Plato's Dialogues: Symposium

Guys, I’m not gonna lie to you: if I hadn’t already committed to discussing every dialogue, I’d punt on the Symposium. I know, it’s probably Plato’s second-most famous dialogue, after the Republic, and love seems like as universally interesting as a topic can be, but it just didn’t grab me as every other work has so far. It is the first so far to have some storytelling to it; even the dramatic Apology is essentially just a record of one speech. I’m sure Plato chose the form carefully and with a purpose in mind, but I’m not really here for storytelling and much prefer philosophy written in the more straightforward style of, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. I think I’ve been receptive to the dialogues so far because, with only one or a few interlocutors, they feel almost like a single author developing an idea slowly, but with purpose. The Symposium, though, starting with someone asking for a second-hand account of the event in question, a series of loosely-connected speeches by multiple people, and an interruption by yet another group of people, making it oddly chaotic. Again, probably intentional, but not at all how I want to read this sort of material.

To get into the dialogue itself, though, one weird thing about Symposium is that it’s essentially all a double narration. Apollodorus is our primary narrator, and he’s been asked by a friend to talk about a discussion of love that had taken place some time earlier between a number of people at a party celebrating Agathon’s recent victory in a competition for a tragedy he’d written. Apollodorus wasn’t there himself, though, and furthermore this was a few years ago. Rather, he’d heard about it from Aristodemus, who had attended. We could hardly have a more unreliable account, then, and I could only guess why Plato decided to relate the dialogue this way.

Does it matter much? In modern literary analysis, yes, it would matter a lot because we’d question the accuracy of almost every part of the account. Was this style of storytelling known to the Greeks, though? If so, was that Plato’s intent? Heck, even if not, I could see Plato essentially inventing the unreliable narrator trope. Apollodorus even says things throughout the narrative like, “Whereupon Socrates began, so far as Aristodemus could trust his memory, as follows.” That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.

In any case, Aristodemus had met up with Socrates on the way to this party, but when they get to the door Socrates rather awkwardly wanders off on his own to think for a while. The others send out a servant to try to convince him to come inside already, but to no avail, and they just accept this as Socrates being, well, Socrates. After he does finally come in, they all hit on the idea of each person giving a speech in praise of Love. Frankly, I didn’t find any of them terribly interesting, though I suppose they were enjoyable enough and will admit that my lack of attentiveness is at least as likely to be a problem with me as it is to be a problem with Plato. This is supposed to be relatively light entertainment for them, but in another case of Socrates being Socrates, after Agathon’s speech he starts trying to question him about it, but Phaedrus steps in and says, “My dear Agathon, 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. Now, much as I enjoy listening to Socrates’ arguments, it’s my duty as chairman to insist each man makes his speech,” etc.

Phaedrus isn’t the first person to accuse Socrates of merely being argumentative; Hippias has done the same previously, and based on the dialogues so far, particularly with the Sophists, the charge does have some truth to it. As much as I respect Socrates and, like Phaedrus, enjoy hearing his arguments, I have to admit that he comes across as, in modern parlance, a bit of a sperg at times.

Oh, and yes, he did add that “especially if it’s someone good-looking” qualifier. Yes, it’s a bit gay, and things get even more gay once Alcibiades shows up, but it’s the Greeks so just roll with it.

Speaking of gay, though, the most famous of the speeches in the Symposium is Aristophanes’. Yes, that is Aristophanes the comedian. As an aside, I read his play The Clouds recently, and can confirm that he’s just as unfunny as any modern foreign comedian. I don’t want to be too critical, though. Again, as with foreign comedies today, I can see how this may have been funny if I were there at the time, saw the performances live, and didn’t need a translation. It’s a bit interesting to me how comedy is far more dependant on culture than tragedy. Sophocles’ work still holds up for the most part, for instance. When it comes to movies, the most successful foreign films tend to be dramas of one kind or another, rather than comedies. Actually, as an aside to this aside, at the end there’s a mention of Socrates debating whether the same man can write both comedy and tragedy. In principle I’m sure someone can, but I’m unaware of any Classical author who did both, and off the top of my head I struggle to think of many people who did both. Whether we’re talking about playwrights, novelists, or filmmakers, artists tend to at least specialise in one genre or another, and even when they do cross over they seldom find a lot of success.

Anyway, turning back around to the main narrative, Aristophanes’ story gets brought up now and then because he tells this myth about how all people used to be either male, female, or both, and that this is essentially why some people are heterosexual and others homosexual. I’m pretty sure this is story is mostly tongue-in-cheek, though. Aristophanes is a comedian, after all, and furthermore he’s rather drunk. Here’s part of his description:

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

I think we have a clear winner for the weirdest thing in the dialogues so far.

Anyway, when it is Socrates’ turn to speak, he begins by asking the others a few questions, but then switches gears and relates a dialogue from years earlier, between himself and Diotima of Mantineia. Interestingly, this is certainly a Socratic dialogue, but it’s Diotima in the role that Socrates normally takes, so we get to see Socrates learning the technique that he would later master. The most interesting part of the rest of the Symposium, though, actually comes from Alcibiades, who comes stumbling in near the end and gives a speech about Socrates. At one point he says:

And he [i.e., Socrates] is the only person who ever made me ashamed, which you might think not to be in my nature, and there is no one else who does the same. For I know that I cannot answer him or say that I ought not to do as he bids, but when I leave his presence the love of popularity gets the better of me. And therefore I run away and fly from him, and when I see him I am ashamed of what I have confessed to him. Many a time have I wished that he were dead, and yet I know that I should be much more sorry than glad, if he were to die: so that am at my wit’s end.

There are a couple points to be made here, first about keeping good company, the other about sincerity. The first needs no explication, but for the second, when we’re confronted with a moral exemplar, even in history or literature, but especially in person, we can’t help but feel ashamed of our own shortcomings. The Great Learning says, “The superior man will always be watchful over himself when alone. When the inferior man is alone and leisurely, there is no limit to which he does not go in his evil deeds.” When alone or in poor company, it’s easy to make excuses for our own bad behaviour, but in good company we become more fully aware of mere excuses.

Now, I’ll go ahead and leave off there for the time being. Yes, this is shorter than the Symposium deserves, but I may simply need to revisit the dialogue when I’m more properly disposed to learn from it.