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HUM 101: Plato’s Symposium

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1 HUM 101: Plato’s Symposium
Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz

2 What is a Symposium?




6 “Symposium”; from the Greek symposion; sym-posion means ‘drinking together.’ (‘Sym-’; compare ‘symphony’ or ‘sympathy’; pinein, ‘to drink.’) More colloquially: A symposium is a ‘drinking party.’




10 The Institution of the Symposium in Ancient Greece
An exclusively male group of aristocrats, served by male and female slaves. Participants sit on couches arranged in a square formation, in a special room called an andrôn. The andrôn is windowless; in a special part of the home designated as ‘male’; has wall paintings depicting symposia.



13 After a meal and ritual cleansing, a drinking ritual begins, led by the symposiarch.
Guests each give a speech or sing a song, following a strict order based on the seating arrangement, usually moving to left to right.

14 The Symposium in the Symposium.
Symposium begins with request to recount legendary symposium of many years before. Apollodorus is asked to recount story of this symposium; he wasn’t there; but he heard story from Aristodemus, who was there. The Symposium is a rumor about the master (Socrates), circulating between the students, all of whom are also ‘in love’ with the master.

15 Slaves (“flute girls”) are sent away.
Instead of ritualized drinking, each person drinks only as much he would like. A series of speeches debating nature of love [Eros]. Speakers: Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates (Diotima), and Alcibiades.

16 Framework of debate on Love [Eros] is mythic.
This means: to discuss concept of love, one must also discuss Love as a god (i.e., Eros).

17 1st key concept of love in the Symposium: Pederasty
Homosexual relation between older man and a younger man. Older man educates younger man. Older man is wise, the younger man is beautiful and innocent. Older man is active (the lover), younger man is passive (beloved). Cyclical in character; the beloved learns how to be a lover.

18 Pederasty continued… As Pausanias argues, there is a double-standard attached to pederasty: men are encouraged to pursue boys, but boys are warned to stay away from men. Boys must test their pursuers to make sure that they will hold up their end of the bargain, to make sure that the erotic relation is also an educational one.

19 Distinction between ‘good’ pederasty, which is educational and therefore ‘divine,’ and ‘bad’ pederasty,’ which is merely physical and therefore ‘common.’ Women could only be objects of common love, precisely because they are not seen as worthy of divine, educational love. (Adult women are not citizens, cannot vote.) Homosexual relations between adult men (i.e., citizens) are suspect; sexual relationships between equals are problematic. Accusations of prostitution, of trading sex for vote.

20 Aristophanes’ Theory: Love as Pursuit of Lost Wholeness
Myth: original humans who are too powerful. Each has 4 arms and legs, a rounded back, 2 heads and 2 faces. There are three genders: male, female, and androgynous (male-female). The original humans are too powerful and present a threat to the gods, so Zeus splits them in half.

21 The divided men become male homosexuals; the divided women become female homosexuals; the divided androgynes become heterosexuals. Love is desire to be reunited with missing ‘other half.’ Model of love that is eternal, rather than cyclical.

22 Love is desire to be reunited with missing ‘other half.’
Model of love that is eternal, rather than cyclical. Aristophanes refers to the Hephaestus myth that is also referred to in Book 8 of the Odyssey: the lovers actually want to be bound together in eternity (like Ares and Aphrodite in the Odyssey).

23 Socrates’ Speech/Diotima’s Speech
Instead of giving his own speech, Socrates repeats a speech he had once heard, by Diotima of Mantinea. So: Apollodorus was told of Socrates’ speech by Aristodemus, which means that this is the fourth mediation of Diotima’s speech: Diotima>>Socrates>>Aristodemus>>Apollodorus Why so much mediation?

24 The Question of Diotima
Why does Socrates need to give his speech through another figure? And one who is a woman? Figure of Diotima repeats and complicates exclusion of woman from institution of symposium. Diotima is a priestess, a figure of myth and a mythic figure. She is not only a woman, but a stranger or foreigner. She brings knowledge from outside the community.

25 Reviewing the Republic
World of forms or ideas is real; the physical, sensible world is a mere copy; art is a copy of a copy, two degrees removed from the truth. The human soul is divided between a rational part oriented towards ideas and a sensible part oriented towards feelings. The poet appeals to the senses and pulls ‘us’ away from ideas; the philosopher appeals to the intellect and pulls ‘us’ towards ideas.

26 The Twist But: Socrates uses myth and poetry too; the philosopher needs the sensible too. This could be a simple contradiction: Socrates contradicts himself… Or it could be a paradox: going beyond the sensible by way of the sensible.

27 Diotima’s speech returns explicitly to the question of the relation between the ideal and the sensible. Surprisingly, Love [Eros] is revealed to be central to solving the problem of this relation. And Diotima’s speech returns implicitly to the problem of the relation between poetry/myth and philosophy.

28 Two Questions: Is Love [Eros] a god? Is Love beautiful?
“You see, I had told her [Diotima] almost the same things Agathon told me just now: that Love is a great god and that he belongs to beautiful things.” (202A)

29 Desire and Lack “What about Love? You agreed he needs good and beautiful things, and that’s why he desires them—because he needs them.” (202d) Love is not beautiful but instead desires beautiful things. Desire is lack; we lack what we desire. Thus all of the detours and retellings of the speech: the symposium, like Socrates himself, is an object of desire….

30 Therefore: Love [Eros] is not a God.
“Then how could he be a god if he has no share in good and beautiful things?” “There’s no way he could, apparently.” “Now do you see? You don’t believe Love is a god either?” “Then, what could Love be? A mortal?” (202E)

31 Between-ness: Mediation
Love is “in between mortal and immortal.” (202d) Love is therefore a “spirit” [daimon], a messenger between gods and men, who “binds fast the all to all.” Men to gods: prayers and sacrifices; gods to men: commands and gifts. Love is a mediator.

32 Translating between the Symposium and the Republic
In the mythic language of the Symposium: Love [Eros] mediates between the transcendent world of the gods and the earthly, immanent world of humans. Or, in the more philosophical language of the Republic: Love mediates between the world of forms and the world of the senses.

33 “Gods do not mix with men” (203a): an argument against myth from within the language of myth.
Prepares the way for philosophy and for transcendence – ultimately, for a philosophical account of transcendence.

34 The (Mythic) Genealogy of Eros
Poros (“way” or “resource”) is the father of Eros; Penia (“poverty”) is the mother of Eros. The mother of Poros is Mêtis (“cunning”); Mêtis is therefore the grandmother of Eros.

35 The Rivalry Between Myth and Philosophy is a Family Rivalry
Eros is philosophical (philosophy= ‘love of wisdom’), but it is descended from Mêtis, the ultimate epic or mythic value. (Odysseus is “polymêtis,” ‘full of cunning.’)

36 Love is only ever temporarily satisfied, always loses what he has, always desires again.
This is what ties Love as Eros to the love in philosophy. Philosophy is ‘philo-sophia,’ ‘love of wisdom.’

37 Philo-sophia is ‘between wisdom and ignorance’:
the gods have no need of philosophy because they are already wise; but those who are simply ignorant and don’t that they don’t know also have no need of philosophy.

38 Philosophy has no need of the gods.
Philosophy is tied to human lack or finitude. But there is no guarantee that humans will begin thinking; it is possible to remain ignorant; it is possible not to have philosophical desire.

39 The Socratic Attitude vs. The Platonic Attitude
We might think of this idea of philosophy (‘love of wisdom’) as ‘between wisdom and ignorance’ as the ‘Socratic attitude.’ Thus Socrates’ famous saying: “I know that I don’t know.” We might contrast this to the ‘Platonic attitude,’ which offers a rigid set of answers – as in, for instance, the theory of forms.

40 Another Twist The twist is that Plato and Socrates cannot actually be separated from one another and there are both ‘Platonic’ and ‘Socratic’ moments in each of the dialogues.

41 Love and Immortality The purpose of love is “giving birth in beauty” (206c). “All of us are pregnant, Socrates, both in body and soul.” (206c) Three forms of human immortality: biological reproduction; epic heroism/fame; grasping the Truth or the Idea (philosophy).

42 The Ladder of Forms “The final and highest mystery” (210a).
A story of progressive abstraction. First step: Love of one beautiful body>>begetting of beautiful ideas there. (210b) Second step: Lover of all beautiful bodies; concept of physical beauty emerges.

43 The Ladder of Forms Third step: once one realizes that physical beauty is a concept, it becomes possible to see that “the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies.” (210c) Fourth step: once there is an awareness of the soul, then one can see the beauty in that which shapes and cares for souls – laws and customs. (210d)

44 The Ladder of Forms Fifth step: from practical education of souls to abstract ideas and theories, love of wisdom (i.e., philosophy). Sixth step: “the beautiful itself,” the pure idea, pure being. (211B)

45 “The Beautiful itself”
“…it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes.” “Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body.” “It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself.”

46 “The Beautiful itself”
In other words: pure transcendence. How can we see that which is purely transcendent and therefore beyond all relation (“itself by itself with itself”)? Mystical experience? Vision without object?

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