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Plato's Symposium: Philosophy versus science, poetry, and politics

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2014

3-5pm | 23-27 June | Room 0106

If philosophy is possible at all, then the principles of human nature would have to be accessible to all human beings, at all times and in all places. This was the thesis of the classical philosophers of ancient Greece, who were at least as aware as we are that one’s own culture inevitably distorts whatever access one has to the truth. In fact, their starting point was the variety of ways human beings experience and partially misunderstand the world, because they inferred that the disagreements about some issue (e.g., what is just, or useful, or beautiful) provided both the strongest proof that such a thing existed and the strongest motivation to seek further to know what it is. This course is intended to provide evidence for this view, through a detailed discussion of one of the central works of classical philosophy, Plato’s Symposium.

As always, everything in Plato emerges out of a picture of life that is apparently quite natural. The Symposium depicts a party at which a number of prominent Athenians, who, being too hung-over after celebrating the poet Agathon’s victory, decide to drink moderately and spend their time in conversation. They agree that they will each deliver a speech on “love” (eros in Greek).  Each speech emerges from a speaker’s character and represents in some way the central alternative ways of thinking about life. The final speech by Socrates builds dialectically on the others and appears to comprehend them all, but we are also given a speech on Socrates himself by a famous and drunk latecomer, Alcibiades. The development of profound and intricate philosophical out of an apparently most natural encounter of men of different characters and backgrounds enjoying themselves together makes the Symposium appear to be a particularly beautiful work of art. But the relation between beauty and artistic production is one of the central themes of Socrates’ speech, which appears to argue for the priority of the philosophical aspiration to see the truth over the poetic aspiration to produce beautiful art. This paradox points to the complexity and peculiar self-reflexivity with which Plato wrote.

The ascent from the everyday also consists in the criticism of the principles of one’s time and place in the attempt to find the true principles. Thus, the absence of women was usual in Athenian public life at the time, as was the focus on male homosexuality, but the two speeches that are usually acknowledged as the peaks of the dialogue both displace the priority of male over female and recognize the multivalency of human passion.

Plato’s concern in this dialogue, however, is not justice but human longing and its ends. The speakers within the dialogue attempt to justify their various passions by reference to politics, science, and fame. They are intended, amongst other things, to illustrate the hidden dependence of our apparently most intimate or deepest desires depend upon conventions or cultural constructions. As ever, he seeks to justify the philosophical life over its poetic and political rivals. The two speeches of the dialogue often thought to be the most important, those by Aristophanes and Socrates, represent the tension between the nature of human desire and the convention and cultures by which we live. We are thus presented with several of the vital aspects to the central question for each of us, what is it that makes for a happy life? The answer is left up to us, but any answer at all will profit greatly by engagement with one of the best articulations of the principles and tensions governing human existence.

Procedure and Texts

Our sessions will consist of part lecture and part discussion. I welcome questioning of the material or my interpretive suggestions. It would be helpful to have access to a translation of the Symposium and especially helpful to have read it before we begin. The best translation known to me (there are very many that I have not read) is by Seth Benardete, which is available in a volume that contain an interpretive essay by Benardete and a long essay by Allan Bloom, excerpted from his book Love and Friendship. I will make available a good translation of the dialogue on a link supplied with this course.

However, there are many adequate translations. Amongst those available for free on the internet is that by Benjamin Jowett (18---) at both the MIT classics and Adelaide university websites.

The Greek text of Burnet’s OCT edition is now available online. The Budé is more recent and contains a fuller iteration of MS readings and variants, but is not substantially superior to the OCT.


Course Schedule and Readings

Lecture 1

Topics: Introduction to Plato and to the Symposium; discussion of the dialogue’s setting; and the first speech on eros, introducing the relation of love and death, on the one hand, and love and excellence, on the other

Readings: (1) excerpts from Plato and others; (2) Symposium: the outer frame (172a-174a), inner frame (174a-178a) and Phaedrus’ speech (178a-180b).

Lecture 2

Topics: The speeches of Pausanias and Eryxamchus, representing the defense of love in the light of politics  and of science

Reading: Symposium: Pausanias’ speech (180c-185c), transition to Eryximachus and his taking Aristophanes place (185c-e), and Eryximachus’ speech (185e6-188e4)

Lecture 3

Topics: The speeches of Aristophanes and Agathon on love, representing the comic and tragic character of human desire

Readings: Symposium: the transition to Aristophanes (188e-189c), Aristophanes’ speech (189c-193d), the transition to Agathon (193d-194e), and Agathon’s speech (194e-197e)

Lecture 4

Topics: Socrates’ speech  on the philosophic or poetic response to our human finitude

Readings: Symposium:  Socrates’ speech, consisting of a prelude (198a), digression on giving an encomium (198b-199b) a dialogue with Agathon on eros as a relation of desire (199b-201c), the relation of his dialogue with Diotima (201d-212a), and a conclusion (212b-c)

Lecture 5

Topics: Recapitulation of the teaching of Socrates’ speech, and Alcibiades’ speech and the ending of the dialogue

Readings: Alcibiades’ entry and encounter with Socrates (212c-215a), and Alcibiades’ speech (215a-222b) and the conclusion of inner frame (222c-223d)