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.


In his Symposium Plato crafted a set of speeches in praise of love that has attracted the interest of philosophers, theologians, poets, and artists from antiquity down to the present day. In the third century CE, Plotinus drew on aspects of the Symposium to fashion an account of the nature of the twin processes of emanation and return to “the One.” Following Plotinus’ lead, a number of early Christian writers elected to read the dialogue’s “ascent passage” as a thinly veiled description of the soul’s ascent to heaven. Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Symposium introduced Plotinus’ view of love and beauty to the poets and artists of Renaissance Europe and brought the phrase “Platonic love” into common speech. Ideas and images drawn from the Symposium appear in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, E. M. Forster’s Maurice, T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colors. Scenes and characters depicted in the dialogue appear in paintings or sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, Pietro Testa, Asmus Jakob Karstens, Jacques-Louis David, Anselm Feuerbach, and John La Farge, among others, as well as in musical compositions by Erik Satie and Leonard Bernstein. The 1969 BBC production of The Drinking Party, the musical All about Love, and the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch all testify to the dialogue’s enduring appeal. Sigmund Freud looked back to Plato’s understanding of erôs or “passionate desire” as the model for his concept of the libido, and the dialogue’s view of love as “desire for eternal possession of the good” is still of great philosophical interest in its own right. Nevertheless, for all the interest shown in the Symposium over the centuries, questions remain concerning the meaning of individual passages, the relationship between the Symposium and views Plato presented in other dialogues, and the nature of the dialogue’s influence on later artists and writers. The present volume offers a set of perspectives on each of these topics. {1|2}

Part I: The Symposium and Plato’s Philosophy

The Symposium has traditionally been seen as a “middle period” dialogue which moves away from certain characteristic features of the Socratic dialogues towards the grand theorizing of the Republic. Yet, as Christopher Rowe argues in “The Symposium as a Socratic Dialogue,” the Symposium does not fit neatly into such a categorization in so far as it appears to embrace Socratic psychology on the one hand and Platonic metaphysics on the other. In his paper, Rowe addresses this apparent tension. After arguing against various interpretative strategies (those of Price, Vlastos and Irwin, in particular), Rowe argues that there is, in fact, no necessary connection between Platonic Forms and Platonic psychology. The presence of the one feature (Platonic Forms) should not lead us to anticipate the other (Platonic psychology). Rowe moves on to present a case for viewing the Symposium as a Socratic dialogue, and explores the philosophical ramifications of such a view.

A further interpretative issue related to the reading of the Symposium concerns the relationship between the parts of the dialogue itself. The Symposium is a curiously constructed work, which has divided scholars who wish their philosophy and literature to be served up separately. Why did Plato offer such an array of speeches on the topic at hand? And what is the relationship between the account of the philosopher Socrates and those of his (non-philosophical) peers? In “The Role of the Earlier Speeches in the Symposium: Plato’s Endoxic Method?” Frisbee Sheffield considers whether Plato operated “endoxically,” that is, whether he used “views accepted by most people, or the wise,” as the basis for his philosophical inquiry into the nature of erôs. After assessing the contributions made to Socrates’ speech by each of the previous speakers, Sheffield shows how Socrates transforms, rejects, or (quite commonly) preserves a grain of truth embedded in each of the accounts. Sheffield proceeds to consider whether agreement among the speakers carries any philosophical or evidential weight, and concludes that although the speeches play an important role in prompting fruitful investigation of the topic, there is insufficient reason to accord them the status of Aristotelian endoxa.

In “A Platonic Reading of Plato’s Symposium,” Lloyd Gerson argues that whether the “unitarians” or the “developmentalists” are right in their reading of the Symposium, one needs to look beyond the dialogue itself to resolve its interpretative puzzles. Gerson presents a case for adopting Platonism, or more specifically the thought of Plotinus, as the basis for a fruitful reading strategy. {2|3} Plotinus’ account, which expresses most concisely the central elements of Gerson’s Platonism, is argued for in the bulk of the paper, and shown to resolve numerous interpretative difficulties. Gerson further argues that this suggests a larger thesis, namely that that there is a philosophy called Platonism in the dialogues which is needed to interpret them successfully.

Part II: Interpreting Plato’s Symposium

In “Medicine, Magic, and Religion in Plato’s Symposium,” Mark McPherran argues that these three themes serve to link Eryximachus’ speech with the speeches given by Aristophanes, Agathon, and ultimately the account of erôs put forward by Socrates based on the instruction given to him by the Arcadian priestess Diotima. In sharp contrast with the common view of Eyrixmachus’ speech as the superficial observations of a boring pedant, on McPherran’s account Plato chose to incorporate the remarks of a noted physician in order to appropriate and extend the scientific and religious conventions of his own time in the service of the new and superior enterprise of philosophy.

The role played by beauty in the experience of erôs is a central theme in many of the speeches in the dialogue. In “Permanent Beauty and Becoming Happy in Plato’s Symposium” Gabriel Richardson Lear explores the value of beauty and addresses the vexed question of its relationship to the good. Lear argues that we value beauty in part because we honor beautiful creations, which endow their producers with an afterlife in human memory. When we perceive good things as beautiful this arouses our desire to possess happiness eternally. The encounter with beauty generates creative activity because it is intimately related to the immortality we crave. Lear argues that beauty is “a shining forth of stability and self-sufficiency” and that such a good is valued by all erotically disposed human beings.

Socrates’ own status in relation to beauty and goodness is a controversial issue on which the papers by Ruby Blondell and C. D. C. Reeve offer different perspectives. In “A Study in Violets: Alcibiades in the Symposium,” Reeve draws on Alcibiades’ references to the agalmata—“statues” or “images”—of virtue inside Socrates in order to clarify how far, or how little, Socrates’ friends and associates were able to understand him. Reeve examines the various senses of agalmata in order to determine the sense in which Socrates can be seen to have such agalmata inside him. Beginning with a substantive construal of agalmata as statues of the gods, which seems implied by Alcibiades’ use of the term at various points, Reeve argues that this is incompatible with Socrates’ disavowal {3|4} of knowledge and his portrait in the dialogue at large. Alcibiades has ultimately misunderstood the nature and status of the philosopher. Nonetheless, agalmata is an appropriate term for what the philosopher does have inside. For an agalma originally conveyed the idea of a bridge to the divine. So the real nature of the philosopher, misconstrued by Alcibiades, is not that of a complete divine nature, whose goods can be transferred to another person, but rather of one who can motivate others towards the divine life of philosophical inquiry.

In “Where is Socrates on the ‘Ladder of Love’?” Ruby Blondell considers whether Socrates has attained true virtue or merely approached it. Plato presents an ambiguous picture of the philosopher. On the one hand he is presented as the eager seeker after wisdom, lacking and desirous of the goodness he lacks; on the other he is a paradigm of achieved virtue. Blondell provides an account of each step of the ascent and assesses the degree to which Socrates may be considered to have occupied each of them. She concludes that Plato places him on all of them, not in an orderly sequence but in an impressionistic manner that frustrates our desire to pin Socrates down.

Debra Nails’ “Tragedy Off-Stage” takes its start from the curious thesis defended by Socrates in the dialogue’s final scene to the effect that “the same man should be capable of writing both tragedy and comedy” (223d2–5). When we apply Socrates’ thesis to the Symposium itself we are required to consider whether and in what respects the dialogue might have dealt in both tragedy and comedy. Nails argues that the tragic-comic distinction has little relevance to the contents or “internals” of the Symposium. The real tragedy of the dialogue, she argues, lay “off-stage” in the real lives of the persons whom Plato chose to portray in the Symposium.

In “The Virtues of Platonic Love” Gabriela Carone asks how, if at all, the account of erôs Socrates presents is supposed to help us to understand the nature of love as we encounter it in our daily lives. Taking up a series of objections often raised against Plato’s view, Carone argues that Plato’s account has both a descriptive and a normative aspect. While his theory of erôs draws upon and thereby captures some aspects of our experience of love it also seeks to explain how a person can fail to understand the nature of his or her love as well as its true object.

Part III: The Symposium, Sex, and Gender

Plato’s Symposium has contributed significantly to our understanding of ancient sexuality and the construction of gender in the classical world. The {4|5} papers by Luc Brisson, Angela Hobbs and Jeffrey Carnes shed new light on the nature of paiderastia (Brisson), the use of female imagery in a largely homoerotic context (Hobbs), and the influence of the Symposium’s views about homosexuality on modern legal theory (Carnes). In “Agathon, Pausanias, and Diotima in Plato’s Symposium: Paiderastia and Philosophia,” Brisson clarifies the practice of sexual relationships between males in Greece as a necessary background to the Symposium. He argues that Plato critiques the institution of paiderastia in relation to the quest for knowledge, philosophia. Diotima’s speech is crucial to the critique, replacing the image of transmission with that of pregnancy, and replacing physical with incorporeal beauty.

In “Female Imagery in Plato” Angela Hobbs proposes that our understanding of the image of the pregnant philosopher is enriched by placing it in the context of Plato’s use of “female” and “male” imagery throughout the corpus. She argues against a popular feminist reading according to which Plato appropriates and ultimately obscures the female. Once a certain level of understanding has been reached, Plato is equally happy for the philosopher to appear as male or female, as gender is not central to the higher rungs of his philosophical project. Plato is not specifically negating the role of the female in his text, but employing both male and female images to illustrate that ultimately we should liberate ourselves from “irrelevant … cultural constraints.”

In “Plato in the Courtroom: The Surprising Influence of the Symposium on Legal Theory,” Jeffrey Carnes reviews a number of recent controversial court cases relating to homosexuality (Romer v. Evans, Bowers v. Hardwick, and Lawrence v. Texas). He places his discussion within the constructionist versus essentialist theories of homosexuality which often underlie such cases, and assesses the degree to which this is an appropriate legacy for the Symposium.

Part IV: The Reception of Plato’s Symposium

This final section explores the influence of Plato’s Symposium on later artists and writers. In “Plato’s Symposium and the Traditions of Ancient Fiction,” Richard Hunter argues for an intimate relationship between the Symposium and the development of the novel. He makes the case for such a relationship by exploring the ways in which ancient novels appropriated, or parodied, themes from the Symposium. Hunter argues that Plato’s work foreshadows later developments in both the form and content of the ancient novel.

In “Some Notable Afterimages of Plato’s Symposium” James Lesher identifies and describes many of the works of art inspired by Plato’s masterpiece, and asks why, of all of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium alone inspired such a {5|6} rich visual response. Chief among the factors he identifies are the universal appeal of the topic of love, the dialogue’s many dramatic qualities, the vivacity of its portraits of Socrates and Alcibiades, and the absence of a clear and dominant philosophical message that would have served to narrow the scope of its appeal.

In “The Hangover of Plato’s Symposium in the Italian Renaissance from Bruni (1435) to Castiglione (1528),” Diskin Clay offers a tour de force of the ways in which the Symposium informed Renaissance art and literature. Clay focuses on Pietro Bembo’s Gli Asolini, Ficino’s commentary on the Symposium, commonly known as the De Amore, and Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, and shows how each of these works was influenced by, and transformed, its Platonic template.

David O’Connor’s “Platonic Selves in Shelley and Stevens” explores the reception of the Symposium in the poetry of the English Romantics and their heirs. O’Connor argues that in “Alastor” (1815) Shelley anticipated aspects of the translation of the Symposium he would produce three years later. O’Connor then uses these two texts to explain some central features of Socrates’ speech. The notion of love as involving elements of “narcissistic projection,” a key Romantic notion, can be seen in Socrates’ emphasis on the creative power of erôs. O’Connor also explores the theme of narcissism in connection with Wallace Stevens’ commitment to Platonism and finds that theme expressed in some of Stevens’ most characteristic poems. Shelley and Stevens are thus seen to be careful readers and critics of the Symposium who valued the Platonic ascent but valued their freedom more. {6|7}