On Plato’s “Symposium”

Originally published on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog

Apollodorus

How appropriate that Plato should frame this work as a tale told second hand.  From his pen, we are hearing the story as told by a disciple of Plato named Apollodorus who had heard the story from Aristodemus who was present at the symposium in question.  Apollodorus has verified the account with Plato, and so we may consider it fairly accurate. Still, we are reading about it approximately twenty-four hundred years later and are also twice removed from the actual event.

Apollodorus is particularly ready to tell us because he has already recounted the story to his friend Glaucon while on the road to Athens.  Glaucon had caught up with Apollodorus by formally hailing him as “The Gentleman from Phaleron.”  I read in the footnotes that the joke is that men like Apollodorus are not addressed in this manner except in formal situations, such as when they are assembled at court.  Of course, this is how members of Congress are addressed today and calls attention to how much the Greeks still influence us.

Apollodorus makes much of the idea that philosophy is the only worthwhile pursuit in life and that focusing on the mundane activities of life as Apollodorus once did and as his friend does now, dooms a person to a life of failure. Unimpressed with this sentiment, Apollodorus’ friend urges him to begin to recount the speeches given at the symposium.

Symposium chart

Aristodemus meets Socrates who is on his way to the house of Agathon, a young and talented playwright who has just won an award for his writing, and is celebrating by giving a party.  Aristodemus notes that Socrates has bathed and put on his best sandals which was an unusual occurrence.  We may admire that Socrates, a man used to hard work and soldiering is unconcerned, except in this instance it seems, at how people view his appearance.  It also speaks to his singleness of mind which is able to focus entirely on some philosophical problem and push lesser matters such as bathing and what to wear to the bottom of the list.  He has something on his mind this day and lags behind Aristodemus, eventually coming to a complete stop outside the gates of Agathon’s home.  He lingers there a while, frozen in thought.  Eventually he comes in and the host offers him the place of honor next to him on the couch.  Socrates, ever self-deprecating nevertheless lies down next to him.

Having drunk too much the day before the group decides to drink moderately, dismiss the entertainers and take up a discussion in praise of the god of Love.

Phaedrus

Phaedrus begins by quoting Hesiod and others to the effect that Love was the first god.  He then immediately embarks on an apologetic of pederasty. Here, where he might have begun with any manifestation of love, he chooses a practice that in any century of the six thousand years of recorded history is reckoned abominable by all common men and women of good will.  His argument is that young boys need guidance if they are to live life well and that a sexual relationship between men and boys is the best vehicle whereby to impart this knowledge specifically because the students will experience  “a sense of shame at acting shamefully, and a sense of pride in acting well. [1] ( 178D )  He speaks as if the pride or shame a child feels before his mother, or that of a son before his father could be less than which Phaedrus describes.  He speaks of an army of lovers and the boys they love. We of course must here remember the valiant Spartans.  But to say that the eros which upheld those fighters is more effective than the phileo so much more commonly felt by men at arms is laughable given the record of history of the true and gentle brotherly love felt by men for men on the battlefield, and the lengths to which honorable men will go to demonstrate their esprit de corps. Theodore Roosevelt was correct when he said that there was no friendship like the friendships forged under arms.  Irrespective of the way in which Phaedrus attempts to make his point, he does impart an essential truth, that most often and perhaps in all cases love is the motivation for attempting to impart knowledge from the one who truly knows to the one who does not know.

Phaedrus then states that “no one will die for you but a lover” and here I must disagree with him but slightly, rephrasing his statement to say, “no one will die for you but one who loves you’, for I agree with the man who said “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Again, recorded history is replete with men and women who have gallantly laid down their lives so that not only lovers, but also that friends and children and even complete strangers might live.

Phaedrus ends his speech in much the same way as he begins, saying that “Love is the most ancient of the gods, the most honored, and the most powerful in helping men (180B) (i.e mankind, to wit ‘humankind’, that is to say ‘including both men and women’ (for those who do not readily make the connection) gain virtue and blessedness, whether they are alive or have passed away.

Pausanias

Pausanias, apparently in support of Phaedrus, expands on the theme of homosexual love suggesting that it alone belongs in the sphere of heavenly love represented by Aphrodite Urania and that heterosexual love should be relegated to the common love represented by Aphrodite Pandemos.  After some minor research I discovered that Aphrodite had many surnames and other appellations added to her name in ancient times.  The most recent honorific bestowed has been by the modern playwright, Woody Allen, who called her “Mighty Aphrodite.”  The point being that love takes many forms, pure and impure, narcissistic, controlling, selfish, and selfless.  Some are good and some are not. It was at this point as I was going through the narrative a second time, that I recalled the phrase “Platonic relationship” and could almost physically feel the yoke of further study descend upon my shoulders.  Certainly, regarding the issues raised in the Symposium, it would be very foolhardy to trust what one source, any source, tells you about them.  For example, the article on the Symposium in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica manages to cover it without mentioning the issue of homosexuality at all.  The idea of Platonic love is to love passionately but chastely.  But we do not see much of this in Symposium and certainly not in the speech of Pausanias.

So it is the common love for women as well as for boys, “to the body, more than to the soul” that Pausanias discounts and heavenly love that finds its fulfillment in the education and seduction of older boys “whose cheeks are showing the first traces of a beard.” (181D) He deplores the taking of small boys as sexual partners allowing as there should be a law against it, this no doubt because the political conditions that prevailed would have prevented him from saying less.  He blames the practice of child molestation for giving homosexuality “such a bad reputation that some [not the majority of Greeks do you suppose?] have gone so far as to claim that taking any man as a lover is in it self disgraceful.”(182A)

What self-serving hypocrisy. This is nothing more than the shallow rationalization of a man who prefers to have sex with adolescent boys. For it is an easy thing to have sex with an adolescent boy.  They present no problem, and when they are older, they either continue to have sex with you, or they become your friend, or they move on and so can you.  Having sex with adolescent girls is easy too, for they also present no problem. It is for this reason that many men are prone to marry girls much younger than themselves. Yet it is a fearful thing to love a woman.  One day you roll over and the young girl has disappeared.  If the thirty-year old woman now lying there does not look like the goddess Aphrodite, you had better believe that she is in fact Aphrodite, in all her power and glory. Woe be the man who is not god enough to deal with her.  Women are an awesome sex.  If they have been at times prevented from receiving an education they are no less intelligent.  If they have been at times politically relegated to the home because of their necessary biological function as bearers of children they are no less capable than men.  The domination of woman by man may be an historical fact (and possibly an inevitable future) but it is nevertheless an exaggerated one.  Homosexuality is often the solution for the man who lacks the courage or ability to face the redoubtable woman.

In fairness, Pausanias arguments from 183A-183C regarding what lengths lovers will go to for the ones they love  rings true, as well as his statement at 183E regarding the instability of lovers who only love the body rather than the soul, as long as they are considered generically. Also the remark at 184A about not yielding too quickly to a lover’s advances seem to be good advice as it does one time to consider the character and intentions of the suitor.[2]  Finally his admiration of those who yield to a lover’s advances for high reasons such as the love of wisdom and virtue rather than for base reasons such as wealth and power is likewise admirable and worthy of emulation.

In his book “Lust” Simon Blackburn recounts the complete seduction of Aristotle by a courtesan named Phyllis, after Aristotle has exhorted his pupil, Alexander the Great to stop seeing her. Men and women alike are so weak when it comes to lust and many have made fools of themselves over it.  If only for this reason, we are able to forgive Pausanias for his hastily improvised explanation of love.

Dr. Eryximachus

Eryximachus makes a relatively brief speech that reminded me very much of the song, “That’s The Glory of Love”[3]

You’ve got to give a little, take a little
And let your poor heart break a little
That’s the story of,
That’s the glory of love

You’ve got to laugh a little, cry a little
Until the clouds roll by a little
That’s the story of,
That’s the glory of love

He applies Pausanias concept of pure love and vulgar love to his own field of medicine, and then branches out listing process every set of opposites he can think; of hot and cold, wet and dry, harmony and discord, all the while stressing how they relate to, or are influenced by, love and how important it is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.[4]  In any case, Eryximachus’ point is that Love’s influence is so powerful that it may be said to affect everything in heaven and earth and that the application of the proper type of love is all that is needed to set anything in its proper balance.  The brevity of this speech and its lack of depth make the reader wonder why it has been included at all, unless it lends believability to the claim that this was an actual event that is being recounted accurately.  As a new reader of Symposium and because of my limited acquaintance with the writings of Plato in particular and the Greeks in general, I know little about the speakers save Socrates and  Aristophanes and without the back-story I am sure I am missing a lot of the relational significance of what is being said.

Aristophanes

Aristophanes the playwright rises to speak after fending off an attack of hiccups. His vision is both poignant and comedic as he describes the origin of mankind.  Aristophanes tells us that there were originally creatures with dual personalities, having one head with two faces and four ears, four arms, four legs, and round bodies.  His description of the way they run, cartwheeling upon all eight appendages is quite amusing if you attempt to visualize several of these beings all running at once in different directions.  But Aristophanes also ascribes majesty to them comparing their shape and movement to the sun and moon.  This reminded me of the song of the teenage bride, Yum-Yum, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” where comedy is suspended for a moment as the intrinsic worth of the individual is celebrated.

The sun, whose rays are all ablaze with ever-living glory,
Does not deny his majesty — He scorns to tell a story.
He don’t exclaim, “I blush for shame, so kindly be indulgent.”
But, fierce and bold, in fiery gold, He glories all effulgent.
I mean to rule the earth, as he the sky
We really know our worth, the sun and I

These creatures have dual sets of sex organs in one of three varieties: male-male, male- female, or female-female.  Seeing as how these organs are mounted on opposite ends of the creatures it is difficult to imagine how they might have managed coitus, until Zeus severs them in twain to reduce their power and then re-arranges their physiques.  This brilliant and extemporaneously contrived myth of Aristophanes neatly explains homosexuality, heterosexuality and lesbianism, suggesting that the severed pairs ever seek their other halves to complete them.  This is comforting news for those who still believe that there are matches made in heaven, and that surely there is someone out there who will love them, or as the old Italian saying goes, “Per ogni vaso, un coperchio”, “For every pot, a lid.” Assuming that these creatures originally existed in equal numbers, there should have been twice as many homosexuals and lesbians as there were heterosexuals but the first two types must have died out due to their inability to reproduce, appearing now only as an anomaly.[5]

Agathon

Now to the main event, the exchanges between Agathon and Socrates.  After receiving an opportunity to do so from Eryximachus, Socrates all but provides Agathon with an introduction, praising his stage presence but also begins to tease him and attempts ensnare him in an elenchus, until Phaedrus restrains him and Agathon is allowed to begin.

The poet points out that so far all the speakers have only told about what Love does rather than reveal Love’s character.  Love, he says is the youngest rather than the oldest of gods, because he chooses to associate himself with those who are young.(195B) Conveniently forgetting that famous conflict fueled by love for Helen of Troy, he further says that had Love been there in the beginning there would have always been peace. (195C) Love is delicate because he only associates with those who have a “soft and gentle character.”(195E) As he moves on to tell us that Love is beautiful because he never settles in anything that has lost its bloom, we can deduce that the young playwright is speaking of romantic youthful love and has ignored, or more probably has not yet experienced the more mature love resident in the old and not so good looking.  But no matter, for Agathon is in the moment, and at that point in his life which all men remember fondly, those days when health and vigor and boundless enthusiasm coursed through their veins.  That time when every emotion was felt as strongly as emotions can be felt  and love was a beautiful dream just come true.  He has become the very personification of Love and receives unanimous praise from all the company attending.

Socrates

Socrates begins his remarks by praising Agathon at length while at the same time discounting his own abilities as a speaker especially in the face of what has just transpired.  This is classic Socratic irony, the master pleading ignorance and begging consideration for his inadequacies. Everyone knows this is what he always does.  Perhaps they smile wryly as he goes on or even become bored waiting for him to begin but nevertheless it cannot but have an effect on them.  For men are put at ease when another humbles himself before them and are inclined to look with favor upon the man who allows that they may be greater than himself.

Socrates conducts an elenchus with Agathon during which he gets him to admit that:

  • Love is the love of something
  • If one loves something one desires what one loves.
  • If one desires something then one is in need of it; otherwise if one were not in need, one would not desire it. (200B)

It would seem that the premises given would naturally lead to the conclusion that if someone does not need something, then they will not desire it, and therefore they will not love it.   I think the second premise is false.  A person may love something and not have it and therefore desire it, or a person may love something that he or she has. Therefore, they would no longer need to desire it, if desire is taken to means a craving or longing to have something one does not have.   If, however, by desire you mean the body’s natural response and reactions immediately prior to the commencement of sexual intercourse, then of course, one cannot love without first desiring something one does not yet have.  Perhaps Socrates is counting on Agathon’s  youthful inclinations to lead him down this path.

Agathon winds up as one usually does with Socrates, being forced to admit that he did not know what he was talking about in his earlier much celebrated address.  Socrates tells him it was a beautiful speech anyway reminding the audience of his poor opinion of rhetoric.

Diotima

Socrates now begins his formal address to the group and tells of his meeting Diotima of Mantinea many years ago.  In the notes, I read that it is supposed that Socrates made the whole story up because he says that he told Diotima almost the same things that Agathon had said. (201E)  But Socrates also says that Diotima taught him the art of love and if this was long ago I infer that he was young at the time.  While Agathon’s speech was very beautiful it contained very predicable things for a young man to say, and it is conceivable that Socrates as a young man thought in the same manner.  It is not until Diotima makes reference to the myth Aristophanes had concocted minutes ago (205E) that we know with certainty that Socrates is telling a tale.  What is interesting to me in this passage is that Diotima warns Socrates against his practice of viewing everything as either black or white, something he seems to do frequently in the elenchus. She proves to him that Love is neither a god nor a mortal but a spirit hovering in between, a type of messenger between man and the gods but it seems not one that conveys messages directly. (202E) Her argument that love is always hovering between two absolutes affects Socrates directly when she talks about those who love wisdom, obviously the philosophers. (204A)  I think the point of this argument is to show Socrates that love is a process, an act, rather than a thing or a person, or a state of being. (204C)  From there Diotima questions Socrates on the purpose of this process of loving and leads him to the conclusion that it is so that the lover may acquire good things (the beloved) so that he will be happy.

Being happy is not enough though, what is truly wanted by us all is perpetual happiness.  Because men are mortal, Diotima tell Socrates, they are eventually drawn to the process of “reproduction and birth in beauty.”(206E)  We are all of us pregnant and wish to give birth to something that will go on living and keep generating happiness after we are gone.  At last, our feet have touched the ground in this narrative.  Simply put, the next few sections speak of the desire of people to have beautiful children and see them grow and prosper, and for those who possess great knowledge to have suitable pupils to receive that knowledge and to watch them grow and prosper.  In both cases, the child and the student are beautiful to the parent or teacher, and giving birth to and raising the adult or the graduate is an act of love.  I was relieved to see the sexual aspect of the process downplayed here with Socrates saying that “the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies. (210B)  An honorèd professor once told me that Socrates’ conception of the soul and the Christian conception of it were two very different things.[6] I will never forget that.  Nevertheless, statements like these are what made Socrates and his pupil Aristotle very attractive to Christian theologians.  If the description or the general understanding of the soul differed or if of the schools might possibly have had a more complete understanding of the soul than the other,  it still seems to be apparent that they were referencing the same phenomenon; the same ultimate reality.

Socrates, overcome by emotion as he considers the glory of the victory of love of knowledge and wisdom over the love of the physical form begins to wax poetic. Ah! Much like his friend, Agathon did at the end of his speech.  Diotima brings him up short, telling him to pay attention as she is now about to reveal the ultimate truth about Love.

“…itself by itself with itself, it is always on in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change.”

Once beheld, it becomes the measure of all things beautiful.  Why should this be so attractive a thought?  That there should be such a thing as the concept of love, totally detached from the physical realm, untouched, unchangeable and yet still unconsciously perceived by everyone who has ever thought that anything or anyone was beautiful. Ultimate Beauty, ultimate Love, ultimate Truth, ultimate Justice, perhaps the thought of it is comforting because everywhere around us we see those who would destroy and pervert these ideas to the extent that they would never be recognizable again to any of those who came after us were it not for the impregnable and eternal forms.

Diotima leave Socrates with the thought that anyone who could reach those heights and behold that ultimate form of beauty would be able to communicate it to others thereby becoming immortal.

Alcibiades

Socrates’ speech receives much praise from his audience but the drunken entrance of Alcibiades, an exceptionally attractive member of Athenian high society, ends this.  He is desperately attracted to Socrates who apparently has recently rebuffed his advances. This was not always the case, because Alcibiades makes the statement that Socrates would beat him up if he praised anyone else in Socrates’ presence.  He sits down at Agathon’s couch without initially noticing Socrates, and when he does, he makes such a fuss that it is suggested by Aryximachus that Alcibiades offer a speech in Socrates praise.

This speech is of great interest to us because it gives us a clear picture of the philosopher as others saw him.  To begin with, Alcibiades compares Socrates to Silenus, the teacher and drunken companion of Dionysius, the God of wine.  Said to be the oldest of the Satyr’s, Silenus is surprisingly like me, fat, bald and with regular legs instead of hooves.[7]  But Silenus has a beard and I don’t.  Socrates had a beard though, hence the comparison.    Alcibiades accuses Socrates of being “impudent, contemptuous, and vile”, (215) but at the same time a hypnotic speaker with a mellifluous voice.  Socrates is the only man who makes Alcibiades feel shame. (216B)  At this comment, we can hearken back again to Phaedrus who said that a young man is especially shamed in front of his older male lover, when he does some shameful thing, (178E) and conclude that this gives us additional evidence of the intimate relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates.  Alcibiades says almost in the same breath that Socrates is both crazy about beautiful boys and that he cares nothing about their beauty. He says that Socrates is no respecter of persons and lives merely to hoist people upon their own petard of irony.[8]  Alcibiades goes on to recount that he has thrown himself at Socrates repeatedly but Socrates never takes him up on his offer of a sexual relationship in exchange for mentoring.  Yet he intimates that this is the sort of thing that Socrates and everyone else engages in, calling it the “Bacchic frenzy of philosophy.”[9](218B)  Alcibiades recounts that he was in the military with Socrates and praises him for his courage, his stalwartness, and his stoic character, not to mention his remarkable capacity for alcohol.  He finishes his encomium to Socrates by describing  the philosopher’s remarkable powers of trance-like concentration and again praising his powers of speech, deceptively simple and amusing at first, but overwhelmingly lucid, deep, and utterly convincing at the end.  He warns Agathon not to suffer the same fate as he did, to fall in love with Socrates and not have him as a lover, and he is finished.

Conclusion

Socrates warns Agathon not to let Alcibiades come between them emotionally, and refuses to let Alcibiades do so physically.  Another large drinking party comes in and the symposium starts to disband.  We leave the scene as Socrates is drinking his friends Agathon and Aristophanes under the table, while discussing the necessity for a skilled playwright to be able to write both tragedy and comedy.  I would suppose we are to consider that it is essential to be able to live our lives with virtue through tragic as well as joyful times. Then Socrates, the self-disciplined man, is still able to get up continue his business of the day after drinking all night, followed about by his friend Aristodemus.


[1] I am put in mind of a forty-year old Matre dé hotel who once took me aside when I was sixteen and offered to teach me “French Service.”  It was obvious what he meant but since I had already “been around the world” a few times I graciously declined his offer to ‘mentor’ me.

[2] I love the phrase “press their suits” that is used here.  It has become a modern double-entendre which I use whenever possible because of the way it seems to confuse my younger listeners.

[3] Durante, Jimmy. “As Time Goes By”, CD. Warner Bros Records, 1993

[4] Now I am quoting Johnny Mercer.

[5] J. Gordon Muir, “Homosexuals and the 10% fallacy, “Wall Street journal ( March 31, 1993). Barbara C. Leigh ” The Sexual Behavior of U.S. Adults: Results From a National Survey”American journal of Public Health. Vol. 83, Page(s) 1400-1406.)

[6] You may be sure of it.

[7] I’ve always considered it remarkable that I was born with legs instead of hooves.

[8] Oooooh!  An iron petard, an ironic petard …a metaphor and pun all rolled into one.

[9] How come we never have Slams that are “Bacchic frenzies of philosophy?”  Oh yes…that was sixties…

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About Louis William Rose

“I stand for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians, he lectures on the subject of parliamentary procedure and political process. He serves as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. A Realtor, he also freelances as a consultant in office organization, and meeting facilitation. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and the Florida Master Naturalist at Tree Hill Nature Center, Jacksonville. He has two sons, Edward, a local businessman, and Alexander, a successful real estate professional here in Jacksonville.
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