Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.60

ALSO SEEN: Kevin Corrigan, Elena Glazov-Corrigan, Plato's Dialectic at Play: Argument, Structure, and Myth in the Symposium.   University Park, PA:  Penn State University Press, 2005.  Pp. ix, 266.  ISBN 0-271-02462-3.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Zdravko Planinc, McMaster University (

In their analysis of the Symposium, Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan argue for a new version of the now widely-held view that an understanding of the literary structure of a dialogue is essential to understanding its content. The main part of the book develops from an examination of the correlation between the eulogists' accounts of eros and the rungs on Diotima's ladder -- a trope more frequently and extensively discussed than one might gather from the footnotes1 -- but it does so within the context of the broader argument that an application of Mikhail Bakhtin's literary theory to the Symposium shows it to be the first novel. There is, consequently, little emphasis given to the speeches of Phaedrus, Pausanias and Eryximachus, and a good deal more emphasis -- two of seven exegetical chapters -- given to the significance of Apollodorus and Aristodemus: the framing story opens up the potentialities of transmissibility and misrepresentation, of a "discourse that is not as straightforward as it may appear, but instead is destroyed, punctured, and transformed throughout by the thoughts, questions, and jests that it frames but cannot direct" (4). This sort of ambiguity, for the authors, is at the heart of Plato's dialectic.

The dialogue as a whole is a field of "multiple narrative designs", and its dialectical centerpiece, Diotima's account of the higher mysteries, is a "multidimensional energy focus for the pulsating design that informs so many of the narrative structures of the work" (5). In Plato's ambiguous text, every character's speech is a flawed embodiment of the truth: "every figure ... makes a statement and yet casts a shadow" (42). Even so, one might ask what relation the ambiguous narratives in the eulogies have to the ambiguous centerpiece. The latecomer Alcibiades' dramatic disruption of the party warrants a chapter showing that it symbolizes the radical freedom of dialectical thought. As much discussion is given to Aristophanes' eulogy, and more particularly to its correspondence to the fourth rung of Diotima's ladder, because his comic art exhibits a "spiritual longing for unity and wholeness" (155) and is a manifestation of the potential of all art to be the study of the beautiful itself. Aristophanes, however, betrays the potential. His speech is a "gigantic contradiction" (74) insofar as he suggests that through piety we can be restored to a state he describes as impious, irrational, and brutal, and its morality is steeped in physicality and founded on childish fear -- a self-centered vision that is juxtaposed to Diotima's understanding of a greater good that is spiritual and "genuinely other-focused" (136). Aristophanes does not "cut at the joints"; his account is a "bastardized form of Platonic dialectic" (156). Now, if there are natural joints and if there is a legitimate form of the dialectic that shames bastard forms, one might assume that a reading of the dialogue as an open field of potentialities would have contradictions of its own to address.

On the whole, the authors have done interesting work in exploring the subtleties of the most important speeches in the dialogue and in examining the relation of the Symposium to the Republic and other middle-period dialogues. However, the literary-critical framework in which the exegetical work is presented might not be best suited to capturing the openness to plurality of Socrates' dialectic, especially if it is the motivation for the authors' claim that "many previous interpretations, though undoubtedly missing the mark, are nonetheless perfectly comprehensible in their own right from the perspective of the more complex design we have discovered" (6).


1.   For example, there is no discussion of Leo Strauss's book on the Symposium, very little of Stanley Rosen's book, and only a cursory examination (47-49, primarily) of Kenneth Dorter's relevant article, "A Dual Dialectic in the Symposium," Philosophy and Rhetoric 25/3 (1992), 253-70.

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