History and Background
A symposium is literally a "drinking together"--in other words a drinking party. In Athens, in Plato's day, symposia were strictly stag affairs. As a rule, they consisted of a fairly lavish, semi-formal banquet followed by ceremonial toasts and bouts of drinking. Wives were excluded. However, serving girls, dancing girls, flute-players, and hetaires (a sort of high-class prostitute/professional escort/entertainer) were frequently part of the festivities.
Symposia were usually held in private homes in specially
designed dining and party areas. The guests (from as few as 3 or 4 to as
many as 12 or 20) reclined on couches arranged in a circle. An entire service
of ornamental cups, bowls, plates, and vases were set out for the occasion.
After dinner, amid hearty servings of wine, the guests would converse,
engage in song contests, enjoy the professional entertainment, or, as in
the case of The Symposium, compose speeches or deliver mock orations.
Like its vexing and ever-elusive topic (Eros), the very structure of The Sympsosium is a dizzying maze: a set of Russian dolls or Chinese boxes in which speeches contain other speeches and whole conversations are quoted at three or four removes.
The initial setting for the dialogue is an Athenian street. Apollodorus is conversing with an unnamed friend. In the course of this conversation, he recaps a similar conversation that he'd shared the day before with a fellow named Glaucon. Glaucon, it turns out, had asked for information about a celebrated banquet, a drinking party that supposedly once took place at the home of Agathon (and which was reportedly attended by Socrates, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, and others). Apollodorus explains to Glaucon (and by extension to his anonymous companion) that although he himself never actually attended this party, he has heard a few things about it from Aristodemus. (Unfortunately, Aritstodemus's account of the event is particularly unreliable since he admittedly dozed off during the festivities and was fast asleep long before the banquet was finally over.) And so on.
In this way the reader begins to comprehend the funhouse complexity of the work. We may note, for example, that the crucial revelation of the dialogue (namely, that "True love is a desire for perpetual possession of the Good and Beautiful") reaches us via an especially convoluted and brain-teasing route: It ultimate source is Diotima, who explains it to Socrates, who explains it to Aristodemus, who reports it to Apollodorus, who tells it to his anonymous friend (while we, so to speak, overhear). (Add to this the fact that we don't actually hear the report, but only read about it in the work of an author who consistently denigrated writing and considered it vastly inferior to live speech--that we read it furthermore in a translated version with the aid of notes, commentaries, and other academic filters and modifications--and we can get a further sense of Plato's fun-loving gamesmanship and sense of mischief.)
Three Keys to the Funhouse: Drama, Rhetoric, and Dialectic
Yet for all its seeming randomness and playful complexity, The Symposium is in fact carefully and even tautly structured. In essence, the dialogue unfolds and takes shape according to three separate yet parallel plot patterns: dramatic, rhetorical, and dialectical.
Drama. More so than any other of Plato's dialogues, The Symposium is not just a vivid conversation; it's a full-blown drama: a comedy in three acts with an introduction, two interludes, and an epilog. The introduction (mostly exposition and scene-setting on the part of Apollodorus) proceeds from the beginning of the dialogue to the arrival of Socrates and the decision to have a speech contest in praise of Love. The main action consists of the three agons--Phaedrus vs. Pausanias, Erixymachus vs. Aristophanes, and Agathon vs. Socrates--separated by two comic interludes (the hiccup episode between Erixymachus and Aristophanes and the needling and rhetorical jousting between Socrates and Agathon). The epilog begins with the arrival of Alcibiades and lasts until the end of the dialogue.
The three acts--or agons--of the dialogue are essentially verbal sparring matches between comically appropriate opponents. For example, Phaedrus, the first speaker, is an aspiring tragic poet and social climber anxious to obtain a spot in the social constellation of Agathon and his small circle of Athenian artist-aristocrats. This makes him a potential rival to Pausanias, who is Agathon's current lover. In effect, both speakers aim to impress Agathon in a contest involving sexual as well as oratorical one-upmanship.
The next agon features a different set of rivals: Eryximachus, a physician ostentatiously fluent in medical jargon and the philosophy of Heracleitus, and Aristophanes, the droll and feisty comic dramatist. The name Eryximachus means "battler against belches," and it is fittingly in the role of a "hiccup-curer" (Plato apparently found the pun irresistible) that a bombastic scientist is paired with a poet famous for deflating pomposity.
In the third and final agon--Agathon vs. Socrates--the pairing is again dramatically appropriate. In this case, Plato produces an exquisitely satirical portrait of the narcissistic and flamboyantly stylish Agathon and crafts the perfect foil for him in the person of the studiously plain and unfashionable Socrates. Is there any doubt which antagonist will prevail?
addition to depicting a conflict of personalities, The Symposium can
also be read as a pure rhetorical debate--a contest in which each speech
can be judged for its style and substance (and also viewed as a moral reflection
of the person who delivers it). Read in this way, the dialogue appears
to show the progressive triumph of the plain style (employed by Aristophanes
and Socrates) over the florid, ornamental style (favored by Eryximachus
and Agathon), of figures of thought (e.g., image, metaphor, allegory, irony,
etc.) over figures of speech (especially the resonant sound effects and
spell-binding rhythms that Agathon strives for), of the ironic over the
hyperbolic, and of the mythical and visionary over the scientific and sensual.
Throughout the dialogue (as virtually everywhere else in Plato) speech
that appeals mainly to the senses turns out to be inferior as a mode of
instruction to speech that appeals primarily to the intellect. On Diotima's
ladder of love, the spiritual rates higher than the physical, and the universal
ranks above the particular. Finally, as Alcibiades makes clear in his comparison
of Socrates with the popular household figurines of Silenus, truth and
inner beauty are ultimately far superior--and more erotic--than false brilliance
and superficial attractiveness.
Dialectic. The last--and most important--plot pattern or structural element in The Symposium is dialectic. Literally a speaking or thinking through on some issue or problem, dialectic may be defined as a process of statement and counter-statement, thesis and antithesis, question and reply that leads by incremental stages to a better understanding of a particular issue and a closer approximation to the truth.
In Plato's hands, dialectic is virtually synonymous with "the Socratic method"--a technique of interrogation and cross-examination in which basic assumptions or crude, starting-level propositions are rigorously challenged, scrutinized, revised, and gradually refined into more accurate and powerful insights. The key ingredients in this process are multiple viewpoints and a set of logical rules for testing and reconciling them. Dialectic thus proceeds on the premise that two heads are indeed better than one and that truths are more likely to be discovered via systematic, deliberative inquiry than pronounced once and for all by a single authority
In the case of The Symposium, the dialogue starts with the claims of Phaedrus (love enobles both lover and beloved) and Pausanias (there are at least two kinds or levels of love: sacred and profane) and never completely rejects them. Instead, Plato builds on them, adding the views of Eryximachus (true love is is a biochemical balance that yields peace of mind) and Aristophanes (love involves a primal urge for wholeness and self-completeness). Ultimately, all views are comprehended and reconciled in the transcendent formulation of Diotima (that true love is a desire for self-immortalization and for perpetual possession of the Good and Beautiful). It is surely one of the supreme ironies of the dialogue that Plato attributes its crowning insight to an absent woman (via her spokesperson Socrates) while gently ridiculing the prejudiced views and fitful half-truths of a party of drunken males.
The Symposium is unquestionably the single most influential and important treatment of love in all of western literature. From neo-Platonism to medieval mysticism, from Augustine to Dante, from Ficino to Freud, its major insights (the identity of Beauty and Goodness; love as a set of progressive stages, successive rungs in a quest for personal immortality; love as a universal creative principle or sacred force) have shaped western ideas and attitudes at all levels of culture.
In contemporary religious ceremonies, in popular song lyrics, in midnight confessions, in wedding vows--in short, anywhere one encounters the notion of a truly undying and eternal love, the words of Diotima, Socrates, and the other figures of The Symposium can still be heard.
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