleusinian mysteries, with their sacred marriage of Triptolemus and Demeter,

The present essay began with a paragraph that quoted Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony, as illustrating the influence of Platonic philosophy generally, and of the Symposium particularly, on Christian philosophy in Late Antiquity and beyond through the Medieval Period. Cornford cites Dante’s Divine Comedy as belonging with that influence. He argues, concerning the Symposium, that the moment where Diotima concludes what she calls the “Lesser Mysteries of Love” and begins the “Greater Mysteries of Love” marks the disjuncture between Socrates’ teaching and Plato’s own, novel theory. Cornford sees this disjuncture as reproduced at the moment between the Purgatory and the Paradise when Virgil, the guide, takes leave of Dante, and Beatrice takes Virgil’s place. Dante, like Plato, was a poet who often concerned himself with politics. The Comedy is replete with poignant political observations. Between Plato and Dante lies Augustine of Hippo for whom love, transcendence, and politics also communicated intimately and inextricably.

The Late-Antique and Medieval avatars of the Symposium are numerous, from the Second-Century Neo-Platonist commentaries and developments, like Plotinus’ essay On the Intellectual Beauty, through Boethius’ Fifth-Century Consolation of Philosophy to Twelfth-Century Troubadour poetry and the later lyricism of religious ecstasy, as in Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582). The transcendent hierogamy reappears in Teresa’s poems. Cornford notes that there are four stages in the transformation of Eros from sexual fixation to transcendent absorption. In Teresa’s practicum of “Mental Prayer” there are again four stages: “Mental Prayer,” “Prayer of Quietude,” “Devotion of Union,” and “Devotion of Ecstasy.” In the poem “I would cease to be,” Teresa writes: “God / Dissolved / My mind – my separation. / I cannot describe my intimacy with Him.” Yet in addition to cultivating mysticism, Teresa also involved herself in the practical reform of the Church. Her communion with the Ineffable had political consequences.

Plato’s Symposium speaks both directly and indirectly. Its direct doctrine, the theory of love, remains relevant in the grossly over-sexualized cultural environment of the contemporary West. Its indirect doctrines, of memory, and of the nemesis that pursues concupiscence in politics, also address the modern condition powerfully. The violence of the modern world has replicated the Melian massacre ten thousand times over. That violence has by no means yet exhausted itself. The Symposium therefore constitutes an essential study in a time of catastrophically deviated transcendence, such as our own.

11 thoughts on “Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic

  1. Pingback: Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic | Neoreactive

  2. Pingback: Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic | Reaction Times

  3. Synchronicity. I fell asleep last night to an audiobook of the Symposium. Weird.

    This wonderful essay is really helpful.

    • Thank you, Josh. I taught the dialogue once again in my Western Heritage course this semester. I based the essay on ten years of cumulative notes that I worked up into a lecture a few weeks ago. When I stumbled across Plutarch’s remark that Alcibiades was, in effect, the main proponent of the Melian massacre, I knew that I had a different angle on the text from the usual one.

  4. I have to confess, I don’t really understand the reactionary Christian fascination with the ancient Greeks and such. If I want to really learn ‘What Is Love?’ from an ancient text, I can go to 1 Corinthians 13, or 1 John. And if I want to learn about other philosophical topics, there is plenty of other scripture, and writings by committed Christians.

    “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

    My recollection from reading a number of Greek Dialogues during college was that they contained a lot of unbiblical thought, and a lot of outright nonsense. Although there were some gems buried in them, digging them out didn’t really seem worth the effort. This was several years ago though – maybe I’d feel differently if I tried reading them again. I am genuinely curious: what is it the Christian gains from these ancient pagans? What’s available in their writings that you can’t find in the scriptures?

    • Prolifist, did you not read of the vigorous defense of procreation by Diotima in the Symposium? Your nickname is Pro-Life-Ist! Remember that Socrates was also a stumbling block, and a martyr. “What is it that the Christian gains from these ancient pagans?” Truth, over which Christianity does not exercise a monopoly, as almost the entirety of early Christian philosophy, from Justin Martyr to Augustine of Hippo, a tradition of learning thoroughly Platonist, attests. Augustine himself in his autobiography says that Platonic philosophy was the preparation for his Christian conversion. The Passion might be the culmination of Truth (it is!), but it is not the totality of it, or why would Christians bother with the Old Testament? (Some, like the Gnostic Christians, wanted to jettison the Old Testament. Some, like the Monophysites, wanted to jettison everything Pagan, but cooler, wiser heads prevailed. See Basil of Caesarea’s pamphlet on What Young Christian Gentlemen Can Learn from the Study of Greek Letters.) In addition to being Christians, we are Westerners, and the West begins in Greece. To understand these matters you must do more than pose rhetorical questions. You must do the basic reading. I would like to think that I have been rather helpful to people who wish to read and understand the Symposium.

    • You’re welcome, Wurmbrand. Plato belongs to Tradition. The Symposium is an essential text of Tradition.

  5. Dr. Bertonneau, I’ve always enjoyed and learned from your thoughts here and elsewhere since I first discovered them a couple of years ago…which is also to say, I’m sure you have many more “lurking” admirers of your work.

    I’m only posting to note that one of your closing remarks trails off mid-sentence, and so I was wondering what its completion was intended to be. It is the following “run-off” sentence, if I might coin the term…

    “Plato’s reference to the Eleusinian mysteries, with their sacred marriage of Triptolemus and Demeter,

    Care to update/complete your post accordingly?

    • Give me a day or so to complete the sentence. I have visiting family just now. Plato was often critical of religious custom, but he nevertheless put some faith, so to speak, in archaic religious symbolism. The references to the Eleusinian Mysteries are poignant in the context of The Symposium, where decadent sexuality functions as a sign of the decadent society currently destroying itself in a wicked aggressive war against the Greek world.

      • Very good, thank you, I look forward to it. Until then, blessings on the time with your visiting family.


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