More Notes on Plato's Symposium (The Drinking Party)
”The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, at 53 (Free Press, 1969).
The dialogue opens (172) with some theater. The action, scenes and characters allow Plato’s dialogues to transcend mere arguments. Apollodorus is speaking to a “friend”. He tells the “friend” that Glaucon met Apollodorus as he was on his way up to Athens from his home in the suburbs. Glaucon asks Apollodorus if he was present at Agathon's party when certain speeches were made by Socrates and others on the topic of “Love” (eros). Apollodorus replies that he cannot give a first hand account, because the party in question happened “when we were in the nursery”, the day after Agathon gave a party to celebrate winning a prize for his first tragedy. Apollodorus got the story from Aristodemus, another admirer of Socrates. Apollodorus then (174) begins telling the story in Aristodemus’ words.
Thus, we are hearing a story inside a story inside a story (or as lawyers say, triple hearsay). This structure is reflected in an image by Alcibiades, toward the end of the dialogue, when he compares Socrates to a sileni (a satyr doll inside a satyr doll). (215b)
In Aristodemus' story, he meets up with Socrates, who is on his way to a party at Agathon’s, and invites Aristodemus along. Socrates, however, has a “fit of abstraction” and lags behind. (174d) This bit of business reflects a story told later by Alcibiades(220c) about when he and Socrates were on a military campaign. Socrates “started wrestling with some problem or other” at dawn, and just stood there thinking about for 24 hours. Modern readers may speculate that Socrates was prone to epileptic seizure. For Plato, however, these tales show that Socrates was inspired by a divine craziness, comparable to drunkenness and to the madness inspired by Eros, and to the bacchic frenzy of the mystery cult.
Phaedrus gives the first, rather dull speech praising Eros. (178b-180c) (I suspect it was as boring 2,500 years ago as it is today). From Phaedrus' allusions to Homer, however, we can discern that the Love being praised includes erotic love between a man and a younger man, in Phaedrus' example, between Patroclus and Achilles. In fact, this is the paradigm of love for the Symposium, not heterosexual romantic love. This paradigm for man/boy Love is not a balanced, mutual relationship but an asymmetric uni-dimensional desire of the "lover" for the "beloved". Phaedrus opines that, because Achilles was the younger and "beardless" one, Achilles was "the beloved" and the elder Patroclus his "lover". This makes Achilles' great activity, in avenging Patroclus' death, more noteworthy for the Greeks, who assume the "beloved" would take a passive role. This reversal of the greater and lesser, the younger and older, is a theme of the dialogue, as in the introductory scene where the relative youthful Apollodorus and Aristodemus are the "lovers" and their "beloved" is that old codger Socrates.
The next speech --at least the next Aristodemus could remember-- was by Pausanias. Pausanias’ speech (180c-185e) first distinguishes between two different male gods named “Love” (Eros), descended from two female gods named Aphrodite. The Greeks tended to absorb the gods and goddesses of the various tribes and localities they occupied. There were more than few goddesses they called “Aphrodite”. Pausanias refers to a motherless “Uranian” Aphrodite as the elder Aphrodite (like Hesiod’s Aphrodite, who was born from sea-foam) and a younger Aphrodite, who was the daughter of Zeus and Dione (as Homer had it). The elder Aphrodite begets a “heavenly” Eros and the younger Aphrodite begets an “earthly” Eros. The earthly Eros is vulgar, promiscuous and “partakes of both male and female”. The heavenly Eros is masculine, vigorous and intellectual. A Greek nobleman inspired by the heavenly Eros has no interest in boys, according to Pausanias, until show at least “the first sign of dawning intelligence”. (181d). Pausanias then describes the laws (nomos, customs) of “love”, that is, the differing traditions of homosexual mentoring among the Greek cities. Pausanias suggests that the purpose of the Athenian law to encourage the “heavenly” Eros, as a means to mentor and educate.
The comic poet Aristophanes was to follow Pausanias, but he got the hiccups. He turned to the physician, Eryximachus, and told him he could either cure the hiccups or go next. Eryximachus did both, telling the poet how he could cure his hiccups (holding his breath and gargling water, or if it were particularly stubborn, tickling his nose with feather to make himself sneeze) and while he was trying that, the physician would give a speech. Eryximachus picks up where Pausanias left off, but goes at it from a medical point of view --or at least what passed for "medical" in classic Athens. Eryximachus speaks of alchemy, music, and divination, with the theme of a harmony of opposites: hot and cold, sweet and sour, wet and dry, treble and bass. Someone learned in the secrets of Pythagoras might find some wisdom here, but compared to other dialogues where Plato expounds Pythagorean doctrines in more depth, this is just a taste of ancient Physics. The blending or harmony of opposites is, at least, an improvement over the simple good/bad dichotomy of the preceding speech by Pausanias.
Aristophanes, the great comic poet, returns, his hiccups cured by sneezing, wondering “how your orderly principle of the body could have called for such an appalling union of noise and irritation”. In any event, the cure worked, and Aristophanes proceeds to tell the most delightful story of the Symposium, indeed, in all of Plato. In the beginning, people were like two people joined back-to-back, with four legs, four arms and two heads. There were three sexes in thes joined creatures: male-and-female, male-and-male, and female-to-female. When they were in a hurry, they could move by turning cartwheels. They challenged the gods themselves, and Zeus weakened them (but also doubled the number of his worshippers) by cutting them all in half. The split humans long for their other half... this is love. The stories is told with many amusing details, as befits a report of Aristophanes.
When Aristophanes is done, (194c) Socrates almost succeeds in drawing his host, Agathon, into the Socratic questioning which we call “Socratic Method” and which usually dominates the Platonic dialogues. After only two questions, however, Phaedrus breaks in:
My dear Agathon, he said, if you go on answering his questions he won’t care twopence what becomes of our debate, so long as there’s someone he can argue with --especially if it’s someone good-looking.
Agathon, the literary man, who has just won a play competition, gives a pretty little speech replete with references to Homer
. Agathon recites a paen of praise to the youth, beauty and loveliness of the God, Eros. This, unfortunately, earns him a Socratic lesson which, briefly, disproves everything Agathon just said. To desire, Socrates reasons, is to long for something one lacks. Love arises form need, not plentitude.
After Socrates interrogates Agathon, he tells of his lessons in love from “a Mantinean woman” named Diotima. (The triple hearsay now becomes quadruple hearsay).
Diotima explained to Socrates that Eros is the desire for beauty and immortality. She told Socrates that to be initiated into the mysteries of Eros, there are a number of steps, like a ladder:
Starting from individual beauties, the quest for universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung --that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself-- until at last he comes to know what beauty is. Plato, Symposium, 211c.
But no sooner does Socrates tell this tale then Alcibiades bursts in, and tells of his relationship with Socrates.
Alcibiades arrives. Alcibiades was later a controversial general during Athen’s failed conquest of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, who defected from Athens to its enemy, Sparta, and then to the court of the Persian king. He announces that he is very drunk. (212d) Asked to give his praise of Love, he instead gives a "eulogy" of Socrates. He compares Socrates to a Sileni: the ancient Greek version of nested dolls inside dolls (recall the story inside a story format with which Plato begins this dialogue). (215b) Alcibiades describes the effect Socrates has on the young men of Athens as a “philosphical frenzy” and “sacred rage”. (218b) He then relates his love for Socrates, tells a few war stories, and an amusing story of how Alcibiades once spent the night with Socrates --without having sex with him, much to Alcibiades’ chagrin-- but capping this joke with a foreshadowing of Socrates' trial. (219c)
Then a whole crowd of revellers burst in, and enormous quantities of wine were consumed. Socrates reportedly stayed up the entire evening and went about his usual business the following day.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, 1961) at 527-574;Symposium tr. Michael Joyce.
N.B.: Plato is cited with "Stephanus" numbers, the pages of a authoritative Greek text published in Geneva in 1578 by Henri Estiene (Stephanus).