Book Club: Plato “The Symposium”

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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15 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of the things that I think is amazing is that the book kicks off not with the dinner party but with two guys.

    “Yo! Did you go to the party?”
    “Yeah!”
    “What did you talk about?”
    “Well, I’ll tell you…”

    The entire book is one guy’s recollection of a dinner party from at least 3 evenings back. He (accurately, I presume… though a Rashomon series of Symposium books would be *AWESOME*) then gives a retelling of the evening. Who sat where, who said what AND IN WHAT ORDER.

    My god. I went over to my buddy’s house last Saturday and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what we talked about if you asked and we weren’t even drinking.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yeah, I love that too. There’s a great line towards the end in which he says, basically, “I passed out, but when I woke up at dawn Socrates was still sitting around talking about the differences between comedy and tragedy to two of them who were still drinking.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    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?”

    Well, it’s difficult for me to talk about love for any extended period of time without talking about Maribou.

    So I’ll start talking about her and me.

    I suppose a modern way of saying it would be “I’ve finished ‘falling in love’. I’m there.” Sure, when you’re a kid, you find yourself full up with swooping emotions and grand statements and poetry and whathaveyou… but, as I age (and age with Maribou) I find more and more that I can’t say what it is I want from her apart from living out an entire lifetime with her.

    Submarines have to periodically surface and look at the stars and recalibrate their instruments to correct for drift. I suppose that Maribou is like that for me. We don’t have to do everything together or spend every waking moment together (hell, we’re separate vacation people)… but if I go too long without surfacing, my instruments drift and I have no idea where I am.

    She went to England for three weeks a few years back (2006? Help me out, honey) and the first week was *AWESOME*. I was batchin’ it, I could do whatever I wanted. Which, pretty much, was what I more or less did when she was around only less of it and with louder music. Work out, eat, smoke, whatever. I was single!

    Then week two hit and I stopped sleeping. At the end of week two, I went to our little diner and ordered my usual breakfast and the waitress asked me what the hell was wrong with me. I told her that Maribou was in England and would be for another week. The next week, after Maribou came back, she went out to our little diner where the waitress proceeded to yell at her.

    It’s not exciting to talk about, particularly. It’s not even particularly romantic (though, at times, it can be). She can be doing something in the computer room and I can be doing something in the room next to it and that’s good enough. When the “Stuff White People Like” people call and say that we’re not pulling our weight, we can slap a Rumpole of the Bailey dvd into the player and watch an episode or two together… but, for the most part, the point is the “entire lifetime” thing. To focus on the “what it is they want” is to miss the point entirely.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s much like that for me and my wife. You do sort of pass through that stage on the way to something more regular and stable I think. I mean, we’ve spent six months apart and it was definitely hard but possible.

      I guess with Socrates, I wonder if he wouldn’t say, “Okay, sure, that’s a higher level of love you’ve got there. But, if you want to reach the highest level of love, you’ve got to be able to sit by yourself intellectually apprehending the unchanging and eternal form of Beauty.”

      In which case, I might tell him to piss off.Report

  3. Avatar Keljeck says:

    “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?”

    I think it’s important to notice that only Erximachus and Phaedrus seems to be taking anything seriously until Socrates. Phaedrus starts off somewhat naively, Pausanias is trying to get Agathon in bed, Eryximachus seems to be taking it seriously for some reason (I have no clue what to make out of that), and Aristophanes is making fun of cosmogonies. Agathon just won the Dionysian competition, and his speech is ridiculously flowery, as Socrates jokes about. I think Agathon is making love out to be himself, or an idealized version of himself, just as Socrates does the same in his dialogue with Diotima. So the speech largely acts as a set up to Socrates.

    And I’m not sure how seriously to take this homosexuality stuff. Pederasty was accepted culturally, but Athens still rejected many manifestations of homosexuality, in the Phaedrus Socrates calls homosexuality “unnatural” and in the Republic homosexuality isn’t exactly accepted in the ideal state. The homosexuality gets overstated because Apollodorus is obviously in love with Socrates, to the point that he is called “the maniac.” Always questioning himself, and others, but never questioning Socrates, always fallowing him around and presumably trying to get in bed with him just like Alcibiades. And he’s the one giving us this story, curious that out of all of the people there, he remember’s Pausanias’ speech?

    As for what this means about the point Plato is trying to get across, I’m not sure. Socrates is the embodiment of love, which is why he can say at the beginning that the only thing he understands is the art of love. It is only natural, then, that people should desire him erotically. And through erotic attachment to love they can learn what “Diotima” taught Socrates. How to contemplate the form of beauty itself, which is the end of that education.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Keljeck says:

      Aristophanes was very much making fun… but you only realize that he has a knife in his hand when he twists it. His explanation of what love is still has explanatory power today. Hell, only the best comedians can do what he did there. He’s telling an obviously silly story that punches you in the nose when he gets to the end that ends up not being very silly at all.Report

      • Avatar Keljeck in reply to Jaybird says:

        Not to deny he had a point he was trying to get across, but it’s definitely not a serious story. And it’s a parody. Ironically enough, he seems to be the one other person there (before Alcibiades shows up) who gets it somewhat. Which is strange considering how he treated Socrates in The Clouds.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Keljeck says:

      It’s also a really interesting point that Socrates is the embodiment of love. I’ve never quite looked at him that way, but in the back of my mind I think that is how I’ve always understood him.Report

  4. Avatar William Brafford says:

    Plato’s cast of characters is always interesting. As Keljeck mentioned, the real Aristophanes wrote a play called The Clouds in which Socrates is portrayed rather badly. The real Alcibiades had a wild political career — he wasn’t exactly a stable statesman, so that’s probably relevant. Anyways, I’m still re-reading, so I’ll have more to say later.Report

    • I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

      I can’t remember for sure, but I seem to remember another dialogue in which Socrates is speaking ill of Aristophanes. And he did indeed parody Socrates. I take his appearance here as parodic and don’t think his argument should be taken seriously- on the other hand, it does seem to lead us a step closer to Diotima’s position, so I don’t think it’s supposed to be all bad.Report

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