Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Plato's Symposium - philosophy as realist fiction - pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze

Philosophy makes me nervous, so I will begin my squib about Plato’s Symposium (c. 385-370 BCE) with an anxiety-deflating observation:  Symposium is fiction, a long story.  It is fiction in that at least some of it is invented, but mostly in that it uses the techniques of fiction: frame stories, personalities revealed through action, realistic social detail, things like that, even more than the typical Platonic dialogue.  Fiction, that is not so intimidating.

A group of guests deliver impromptu speeches about Love, Eros, at a drinking party celebrating Agathon’s first victory at the Dionysian festival.  How sad that none of Agathon’s plays survived.  If impromptu orations sounds a little tame for a victory party, well, this is actually the second night of celebration.  The first night was essentially a drinking contest, and everyone is hungover except for Socrates (“no one in the world has ever seen Socrates drunk”).

In a sense what I am supposed to be doing is working through the increasingly complex premises of the speeches to the concluding discussion by Socrates, which moves from a simple opposition of good and bad Love to the idea of love as the pursuit of the Beautiful, whatever that might be, to Socrates’s shift to Love, sexual or otherwise, as the pursuit of the Good, whatever that might be.  But I really wanted to read Symposium now because Aristophanes is one of the guests, so this is our chance to see him from the outside.

Does he ever deliver.  First, he loses his place in the contest because of an attack of the hiccups.  We get authentic Greek medical advice form a doctor who is a guest (and who delivers a tedious speech about healthy and unhealthy Love):

“And while I am speaking, hold your breath a long time and see if the hiccup will stop; if it won’t, gargle water.  But if it still goes strong, pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze; do this once or twice, and stop it will, even if it is very strong.”

Along with all of the detail about the operation of the drinking party – the seating arrangement, the flute girl – the hiccups are the clearest move towards what we call “realism” in fiction.  They would have been easy enough to omit.

For his performance, Aristophanes commits to an origin myth in which humans had three genders, male-male, male-female, and female-female, until they were all split in two by Zeus:

“Next, the shape of man was quite round, back and ribs passing about it in a circle; and he had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces on a round neck, exactly alike; there was one head with these two opposite faces, and four ears, and two privy members, and the rest as you might imagine from this.”

The sex drive, the impulse to love, is our desperate attempt to reform our original eight-legged, two-faced ball form.  I love how Aristophanes, a true comedian, totally commits to the bit.  How enjoyable to find this imaginative nonsense in a work of philosophy.

The other highlight, for me, is when a drunken Alcibiades crashes the party and delivers his extraordinary encomium to Socrates, from the thematic view a demonstration of Platonic love but in practice a great character portrait:

“But when [the words of Socrates] are opened out, and you get inside them, you will find his words first full of sense, as no others are; next, most divine and containing the finest images of virtue, and reaching farthest, in fact reaching to everything which it profits a man to study who is to become noble and good.”

I have been thinking about reading more Greek philosophy, including more Plato, next year, and Symposium is a good introduction to why the dialogues are of high literary interest.

I read the H. D. Rouse translation in Great Dialogues of Plato (1956) because it was handy.  I know nothing about the translation of Plato.

Next month I plan to read Aristotle’s Poetics and remind myself why the received idea of Greek tragedy is so, as we have seen with our own eyes, wrong.  Anyone who has been reading along with the tragedies will be perfectly comfortable with Aristotle’s essay or lecture or whatever it is (not a story, not fiction).


  1. But why does philosophy make you nervous? It's just another genre of literature, with some books better than others. Overall, I find it more engaging than, say, Westerns. Plato's dialogues are often lively and funny. I found Timaeus and Critias appealingly wacky (numerology and Atlantis!) and the Republic and the Laws mostly dull, but with some provocative ideas.

    Erik Satie set excerpts from Plato, including a bit from the Symposium, to music in "Socrate." Maybe a listen will whet your appetite for more Plato.

    As I recall, Aristotle is mostly concerned with Sophocles in the Poetics, especially Oedipus. Maybe that affected our received idea of tragedy.

    (Doug Skinner)

  2. I was hugely entertained by the "Symposium" and very surprised at how much fun it was. I have really enjoyed reading ths dramas too. I shall read "Poetics" next month.

  3. Why? A lingering anxiety about what really amounts to a historical aberration, the stretch of European analytical philosophy from Kant to Heidegger. The practitioners in that feel do not act like the books they like are mere literature. There are some standards in the field that make much of it humanities, but not literature.

    Even with Plato, reading around in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, there is clearly a way of writing about him that is looks like something else. Whatever that something else is, I call that "philosophy" and I do not understand it well.

    Luckily Plato is generally well over on the literary side, and easy to enjoy - "entertaining," even.

    If I organize a Greek philosophy readalong, we'll likely do Republic but not Laws. I am comfortable with political philosophy, and have many ways into Republic. The Atlantis stuff, yes; anything emphasizing the personality of Socrates, yes. Then some aphorists, Aristotle's Ethics, some Plutarch essays. Maybe skip to Latin Epicureans and Stoics on literary grounds. Mix re-reading with books I haven't read. Outside feedback will be most welcome.

  4. I suppose it depends on what a given reader calls literature, and calls philosophy, and wants from them. Would Plato have thought he and Kant were in the same genre? I really don't know.

    "Philosophers" found different ways to write: Plato wrote dialogues, Bruno wrote allegories and sonnets, Kierkegaard invented fictional personas, Wittgenstein invented language games. Are some gambits more "literary" than others? I don't think so, but I may be in the minority.

    At any rate, if you do dive into Greek philosophers, I recommend Sextus Empiricus, since he's our primary source for Pyrrhonism, which produced some provocative ideas. And he's a witty and inventive writer too (as far as I can tell from translations).

    (Doug Skinner, still anonymous)

  5. I do think there are more and less literary approaches. Kierkegaard is a good example for me, since I found the first part of Fear and Trembling to be a brilliant piece of literary criticism - I may well mention it in two weeks when we read Iphigenia in Aulis - and the rest of the book, the "real philosophy," incomprehensible. Something that would require a different approach that I do not think I have at this point.

    Thanks for the recommendation of Sextus Empiricus. I plan to use Diogenes Laertius as a kind of guide, but I know he is an eccentric one, and likely not much help with the "what is actually readable" question.

  6. I'm sure there are more or less literary approaches, but I don't know what they are. For one thing, I don't know how to define "literature" and "philosophy." "Something someone wrote"? "Something someone wrote and called philosophy"? (The inability to define terms is probably a side effect of reading philosophy.) Although it's a basic premise of literature that the subject matter is less important than what one does with it, I have to admit that some subjects engage me more. I find Plato more readable when he discusses love than laws, and Epicurus more readable when he discusses ethics than physics. And although I am actually interested in the importance of quantifying the predicate in a syllogism, I don't need to have it explained at length.

    I look forward to your thoughts on the Greek philosophers (if you do indeed get to them). I also suggest that a thorough grounding in Abbott and Costello is helpful for some of the sophists.

    (Doug Skinner)

  7. Yes, the logicians, a whole other field.

    An empiricist, I define "philosophy" as "what philosophers do," some of which is quite distinct from what literary practitioners do. I thought Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft (my shallow survey of it begins here), a book with what I take as a clearly literary approach to philosophy, was brilliant, but of course it helped that I could understand it. My wife points me to John Gray's NYRB review which insists that whatever Witcraft is it is definitely not philosophy.

    I agree about Abbott and Costello. Some of those guys move in circles.

  8. Logic wasn't a completely other field. It was crucial to some philosophers, like Wittgenstein and Russell, and influenced others less (Nietzsche, for example). I appreciate it, but, as I said, not when it gets too prolix.

    Thanks for the link to your earlier posts. I'll have to read Rée. If you're looking for more suggestions (a big if), I recommend Richard Popkin's "History of Skepticism," a good concise account of the development and uses of that particular idea.

    The sophists not only circulated, but enjoyed quibbles and paradoxes for their own sake. I think Abbott and Costello's proof that 7 x 13 = 28 would have been a hit in Athens.

    (Doug Skinner, pseudonymously anonymous)

  9. This was funnier than anything else by Plato I've read. The Aristophanes segment is certainly the best bit in it. Socrates' speech was surprisingly poorly-reasoned, and I was struck overall with the way the speakers all mistake desire for love, and "the good" for "what's best for me." The whole thing reminded me again of how alien the ancient Athenians were, and why I find them hard to take.

    It was interesting to see that the idea of multiple narrators and linked stories is pretty old, much older than Chaucer, say. Has anyone read Xenophon's Symposium? The translator of my copy of Plato mentions it in passing.

  10. I've never read any Xenophon, but hope to read some of his Socratic pieces if I follow through on this philosophy idea.

    I would love to know to what extent the crazy story of Aristophanes belongs to the playwright, retold over the decades because it was so wild, or to Plato-as-Aristophanes, inventing freely.

  11. Xenophon's Symposium is, to my mind, a much better read than Plato's--among other things, the symposiasts stage a beauty contest of sorts, Socrates memorably compares himself (or is compared?) to a pimp, and there are dancers and flute girls to round out the evening. More dialogue than speechifying, though sadly no Alcibiades. Socrates also shows up with a passel of followers/disciples/hangers-on, which creates a different dynamic than the group in Plato's Symposium. I find Xenophon's Socrates a more congenial and interesting character than Plato's, especially in the former's Memorabilia, a collection of sketches of Socrates' life. His philosophy is uniquely down-to-earth in a very different style than most of Plato.

  12. "much better," that is promising. It sure sounds good.