Plot: Socrates and his buddies partake of an after-dinner drinking session (a symposium) and each puts his praise of the God Love into words.
My version is an older copy (19151) of the Penguin classic translated by Walter Hamilton.
My thoughts: Firstly I will never again hear the word ‘symposium’ without imagining a booze-up rather than an academic conference. i never went to a conference which had any likelihood of rising to the challenge of a drinking party. (Maybe I went to the wrong conferences!)
Back to Athens. Most of the participants are still hung over from the previous night’s celebrations for the tragic poet Agathon’s win at the festival. To moderate their drinking this night, they settle on each man drinking to his own comfort (presumably they had drinking games the previous night) and each required to make a speech praising Love.
Phaedrus starts by suggesting as no one in love wants their beloved to see them act cowardly or in any dishonourable way, an army of soldiers consisting only of those in love with another in that army, would “defeat practically the whole world” (page 43). Pausanias divides love into two sorts : common love which is a baser love driven by sexual desire and can be felt for women or young men, and a nobler heavenly love which strives for a lifelong relationship based on attainment of excellence and directed towards young men only. The next speaker, a doctor named Eryximachus, both expands the concept of Love to include other objects both animate and inanimate which men may take delight in, but also compares the idea of baser and nobler loves to define the state of balance of beneficial and harmful elements in the body, which when out of balance cause sickness and disease.
The comic Aristophanes is next, and spins a wonderful imaginary creation tale where all humans were originally rounded creatures with “doubled bodies” – two faces on one head and neck, four arms and four legs (and moving at speed by cartwheeling about), two sets of genitalia, etc. Zeus grew angry with mankind and split them all down the centre. Apollo stitched the ends together, drawing the skin together and tying it to form the navel. Humans now spend their lives looking for their other halves : women who were originally wholly females seek women partners, men who were originally wholly male seek male partners, and halves of hermaphroditic wholes are heterosexual in nature (and more likely to be adulterous or promiscuous, although this insight is not explained ).
Agathon makes a beautiful poetic speech praising both Love himself and the blessings He bestows on gods and men. Love creates “peace among men, and calm upon the sea ; rest for the winds from strife, and sleep in sorrow” (page 71)
Finally, Socrates describes how Love was explained to him by Diotima, a woman from Mantinea, as a progression from the desire to possess forever something believed good, to strive for immortality- either by begetting offspring, or more spiritually, to move from the love of physical beauty of a single individual, to love of all physical beauty, to love of moral beauty, then to the beauty of knowledge of various branches to a love of absolute beauty, leading to true goodness which approaches a form of immortality.
Thinking the discussion at an end, there is suddenly commotion at the door and a drunk Alcibiades enters. He makes a speech praising Socrates : “whenever I listen to him my heart beats faster than if I were in a religious frenzy, and tears run down my face …. my soul [is] thrown into confusion and dismay by the thought that my life was no better than a slave’s … he compels me to realise that I am still a mass of imperfections … he makes me ashamed of myself … so I behave like a runaway slave and take to my heels” (pages 101-102)
The debate collapses as more revellers join the party, and by morning only Socrates is still awake and capable to take his leave.
Favourite lines/passages: Second to Aristophanes’ marvellous tale, the most striking passage was the sad observation of mankind’s inability to strive for self-betterment:
“The tiresome thing about ignorance is precisely this, that a man who possesses neither beauty nor goodness nor intelligence is perfectly well satisfied with himself, and no one who does not believe that he lacks a thing desires what he does not believe that he lacks” (page 83)3
Personal rating: Aristophanes’ creation tale alone deserves an 8. Tied to the rest of the discussion, it averages out as a 6.
Next: This time last year I was on holiday in Hawaii and reading Herodotus’ Histories. Likewise next week I will be holidaying a little closer to home, in Melbourne to watch the Australian Open for a couple of days and taking Xenophon’s History of my Times to fill in the time between sets.