The Symposium – Plato

Why I.m Reading Plato.s Symposium

It.s part of the research for the last chapter of the book I.m writing, Paying Melpomene’s Price. Have you ever noticed that the genres are like wolves–or other predatory animals–out in the wild? I mean, very territorial, quite aware of where everyone is, and like to squabble if they get near one another. That was one of the things from Kingsolver.s Prodigal Summer that stuck with me. A very enjoyable read even if the characters I most associated with were constantly getting the better had of them by the characters I least associated with. But back to The Symposium by Plato. This should be a good read because it.s written by a philosopher and it stars not only a tragedian (Agathon), a comedian (Aristophanes), a philosopher (Socrates), and Alcibiades (a type of person that you find in histories). And of course, its all written by Plato, who bans citizens from performing comedy in the Laws (too degrading) and bans tragedy outright in The Republic (too easily overwhelms reason). So I.m reading Plato.s Symposium in the hopes of seeing something of a quarrel between philosophy, history, comedy, and tragedy (or between Socrates/Plato, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, and Agathon).

What is a Symposium?

It.s a drinking party. But this one is of course special. First, the guests are hung over from the day before (a holiday on which the host, Agathon, had one first prize for his tragedy at the City Dionysia). So less drinking. Boo. They also send away the flute-girl. Boo. But they decide that each of diners should compose a paean in honour of Love. Yay! They go around the couches left to right composing a speech to praise and define Love. We get to hear stories of how Socrates is schooled by Diotima. Yay! It.s refreshing to see Socrates schooled once in awhile, and by a woman philosopher! The comic poet Aristophanes comes up with a crazy creation myth explaining attraction. Yay! In the old day, humans had four arms, four legs, and two outward turned faces. There were three sexes: man-man, man-woman, and woman-woman. They were exceedingly powerful and their means of locomotion was by cartwheeling around on all eight of their limbs. Because Zeus was worried they would attack the gods, he cut them in half. Though cut in half, we are always seeking our other half. What a creative theory! If all philosophy were as colourful as this, I would certainly read more!

The Quarrel

There.s no smoking gun in The Symposium where philosophy ‘puts down’ the other genres. I mean, it.s not like Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy where tragedy is definitely getting the short end of the straw. Sure Aristophanes has the hiccups and Alcibiades is rather dissolute. But hey, it.s a drinking party. Socrates comes off better than the others, but it.s no slam dunk. So I.ll keep looking elsewhere for examples of the quarrel between philosophy, history, comedy, and tragedy. Assiduous readers with ideas are encouraged to help out!

But All is Not a Loss

Something came to mind while reading The Symposium that really should have occurred to me a long time ago. You know Plato.s criticism of art in Book X of The Republic, right? There he says there are three crafts for each thing that is used: the one that uses it, the one that makes it, and the one that imitates it. Take a flute. Somewhere out there is the perfect flute: the ‘blueprint’ of all flutes. But it.s like the perfect circle: you can.t attain it. But the flute player, being an expert in flutes, has an inkling of how the flute should work. He is closest to the perfect flute. He instructs the flute-maker, who, in turn, is an expert on flutes from his craft but not quite as expert as the flute player (since he doesn.t play). But if an artist were to paint an ‘imitation’ of a flute, it is a copy of a copy of a copy of the ideal flute. So that.s why Plato doesn.t like the arts: mimetic and imperfect copies.

Now go back to The Symposium. According to the characters, how the events got recorded is this: Aristodemos was present at the symposium in March 416 BC. He tells the story to Apollodorus, who in turn tells it to an unnamed friend fifteen years after the party. So the story that we get in The Symposium is a copy of a copy of a copy, thrice removed from the ‘actual’ event! And then parts of the dialogue are also recollections of other dialogues. For example, Diotima isn.t actually present. Socrates is recollecting things that she said. So The Symposium is really a prime example of the things which Plato doesn.t like about the arts!

Is this Plato.s humour speaking out? If he.s so concerned about the fraudulence of dramatic or painted arts because mimetic, then what about his own dialogues such as The Symposium, which is also purposefully mimetic, a he said that Bob said that Joe said that 15 years ago Diotima said… Why should I trust this ‘mimetic’ account if the author says elsewhere that copies are to be avoided at all costs?

I.m surprised that the question never occurred to me before. But this is a question for those doing Urania.s work (the Muse of philosophy). And, until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and while I like to consider Urania.s work, I am Doing Melpomene’s Work first and foremost.