Book Club: Plato “The Symposium”
Update: I’ve been asked to link to some translations. Here is the Perseus Project Symposium English translation which includes the Greek linked at the right. There is also the Internet Classics Archive Benjamin Jowett translation. Angie Hobbs did a great podcast on erotic love in the Symposium. Here is the Gutenberg Project’s Jowett translation. Google Books also has a translation.
As planned, today (technically, tomorrow) I’d like to get a conversation going about Plato’s Symposium. What I’ve done is to write down some questions while reading the text. They certainly aren’t exhaustive or expert, but I think they’re a start. Also, I would definitely not take them as a questionnaire. Instead of trying to answer all of them, please feel free to post comments about whatever questions strike your interest, or pose questions of your own.
The theme of the Symposium is éros, which can be defined as desire or longing, often of a passionate nature. Socrates, of course, has a very different definition. Any students of classical Greek are hereby invited to offer additional definitions.
As the framing story sets the stage, we hear about Aristodemus, a student who is in love with Socrates. A lot of students fall in love with Socrates. A repeating theme here and in other dialogues is the (homo) erotic aspect of the search for truth. Should we understand philosophical education as, in some sense, basically erotic?
The conversation turns to a recent symposium. The symposium was a sort of ritualized drinking party. Often conversation at a symposium would focus on a chosen topic. Here, the question is how best to celebrate the god of love.
Phaedrus claims love shapes our behavior by inspiring shame and the desire to be better for our lover; in particular, it gives us courage and happiness. Can’t love also engender the opposite states? Or is that not love?
Phaedrus gives the example of Achilles and Patroclus. He is very specific that Achilles is the boyfriend and Patroclus is the lover in this relationship. What does this distinction mean? Why does it matter?
Pausanias distinguishes between two loves: Common and Heavenly. Why does he call love for a woman common?
He emphasizes lifelong, devoted love relationships between men. We’ve talked quite a bit recently about the modern conception of a homosexual identity. Is Pausanias talking about something very different?
He also emphasizes the role of society in regulating courtship by deciding what behaviors are shameful or respectable. Does society still regulate courtship? How so?
Eryximachus extends the idea of good and bad love to all natural processes, with an ideal of the well-ordered or harmonious. When he talks about agriculture, this seems quite distant. But is it possible to take his semi-medical explanation as being essentially of a sort with modern psychological ideas about emotional processes?
Aristophanes, famously, explains love in terms of longing to be reunited with an original “other half”. (Hedwig and the Angry Inch Musical/Cartoon illustration here.) Jason has brought up the strangeness of the term hetairistriai, which is translated in various editions as “Lesbian”, “female homosexuals”, and “female minions”, but which seems to more accurately mean prostitutes. In the passage, Aristophanes is describing women who have no fancy for men, but are drawn to other women. This is considered one of the only descriptions of lesbians in classical literature. But why the association with prostitutes?
He also describes men who love men as the boldest, bravest and most masculine. Is Aristophanes’s idea of an undefeatable homosexual fighting force plausible?
He says of this love: “he is overwhelmed, to an amazing extent, with affection, concern, and love. The two don’t want to spend any time apart from each other. These are people who live out entire lifetimes with each other, but couldn’t say what it is they want from each other.” (192 c) Is this description really different from romantic love as we still understand it?
Agathon, instead, describes love’s youth, justice, moderation, courage, wisdom, kindness, grace, and mildness. Is he describing anything like erotic love, as we understand it? Or is this more like parental love?
Socrates, finally, describes love as a yearning towards something one doesn’t have. He recalls a conversation with the seer Diotimam who classifies love as a daemon/spirit between men and gods. It exists between ignorance and wisdom, but yearns for wisdom, goodness and beauty. It desires to have the good forever. It is here to drive us to achieve immortality by reproducing beauty in body and mind. Does this suggest that the fear of death is a motivator towards erotic love?
For Socrates, love aims at Beauty. As we develop in wisdom, we go from love of a beautiful body to love of beautiful bodies in general; and from this to a higher love of beautiful practices, and then upward to love of beautiful ideas and finally “absolute, pure, unmixed… divine Beauty itself”. This I take to mean the eternal, unchanging, transcendent, Divine form of beauty that is intelligible but not perceptible- of the sort of forms described in the Phaedo.
Is Socrates just talking about philosophy: the love of wisdom? Or does this relate to physical love? Does sexual desire have an educative value as a first step towards the eternal forms? Or are the mystics who see it as a distraction blocking the way to enlightenment right?
Finally, Alcibades shows up drunk. He’s a jealous lover to Socrates. He talks about Socrates’s distinction fighting in the Athenian campaign against Potidaea (in 432-430 BCE). Why might the frequently-lost-in-thought Socrates make a good soldier in battle?
In Alcibiades, we see love as deranging. He talks of the madness and Bacchic frenzy of philosophy and of love. Does Plato include this scene as a rebuke to Socrates’s higher discourse about love? Or does it underline the value of philosophical love? Is Socrates dishonest in speaking of higher love, while so often being involved in the irrational, lower sort?
Again, these are just a starting point. Feel free to take the conversation where you will!