Plato was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers, and our knowledge of Socrates stems mostly from Plato’s dialogues. Plato wrote his dialogues so that his students could read them out to each other and from a phrase discuss what it is about.
Plato’s thought is mostly recorded in the form of dialogues that feature Socrates as the protagonist. The symposium was written between the middle and the late period, and the figure of Socrates serves more as a mouth piece for Plato’s own views. For instance in the symposium there is a brief mention of the theory of forms, which is entirely Plato’s invention. The complex framing devices set up by Plato at the beginning of the dialogue are meant in part to suggest the fictionality of the account.
The symposium is one of the foundational documents of Western culture and arguably the most profound analysis and celebration of love in the history of philosophy. It is also the most lavishly literary of Plato’s dialogues – a genius prose performance in which the author, like playful maestro, shows off an entire repertoire of characters, ideas, contrasting viewpoints, and iridescent styles. Its main action consists of three ‘agons’ - Phaedrus vs. Pausanias; Erixymachus vs. Aristophanes; and Agathon vs. Socrates 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 abundant, 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 festives. The fact that Eryximachus sends them away suggests that this party will be more serious than normal, and philosophical discussion will take the place of erotic stimulation.
The symposium is framed by several levels of narrative distancing, Apollodorus tells to his companion, but it is actually a retelling of the story he told Glaucon. And the actual writer of the dialogue is Plato, so there must be a further level of retelling by which he himself learns the story. And in the story itself we get several different speeches. We are given the sense that truth is not something we can be given, but something that must be sifted through, something we must work to acquire.
Plato was generally sceptical about poetry, and we find expression of this mistrust in Socrates’ sarcastic remark to Agathon about his wisdom. Tragedy purports to lay wisdom upon great crowds of people directly and immediately. As the dialogue and its framing devices suggest, Plato is of a mind that wisdom is something that must be worked toward, not something that can be given easily. Socrates suggests that wisdom is not something one can gain by osmosis, simply by sitting near someone wiser that oneself. Implicit in this suggestion is the claim that tragedy does not transmit wisdom, and that only careful philosophical thinking can be a successful teacher.
We find further evidence of this claim in Socrates' delay in arriving at the party. He gets lost in thought and must stand still where he is and think until he has worked his way through a problem. This kind of inner dialectic is clearly common with Socrates, as Aristodemus is already familiar with it. We might liken Socrates' behaviour with that of the stereotypical "absent-minded professor" who cannot deal with day-to-day activities as a result of being so caught up in intellectual pursuits. Socrates does not feel compelled to abide by social norms, valuing philosophy over propriety. Both Phaedrus' speech, and the others that follow, suggest that male-male love is preferable to male-female love. The term "homosexual" is not appropriate in discussing the nature of these relationships. Homosexuality, as we understand it, is the product of a post- Freudian, industrialized world, where sexuality has...
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