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Symposium

The Symposium is a Socratic dialogue[?] by Plato. The Symposium is one of the most controversial of Plato's dialogues.

Some argue that it proves incontrovertibly that Socrates engaged in pederasty; and furthermore that denial of this is merely wishful thinking by those who cannot bear a speck on Socrates' reputation. Others claim equally stridently, that not only does it not prove any such thing, but that it is in fact artfully constructed to rebut just those kinds of calumnies propagated by Socrates political enemies. Arguably it could also be intended thus without being true, but that view has not been proffered much.

It is necessary to be careful when judging the ancients to avoid modern standards. Male homosexuality was perfectly acceptable in ancient Greece, and pederasty was institutionalised in Sparta at least.

It is also a notable dialogue of Socrates with one of his own teachers, the deeply and broadly learned courtesan Diotima[?].

Table of contents

Setting

From the very start of the dialogue, the reader's nose is rubbed in the fact that this is no ordinary Socratic dialogue. The cultural elite of Athens is celebrating Agathon having won the prize for his first tragedy. Our first view of Socrates as he is about to join the second day of revels in the artists honor, has him washed and primped up and "even" wearing shoes!

Such celebrations are the occasion of getting drunk, speaking with excessive liberty, and sometimes even the truth.

The Discussion

The beginning of the discussion is dominated by very lightharted banter and ribbing between all present, but as the evening progresses talk turns to the deep subject of Eros. Socratic irony notwithstanding, Plato is not known for using much hilarity in his dialogues. But now even Eros is subjected by most, including Socrates.

A challenge is presented, and Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon all make speeches of praise pursuant to the challenge. All that remains is for Socrates to give his.

First Socrates wants to interrogate Agathon in his usual manner. This he does, arguing somewhat flippantly that Eros is not beautiful. Though the argument is superficially lightheartedly constructed, some have argued that this is just Plato palming the card, and that it is actually the genuine view Socrates has of Eros.

Then comes the buildup to the final climax. Socrates speaks. He actually recounts a story! In his youth he associated much with the wise courtesan Diotima, who initiated the young Socrates into the Art of Love. As Socrates tells the story, Diotima revealed to Socrates that all lusts stem from the will to eternity and immortality through creation of things, and even the begetting of children, as this is the only victory over death.

Climax and Counterpoint

Enter Alcibiades.

The thoroughly soused Alcibiades saunters in shouting and making a scene. He is wearing garlands of violets, ivy and ribbons. Enquiring if the feast will allow him to join even in his excessively drunk state, he makes deprecating humor about it.

All gladly ask him to join, though Socrates makes a witty remark about what a jealous boy he is, not wanting Socrates to sit next to any other beautiful boy.

Since Alcibiades is new to the party but has not yet participated in the challenge, they ask his proffer. But he in turn mocks Socrates, making the biting and somewhat indescreet remark that Socrates will not allow gods or men praised, unless it be Socrates himself. Intimating both in context of the party and of the dialogue itself, that Socrates did not indeed think much of gods. Even in a drinkathon this is too much for Socrates. He snaps: "Can't you hold your tongue?"

Eryximachus defuses the situation by suggesting that Alcibiades indeed praise Socrates.

Though he claims to do so, he wants to do so by simile. Oddly enough he launches into a mock-attack on Socrates, under the guise of being an unrequited lover of him. That though Socrates seeks the company of pretty boys, he never consummates a relationship with any of them. He tells how he himself tried to seduce Socrates, wrestling with him at the gym and so forth; nothing, zilch.

And then comes the climax of the whole dialogue. After a longwinded account of both their (but principally Socrates') wartime bravery; Alcibiades makes the claim that Socrates' only interest in hanging out with young and sexy prepubescent boys is so he can prevent any other elder Silenus-like goats making love to them and instead make them love all the good and virtuous things.

After a bit of light byplay, the dialogue fades away, as a huge crowd of revellers enter, and in the general hubbub, no-one is able to hold sustained and focused conversation anymore.

Conclusions

The less controversial salient point of the dialogue is the insight we get both to Socrates' wartime relationship with Alcibiades and of Diotima tutoring Socrates in the purpose of sex among other things. These are confirmed elsewhere, but here they are expressed as coming from Socrates' and Alcibiades' own mouth, whatever we might think of the reliability of Plato in reporting those speeches.

What then of the more controversial question of Socrates' sexual inclinations. The only fair judgment, even if it appears to be equivocal, is to say that the Symposium definitely does offer ammunition to both those who say that Socrates did like boys, and also to those who deny it. Eros is in the eye of the beholder.



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