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Symposium | Context


Mythic and Literary Sources

Greek mythology and literature provide an elaborate backdrop for the discussions in the Symposium, offering divine and human examples of valor, cowardice, love, and revenge. The symposiasts (guests at Athenian poet Agathon's symposium) were all educated men and would have presumed a shared familiarity with the epics of Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, and perhaps with the works of such near-contemporaries as Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 515–c. 440 BCE), a pre-Socratic thinker who is mentioned as an authority on the gods and their origins. His works, in contrast to those of the two epic poets, survive only in a few secondhand fragments.

Homer's epic poem the Iliad (8th century BCE) is perhaps the single most important source of literary allusions in the Symposium. In it, the famed Greek poet recounts the events of the Trojan War, a mythic conflict in which a federation of Greek warrior-kings besieged the city of Troy. Among aristocratic Greeks of Plato's time, passages from Homer were so well-known as to be proverbial. Thus, when the Socratic disciple Phaedrus wishes to give an example of a famous figure who died for love, he invokes the Greek hero Achilles, immortalized by Homer's work. He can be sure his listeners, as literary men and educated professionals, will understand the point he is trying to make, even if they do not completely agree with his characterization of Achilles. Likewise, when Greek philosopher Socrates tells the wily young politician Alcibiades that he is proposing a "gold for bronze exchange," he knows the young man will recognize the allusion to Glaucus, a Trojan ally who was momentarily confused by the Greek sky god Zeus and "made exchange of armor [...] giving golden for bronze, the worth of a hundred oxen for the worth of nine." In other words, the relationship Alcibiades is proposing is not merely a bad deal for Socrates, but an unfathomably bad deal. If Socrates is truly as wise as Alcibiades claims him to be, he should not simply give himself away to an attractive but unscrupulous young man. The Odyssey, Homer's epic about the homeward voyage of the Greek king Odysseus, is also quoted intermittently in the Symposium, though less frequently and less prominently than the Iliad.

Next to Homer in importance—both for the Symposium and for the general Greek culture of its time—is Hesiod, an epic poet who lived about 700 BCE. Hesiod's Theogony is also an epic, but unlike the Homeric poems, it concerns the Greek gods almost exclusively, with little to say about human heroes. The poem is the closest thing to an absolute authority on Greek myth, and many of the mythological details mentioned by the symposiasts can be traced back to it directly. Hesiod is seldom quoted word-for-word, but his version of the Greek pantheon and cosmos serves as the background for much of the discussion of love's origins. In at least one case—Greek geographer Pausanias's differentiation between the "celestial" and "common" versions of Aphrodite—the Homeric and Hesiodic views of a myth are even contrasted with each other. Homer (in the Iliad) attributes her parentage to Zeus and Dione, while Hesiod makes her the daughter of Uranus. Like much else in the Symposium, Pausanias's theory of love depends on a close familiarity with the works of these two poets.

Who Was Socrates?

The unquestionable star of the Symposium—as of many other Platonic dialogues—is Socrates, the most influential Athenian philosopher of his generation. Although Socrates never recorded his teachings, they were documented for posterity by his students, including Plato and Xenophon (430–354 BCE). These two philosophers offer the most reliable contemporary account of Socrates's life and habits, though they say considerably less about these subjects than about his philosophy. According to their accounts, Socrates was born about 470 BCE in Athens to the stonemason Sophroniscus and the midwife Phaenarete. Like his father, Socrates was a tradesman in earlier life, but he later became a full-time philosopher and teacher. A controversial figure, he was sentenced to exile late in life by his fellow Athenians, who accused him of impiety and corrupting the youth. When he appealed the sentence, it was changed to one of execution by poison. Socrates's disciples attempted to free him, but he refused their help and died in 399 BCE after drinking the legally prescribed mixture of the poison hemlock.

Several additional details about Socrates come from the Symposium itself, where he is described as ugly and satyr-like (or part man, part horse) in appearance (hence Alcibiades's jokes about Marsyas and Silenus, two famous satyrs from Greek myth). He is praised, however, for his valor as a soldier. The image of Socrates in armor may seem unusual to a modern reader, but like any other male Athenian citizen of his time, Socrates was eligible for compulsory military service in the ongoing Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE). According to the Symposium, Socrates served in three campaigns as an infantryman. Alcibiades, who supplies this information, describes him as brave and uncomplaining despite both the dangers of battle and the hardships of the campaign, including hunger and cold.

Socrates's fame among his contemporaries was not, however, restricted to philosophers. He also shows up in the works of Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, who in turn joins him as one of the speechmakers in the Symposium. Allusions to Socratic philosophy appear in several of Aristophanes's plays, but the most sustained mockery occurs in Clouds, a biting satire dated to 423 BCE. There, Socrates appears as the pompous and absentminded leader of the "Thinkery" or "Thinking Shop," a school that teaches the art of deceitful speechmaking. To bring matters full circle, Socrates responds to Clouds in the courtroom speech from Plato's Apology, blaming the play in part for the public contempt he now faces.

Socratic Dialogues

Socrates is present in almost all of Plato's dialogues, usually in the capacity of a teacher or leader. This role is most developed in the dialogues of the middle period, to which the Symposium is generally thought to belong. In the Republic, for example, Socrates is the central figure in a wide-ranging investigation of justice, happiness, and the relationship between the two. Several other characters propose their own definitions of justice, and Socrates asks a series of leading questions to show why these are inaccurate or incomplete, then sketches out his own theories on the subject. In Plato's later dialogues, Socrates is less prominent, and his interrogative style of philosophy is downplayed or missing altogether. His inconsistent presence in these works has led to an inconsistent pattern of usage: the term "Socratic dialogue" is sometimes, but not always, extended to include any work of Plato's in which Socrates makes even a brief appearance.

Plato was not the only ancient Greek writer to use the dialogue format in setting forth Socrates's teachings. Greek historian Xenophon (430–354 BCE) also admired Socrates and portrayed him in a series of philosophical conversations, collected in four volumes under the title of Memorabilia (early 4th century BCE) This work offers a different view of Socrates, presenting him as a man more focused on practical advice-giving than abstract theorizing. Additional Socratic dialogues emerged in the Hellenistic period and were sometimes misattributed to Plato: one such work is the Axiochus (1st century BCE), which imitates both the form and the content of Plato's dialogues and gives the spotlight to Socrates once more.

Even before Plato's writings were rediscovered during the 16th century, European authors had taken to writing educational dialogues of their own. These are referred to as "Socratic" dialogues by analogy with Plato's works, and they tend to rely on a similar exchange of questions and answers to arrive at the truth of a subject. In place of Socrates, however, the question-and-answer session is usually led by a contemporary authority, such as a theologian, a music master, or—in Renaissance-era (1300–1700) and later works—a scientist. Though less common in modern times, the use of literary dialogues for instructional purposes can even be seen in some 20th-century works. For example, Hungarian philosopher Imré Lakatos's Proofs and Refutations (1976), an influential book on mathematical thought, takes the form of a conversation between an imagined teacher and a group of pupils.

Love, Sex, and Relationships in Classical Greece

Readers who know the term "platonic relationship" may be startled to find that the Symposium is full of references to sex. The speeches of the physician Eryximachus, the comic playwright Aristophanes, and others are sprinkled with polite, indirect phrases like "gratify a lover" and "satisfy [one's] desires." In understanding these attitudes on the subject, it's helpful to know that eros—the word translated as "love" in most English versions of the dialogue—included sexual desire as well as romantic love. In Classical Greek thought, these two concepts were typically fused together, not divided into love and lust as in the later Christian tradition. Accordingly, Eros as a Greek deity was associated with procreation, and not just with the sugary, sentimental aspects of love one might assign to his Roman counterpart, Cupid.

With this in mind, it is not surprising to see a positive attitude toward sex throughout the dialogue. Pausanias, when he emphasizes love of mind over love of body, is not condemning or dismissing sex; rather, he's saying it should not be the main—let alone the only—factor in choosing a relationship partner. Aristophanes, on a more pragmatic note, argues that sex is important because it allows people to "relax, get on with their work and take care of other aspects of life." Alcibiades is utterly unashamed of his sexual impulses and makes no secret of his attempt to seduce Socrates—though his candor may have something to do with the huge amounts of wine he has consumed. Even Socrates, famous for his self-restraint, seems to construe sexual desire not as a weakness, but as a stepping stone to higher things.

Homosexuality, in certain specific contexts, was not considered unusual by aristocratic Athenians. Several of the speeches, most notably Pausanias's, make reference to the institution of paiderastia, a form of same-sex relationship in which an older man (called the erastes or "lover") would take on the mentorship of a younger male (the eromenos or "beloved") in exchange for sexual companionship. Such relationships were not only accepted among the Athenian elite, but regarded as important coming-of-age rituals. Other city-states, as Pausanias notes, had their own attitudes toward the custom, ranging from approval to outright prohibition. In most cases, the eromenos would then go on to marry a woman, set up a household, and start a family, perhaps taking on the role of erastes himself later in life. It was less common, but not unheard of, for Athenian men to engage in lifelong homosexual partnerships, as seems to have been the case with Pausanias and his partner, Agathon the tragedian.

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