Notes on Plato’s Symposium

The following are notes on Plato’s Symposium. They may not contain anything new, just remarks on one of Plato’s greatest works written after confronting common contemporary perceptions of Socrates and, more genrally, Greek philosophical thought, with what is actually described in the book. These remarks may be set within the larger context of the decline of the classics in the West. We will lump philosophical remarks on the Symposium together with more pragmatic considerations in contemporary politics.

Socrates, and with him, Greek philosophy, is typically seen by us as an early rationalist, a kind of ancient precursor of the Enlightenment who criticized the gods (understand: religion and tradition) in order to discover rational truth (understand: a positivist scientific worldview). His most famous saying, “I only know that I know nothing” is often used to justify rejection of revealed religious dogma. This view of Socrates is largely the product of 18th century Enlightenment philosophers projecting contemporary intellectual development back onto Antiquity—perhaps in an attempt to anchor themselves in a historical tradition? A closer scrutiny of Socrates’ words and deeds, and descriptions of him by his contemporaries reveal that he was far from being an early rationalist rejecting the old religion and advocating a new, Cartesian-style positivist science trying to discover through reason the inner workings of the universe.

Atheism, and even deism, is certainly not what he argued and died for, and he may even be the polar opposite of the scientific-age rationalist sage we have made him out to be. Among all of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium is perhaps the one that has the most mystical flavor and, as such, is his best. Reading through the pages is like being held by the hand into a higher metaphysical and poetic reality. Socrates is at the center of it all. The plotline and how it unfolds, Socrates’ very speech as well as Alcibiades’ description of him present Socrates as a mystical and religiously-inspired figure and teacher.

Let us first set the stage of the drama. The speeches were heard by one Aristodemus, who was present at the gathering but did not speak. He later retold them to Appolodorus, who opens the Symposium, who then told them to Plato himself, if we are to identify the unnamed friend of Appolodorus at the beginning with Plato. He later committed those words in writing. We, the readers, therefore learn of the substance of the speeches told at the gathering fifth-hand. Such removal in time gives the work all his flavor and helps it achieve the dreamy atmosphere that captures us so. Distance, because it defines an unknown place, translates into a sense of awe and mystery. This sense of awe and wonder generates authority. Authority is something we cannot fully grasp, yet recognize as real, affecting us in some way and, moreover, as something positive. Through a distancing effect, Plato introduces Socrates as an authoritative figure. From the very first sections, we know that we are about to enter something mysterious and awesome (something which rational science does not, and cannot trigger in us).

We now enter the narrative itself. There is first the famous and enigmatic trance which seizes Socrates at the front porch. We know it means something significant, yet we are for the time being denied all intent to interpret what the trance means as we are led with Appolodorus into Agathon’s house: we are still in this world and not yet ready to partake of things divine. Once all have entered Agathon’s house and reclined on their couch, the protagonists agree to dismiss the flute-player. The six orators, including Socrates, are now confined among themselves in a closed space: something important is about to take place. The flute-girl symbolizes the outside, chaotic world of passions being chased out and away from the inner confines of the soul as it is about to enter the mysteries of Love. The enclosed room is also the image of the well-ordered State safe within its walls and governed by just and temperate laws in which chaos has no part, leaving the citizens free to actualize the polis. We may even go as far as seeing in this assembly, to say something bold, an anticipation of the Church, an assembly of faithful who, through their gathering at a ritual feast, meet the divine Logos, creator of all things, Love itself. Wine, the cause of drunkeness, is for that reason consumed very moderately, if at all, and only reindulged in again at the end, when everything is thrown into confusion by the entrance of a band of revellers. The setting is now in good order with no unruly passion left. (1)

It is in this respect that Socrates, as well as all ancient philosophy, can be said to be rationalist. It is rationalist in the sense that reason, the logos or intellectual faculty, is unhindered by raw and unbridled, bacchic passions. In no way can ancient philosophy, including cosmology and physics, be considered a positivist science in the modern sense.

Then the speeches start. These proceed from the lower to the higher, from love as a physical attraction paving the way to virtue of the mind (Phaedrus and Pausanias), ascending with Eryximachus into a physiological and cosmic force present in and moving all things, then, with Aristophanes, entering the sphere of ætiology and mythology (told in a creation-fall-redemption pattern) explaining Love as a desire for completeness and wholeness, and therefore not primarily physiological and sexual in nature, finally moving through, with Agathon, to the essence of Love, what it is (namely, it is the beautiful and virtue). These speeches are all worthy and possess much poetry, yet there is something missing or not up to the point in them. They pave the way to the climax, Socrates’ speech.

Then comes Socrates’ critique of Agathon’s speech. It is one of two places where we openly meet Plato’s famous dialectics. Dialectics (the confrontation of two or more different, often contradictory hypotheses to infer a conclusion—a truth) is the other way in which Socrates, Plato, and their succesors can be said to be rationalists. Again, it is very different from cartesian doubt. We will return to this below.

Socrates, shortly after starting his speech, introduces another character, a foreign prophetess named Diotima (said to be from Mantinea, a place name in the Peloponnesus phonetically so close to manteia, μαντεία–-power of divination, oracle—that it cannot be mere coincidence). That Socrates was guided by a diviner is telling. From here on till the end of his speech, he essentially recounts Diotima’s own words. This adds yet another level of separation from the reader to the ones observed above. The fact that Diotima, from 207a, speaks alone, without recourse to dialectics is also significant. It places the entire speech within the sphere of spiritual contemplation. When one enters the higher mysteries, traditional philosophical language no longer suffices. Dialectics is a way to produce opinions, which may or may not be close to truth. When one contemplates Truth itself, dialectics is therefore useless. Direct experience alone allows one to access the higher spheres of reality. Such experience produces awe and “wonder” (208b). Diotima’s teachings to Socrates is the closest thing to a divine revelation that we know from pre-Christian Antiquity. It anticipates in certain ways the concept of theological discourse that would become prominent in Christian times and reach its highest form with the Cappadocian fathers. It would perhaps not be wrong to see in Christian writers and orators, in so far as they conveyed the logos of God, the successors of Socrates and Diotima.

Diotima’s speech is the climax of the Symposium, the place where all previous speeches meet. That Socrates has been initiated into the highest levels of the things of Love with a “master” such as Diotima confers upon him a quasi-divine aura. His authority as a teacher is rooted in this experience. His speech is an invitation to follow him.

As Socrates finishes his speech, enters Alcibiades. The latter’s significance and importance is underlined as early as the opening statement of the Symposium (172b– “…wanting to find out about the gathering of Socrates and Alcibiades, as well as of the others who were also present, that took place at Agathon’s house”). His presence at the gathering can be intriguing as he is not sober and his speech is not even about Love. But this contradiction can be resolved. Alcibiades is the antitype of Socrates. While the latter is self-controlled and entirely devoted to spiritual things, the former is a pleasure-seeking, proud man of this world. The apparently opposite characters of Socrates and Alcibiades may refer back to Eryximachus’ statement that a well-ordered cosmos is one in which two opposite forces coexist within the right amount.  Yet, as Socrates turned down Alcibiades’ offers, so do the superior, rational parts of the soul bridle the lower, irrational appetites.  Alcibiades’ entry throws a monkey wrench into the banquet room and at first threatens the orderly setting, yet everything quickly returns to normalcy as he is invited in. Though drunk, there is a place for him. What was true of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades (namely, that the former declined the latter’s sexual offers) is equally true at the banquet: temperance and moderation rule over intemperance and appetite. Alcibiades’ presence is therefore not a threat as those unruly passions are held in check.

So Alcibiades speaks. He compares Socrates to likenesses of Silenus, the drunken companion and teacher of Dionysus, from which appear statues of the gods, an image which prepares Socrates’ full identification as a man opening up to reveal divine, beautiful and amazing images (216e) and, later, the identification of his words as revealing “likenesses of virtue” (221e-222a). Socrates is then compared to the satyr Marsyas, who “charmed” (ἐκήλει) men through his skills at playing the flute. Socrates has the same power as Marsyas, but through his words. These leave all who hear him speak « struck with admiration, » « astounded » and « possessed » as by a god (215c-d). So when Alcibiades hears him, his heart « leaps » and tears come to his eyes, his soul is thrown into commotion and deeply affected, and he is effectively completely overpowered. When he hears Socrates’ words, even if another is speaking them, he is affected deep in his soul. The words chosen are those of drunkeness, possession and ecstatic experience. The physiological symptoms described here were probably those experienced in the rituals of the Mysteries such as the Eleusian mysteries: tears, commotion of the soul, possession, etc. Interestingly, many of those symptoms (tears, wonder, atypical behavior) would carry over into Christian mystic experience. We are far from the modern scientific, neutral outlook.

Later, Alcibiades describes how Socrates turned down his (sexual) offers, how he walked barefoot in the cold, and how he stood motionless seized by a trance all day and night. This listing of Socrates’ behavior, added to the elements already described (the removal in time, the closed space, the initiation rite and its effects) contribute to make of Socrates an out-of-this-world man who initiates us, listeners and readers, into the divine mysteries he has himself learned.

The book ends as the doors of the closed room open and a troup of drunk revellers enter, now effectively throwing the gathering into confusion and disorder. We have now fully come back down to earth, the world of passions and pathos. Daily life resumes. In spite of this, Socrates retains his otherworldly demeanor, he is unaffected by the outside world as he is the only one not to fall asleep and spends the rest of the day as he usually does.

The book ends with a last riddle: Socrates is seen trying to convince Agathon and Aristophanes (the last two guests awake, respectively a tragic poet and the famous comic writer) that the same man is to be at once a tragedian and a comedian. What is the meaning of this obscure affirmation? It may be that Socrates, in my opinion at least, is here referring to himself and Alcibiades, and to the fundamental and necessary duality of our nature (we discussed this point above). The same man must be at once a writer of tragedy and a writer of comedy; the same man must at once be a composition of a spiritual and a wordly nature. That this anecdote is placed at the very end is significant. We have left the world of direct spiritual contemplation and must return to our human categories of thought. What we have here are two apparently contradictory statements placed together and creating an intellectual puzzle. Isn’t it the very definition of dialectics? This internal dialectical statement leads to an external dialectical process involving the reader himself. What Plato is telling us is that there may be more to it than what has just been expounded in his book. If the interpretation given above is true, we are facing a dilemma: if wholeness means being at once of two natures, then we are forced to conclude that Socrates has not himself achieved completeness, as he is only of a spiritual nature. So what is missing? It is up to us to solve that contradiction and answer the question. Leaving the reader with more questions for him to answer is perhaps what makes Plato so delightful, lively and engaging to read.

There is no question that the Symposium tells the initiation of a man, Socrates, into religious mysteries, into the higher Truth. The word is explicitely used: initiation (as a passive verb μυηθείης, 209e) also has the meaning of mystery. We are far from the empiricist and rationalist Socrates of our age. It is perhaps the reason why our secular societies, which have altogether given up (and, one should say, fear) all concept of higher knowledge, have somehow pushed this book into the shadows, not understanding (or, more exactly, rejecting) where it offers to lead us. While other books of Plato that discuss more concrete, immediate political concepts (justice, the good) can still be useful in a secularized mindframe, the Symposium cannot. It has at first glance no direct political relevance, although a more careful reading will prove otherwise. After all, aren’t just and good laws, as Diotima teaches, the product of contemplation of the beautiful forms? In other words, the realm of politics and human affairs is unseparable from the realm of contemplation and the divine. Because it contradicts the secular notion of politics that were born with the Enlightenment, the Symposium is perhaps one of the most revolutionary books to read today. It is in any case the cornerstone of a new humanism.

 


 

(1) We have a later instance of a set of characters, protagonists of a speech, physically signifying the passage from a lower to a higher condition: in Plutarch’s De facie, a number of wise men, all in a room and each defending a school of philosophy, discuss what could possibly cause the moon to display an apparent face on its visible side. Each speaker lays down the scientific theory in accordance with his school of thought and criticizes that of his fellow speakers. Once Sylla is about to speak and tell his myth, all sit up on their couch and dialectics comes to a stop. As in the Symposium, the superiority of the religious myth over the discursive process is signified by the bodily action of the protagonists. We have here again the confirmation that Greek philosophy saw a limit to rationalist discourse, felt that it alone was not sufficient to reach a higher sphere of knowledge.