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Topic #D32

Plato, Symposium 189a-212c


21 November 2001

Scribes: Claire Binks and Teesha Izzard


These minutes were spoken on 23 November; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



Prior to the discussion regarding the Symposium, Professor Hutchinson noted that Plato was striving to do his best with the abstract philosophical territory in the dialogues that are being read this week.  The topics covered are death in Phaedo, sexual love in Symposium, and scientific method in Theaetetus.  Socrates did not venture into this area for he had no idea of death, was frightened of love, and had no real knowledge for scientific fact or method.  In the Apology, Socrates questions whether death is just like sleep or if it is more like a transition into another world.  In the Phaedo a more developed theory is found on death, which illustrates that Plato rushed in to fill the gaps for Socrates’ difficulties.


The theme of Symposium is love, friendship and sexual desire.  This topic fits in well with the social culture of the well-off Ancient Athenians, who were known for their notorious drinking parties.  The host of these parties would mix the drinks himself and then pass them around to his guests.  After repeating this process numerous times, the guests would become intoxicated, lose their inhibitions and often times have wild sex.  Usually the entertainment would consist of girls in pretty skirts performing gymnastic routines and dancing for the guests.  These festivities are widely studied, and a lot is known of them.  If one is interested to learn more of these occasions, a recent book has been released entitled, Courtesan’s and Fishcakes: the Consuming Pleasures in Ancient Athens, by James Davidson.  It is a book focusing on the ancient pleasures.  Parties such as the ones described were expensive, and rooms were often built special for the occasion.  The rooms were small in size, allowing each man to rest his back against the wall.  This permitted an intimate form of male bonding, which sometimes turned sexual.  It is comprehended that the theme of Symposium, love, is appropriate for its context.


Socrates’ mode, when speaking on the subject of love, is deathly serious as compared to Aristophanes who was considered to be the master of obscene.  However, in Symposium, Plato gives Aristophanes a speaking part that turns out to be extremely philosophical and surprisingly not obscene at all.  In fact, a lot of truth and plausibility is found in his speech. 


Plato believed that the most important way to respect someone is mental not physical.  This is his idea of Platonic love, which consists of love of friendship and love of teaching.  It does not involve consummating the relationship.  This theory should really be called Platonic friendship.  The term “platonic”, used today, gets its origin from Plato, meaning just being friends and although there is an intense attraction, there is no consummation.


The organizational composition of Symposium can be seen in the form of a literary puzzle.  The speeches are seen as stages of progressive development.  The first thesis introduced is that it is a fine thing to be gifted with erotic desire.  The next speaker gives a deeper theme, always progressing in his rhetoric.  Eryximachas makes the claim that love is a united force between men and women but also between other creatures, similar to Empedecles’ theory of love and strife being a force in nature, meaning attraction and repulsion are the fundamental forces.  This is not a bad theory as we see it today in the laws of physics.  Next, Aristophanes speaks of the myth of creatures who express the need to be reunited with their other half.  In the beginning there were three creatures: male, female, and a mixture of both (androgynous).  The creatures were separated in half by the gods for misbehaving and as a result they continually search for their other half.  This theory explains homosexuality and heterosexuality.  These people live in a mutilated condition and they desire wholeness and unity.  One of the great miracles of love is that it does not take away individuality but adds a function to bring people together as one.  Professor Hutchinson then relayed a story of when his son was born.  He had to give a lecture the next day on this myth.  In his sleep-deprived state he began ranting about the fantasy that humans are missing half of themselves.  This notion, he said, gives us a license to absurd laziness.  Many relationships can be perfected if worked on.  This idea is romantic nonsense, he said, and a danger to indulge in.  One should take a common sense approach to love. After all, what if you other half is a peasant farmer in Laos?


Just prior to Socrates’ speech, comes a speech with an exception to the use of rhetoric found in this work.  This is Agathon’s speech.  This speech does not progress from the last; it may even digress.  Agathon was a playwright famous for his flowery rhetoric.  His speech follows all of the previous patterns but ends up being completely empty.  This is a speech dedicated entirely to lexis, which comes from the term lexicology meaning choice of words.  Agathon’s choice of words does not seem to be connected to any thought.


      Socrates did not have it in him to give his speech; he had to report it from somewhere else.  A question was asked whether this tactic was just a narrative ploy.  It should be noted that whenever Socrates used a foreign source he would always signal as such.  Socrates was able to argue that Agathon’s speech did not measure up, however he was not able to use his own arguments to prove this.  Instead he relied on a speech he heard from Diotima, a woman with a sacred connection to the beyond.  A literary proof of this can be found in 210a.  Diotima says to Socrates:

“Even you, Socrates, could probably come to be initiated into these rites of love.  But as for the purpose of these rites when they are done correctly – that is the final and highest mystery, and I don’t know if you are capable of it.  I myself will tell you…”


This confirms that Socrates was given a new content and awareness of love, which he had no previous knowledge of.


              Many ancient scholars were fascinated with Plato’s Symposium.  Xenophon writes a reply to it in his own Symposium, with regards to the notion of the so-called homosexual propaganda given by Aristophanes.  Xenophon in return gives an account of heterosexual propaganda. 


              The speech recounted by Socrates is truly wonderful.  In it we see that the desire for a union with another person has to do with temporality, and a passage of time in a world full of development and change.  This seems to be an odd thesis, however when one looks at the details of the argument, it becomes clear.


              Another theme found is relayed in 205 and 206.  Love is depicted as a state of need.  The sexual desire fulfills a need.  If this is true then the same must be said of all other desires including wisdom.  The term philosophy, originally philsophia, meaning love of wisdom was not used prior to Plato.  In fact, Plato may have invented the word.    To be a philosopher is to be attracted to or have the apprehension to learn more. 


              The focus then turned to the speech of Diotima, where she answers the question “why reproduction?”  Her answer can be found in 207.  This is an abstract conception of love, the idea that love must have something eternal as part of its structure.  In 207d, Diotima explains why we have this frantic need to reproduce:

“mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal.  And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it always leaves behind a new young one in place of the old.”


The desire to give birth occurs over a lifetime, for many ages, as each individual is a concoction of those he was in previous lives.


              Up to this point we have been in Socratic territory, however the remainder of the speech follows with Platonic ideas.  It should be noticed that Plato does not succeed in making his point about love clear.  We see this at the end of 210e where Diotima trails off without finishing her idea.  This occurs at the most crucial point in the speech.  Diotima cannot communicate this vision, thus she is resigned to describe it in negative terms, which are found in 211a. 


              We can conclude from this that Plato thought we should make our own conclusions concerning love, or maybe Plato himself was unable to communicate this vision.