Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.07

James Lesher, Debra Nails, Frisbee Sheffield, Plato's Symposium. Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Hellenic Studies 22.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press (on behalf of the Center for Hellenic Studies), 2006.  Pp. 446.  ISBN 978-0-674-02375-7.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Patricia Curd, Purdue University (
Word count: 3347 words

[Contents are listed at the end of the review.]

In 416 BC Agathon's tragedy won first prize at the Lenaian Festival in Athens. Reportedly it was his first play. There was a victory party, and it must have been some party: at a second celebration the following day in Agathon's house, there were still several guests hung over from the night before. Pausanias, Aristophanes, and Agathon admit to feeling rather frail, and comments by the medico Eryximachus suggest that he, Aristodemus, Phaedrus, "and the rest" are also still suffering. (At least one of the guests at the second party had missed the first, so not all the participants at Agathon's party shared in the hangover.) To avoid further overindulgence, the guests, guided by Pausanias, decide to drink moderately, to dismiss the flute-girl, and to indulge in a little speechmaking in praise of love. Things go more or less according to plan (a comic set of hiccups notwithstanding), until, all of a sudden, the proceedings are interrupted by the appearance of Alcibiades, drunk, bedecked in ribbons and wreaths, demanding to join the speeches. After that, social chaos ensues until at dawn, the one sober participant (trailed by a faithful follower) leaves everyone else sleeping things off, and heads out to clean up and spend his day quietly. Another remarkable party.

We know about these parties (or think we know, at any rate) because Plato chose to tell us about them in the Symposium. It's remarkable what we do not know: the name of Agathon's play, who attended the party (there are some unnamed "others"), how many speeches there were (the boring ones were left out of Apollodorus's story), whether any of this actually happened at all, and, most importantly, just why Plato decided to write this dialogue. The Symposium is a creation by one of the masters of literature; yet we ask, and indeed argue about, what Socrates thought about Agathon's speech, or whether Aristophanes gives us a brilliant account of the nature of love or a shoddy and cliché-ridden recycling of an already hackneyed folk tale. Great art and great philosophy are like that: they draw us in, motivate us to think, and create in us the desire for answers to questions that, to the soberly unaffected, can seem silly or simple-minded.

One party begets another. In August, 2005, The Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC, sponsored a conference on Plato's Symposium; this volume, edited by the organizers, is the result. The book suggests that this symposium, too, must have been quite a party. For lovers of Plato, of philosophy, of literature, or art (and of the history of philosophy, art, or literature, too), Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception is a treat. One of the best things about the book is its range. In sixteen essays we go from Heraclitus to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with intermediate stops at Aristotle, Plotinus, Renaissance courtly painting and poetry, the United States Supreme Court, and Wallace Stevens; there are essays here for everyone who reads the Symposium. A further benefit is that every reader will learn something new, and everyone will be asked to cross boundaries that are usually all too well fortified and guarded today. This is interdisciplinary study at its best, with generous attention paid to all the ways Plato can be read, studied, interpreted, and argued about. All the contributors are scholars who know the material, know their fields, and defend their views tenaciously, yet they are all clearly learning from one another and talking to, rather than past, one another. Above all, these essays all show the signs that the authors enjoyed themselves: the joys and delights of hard thinking about good things are surely on view here.

There is no way to do justice to the richness of the arguments in a short review, and no point in simply cataloguing the essays, although a list of contents appears below. No one person could give an equally competent critical evaluation of each the entries. I shall have to be content to point out some the questions that appear and reappear, each time receiving a different answer from a different perspective. These discussions jointly give the reader a picture of the dialogue, a picture that is both cubistic and necessarily incomplete. To some it will seem old-fashioned to ask what Plato intended the Symposium to say to its readers, yet surely Plato had something he wanted to say. Untangling some of the somethings is the purpose of most of the essays. Understanding Plato includes seeing how the doctrines of the Symposium connect with other dialogues that Plato has left us; if there is a lesson about love here, it should probably fit into Plato's broader views. Christopher Rowe seeks to place the Symposium into the broad categories of "Socratic" or "Platonic" dialogues, and in so doing shows the difficulties in defining and maintaining such categories (which is not the same as denying that there can be such). Like other contributors, Rowe notes the many connections of the Symposium with other dialogues: throughout the volume links with the Protagoras, the Meno, the Republic, the Phaedrus, the Philebus, and the Laws are noted and explored.

Other essays raise questions about the philosophical content of the various speeches: is there a set of ethical or metaphysical claims that Plato wishes to endorse to be found in the dialogue, and how are these related to other things Plato says in other places? In various ways, Frisbee Sheffield, Lloyd Gerson, and Gabriel Richardson Lear tackle these problems. All agree that we must consider the whole of the dialogue, and material outside it; all add to our understanding, yet the disagreements among the three are real. Sheffield concentrates on the relations among the speeches: does Plato think that there is anything of philosophical value in the speeches that precede the one that Socrates gives? This question appears throughout the volume, with quite different answers. Sheffield argues for a moderate inclusivism (along the way marking the importance, both metaphysically and epistemologically, of the views of the Symposium for a complete understanding of Plato's complex philosophical system); she interprets the earlier speeches as providing quasi-endoxic evidence for the truth of Socrates' view; each contains something worth considering, and once we understand the truth from Socrates we are in a position to evaluate and correct the earlier views. In contrast, Luc Brisson sees Socrates as rejecting entirely Pausanias's comments. Many of the contributors slight Aristophanes's effort (revenge for Clouds, perhaps?) and poor Agathon, the prize-winning tragic poet, is repeatedly deprecated as a Gorgias-influenced windbag (Mark McPherran, Brisson, Debra Nails). Ruby Blondell speaks for many of the modern symposiasts when she says that Agathon's speech is "admittedly beautiful" but dryly notes that it suffers from "lack of truth" (172n110). Nails even questions the philosophical tenability (from Plato's own point of view) of Diotima's speech.

Plato's double treatment (some might even say conflation) of the beautiful and the good (most obvious at 204eff.) raises questions for many of the essays. Gerson, Lear, and Gabriela Roxana Carone all discuss this, again from different perspectives: Gerson arguing for a Plotinian (i.e., for Gerson, the really Platonist) view "that the beautiful is that Idea [the Good] in its attractive aspect" (p. 59). Lear does a masterful job of untangling the ethical implications of the relations among happiness, beauty, and the desire for immortality; and Carone elegantly puts the case for the necessity of beauty for virtue, and the irreplaceable role for knowledge in genuine love.

Most of us would acknowledge that the more we know of something, the fuller our appreciation of it can be. McPherran explores contemporary relations among medicine, religion, and philosophy, comparing the accounts given by Eryximachus and Diotima (through the agency of Socrates' report). McPherran pays Eryximachus the compliment of taking him seriously, and thus helps to illuminate Plato's attitudes to contemporary debates about medicine and its place in Athenian culture. In her excellent essay Nails undertakes to expand our background knowledge for the party at Agathon's house. In a wide-ranging discussion she reconstructs the social contexts of both the original party and Apollodorus's telling the tale almost twenty years later, debunks some myths about the characters, describes the dining room, and reminds us that what we are reading are reports of speeches, not essays. She emphasizes that this was not a lecture series: the speeches occurred in a room full of people eating and drinking, with slaves coming and going, there are stray noises entering from other parts of the house, dishes clinking, and Aristophanes is attempting to cure his hiccups by sneezing while Eryximachus praises the virtues of order and harmony. McPherran and Nails provide this information not just because it is intrinsically interesting but because we need all of it to try to understand what Plato might want us to know: how Socrates is the hero and will be the victim, how Agathon's career in Athens will end (his fine verses turning to ash), what a shambles Alcibiades will make of his own life, how the philosophic life, as an erotic enterprise, can help mortals overcome the vicissitudes of mortality, and how those who teach must be careful to ensure that their students do not mistake the false glamour associated with the trappings of "being a philosopher" with the distinctly difficult and unglamorous job of doing philosophy.

Socrates, the man who avoided the first party, and who leaves the second celebration sober, is in the midst of all this, his strangeness as obvious to us modern readers as it was to the ancient Athenians. Blondell explores this strangeness through discussion of attempts to place Socrates himself on the so-called "ladder of love" that Diotima describes. (As Blondell notes, 147n2, the ladder is perhaps more rightly "a staircase of passionate desire.") In a lively essay, she persuasively argues for a Socrates in motion: we will never capture him permanently on any one step, the erotic pursuit of good is dynamic, and wherever we look for Socrates he will appear somewhere else. Many of the essays here note the obvious connection between Diotima's description of Erôs and the appearance and behavior of Socrates himself; C.D.C. Reeve begins with Alcibiades' description of Socrates and explores the strangeness of Socrates from the perspective of Alcibiades (who rightly notes how astonishing is his own attraction to Socrates). Reeve explores what Alcibiades can mean in comparing Socrates to a Silenus. Like the rest of us, Alcibiades is unable to pin down Socrates and explain who or what he really is: Socrates remains essentially unknowable. The danger, according to Reeve, is to misidentify the excitement of the chase after Socrates with the pursuit of philosophy. As Reeve hints at the end of his article, that pursuit has its own rewards.

One might note how un-Socratic the Socrates who appears in the Symposium is. Unlike other dialogues, Socrates shares the stage with other speakers, who do not necessarily defer to him: the topic is suggested by someone other than Socrates; the discussion is not generated by a preliminary conversation with him; and he remains remarkably restrained in commenting on other speeches. In his own account of his conversation with Diotima, Socrates repeatedly tells Diotima that she must tell him the answers to her questions as he is flummoxed. (One wonders what Meno would have thought, had he been present). Nails mentions some Symposiastic incongruities with others of Plato's representations of Socrates, but further consideration of them by others of the contributors might prove interesting.

Another strikingly odd thing about the Symposium is the presence of Diotima, if not in person, then in Socrates' story. How are we to account for the very female source of an account of love that leaves women far behind yet which also stresses pregnancy? Angela Hobbs provides an enlightening and wide-ranging discussion, a bracing reminder that what Plato explores in human beings is just that: their human being. It is their embodied state that limits humans, not the particular kinds of bodies they have; for Plato it is our souls, the same for all, that deserve our care and concern.

Be that as it may, it is the love of boys that is at the heart of the Symposium. Throughout the years, readers have found Greek paiderastia (Brisson's chosen term here) liberating, intriguing, and disgusting (perhaps all at once). Several of the contributors focus on this aspect of the dialogue. Brisson explores the speeches of Pausanias, Agathon, and Diotima arguing that, in the Symposium, Plato rejects physical paiderastia in favor of intellectual, replacing seminal fluids with seminal ideas. Genuine erotic education is philosophical, and genuine philosophia replaces the transmission of knowledge (through teaching as lecturing by a master to an obedient or passive student) with the recovery of knowledge that one has within oneself (shades of the Meno and other treatments of recollection again). Thus, although the image is of one pregnant with thoughts and ideas, true education leads away from the body to the intelligible. Brisson argues that Plato here performs a "reversal" of the common social convention of his day. Readers have sometimes disagreed with Brisson's interpretation. A jolt of everyday reality comes with Jeffrey Carnes's essay on recent legal battles in the U.S. over homosexuality in which the Plato and the Symposium have been invoked on both sides, in courtrooms where academic play with texts can become matters of liberty and restraint. This essay shows explicitly, as many others in the volume have shown implicitly, that Plato's texts can be read (some might say manipulated) in many ways. One person's "obvious" absurdity can be another's "clear" truth. Plato never tired of pointing out that persuasive speeches are not to be confused with good arguments, and he also argued that there must be genuine truths that ground our claims. For Plato, the "must" is both descriptive and normative.

Most of Plato's dialogues are dramatic triumphs (with the possible exception of Part II of the Parmenides), but the Symposium has a good claim to be the best philosophico-drama of them all. As a work of art it has engendered more imitations and images than any of Plato's other works (surpassing even the story of Atlantis in the Timaeus). The last section of this collection contain essays devoted to the cultural influence of the dialogue. Richard Hunter explores the importance of the Symposium for the development of ancient fiction, and especially Roman novels. For Hunter, not only the content of the dialogue (Diotima's speech, search for one's lost half, respectable [or not] sexuality etc.) is influential, but also Plato's presentation of that content as a story that should be accepted because its purported author (Apollodorus) has checked with the hero (Socrates). Plato thus becomes a crucial figure for theories about the self-presentation of truth in fiction. (An earlier, unmentioned model might be found in Parmenides: a young man is instructed by a goddess about the proper path to truth and reality.)

From literature, we can turn to visual art: J. H. Lesher surveys a panorama of images derived from, based on, or reminiscent of the Symposium, drawing on sources as ancient as the relics from Pompeii, and as contemporary as a film from 2001. Along the way we take in Roman, medieval, and Renaissance images, and the grand flowering of "classicism" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, artists have been drawn to the great scenes of the dialogue. These include the cartwheeling spherical pre-lapsarian humans of Aristophanes' speech, Diotima professing to the student Socrates, the ladder of love that she describes, the two Aphrodites who appear in several speeches, and the irruption of the drunken Alcibiades into the so-far relatively staid proceedings. (As far as I know, there are no images of Aristophanes with hiccups.) Both Lesher and Diskin Clay, who focuses on the Symposium in the Italian Renaissance, note the early conflation of Platonic and Christian doctrine; this seems clear in various treatments of the ladder of love (of all the symposiasts, only Clay observes the connection in later art with the Judeo-Christian story of Jacob's ladder), and in the erotic yearning of the soul for beauty and the good (the Christian theorists metamorphosing this into the soul's desire for God). Lesher also mentions, but does not have time for, discussions of the musical afterlife of the Symposium: the rejected flute girl has her revenge in several musical pieces, most notably Erik Satie's Socrate suite for sopranos and small orchestra (or piano) and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade ("after Plato's Symposium") for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion. Clay explores the Renaissance interest in the Symposium, tracing erotic worries and connections among the views of the Renaissance men Bruni, Ficino, Castiglione, and Pietro Bembo (with a fascinating side trip through a discussion of da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, said to be the object of the great "Platonic love" of Bernardo Bembi, Pietro's father). In both articles, it is hard to keep track of the players without a program, but Lesher and Clay manage to keep their extraordinarily wide-ranging discussions from getting completely out of hand.

The last article, by David O'Connor, examines the idea of the roles of Platonic views of erôs and beauty in the poetry of Shelley (who translated the Symposium in 1818) and Wallace Stevens. Shelley seems to have been fascinated by the contrast between the orderly Socrates and the (perhaps proto-romantic) Alcibiades. O'Connor argues that ambivalent desires for the two ideals are important aspects of both Shelley's poetry and his views about the power and nature of poetry. Stevens, O'Connor suggests, finally rejects the Platonic view of sublime and changeless beauty. For Stevens, "unchanging completion is something to be avoided even though it is so beautiful. Better an earthy Socrates than a heavenly form" (p. 374). But must we choose? The ordered beauty of a Stevens poem serves as just the sort of medium between the apparent and the real, the earthy and the divine, that Diotima claims the daimonion Erôs to be (202d-e).

Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception is a book full of good arguments, suggestive ideas, and the best kind of learned disagreement and friendly conversation. The volume should be read by anyone interested in Plato, love, Athens, or life in general, and its breadth of interest and its excellent scholarship would make it a nifty addition to any upper-level undergraduate or graduate seminar on the Symposium. It is nicely produced with a good bibliography and helpful indexes, and only a few misprints. I wish the editors had not opted for the supposedly "scientific" method of reference by dates of editions or translations for the notes and bibliography: it is not merely jarring but uninformative to find Ficino's De Amore with no date other than 1956, or to read a reference to "Shelley, 2002a."



Part I: The Symposium and Plato's Philosophy

1. Christopher Rowe, The Symposium as a Socratic Dialogue

2. Frisbee C. C. Sheffield, The Role of the Earlier Speeches in the Symposium: Plato's Endoxic Method?

3. Lloyd Gerson, A Platonic Reading of Plato's Symposium

Part II: Interpreting Plato's Symposium

4. Mark McPherran: Medicine, Magic, and Religion in Plato's Symposium

5. Gabriel Richardson Lear, Permanent Beauty and Becoming Happy in Plato's Symposium

6. C. D. C. Reeve, A Study in Violets: Alcibiades in the Symposium

7. Ruby Blondell, Where is Socrates on the 'Ladder of Love'?

8. Debra Nails, Tragedy Off-Stage

9. Gabriela Roxana Carone, The Virtues of Platonic Love

Part III: The Symposium, Sex, and Gender

10. Luc Brisson, Agathon, Pausanias, and Diotima in Plato's Symposium: Paiderastia and Philosophia?

11. Angela Hobbs, Female Imagery in Plato

12. Jeffrey Carnes, Plato in the Courtroom: The Surprising Influence of the Symposium on Legal Theory

Part IV: The Reception of Plato's Symposium

13. Richard Hunter, Plato's Symposium and the Traditions of Ancient Fiction

14. J. H. Lesher, Some Notable Afterimages of Plato's Symposium

15. Diskin Clay, The Hangover of Plato's Symposium in the Italian Renaissance from Bruni (1435) to Castiglione (1528)

16. David K. O'Connor, Platonic Selves in Shelley and Stevens.

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