BMCR 2009.06.06

Plato’s Symposium: Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium Platonicum Pragense

, , , Plato's Symposium: Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium Platonicum Pragense. Prague: Oikoumene, 2007. 349. ISBN 9788072982936. €18.00.

As a new contribution to the abundant literature on Plato’s Symposium, international scholarship must welcome the Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium Platonicum Pragense (for the Third Symposium, see BMCR 2006.06.27), edited under the supervision of A. Havlícek and M. Cajthaml and dedicated to one of Plato’s most popular and fascinating dialogues. Held in Prague (October 12th-15th, 2005), this international colloquium presented a wide variety of papers focused on different philosophical and philological aspects of the Symposium. The ensuing volume is a useful piece of scholarly literature, although, as usually happens with this type of books, some individual contributions are more outstanding than others.

Despite the variety of contributions, the volume is, in general, well organized and, as stated in the “Preface”, it follows a thematic structure. A general section, comprising three contributions (G. Reale, K. Sier, P. Hobza), is followed by some papers focusing on particular speeches: D. O’Brien (Aristophanes), S. Stern-Gillet (Eryximachus and Agathon), J. J. Cleary (Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades) and F. Karfík (Socrates/Diotima). The addition of M. Cajthaml’s contribution to this section is more questionable, for it deals with a broader topic (the Platonic theory of love and Greek pederasty) and it discusses other dialogues apart from the Symposium (e.g. Laws). A further section comprises papers comparing the Symposium to other Platonic dialogues such as Hippias Major, Republic or Statesman (Moutsopoulos, Lisi). The speech of Diotima is then examined by five different contributors (Zehnpfennig, Barbaric, Chvatík, Havlícek, Szlezák), while the figure and final words of Alcibiades are analysed by the next two papers (Jirsa, McCormick). The last two papers (Robinson, Girgenti) focus on Ficino’s Symposium and on the etymology of the very word symposion.

The volume opens with G. Reale’s contribution, “Il Simposio e il messaggio di Platone fondato sulle dottrine non scritte, comunicato con la maschera del commediografo Aristofane”, a brilliant opening that follows this author’s line of research, as presented in his book Per una nuova interpretazione di Platone (Vita e Pensiero, Milano, 1997), and the Tübingen orientation proposed by Gaiser and Krämer about Plato’s agrapha dogmata. Behind Aristophanes’ myth of the androgynous, which works as a kind of ‘mask’, there is a hidden message regarding “i due principi supremi di Platone: l’Uno cui corrisponde il Bene e la Diade . . . cui corrisponde il Male”. Thus, the Eros doctrine in the Symposium is explained as a “nostalgia dell’Uno”, a secret wise message under the Nietzschean mask ( Jenseits von Gut und Böse, II 40) of the comic playwright.

The next paper, bearing the title “Das Philosophisches im Symposion oder: worin besteht die Funktion der ‘Vor-Sokratischen’ Reden”, is a general interpretation by K. Sier of the structure of the dialogue, defending a literary and philosophic unity of this work, which can be seen in the five speeches preceding Socrates’ intervention. The tension between explicit and implicit elements in the Symposium — “what is said in the dialogue and what is shown” (41) — inspires P. Hobza, in his essay “The Symposium as mysterious revelation of the Dionysiac nature,” to use a musical metaphor and to discuss the main ‘motif’ of this work, which is the idea of a theatrical mask of Socrates “through which something higher than himself speaks” (58), as in Reale’s text above. Hobza’s most interesting point is the description of Dionysiac elements and vocabulary throughout the dialogue (sections I-III), especially when comparing the arrival both of Socrates and Alcibiades to Agathon’s house with a kind of Bacchic triumphal entrance (the parallel with Euripides’ Bacchae is noteworthy). The conclusion, however, about “the inevitability and indispensability of the Dionysiac interpretation of the Symposium” (57) seems already well known to scholars specialised in these aspects (see, e.g., P. Vicaire, “Platon et Dionysos”, Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé, 1958, 15-26).

In one of the strongest papers in this volume, D. O’Brien draws firm connections between Aristophanes’ speech and Empedoclean fragmentary zoogony, as it has come down to us through different sources (Simplicius, Pseudo-Plutarch, the Strasbourg papyrus). As O’Brien convincingly argues, the primitive and circular human prototype of the myth of the androgynous evolves in a parallel manner to the “whole-natured” monsters of Empedocles. Plato’s debt to Empedoclean doctrines is clear in this as in other fundamental passages regarding the origin of men (see the myth of the Statesman) and the origin of the world. Another question is whether the use of this pattern should be seen as a parody, a mythical allusion for connoisseurs, or a key to a higher level of philosophical knowledge.

The speech of the host of this party, the poet Agathon, and the very concept of poeisis — both in its broad and narrow senses — are the subjects of S. Stern-Gillet’s chapter “Poets and other Makers: Agathon’s Speech in Context”. Stern-Gillet claims that Agathon’s speech, traditionally despised as poor in philosophical content, works as a kind of prelude to what Diotima will say about Eros. The argument is attractively presented, starting from the ambiguity of poeio and poiesis, and it is especially convincing when mentioning “Love’s Teaching and Love’s Touch” (92-93) in 197a4-6 and “Daimonic Men and other makers” (96-102) in 203a1-6. Both Agathon’s speech and its reformulation by Diotima recall the traditional relation between poets and prophets. Other assumptions — e.g. Plato’s “exaggerated” linguistic use of poiesis meaning poetry (98) or the improvement of Plato’s consideration of divine inspiration (102) — seem more problematic.

The contribution of M. Cajthaml, “On the Relationship Between Pederasty and Plato’s Philosophical Theory of Love”, extends beyond the scope of a single speech. The author examines the differences and common features between the Greek social practice of pederasty — not “homosexuality”, following Foucault and Halperin (109) — and its treatment in the Symposium, comparing both similarities and differences in order to offer some relevant conclusions regarding Plato’s theory of love. As for some of the differences, e.g., “one of the chief aims of a Greek pederast has always been the satisfaction of his sexual desires” (117), the most striking conclusion is the change of motivation by comparison with Platonic pederasty: “the motive for his [Socrates’] care of the soul of his fellow citizens was his obedience to what he took to be a divine command” (123). A paradoxical subversion of roles in the relation between Socrates and Alcibiades — eromenos and erastes, represented subsequently by each of them with respect to one another (118) — is one of the most relevant arguments in favour of this evolution.

The next paper deals with a similar and complementary issue, “Erotic Paideia in Plato’s Symposium”, which tends to “more spiritual goals” (126) than average Greek erotic paideia. J. J. Cleary’s argument tries to prove how Diotima’s speech — by questioning Agathon and Socrates — is a turning point in the spiritual redirection of Love’s education, and how it happens to fail in some cases, as Alcibiades’ final speech would demonstrate. The questioning of Agathon by Socrates and, somewhat later, of Socrates himself by Diotima, is key for the conceptualization of this Eros’ paideia : “Eros is necessarily a philosopher” (131), an intermediate being between ignorance and knowledge, as this kind of learning requires. As students of philosophy, both Agathon and Socrates, by being questioned, become aware of their ignorance, and this fact “stimulates a desire for what is lacking” (146). Similarly, Eros himself, who, despite lacking Beauty and Good, tends toward them and ultimately leads to their contemplation (the goal, as Cleary successfully argues, of Eros’ paideia).

F. Karfík’s “Éros et l’Âme” questions the relation between two basic features of Plato’s psychology. The soul seems to be a demonic being of intermediate nature, just as Diotima describes Eros: both dwell between the intelligible and the material world. This hybrid soul partakes of a mortal nature and also of an immortal one, thanks to Eros, who “ne serait qu’un des aspects de son étrange nature” (163). It seems that a reference to the circular characteristics of the soul, in relation to the initiate’s ascent towards the Good, patronized by Eros, as well as to the circularity of the erotic androgynous (both present in the Symposium), reinforce Karfík’s case.

The two following papers compare some issues of Symposium to other Platonic dialogues. In “De la perception à la contemplation du beau dans le Banquet de Platon” E. Moutsopoulos examines the extent to which the Symposium could answer the aporia present in the Hippias Major regarding the definition of Beauty. Plato, nevertheless, wryly avoids any definition on this subject (see Politeia 506d-e, Ep. VII 341 d-e), which according to some scholars would be at the core of his real doctrine (written or unwritten). F. Lisi draws attention to the question of the cosmic features of Love, taking into account the two apparently contradictory tales of Eros in the Symposium (201e6) and Politeia (571a1-576b10), that is to say, “Philosophiche und tyrannische Liebe”, as the title of this paper reads. How can these two views on Love — a high impulse towards the Good and a raw rule of desire —coexist? Lisi shrewdly underlines the pre-Socratic background of this philosophical and cosmological dimension of Eros in Plato as an impetus of the soul, by referring to certain passages of Timaios and Statesman. This fact should aid us in understanding the power of epithymiai at a cosmic level. Whether wise or enslaving love, it all depends, of course, on the orientation of such desire.

A central group of five contributions — the core of the volume — analyses from various points of view the central speech of the Symposium, that of Diotima. First, B. Zehnpfennig examines two of its main features, its poetic expression and its monologue form. The characterization of Diotima as Socrates’ master in religious and mysterious matters — a kind of sacred Sybil or Pythia when speaking, an Eleusinian priestess when leading through Love’s mystical steps towards knowledge — is very relevant in order to understand the means of transcendent experience that she provides to her pupil: “Ganz offensichtlich ist mit ihr die Sphäre des Religiösen eröffnet” (197). It is a step by step path only for pupils who have been rightly initiated in Love, as D. Barbaric points out in “Die Stufen der Zeitlichkeit. Zu Diotimas Rede in Platons Symposion“, a mystical path towards immortality beyond any temporal limit.

The question of immortality is also central to I. Chvatík’s and A. Havlícek’s contributions. The former writes, in a quite symposiac and elegant style, about the longing for immortality — “Himmlische Liebe! Wenn ich dein Vergässe. . . Diotima über die Unsterblichkeit im Dialog Symposion“— taking a verse from Hölderlin’s poem “Tränen” as his starting point. In “Die Unsterblichkeit begehren”, the latter compares two kinds of immortality — that exemplified by Alcestis’ and Achilles’ glory and that provided by the contemplation of Beauty — and convincingly explains the diverse meanings of Beauty and Good in the dialogue. Plato presents a manifold and evolving concept of everlasting existence, between procreation, achievement of deeds and true philosophic initiation: “Platon entfaltet im Symposium ein sehr kompliziertes [. . .] Spiel des Schönen und des Guten um die Unsterblichkeit” (257).

T.A. Szlezák offers a panorama of the religious background of the Symposium, as the famous analogy with the mysteries goes, starting with the various roles of Socrates — five according to the author (258-259) — in the dialogue: the double role of erastes/eromenos could be added to that list. The author presents Socrates’ double dialectic as central for the understanding of the dialogue. both in the real elenchos with his comrades at the dinner and in the referred and “divine” conversation with Diotima.

The two following papers focus on Alcibiades’ closing speech in the Symposium. J. Jirsa examines this speech in “Alcibiades’ Speech in the Symposium and its Origins”, alongside the interpretation provided in Alcibiades I. Gagarin’s argument (in “Socrates’ hybris and Alcibiades failure”, Phoenix 31, 1977) that this speech actually portrays Socrates’ failure as a teacher is strongly contested by Jirsa (289). Finally, P. McCormick adopts an approach of moral philosophy and ethics in order to question whether the relation of Socrates and Alcibiades can be seen as a story of “true friendship”.

As a coda for the book, its last two papers are on quite different and unrelated topics. In “Ficino’s Symposium”, T.M. Robinson fully describes the so-called Socrates’ speech in this Latin remake of the Platonic Symposium — of great success during the Renaissance — and claims that Ficino’s views can lead to a better understanding of Plato, although its Neo-Platonic elements must always be underlined. Girgenti closes the volume with a case study on how a new Platonic lexicon (R. Radice, Plato. Lexicon. Milano 2004) can aid scholarship on a dialogue such as the Symposium, reflecting upon the use of the words symposion, synedrion and synodos.

The resulting volume is a collective rather than a collaborative endeavour, as suggested by the variety of topics, points of view and methodologies. However, it is useful as scholarly resource for those working on Plato’s Symposium, and some of its contributions are of great value.

We must point out, nonetheless, some bad editorial choices. As the Preface states “the editors have made no attempt to reduce the diversities stemming from cultural and other differences among the contributors” (8), but some formal unification would surely have made things easier for the reader. For instance, it is difficult to have at hand the complete bibliographical information referred to by the contributors, since there is no general bibliography nor has each contribution its own (one must seek in the footnotes). A list of contributors and their institutional affiliation, together with a general updated bibliography on Plato’s Symposium would have also been advisable. However, these and other formal defects — e.g., the only footnote (number 21!) in Reale’s contribution does not show up anywhere — do not diminish the general positive impression on this volume, both in terms of presentation and contents.