Literature Study GuidesSymposiumAlcibiadess Speech Summary

Symposium | Study Guide

Plato

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Symposium | Alcibiades's Speech | Summary

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Summary

Alcibiades begins his speech by reiterating his promise to tell the truth and inviting Socrates to interrupt if he says anything inaccurate. Socrates, he then goes on to say, is like a satyr: just as satyrs charm people by playing reed-pipes, Socrates puts people under the spell of his eloquence. Enraptured by this wisdom, Alcibiades says, he made many attempts to seduce Socrates, but none were successful: Socrates continued to treat him more as a student than as a lover.

Alcibiades goes on to give a more general account of Socrates's virtues, including his perseverance as a philosopher, his endurance as a soldier, and his bravery on the battlefield. He concludes by stressing the depth and beauty of Socrates's philosophy despite the outward simplicity of his speech: "fools and ignoramuses," he says, "are bound to find [Socrates's] arguments ridiculous," when in fact they are sublime. In a brief closing remark, he warns the young and handsome Agathon not to get too attached to Socrates, who will turn him into a philosopher under the guise of friendship or romance.

Analysis

In his praise of Socrates, Alcibiades offers a cluster of related mythological allusions. He first likens Socrates to the satyr Marsyas, who was famed as the original teacher of pipe-playing. The compliment is a bit backhanded: Marsyas, like Socrates, was viewed as having the ability to charm people in spite of his physical unattractiveness. Then, doubling down on the satyr images, Alcibiades describes Socrates as a "Silenus figure," comparing him to an ancient Greek satyr-god often viewed as the foster father of Dionysus. In classical Athens, Silenus was evidently also known as the subject of sculptures that opened up to reveal figurines of the other gods. No such artworks are known to survive, but Alcibiades's point is clear enough: despite his rough exterior, Socrates has a hidden and unappreciated brilliance.

To a modern reader, it may seem odd to describe Socrates as underappreciated—until it's recalled that hundreds of his fellow Athenians judged him worthy of execution. It's helpful to keep this dismal fate in mind when reading Alcibiades's speech, which is not just an expression of admiration, but a posthumous defense against the charge that Socrates corrupted his students. If anything, it seems that Alcibiades is trying to corrupt Socrates here, in the sense of getting him to abandon his own strict principles and take a student as a lover. By casting the two men in this light—Alcibiades as reckless and unprincipled, Socrates as immovably steadfast—Plato makes it seem ridiculous that Socrates could have corrupted anyone. More precisely, he clears Socrates of any responsibility for Alcibiades's infamous later career, which, to judge from this dialogue, took the course it did despite Socrates's influence.

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