Or, Desiring Wisdom
*A virtual lecture for The Human Situation in this time of plague, on Plato’s Symposium from the Introduction through the speech of Pausanias
I’m not coming to you in video this time (next time, I promise!), but I still have video clips of course. Let us begin with one of three songs about love that all good Houstonians and/or Indie Rock fans are bound to love. Please watch Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love.”
Why this song? I will tell you in a second. First things first, I’m going to tell you my goal in this lecture/essay: to complicate your own, personal definition of love. I hope to do this by begging you to pay careful attention to each of the speeches in the text, not just the big showstoppers at the end. There are many definitions of love in this text, and each of them is worthy of deep consideration. This is my argument: you need to take each of these seriously, or you will miss a lot. This argument is, in some respects, a bad model for you, because the counter-argument it refutes is entirely extratextual: you, the Human Situation student, do not in fact take these early speeches seriously. Between all the discussion sections and papers and final oral exams and random conversations, I think a conservative estimate is that 80% of that time has been spent by students talking about Aristophanes and Socrates. And look, this is fine! These are really great speeches, possibly the two most important things ever said about love outside of 1a. Adam & Eve & 1b. Jesus (at least in the Western tradition).
Now here’s where the argument gets better, at least as a model, because this theme is going on inside the text itself. Plato knows that you are obsessed with Socrates, and he is telling you to pay closer attention to these speeches, too, or you will miss the point (since I’m not giving the last lecture, I’m not going to tell you what I think that is; I also did this in my last lecture on the Iliad). I’m going to run through three contextual elements of the dialogue that demonstrate this fact: the rhetorical, the historical, and the epistemological. I’m going to answer three questions in doing so: why is the beginning (and the end!) so weird, why actually are there no hymns to the god Eros (love), and what school of thought does each speaker in the text represent?
tl;dr your idea of love is too simplistic/bad, desire is as wild, intoxicating, and destructive as it is productive, and if you don’t pay attention to the speeches you’ll miss out/never abandon your bad idea of love (bonus: Eryximachus is the best speech of them all)
I. As a college student, you are required to hold at least one symposium before you graduate; or, the rhetorical context of this Platonic dialogue
Okay, back to: “Why Beyonce?” First, and I cannot stress this enough, one does not need an excuse for Beyonce, ever. Second, because this symposium is literally about being drunk in love. Or on it, maybe, or through it, or even for it. In any case, Beyonce’s song is about not just alocholic intoxication, but also an intoxicating forgetfullness one finds in the body of the lover. You might read the lyrics and think that is the type of “vulgar” love (181B) Pausanias complains of, but no. To quote the man himself: “a lover is encouraged in every possible way; this means that what he does is not considered shameful” (182D). I could basically write the rest of this lecture about this song, but …
… I want to draw us back again to the rhetorical situation of the text, which is foremost a story about a drinking party that features a bunch of people who are intoxicated, yes with philosophy, but also, it is crucial to remember, actual wine (a lot of the exquisite pottery that we still have from antiquity? drinking vessels for wine, often with images of symposia).
But if that’s the foremost context, the first context is really much stranger: a couple of Socrates admirers ten or more years later, talking about this mythic symposium. Two things are highlighted by this rhetorical frame that structures all the speeches and drama we see here: the whole dialogue happens in media res, and this highlights a key question about the transmission of philosophical knowledge.
We get the story from Apollodorus, who is retelling it to Glaucon. But why is he telling it to Glaucon? Because the person man who told him (who heard it from someone else altogether, Phoenix) transmitted it in a form that was “badly garbled” (172B). BUT, there’s a problem here, in what Professor Sommers called the “Russian-doll styled structure” of this dialogue: why is Apollodorus’ version, which came from the same source as Phoenix’s, Aristodemus, any more reliable than the first person who told Glaucon? That is my interpretive question in this section, in fact: why is Apollodorus transmission of philosophical knowledge any more reliable, any less “badly garbled”?
Let me restate this question more formally: Is Plato calling into question the reliability—the authority—of all philosophical knowledge through the rhetorical frame of the Symposium? Or is he arguing that the question of desire is central to understanding the transmission of philosophical knowledge, and thus to philosophy itself?
Let me offer a few additional pieces of evidence that this is indeed a central problem in the text, before we move on to history. First, look at the “you” at 173C. Who is being addressed? This goes back to the first line of the dialogue, which begins with the same you (“In fact, your question”). This dialogic opening in media res is briefly disorienting—we ask ourselves, who is he talking to?—but then we forget, and because we forget, we think that this is part of the conversation with Glaucon. But it isn’t. Apollodorus is recounting an older conversation with Glaucon, it seems, adding another layer to the Russian doll of the dialogue. He’s talking to you, friend.
Second, notice that Apollodorus is not drinking, but still characterized as intoxicated (the god Dionysus is the god of frenzied madness as well as wine and intoxication; these thing are interrelated). He admits that he has a reputation as “a maniac, and I’m raving!” (173E). Throughout the text, philosophy and alcohol are paralleled as two forms of intoxication. Glaucon, Apollodorus, the Friend, Aristodemus, they are all super fans, obsessed with philosophy, but also with Socrates and any-little-thing he-said as much as philosophy itself. They are addicts, addicted to philosophy, the high of climbing the ladder with Socrates to the realm of ideal forms, and this thread of how desire/eros motivates the transmission of philosophical knowledge, guides its spread and interpretation, will continue throughout the text until it reaches it’s climax in Alcibiades speech at the end of the symposium.
Third, there’s a lot of detail given to the setting of philosophical transmission, or where and how it is learned/done. In the symposium itself, the guests are reclining and being served. But in the rhetorical frame, we get a lot of what I like to call “walk and talks” (173B, 174D), a sharp contrast to the symposium, and a form of interaction that Socrates will later use in the dialogue Phaedrus.
Professor Sommers said that he found this rhetorical frame one of the most interesting parts of the dialogue, and I am inclined to agree. Let me give you an interpretation—an answer to my earlier interpretive question—which I think the evidence I’ve pointed to so far supports. The rhetorical frame of Plato’s Symposium functions to instruct the reader against any sense of philosophical mastery, emphasizing something we learn from Socrates, via Diotima, later in the dialogue, namely, that philosophy is an ongoing process, with no endpoint. There is never a point where we can know enough that we could master the world, because that is not what knowledge is. This is the whole “If only wisdom were like water” conversation between Agathon and Socrates (175D-175E), which is my fourth piece of evidence here.
I am also drawn to another striking and seemingly innocuous passage here, where Agathon instructs his slaves on how to serve at the party (fifth). We are very explicitly told that these preparations are crucial to the nature of the conversations to come; our attention is drawn to the serving of wine, but drawn away from the slaves who will serve it. Slavery has been an interesting undercurrent in our theme this semester. Achilles rebels because his slave is stolen away from him, and Euripides has, in one of the most exquisite acts of dramatic narrative in history, seduced his audience of slaveholders into cheering for the leader of a murderous slave revolt. Look closely at what Agathon tells his slaves with regards to how they should serve him tonight: “Imagine that we are all your own guests, myself included. Give us good reason to praise your service” (175B). This is shocking. What audacity, asking the slave to put himself in the place of the master, only to serve him the better! But we should look past what this tells us about Agathon specifically or Greek Antiquity generally, and take it seriously as a philosophical theme. Here, the dialogue is inverting the role of master and slave, and invoking the imagination to do so. In this play of slavery and imagination, inversion and mastery, Plato seems to be commenting on the nature of philosophical mastery, and telling us not to have any, masters that is. Whether Plato’s use of this theme disrupts or entrenches the really-existing ideologies of slavery in his time (which are different, it needs to be said, from chattel slavery in Western modernity) we will have to leave for another time (though I will say I am not optimistic on that front).
What is at stake in this rhetorical framing? It is arguable that the nested narrative of the Symposium is the thing about it; that love, as a philosophical topic, is ultimately secondary to the question of the transmission of philosophy. Just as important as what Socrates says is how we come to know what Socrates says; after all, Socrates himself is merely a witness to his own secondhand account of love, and Alcibiades learns something quite different from what Socrates seemingly intends to transmit to him. Underscoring this is what Socrates tells us about the brand new technology of writing (hupomenmata) in the other great dialogue on love, the Phaedrus, namely, that he thinks it is detrimental to rigorous thought.
II. Love is a myth invented by the Ancient Greeks and they deserve a lot of blame for that; or, the historical context of this Platonic dialogue
This historical context is where we really step outside of Plato’s text, but I think it is nonetheless fascinating and will help you understand what’s going on. Our interpretive question here is a big one that revolves around the central reason given for love being the topic of this symposium: how is it possible for Phaedrus to state that there are no hymns about the “god of love, ancient and powerful as he is” (176A) and for that very same Phaedrus to then immediately cite numerous classical authors talking about just that god, Eros (178B)?
The answer is that the word “love” in this translation is a lie and that gods can be—and are—invented, even the god of love.
What is Eros?
I take it back, it’s not really a lie. But translating the Greek eros as love, when we could just as easily translate it as desire, in itself makes an argument. The name of the god is also a noun; Eros is love, and you can see that’s the case by the context of its use throughout the symposium. You might be tempted to divide eros and love, but I’ll give you a modern and and ancient reason not to. Sigmund Freud, who we may just read in the spring, as we often do, has argued extensively that love is not many different things, but only one. You can see how this directly clashes with the definitions of Pausanias in the dialogue, as well as others. But it seems like, and here’s my ancient reason, Socrates also thinks that love is singular, not many things, as does Aristophanes. One of the central philosophical questions in the dialogue is this: is love one or many things? The debate continues until this very day.
So, despite this strange conflation in the translation, I am all for it; you can see that every step of the way they are talking about love, but also about desire. You can also see that philosophy is intimately tied to this question of love, though perhaps that argues against seeing eros as love. It’s not eros (love) + sophos (wisdom), it’s philo (love) + sophos. What would the difference be, between philosophos and erosophos? Answer that question with respect to the dialogues.
What is a Symposium?
Lastly, Eros has no hymns because Eros is not a real god, historically speaking, or rather, he was a new god (that is, if we distinguish between religious practice and mythology, as we should). Barbara M. Breitenberger’s Aphrodite and Eros: The Development of Erotic Mythology in Early Greek Poetry and Cult observes that “Eros, in contrast to Aphrodite and other companions, did not enjoy cultic veneration” (169). In fact, the rise of Eros as a prominent deity arises with the very institution of the symposium and what scholars call the “sympotic culture” that arose around it. Reflecting changes in the ancient Greek city-states in terms of governance, wealth, international trade, and the creation of a distinct elite culture, the symposium invents Eros, and it does so particularly in relation to the valorization of male homosexuality and the institution of pederasty. “Since the symposium became the place where the male aristocracy could indulge in and express their passion for younger men and boys, it may be argued that the homoerotic ideal of the symposiasts was gradually projected onto, or even divinized by the god Eros” (Breitenberger 172). Think about it for a moment, what this invention of Eros says about human culture, institutions, mythology, and the divine. Fascinating.
Also, a symposium is a drinking party. It is literally what the name means. Never forget that.
Interlude: More Beyonce
Without context, I’ll just say that Beyonce’s insistence here on the singularity of love is proof that she rejects Pausianias’ dualistic schema of desire. The question, then, is this: does Beyonce espouse an Aristophanic completionist vision of a singular love, or a Platonic vision of perpetual externalization (the ladder) a singular love? Discuss.
III. Love is destructive; or, the epistemological context of this Platonic dialogue
We tend to think of love as something productive and positive, but for every speechgiver in the text—barring, perhaps, Eryximachus—love is also fundamentally a destructive force: it is always in danger of approaching a certain wild intoxication, and it always breaks the self out of itself and pushes it toward something else: toward shameful vulgarity, toward beauty, toward civic virtue, toward the gods. In each of these speeches, and, as I hope I’ve shown in the first section above, the framing and minor characters of the dialogue, there are serious and important questions advanced about the philosophical question of love. Each represents a different form of knowledge, thus, an epistemological context. My question here is, if there is a deeper argument about love in each speech, what school of thought does each speaker represent?
Instead of examining each of the first speeches in turn, I will instead give you a schema.
This is a fun game, full of interpretive questions for you, the student/reader. We could spend every discussion for the rest of the semester making arguments and providing evidence for different schemas. Also, beyond what each character represents, what do you see in the arc? What does the order itself of the speeches tell you about this different schools of thought? What do you make of the forgotten (!!!!!) speeches? Here’s another version:
Phaedrus: Student (of Socrates)
What is at stake shifts in each ordering. But before you get there, you need to dig underneath each one to see what each represents. Phaedrus and Pausanias both link love to the polis, to civic strength and moral virtue, to questions of honor and shame. It gets even more complex, and interesting, if we add back in the other characters, who do not give speeches per se:
Apollodorus & Friend: Students
As we saw in section one above, merely adding in Apollodorus, etc, immensely deepens the text. Each of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximiachus, and Agathon are all crucial, and they are all interested in various pragmatic aspects of love: how does it work and what is good for, in terms of both the individual and the polis; how does it function? Phaedrus and Pausanias are both interested in the metaphysical grounding or origins of love, and appeal to religious tradition to establish their pragmatic arguments (which arguably means they are not pragmatists, who often argue we should suspend or bracket metaphysical questions). When we get to Aristophanes and Socrates, they are both arguably still functioning within the realm of metaphysics, but they’re not interested in the origins of love as much as in its ontological (the essence of love) foundations.
We could go on, of course, but that is enough for today. On that note, I’ll leave you with one last song about love and desire, perhaps the most Socratic yet.