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Symposium (Plato dialogue)

This article is about Plato's dialogue with the title "(The) Symposium". For Xenophon's dialogue with the same title, see Symposium (Xenophon)

Symposium is a Socratic dialogue by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, student of Socrates. The dialogue is notable for Socrates' description of his own teacher, the deeply and broadly learned priestess Diotima.

A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver featuring an image of a symposium

A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver featuring an image of a symposium

Contents

Setting

From the very start of the dialogue, the reader is made aware that this is no ordinary Socratic dialogue. The cultural elite of Athens are celebrating Agathon, having won the prize for his first tragedy. Our first view of Socrates, as he is joining the second day of revels in the artist's honor, has him washed and primped and "even" wearing shoes.

Such celebrations are the occasion of getting drunk and speaking with excessive liberty.

Dramatis PersonŠ

The following people feature as talking characters in the Symposium: Phaedrus, Agathon, Eryximachus, Pausanias, Aristodemus, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Socrates, Diotima, and, in the opening frame-conversation, Apollodorus.

Summary

Start of the discussion

The beginning of the discussion is dominated by very light-hearted banter and ribbing among the attendees, but as the evening progresses talk turns to the deep subject of Eros. Socratic irony notwithstanding, Plato is not known for using much hilarity in his dialogues. But now even Eros is subjected by most, including Socrates.

A challenge is presented, and Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon all make speeches of praise pursuant to the challenge. All that remains is for Socrates to give his.

First Socrates wants to interrogate Agathon in his usual manner, arguing somewhat flippantly that Eros is not beautiful. Although the argument is superficially and lightheartedly constructed, some have argued that this is just Plato palming the card; it is the genuine view Socrates has of Eros.

Then comes the buildup to the final climax. Socrates recounts a story: In his youth, the wise priestess Diotima initiated the young Socrates into the Art of Love. Diotima revealed to Socrates that all lusts stem from the will for eternity and immortality through creation of things, even the begetting of children, as this is the only victory over death.

Climax and Counterpoint

Enter Alcibiades. The thoroughly soused Alcibiades saunters in shouting and making a scene. He is wearing garlands of violets, ivy, and ribbons. Inquiring if the feast will allow him to join even in his excessively drunk state, he makes deprecating humor about it.

All gladly ask him to join, although Socrates makes a witty remark about what a jealous boy he is, not wanting Socrates to sit next to any other beautiful boy.

Since Alcibiades is new to the party, but has not yet participated in the challenge, they ask his proffer. He, in turn, mocks Socrates, making the biting and indiscreet remark that Socrates will not allow gods or men praised unless it be Socrates himself. Intimating both in context of the party and of the dialogue itself that Socrates did not indeed think much of gods. This is too much for Socrates. He snaps: "Can't you hold your tongue?"

Eryximachus defuses the situation by suggesting that Alcibiades indeed praise Socrates.

Although he claims to do so, he wants to do so by simile. Oddly, he launches into a mock-attack on Socrates, under the guise of being an unrequited lover of him. Although Socrates seeks the company of pretty boys, he never consummates a relationship with any of them. He tells how he tried to seduce Socrates, wrestling with him at the gym and so forth, but nothing occurred.

Then comes the climax of the whole dialogue. After a longwinded account of both their (but principally Socrates') wartime bravery, deprecating his own but flattering Socrates, Alcibiades makes the claim that Socrates' only interest in the young and sexy adolescent boys is so he can prevent any other elder tutors having the chance of making love to them.

After a bit of light byplay, the dialogue fades away, as a huge crowd of revellers enter, and in the general hubbub, no one can hold sustained and focused conversation. While most of the company falls asleep, Socrates continues to drink and talk. Finally, "having laid them to sleep," he goes to the Lyceum, where he "took a bath, and passed the day as usual."

Interpretations

The less controversial salient point of the dialogue is the insight we get both to Socrates' wartime relationship with Alcibiades and his tutoring relationship with Diotima. These are confirmed elsewhere, but here they are expressed as coming from Socrates' and Alcibiades' own mouth, whatever we might think of the reliability of Plato in reporting those speeches.

The more controversial question concerns Socrates' sexual inclinations. The Symposium illustrates the widespread nature of pederasty in ancient Greek society. Not only was it considered admirable, but the Symposium presents an argument that claims a love of a man for adolescent boys to be superior to heterosexuality.

It is necessary to be careful when judging the ancients to avoid modern standards. Pederasty among the aristocracy was perfectly acceptable in ancient Greece, and pederasty was institutionalized in Sparta at least. Just as in some other societies, some circles of the middle class were much less liberal in outlook.

See also