Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.36

Pierre Destrée​, Zina Giannopoulou (ed.), Plato's 'Symposium': A Critical Guide. Cambridge critical guides.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. 282.  ISBN 9781107110052.  £64.99​.  

Reviewed by Anna Novokhatko, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität​ Freiburg (

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Few texts of ancient Greek literature have engaged scholarship to such an extent as Plato's Symposium, written probably between 384 and 379 BCE and presenting an account of a fictional banquet in the house of the Athenian tragic poet Agathon to celebrate his first victory in the dramatic competitions of 416 BCE. Even the most recent work is copious. 1

The present volume contains thirteen contributions and includes a broad spectrum of scholars, from very well-known experts on Plato's philosophy to young researchers. The volume is focused on the text of the dialogue and in general corresponds to its structure: four contributions analyse the three speeches delivered before Socrates (F. V. Trivigno, S. Obdrzalek, D. Sedley and F. J. Gonzalez), four contributions deal with Socrates' speech itself (F. C. C. Sheffield, A. Nightingale, C. Shields and A. W. Price), and, finally, two contributions at the end of the volume (R. G. Edmonds and P. Destrée) examine Alcibiades' arrival and his praise of Socrates. The chapter written by J. Reid provides an overview of all the speeches in the context of Plato's educational principles. The first (rather philological) and the last (rather philosophical) chapters stand out, the first by Z. Giannopoulou providing a narratological approach to the text and focusing on time as a principle of narrative structure; the last chapter, by R. Kraut, dealing with eudaimonism in relation to Plato's ethical thought.

Giannopoulou argues that the regressive temporality of the dialogue’s frame (the present leads to the past and mirrors the past) corresponds to the first part of Diotima's speech (204a-206a). But the prologue's progressive temporality, in which the present leads to the future, corresponds to the second part of Diotima's speech (206b-212a), concerning begetting in beauty and a procreative model of desire.

J. Reid provides an intertextual reading highlighting parallels between the speeches prior to Diotima's and the goals of early education in the Republic. In both dialogues, Plato is concerned with the goals of education.

F. V. Trivigno deals with Eryximachus' speech and regards it as constituting a methodological rivalry between medicine and philosophy as these are developed in Plato. The parallels between Plato's treatment of Eryximachus, with various cues indicating to the audience that his speech should be taken as parodic, and the figure of the doctor as a stock character from Old and Middle Comedy are convincing (though two important attestations from comedy are missing from the list: Crates fr. 46 PCG and Ameipsias fr. 17 PCG both refer to doctors' speech and reinforce the author's argument on the parody of medical discourse).

S. Obdrzalek argues further that Aristophanes' speech, which is very significant in relation to Socrates', represents a profoundly pessimistic account of desire as a state of lack and as an irrational urge incapable of satisfaction. Plato objects to Aristophanes because Aristophanes treats human nature and desire as irrational and because he assigns the wrong object to desire, a union with a human beloved rather than contemplation of forms.

D. Sedley considers this same tale of human origins by Aristophanes to be a tragi-comic perversion of the creation story told by the eponymous speaker in the later Timaeus (the list of textual correspondences is presented in the appendix). Plato in his Timaeus adds four reasons for the spherical shape of the world-god: inclusiveness, the beauty of symmetry, self-sufficiency, and rotation. The highest achievement of human life is to succeed in identifying the core of a person's being with the intellect, located in the head, setting aside the lower psychological drives, housed in the heart and gut (Tim. 90a-d). The human goal of becoming godlike, while absent from the earlier speakers' attempts to capture love's divine nature, is twice represented in the Symposium as the real aim of love: it is first sketched misleadingly by Aristophanes, then correctly by Socrates.

F. J. Gonzalez argues further that Agathon’s speech, which precedes Socrates', is prominent and central, conceptually coherent and sophisticated. It introduces various points that are further developed in Socrates' speech such as the definition of the nature of desire, the identification of happiness with the possession of goodness and beauty, a critical distance from the poetic tradition (Hesiod and Parmenides), and the distinctly Platonic conception of temperance. Agathon is the last to stay awake in discussion with Socrates, and thus the kinship between the two seems much closer than usually thought, something suggested by the central importance of their rivalry in the dialogue.

In foregrounding Diotima's speech, F. C. C. Sheffield examines the nature and structure of erotic desire, explaining why desire is a uniquely appropriate term for the characterization of the philosopher's pursuit of forms (and exclusively associated with passionate sexual desire). A basic feature of desire is what the Greeks would think of as its axiomatic relationship to beauty (beauty being how the goodness of a thing – a body, a soul, a poem or law – appears to us). Desire is more than a lack or a longing, and it involves cognitive components, specifically an evaluative judgement of its object as kalos or agathos in some respect. Desire constitutes a fundamental urge to self-creation. It is our relentless pursuit of beauty, a drive to reproduce the value we see in the world and capture it in a life of our own, as parents, poets, legislators, or philosophers. The proper end of all desires is the form of beauty, and that is why desire emerges most strongly in those dialogues in which the theory of forms plays a central role: the Phaedo, the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and the Republic. Finally, the author’s focus on the intertextual relationship with Aristotle (Metaphysics Lambda) represents a significant contribution to scholarship. Scheffield emphasizes that the metaphysical significance of desire for Plato has been neglected, despite the fact that its significance was appreciated by Aristotle. Aristotle used desire in a context that employs features highlighted in Plato's Symposium. Aristotle is drawing on the ability of desire to capture action in relation to the divine end, and on the features that make the desire- term eros appropriate for action in relation to the divine.

A. Nightingale analyses the discourse associated with the body and the realm of becoming. In the Symposium all the emphasis is on the philosophical lover who gives birth to ideas in the presence of his beloved. The metaphor of the philosopher's fathering of a discourse that carries his seed in the Phaedrus (finalized written texts vs. open-ended and on-going philosophical dialogue) differs from the metaphor of the philosopher giving birth to discursive offspring in the Symposium. The philosopher plants discourses in the student's mind; the student develops arguments that are fruitful and full of seeds; from these seeds other discourses grow up in other people's minds and thus become immortal. Two models of psychic pregnancy (great poets and lawgivers vs. the philosophic lover) are set forth by Diotima. Philosophical work does not take the form of a finished product; poems and law-codes, by contrast, are fixed and finalized. In Diotima's discussions of the discursive children of the poets and lawgivers (model 1) and of the philosophic lover (model 2), Diotima effectively contrasts a finalized discourse to an ongoing and changing philosophic discourse.

C. Shields poses the question why creatures who live and love in a world of change and impermanence should embrace a conception of the culmination of human life that may seem to them not its apotheosis but rather its abnegation. This criticism is valid only within a partial and decontextualized understanding of Plato's motivation for characterizing the ascent toward beauty. The final goal of love is not the serene contemplation of beauty itself, but rather the secure possession of the form of the good. Diotima treats the vision of the form of beauty as the culmination of an attraction consistent with a larger, overarching ultimate end. Knowledge has a special role in Plato, and the possibility of cognitive achievement will dwarf other, lower, non-cognitive types of love. Shields' contribution is not aided by a number of incorrect citations (such as Plato's Republic book 6 quoted repeatedly as book 5).

A. W. Price concludes the series of four contributions devoted exclusively to Diotima by posing two questions about how best to interpret the point in the Symposium that Socrates pretends to derive from Diotima: (1) Within the Lesser Mysteries, is desire generic (desire in general) or specific/erotic? (2) Within the Greater Mysteries, is interpersonal desire maintained or supplanted? Similarly to Nightingale's discussion, Price argues that Plato plays with the ambiguity of the vocabulary tokos and tiktein, describing procreation in the language of pregnancy. In invoking the impact of poetry and legislation, Diotima applies the language of generation freely: all poets are procreators of wisdom and the rest of virtue; legislators such as Lycurgus and Solon procreated laws and virtue of all sorts, which they have since then counted as their children.

Two further contributors, R. G. Edmonds and P. Destrée, deal with the final episode of the drunken Alcibiades. Edmonds argues against Christoph Riedweg's suggestion that the references in the Symposium to the Greater and Lesser Mysteries may reflect an actual sequence of initiations focused on imparting secret doctrines to the initiates. He claims that Plato deploys the imagery of mystery rituals and the idea of Alcibiades as a profaner of mysteries to provide an answer to the problem of the spectacular failure of Alcibiades. Alcibiades was able to perceive the beauty in Socrates, but failed to understand that beauty was not a possession of Socrates himself. He tried to appropriate beauty just as he would try to appropriate the Mysteries of Eleusis. The point of the metaphor of the mysteries is that the philosophy Alcibiades desires is not some piece of information that he can learn (mathein) and keep for himself, but rather an experience he must undergo (pathein), such as a ritual. Alcibiades' failure in philosophy is illuminated by the parallel with the Mysteries, which he failed to treat with due respect. In the Symposium, Plato uses the imagery of the Mysteries to elucidate the nature of philosophy, both in the metaphor of the epopteia of Diotima and in the profanations of Alcibiades.

P. Destrée on the contrary argues that Alcibiades' speech can shed positive light on Diotima's speech. Alcibiades came to Socrates the Silenus to learn a special knowledge, knowledge of one's desire for happiness. Alcibiades' concluding sentence is seen as providing the clue as to how to interpret Diotima's final words (212a), which should be read in this perspective. At the very end of the Republic, it is similarly only the philosophers who are able to obtain true moral knowledge and thus practice true virtue, which allows them to obtain true happiness.

R. Kraut concludes the volume arguing that the Aristotelian ultimate end should not be imposed on Plato, and that Socrates' goal of loving as the contemplation of the form of beauty should be considered to be the finest activity of the gods who comprise happiness and not as the only form of happiness. The best kind of embodied existence is in the right relationship to all beautiful things.

The volume represents various approaches to the interpretation of the text of the Symposium on a synchronic level. A desideratum remains discussion on the generic (i.e. genre-related) contextualisation of this dialogue in the late 5th and early 4th centuries BCE.2 However, the book constitutes a very useful survey incorporating current scholarship of the highest quality, spanning an impressive breadth of topics ranging from minor interpretive explanations to questions of Plato's social and ritual context.

Authors and titles

Introduction, Pierre Destrée and Zina Giannopoulou
1. "Narrative Temporalities and Models of Desire," Zina Giannopoulou
2. "Unfamiliar Voices: Harmonizing the Non-Socratic Speeches and Plato's Psychology," Jeremy Reid
3. "A Doctor's Folly: Diagnosing the Speech of Eryximachus," Franco V. Trivigno
4. "Aristophanic Tragedy," Suzanne Obdrzalek
5. "Divinization," David Sedley
6. "Why Agathon's Beauty Matters," Francisco J. Gonzalez
7. "Erōs and the Pursuit of Form," F.C.C. Sheffield
8. "The Mortal Soul and Immortal Happiness," Andrea Nightingale
9. "A Fetish for Fixity?" Christopher Shields
10. "Generating in Beauty for the Sake of Immortality: Personal Love and the Goals of the Lover," Anthony W. Price
11. "Alcibiades the Profane: Images of the Mysteries," Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
12. "How Does Contemplation Make You Happy? An Ethical Reading of Diotima's Speech," Pierre Destrée
13. Eudaimonism and Platonic erōs," Richard Kraut
Index locorum


1.   The classical Cambridge commentary by K. Dover (1980), the Warminster translation and commentary by C. J. Rowe (1998), the monographs by K. Sier (Stuttgart and Leipztig 1997), R. Hunter (Oxford 2004), and F. C. C. Scheffield (Oxford 2006), the volumes of collected papers edited by J. Lesher, D. Nails and F. Scheffield (Washington DC 2006) and C. Horn (Berlin 2012). I will not here mention the numerous recent translations of the Symposium.
2.   On placing the Symposium within the system of genres of the time, see B. Zimmermann, ‘Platons Theorietheater: Einige Gedanken zum Symposion’, International Yearbook for Hermeneutics 13 (2014), 34-47.

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