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BOOK REVIEW – PLATO – THE SYMPOSIUM 1963 edition. Kimber Pocket Editions.


Plato’s lightest philosophical work is almost a romp on the nature of Love, with several great philosophers, including Aristophanes and of course, Socrates, behaving almost likes students on the last day of term.


Fellow academic, Agathon, has invited Apollodorus to a party. Meeting him on route, Socrates decides to gatecrash the event, though everyone welcomes him.


Initially, Socrates behaves oddly, drifting into philosophically intense trances. In one such state he enters the wrong house and nothing anyone can say will move him to come away until he freely snaps out of his new line of thought. This is seen as typical of the man, who is widely revered by his friends.


The philosophers are mostly hung over from previous partying, and decide to go easy on the wine for a time, and instead, to give discourse in turn on the nature of Love. Socrates is due to speak last.


Phaedrus begins by defining Love as the most ancient, mysterious and mighty of Gods, with all others coming afterwards. His focus is very much on the timeless nature of Love.


Pausanius sees Love in more complex terms, and recognises that there are more than one kinds of Love. He focuses directly on Aphrodite worship, seeing the Goddess as the embodiment of supreme beauty and love. He counters such worship with that between people who seem less deserving of Love, - notably the old, ugly and undeserving who simply establish and maintain sexual relationships. He distinguishes between supreme love and common, unexceptional Love.


Eryxmachus takes the argument further, seeing human duty as the need to move to idealize love and away from common desires for more money, power, sexuality, etc. He recognises the need for physicians to draw people from illness to good health, and sees he duty of Love as being to draw us towards greater love and our duty as being to seek true Love over the common at all times.


Aristophanes breaks with the tradition for following on from the discourse given before him to present a very different theory of Love, in which humanity was of three genders, male and female and a now lost hermaphrodite bearing the genitalia of both. The Gods now made these middle creatures more like man and woman, by rearranging the sexual organs, moving that to the front which had been round the back, and so as part of their nature perished, the androgynous creatures sought out the sexual partner most akin to that which they missed the loss of most greatly.


Aristophanes is clearly defining a mythical origin for homosexuality here, and as fabulous as it is, it follows a fantasy theme rather than any philosophical logic.


Agathon goes back to the notion of Love as the oldest of the Gods, and instead argues that he is the youngest, as love appeals best to the young, and beautiful.  We seek a mate in our late adolescence, and college years more than when older, by which time we hopefully have a lasting Love in our lives. Love makes us creative and imaginative. Poets are touched by Love. Artists are inspired by Love.


Socrates is genuinely moved by Agathon’s discourse, but highly critical of how all praise is heaped indiscriminately at Love’s door. He then defines Love as meaningless unless it is Love of something or of someone. Love, to Socrates is that of a Husband for wife, or mother for son. Love needs a lover and a beloved to work.  Even unrequited Love has a target for the Lover’s affections, though the Loved does not in such cases give love back in turn. Love, to Socrates is a passionate desire for something, and usually something not already possessed. A strong man has no desire to be strong – he takes his strength for granted. Someone in Love needn’t seek Love – he just enjoys the Love he has already. Those who agonise over the nature of Love have usually not got some in their lives. To Socrates what Lovers want is that which is Beautiful and good?


Socrates now does something extra-ordinary – he describes one of his own former lovers, a woman called Diotima of Mantineia. He calls her his instructress in Love, which may mean she was the one who claimed his virginity. She teaches Socrates that Love can be both fair and foul and all stages in between. She sees Love as the mediator between Man and the Olympian Gods, taking our prayers and wishes to the Gods to fight for our heart’s desires on our behalf. Diotima gives an origin to Love in which the gods Plenty & Poverty are in the garden of Zeus. Poverty gets the male plenty drunk and has sex with him, getting herself pregnant with Love who is of such polarized and extreme parentage that the fortunes of human lovers are thus extremely varied. . 


This is an unusual and uncharacteristic discourse for Socrates. He rarely does more than demolish the logic of other people’s fixed convictions, as in The Euthyphro. Though not mentioned as being a guest at the Symposium party, this is really Plato talking; using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own wisdoms instead of recording the great man’s own teachings. 


Socrates finishes talking, leaving his host and fellow guests stunned, and this would normally end such a discourse, but Plato presents a surprising twist when another guest arrives at the party. Alcibiades, clearly the worst for drink, who begins to both denounce Socrates as a bully and praise him as hero and friend, It is clear to the reader that Alcibiades is a walking illustration to Socrates’s argument – he owes Socrates his life after Socrates saved him at some battle and allowed Alcibiades to take credit for greater heroism than he displayed that day, but Alcibiades resents how easily Socrates puts down his arguments and praise and keeps distance from the man who over-reveres him and accuses the friends of Socrates of failing to see what he is really like, Alcibiades is virtually a stalker. He even begs to be allowed to sleep with Socrates when the guests retire to their beds for the night, and he is disappointed when Socrates insists on sleeping with Agathon.


Such sleeping arrangements are about to be taken up when a group of revellers storm the house and take wine with everyone – the orgy of wine now occurs and one by one the guests fall into drunken slumber. Agathon is among the last to fall asleep, except for Socrates and a few of the newcomers, and when Agathon awakes the next day, Socrates is still drinking the last of these intruders under the table.


A gloriously funny discourse, with some important philosophical points at its heart. If only Aristotle could be such a party animal too.


© Copyright. Arthur Chappell