BMCR 2005.04.54

Plato’s Symposium

, Plato's Symposium. Oxford approaches to classical literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiii, 150 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780198036449. $14.95 (pb).

Plato’s Symposium is the second installment in the series Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature. The express purpose of the series is to introduce Greek and Latin literature to first-time readers by providing literary and historical context, offering a balanced and engaging assessment with a brief survey of subsequent influence, all to demonstrate the enduring power (p. vi) of the text under consideration. The primary emphasis of each volume is to be on the literary work itself (p. v), while reflecting to some degree the personal scholarly interests of the volume’s author. Within this purpose Richard Hunter intends an “introductory and explanatory study of the Symposium” useful for relative newcomers, but also aimed to persuade the unfamiliar to take up the Symposium“without delay” (p. ix). H. further specifies these intentions by adopting in principle the animating spirit of the series’ intellectual founder, Charles Segal, to show always why classical literature still matters. So H. declares his own demonstrandum that “there are few works that still matter more than Plato’s Symposium“(p. ix). It is on these criteria that judgment of H.’s efforts must turn.

Besides a short preface, H. offers four chapters. In the first, “Setting the Scene,” he discusses the world of symposia, Eros, the Symposium’s complex narrative structure, and finally something of the nature of Socrates as a purveyor of wisdom. In the second chapter ” Eros before Socrates,” H. undertakes the obligatory accounting of the various encomia of the Symposium’s participants, from Phaidros to Agathon, leaving Socrates to his own chapter. Thus in chapter 3, “The Love of Socrates,” H. probes Socrates on Diotima on love. In the final chapter, “The Morning After,” we get something of the nachleben of the Symposium, from Apuleius to Woody Allen.

In chapter 1, newcomers to Plato hear first about questions of chronology: standard accounts of the dating of Agathon’s gathering and of the dialogue itself, but a new suggestion (apparently original) dating Apollodorus’ narration to just after the death of Alcibiades. They learn next about Greek symposia: that they are a sacred space, a closed and ‘alternative society’ of elite males (p. 6); that they were the locus of education, a vehicle for the transmission of elite culture to Greek youth; and that their proceedings were spoudaiogeloion, i.e., serio-comic, leading to the playful laughter of the mutual mockery of an elite male bonding. H. points out that in a brilliant combination of form with substance Plato embodies the seriocomic in the very compositional elements of the dialogue. He constructs the characters, for example, as exaggerations of themselves, playing a role through their speech-making. In the speeches themselves Plato also reveals some of his “most brilliant parodic and self-parodic writing” (p. 9). Playfulness notwithstanding, the subject matter of the dialogue is most serious: namely, the relation of eros to the form of the beautiful itself. H. notes further that the figure of Alcibiades embodies many of these sympotic elements and that his comparison of Socrates to Silenus is “programmatic” (p. 1): behind Socrates’ playfulness is serious philosophy in reach of interpretative efforts.

H. explains next that “by its very nature” (p. 19) the symposium is inseparable from eros, taken both as appetitive faculty and as a divine being. As opposed to philia, eros is an impetuous force requiring continual satisfaction of recurring desires. In the context of actual symposia eros can aim at sensual satisfaction of either the hetero- or homosexual kind. In a literary representation of a symposium eros becomes the subject of discourse and composition. Further, since by likeness Dionysius is associated with eros, so are wine with symposia. This association emphasizes the double-edged potencies of eros, at once a destructive power, suspending rationality, yet necessary for the continuation of the species. Its destructive force was a favorite motif of Attic tragedy and thus a commonplace to Plato. Since for H. all of the speeches in the Symposium pertain to homosexual eros, he briefly describes homosexuality in Athens and attempts to distinguish Greek paiderastia from more negative (and possibly misleading) modern associations. His view is that Athenian homosexuality was a controversial and complex subject, a view which he believes the Symposium itself reflects.

H. turns next to the Symposium’s narrative structure. Aristodemus as source to multiple versions of the story and Apollodorus’s own retelling to the unnamed inquirer represent for H. both a Platonic interest in narrative experimentation as well as Plato’s playful awareness of the philosophic and literary paradox of the Socratic dialogue. H. sees the shoeless Aristodemus as a comic image of Socrates and thus Apollodorus as an image of Plato, with the unnamed inquirer representing the general audience, i.e., persons interested in Socratic ideas but with little philosophic sophistication. At the same time, the difference between Apollodorus and Plato points in another direction. Whereas Apollodorus’s Socrates is an historical figure, Plato’s is an intellectual construct, “a figure with which to think” (p. 28). For H. this distinction shows both that Agathon’s symposium as told by Plato was a largely fictional event and that in composing the dialogue Plato was himself aware of the “problematic status” of writing an “unchanging account of a quintessentially oral occasion, the elite symposium” (p. 29).

H. concludes the introductory remarks of the first chapter with comments on the implications of Socrates’ uncharacteristic attire and his more familiar philosophic trance. Socrates’ shoes — practically foppish given his customary sartorial minimalism — represent the literary character of the Symposium, namely, “philosophy putting on its party face” (p. 30). Nevertheless, the subject matter is serious. Socrates’ own dandified appearance evokes the profound question with which the dialogue is concerned, namely, the nature of beauty itself. If Socrates’ attire was unusual, the philosophic trance which made him late to Agathon’s party was not. The trance sets Socrates’ philosophic routine against the extravaganza of Agathon’s victory celebration and philosophy’s more private process against the public modality of rhetoric represented by each participant’s exaggerated performance. Thus for H. the trance prefigures the opposition between rhetoric and philosophy which will become more and more apparent as the dialogue progresses.

In Chapter 2, H. comes to the pre-Socratic speeches. On the whole, he is concerned more with the implication of the literary parameters than with mere logic. While he does summarize content, he offers critique and reflections linking argument to the things which the speakers person or occupation may imply. Thus Phaedrus shows studied use of literary sources arranged for epideictic effect, but he is not troubled by a loose fitting of exempla to point. Pausanias is an erastes who exploits a linguistic distinction in two cult names of Aphrodite to justify longstanding, mostly, but not totally, “soulful” pederastic relationships of the sort he maintains with Agathon. H. notes that modern interest in Pausanias’s speech has focused on the accuracy of his depiction of Athenian homosexual practices. Eryximachus takes up Pausanias’s dichotomous division of eros but applies it to the whole of nature through a universal science of erotics. Critics have found Eryximachus’s theory ridiculous, but H. prefers to see this doctor as knowingly participating in the playful self-deprecation typical of elite symposia. Aristophanes’ account of split beings is for H. the mythic counterpart of Eryximachus’s science, although its explanatory force is restricted to the moral sphere. H. notes that modern readers have found particular affinity to Aristophanes’ points that love makes a person whole and that it is an ecstasy of feeling, a metaphysical reality beyond the mere pleasure of sex, concomitant upon the union of lovers. Nevertheless, H. judges the account deficient, leaving no room for intellect, just as he struggles to find likenesses between the Platonic Aristophanes and the poet of the comedies. Agathon’s speech is the most self-conscious, ornate, and excessive of all the pre-Socratic encomia — “Greek prose as close to metrical poetry as it ever got” (p. 73). For H., however, the real point is its utter lack of substance, since this fact, in the last speech before Socrates’, focuses attention on the notorious charge that rhetoric has nothing to do with truth and brings to a point the opposition in the dialogue between rhetoric and philosophy.

In chapter 3, H. examines Socrates, his focus on the truth of eros, and Alcibiades’ profound misunderstanding of Socratic erotics. Although the focus of Socrates’ encomia is truth, he nonetheless presents it, as did the previous speakers, in a self-aware, self-parodying manner appropriate to the sympotic occasion. Thus H. points out that Socrates himself bears a resemblance to Diotima’s description of eros — an unshod, impoverished, wanderer — and is the subject of Diotima’s Socratic cross-examination and the recipient of her “Socratic” long speech (p. 82). Doctrinally, it turns out, that eros is not a god, because he desires but does not possess beauty; he is a daimon whose business it is to lead those pregnant in soul to birth beautiful logoi. For H. this pedagogy exists in a homosexual sphere of relations, a more purified version of Pausanias’s notion (p. 89). The second stage of eros’s work is a leading of the way in the ascent of the ladder of beauty to the very form of beauty itself, the telling of which is for H. “one of the finest descriptions of Plato’s most famous metaphysical concept” (p. 79). It is precisely here that Alcibiades breaks in on the party, ultimately, after learning the program of the evening, to deliver a drunken encomium on Socrates. H. points out that, as Socrates has become an image of eros, Alcibiades speech is, in a way, consistent with the party’s rule. However, there are reversals which show Alcibiades’ ignorance. He is an eromenos praising an erastes, although, as it turns out, not one of Pausanias’s stripe. He compares Socrates to a Silenus, odd on the outside but full of knowledge on the inside, thus misunderstanding the nature of Socrates’ claim to ignorance and the real nature of his knowledge. In the same vein of misconception, he thought he could trade sexual favors for wisdom. In a comedic twist appropriate to the sympotic environment, an inebriated Alcibiades reveals how he wasted his best seductive tricks on a totally immune Socrates. For H. this twist is not only hilarious, but a “master stroke” (p. 102) of apologetics. Alcibiades own words exonerate Socrates of the charge of corruption of the youth. His own extreme political ambitions blinded him to the reality of Socrates’ truly beneficial Diotimic eroticism.

In the final, and in some ways the best chapter of the book, H. traces the influence of the Symposium in subsequent, mostly western, thought. Accessibility, even to those without philosophical sophistication, (p. 113), its setting as a last flourish of the golden age of Athens (p. 114), and the universal appeal of its subject (p. 115) are reasons in H.’s mind for its enduring power. Thus Plato’s art has evoked imitations, proper and distorted in ancient literature, e.g. Plutarch’s Erotikos and Petronius’s Satyrica. In the voice of Pausanias it has provided the intellectual terms in times when openness was taboo for serious discussions of male homosexuality (p. 115). In the voice of Aristophanes it provided models for love affairs at the periphery of societal tolerance (p. 117). Aristophanes’ story has also provided a backdrop for psychoanalytic theorizing about the role of sexual desire in human relationships (p. 117). H. notes further that the Symposium can and has attracted the serious attention of opposite agenda, e.g., the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, largely condemning its homosexuality (p. 122 ), and a U.S. federal appellate judge, awakened thereby to the possibilities of a serious discussion of same sex relations (p.120). H. also finds middle ground in those, e.g., Shelley, who celebrate the Platonic genius while explaining away what were for them unpalatable elements (p. 123). Beyond imitation and evocation H. also notes the power which Alcibiades’ Silenus image has had on theories of textual interpretation throughout the ages, e.g. as theoretical background for various practices of allegorical reading in neo-Platonists and Christian schools of thought. Interestingly H. ends his discussion somewhat abruptly with an example of such an interpretation applied to the Symposium itself in the Christianizing commentary of the Renaissance scholar Marsilio Facino.

H. has produced a dense little volume, which combines standard observations on the Symposium with some clever, apparently original, interpretative lines of thought. There are many points in the book which students of the Symposium will find valuable, and some which even experts will find interesting (e.g. the treatment of narrative structure). The question, however, is whether it is too dense to serve the targeted audience of new-comers to Plato. In some sense H.’s account reads like a commentary because he aims his remarks at specific stretches of the dialogue, even if sometimes the text is only in the background. In any event, it is certainly a difficult task — one might even say impossible — to follow H.’s remarks without more than a passing familiarity with the specific content of the dialogue (and sometimes also of late fifth-century Athenian history). For one thing H. provides no simple, self-contained summary of the plot, action, or argumentation of the Symposium. For another, H.’s continual technique is to refer to parts of the dialogue not yet specifically discussed to illuminate the part or point under examination. Typical instances are the numerous references to Alcibiades in the introductory chapter (e.g., p. 10) and the referral of elements in a particular character’s speech to Socrates’s speech, which does not occur until near the end of the dialogue (e.g., p. 57). Consider also whether it does not require a fair grasp of Athenian political history to appreciate H.’s notion of the apologetic character of Plato’s portrayal of the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates. Does such a treatment qualify as introductory? Can the mere initiate to Plato profitably follow these allusions? Perhaps H. intended an introductory approach that would tantalize his initiates with alluring interpretative suggestions just a bit out of their reach. At any rate, H. emerges from the mode of commentator in his last chapter. There he presents an account of the Symposium’s influence under three broad categories: historical, thematic, and interpretative. With this technique he makes a compelling case for the dialogue’s importance, even to those less familiar with its specific content. This is why, given the book’s stated purposes, I find the last chapter to be the best. Whether the book accomplishes its task of providing a suitable introduction for new-comers to Plato is open to question. On the other hand, both the tantalizing allusions and especially the account in chapter 4 of the Symposium’s wide and varied influence go a long way in persuading the less familiar to seek without delay initiation into the world of Socratic eroticism.