By Ben Potter
The next time you attend a symposium at your local learning annex, take with you a bottle of wine or a pitcher of cocktails. If security try to turf you out on the grounds that drinking isn’t appropriate for such an occasion, then scoff.
Scoff like you’ve never scoffed before!
For the Athenians, a symposium was a ritualised drinking-party, a holy, night-long, god-venerating blow-out. Although food would have been consumed, this would have happened before the serious business of getting very, very drunk got under way.
A symposium would have had all-male guest-lists where men reclined on couches (shared one between two) spaced around the perimeter of a room. This facilitated the free turn-taking not only of speech, but also drink. Indeed, it seems drinking by turn from a bowl, rather than from individual cups, may have been the norm.
The Symposium of Plato, whilst philosophically stimulating, is also the most literarily intriguing of all of his works. Not only this, but it also, “offers us special insight into two central features of social life in Classical Greece: the formal drinking-party and homosexuality” (Christopher Gill).
However, putting aside for one second the ‘homosexual’ nature of The Symposium, it primarily deals with a subject with which we are all well-acquainted, be it through experience or ignorance, love.
Indeed a synopsis of the plot makes it sound like a bad, bawdy joke: an aristocrat, a lawyer, a doctor, a comedian, a dramatist, and a philosopher lie around getting drunk and talking about love. Their party is hijacked by a man who is at once both the city’s most notorious pervert and brilliant military commander.
Each man (Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades respectively) is encouraged to make a speech of praise (encomium) about eros.
This use of real historical figures in a creative setting blurs fact and fiction (Norman Mailer called it ‘faction’). Plato distances himself from any culpability or inaccuracy by having the whole story recounted about 15 years after the party took place and third, forth, or sometimes fifth hand.
The translation of eros is a little shaky, but partly because the ancient definition of it was too. In this context it is considered to be either desire, passionate sexual desire, or the god Eros. Understandably with such subtlety and ambiguity, the translation usually winds up simply as ‘love’.
Phaedrus begins with a speech extolling the benefits of going into battle side-by-side with soldiers for whom you feel love. He cites Achilles knowingly and willingly dying for his love of Patroclus as evidence that this ‘do ask, do tell’ policy will heighten the performance of fighting men.
Incidentally, this passage is used as evidence that the Greeks assumed Achilles and Patroclus had a homosexual relationship.
Here we should briefly stop and address sexuality and homosexuality in Athens. The permeations and details are too many and too subtle to fully do justice here. However, as a rule of thumb we can say (using our modern language) that most men were, by default, bisexual and promiscuous.
There was no shame or stigma attached to the use of prostitutes; indeed upper-class prostitutes (hetairai) were probably the best educated and most sophisticated women in society.
As a consequence, or cause, sexual jealously as we know it, seems a small factor. Though the righteous wrath of the cuckold appears to be timeless.
James Davidson makes the excellent point that in Classical Athens, most evidence indicates a predominantly heterosexual society, wherein sexual activity was largely centred on wives and (female) prostitutes.
The truly ‘homosexual’ aspect is difficult to explain, or at least difficult to correlate to our modern definitions. Loosely speaking, straight/gay is post-Freudian concept and doesn’t quite cut it here.
There certainly isn’t Christian culture’s idea that homosexuality is unacceptable, though in “Ionia and elsewhere in the Persian Empire the rule is that [gay] love-affairs are wrong”(182b).
The presence of long-term, monogamous, adult, homosexual relationships are rare, but documented. Indeed, in The Symposium, Agathon and Pausanias are in this very type of relationship.
The problem encountered by these two (and others) is the idea of money for sex. Two adult, free-citizens having a reciprocal sexual relationship was fine, but when one benefited financially (even from a loan or gift), the result could be a charge of prostitution and therefore loss of citizenship-rights.
This goes to show that, whilst Athens is often thought of as being both the cradle of democracy and (ludicrously) the birthplace of homosexuality, it was actually very difficult to conduct a modern, gay relationship there.
Pausanias, in his speech, talks about common love, which is merely sex (with a woman or a boy) and heavenly love, which honors and respects the other and wishes an exchange of intelligence and wisdom…. And sex.
The arrogant and obnoxious Eryximachus comes across as an absolute crushing bore. He says love is in all things and also believes it is medicinal. The motivation of his speech seems purely for self-aggrandizement and he is immediately mocked by the next speaker, Aristophanes.
In stark contrast to Eryximachus, Aristophanes tells a fanciful and amusing, mock-creation story of how we used to be fused in two i.e. with 4 legs, 2 faces etc. There were men-men, women-women, and androgynous women-men, but we overstepped our boundaries and were rent in twain by an angry Zeus. Thus, whomever you have sexual desire for indicates to whom you had originally been attached.
This account is one that remained very popular throughout history as, in far from monogamous times, Aristophanes was propounding the virtues of soul-mates.
Agathon gives a poorly argued and disjointed speech. He seems flawed, facile, shallow and simple.
This particular symposium is supposedly in honor of Agathon’s victory at the dramatic festival ‘The Lenaia’. Is Plato‘s representation of him an implication that he doesn’t think much of his dramatic quality?
Clearly, Agathon’s speech is deliberately simple and weak. Thus Socrates has a chance to pick it to pieces, as is typical of most of Plato‘s dialogues.
The ‘Socratic method’ – to us more like modern teaching techniques – is to educate someone through a series of leading questions. The Meno is Plato‘s best example of this where he gets an ignorant slave to solve a mathematical problem simply by asking him leading questions, not actually giving him any information.
Having finished with Agathon, Socrates tells a theory of love he has heard from Diotima of Mantinea.
The speech illustrates the force of eros, but paradoxically without desire.
This may have seemed more contradictory and confusing for the Athenians than it is for us. We bound about the word ‘love’ with extraordinary abandon. To the extent that people talk of ‘loving’ their new car or, even more perversely and disturbingly, ‘loving’ Piers Morgan.
The love that Diotima, through Socrates, is talking about, is one that pursues true wisdom, immortality and the possession of ‘the good’.
The ideas of Pausanias, that of an older lover tutoring a younger, are supported, but without the necessary climax of sexual gratification.
This is from where (and for why) the concept of ‘Platonic love’ was developed. It could just as easily have been called Socratic love, but the distinction between the two voices is extremely murky.
Socrates goes on to talk of how we can see physical beauty, and in turn, we can more easily recognise mental beauty. From here we can begin to search for Beauty in itself.
Plato is coming back to his popular recurring theme of Forms, i.e. that there is a perfect, ethereal Form of everything for which we must be continually searching.
At this point Alcibiades barges in, totally drunk and with a prostitute on his arm.
He complains everyone is too sober, exalts Socrates’ philosophical virtues and attempts to seduce him. Even though Socrates flirts back, he doesn’t give in: “he completely triumphed over my good looks – and despised, scorned and insulted them”(219c).
This, semi-comic interlude (along with that of Aristophanes earlier) shows thatPlato is flexing his literary muscles as much as his philosophical ones. Most of the speeches have, unusually for him, been left without judgement. This leaves the reader with the feeling that he is less confidant in (or less concerned with) his philosophical assertions than in other dialogues.
Socrates lends fuel to this fire when he states that: “anyone who is an expert in writing tragedy must also be an expert in writing comedy”(223d). This is a fine reflection on TheSymposium as the most well-rounded and readable of all Plato‘s dialogues.
The text, fittingly and beautifully, peters out with maudlin undertones, much like a jolly night drinking with friends that winds down as the sun rises. The overload of joy at good company and too much alcohol, combined with the fatigue brought on by being unwilling to end such beautiful, and seemingly essential, discourse.
Read The Symposium yourself for free here: https://classicalwisdom.