Symposion this is an
uncensured account of the
generally endorsing view in ancient Greek culture on
anyone quoting Symposion without duely mentioning its author
risks a substantial jail term in contemporary western countries
Why I read Symposion.
I received Plato's Symposion as a birthday present from my sister. She asked me to report on the contents, because she had, she said, no time for nonsense, and she knew I had. That was certainly not made up, because if she, mother of three, two of whom boys whose "turn" would about be coming in Athens, had read it, she would quickly have thrown the booklet in her fireplace.
Plato and Socrates
Symposion is written by Plato. It is about Socrates. Plato was a big fan of Socrates. He followed him everywhere, and interviewed witnesses of events involving Socrates that he had not attended himself. Plato loved writing down what Socrates had said.
Socrates hated writing. He never did it. His main hobbies were fighting, fucking young boys, drinking and arguing, making fools of the very stupid and enemies of the somewhat less stupid.
Needless to say: Socrates, like Plato, was a member of the fan club of Socrates.
The general idea in the West is that Socrates was a philosopher. That is a grave misunderstanding.
Socrates was a well trained soldier, of the kind able to kill a man without making any sound. He was also a horny boozer, and celebrated in the Athens party circuit, even though usually out of money.
That should suffice to make clear that he was absolutely not a philosopher. In his party- and market pastime discussions he would show philosophers all corners, but that was not because he was one himself. A man like Socrates does not need that. He just knew how they thought, just as he knew how generals, playwrights and business men thought. That does not mean you are one. Socrates was nothing. He could have been everything. He studied everything (not by means of books but by asking everybody), but he never decided to be something himself, certainly not a philosopher.
Plato's Symposion is about a party not witnessed by Plato himself. The story starts at dusk, two and a half millennia ago in Athens. The theatre festival has just been closed. Young Agathon won. His opponents accuse Agathon of having wobbled a lot with his very beautiful back side in the course of the jury deliberations.
Aristodemus, on his way home, encounters Socrates and is very surprised about his appearance. Very unusual for Socrates: a completely clean white tunic, no dirty spots at all, neat sandals. He is washed.
Aristodemus: "Hey, Socrates, what's with you, are you ill?"
"Ehh, no, but I have been invited to Agathon's party".
"Are you in love?"
"Who is not? But come with me, I'll introduce you, we shall just say that if a good man gives a party, the other good men will spontaneously show up".
On their way they conclude that if two uninvited guests (Socrates turns out not to have
been invited) approach the party house, they had better find their reason for coming not
for themselves, but for each other. First of all, the shame is less, and once setting out
to defend each other at the door of the hosts house, the whole thing somehow seems nobler.
But tacitly, Socrates is even smarter: when they are about to arrive, he says to Aristodemus: "Just go ahead, I still have to do a little thing".
"Hello Aristodemos, I've looked for you everywhere but I could not find you".
Agathon prevents embarrassment for Aristodemus, the naive victim of Socrates' intrigue.
Uneasily, Aristodemos looks around for Socrates and explains that Socrates still had to do "a little thing".
A servant is sent for Socrates and returns with the information that Socrates is standing in the porch of the neighbours. Agathon wants to have him taken in, but now Aristodemos starts to understand Socrates' trick and takes revenge: "Just let him. This is his habit. Sometimes he suddenly retires and poses himself somewhere. He will come. Do not disturb him. Just let him there."
So now we find Socrates as a washed monkey in is white tunic in the porch of the neighbours and he can wait until he weighs an ounce. Inside everybody, except Aristodemus, thinks he stands there enjoying himself with philosophy. Inside the sandals are taken off, hands and feet are washed, steaming dishes go round and all men enjoy the exciting sight of young Agathon with his long lashes, blinking only just a little bit too often, for whom they all claim to have bribed the jury. Socrates, notorious for his poverty, could never have claimed that, so his absence is, for this moment, a blessing in disguise.
"Let's not get dead drunk tonight", Pausanias proposes, "I still have a
Aristophanes: "Yes, yesterday I went on a spree".
Aristophanes is quite plausible as a guest on this party, being playwright and Athenian. But what is Pausanias, Spartan, son of king Cleombrotos I and a nephew of king Leonidas himself, doing there? It is true that Pausanias, as a general, fought in alliance with the Athenians, and may be he had booked a trip to the Athenian theatre festival during a dull season on the battlefield. Plato cannot have made this up, because Pausanias' contribution in the discussion to come is not worth it for a second. Anyway, we will meet some more surprises that do not add to the balance of Symposion, and reinforce the conclusion that Plato goes for a realistic reconstruction.
There is one more thing the innocent reader should know: "Not getting drunk",
is a trick. "Getting drunk" means hoping the others will go down and you will be
the last to stay up and fuck the host. Everybody constantly claims to be "dead
drunk". There are a lot of techniques to ground the competition: the drinking leader
constantly orders large cups of wine to be served to the guests, but is in good contact
with the slaves to determine everybody's degree of dilution. As a guest, a good relation
with the host is therefore quite helpful. If you do not have it you can, of course, go for
a puke in the toilet, but it requires wit to do so unseen and unpunished. People are
celebrated for their drinking capacity, but this is mainly the capacity to secure
good dilution and unseen toilet visits.
Why is "not getting drunk" a trick? It means there is a stalemate in the competition for Agathon's little arsehole and the competing Greek gentry is not ready to go for a real row about it. Host, laureate and "theatre-genius" Agathon's eyelids enjoy the situation. And now he saves wine too!
Since everybody knows that everybody has come to court Agathon, the low alcoholic stalemate between all these well trained killers (every free Athenian citizen is soldier and does his daily training in the gymnasium) is of an erotic nature. How to deal with the problem?
Erymachos, a doctor, after a short lecture -though with bags under his eyes- about the
health risks of drinking, comes up with an old idea of one of the other guests, Faidros.
In poems of praise to the gods, Eros is extremely under-exposed. There isn't one! Such a
great god so shamefully neglected! Let us do something about that tonight.
Socrates, having heard the sound of guests reaching the bottoms of the dishes, had decided to back down and had announced himself. They had just giving him a plate and with a full mouth he shouts: "This is a happy choice you make, the only subject I can claim some expertise in, I participate!". Uncomfortable, he pulls a little at his white ironed tunic to give some space to his agile private parts.
Eryximachos plays the ball to Faidros: he proposes him as the moderator. Nobody explains why.
Love, Faidros holds, stimulates integrity, for nothing is worse than to have to be
ashamed before your lover. Love is democratic: it moulds a tie between people that is
dangerous to dictators because it is hard to destroy or interfere with.
He gives the floor to Pausanias, the Spartan. Being an alien, Pausanias keeps the safe side and words what he thinks is the general idea of love in Athens: there is lower love, where money, status and beauty count and where the relations are only temporary. And there is higher love, springing from the need of a lover to educate his loved one. The lover "wants" the loved one "allows".
Everybody nods, Pausanias understood things well. But there is a lot of winking between them, not seen by Pausanias.
Before we continue a note to the modern westerner, who is likely to miss the main point: the subject of the discussion is love. Nobody on this company thinks for a moment that love has to do something with women. To them, women are for procreation and raising children and hardly ever leave the house. Love refers to the sexual relation of mature adult males with young boys (aged 12 to 17).
Then, it is Aristophanes' turn, but, due to Pausanias' serious words, he hiccoughs and has to give the floor to Eryximachos first. Eryximachos makes a speech of a complexity fitting to his status and a duration proper to what should be expected from him as a guest.
Aristophanes goes for a second attempt: in earlier days, he claims, there was a third sex, man-wives. He expands on the theme wishing first of all to be funny, refraining from any attempt to stimulate thought. And, in this company, the only thing you can do then is to hope for forgiveness. The fact that Aristophanes, indeed, if you come to think about it sometimes, not always, knew how to write plays, and of those hiccups confirm his story of him having gone on a spree the day before. He will have realized that he could not make this as "the" Aristophanes of, for instance Plutus. Plato's report on this party having been preserved for civilisation, Aristophanes must be glad indeed that his plays got preserved also, in order to set the record straight. But finally, it could be that Plato deals with Aristophanes here in Symposium in a particularly unflattering way because of a possible anger at the side of Plato for the unflattering satire of Socrates in Aristophanes' play Clouds.
Then Agathon is asked to take his turn.
Socrates starts to pester him and distract his attention by defying him with waggish understatements.
"Shut up!" Faidros shouts.
And Socrates...shuts up. We are left with the question who is this damned Faidros.
Agathon: Eros is tender and delicate but, since even Ares, the god of war, falls in love, he has even power over Ares.
When Agathon speaks, the men-soldiers around him have, just one moment, no attention for each other. There they sit all watching one way. One cannot escape from the impression that they all think: we shall see.
Socrates is called to make his ode to Eros,
but, is as usual, reluctant to stick to the rules. He starts praising Agathon for his ode,
though of course like everybody except Agathon he did not think much of it.
Then he asks Faidros (he asks Faidros!) to allow him an interview with Agathon.
The interview goes along lines everybody knows from Socrates: he quickly crosses a mine field of terrible mistakes of logic, asking for consent at every step, which he always gets, thus quickly reaching one of his hobbyhorses, this time that Eros hunts for what he does not have. The more you think of what Eros hunts for, the less you think of Eros himself. To make the most out of Eros as he is, you should let him hunt something worthless, or not letting him hunt at all, but this is obviously taking the shine off him too. So we should end up somewhere in between. Eros is a demigod, a kind of interface between man and the gods.
A women called Diotima, Socrates says, told him this.
Socrates listening to someone else? How did this Diotima lure Socrates into listening patiently without immediately interfering in what is being said and destroying it?
"Diotima" continues: the way to abstract and absolute beauty goes over, first, one body, then more bodies (promiscuity and group sex), then the behaviour of one person, then behaviours of more people, then knowledge, and the last straight part is far and difficult, so that will be for another time, Diotima had said, probably understanding this was already more than what Socrates strictly needed to pester the Athenians with, so as far as we know this was the last time he seriously listened to anybody.
Meanwhile, Agathon's party guests lapsed into yawning a little, everybody knows Socrates already for a long time. But fortunately something brings new life to the feast. A sound of breaking glass and stone becomes louder, in the end suggesting Agathon's house is about to collapse. Enter a delegation supporting physically its leader, the Athenian general Alkibiades. Dead drunk, and, as Plato writes: "...wearing a kind of dense crown of ivy and violets...". Plato's description, full of surprise as it is, has convinced historical authorities that this was, even at the time, no customary head-gear for generals.
Encyclopaedia Britannica depicts Alkibiades as an amoral, merciless, brilliant drunkard, balancing between Athens and Sparta. At the end of his life he was spitted out by everyone and murdered by his hosts in Asia Minor in the framework of a shady agreement. In the Socrates trial, resulting in the sentence that Socrates had either to go into exile or drink a cup of poison, Alkibiades was used as an illustration of how Socrates had spoiled the Athenian youth. [more about Alkibiades in Thucydides' History of the Poloponnesian War]
At the time when young Alkibiades, at the party's point in time the meanest, hence the best, Athenian general ever, started to look attractive as a young boy, Socrates had once put him against a pillar with his tunic lifted. Alkibiades of course knew that one of the Athenian gentlemen would some time do something like that, but he did not expect it to happen so quickly and brutally. With his bruised little arsehole he stumbled home and told his parents nothing about it. But not much later, the engagement was announced. That did not happen really unexpectedly, because meanwhile Socrates had taken Alkibiades, as an army-freshmen into and subsequently out of an absolutely irresponsible situation on the battlefield, after which Alkibiades received, upon advocacy of the "philosopher", a medal for "saving Socrates".
Remember all this while reading Plato's story of this horny fighter Alkibiades, on the record for being a general in the top ten of the history of all mankind, model for a character in a Shakespeare play, with a sizeable entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, who headed for Agathon's party, "...wearing a kind of dense crown of ivy and violets...", in the middle of the night, dead drunk, at least acting as if he was dead drunk. Remember this and fancy the looks between him and his former lover Socrates...
At the moment Alkibiades entered, Socrates
had already conquered a place next to Agathon. Alkibiades, supported by servants,
approaches Agathon to kiss him tenderly and give him his beautiful head-gear. Out of
politeness, Socrates moves up a little, upon which Alkibiades immediately drops himself on
what barely could be considered as an open place between Agathon and Socrates. Now his
first attention is to Socrates. Would-be surprised he turns to him and and says: "Is
that Socrates? Are you again lurking at me, as you always appear where I do not expect you?
Now why did you come this time and why did you lay down here and not next to Aristophanes
or someone else who is or tries to be funny? How did you succeed in getting so close to
the most beautiful in the company?"
Socrates calls for the help of Agathon, but Alkibiades knows how to deal with that too: he takes -left- some tendrils from the crown he put on Agathon's head, and hangs them -right- over Socrates' bold head.
Then Alkibiades starts: "You can clearly see that Socrates has a passion for young boys and is always in their vicinity, nervous, understanding nothing, knowing nothing, as he pretends...that is what he covers himself with...but inside, if he opens, with how much self-control do you, sitting and drinking here with me, think he is endowed? You should know: he is not interested at all whether someone is beautiful or not, he looks down on such considerations more than you could ever hold possible"...[Socrates hides his face, for a moment, behind his two litre drinking cup]..."nor is he interested whether someone is in possession of wealth or the kind status that the masses look up to. His opinion is that such possessions have no value and that we are nothing, I tell you. All his life he acts like a fool and plays with people. But when he is serious and he opens - I do not know whether someone here has ever seen what is inside, but I saw the images once and I found them so divine and precious, so magnificent and miraculous that I find simply everything Socrates tells us should be done". [The guests burst in laughter, Aristophanes lapses back into his hiccups].
Now, Alkibiades deems it time for some stories about his first engagement with Socrates as a young adolescent: "I seriously thought he was interested in my youthful beauty and considered it to be a godsend and unbelievable luck, because it gave me the idea that by satisfying his wishes, I could learn everything he knew. At that time I had a high opinion about my own attractiveness. Until the moment I got that idea I was not accustomed to be with him unaccompanied, but then I decided to send my company off to be alone with him. Yes, I should tell you the complete truth. Just listen carefully, and if I lie, Socrates, then correct me." [laughter, Socrates starts looking uneasy].
By means of this introduction Alkibiades has passed Socrates decisively in the circle of guests, lying between Socrates and Agathon. He now faces the choice to raise his own star, or make Socrates fade. He opts for the latter. How does a general in the all history top ten do that? Agathon listens in excitement and keeps, over Alkibiades, a sharp eye on Socrates' reactions.
"So" Alkibiades continues,
"I was with him, gentlemen, and we were alone. I thought he would at once start to
say the things to me a lover is used to say to his loved one when nobody is there, and I
looked forward to it. But nothing happened. He talked with me just as always and after
having spent the day with me he went off. Later, I proposed him to train together in the
gymnasium, and we did. I thought to make advances that way. He trained and wrestled often
with me without others attending. What can I say? I did not make any progress.
After I failed in these ways I decided for a firm approach and not to give up what I had started. I had to know what was the matter. So I proposed him to have dinner with me, like a lover who wants to reach his goal. This he also did not quickly accept, but after some time he let himself be won over. After having visited me for the first time, he wanted to leave after dinner and out of shame I let him go. But in another attack I kept the conversation going after the meal was finished, deeper and deeper in the night, and when he wanted to go, I forced him to stay under the pretext of the late hour. So he lay down on the bed next to me, the same on which he had eaten."
Now Alkibiades raises the tension by announcing that he is on the verge of making a very heavy confession, meant only for this intimate group of friends (as if he, not Agathon, had chosen them for the party...). The slaves can stay (they eagerly do) but should "bolt their ears" (as if he even believed there were servants in Athens who did that).
"After, then, gentlemen",
Alkibiades continues, "the lights had gone out and the slaves were gone, I judged I
should not anymore beat about the bush, but straightforwardly say what I thought. I
touched him and said
'Socrates, are you asleep?'
'Not at all', he said.
'Do you know what I thought?'
'What?' he asked.
'I believe', I said, 'that you have been the only lover worth me, and it is my impression that you hesitate to start about it to me. My position is this: I think it would be very unwise not to please you in this also, as with everything you may need from my possessions or that of my friends. For nothing is more important for me than to develop myself as well as possible and in that certainly nobody is more able to help me than you. If I would not be willing to please somebody like that, this would make me feel ashamed facing prudent people than facing the stupid mass if I did.'
When he heard that he said, very ironical and completely as he always is: 'My dear Alkibiades, it seems that you are really not stupid, if it is really true what you think of me and there is a certain capacity in me by means of which even you could improve yourself. You must see an unimaginable beauty in me that surpasses your own by far. If you see this and try to share it with me and exchange beauty for beauty, than it is not a small advantage you try to make on me. In exchange for the appearance you try to obtain the real beauty. In fact, you want to exchange copper for gold. No, dear friend, may be I am nothing and may be you fail to recognise that. Be sure, reason starts to see sharply only when the eyes are on the verge of loosing their power. And you are far from that.'
Mmmm, things are starting, the reader might have thought in Alkibiades' place. But not so Alkibiades, albeit in this fake story he is amusing Agathon's party goers with. Note also that Socrates, urged to intervene if falsities might creep in the story, realising that everybody now understands this is a complete mockery, has no defence against this in his repertoire and is silent.
Alkibiades continues: "I said:
'Anyway, as far as I am concerned, this is my position. I have now said what I think about it.'
'Well', Socrates answered, 'You were right. In the time to come we shall think about it and do what to us both, in this and other cases, seems best.'
When I heard this after what I had said, and had shot, so to say, my arrows, I thought he was wounded. I stood up, and without giving him another chance to say something, I put my cloak over him, it was winter, lay down under his worn out coat, put my arms around that truly demonic and miraculous man and thus I lay the whole night.
And also this, Socrates, you cannot claim to be a lie. After I had acted like that, this man showed himself so superior: he looked down on my beauty, laughed about it and insulted me exactly at the point where I thought to be something, honourable gentlemen, yes, because you are the judges of Socrates arrogance. You should know, I swear by the gods and goddesses, I slept and woke up with Socrates as if I had slept with my father or an older brother....' ".
This, the reader may think, must have sufficed to burn Socrates to the ground, and at least to put him definitively out of Agathon's grace. But for Alkibiades this was only part one of his small battle. Part two consisted, surprisingly, of praising Socrates, praising him, to be precise, about the way in which he withdrew in flight for the Thebans after the battle at Delion (Boiotia, 424 BC): "I was horseman that time and he was among the heavily armed. He withdrew when the ranks of the army were already broken, together with Laches [who later became a general, famous in Greece but despised by Alkibiades]. By accident, I came in their vicinity and incited them not to loose courage. I told them I would not let them alone. There I saw how far Socrates is superior to Laches in cool-headedness. And moreover, he made the impression on me, as you have expressed it, Aristophanes, to run around there just as he does here, with his nose in the wind and looking from the edges of his eyes [Aristophanes, Clouds], calmly observing friend and foe, in such a way that everyone can see from far he would defend himself forcefully if attacked. That is why he could escape safely, because usually people who behave like that are not even attacked, one attacks those who fly head over heels.
This devastating image of Socrates as a master in flying finishes him off.
Appendix: Was Xenophon fucked by Socrates?
Xenophon writes that Socrates, albeit with some reservations, agreed to his decision to join Proxenos in the Greek mercenary army paid by Cyros to participate in the debacle at Babylon against his brother, the Persian king Artaxerxes. John Dillery, in the last Loeb Classical library translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, contemplates about the nature of this friendship (Loeb Anabasis, p. 5-6). The report by Xenophon about the consultation and the advice of Socrates testifies, according to Dillery of a : "close relationship between Xenophon and Socrates. Xenophon has no reservation about taking his problems to the philosopher; Socrates, for his part, is concerned that the young man will excite hostility at home. Socrates' scolding of Xenophon for not asking the primary question -should I go on the expedition- suggests almost a father/son relationship. Although Xenophon implies here and elsewhere a close bond between himself and Socrates, it is widely believed that while he was more than just an acquaintance of Socrates, they were not intimate".
One could easily hear the all destroying laughter arising from the mighty drunken throat of Alkibiades, wearing his botanical head-gear, a pounding blow on Dilleries small shoulders and a spontaneous invitation to join him to Agathon's party to tell this amazing story, because it would fit in well. "John, lizzen!!, it is widely believed, do not forget that when we come to it: it is widely believed, do not forget it!"
And the phrase "do not forget it" is, that is widely believed, accompanied with a quick gesture of Alkibiades with a flat hand along his throat, between the tendrils of his beautiful crown. A scary night for Dilleries, it is widely believed.