The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry in Symposium

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In a close reading of Symposium, we as readers get to browse through an eclectic mix of brilliant and unique minds belonging to poets, philosophers, lovers, play writes, comedians and even war heroes. Each character takes their turn in describing their own ideal of love in this casual setting and the speeches with which we are presented are clearly melded by the life, profession and personality of these speakers. Plato’s success in giving each speech its own character and personality is quite remarkable, and has a considerable effect on how we as readers paint our own mental pictures of each member of the party. While it may seem as though these differing speeches have been placed next to one another in an arbitrary manner, one might find in a closer reading that Plato has a reason for doing this. Plato purposefully has Agathon’s speech prelude Socrates’ speech in order to juxtapose the sturdiness of logical argument with the unreliability and capriciousness of demagoguery.

Symposium was used by Plato to give his students a sense of the different structures and techniques that speeches can exhibit. WWWWWWWWdfdhile each character is trying to adhere to the constitution of a eulogy (except for Socrates, who abandons this method when it is his turn to give a speech) we find that with every narrative, we are presented with a new speech-giving technique; Phaedrus begins his speech with a discussion of Love’s origins and ends it with a retelling of Love’s presence in the lives of historical figures, while Pausanias puts use to categorization—he splits love into two groups: Common Love and Celestial Love—to give his listeners a sort of clear-cut definition of love’s duality. In Eryximachus’ speech, we see for the first time a speaker who relates the nature of Love to some aspects of his own profession, which occurs again in Agathon’s speech.

However, when it is Agathon’s turn to speak, he begins by stating that “all the previous speakers weren’t really praising the god; they were congratulating the human race on how much they thrive on goods the god contrives…” (194e-195b) which acts as an indicator of the type of florid, overly praise-giving narration that he is about to give. When reading Agathon’s speech from a logical perspective—that is, keeping an eye out for the way that he supports his arguments and seeing whether there is substance to the strong statements he is making about Love—we find that much of his speech consists of beautifully polished phrases with little or no genuine reason or logic behind them. He makes little effort to build off of the image of Love that the previous speakers have created. In fact he turns Phaedrus’ image of Love as an “ancient and venerated god…” (180b-180c) upon its head and creates a new icon of the God as young and attractive. This disregard for the concluded statements of previous speakers show us that Agathon’s concept of “proof” in an argument is one that doesn’t need to be reached by working off of a foundation of axioms and the words of others.

Furthermore, in explaining the characteristics of Love, Agathon seems to make arguments that do not hold up beyond the exterior aesthetic of his rhetoric. His “proof” of Love’s ability to inspire creativity is based on a generalized statement rather than a solid, and universally accepted truth: “[Love] has only to touch a person and, ‘however coarse he was before’ he becomes a poet.” (195b-195c). By referring to his own art-form, somewhat like Eryximachus does in his speech, Agathon is attempting to add substance to his argument. Ironically, however, the fact that his “proof” is based on so abstract a concept as poetry rebounds and emphasizes the demagoguery he is using to create his speech. In a sense, Agathon is building his ideas off of his first-hand experiences as a poet and as a creative human being.

This is one of the many moments in which Agathon’s career as a dramatist obviously influences the way he creates...
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