back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #D32

Plato, Symposium 189a-212c


21 November 2001

Scribes: Maya Krishnaratne and Wanda Scott


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began Wednesday’s lecture by stating that this weeks’ dialogues are classic and very impressive; they illustrate Plato striving to do his best in very difficult philosophical territory.  In these three works, he explores the areas of death, love and sexual desire, and scientific theory and knowledge.  These are some of the hardest topics in philosophy, ones which Socrates had never ventured to discuss.  Socrates had no knowledge of science and was frightened by love and sexual desire.  He was in a state of total skepticism about death, as found in the Apology, not knowing if it was a state of sleep or another plane of existence.  Yet in Plato’s Phaedo we find him propounding an elaborate theory of death, though even there he stops short of certainty.  Because Socrates found these themes so difficult, Plato rushes in to try and fill the gaps. 


Professor Hutchinson stated that the Symposium’s themes were love, friendship, and sexual desire, which are naturally fascinating ideas for most people.  In Athenian society, a symposium was a way of sharing hospitality among well-off circles of friends.  Men would get together for dinner and after washing, the wine would be brought out.  The host organizes who drinks when, the strengths of the mixtures, and when the new rounds would be brought out.  The professor pointed out that, as we can imagine, that these men inevitably got drunk.  As inhibitions were lost, the drunkenness often led to sex.  (The professor assured us that he was not making this up: the phenomenon of Athenian symposia is well described both in ancient and modern texts; and we can see its outlines clearly in Xenophon’s Symposium, as well as in Courtesans and Fishcakes, a recent work on the pursuit of pleasure in classical Athents by James Davidson.)  This form of entertainment was particularly elaborate and expensive.  They had party rooms built specifically for this purpose, making it an intimate social event.  It was a way of bonding the circle of friends tightly together.  From this bonding, sexual relations also developed. 


So love, the theme of this symposium, is especially appropriate for its context,.  However, the mode with which Plato treats the subject is serious as opposed to frivolous.  The professor pointed out the irony of Plato’s inclusion of Aristophanes in this dialogue; the Greek comedian, Aristophanes, was master of the obscene, but was given by Plato, speaking parts with the potential to be rude yet ended up being very philosophical.  Plato stresses in this dialogue that the important plane of achievement and development is the level of the mental and not the physical.  Here, Plato elaborates the theory of Platonic love, a love involving intense friendship, often involving education.  What distinguishes platonic love is that it is not consummated.  Because Socrates was known for practicing this kind of love, it could have just as easily been called ‘Socratic love.’  It is in this sense of a love that does not involve sex that we use the term ‘platonic’ today. 


Professor Hutchinson pointed out that the way the speeches in the Symposium are organized is in the form of a literary puzzle.  We have to see the ordering of the speeches as stages in a progressive development.  Each speaker presents valid ideas spoken in good rhetoric only to be outdone by the next speaker who gives a deeper theme and stronger rhetoric. 


The third speech in the Symposium is given by the learned doctor, Eryximachus.  He argues that love is a uniting force between a man and a woman but also between other creatures and all of nature.  The professor then, drew the parallel to the ideas of Empedocles who posited that love and strife were the two fundamental forces of nature.  This theory of attraction and repulsion is actually not a bad one because, as the professor noted, it can be illustrated by the example of electricity, one of the fundamental forces of nature, as we now believe. 


The next speaker is Aristophanes who speaks of a fantastical myth about creatures with the need to be reunited.  This theory explains the origin of homosexuals and heterosexuals.  Originally there were three genders, but upon suffering punishment from the gods, they now live in a mutilated condition where the desire for sexual partners is a desire for wholeness and unity.  The professor that one can debate Aristophanes’ speech as he did the morning after his son was born in a series of rants about the enthusiasm for virginity and the idea that another half could complete a person.  He considers this ‘romantic nonsense’ and a ‘license for laziness as one could simply say, “I guess she wasn’t the one.”  He also believes that relationships can be perfected.


The following speech by Agathon is the one exception to the rule that each successive speech goes deeper into the nature of sexual desire.  This playwright was a fancifying wordsmith whose speech followed all the rules of rhetoric but ended up being totally empty.  His speech was entirely dedicated to lexis instead of thought.  By including this, Plato is illustrating his view that the best writers should be able to write both comedy and tragedy. 


The professor stated that Socrates’ speech can be considered one of two climaxes in this dialogue.  It must be noted that he didn’t have it in him to give this speech and instead reported the words of someone of superior wisdom.  Socrates is given a lot of speech by Plato, from a prophetess, Diotima, with access to ideas that human don’t, such as divine mysteries.  The professor then read the following passage where Diotima says “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...and I won’t stint any effort.  And you must try to follow if you can” (Symposium 210 a).  Diotima is suggesting that Socrates belongs in a context beyond this point.  The professor stated that this speech in which she informs Socrates of the nature of inner love is truly wonderful.  Plato’s ultimate argument is that one’s desire for another person has to do with temporality.  This odd thesis becomes more clear when we look at the details of the text. 


Professor Hutchinson pointed out that another theme in the dialogue is that love is in a state of need.  Sexual desire fulfils a need and the same must be true of all other desires, including wisdom.  Plato also makes this point elsewhere, such as in Phaedo and Lysis.  Plato thought that those who are right for philosophy have some degree of wisdom as well as the apprehension that they need more.  The word philosophy was not much in use before Plato’s time.  To Plato it meant being on a search for something that will complete us.  This is why philosophy is endless for Plato.  This contrasts to how philosophy is taught at the University of Toronto where it takes place in a curriculum, with a schedule and where a degree is earned.  To be a philosopher, for Plato, is to be attracted to a wisdom that we don’t already have. 


Professor Hutchinson pointed out that we arrive at the question, “why reproduction?”  He went on to read from Diotima’s speech the following quote: “It’s because reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality.  A lover must desire immortality along with the good, if what we agreed earlier was right, that Love wants to possess the good forever.  It follows from our argument that Love must desire immortality” (Symposium, 207 a).  The professor questioned what causes this frantic need.  Why do we bend our lives so out of shape?  To answer this he quoted another passage.    

“If you really believe that Love by its nature aims at what we have often agreed it does, then don’t be surprised at the answer…for among animals the principle is the same as with us and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal.  This is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it always leaves behind a new young one in place of the old.  Even while each living thing is said to be alive and the same – as the person is said to be the same from childhood until he turns into an old man – even then he never consists of the same things, though he is called the same, but he is always being renewed and other aspects passing away, in his hair and flesh and bones and blood and his entire body.  And it’s not just in his body, but in his soul, too, for none of his manners, customs, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, or fears ever remains the same, but some are coming to be in him while others are passing away.  And what is still far stranger than that is that not only does one branch of knowledge come to be in us while another passes away and that we are never the same even in respect of our knowledge, but that each single piece of knowledge has the same fate” (Symposium, 207 d-e).


Here, Plato is connecting knowledge with psychological and physical attributes.  He is positing that there are higher and more direct modes of grasping immortality than reproduction.  At 208 b we see that knowledge helps preserve immortality.  From this, we achieve our own version of higher immortality by passing on the self through education.  This is another version of Plato’s idea that the real children of Socrates were his students, not his sons. 


The professor then read a large portion from the text from 209a-e.  Up to this point, all ideas are Socratic, but beyond this, Plato speaks his own ideas through Diotima.  However he is unable to effectively communicate his ideas when, at 210 e, Diotima is unable to find words sufficient to the task and her voice trails off.  In 211a, the ineffably deep Platonic idea she is trying to communicate can only be expressed in negative terms …


              At this point the lecture broke off.