Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception

  Lesher, James, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield, eds. 2007. Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 22. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

6. A Study in Violets: Alcibiades in the Symposium

C. D. C. Reeve [1]

Alcibiades insists at the outset that he will tell the truth and invites Socrates to see that he does: “if I say anything untrue, interrupt me right in the middle, if you wish, and say that I said it falsely; for I won’t willingly say anything false” (214e10–215a2). At the same time, he admits that it isn’t easy for someone as drunk as he is to present things “fluently and in the correct order (euporôs kai ephexês)” (215a3–4). Given the importance had by euporia, {124|125} its opposite aporia, and the idea of correct order in the preceding sections of the Symposium, we are duly warned to interpret Alcibiades’ speech with care. I shall focus, first, on something within the speech itself, namely, the use of the term agalmata (singular, agalma), and, then, on two other terms related to correct order and its disruption, which are used to contextualize it—epi dexia (‘from left to right’) and exaiphnês (‘all of a sudden’). Euporia and aporia are discussed at various points throughout.

In the second passage, matters are unclear for a different reason:

Symposium 216d4–217a6

We expect Alcibiades to abandon the simile at this point and tell us what it was he actually saw inside Socrates. Instead he perplexingly continues to speak in figural terms: what he saw were agalmata. Since these cannot literally be statues, we are left wondering what they could be. If the sileneuses were moulds, things would be a bit clearer. The agalmata would at least be like statues, since they would be likenesses of Socrates himself as some sort of model or paradigm of temperance. It is a pleasing idea, even if not one on which we can place a great deal of weight—especially once we turn to the third passage.

Confirming the suspicion aroused by the phrase “teems with temperance,” it tells us that the agalmata inside Socrates are agalmata of virtue, and that they are also inside his arguments:

But the sort of man this is and his strangeness, both himself and his arguments, one couldn’t come close to finding if one looked, neither among people present nor past, except perhaps if one were to compare him to those I mention—not any man, but silenuses and satyrs, him and his arguments. Actually, I left this out at first, that even his arguments are like silenuses that have been opened. For if one is willing to listen to Socrates’ arguments, they’d appear quite ridiculous at first; they’re wrapped around on the outside with words and phrases like the hide of an outrageous satyr. He talks about pack asses and smiths and cobblers and tanners … but if the arguments are opened and one sees them from the inside, he will find first that they are the only arguments with any sense in them, and next that they’re the most god-like and contain the most agalmata of virtue, and that they are relevant to most or rather to all things worth considering for one who intends to be noble and good.

Symposium 221e1–222a6 {126|127}

Now we are well and truly at sea, since an argument could not literally contain a statue—or a likeness of Socrates either, for that matter.

In the seduction scene, agalmata are again present, this time implicit in the response Socrates makes to Alcibiades’ sexual overtures:

My dear Alcibiades, you are really not to be taken lightly, if indeed what you say about me happens to be true, and there is in me some power through which you might become better; you would then see inconceivable beauty in me, even surpassing your own immense comeliness of form. But if, seeing it, you are trying to strike a bargain with me to exchange beauty for beauty, then you intend to take no slight advantage of me: on the contrary, you are trying to get possession of what is truly beautiful instead of what merely seems so, and really, you intend to trade bronze for gold.

Symposium 218d7–219a1

The repeated “in me,” the equivalence of “inconceivable beauty” and “marvelously beautiful,” the use of “gold(en)” all serve to make plain that what Alcibiades expects to receive in return for his bronze body are our agalmata. Socrates, however, shows no inclination to endorse the claim that these exist: a cautious “if indeed what you say about me happens to be true” is as far as he will go.

Alcibiades’ use of the verb “teems” (gemein) at 216d7 is both consonant with this picture and helps fill it out. For though gemein usually just means “to be filled with,” which is its most common meaning in Plato, LSJ lists kuein (“to be pregnant”) as one of its synonyms. That, no doubt, is why “teems” seemed to R. E. Allen (1991) to be a particularly apposite translation. If Socrates is being imagined as pregnant with agalmata of virtue, however, the latter are themselves being imagined as embryo-like entities. But embryos, it goes without saying, are genuinely like figurative statues, making agalmata an appropriate term for Alcibiades to apply to them.

Moreover, she develops her account of the type of psychic pregnancy involved in philosophical paiderastia or boy-love precisely by analogy with such males: {128|129}

Some men are pregnant in respect to their bodies, and turn more to women and are lovers in that way… Others are pregnant in respect to their soul—for there are those, she said, who are still more fertile in their souls than in their bodies with what it pertains to soul to conceive and bear. What then so pertains? Wisdom and the rest of virtue—of which, indeed, all the poets are procreators, and as many craftsmen as are said to be inventors. But the greatest and most beautiful kind of wisdom by far is that concerned with the correct ordering of cities and households, for which the name is temperance and justice. Whenever, then, one of them is pregnant of soul from youth, being divine, and reaches the age when he then desires to bear and procreate, he too, then, I think, goes about seeking the beauty in which he might beget; for he will never beget in the ugly. Now, because he is fertile, he welcomes beautiful rather than ugly bodies, and should he meet with a beautiful and naturally gifted soul, he welcomes the conjunction of the two even more, and to this person he is straightway resourceful in making arguments about virtue and trying to educate him.

Symposium 208e2–209c1

A man pregnant in respect to his soul, then, is pregnant with embryo-like virtues. What he produces when he meets a beautiful boy are arguments about virtue. And it is these that “make young men better” (210c1–3; cf. 218e1–2). In this respect, too, Alcibiades’ portrait unwittingly mimics Diotima’s—unwittingly, because he has not heard her speak. For when, as an out-of-order afterthought (“Actually, I left this out at first,” 221d8), he also locates the agalmata inside Socrates’ arguments, he seems to be referring back to an earlier thought in which philosophical discussion not sexual intercourse is the mode of their transmission: “I’d been bitten by something more painful, and in the most painful place one can be bitten—in the heart or soul or whatever one should name it, struck and bitten by arguments in philosophy that hold more fiercely than a serpent, when they take hold of a young and not ill-endowed soul” (218a3–7).

In the critique of writing at the end of the Phaedrus, Socrates himself explicitly invokes very similar ideas. [8] A written argument, he says, like the “offspring of painting,” stands there “as if alive.” Yet it cannot answer questions or attune itself to the needs of different audiences, and “when it is ill-treated and unjustly abused, it always needs its father to help it; for it is {129|130} incapable of defending or helping itself” (275d4–e5). Its “legitimate brother,” however, which is “the living and animate argument of the man who knows, of which a written argument would rightly be called a kind of phantom” is “much better and more capable” in all these departments (276a1–9). Then comes a telling contrast:

The sensible farmer who had some seeds he cared about and wanted to bear fruit—would he sow them in earnest (spoudêi) during the summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in watching it become beautiful within eight days, or would he do that for playful purposes (paidias) on a feast-day, when he did it at all; whereas for the purposes about which he was in earnest (espoudaken), he would make use of the craft of farming and sow them in appropriate soil, being content if what he sowed reached maturity in the eighth month?

Next, based on the contrast, comes an equally telling analogy. The man who has “[seeds] of knowledge about what is just, and what is beautiful, and what is good” will have “no less sensible an attitude toward his seeds than the farmer” (276c3–5). Thus, when others “resort to other sorts of playful amusements (paidiais), watering themselves with symposia,” he will amuse himself (paidias, 276d2) by writing “stories about justice and the other virtues,” so as to “lay up a store of reminders both for himself, when ‘he reaches a forgetful old age’, and for anyone who is following the same track, and he will be pleased as he watches their tender growth” (276d1–e3). But when “he is in earnest (spoudê) about them,” he instead, “makes use of the craft of dialectic, and taking a fitting soul plants and sows in it arguments accompanied by knowledge (met’ epistêmês logous), which are able to help themselves and the man who planted them, and are not without fruit but contain a seed, from which others grow in other soils, capable of rendering it forever immortal, and making the one who has it as happy as it is possible for a man to be” (276e5–277a4). [
10] Living arguments (logoi) are now explicitly likened to seeds (spermata)—something on which the Stoics, with their spermatikoi logoi (seminal principles) will capitalize. [11] {130|131}

Though Alcibiades is not mentioned by name in this section of the Phaedrus, he is, I think, lurking in the shadows of Adonis’ garden. [12] As part of the Adônia, the feast celebrating the love-affair of Aphrodite and Adonis, and mourning the early death of the latter, women in fifth-century Athens, “sowed seed at midsummer in broken pots and placed these on the rooftops, so that germination was rapidly followed by withering” (OCD ed. 3:12). These were the eponymous gardens. Three things connect them to Alcibiades. First, the fact that the seeds Socrates sowed in him withered quickly: “as soon as I leave [Socrates],” Alcibiades confesses, “I cave in to the honors of the crowd. So I desert him and flee” (216b4–6). Second, the fact that Alcibiades was suspected of involvement in the mutilation of the Herms—statues of the god Hermes—and in the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, both of which occurred in midsummer, right around the Adônia. [13] The use of the technical term “uninitiated” (bebêlos) at Symposium 218b6, strongly suggests that Plato had the latter scandal in mind. He uses the odd term agalma, I am confident, in part to memorialize the former scandal too. The third and most striking connection to Alcibiades, however, is entirely intertextual. In the Symposium, Alcibiades claims that Socrates, while always playing with people about matters of virtue, was in earnest with him about them (216d4–217a6). The Phaedrus, in which play and earnestness about such matters are obsessively contrasted, has obvious critical bearing on his claim. Someone who had “arguments accompanied by knowledge” of “what is just, fine, and good” (276c3–4), it says, would never, except for playful purposes, sow them in a garden of Adonis like Alcibiades, whose planting-season (adolescence) was long passed by the time Socrates entered his life (cf. Alcibiades I 131c5–d8). Socrates, we may infer, either did not possess the sort of knowledge-conferring agalmata of virtue Alcibiades describes or (which we can surely rule out) was merely playing with him too.

If, as we should, we seek the specifically social or cultural origins of logoi as spermata/agalmata, the obvious place to look is the complex ideology of Athenian paiderastia, which Diotima explicitly adapts to her philosophical purposes. It is an ideology that seeks to negotiate between ideals of masculinity and the somewhat conflicting reality of male desire. The salient issue is, what is it to be a man?—in the sense of who has manly control of his appetites and desires and who, like a woman or a slave, does not (Davidson 1998:139–182, 250–277). What a boy who desired to be sexually penetrated by his lover was {131|132} in danger of being thought was not primarily a passive penetratee, as Michel Foucault famously argued, but a katapugôn, a kinaidos, a “sex addict” or “slut” as we might say—someone too enslaved to his appetites, too much of an un-fillable or insatiably leaky vessel, to be trusted with citizenly power. [14] Hence the boy’s desire had to be ideologically refigured as something more appropriate—a desire to be a slave to his lover for the sake not of sexual pleasure, but of virtue (184c2–7, 219e3–5). At the same time, the sexual desire of the lover had also to be refigured as educative rather than orgasmic or ejaculatory in intent. Boy-love became implicitly divided, as a result, into what Pausanias calls (good) Uranian love, whose object is the soul and whose aim is to instill virtue in the boy, and (bad) Pandemotic love, whose object is the body and whose aim is sexual pleasure for the lover (180c1–d7). Sexual intercourse and the inculcation of virtue thus become so metonymically related, their conceptual fields so fused, that spermatikoi logoi took on the aura of a natural kind.

When Socrates tacitly accepts this description by not objecting, he does so, I surmise, because he understands it as the consequent of a conditional, the antecedent of which the description itself records him as not having corrobo{132|133}rated (218e1–2). What he tacitly accepts, then, is just this: “if I have agalmata in me, of the sort that provide me with knowledge of virtue, then I am sly and dishonest and do spend my life playing with people.” That he has such knowledge of virtue, however, whether deriving from agalmata or not, is something he always denies:

In fact, gentlemen, it’s pretty certainly the god who is really wise, and by his oracle he meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. And it seems that when he refers to the Socrates here before you, and uses my name, he makes me an example, as if he were to say: “That one among you is wisest, mortals, who, like Socrates, has recognized that he’s truly worthless where wisdom’s concerned.”

Apology 23a5–b4

Alcibiades’ sense of privilege—“I don’t know whether anyone else has seen the agalmata within when he is in earnest and opened up, but I saw them once”—stands diagnosed, then, as a common illusion.

Though as hesitant to claim that he has any knowledge-conferring agalmata of virtue within him as that he has any knowledge of virtue itself, Socrates does make an apparently grand epistemic claim in the Symposium. “I claim to know nothing,” he insouciantly says, “except ta erôtika” (177d8–9). What exactly is he claiming? Literally translated, ta erôtika are “the things of love.” But just as ta phusika is “[the science of] physics” and ta politika is “[the art or craft of] politics,” ta erôtika is “the craft of love” (hê erôtikê technê)—the one the god Eros gives to Socrates in the Phaedrus (257a3–9). And that raises a problem; in fact, two problems. The first is to explain how it can be true, as Socrates puts it, that “I myself honor and surpassingly devote myself to the craft of love and exhort (parakeleuomai) others to do the same” (212b5–7). I mean, where do we see him doing that? The other is to reconcile his knowing that craft with his general epistemic modesty, with his characterization of himself as wise “in neither a great nor a small way” (Apology 21b4–5). How can the man who has no worthwhile wisdom possibly know something as apparently important and difficult as the art or craft of love?

The identification of the craft of love with that of asking questions, while compatible with Socrates’ usual modus operandi and disavowal of wisdom, is not entirely problem free. For Diotima, as the one who taught Socrates the former craft (Symposium 201d5), characterizes it as leading to scientific knowledge (211b8–d1). Did Socrates really have wisdom, then, while dishonestly disavowing it? Was Alcibiades right in thinking that he had glimpsed “truly beautiful things” (219a1) within him? Perhaps, it is sufficient here to take a way out suggested by Diotima herself. Socrates, she is fairly confident, could be instructed in part of the craft of love (the so-called “lesser mysteries”), in which the philosophical lover gives birth to beautiful arguments about the virtues when he finds a boy beautiful in body and soul (209a1–c7). But about the part where scientific knowledge of the beautiful is acquired, Diotima is more circumspect: “as for those parts relating to the final revelation [of the beautiful itself], the ones for whose sake I’ve taught you the others [the “lesser mysteries”], I don’t know whether you would be capable of being initiated into them” (210a1–2). It is noteworthy that Alcibiades’ own characterization of the Socratic arguments he has heard as “wrapped around on the outside with words and phrases like the hide of an outrageous satyr,” and as being about “pack asses and smiths and cobblers and tanners,” while it fits the arguments we see Socrates giving in the so-called early dialogues, doesn’t fit the sublime {135|136} lessons he learns from Diotima. Like the very fact that Socrates has had to learn them from her, this suggests, as many have argued, that they are not Socratic in provenance, but Platonic—something, as I put it elsewhere, that Plato gave birth to in the beauty of Socrates (Reeve 2004:96).

“A thing that desires, desires what it lacks,” the Lysis tells us (221d7–e2). The Symposium delivers the same message yet more stridently: “what is not at hand, what is not present, what one does not have, what one is not oneself, and what one lacks—desire and Eros are of such things as these” (200e2–5). In Republic IX, this picture of desire gets tied explicitly to the theory of forms. Hunger, thirst, and the like, are “some sorts of emptiness related to the state of the body,” while “foolishness and lack of knowledge” are “some sorts of emptiness related to the state of the soul.” Nourishment fills the former; “true belief, knowledge, understanding, and, in sum, all of virtue,” the latter. But these fillings are not on a par. Nourishment fills temporarily—it is soon digested or excreted; virtue fills permanently, because, as something that always is what it is, it partakes more of “pure being” than nourishment does, and so “is more” than it (585a8–b8). Since the things that that are more—that fully are (what they are)—are the Platonic forms (Republic 475c6–480a13), it is only when the true lover of boys reaches these—or, more particularly, the beautiful itself—that his desires are satisfied, his emptinesses truly filled, his happiness assured (Symposium 210e2–212a7). The elenchus is important to love in part because it reveals the presence of these emptinesses—emptinesses which, because they were concealed or occluded by the false conceit of knowledge, were erotically inert. The revelation of a hunger thereby becomes a sort of feeding: “When a man has his mouth so full of food that he is prevented from eating, and is likely to starve in consequence, does giving him food consist in stuffing still more of it in his mouth or does it consist in taking some of it away, so that he can begin to eat?” (Kierkegaard 1941:245n). [20]

A philosopher who encounters a boy with “a godlike face or some form of body which imitates beauty well,” Socrates tells us in the Phaedrus, [21] “reveres it like a god as he looks at it, and if he were not afraid of appearing thoroughly mad would sacrifice to his beloved as if to an agalma of a god” (251a1–7). In this regard, he is no different from any other recently reincarnated lover who still remembers vividly the forms he glimpsed as he traversed the heavens in the chorus of his patron—because character-defining—god: {136|137}

So each selects his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his own disposition, and fashions and adorns him like an agalma, as if he were himself his god, in order to honor him and celebrate his mystic rites. And so those who belong to Zeus seek that the one they love should be someone like Zeus in respect of his soul; so they look to see whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy, and when they have found him and fall in love they do everything to make him of such a kind. So if they have not previously set foot in this way, they undertake it now, both learning from wherever they can and finding out for themselves; and as they follow the scent from within themselves to the discovery of the nature of their own god, they find the means to it through the compulsion on them to gaze intensely on the god, and grasping him through memory, and possessed by him, they take their habits and ways from him, to the extent that it is possible for a man to share in god; and because they count their beloved responsible for these very things they love him still more, and if it is from Zeus that they draw, like Bacchants, they pour the draught over the soul of their loved one and make him as like their god as possible.

Phaedrus 252d5–253b1

Here it is the boy’s face, body, and soul that are agalmata, and the philosopher who is drawn by them, through anamnêsis, to philosophy, god-likeness, and the philosophical education of his beloved. It is into him, not into the boy, that a strange fluid flows:

“nourishment … flows in” upon him (epirrueisês de tês trophês, 251b5); he “receives the stream of beauty in through the eyes” (dexamenos gar tou kallous tên aporroên dia tôn ommatôn, 251b1–2); and, as he gazes upon the beauty of the beloved, his soul “receives particles from there that come at him in a stream” (ekeithen merê epionta kai rheont’ … dechomenê, 251c).

Nightingale 2004:159

The effect of such influx is not satiation or filling up, moreover, since the name of the particles (merê) that come at (epionta) the philosopher in a stream (rheonta) is himeros—desire (251c6–7). It is these now activated desires, in turn, that eventually lead to the learning and investigation that enable the philosopher to “gaze intently” on Zeus. The fluid he draws like a draught from this divine source is what really nourishes him and what he then pours over the {137|138} soul of his boyfriend (253a6–b1). If the effect of such pouring is to make the latter “as like their god as possible,” we may infer, it must serve as stimulus rather than satisfier for his desires too, leading him to hunger for philosophy, Zeus, and the Platonic forms. The inversion of the description Alcibiades gives—memorialized by the use of the term agalma—could hardly be more complete. When he refers to “the madness and Bacchic frenzy of philosophy” (Symposium 218b4), therefore, we may be confident that he has in mind not the “parts of madness on the right-hand side” of the definitional division, which are identified with “divine,” non-genital, philosophical love, but those of the bad madness on the left, which are identified with sexual love (Phaedrus 266a3–b1).

Even when a philosopher has climbed Diotima’s ladder to the very top and has seen the form of the beautiful, then, what he has in him for his beloved boy isn’t what would fill up his emptinesses, but what would activate them, turn them into effective motives to philosophical inquiry. No Platonic philosopher, one might say, no matter how wise and knowledgeable, can ever be more than a Socrates to another person! One must see the forms for oneself. For this reason, too, agalmata is a peculiarly appropriate term to use for what such a philosopher does have in him. For an agalma originally had no “relation whatsoever to the idea of resemblance or imitation, of figural representation in the strict sense.” Instead, it was something the aim of which was “to construct a bridge, as it were,” that would reach “toward the divine.” Yet “at the same time and in the same figure,” it had to “mark its distance from that domain in relation to the human world.” It had to make the divine power present, yet it had also to emphasize “what is inaccessible and mysterious in divinity, its alien quality, its otherness” (Vernant 1991:152–153). Like what is in a Platonic philosopher for another, agalmata are a bridge to something else—an image for what is itself necessarily beyond images (Symposium 212a4–5).

The idea of agalmata as a bridge between human and divine is bound to remind us of Diotima’s characterization of Eros as a daimôn—a being “intermediate between god and mortal” (202d11–e1). “Ever poor,” “rough and hard,” “unshod,” “dwelling ever with want,” “courageous,” and “a lover of wisdom through the whole of life,” Eros sounds remarkably similar to Socrates himself (203c6–d8), whom Alcibiades actually describes as a “genuine daimôn” (219b7–c1). But that implies that Socrates is, in the relevant respect, also remarkably similar to an agalma, and it to him. Like the conjecture mentioned earlier that Alcibiades’ openable silenuses are really statue moulds, this has the effect of turning the agalmata inside Socrates into statues of himself. Though Alcibiades claims to have seen these agalmata before he tried to seduce Socrates, it is {138|139} noteworthy that in the penultimate section of his speech, it is the figure of Socrates as a model of virtue that is front and center. Whether in resisting Alcibiades’ beautiful body, or on campaign at Potidaea or Delium, he is the paradigm of wisdom, temperance, fortitude, and courage (219d3–221c1).

The phrase euporei logon peri arêtes (“resourceful in making arguments about virtue”), applied by Diotima to the pregnant and properly philosophical lover of boys (209b8), finds a parallel in Alcibiades’ last words about Socrates, which are also, in fact, his last words sans phrase: “It’s the same old story … When Socrates is around, it’s impossible for anyone else to get a share of the beauties. Now, too, see how resourcefully (euporôs) he’s found a convincing argument (logon) to make this fellow [Agathon] lie down beside him” (223a6–9). They are words carefully prepared for. “Was I not prophetic,” Socrates says, “when I said just now that Agathon would speak wonderfully and I would be at a loss (aporêsoimi).” “As to you being at a loss (aporêsein),” Eryximachus replies, “I doubt it.” “And how am I not to be at a loss (aporein),” Socrates responds, using the verb for the third time, “after so beautiful and so varied a speech” (198a5–b3). In Diotima’s story of Poros and Penia, we discover how potentially deceptive they are:

Because Eros is the son of Poros and Penia, this is his fortune: first, he is ever poor, and far from being delicate and beautiful, as most people suppose, he on the contrary is rough and hard and unshod, ever lying on the ground without bedding, sleeping in doorsteps and beside roads under the open sky. Because he has his mother’s nature he dwells ever with lack. But on the other hand, by favor of his father, he ever plots for good and beautiful things, because he is courageous, eager and intense, and a clever hunter ever weaving some new device, desiring wisdom and capable of it, a philosopher through the whole of life, clever at enchantment, a sorcerer, and a sophist. And he is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but sometimes on the same day he lives and flourishes, whenever he is resourceful (euporêsêi), but then he dies and comes back to life again by reason of the nature of his father, though what is provided (porizomenon) ever flows away, so that Eros is never rich nor at a loss (aporei), and is, on the contrary, in between wisdom and ignorance. For things stand thus: no god loves wisdom or desires to become wise—for he is so; nor, if anyone else is wise, does he love wisdom. On the other hand, neither do the ignorant love wisdom nor desire to become wise; for ignorance is difficult just in this, that though {139|140} not beautiful and good, nor wise, it yet seems to itself to be sufficient. He who does not think himself in need does not desire what he does not think he lacks.

Symposium 203c5–204a7

Just as Socrates turns Athenian paiderastia upside down by playing the part of the pursued boy rather than of the pursuing older lover (222b3–4), the source of agalmata rather than their recipient, so, by means of his skill at asking questions, he turns aporia into euporia, emptiness into a resource. What as a philosopher he desires, however, isn’t to lie down with Agathon (“Mr. Goodman”), as Alcibiades claims, but to have intercourse with the Platonic form that shares his—much punned upon—name. Alcibiades’ suggestion otherwise is a genuine profanation of mysteries—not the Eleusinian this time, but the philosophical ones Diotima has modeled on them (see Sheffield 2001b).

One might say the same, I think, about the way Alcibiades experiences the aporia Socrates induces in him:

I wrapped my own cloak around him—for it was winter—and I lay down on his threadbare coat, and I put my two arms around this genuine daimôn, this wonderful man, and lay there the whole night through. And, again, Socrates, you will not say I speak falsely. But when I did this, he was so contemptuous of my youthful bloom that he ridiculed and outrageously insulted it; and in that regard, at least, I thought I was really something, gentlemen and judges—for you are judges of the arrogance of Socrates—for know well, by gods and by goddesses, when I arose after having slept with Socrates, it was nothing more than if I’d slept with a father or with an elder brother. Can you imagine my state of mind after that? I considered myself affronted, and yet I admired his nature, his temperance and courage, having met a man of a sort I never thought to meet in respect to wisdom and fortitude. The result was that I could neither get angry and be deprived of his company nor was I resourceful enough (êuporoun) to win him over. For I well knew he was far more invulnerable to money than Ajax was to iron, and he’d escaped me in the only way I thought he could be caught. So I was at a loss (êporoun), and went around enslaved by this man as no one ever was by any other.

Symposium 219b5–e5 {140|141}

What should be experienced as a resource that can lead to the forms of the good or the beautiful is instead experienced as a genuine loss, recoupable only by gaining possession, through seduction or bribery (the only genuine resources Alcibiades seems to recognize), of Socrates himself, and the agalmata-based wisdom he is imagined to contain. The idea that Socrates’ love could be won only through joining him in leading the philosophically examined life seems hopelessly far away.

An important passage in Republic VI strongly suggests that this negative interpretation of Alcibiades is very much a part of Plato’s own. In it Socrates is explaining why philosophers have an undeservedly bad reputation, and what the real effect is on their souls of contemplating Platonic forms:

The harshness of the masses towards philosophy is caused by those outsiders who do not belong and who have burst in like a band of revelers (epeiskekômakotas), abusing one another, indulging their love of quarreling, and always arguing about human beings—something that is least appropriate in philosophy … For surely, someone whose mind is truly directed towards the things that are has not the leisure to look down at human affairs, and be filled with malice and hatred as a result of entering into their disputes. Instead, as he looks at and contemplates things that are orderly and always the same, that neither do injustice to one another nor suffer it, being all in a rational order, he imitates them and tries to become as like them as he can. Or do you think there is any way to prevent someone from associating with something he admires without imitating it? … Then the philosopher, by associating with what is orderly (kosmiôi) and divine becomes as divine and orderly as a human being can. Though, mind you, there is always plenty of slander (diabolê) around.

Republic 500b1–d2

Alcibiades, notice, accuses Socrates of “abusing” him (Symposium 213d2), and then proceeds to give a speech entirely about human beings, which is therefore as anti-the-philosopher-Socrates as possible. No wonder, then, that it is represented by the latter as slanderous in intent: “as though you hadn’t said it all to sow slander (diaballein) between me and Agathon” (222c7–d1; also 222d6). Finally, there is the “crowd of revelers (kômastas)” that shows up at the end of the Symposium (223b1–2) and, finding Agathon’s doors as “open” (223b3) as Alcibiades thought he had found Socrates, bursts in and puts an end to all “order (kosmôi)” (223b4–5). The echoes are surely too insistent to be accidental. {141|142}

The order the revelers literally destroy is that established by Eryximachus in his role as master of ceremonies—“I think each of us should make as beautiful a speech as he can in praise of Eros, from left to right (epi dexia)” (177d1–2). When Alcibiades arrives late at the party, Eryximachus tries to impose it on him too:

Before you came, it seemed best that each of us, from left to right (epi dexia) should give the most beautiful speech about Eros he could and offer an encomium. The rest of us have all spoken; but since you haven’t and you’ve finished your drink, you ought to speak too. Once you’ve done so, you can prescribe for Socrates as you wish, and he for the man on his right (epi dexia), and so on for the rest.

Symposium 214b9–c5

As we have seen, however, Alcibiades does not really follow the rule, since he speaks not about Eros, but a human being (214d2–10)—albeit one who is like Eros. Later, however, when Aristodemus wakes up, he finds order restored: “only Agathon and Aristophanes and Socrates were still awake, drinking from a large bowl, and passing it from left to right (epi dexia)” (223c4–5). I take this to imply that Alcibiades and the crowd of revelers—and the disorder they represent—have gone. But perhaps, like some others, they have simply gone to sleep.

This order, this movement of love (or of the logoi about it) around Agathon’s table, is literally symposiastic, but it is also allegorical. It is related, first and most obviously, to the order discerned in love by dialectic in the Phaedrus, where, as we saw good philosophical love is identified with the parts of madness “on the right-hand side (dexiai)” of the definitional division (266a3–b1). But it is also related to “the movement of the Same,” which the Demiurge in the Timaeus “made revolve toward the right (epi dexia) by way of the side” (36c5–6). For like dialectic, and the divisions and collections of which Socrates proclaims himself a lover (Phaedrus 266b3–4), this movement, too, is associated with philosophy: “whenever an argument concerns an object of reason, and the circle of the Same runs well (euporos) and reveals it, the necessary result is understanding and knowledge” (Timaeus 37c1–3).

What these allegorical aspects of epi dexia mean within the Symposium emerges when we turn to Diotima’s philosophical demythologizing of the story of Poros and Penia discussed above. If those already filled with wisdom, and so touching all the Platonic forms, neither love nor desire anything, what happens to the philosopher who reaches the goal of education in the craft of {142|143} love? Is his love wrecked by its very success? In Diotima’s view, the answer is no. The philosopher’s desire, like that of all lovers, isn’t to possess the beautiful or the good for a moment, but to have it be his “forever” (206a3–13). Concealed in every desire or love, therefore, is “the love of immortality” (207a3–4). But the closest a mortal creature can come to gratifying that love is a far cry from the permanent satisfaction achieved by the gods:

Mortal nature seeks so far as it can to exist forever and be immortal. It can do so only in this way, by giving birth, ever leaving behind a different new thing in place of the old, since even in the time in which each single living creature is said to live and be the same—for example, as a man is said to live and be the same from youth to old age—though he never has the same things in himself, he nevertheless is called the same, but he is ever becoming new while otherwise perishing, in respect to hair and flesh and bone and blood and the entire body. And not only in respect to the body but also in respect to the soul, its character and habits, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears are each never present in each man as the same, but some are coming to be, others perishing. Much more extraordinary still, not only are some items of knowledge coming to be and others perishing in us, and we are never the same even in respect to items of knowledge, but also each single one among the items of knowledge is affected in the same way. For what is called practicing exists because knowledge leaves us; forgetting is departure of knowledge, but practice, by introducing a new memory in place of what departs, preserves the knowledge so that it seems to be the same. For it is in this way that all that is mortal is preserved: not by being ever completely the same, like the divine, but by leaving behind, as it departs and becomes older, a different new thing of the same sort that it was. By this device … what is mortal has a share of immortality both body and everything else; but what is immortal by another device. [22]

Symposium 207d1–208b4 {143|144}

Thus, when the philosopher reaches the beautiful itself, his task, just because he is mortal, is by no means complete. To stay in touch with the beautiful, each item of knowledge that is his knowing or contemplation of it must give birth to another like it—just as, if he himself is to stay alive, each of his person-stages or time-slices, as we call them, must give birth to another.

One effect of this way of thinking, as Derek Parfit has famously argued in our own time, is to blur or soften the distinction between self and others, and with it the distinction between egoism and altruism (Parfit 1984:199–347). There is little doubt, I think, that Plato is aware of this effect and seeks to exploit it. What a philosopher begets in the true beauty of the beautiful itself, is the good thing that is his own “true virtue.” And it is with the nurturing of it that he is first concerned. Since he is a changing or metabolizing creature, however, what he has to do to remain virtuous—to keep that good thing—is to give birth to a later stage of himself that is virtuous too. This later self, as a case of possessing good things himself, is also something he loves, and for the same reason as he loves his present self as such a case: when a person becomes virtuous, the Republic tells us, he thereby “becomes his own friend (philon genomenon heautôi)” (443d5). [23] Pregnant with virtue, then, and ever ready to give birth to it in true beauty, the philosopher meets a boy that he, using the beautiful itself as his standard of beauty (211d3–5), finds beautiful, and so “seeks to educate.” That is, he seeks to make the boy, too, a virtuous lover of wisdom—something “of the same sort” as himself. If he succeeds, the boy will be his “offshoot” (208b4–6), and will be loved as his own future selves are loved, and for exactly the same reason—the boy stands to him (to his present self) precisely as they do. Egoism has moved closer to altruism; self-interest to something more impersonal. If we look at this from the point of view of the boy, we can see why Socrates’ elenctic demonstrations do show Hermogenes how to get Lysis to love him. An elenchus of another is always at the same time, Socrates claims, a self-examination (Apology 38a4–5, Charmides 166c7–d2, Gorgias 506a3–5). Thus if Hermogenes, like Lysis, is a nascent philosopher, their elenctic conversations will make each the other’s second self, every bit as much beloved as the first. [24] The true path to gaining Socrates’ love is thus laid out.

“I think,” says Diotima, “that in touching tou kalou and holding familiar intercourse autôi, he bears and begets what he has long since been pregnant {144|145} with” (209c2–4). Is it the boy or the beautiful she’s talking about? A happy ambiguity (tou kalou and autôi could be either masculine or neuter) allows her to superimpose on one another, as it were, what I have presented as two separate events—the philosopher’s giving birth in the true beauty of the beautiful itself to what we would all intuitively consider to be his own later self, and his giving birth in a beautiful boy to what Diotima’s own theory of the self invites us to see as such.

As prominent in the Symposium as the fourfold repetition of epi dexia, and as deeply associated with Alcibiades, is the fourfold repetition of exaiphnês (“all of a sudden”): exaiphnês, the true lover catches sight of the beautiful itself (210e4–5); exaiphnês, Alcibiades arrives at Agathon’s house (212c6); exaiphnês, Socrates turns up in Alcibiades’ life (213c1); exaiphnês, the crowd of revelers burst in (223b2–6). What suddenly turns up in each case is a candidate object of love: the beautiful itself for the philosopher’s love; Alcibiades for Socrates’; Socrates for Alcibiades’. As for the crowd (pampollous) of revelers, they are the object that successfully competes with Socrates for Alcibiades’ love, since it is to “the honors of the crowd (tôn pollôn)” that Alcibiades caves in when not by Socrates’ side (216b4–6).

I said at the beginning that Alcibiades’ portrait of Socrates is the theatrical apogee of the Symposium. That we find it so is a measure of how interesting we find Socrates as a person, and “human affairs” more generally—how much we like laughter, intoxication, disorder. It is an interest that aligns us with the anonymous friends of Apollodorus whose desire to hear about what happened at Agathon’s house results, as we are invited to suppose, in our interest being gloriously satisfied. Yet the Symposium, of which the story of Apollodorus and his friends is a part, diagnoses that interest as dangerously un-philosophical, as potentially an interest in the wrong things. It isn’t Socrates we should be interested in, but philosophy and the forms. Alcibiades’ speech is filled with human interest. There is no doubt about that. Yet, as neither euporôs nor ephexês nor epi dexia, it is the work of an unreliable narrator—the product of a life which, torn between shame and the desire for the approval of the masses (216b3–6), self-confessedly does not itself run well (êporoun, 219e3). In part because of the conceptual-density of the term agalmata and the skill with which Plato exploits it, however, there is a reading of the speech in which the image it presents of Socrates is uncannily correct. Socrates and his arguments do have agalmata of virtue in them. Just not ones that, like a randy lover’s embryo-containing semen, are there for the easy taking. To get hold of them, you must change your life. {146|147}


[ back ] 1. This is a revised version of the paper I gave at the conference. The revisions sufficiently changed the thrust of the paper to require a new title. I am grateful to all of the conferees, especially Ruby Blondell for reminding me (again!) about the etymology of agalma, Christopher Rowe for demanding more about ta erôtika, and Gabriel Richardson Lear for being sufficiently puzzled by some remarks about Kant that I omitted them. Helpful written comments from Frisbee Sheffield, Jim Lesher, and an anonymous referee led to further significant changes. Thanks, finally, to Jim Lesher, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield for organizing the conference and inviting me to participate, and to Gregory Nagy and the staff of CHS for hosting it in such style.

[ back ] 2. Translations, sometimes silently modified in minor ways, are from Allen 1991.

[ back ] 3. A glance at the occurrences recorded in Brandwood 1976 will bear this out: Charmides 154c8, Critias 110b5, 116d7, e4, Epinomis 983e6, 984a4, 5, Laws 738c6, 931a1, 6, d6, e6, 956b1, Meno 97d6, Philebus 38d10, Phaedrus 230b8, 251a6, 252d7, Protagoras 322a5, Timaeus 37c7. Agalmatopoios (‘sculptor’ or ‘statue-maker’) occurs at Protagoras 311c7, 8, e2. More generally, though, “anything on which one agalletai” (Griffith 1999:243), such as a child (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 208) or fame (Sophocles, Antigone 704), can be an agalma.

[ back ] 4. Thanks to Scott LaBarge for this reference.

[ back ] 5. Geglumenos silênos: gluphein also means to hollow out (as one might a mould).

[ back ] 6. LSJ cites Laws 840a4 and Aristotle, Politics 1335b40.

[ back ] 7. The fact that she earlier claims that “all human beings (anthrôpoi) are pregnant in respect to both the body and the soul” (206c1–2) may mean that her allegiance is less than whole-hearted. But since, in the sequel, only males are ever pregnant in soul, her expression may simply be imprecise: by anthrôpoi she means male human beings. What that means for her own odd status is another question.

[ back ] 8. Translations are from Rowe 1986.

[ back ] 9. Many thanks to Julia Annas for correcting an oversight in my initial account of this passage.

[ back ] 10. I cannot resist noticing the reference to symposia as amusements that Plato—who else?—would rather write books than attend!

[ back ] 11. See e.g. SVF 1.497, 2.780, 1027, 1074, 3.141. I am grateful to David Sedley for advice on this Stoic doctrine.

[ back ] 12. As he is at Republic 494c4–495b7. See Adam (1902).

[ back ] 13. See Thucydides 6.27.

[ back ] 14. Problems 4.23, attributed to Aristotle, but probably dating from the third century BCE, is revelatory in this regard. In men who have “a superfluity of semen” or whose sperm ducts are blocked, semen collects in their rectum, instead of being discharged in the natural way. Unable to find release in normal sexual intercourse, they desire “friction in the place where the semen collects.” But since this doesn’t result in seminal discharge “they are insatiable or unfillable (aplêston) just like women.”

[ back ] 15. See Vlastos 1991:21–44 and Nehamas 1998:19–98 for some risk assessment.

[ back ] 16. Translations are from Lombardo (1997).

[ back ] 17. “Periods of silent absorption,” are not, therefore, “the closest Socrates comes to public display, or epideixis” (Hunter 2004:33).

[ back ] 18. Cf. Sophist 231b3–8: “the refutation of the empty belief in one’s own wisdom is nothing other than our noble sophistry.”

[ back ] 19. Note, especially, parakeleuomenos at 29d5.

[ back ] 20. I owe notice of this passage to J. Lear (2004:106–107), a book no student of Socratic irony can afford to miss.

[ back ] 21. I am grateful to Diskin Clay for encouraging me to look again at these texts.

[ back ] 22. It is an interesting question whether this account applies to all parts of the human soul in all circumstances, or only, as the Republic suggests, to the “form it takes in human life,” when, encrusted with bodily appetites, its true nature, like that of the sea-god Glaucus, is disguised (612a5–6). If, when separate from the body and the other elements present in the embodied soul, the rational element is truly immortal and divine, truly a vessel from which knowledge never leaks away, then what applies to the gods will apply also to it.

[ back ] 23. Thanks to Jim Lesher for reminding me of this text.

[ back ] 24. In Reeve 1992a:173–183, I argue that we should understand Aristotle’s views on virtuous friends in a similar way. Such friends are each other’s “second selves” in part because they help produce one another as virtuous.

[ back ] 25. The word Alcibiades uses to describe what his description of Socrates will precisely not manifest.

[ back ] 26. The unclear case is Aristodemus, the narrator, who, because he is lying next to Eryximachus (175a3–5), should presumably have spoken after him had Aristophanes not take his turn.

[ back ] 27. Note kosmios at 187a5, d5, 188a3, c3, 189a3.