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PLATO'S DIDACTIC EXEMPLUM:
EROS, THE DIALOGUE, AND PHILOSOPHY INT THE SYM~POSIUM
RUBIN TODD BOHLANDER
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I first and foremost thank my parents, sister, and step-sisters, who have given me
unwavering support and love, especially during some difficult years. I can never
sufficiently express my gratitude to my grandmother, Gwen Faulkner, for teaching me to
love reading, reasoning, and religion. I would like to thank Timothy Johnson, Jim Marks,
David Young, and Robert Wagman for their patient guidance, encouragement, and
invaluable conversations about this field. Finally, Marla DeVicente, Daniel Copeland,
and Randall Childree have provided me with the friendship, grounding, correction, and
role models that have made these past couple of years successful.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .........__.. ..... .__. .............._ ii...
AB STRAC T ................ .............. iv
1 INTRODUCTION ................. ...............1.......... ......
2 TRADITIONAL ASSUMPTIONS AND NEWER METHODS ................ ...............4
Dialogue Format and Dialogism............... ...............4
Is Plato Speaking? ................ ...............10........... ....
3 FRAMING THE DIALOGUE .............. ...............15....
W ho Tells This Story? ................ ...............15.......... .....
Plato' s Purpose in Framing ................. ...............19........... ...
Other Effects of Framing ................. ...............24.......... .....
4 DESPERATELY SEEKING EROS .............. ...............29....
Diotima' sLadder ................. ...............29........... ....
Ascending Speeches .............. ...............33....
5 THE EXAMPLE OF ALCIBIADES ....._......__. ..........._ ...........4
6 CONCLU SION................ ..............4
BIBLIO GRAPHY ................. ...............47..._..._......
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ..............._ ...............51......._ ......
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
PLATO'S DIDACTIC EXEMPLUM:
EROS, THE DIALOGUE, AND PHILOSOPHY INT THE SYM~POSIUM
Rubin Todd Bohlander
Chair: Robert Wagman
Major Department: Classics
In the following chapters I will examine the way in which the plot development and
narratological features of Plato' s Symposium provide the reader with an interactive
exemplum of how to properly practice philosophy as eros (love). My purpose will be to
show how Plato's use of multiple narrative frames, a series of speakers who
consecutively improve upon one another' s logoi (speeches), and Diotima' s ascent of the
ladder mirror each other and reflect what may be our best look into Plato's definition of
This investigation proceeds from the more general to the more specific attributes of
the Symposium and elucidates how these portray Plato's philosophical agenda. Following
a brief introduction, Chapter 2 contains a discussion of Plato' s choice of the dialogue
format and how that choice produces the question of a Platonic "mouthpiece." In
Chapter 3, I discuss Plato' s employment of narrative frames in this dialogue, and their
effect on it. Chapter 4 establishes the similarities between the progress of the speeches
given and Diotima' s explanation of eros as a procession toward to kalon (The Beautiful).
Chapter 5 examines Alcibiades' relationship with Socrates and how Plato uses them as
examples of successful and unsuccessful erotic maturation. A short conclusion discusses
how Plato combines all of these factors into a didactic experience for the reader that
works to guide him to understand philosophy as eri~s.
The Synaposium is ostensibly an account of a banquet held in honor of the tragedian
Agathon for his victory at the City Dionysia in 416 BC. The tale is told by Apollodorus, a
flamboyant follower of Socrates, who did not attend the event, but heard about it from
Aristodemus, one of Socrates' intimate friends, who was present as the philosopher's
guest. The reason for this account is that some unnamed companions of Apollodorus have
heard about the speeches which the famous guests of this celebration delivered. They
want clarification of and more information on the erotikoi logoi (speeches about love)
which the members of Agathon' s symposium presented.
Occupying the central argument of the Synaposium are the encomia for eros
offered by Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon. Within each
of the logoi, the speakers explore different understandings and theories concerning the
origin, nature, attributes, and functions of eros. All of these lead up to Socrates' own
speech and his presentation of the conversations which he had with a Mantinean
prophetess named Diotima. It was from her that Socrates received his education on
correct erotic living. Diotima describes eros as a spiritual being which exists between
mortal and immortal beings. According to her, eri~s leads the person who properly
SThe central topic of the Symposium is love (eros). However, in the Greek language and tradition eras
designates love as an internal human passion, as well as, the sexual drive, the act of sexual intercourse, and
a deity who personifies these. As will be seen, the various characters in this dialogue use the word eras to
mean all of these and more. I have, therefore, decided that throughout this paper the word eros will always
appear in lower case letters. Unlike many commentators and editors, I will not capitalize it to Eros when it
appears that the deity is intended by the speaker's use.
follows a lover initiated in the erotic mysteries on an ascent in beauty until he arrives at
the very form of The Beautiful (to kalon).
The Synaposium ends after the Athenian general and aristocrat Alcibiades crashes
the party in a drunken stupor. He comes for the purpose of crowning Agathon with a
wreath for his victory. However, when he sees that Socrates is in attendance, Alcibiades
places the wreath on Socrates' head and regales the symposiasts with words of praise for
him and the power of his speeches. While doing so, Alcibiades describes the troubled
relationship he had with Socrates. At the end of his speech, a new crowd of revelers
bursts into Agathon' s house, and many of the guests depart. The Synaposium comes to a
close when Socrates leaves the next morning, having remained awake all night in
discussion with Agathon and Aristophanes.
The scope of the Synaposium is wide-ranging and complex, resulting in an
abundance of interpretations. Strauss read this Platonic dialogue as a contest between
poetry and philosophy, in which philosophy triumphs. He also found it applicable to
political and social theory. Many have considered it one of Plato' s most clear
explanations for his theory of forms, but Anderson' s interpretation directly rej ects this
notion. Bury argues that the connective thread which holds together the interwoven
features of this work is a desire to portray the ideal Socrates and Socrates as the ideal.
Dover believes that Plato writes as an advocate of the right way for one to live. He also
finds the Synaposium a great resource for discussions about Greek homosexuality. Rosen
contends that Plato was both criticizing and praising Socrates for his particular form of
SStrauss (2001) 6-11; Anderson (1993) 7: Bury (1964) lxir-lxy: Dover (1980) viii, 3-5: Rosen (1987) lxii-
Given the multitude of topics which Plato treats in the Synaposium and the manifold
ways in which this dialogue can be understood, I do not attempt to render a complete
reading of the dialogue. However, in this paper I offer the argument that Plato chose for
the Synaposium particular literary structures, primarily narrative frames and indirect
discourse, in order to create a sense of progress which is reflected in the plot
development, namely the ascending order of speeches. This progression is mirrored in
Diotima' s description of the procedure for correctly practicing eros, known as 'Diotima' s
ladder.' Plato wrote the Synaposium in this way for the purpose of creating an interactive
experience for the reader. The reader is required to navigate through the dialogue in much
the same way as a lover must climb Ditoima's ladder. Through this work, Plato aims to
instruct his reader in the philosophical life and, if the reader is diligent, bring him to a
vision of The Beautiful itself.
The following chapters contain my examination of the didactic process which
Plato constructed in the Synaposiunt. In Chapter 2, I begin with a preliminary discussion
of methodology. I explain that the interpretive method employed in this paper is based
upon the so-called "Dialogical" approach to Platonic interpretation. Chapter 3 begins the
analysis of the Synaposium, starting with the use of narrative framing and its effect on the
reader. Chapter 4 turns to the speeches given at Agathon's banquet. I explicate the way in
which various features of the individual speeches are responded to by other speakers, the
way in which they are then reflected in Diotima' s speeches, and how this scheme creates
a sense of development for the reader. Chapter 5 contains my examination of Alcibiades'
role as the negative example of erotic development and how this contrasts with Socrates'
role as the perfectly erotic man. My conclusions are presented briefly in Chapter 6.
TRADITIONAL ASSUMPTIONS AND NEWER METHODS
In Platonic studies, as is more necessary in philosophy than in many pursuits, it is
crucial to argue for the presuppositions brought to each analysis. Coming to a conclusion
about what the dialogue format is, how it functions, and if Plato' s dialogues are dramatic
or dogmatic in nature is primary. Whether or not one believes that Plato was attempting
to transmit doctrines, methodologies, or some combination of the two will affect the
manner in which the dialogues will be interpreted. Throughout the centuries of Platonic
scholarship, many popular interpretations have relied upon assumptions, some erroneous,
that had never been established through logical argumentation. In this chapter, I will
outline the assumptions which have guided my interpretation of the Symposium and
provide arguments for each, in particular that the dialogues are dramatic literature, non-
dogmatic, and that Plato does not speak directly through any of his characters.
Dialogue Format and Dialogism
"Every dialogue, if it is taken as a coherent whole, seems to be more than a vehicle
for doctrine; and the performative effect of the drama appears to be an inseparable part of
what Plato does want to convey."' It has long been an assumption used in Plato
interpretation that the great philosopher was attempting to transmit doctrines. For
"doctrines," I maintain the definition used by Press: "fixed, settled teachings which are
taken to be transcendent, universal, and rational, and which could be expressed as
SScott and Welton (2000) 149.
univocal propositions and stored in memory or books."2 For example, Aristotle
frequently opens his treatises with an assertion of one of his transcendent "truths," as in
the Nicomachean Ethics. zd~ya66v oS ad~vz' hpierat, "The Good is the thing at which all
things aim," serves to announce Aristotle's timeless proposition about the nature of every
techno and its telos.3 Plato's dialogues, in contrast, contain no such statements from their
author. The assumption that Plato's dialogues transmit "doctrines" seems reasonable.
However, whether Plato's dialogues "teach," for example, methodology, doctrines, or
deductive propositions, is not self-evident. Therefore, one cannot simply ascribe to Plato
a systematic set of dogmatic statements in his dialogues as his own belief structure.
The greatest problem with this way of thinking about Plato' s dialogues is that
scholars begin to neglect the literary form from which they extract these "doctrines." The
dogmatic or doctrinal approach, as this method of Platonic interpretation is often called,
has been dominant since ancient times.4 This interpretive method hangs on the
assumptions that Plato' s philosophy consisted of a series of doctrines, and that he wrote
them into his works. The dialogues then become little more than artifice for a group of
statements that the reader must hunt for, collect, and then compile into a system of
philosophy. As Tejera states, "One of the mainstays of the doctrinal approach is .. the
unstated working assumption .. that aesthetics has no bearing at all on the dialogues."5
This interpretive method diminishes Plato's use of advanced dramatic and literary
SPress (1993) 5.
SNicomachean Ethics 1094al. Translation by H. Rackham (1933).
SFor a study of the history of Platonic interpretations, see Tigerstedt (1974).
STejera (1997) 249, emphasis in original.
structures; it denies that these str-uctures contain meaning or should guide interpretation
of philosophical content.
A basic question that the doctrinal approach can never satisfactorily answer is why
Plato wrote dialogues. Given that other forms of literature had long been the traditional
mode of educational discourse, namely epic, drama, oratory, and lyric, Plato could have
maintained Athenian pedagogical customs. He did not; he wrote dialogues that
throughout the course of history have generally been considered "sui generis."6 They
represent a basic shift from the transmission of philosophy via verse, as was the case with
Xenophanes and Parmenides, to a prose tradition. This genre of literature (named
Sokratikoi logoi by Aristotle ) had begun previous to Plato' s writing; s nonetheless, the
Platonic dialogues diverge from the other extant Sokratikoi logoi both in form and
content. Nightingale summarizes this departure in the following way: "But it
is...reasonable to suppose that Plato took a simple genre characterized by recorded or
dramatized conversations and transformed it into a multi-generic hybrid."9 Plato
combined many literary and dramatic techniques in order to produce these philosophical
works. If the doctrinal approach were the best (dare I say intended) method of
interpretation, there would be little or no need for scholars to recognize such innovations,
let alone ask questions about them.
6 Press (1997) 7.
SKahn (1996) situates Plato's dialogues within the framework of writings completed by some of his
contemporaries, such as Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aeschines, Phaedo, and Eucleides.
9 Nightingale (1995) 5.
At this point, it is necessary to turn towards a positive solution to the problems of
interpretation placed upon Plato scholarship by the dogmatic approach to his dialogues.
Since the 19th century a movement in Plato interpretation that espouses a holistic
approach to the dialogues has grown in influence. 10 This dialogical approach, as it is
commonly referred to by its proponents, views the dialogues inside of their literary,
linguistical, and historical contexts in order to find their meanings. Scholars of the
dialogical approach minimize the idea of extracting doctrines or finding Plato's beliefs in
the statements of characters within the dialogues. 1 Because scholars holding to
dialogical reading of Plato are not searching for doctrinal statements and devaluing the
literary nature of Plato' s dialogues, the dialogical interpretation is able to offer
explanations for Plato' s use of historical features and dramatic structures.
It is important to place distance between the dialogical approach to history and the
traditional dogmatic attitude. As a primary example of the latter, Vlastos holds that the
Apology is a historical portrayal both of Socrates and his trial.12 The evidence he provides
for this position is twofold. First, he states that the only alternative to Plato's Socrates
depicting the historical Socrates is Xenophon's Socrates. After dismissing other
contemporaries of Plato as viable sources for information about the historical Socrates,
'o For a brief history of the development and major contributors of the dialogical movement over the last
two centuries, see Press (1997) 12-18.
11 Press (1997) 3. Although not a dialogical scholar, but a unitarian, Kahn expresses a major dialogical
tendency in his approach to Plato with statements such as, "His principal aim, above all in the earlier
works, is not to assert true propositions but to alter the minds and hearts of his readers. Plato's conception
of philosophical education is not to replace false doctrines with true ones but to change radically the moral
and intellectual orientation of the learner, who, like the prisoners in the cave, must be converted turned
around in order to see the light." Kahn (1996) xv.
12 "That this figure [Socrates] is a faithful and imaginative recreation of the historical Socrates...is the
conclusion I would be prepared to defend myself." Vlastos (1971) 1. Vlastos states that this view of
Socrates is primarily from the early dialogues, but still maintains that the Socrates written by Plato is
intended to be read as the historical Socrates.
Vlastos asks "If Plato and Xenophon cannot both be right, why must Plato be right?" 13
Why must either of them be right? A significant unspoken assumption lies at the bottom
of Vlastos' argument: someone intended to write a biographically accurate work about or
containing Socrates and accomplished that intention. Even if this were true, and we will
never know if it is, Vlastos decides that the philosopher Plato has done so, and not the
historian Xenophon. Second, just because Plato accurately represented some aspects of
Socrates' life and personality, it does not follow that all of the attributes and actions of
the Platonic Socrates depict the historical Socrates. Speaking of the Apology, Vlastos
answers, "[Plato] knew that hundreds of those who might read the speech .. had heard
the historic original."14 Once again, the seductive and powerful influence of the
traditional interpretive method has led Vlastos to assume that Plato was attempting to
correct errors in facts. In this case, he states unequivocally, "his purpose in writing it [the
Apology] was to clear his master' s name and indict his judges ."15 However, Plato' s
"purpose" in writing the Apology or any of the dialogues has not been securely
determined and, therefore, remains a point of contention. Not only this, but Vlastos has
also assumed a wide readership of Plato in antiquity which more recent scholarship
denies. Thesleff concludes that "Plato must have thought of his friends around him, and
their friends abroad, as his primary audience" and "that Plato, for all we know, never
wrote for an impersonal, general public."16 Vlastos' adherence to the traditional approach
13 Vlastos (1971) 2.
14 Vlastos (1971) 3.
1s Vlastos (1971) 3.
16 Thesleff (1993) 38-9.
to Plato has trapped his interpretations within a framework of increasingly larger and
less-substantiated claims. 1
The use of the historical elements in Plato' s dialogues, as understood by dialogical
readers, is not for the purpose of biography nor does it simply make them more accessible
to the reader. x Certainly, historical features assist in relating Plato's themes by
constructing for them personalities or characters that are grounded in something which
appears to be reality. Still, to stop at that point would be identical to the doctrinal view of
Plato' s use of history because these personae could be interchanged with any other
character. In contrast, the dialogical approach contends that:
As in any literary text, who and what the characters are is crucial for interpretation.
But many of Plato' s characters, like Socrates, pose a special problem; for they are
both fictional and historical, by which I mean that they are named after and in some
identifiable ways modeled on real life figures of the recent Athenian past, but they
are also changed to suit Plato' s purposes and, of course, all of the words they speak
are Plato's. This complicates and deepens the dialogues and needs to be fully
explicated in each case. 19
In the next section, I will treat more thoroughly the question of the role of Plato' s
Socrates in the dialogues, but the key issue concerning historical characters from a
dialogical standpoint is that they are Plato's constructions. The dialogical approach
requires that we understand the dramatic and rhetorical effects that are created with the
appearance of these characters named and modeled after historical persons, and scholars
must consider how these shape the Platonic philosophical agenda.
17 Speaking of modern scholars such as Vlastos, Kahn writes ". since they treat Plato's literary creations
as if these were historical documents, the result is a pseudo-historical account of the philosophy of
Socrates." Kahn (1996) 3.
1s Robb makes the clear, but generally overlooked point that "biography is a Hellenistic invention, and was
unknown in Plato's day." Robb (1997) 34.
19 Press (1993) 119-20.
Is Plato Speaking?
Arguably, the most potent and entrenched concept that the doctrinal method of
interpretation has produced is the notion that the character of Socrates faithfully
represents Plato's philosophical beliefs within the dialogues. Because there is no Plato
character in any of the dialogues, before the time of Aristophanes of Byzantium20 the
dialogues prompted the question, "Which of Plato' s characters expresses his own
position?" In recent scholarly debate, this question has been answered by the so-called
"mouthpiece theory." This is so intertwined with the arguments concerning the dialogue
format and interpretive methods that many of the dialogical responses to mouthpiece
theories will overlap already stated dialogical responses to doctrinal methodology.
Nevertheless, since Socrates is ostensibly the central figure in Sokratikoi logoi and the
legacy of the historical Socrates sparks such heated antagonism among scholars, it is
important to outline the differences between traditional expectations placed upon Plato's
Socrates and those expectations placed upon him by dialogical interpreters.
In order to extricate from the dialogues a definitive "Platonism," philosophers and
philologists have attempted to assign to a character inside of his writings the privileged
role of Plato's spokesman. If, as the idea goes, any particular person stands in a work as
a conduit of Plato' s authoritative perception, then the great philosopher' s doctrines and
beliefs become accessible to the discerning reader capable of determining which
character fills this role. Of course, this too relies on the assumption about Plato and
Platonic philosophy that, in order to find any Platonic doctrine in the dialogues, there first
20 Oxyrhyncus 3219; Tarrant (2000) 71. In fact, H. Cherniss shows in Aristotle 's Criticism ofPlato and the
Academy (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1944) that Aristotle had already asked and answered
repeatedly whether Socrates and other main characters express Plato's ideas.
must have been Platonic doctrines and then Plato must have written them into these
dialogues. At no point in any of the dialogues, however, is it possible to isolate a
statement and definitively claim that Plato believed it as true. The dialogues are dramatic
prose and not treatises, and as such, the characters' statements may at any point fail to
convey the author's doctrines, provided he had any, while still serving his purpose.
That the character Socrates provides the best vantage from which to look out over
the Platonic philosophical landscape has long been the consensus opinion. This
traditional view holds the position that whenever Socrates appears in a dialogue of Plato
the reader must consider his speeches to be the articulation of Plato's system of
philosophy. However, since Socrates does not appear in some dialogues, in others does
not occupy the protagonist role, and occasionally contradicts himself between dialogues,
scholars have been forced to contrive intricate explanations for how these reflect upon the
"continuity" of Platonic philosophy. As a result, two maj or schools of thought have come
forth within the doctrinal scholars, the unitarians and the developmentalists.
The unitarian response to the mouthpiece debate, although differences of degree
exist among scholars of this view, maintains that Plato had a fully formed philosophical
system from his initial authorship of the earliest dialogues. 21 To be accurate, the unitarian
position does not hold that at all points Socrates, or any speaker, directly speaks for Plato;
nevertheless, unitarians affirm that Socrates, quite frequently Plato's representative,
becomes the central figure in a series of literary works through which Plato espouses his
21 The unitarian scholars attribute the genesis of this interpretation to Friedrich Schleiermacher,
Introduction to the Dialogues ofPlato, tr. W. Dobson (New York: Graland, 1973), whom the dialogical
movement equally maintains as instrumental for the inception of its methodology. Influential recent
unitarian proponents include Paul Friedliinder, Charles Kahn, and the "Tilbingen School" of Kurt Gaiser
and Hans-Joachim Kriimer.
own philosophical theories. Early dialogues provide only clues and "proleptic"
introductions to theories that Plato makes explicit in later dialogues, although he had
those theories already fully developed in his mind. The main concern of unitarian
scholars, as opposed to developmentalists, is that "Plato's thought processes in the course
of composition are inaccessible to us. What we have is his authorial design, inscribed in
the text of the dialogues."22 Thus, the unitarian approach to the mouthpiece issue requires
a protagonist, usually Socrates, who offers the examples of Plato' s continuation of
Socratic philosophy in a progressively revelatory manner, while maintaining Plato's
The developmentalist school teaches that, as Plato wrote and matured, he altered
his philosophical system and this is reflected in his dialogues. First expressed by K. F.
Hermann in 1839, developmentalism has gained a large adherence since the advent of
stylometric analysis in 1867.23 COrnford used stylometric analysis to establish an outline
of the order in which Plato wrote the dialogues and divided them into three primary
groupings.24 From there, developmenatlists think that it is possible to track how Plato
uses different characters over the course of his life to express his philosophical doctrines.
The conclusion of the developmentalist perspective is that Plato uses Socrates as his
spokesman throughout the early dialogues. As time goes on and he establishes his own
22Kahn (1996) 63.
23 Guthrie (1975) 49. By far, the most influential members of developmentalism of the twentieth century
have been Gregory Vlastos and his students.
24 Guthrie (1975) 50. While there are variations of this arrangement and still debate over individual
dialogues, Cornford's categories of early, middle, and late dialogues generally hold today. Early: Apology,
Crito, Laches, Lysis, Charmidees, Euthyprhro, Hippias Minor and Major, Protagoras, Gorgias, lon. Middle:
Meno, Phaed'o, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Euthydemus, Menexemus, Cratylus. Late: Parmenidees,
Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, Laws.
mature philosophy, Plato allows other characters to express his thoughts and distances
himself from Socrates, especially the historical Socrates. Vlastos describes this process in
the following way:
As Plato changes, the philosophical persona of his Socrates is made to change,
absorbing the writer' s new convictions, arguing for them with the same zest with
which the Socrates of the previous dialogues had argued for the views the writer
had shared with the original of that figure earlier on.2
Developmentalists use this idea of maturation to explain the apparent contradictions
between dialogues and the shift in themes from the early dialogues to the later dialogues.
Both the unitarian and developmental approaches to the mouthpiece question are
incompatible with the dialogical approach to Plato interpretation. Indeed, many so-called
"anti-mouthpiece" or "non-mouthpiece" scholars are members of the dialogical school.26
The reason for this is that dialogism does not presume the existence of Platonic doctrines
within the dialogues, whereas the unitary and developmental approaches both attempt to
cull propositional statements from the dialogues. These collected doctrines must be
forced to cohere in a logical, systematic way. Disregarding these presupposed teachings,
the dialogical reader will not find the need for a spokesman.
So then, the dialogical response to the question of who speaks for Plato is that "the
dialogues do, irreducibly."27 It is impossible to separate any portion of a dialogue from
the larger context of that work and label it Plato' s theory or doctrine. "The dialogues are
dramatic examples of such [philosophical] speech and thinking that their audience can
25 Vlastos (1991) 53.
26 Scholars prominently known for their participation in both dialogical and anti-mouthpiece scholarship
include Debra Nails, Holger Thesleff, Harold Tarrant, and Gerald Press.
27Nails (2000) 16.
take in and in which they can, at least vicariously, participate."28 Without the dialogue
form, the philosophical reasoning that takes place within the dialogues could not exist.
The dialogues as independent wholes transmit Plato's philosophy.
The unique nature of the dialogues has led to great speculation and more than two
millennia of interpretations based less upon what we know and more upon what has been
unquestioningly accepted. Through dialogism, it is possible to strip away many
unfounded presumptions that have governed Plato scholarship and to take a new look at
the features of the dialogues that have made them the unparalleled body of philosophical
literature. These principles will guide this investigation of the Symposium and show how
Plato masterfully constructed within this dialogue a reflexive relationship between
literary form, dramatic structure, and philosophic content which work synergistically to
educate the reader.
28Waugh (2000) 49.
FRAMING THE DIALOGUE
Plato devised an complex narrative frame for the Synaposium, and the effects of its
intricacies have not gone without great attention. This frame is constructed with an
opening scene in which the reader meets the narrator of the Synaposium, Apollodorus.
Plato continues throughout the work to use the frame as Apollodorus occasionally
interj ects with "He said that he said." The purpose of creating such a dramatic structure to
contain the speeches about eros remains one of the primary questions concerning the
Synaposiunt. Three other dialogues among the Platonic corpus, Theaetetus, Phaedo, and
Parmenides, begin with similar framing structures, and their relevance to the practice of
philosophy continues to deserve analysis.l As discussed in the previous chapter, an
investigation of this sort is at the heart of the dialogical interpretative method of Platonic
dialogues. In order to understand what philosophy the Synaposium expresses, particularly
through its use of frames, one must take a careful look at the emotional and psychological
oscillations effected by Plato' s construction of this narrative frame.
Who Tells This Story?
The Synaposiunt opens on a scene between a Socrates enthusiast, Apollodorus, and
a group of unnamed listeners. Apollodorus goes to great lengths in order to assure his
audience that he can faithfully recount the speeches about eros which were given at
SThis chapter owes a great amount to the insightful works of Halperin (1992), Johnson (1998), and Strauss
(2001). These three scholars produced some of the analyses most centered literary and historical features of
the Symposium's narrative frame and the general structure of the work in recent history. Although all
arrive at different conclusions, their contributions in this topic have been central in my investigation.
Agathon's victory party. He immediately begins to narrate an encounter with Glaucon
from a couple of days before, during which the two of them walked up to the city as
Apollodorus told the whole story from the beginning. Whoever it was who had heard
about the banquet from Phoenix had not accurately retold the logoi to Glaucon, and so
Apollodorus had been caught and coerced into narration. But during this embedded
narrative, Apollodorus reveals a piece of information that could undercut his claim to
reliability: he tells Glaucon that he was not present at the gathering at Agathon's house,
and, in fact, that the whole affair had taken place long ago during their childhood years.
He states that he learned the "truth" of the matter from Aristodemus, a close follower of
Socrates, who had attended that evening and that he verified some (enia) details with
Socrates.2 COncluding his explanation of his preparedness to share the logot erotikoi,
Apollodorus is playfully chastised for his eccentric ways by one of his interlocutors.
Following this, he concedes to share what he knows and begins narrating Aristodemus'
story of Agathon' s party.
The introductory sentence deserves special consideration. SoxAj Cot ~napi Av
~nuv6&voeo6 oix dlCEM~T1ZoS simi, "(I think that I, concerning the things you're inquiring
of, am not unpractised." Plato introduces a theme of reflection in two words and then
begins to move the reader along his dialogical path. The first two words of the
Symposium, SoxAj CoI, ("(I think that I ..")3 draw the reader into the narrator' s dramatic
present and perspective. When read, the phrase forces one to think reflexively, as though
looking into a mirror and speaking to himself: "I am telling myself that I think that I ."
SDover (1980) 77.
In this way, Plato inaugurates a series of reflections that will continue throughout the
Synaposiunt. He sets out from the person who always responds to a text, the reader' s "I",
and causes him to behold himself as narrator for just one second. But in that second, the
effect is complete, and the speaker and the reader become united at the dramatic level,
while still conversing with one another. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent through the
second person plural verb ~novedveo~e that this narrator is speaking to a group, and that
the reader is among this group of listeners. This sets in place a new mirror effect: the
reader, who is still feeling united with the voice of the first-person narrator is now being
spoken to by that same narrator. Now the reflection is between the narrator/reader in first
person and the addressees/reader in second person. Plato's text tempers this unusual
position and does not permit the reader to linger by moving away to the first embedded
narrative about Apollodorus' meeting with Glaucon.
Before leaving the dialogue's initial sentence, it is necessary to point out that
another maj or theme of the Synaposium is presented here. The narrator states that he is
"not unpracticed," introducing CLEhlit, practice or care. As explained by Diotima, it is by
nzelete! that all knowledge maintains a presence within humans through the regeneration
of what was known and the replacement of old memories with new replicas of that
information. She calls this yeLEhEZy, to practice.4 For, when one begins to forget
something, through nzelete! that knowledge is reinserted into the mind and appears to the
individual as the same, although it is the recreation of a previous instance of knowledge.
Ditotima tells Socrates that this is true of our bodies as well. The human physical nature
is one of constant deterioration and coming into being. Although a person is thought of as
the same from birth until death, he continually loses and produces things like hair, skin,
and blood.' To look at this on a larger scale, Diotima explains that this constant need for
regeneration is what makes all animals so "erotically disposed."6 This is because all
mortals desire to become immortal. This drive for immortality that generates procreation,
which in turn requires melete#, is the very nature of eros.BaeonDti'spnclef
meleted, we see that Apollodorus recognizes that the story he is going to repeat for his
listeners is the product of melete! and an example of the nature of eros. He has rehearsed
the story he will deliver, and thereby turns his recitation of the logot erotikoi into a
manifestation of the work of eros brought about through meleted.
With the conclusion of the first sentence, the reader has moved positions twice, and
Plato's text makes it clear that the unity with the narrator has dissolved. Now a member
of the narrator' s dramatic audience, the reader realizes that Plato has placed him in
medians res; he (addressees/reader) has asked this narrator to tell him about this famed
occasion, at which Socrates and other notable Athenians presented speeches on the erotic
(zTjv eparixK~v h6ymyv, 172b2). The text, however, does not reveal this fact directly, but
through an embedded narrative. This is only noticed when the narrator, soon to be
identified as Apollodorus, informs his listeners that "just the other day I happened to be
headed up to town from my home in Phalerum." Because the reader neither traveled from
Phalerum the other day nor owns a house there, the distinction from the original voice of
6 Symposium 207b7-cl.
80xfo Cpot has been cemented. Plato has made the reader a member of the group wanting
to know more about what Socrates said during Agathon's banquet.
Next, a member of the group speaks to Apollodorus and engages him in some
polite, humorous name-calling (173d4). The reader gains full autonomy from any of the
characters within both the dramatic and narrative portions of the text, although he
remains present for the dramatic moment. The impetus to know what Aristodemus shared
with Apollodorus still drives the conversation forward. Plato has left his reader eager to
hear more and has engendered a desire to learn about ta erotika.
The deft way in which Plato has performed his literary legerdentain allows one to
progress through this dramatic scene, with its tensions and introductions of important
themes, without recognizing the individual steps. The reader does not consciously
consider the technique used to place him in this dialogue's world, a world of reflections
and diligent care (nzeletd). Nonetheless, as he moves into Apollodorus' telling of
Aristodemus' narrative of the speeches given at Agathon' s house, the Synaposium's
reader feels comfortable to interact with the characters and ideas expressed by those
present. Plato has completed his artistry, and the reader is none the more aware of the
artifice, although manipulated by it.
Plato's Purpose in Framing
After considering the emotional and psychological effects of the initial dramatic
sequence, it is necessary to provide possible reasons why Plato uses narrative frames in
the Synaposiunt. Surely this skillful display of literary prowess was not solely for the
purpose of creating "suspension of disbelief." In order to achieve this, Plato did not need
to embed multiple narrations, some of which are second and third-hand to the narrator.
When the structure of these embedded narratives is represented in a "step-down" outline
it looks like the following:
* Apollodorus narrates to his companions.
* Aristodemus tells the story to Apollodorus.
* Socrates presents his narrative to those at the banquet.
* Diotima explains eros to Socrates.
By the time the reader arrives at the climax of the Synaposium with Diotima, any
statement providing the order of transmission would require saying, "Apollodorus said
that Aristodemus said that Socrates said that Diotima said this." This level of complexity
and convolutionn" denotes purpose. This purpose must find its expression through the
My position on this issue, stated plainly, is that Plato achieves two very important
results by framing the Synaposium in this way. First, he fashions an ascending order of
reflections that begins with the previously discussed movement of perspectives. This
concept of reflection is mirrored by embedding narratives within narratives, which then
interact with one another. I will explicate this point in the next chapter. But for now, it
has been shown that Apollodorus' first statement introduces CLEhMTI into the text, which
Diotima will refer to near the end of Socrates' narration of their conversation, both of
which are within Aristodemus' account as told by Apollodorus. In this way, the most
embedded narrative, Socrates' telling of Diotima's conversations, is reflected at the
original level of narration, that is, Apollodorus conversation with his interlocutors.
Second, Plato acknowledges the difficult position that he has made for himself by
inscribing the practice of dialogical philosophy, that is, the practice of philosophy
through two or more persons in dialectic as portrayed by Socrates in the dialogues, into a
SJohnson (1998) 588-9.
literary, text-based format. Through his dialogue format and dramatic frames for
narratives in his dialogues, Plato aids his Athenian contemporaries to see philosophy as
an interactive process that demands varying levels of negotiation from those who would
participate in philosophizing.9
Arguably, the circumstance which most differentiates modern readers from the late-
5th and early-4th century Athenian culture is literacy or, more precisely, our lesser
dependence on oral transmission of knowledge versus the ancients' heavy reliance upon
it. 10 The conditions of transmission of information have forever changed among Western
societies, and it is impossible to recreate a situation by which moderns might fully
appreciate the ancient expectations of orality and aurality. Greek society had been
passing down legends of their heroes, stories of their origins, and myths of their gods in
spoken form for centuries before Plato. An Athenian of this time could expect to know
how to live a meaningful and virtuous life by following the examples he committed to
memory, having heard and seen them from public orators, epic bards, and dramatic
9 One must also bear in mind that Plato was not only negotiating between his society's trend of oral
transmission and this newer movement towards written literature, but also between Socrates' practice of
dialectic and written philosoplw. The textual and historical traditions agree that Socrates never committed
any of his philosoplw to writing. Plato portrays Socrates disavowing the value of writing for philosophical
purposes in the famous passage of his Phaedrus. At 275d, Socrates tells Phaedrus that writing is like a
painting: whenever anyone asks it something, it continues to signify the same thing. He continues to say
that writing has no power of its own to convince or argue, but always requires a "father" to help them
along. Later, at 276e, Socrates unequivocally states that discourse about the just, good, and beautiful is far
more noble when engaging another person in dialectic. Whether the historical Socrates actually made such
statements can not be known. Nevertheless, we are sure that no writing of his remains and Plato wrote his
Socrates as an oralistt." The decision to use the philosophical dialogue and dramatic framing should,
therefore, be considered as part of Plato's own negotiation to maintain Socrates' dialectical approach to
philosophy while moving to the written medium.
"' For studies of orality in Plato, see Robb (1997) and Tarrant (1995).
Plato explores how he bridges the gap between the oral tradition, with its emphasis
on dramatic representation and recitation, and the newer literary means of engaging
philosophy in the Theaetetus. The dramatic scene which introduces the narrative in this
dialogue provides an example of how 4th century Athenians could use written accounts of
dialogues in order to pursue philosophical ends. The scene opens on Eucleides and
Terpsion coming across each other as Eucleides is returning home from Erineum and a
visit with the ailing war hero Theaetetus. Eucleides informs Terpsion that during his
return from seeing Theaetetus, he recalled that Socrates had told him about a
conversation between Theaetetus, Theodorus, and himself. Eucleides says that he is not
able to narrate the event from memory, but he had written down the substance of that
conversation as best as he could remember and subsequently verified the contents with
Socrates on his visits to Athens. Terpsion wishes to hear this dialogue, so Theaetetus
invites him to rest at his house while a slave reads the book of this conversation to both of
them. Before Eucleides commands his slave to begin, he informs Terpsion that he has
written this dialogue as a drama and not as a narrative; specifically, he has presented the
dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors as it took place and not as Socrates told
him. Therefore, the book does not contain transitional phrases, such as "And then he
said..." between each speaker' s turn. Eucleides then orders the slave to read and the
embedded dialogue begins.
In the dialogue format, Plato merged the instilled ancient sense of orality with the
rapidly increasing appreciation for written literature. One can see in the frame of the
Theaetetus Plato' s cognizance of his society's transition from oral to literary transmission
methods. The union of these two divergent sensibilities required Plato, just as his
character Eucleides, to be aware of the differences in audience response when moving
from a literature which is heard to a literature which is read. Eucleides followed the
instinct to dramatize, and through conscientious application of dramatic technique he
places his audience, in this case himself and Terpsion, directly into the action with
Socrates. He removes the mediating language that might create difficulty of
comprehension in someone who has spent a lifetime listening to the plays of Euripides or
the recitations of Homer. Likewise, Plato removes the distance between his readers and the
erga of his dialogues through dramatization and dramatic frames.
Important conclusions about Plato's purpose in framing the Synaposium can be
drawn from observations made about the frame of the Theaetetus. The frame of the
Synaposium was an intentional device that Plato employed to create a particular response
from his readers. That is, including such a structure was part of his well-considered
manipulation of emotional interactions with the text, and it serves to establish the theme
of CLEhlit. Since we observe from the Theaetetus that Plato knew ways to express related
speech without using Greek' s accusative/idfnitive indirect speech construction, to
employ this construction constitutes intention, not simple adherence to syntax. The
reason is found in the Theaetetus when Eucleides explains his exclusion of "I said" and
"he said," the rationale he gives is Clil napiXotev unpc'yCpam,l so that there will not be
difficulties in understanding. If the absence of these narrative markers and the
accusative/idfnitive construction they require means fewer difficulties for the reader of a
text, then the inclusion of these same elements must indicate greater complexity for the
same reader. From the fact that he utilized the more problematic syntactical and narrative
11 Theaetetus 143cl.
features, we understand that Plato intended that the Synaposium require more of its
readers. He determines that even basic linguistic comprehension will be a struggle and
that if one is to attain to a full understanding of this dialogue' s import, that person must
strive after it. Just as if in longing for an obj ect of desire, the reader practices great care
through the embedded narratives to arrive at Agathon's banquet and to hear Diotima' s
description of eros.
I wish to clarify at this point that I am not claiming that Plato wrote the Hzeaetetus
and the Synaposium with the notion of intertextuality as understood by many analytic
interpreters of Plato' s works. Familiarity with the Theaetetus and its discussion of the
tension between orality and literacy would not have been a prerequisite for Plato' s
contemporaries to sense the "difficulty" in the Synaposiunt that I have discussed. The late-
5th and early-4th century Athenian instinct for oral/aural literature caused a reader of that
time to sense the struggle of the Synaposium by nature. This is what makes the frame of
the Theatetus so remarkable in its portrayal of Athenians dealing with dramatic writing
versus narrative writing. Plato has committed to text an example of how the tendency
towards orality, an experience which modern readers do not share, works out when
someone of that culture shifts to written communication. The modern reader benefits
from correlating concepts discussed in the Hzeatetus to the Synaposium, but this was not
at all a condition for comprehension among Plato's generation.
Other Effects of Framing
Two frequently discussed effects of Plato' s use of a complex narrative frame in the
Synaposium include: 1) Plato creates a sense temporal "distance" between his readers and
12 Cf. Halperin (1992) 97-106 and Rosen (1987) 10, with their "initiation" into the mysteries contained
within the narrative.
the events of the narrative; 2) Plato undermines the "authenticity" of the accounts given
and the narrator' s (or Plato' s own) "reliability" to relate the contents of the narrative
accurately. Although both of these interpretations of Platonic framing have helped
scholars to achieve great improvements in understanding the function of frames in the
philosophical dialogue, the interpretive model that I have employed renders these
unsatisfactory or inapplicable. For the remainder of this chapter I will show how the
notion of "distance" indicates an anachronistic perspective and that any question of
"authenticity" is a consequence of the assumption that Plato intended to present a
historically accurate report in the Synaposiunt.
When scholars such as Bacon and Rosen speak of "distance" within the
Synaposium, they refer to a feeling of separation between the initial dramatic time, when
Apollodorus begins the text with 80xf'o CoI, and the time decades earlier when Diotima
and Socrates held their conversation. 13 According to them, the reader is often reminded
of the fact that he, like Apollodorus and his unnamed companions, did not attend the
gathering at Agathon's house, nor were they present for Diotima's explication on the
nature and workings of eri~s. Plato imposes upon the reader, as this interpretation goes, a
feeling of "distance" through his use of the extended accusative/infinitive indirect speech
construction during the logoi, and whenever Apollodorus interrupts with phrases like,
"He said that Agathon said that ."
Quite to the contrary, in my reading, the frame of the Synaposium and the use of
indirect statement provide a dramatic entry that makes a legendary occasion come to life
once again, while forcing the reader to struggle with the structure and meaning of the
'3 Bacon (1959) 419-21: Rosen (1987) 7-9.
text. Although it is true that many years separate the dramatic present of the frame and
the time of the embedded narratives, Plato traverses this temporal gap and places his
reader in the room with Agathon' s company. The events and speeches of the narrative
appear realistic. They grant a glimpse into the world of the Athenian elite at the height of
the classical period, as scholars who use the "distance" interpretation agree. Halperin
comes close with his concept of the "erotics of narrativity" where it focuses on the
interaction between a reader's desire to experience the past is fulfilled and the fact that
narration itself means that the reader can never be in that past. 14 Still, the idea of
separation is overstated in this. If Plato was intending to make his reader feel detached,
then he failed miserably.
A better explanation, and one supported with evidence provided by Plato, is that
"difficulty" was at the heart of the frame and its consequent syntax, not "distance." As
discussed, Plato displays his awareness of the difficulties that indirect discourse creates in
extended narrative. Eucleides' stylistic choices in the Theaetetus provide a consparandunt
for the ancient Greek response to this issue. A narrative of this type requires greater effort
to follow and to understand, even for native speakers of ancient Greek but this does not
necessitate feeling that the events narrated are farther away. According to my
interpretation, the sensation of "distance" appears to be anachronistic response based
upon the modern reader' s own "distance" from the culture of Plato' s day. These modern
readers have proj ected "distance" onto Plato and his contemporaries.
Comments about the "reliability" of the narrator or the "authenticity" of the
narrative in the Synaposiunt abound so greatly within the scholarship on the dialogue that
'4 Halperin (1992) 98 and 106.
it is hardly overstatement to call them ubiquitous. 15 The issue is based primarily on the
relative chronology of events within the Synaposium and the indirect manner in which
Apollodorus learned the narrative. The brief summary of the argument goes as follows: If
Agathon won his victory as a dramatist in 416 BC and Apollodorus is attempting to relate
the events of the next day's celebration banquet approximately fifteen years later, having
heard the story himself second-hand, then the accuracy of his narration is questionable. 16
Because Plato authored the Synaposium as many as twenty years later and makes use of
an "unreliable" narrator, he appears to undermine his own authority to present this
Sokratikos logos as an "authentic" record.
At a dramatic level, one cannot help but recognize the effort Apollodorus exerts to
confirm his version of the story. He informs his listeners that Aristodemus slept through
part of the affair and could not remember entire speeches given during the party.
Admissions of this type help to lend greater credibility to the one confessing. Moreover,
what portions Aristodemus recalled, Apollodorus verified their veracity with Socrates.
Far from thinking of him as unreliable, the characters within the dialogue's dramatic
instance are moved to trust Apollodorus' telling as authentic and well-rehearsed. Beyond
internal observations, the Synaposium is a work of dramatic and narrative literature. The
lifelike construction of the literary world which Plato creates in his dialogues, however,
does not constitute an attempt at biography or historiography. I argued in the last chapter
that the assumption of factuality or transcription of historical events and people continues
to be untenable. It appears in this instance that the desire for historicity among many
15 E.g., Bury (1964) xv-xviii; Rosen (1987) 9: Halperin (1992) 107-11; Hunter (I r 14) 26-9.
16 For the dates of the Symposium's dramatic events and Plato's authorship, see Bury (1964) lxvi-iii.
scholars has led them to devalue or forget the fundamental nature of fictive writing in
To summarize, an analysis of the frame of the Synaposium demonstrates some of
the ways in which Plato wrote the dialogue and its constituent parts with a conscientious
eye toward expressing his philosophical agenda through the union of both form and
content. At the very beginning of the Synaposiunt the themes of reflection and diligent
care, CLEM~TI, find expression in Apollodorus' first sentence. The reader is made to
participate in the pursuit of eros by struggling through the negotiation of varying
perspectives and the difficulties which indirect discourse creates. The embedded
narratives also serve to fashion a progression of ascent into the dramatic past.
DESPERATELY SEEKING EROS
In the last chapter I argued that the frame of the Synaposium performs several
important tasks: it engenders in the reader a sense of eagerness to find out more about the
speeches given during Agathon's celebration, it creates a dramatic feeling of immediacy
that allows a reader to believe he is participating, and it establishes that interaction with
the narrative will be difficult and require careful attention. In order to continue to
explicate how Plato guides his reader to experience the didactic effect of the Synaposium,
in this chapter I will discuss the progressive nature of the speeches. More specifically, it
is my intention to illustrate how each successive speech is an "improvement" in the way
the symposiasts praise eros and its function. These improvements serve to create the
notion of progression toward an ultimate understanding of eros. When, at last, Socrates
speaks, he completes this "upward" trend by correcting the method of praise and sharing
his conversations with Diotima which initiated him into the mysteries of eros. This theme
and sense of development within the plot mirrors the steps of ascension to a vision of The
Beautiful (to kalon) as described Diotima.
For purposes of comparison, it is necessary to outline the segment of the
Synaposium in which Diotima provides her stages of erotic progress. Synaposium 209e5-
212a7 contains the entirety of Diotima' s revelation of the procedure by which a young
man ascends to a vision of The Beautiful. In fact, she lists the steps of this ascent twice in
this passage of the text: at 210a4-210e5 and 211lb7-211Id1.
This is the right procedure or way of being led by another in erotic matters,
beginning from the earlier beauties for the sake of this one, he must always ascend,
as on the steps of a stair, from one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies; and
from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, from beautiful customs to beautiful
knowledge, and from knowledge he will terminate in this knowledge, which is no
other than knowledge of this beauty itself; and so initiated, he knows what beauty is
Moravcsik, reading both sections together, produces a fourteen step organization of
Diotima' s ascent of the erotic man. 2 He divides these fourteen stages into an "upper" and
a "lower" ascent, which contains two subdivisions. The first subdivision of the "lower"
ascent contains the first five stages. These predominantly concern the appreciation of
beauty evident in bodies, moving from the love of beauty in a particular body to the
recognition that what is beautiful in all bodies is the same beauty. At the last stage of this
subdivision the erotic beginner has learned to hold in contempt the notion of loving only
one body, and he becomes a lover of all beautiful bodies. In the second subdivision of the
"lower" ascent, which contains the next five stages, the lover makes the cognitive
advancement to understand that souls contain a beauty which is superior to the beauty of
bodies. He learns the value of guiding a young man along the ascent and sees the beauty
of intangibles, such as customs and laws. Having discovered that all beauty is related,
whether in bodies or in intangible practices, he assigns little value to physical beauty
since it is inferior. Moravscik calls the final four stages of Diotima' s ladder the "upper"
ascent. At this point, the lover is turned to contemplate the beauty contained in sciences
and other branches of knowledge. After beholding the beauty that is manifested in so
many ways, the lover finds liberation from any single form of beauty and gazes on the
Translation from Rosen (1987) 272-3.
SMoravscik (1972) 286.
vast ocean of beauty that exists. He pours forth beautiful speeches in boundless
philosophy until, strengthened by these experiences, he suddenly catches sight of the
transcendent form of The Beautiful.
This progression of the stages of ascent for erotic development displays several
important preliminary trends in Diotima' s organization which relate to the speeches of
Agathon's guests. First, in order to scale the "ladder," the one who toils for improvement
must be guided by another. According to this model, the aspiring initiate is 6 -ilyo6CLEvoS,3
the one being lead. At regular intervals along the way the new lover is guided by another
and interacts with that guide's example. The erotic life can not be achieved in solitude
either in theory or in practice; it requires discourse and the improvement of others as a
source of beauty. The lover attempts to produce speeches that can make a young man
better, snouf oovot PshziouS zot;~ viouS.4 Likewise, the symposiasts also rely on one
another' s speeches in order to produce better encomia for eros. The guests each adapt
concepts from the preceding logos and improve upon some aspect of their discourse to
beautify the praise.
Another attribute of Diotima' s ladder that corresponds to the various speeches
given at Agathon's banquet is that of responding to beauty with logoi. At each of the
maj or divisions detailed in Moravscik' s schema, the lover responds to his new
appreciation of beauty with speeches. Once he begins the ascent at the beauty of a
particular body, according to Diotima he waxes vocal and produces h6youS iclo65.5 At
3 Symposium 210a7.
4 Symposium 210c2-3.
the second subdivision of the "lower" ascent, the lover turns to the beauty in souls, and he
also responds to this new beauty by "giv[ing] birth to and seeking] words that make the
young better."6 Once the lover has ascended to the stage of contemplation of the
sciences, his reaction to the sea of beauty which he is able to experience and appreciate is
to bring forth logoi. In particular, just before he is able to glimpse The Beautiful itself,
the erotic initiate gives birth to znohhoit; mi Kahoik h6youS mai CLsyaoxnpexeig, many
beautiful and magnificent speeches. As the erotic pilgrim progresses in his j ourney
toward a vision of The Beautiful, at each maj or shift in his appreciation of beauty, he
responds with speeches, until he Einally moves to philosophically based logoi, which
strengthen and increase ( moos~iS mi aibhrsi)s him enough to catch sight of The
Beautiful. The reader moves through a mirror of this process in the speeches presented at
Agathon' s house. With each successive speaker and his encomium of eras, the reader
participates in a process of increasing refinement. The manner in which the symposiasts
respond to the beauty they see in eros and in the previous speakers' speeches creates an
sense of ascension up to Socrates' account of his conversations with Diotima.
The Einal point of intersection between the logoi presented in the Symposium and
Diotima' s ladder that I wish to identify is that both end with an epiphany which takes
place in philosophical discourse. Diotima had previously explained that eras is the love
(eros) for something beautiful, and that, since wisdom is about the most beautiful things,
ijoze dvaylalov Eparza cpthoocpov Elvat, eros must be a philosopher.9 Therefore, it stands
6Symposium 210c1-2; translation from Belfiore (1984) 145.
to reason that the ultimate state to which eros impels a lover is the pursuit of wisdom,
philosophy. According to Diotima, this is what the lover experiences before he can see
The Beautiful. Once freed from slavish devotion to one person or a single custom, the
lover becomes inspired by the manifold beauty before him and produces beautiful
speeches and Stavo-Lf gam Av cpth000qig d696~voo>, thoughts in limitless philosophy. 10
Likewise, those who read the Symposium must ascend through the speeches within the
narrative and engage Socrates on philosophical terms as he expounds Diotima' s
revelation of eros. The philosopher alone is erotic enough, so thoroughly directed by
eros, to receive the vision of The Beautiful, and the reader is required to hear it expressed
by the philosopher Socrates.
Having thus outlined Diotima' s ladder, I will now turn to the speeches given at
Agathon' s house and discuss how they create for the reader a sense of improvement,
development, and ascent within the narrative. It is not my intention, as some have
attempted, to align each of speeches given with a particular stage or rung of Diotima' s
ladder. 1 The focus of this analysis is to show how Plato engenders these feelings of
ascension through the statements of his characters and that the content within each speech
interacts with statements in the logoi of the other guests.
' Svinposiuin 210d5-6.
11 Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan (Cl r 1s 148-58. This is the most recent attempt to find a one-to-one
correlation between the logo erotikoi given at the banquet and the rungs of Diotima's ladder. They
developed a five-stage schema for the ascent of Diotima. Then they argue that these steps are each
represented in the five speeches of Pheadrus, Pausanius, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon.
However, the relationships they try to establish between the speeches and rungs are based as much on
difference or distinction as they are on direct similarities. On the whole, this approach over-simplifies the
great complexity with which Plato has interwoven both of these structures in the Swinposiuin, and at the
same time puts forth elaborate and unclear systems of relationship.
Plato begins developing the notion of progress with the decision to create logoi in
honor of eros. Since the symposiasts all agree that they should not pass the evening in
excessive drinking, Eryximachus suggests that they should each in tumn make speeches in
praise of eros. However, Eryximachus is not the author of the idea to render encomia to
eros; Phaedrus had complained to him on several occasions that eros is neglected in
literature. Pheadrus recognizes that there is a lack of honor given to eras although all
manner of praise has been written for things as mundane as salt. 12 He feels that it is
necessary to correct this oversight and desires that someone fill this void by praising such
an old and great god.
The first step in this narrative progression begins with Pheadrus, the "father of the
logos." He expands upon the assertion that eras is the oldest of all gods and, therefore,
deserving of great honor. In order to prove his claim that eras is the eldest, Phaedrus calls
into evidence Hesiod and Homer, as well as the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, and
the fact that none of them provides a parentage for eras. This is ironic because, according
to Erixymachus, Phaedrus finds the writers of all genres, eras, and places negligent in
their praise of this god. Diotima later refutes this claim of seniority with her own myth
concerning the conception of eros from the union of Poros and Penia. Phaedrus then tumns
to proclaiming that eras is the best god for the benefit of mankind. He focuses on the
relationship between a young man (naitxdc) and his older lover (Apaozk) and how this
type of pederastic union improves both the individual and the society when correctly
administered. The elder lover seeks the affection and respect of his younger beloved and,
in so doing, performs feats of virtue for his affections. This speech reflects Diotima' s
affirmation of the partnership required for the progress of lovers. It also centers on
concepts expressed at the "lower" levels of Diotima' s ladder, namely, that an erotic
person must learn to appreciate the beauty of bodies which results in an increase in virtue.
Narrative progression maintains its upward movement with Pausanias' response to
Phaedrus. Pausanias takes issue with the lack of refinement in the previously proposed
mandate to praise eros. Working within the traditions that eros accompanies Aphrodite
and that there are two Aphordites, the heavenly and the vulgar, Pausanias concludes that
there are two erotes, a heavenly and a vulgar. Thus, he states, "So I will try to correct
this, first to point out the er~s which one must praise, and then to make a praise worthy of
the god."13 He notices the lack of specificity and the need to rectify the standards of
praise, specifically, that one should attribute beautiful love only to the heavenly eros.
This concept is augmented when Pausanias explains that one can distinguish the
heavenly, ouranios, from the vulgar, pand~mos, by the way in which eras finds
manifestation. But distinguishing between the two requires standards, customs, and laws
by which both the lover and the beloved can know that they practice eros nobly.
Pausanias asserts that this is best exemplified in Athens' laws governing the behavior of
pederastic lovers. He praises how detailed and difficult to understand Athenian law is
Our law wants to put them to the test in a good and noble way, and wants to have
them gratify some and shun others. On account of this it encourages them to pursue
and the others to flee, setting up a contest and testing to which group the lover
belongs and to which the one who is loved. 14
13 Symposium 180d1-3; translation adapted from Strauss (2001) 63.
14 Symposium 183e6-184a5: translation from Strauss (2001) 80.
Any lover or beloved pursuing erotic fulfillment must adhere to the strictures prescribed
by law and custom in order to display the heavenly eras. So, we see that Pausanias'
speech thus reflects the ascent to The Beautiful in its theme of improvement and sense of
progression. Key erotic issues such as loving the beauty in laws and the need to guide
another nobly along his ascent find voice in this speech.
Arguably, Plato's most pronounced declaration of his program of narrative
progression in the speeches comes in Eryximachus' opening statements. While it appears
to Eryximachus that Pausanias started his speech well, he does not think that it was
brought to an appropriate end (telos). Eryximachus decides, therefore, that he must
provide an end for the logos. 1 In the opening sentence of Eryximachus' speech, Plato
draws the connection between the speeches clearly. The guests at Agathon's banquet are
correcting and improving the deficiencies within one another' s speeches in order to make
the "praise for eras as beautiful as possible."16 Plato uses this process within the narrative
to instruct his reader that, like Diotima's ladder, there can not be an arrival to the perfect
vision of the erotic without effort and development.
Some of the same topics that Diotima lists as necessary for a proper initiation into
the erotic mysteries are introduced in Eryximachus' speech. Based upon the dual nature
of eras as described by Pausanias, Eryximachus explains that the two erotes are
oppositional forces at work in all things. He expands the influence of eros from human
affairs to the organization of the cosmos, the changing of seasons, the harmony of music,
the practice of divination, and the study of medicine. According to Eryximachus, a person
1s Symposium 185e6-186a2.
16 Symposium 177d2-3.
who would show reverence to eras does so by understanding the balance that must be
maintained between the heavenly and the vulgar. Also, the truly erotic man is able to
remove the one and instill the other in order to preserve this harmony. Diotima addresses
the concept of erotic dualism when she explains the daemonic nature of eras to
Socrates. 1 According to her, eros is neither mortal nor immortal, god nor human,
beautiful nor ugly, wise nor unwise. Diotima tells Socrates that because of its twofold
nature, eras is constantly perishing and then returning to life. We have noted that the
lover must reach to the stage of Diotima' s ladder in which he is turned to see the beauty
in sciences. Eryximachus has relied upon his experiences as a physician to conclude that
the twofold eras is at work and striving for harmony in all things. Medicine and other
branches of knowledge, such as meteorology and astronomy, serve as guides to
Eryximachus in his pursuit of erotic understanding.
The transitional passage that leads to Aristophanes' speech is nearly as direct a
statement of Plato' s didactic agenda as the one leading to Eryximachus. Aristophanes'
relates his response to his predecessors' speeches as one of contradistinction. Addressing
Eryximachus, he says, "I intend to speak in a somewhat different way from how
Pausanias and you spoke." x He honors this promise and employs his comic ability to
contrive a new myth about the origin of men and the function of eras. In this myth,
Aristophanes manufactures a pseudo-history of mankind in which humans were once a
physical duality, two people in one spherical form. Because of their hubris and attempted
assault on Olympus, Zeus split the hermaphrodite humans in half. Although he maintains
"7 Symposium 202d11-204b7.
's Symposium 189c2-3; translation from Strauss (2001) 122.
the notion of duality, Aristophanes has shifted Pausanias' and Eryximachus' dual eros
into a two-part human. Now having been separated from the other half, each person is
driven by eros to reconnect with his severed partner. Thus, according to Aristophanes,
eras is not some cosmic force of harmony, but a natural impulse in humans which drives
them to Eind their match. Once again, Plato has anticipated Diotima' s speech and placed
signs for his reader to follow. As one continues through the speeches, Plato's characters
interact in their logoi and the reader is made to grapple with the various theories about
eras while sensing the upward movement in the narrative.
As we approach the pinnacle of Plato' s narrative climb to Socrates, Agathon
presents an innovative oration about the attributes of erbs and its benefits to mankind. He
indicts his guests for not having properly performed encomium, because they spoke only
of the benefits which eros provides without first describing the laudan~dus.dd~~~~~ddddd~~~ 19 In Order to
begin his description, Agathon refutes Phaedrus' claim that eras is the oldest of the gods,
and argues the exact opposite, that he is the youngest. To establish his point Agathon
cites two of the same literary sources, Hesiod and Parmenides, whom Phaedrus used as
evidence to the contrary. This claim completes a "youthward" progession in the age of
eros as assigned by the other speakers.20 In Agathon's estimation, eras is the softest of all
the gods, as he lives in the soft souls of men and avoids hard-heartedness. Agathon places
not only all people under the power of eras, but all of the Olympian gods also. The
obvious dominant trait of the attributes which Agathon ascribes to eras is that they apply
to Agathon and eros equally. Eryximachus centered his understanding of eras around the
19 Svinposittiz 194e4-195a5.
20 Strauss (2001) 158.
medical arts, but Agathon goes further and turns eras into a "poet so wise that he makes
another poet."21 Agathon portrays eros like himself, as a young, soft, delicate, poet who
holds sway over both men and gods through his power to guide his audience to what is
beautiful. Diotima will likewise portray eras in her own image. As a prophetess, she once
informed the Athenian people of the correct sacrifice to propitiate the gods and delay a
plague for ten years.22 Diotima ascribes this same function of mediation between gods in
men to eras. She states that eros, since it is a daemon or a spiritual being, has the power
of interpretation and governs the practice of fortune-telling, ritual sacrifice, and
Having arrived at the end of Plato' s upward j ourney, the reader has been prepared
to wrestle with and appreciate the erotic revelation of Diotima which Socrates discloses.
With each logos given at the banquet, Plato anticipates another portion of the content of
Diotima' s conversations with Socrates. He also provides examples of the alternative ways
in which men of diverse vocations, such as a tragedian, a comedian, and a doctor,
understand eras. This arrangement of ascending speeches throws into stark relief the
differences between the inconsistent and incomplete way most reason and how the great
Socrates practices philosophy. The intricately designed and carefully implemented
narrative ascent within the logoi of the symposiasts makes Plato and the Symposium
instructors in ta erotika, just like the guide who leads an uninitiated lover up the rungs of
Diotima' s ladder.
THE EXAMPLE OF ALCIBIADES
Although Socrates' account of Diotima' s prophetic revelation of the ascent to The
Beautiful represents the dramatic climax of the Symposium, Plato has not completed his
didactic progression. Even after negotiating the difficulties of the narrative frame,
progressing through the series of improving speeches, and being taught the nature and
function of eros by Diotima, the reader still has more to learn about the practice of the
erotic life. Before ending the Symposium, Plato provides both a positive and a negative
example of proper submission to the power of eros. Alcibiades describes Socrates'
adherence to love of only the highest beauty. At the same time, he illustrates that even
Socrates' closest lovers misinterpret the erotic philosopher' s actions because they fail to
understand the works of eros. Through Alcibiades' speech, the reader is moved from the
theoretical heights of a vision of The Beautiful to a practical discussion of living in
accordance with the erotic principles Socrates learned from Diotima.
In order to understand how both male characters function as exemplars of erotic
understanding and misunderstanding, we must outline their relationship. As a young
member of the Athenian elite, Alcibiades was well-known for his wealth, ambition, good
looks, and vanity. Nearly twenty years before the dramatic date of the Symposium, he had
been smitten by Socrates and his beautiful logoi. Bitten in his heart more severely than
SCf. Dover (1980) 164. "Plato's chief purpose in this speech is to show us that Socrates put into practice
the morality implicit in Diotima' s theory."
any snake could bite,2 Alcibiades was bewitched by the philosophical discourses he heard
from Socrates and took him as his era~st~s. Just as Agathon proposed upon Socrates'
arrival to the banquet, Alcibiades thought that he would gain through physical contact
some of the internal beauty and wisdom that Socrates possessed.3 COnsistent with
Athenian customs regarding pederasty, Alcibiades expected that his older lover would
wish to exchange sexual gratification for instruction in virtue.
Supposing him to be seriously attracted by my youthful beauty, I thought it was a
gift from Hermes and marvelous good luck for me, that it was possible for me, by
gratifying Socrates, to hear all that he knew. For I was extraordinarily proud of my
However, Socrates never exercised the privilege of being physically gratified by him.
Alcibiades, confused that Socrates does not pursue sexual fulfillment, felt the need to
take on the role of the lover in pursuit of his beloved. He attempted to seduce Socrates on
several occasions. Alcibiades arranged unsupervised visits, private exercise sessions
consisting primarily of nude wrestling, and late-night dinners. All of these efforts resulted
in the same unwavering asexual response from Socrates. Alcibiades felt scorned and
mocked by Socrates. He was amazed at the endurance and resolve with which Socrates
maintained his aloof and hubristic celibacy in the face of such advances.' Despite this,
Alcibiades remained enthralled with Socrates and his philosophical speeches. He decided
that he would continue a relationship with Socrates, although he was at a loss as to how
he might win the philosopher' s undivided attention. It is the aggressive nature of
2 Symposium 218a2-7.
3 Symposium 175c7-dl; 219d1-3.
4 Symposium 217a2-6; Translation from Rosen (1987) 301.
Alcibiades' attempts that leads Socrates to ask Agathon for protection and mediation
between the two men. No longer can Socrates show interest in another person in
Alcibiades' presence without becoming the obj ect of the young man' s j ealousy and
forceful sexual advances.6
When we read about the affair between these two characters, it becomes clear that,
despite his intimate and long-term relationship with Socrates, Alcibiades never fully
comprehends Socratic eros. He knows Socrates well, by his own claim, better than any
other guest attending Agathon' s banquet.' Nevertheless, he thinks of wisdom, virtue, and
beauty as commodities for which he can trade. Alcibiades' suggestion to exchange sexual
gratification for "all that Socrates knows" is a grotesque distortion of the process of erotic
development as taught by Diotima and lived by Socrates.8 All the familiarity with
Socrates' behavior and dialogues has not brought Alcibiades to "upper" rungs of
Diotima' s ladder. As Belflore explains, Alcibiades does not pass Moravcsik's so-called
eighth stage:9 he loves the beauty in a soul, as well as the beauty of customs and
practices. However, he has not begun to love the beauty in all souls, as he is still
entranced with Socrates. Because he does not ascend to the higher levels of erotic
progress, Alcibiades does not understand that Socrates is behaving in an erotic way when
he rebuffs all of the former' s sexual favors.
In his speech, Alcibiades also presents an ominous explanation for Athenian
outrage at Socrates. While marveling at Socrates' moderation and endurance, he relates to
6 Symposium 213c6-d6.
"Cf. Hunter 011 14,1 100-1.
9 Belfiore (1984) 146.
his fellow symposiasts a tale of Socrates on military campaign in Potidaea. During a
harsh winter frost, the soldiers had all taken to moving as little as possible and, if any had
to, they wrapped up their feet in several layers of hides. Socrates, however, walked about
as usual; he wore his same cloak and remained shoeless. Despite the many other feats of
amazing bravery and endurance which the men had seen Socrates perform, Alcibiades
states that his comrades had viewed this with suspicion and anger (ibn@Xe~nov). 1o This is,
in fact, the same way in which Alcibiades had interprets Socrates' refusal of sex. Like the
Athenian soldiers and, later, the city of Athens, Alcibiades loves Socrates for his
beautiful speeches and bravery. However, he does not recognize that the same force of
eros drives Socrates to give birth to these beautiful speeches and to hold in contempt the
love of only one body, soul, custom, or city. This eros compels him to seek the visions of
The Beautiful regardless of circumstance, which pursuit most people confuse with an
atypical hubris. It is this misinterpretation of erotic pursuit for hubristic superiority and
the resulting shame and anger in those who see Socrates that play key roles in Alcibiades'
near prophetic statement, "Often would I sweetly behold him no longer among men."ll
Alcibiades' ultimate failure to ascend properly to a vision of The Beautiful and
become a fully erotic man is found in his readiness to leave philosophy in the hands of
Socrates. As the younger lover in the relationship, Alcibiades is to be guided by Socrates,
carefully following his instructions and example. However, he allows two emotions to
interrupt his progress. First, vanity drove Alcibiades to prevent his growth in the correct
order as taught by Diotima. As already mentioned, the young and blooming Alcibiades
'o Symposium 220b7-cl.
'' Symposium 216c l. For a introductory discussion of the way in which Plato casts the shadow of Socrates
trial and execution over all of his works, see Clay (2000) 33-40.
was quite sure of his good looks. When Socrates did not take advantage of his right to
gratification in his paidika, Alcibiades forestalled his continued proper relationship and
inverted their roles in order to satisfy his vanity. Second, political ambition overthrew
Socratic instruction. Alcibiades states that he cannot disagree with Socrates' reasoning
and, he becomes enslaved to it whenever he hears a Socratic logos. Socrates forces
Alcibiades to agree that he tends too much to the affairs of the Athenian people and not
enough to his own excellence. Nevertheless, away from Socrates and his power to
possess the mind, Alcibiades once again values the honor he gains from political
recognition and behaves contrary to his agreements with Socrates. 12 Both of these
disruptions in Alcibiades' erotic development result in a man unwilling to practice
philosophy. With the first disruption, Alcibiades affirms that Socrates' soul is beautiful
because it is pregnant with beautiful thoughts and speeches in "boundless philosophy."
However, he sees Socrates and his internal beauty as objects he can possess. Turning his
energies to winning Socrates, Alcibiades does not sense his own need to give birth to
beautiful speeches, since he will gain such speeches by acquiring Socrates. With the
second disruption, for as long as Alcibiades remains ensnared by public opinion and the
desire for political power, he will never move past his current stage of erotic
development. His love for this one polis and its damos constrains him from ever realizing
that all beauties of body, soul, law, and custom are related. The dAmos could never
understand that what makes Athens beautiful is the same beauty which makes Sparta
beautiful, and this is precisely what Socrates needed Alcibiades to grasp. Therefore,
Alcibiades is content to leave the pursuit of wisdom and the fully erotic life to Socrates.
12 Symposium 216b3-5.
By ending the Symposium with Alcibiades, Plato throws into stark contrast the
differences between the lives of those who receive a vision of The Beautiful and those
who remain immature in regards to eras. The reader witnesses how Socrates, the
successful initiate into the mysteries of eras, interacts with and is perceived by the
surrounding uninitiated. Plato warns that the truly erotic man must be trained rightly and
must not succumb to distractions. He also demonstrates that, however unusual and
seemingly contradictory Socrates' actions are, there was no dissimulation in his claim to
know nothing other than ta erotika. In fact, Plato has guided his reader through this
explication of eras so that the reader too may make the same claim.
Considered by many Plato's most masterful work, the Synaposium does not easily
yield answers to the questions its complexity inspires. To unlock all of Plato' s meaning
from within this dialogue, were it possible, would require an analysis well beyond the
scope of this paper. Therefore, I have narrowed my examination to the more literary and
dramatic elements of the dialogue.
Chapters 3-5 attempted to demonstrate how one need not hunt for specific theories
or doctrines in order to ascribe them to Plato as his own teaching. The claims of the
dialogical method of Platonic interpretation that an entire dialogue speaks for Plato and
no particular character can be assigned the title "Plato's mouthpiece" has gained further
support. We have seen that the Synaposium requires its reader to undergo Plato's didactic
experience by completely and carefully reading and interacting with the entire text of the
Each of the Platonic dialogues fulfills part of their author' s philosophical and
educational agenda. The Synaposium stresses the need for people to transform the way
they think through careful pursuit of the highest beauty. Learning to love only what is the
most beautiful inevitably leads a person to perform the kind of philosophy which Plato
lived out and wrote that Socrates practiced. Through his unparalleled union of literary
and dramatic techniques into philosophical dialogue, Plato creates a world in which the
reader participates with Socrates and his friends as Plato's archetypal philosopher guides
others to understand philosophy as a work of eri~s.
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Todd Bohlander was born in Perry, Florida, on September 11, 1976. He graduated
from Clearwater High School in Clearwater, Florida, in 1994. After serving an
enlistment in the United States Army from 1996 to 1999, he attended the University of
Florida, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with honors in classical philology.
He will receive his Master of Arts in classical philology from the University of Florida in