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HEADLINE: This is priceless!

The Symposium - Plato, Christopher Gill

When I was a young man, I and my friends certainly had some strange conversations, possibly aided by some substances of questionable legality in certain countries, but we never quite managed to attain the heights of strangeness reached at this banquet/drinking party(*) held in 416 BCE when Socrates was approximately 53 years old, once again the principal figure in this "dialogue" written by Plato between 12 and 15 years after Socrates' death by poisoning in 399 BCE. Plato was 11 years old when the banquet took place, so, as in Crito and Phaedo , all the speeches are Plato's invention, though he may well have listened to stories about the banquet from participants. The general topic of the speeches: love in all of its forms.

 

Each of the participants in the banquet is, in turn, to deliver a speech about Love. And deliver they do...

 

Eryximachus, first up to bat, laments that so little poetry has been dedicated to the topic of Love. Phaedrus, in honorable Greek tradition, reaches into the past and recalls what Hesiod and Parmenides, among others, had to say. Love is the eldest and most beneficent of the gods. Then he launches into an explanation why the love between men fosters and supports honor and virtuous behavior. (A common theme at this banquet, which makes me wonder why the Christians permitted this text to survive. Thank goodness the Christian crusade against "sodomy" is ebbing into impotence.) Phaedrus unfavorably contrasts Orpheus' love for his wife with Achilles' love for Patroclus (and can't resist asserting that Achilles was the bottom, not Patroclus, because he was the fairer, beardless and younger; he doesn't use "bottom", but in the Greco-Roman world, those are the attributes of the "passive" partner in a homosexual relationship - I've heard some conversations like this at drunken parties, but Achilles usually wasn't the subject of the gossip).

 

Pausanias then holds forth on the distinction between noble Love, expressed for youths who are "beginning to grow their beards", and common Love, whose object is women and boys. (At this point I'd be wondering if somebody had slipped something into the wine. But I'd be listening closely.) He gives a lengthy and closely reasoned moral argument in favor of this. I wonder how it would go over in the House of Representatives?

 

Eryximachus, in a return engagement, is a physician and reinterprets Pausanias' moral distinctions in terms of the concepts of "healthy" and "diseased". In a process of what appears to be free association (was Plato smirking while he was writing this?), the good doctor throws in music, agriculture, astronomy, divination (OK, pass the blunt over here again), ... .

 

Finally, he turns the floor over to the playwright Aristophanes, who clearly had brought his private stash to the party. For he commences to explain that originally mankind had three sexes. Moreover, primeval man was round, had four hands and feet, two faces on one head, etc. etc. In his LSD dream, this primeval man was so powerful that Zeus was envious and smote primeval man in twain. With some cosmetic work by Apollo, which is described in fascinating detail, and after a few false starts, voilà , mankind as we know it. Which explains, of course, why we are always looking for our other half. Instead of being helped away to a sanatorium, Aristophanes goes on to explain how the original three sexes of primeval man fit into the picture. Enjoy! I know I did.

 

After this gobsmackingly strange speech (which would have had me trying to figure out where he hid his stash), the boys engage in some good natured banter, and then Agathon takes the floor. He makes a bad start, and then it goes downhill from there. Let's just say that Love had better not drop the soap in the shower when Agathon is around. (I know Plato was laughing up his sleeve on this one.)

 

Now it is The Man's turn - Socrates steps to the plate. He goes into his usual "Ah, shucks" routine and then starts asking Agathon questions. Please see my review of Plato's Phaedo to see how that goes. After Agathon agrees with everything Socrates says, Socrates launches into a long story, the upshot of which is: the only true love is Love of the Absolute! (This sounds more like Plato than Socrates, but no surprise there.)

 

Upon which Alcibiades comes staggering into the room. After a brief argument with Socrates about which of the two has the greater hots for the other, Alcibiades stumbles up to the plate. He sings the praises of Socrates' virtue, nobility, fortitude and pedagogy. This speech, if authentic, is one of the most detailed glimpses into Socrates' life we have and is fascinating.

 

As literature, Plato really surpassed himself in this dialogue - even the weakest speeches (from the point of view of content and wit) were most savorously eloquent. And all were entertaining, each in a very distinct way. While I personally find Plato's physics, metaphysics and epistemology to be absurd and his politics to be frightening, the man could turn a phrase and draw a convincing characterization through speech. While I am completely unconvinced by claims that the Symposium can be viewed as a novel, one can, nonetheless, read it with great pleasure as a purely literary product.

 

By the way, is any of that wine left?

 

(Re-read in Benjamin Jowett's translation.)

 

(*) A possibly amusing sidenote: The participants take a vote and decide "that drinking is to be voluntary, and that there is to be no compulsion" (they decided this only because so many of them were hung over from the previous evening!). One pauses at the idea that some of the brightest lights of Western culture comported themselves in their middle age like frat boys on a Saturday night... One of Socrates' many reported virtues was he could drink everybody else under the table and walk away into the dawn perfectly sober.