Plato’s Symposium

Welcome to our new unofficial*  Open University A396 2009 blog for discussing Plato’s Symposium.  I am hoping this is going to be as simple as setting up some categories with very basic posts about the different sections of the Symposium and inviting all you knowledgable poeple to comment about them.  I was thinking of having sections for

1 The Framing Narrative

2 Phaedrus’ Speech

3 Pausanias’ Speech

4 Eryximachus’ Speech

5 Aristophanes’ Speech

6 Agathon’s Speech

7 Socrates’ Speech

8 Alcibiades’ Speech

9 The Conclusion

How does that sound to the rest of you?

I think you will be able to leave comments without logging in but the first one will need to be approved before it appears – I will try not to take too long 🙂

*NB This is not an official Open University site – it is provided by students for students but anyone is welcome to contribute 🙂

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The Framing Narrative

Plato has gone to quite a lot of trouble to present the Symposium within a Framing Narrative …

While Plato wrote the Symposium sometime after 385 BC, the framing conversation between Apollodorus and his companions appears  to take place between 401 BC and 399 BC, while the Symposium itself is set in the year of Agathon’s first victory in the Dionysia, 416 BC.

These dates were taken from the interesting Wikipedia article on Plato’s Symposium

Here is my own diagram of the framing events:Framing Narrative4

So what is all that about then? Why so complex? What does it add? How much of it is true?

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Phaedrus’ Speech


provided by Wikimedia Commons

Eros. Attic red-figure bobbin, ca. 470 BC-450 BC provided by Wikimedia Commons

Phaedrus is the first to speak, apparently because the whole thing was his idea. Eros is the oldest (or one of the oldest) of the gods. He has no parents: according to Hesiod, Eros and Gaia came into being after Chaos. Eros confers the greatest benefit upon us, for from him comes the bond between lover (ἐραστής) and beloved (ἐρωμένος); there can be no greater benefit for a boy than to have a worthy lover, nor for a lover to have a loved one worthy of him. From this bond comes all that is noble, for neither will wish to be caught in any shameful or cowardly act by the other. An army consisting of men united in this way would be practically invincible. Only lovers will give their lives for each other.

What exactly does Phaedrus mean by Eros/eros? He doesn’t spell it out; he assumes everyone knows. He seems to understand more than just sexual desire and fulfilment, for otherwise why would each member of a partnership care what the other thought of his character, or be prepared to sacrifice his life?

According to Dover, sexual desire is most commonly denoted by ‘ἐπιθυμία, love in general by φιλία, suggesting that there is indeed more to Eros than just sex.

The commentators are not kind to Phaedrus, pointing out several illogicalities and non sequiturs in his argument. For example, his claim that all are agreed that Eros has no parents is, as Rowse points out, disingenuous: we find an account of his parentage in Alcaeus. Rowse also says that he ‘tries to be clever without quite pulling it off’.

[Mageiros kindly provided this summary]

Pausanias’ Speech


The Birth of Venus - Sandro Boticcelli provided by Wikipedia Commons

The Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticcelli provided by Wikipedia Common

Phaedrus made no attempt to define eros and referred only to its benefits. Pausanius now looks a little closer and asserts that there is a bad as well as a good side to it. He points out, first, that there is another god (whom Phaedrus did not mention), closely connected with Eros – Aphrodite. If Eros is the god of sexual desire, Aphrodite is the goddess of sexual fulfulment (τὰ Ἀφροδίσια is the general term for sexual intercourse). However, there are two Aphrodites: the ‘Heavenly’ Aphrodite who was born from the foam of the sea (Ἀφροδίτη Οὐράνια) and a later ‘Common’ Aphrodite (Ὰφροδίτη Πάνδημος), the child of Zeus and Dione (Pausanias is here drawing on two different accounts of Aphrodite’s origin, Hesiod’s Theogony, 188-202, and the Iliad, 5.370-430). Since these gods are so closely connected (there can be no sex without desire) it follows that there must be two Erotes (Ἔρωτε – a lovely dual!): Ἔρως οὐράνιος and Ἔρως Πάνδημος.
Deriving from these two Erotes, Pausanias identifies two attitudes to sex and sexual desire. There are those who, inspired by Common Eros, are interested only in sexual gratification; their desire is directed indiscriminately towards women, men and young boys and does not lead to any lifelong commitment. Those, however, who are inspired by Heavenly Eros look to older boys, boys approaching puberty who have acquired some level of intelligence, and are as interested in their character as their good looks (we should remember, here, that Greek boys reached puberty later than we do: see The World of Athens (JACT), 5.32).
Pausanias goes on to discuss the codes of behaviour associated with Eros in various Greek cities and in Athens itself, but admits that they are not easily comprehensible. In some ways I found this the most interesting part of the speech, because of what it tells us about Greek attitudes. He does, however, have a slight problem: how can any god be bad? He skates round this by saying that eros is not of itself good or bad, but takes on these qualities from the use to which it is put, but this seems to go against his contention that there are two gods.
Hamilton says that ‘Pausanias, though hardly more profound [than Phaedrus], is a good deal more subtle’. My feeling was that, although he makes a good attempt, he is somewhat confused in his contrived theology. How far, I wonder, does this speech reflect the attitudes of the Athenian in the Agora?

[Mageiros kindly provided this summary]

Eryximachus’ Speech

Ancient Greek Medicine Wheel from GreekMedicine.net Click the Wheel to go to Explanation

Ancient Greek Medicine Wheel from GreekMedicine.net Click the wheel to go to explanation

Eryximachus’ speech I have found the most difficult so far to understand. He seeks to extend Pausanias’ idea of a good and a bad Eros, affecting human life only, into a general principle bearing on all existence, by which conflicting elements are brought into harmony. Being a doctor, he considers, first, medicine and the human body. The idea, I suppose, is that Eros tries to keep a body healthy by maintaining a balance between Hippocrates’ four humours, but his account, to my understanding, is less than lucid. He proceeds to music, in which sounds previously in discord are harmonized, education, meteorology and, finally, divination, which establishes good-will between gods and men.

The commentators are not kind to Eryximachus, seeing him as a pompous, self-important pedant, and his speech, in Hamilton’s word, ‘poor stuff’. He has, however, played his part in extending the concept of Eros into a universal principle. I feel I shall understand Eryximachus, and Plato’s intent, better, when I know more about contemporary Greek science.

[Mageiros kindly provided this summary]

Aristophanes’ Speech

YouTube video illustrating Aristophanes’ Speech

Aristophanes, the master of Old Comedy, and Menander, the master of New Comedy, here depicted in a push-me-pull-you form that might or might not have amused them both, but which is certainly reminiscent of Aristophanes description of the original male-male creatures. Provided by Wikipedia Commons.

Aristophanes, the master of Old Comedy, and Menander, the master of New Comedy, here depicted in a push-me-pull-you form that might or might not have amused them both, but which is certainly reminiscent of Aristophanes' description of the original male-male creatures. Provided by Wikipedia Commons.

The above link gives as good an introduction to Aristophanes’ speech as we are likely to get. However, for completeness, sake, I suppose we had better have one here as well. Aristophanes imagines a time when men were twice what they are now. Each individual had two faces, looking in opposite directions on one head, and a spherical torso with four arms, four legs and two sets of genitals. It follows from the last that there were three genders: all-male (two sets of male genitalia), all-female (two sets of female) and hermaphrodite (one set of each). For details on how this came about, their mode of progression and other technicalities you must read the full account. These men, as is the wont of men (cf. Ephialtes and Otus) overreached themselves and attacked the gods. Zeus decided, therefore, to reduce their power by cutting them all in half: the resulting individuals had one face, two arms, two legs – and only one set of genitals, meaning that there were now only two genders. For details on just how he did this and how Apollo stitched them up after the operation, see the text.

The poor humans were distraught and went about searching for their other halves, as they still do. Those who were half of an original all-male looked for another male: these were the best, for they were the most manly and virtuous; those who were half of an original all-female looked for another female: these were the Lesbians and we don’t need to bother much about them (my apologies to any Lesbians out there, but that’s the way it was). Finally, those who came from an original hermophrodite searched for an individual of the other gender: these included the adulterers and prostitutes, and we don’t want to talk much about them either. Sometimes an individual found his actual other half, with whom he then formed a lifelong and intense partnership.

At this point Aristophanes decides he had better introduce Eros, who has played no part in the above at all and is not really needed now. However, he, apparently, will help us all find our other halves. He will also help us behave properly towards the gods and so avoid being chopped up again and having to hop about on one leg (we aren’t told what would happen about the genitals in this scenario).

While the speeches of Phaedo, Pausanias and Eryximachus seem to present something of a progression in our view of Eros, Aristophanes’ flies off at a tangent.. Should we just take it as a comic interlude? Is Plato seeking to make the Symposium look less contrived by introducing a brilliant irrelevance? Do we, perhaps, have here the authentic voice of Aristophanes? It is not difficult to imagine that he really did present some such account, perhaps, even, at a symposium. Did it suit Plato to take this account and insert it here?

[Mageiros kindly provided this summary]

Agathon’s Speech

Young boy as Eros Louvre provided by Wikimedia Commons

Young boy as Eros Louvre provided by Wikimedia Commons

After some banter with Eryximachus and Socrates, Agathon begins his speech by criticising the earlier ones for concentrating on the benefits bestowed by Eros rather than the character of the god himself. This sounds rather as if Plato is moving the discussion on to consider the essential nature of a quality rather than its manifestations (cf. Meno’s ‘What is Virtue?’).

Eros is the happiest of the gods, most beautiful (κάλλιστος) and best (ἄριστος). Agathon directly contradicts Phaedo by claiming that he is the youngest, not the oldest, of the gods, for he hates old age and seeks out the young; surely, too, the gods of old would not have castrated each other and tied each other up, if Eros had been among them. He is also ἁπαλός -‘sensitive’ (Hamilton), ‘delicate’ (Rowe) – for he settles in those souls which are soft (μαλακός). He is supple (ὑγρός), otherwise how could he pass through the whole soul, and beautiful, living as he does among the flowers.

Eros displays virtue (ἀρετή), neither wronging nor being wronged (really?), justice (δικαιοσύνη), for all obey him willingly, and moderation (σωφροσύνη). Agathon justifies the last surprising assertion by the following piece of sophistry: moderation is mastery over pleasures and desires; no pleasure is stronger than love; therefore love masters all pleasures and so is supremely moderate (it’s this sort of thing that got Greek Philosophy a bad name, if you ask me, though, to be fair to Agathon, he is probably only joking – see his concluding remark). In courage (ἀνδρεία) too he is supreme, for did he not overcome even Ares when he made him fall for Aphrodite?

Nor does Eros fall short in wisdom (σοφία). All who are touched by him become poets and musicians. Indeed all skills owe much to him inasmuch as their practitioners are inspired by a desire for Beauty.

Agathon now supplies a peroration which, as Dover points out in his commentary, provides examples of many of the elements of Greek lyric poetry as well as being a caricature of the sort of Rhetoric practised by Gorgias.

Agathon concludes by saying that his speech is part play, part serious (τὰ μὲν παιδιᾶς, τὰ δὲ σπουδῆς μετρίας). This is, to my taste, the speech’s  saving grace: it turns what could, to the modern reader, be very irritating into something quite funny.

Now for Socrates! What will he make of it? One cannot escape the feeling that Plato has set Agathon up to be shot down.

[Mageiros kindly provided this summary]