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Symposium | Key Terms

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Three concepts are key to understanding Plato's Symposium. They are the idea of the symposium itself, Eros, and the satyr.

Symposium

The word symposium comes from the Greek for "drinking together." Thus, the word has sometimes been translated as "drinking party," but this gives little idea of the formality of the event. A symposium in Classical Athens was somewhere between a ritual and a dinner party: guests—who were exclusively men of the ruling class—would meet in their host's home, sing hymns, make offerings of wine to the gods, and then amuse themselves with drinking and conversation. Wine was consumed in large quantities, but it was diluted with water, a task overseen by whomever had been elected president of the night's festivities. As was the general custom in upper-class Athenian life, guests reclined on couches rather than sitting in chairs, taking food and drink from low tables set before them. They usually lie two or three to a couch, which is why, late in the dialogue, Agathon and Alcibiades argue over where Socrates is to be seated. Slaves attended the guests and served the meal. Women were not invited to take part in the symposium, but frequently appeared as musicians or entertainers of other sorts. Plato circumvents this custom to an extent by introducing Diotima as a major figure in his dialogue, though her speech is reported by Socrates rather than delivered in person.

Eros

Often translated as "Love" in English editions of the Symposium, "Eros" denotes both the force of erotic desire and the personification of that force. In the latter sense, Eros is a deity in the Greek pantheon, usually taken to be the son of the love goddess Aphrodite (though the father varies from one account to another). The debate about his ancestry in Pausanias's speech is thus mainly a discussion of Aphrodite's parentage. There are, however, pre-Classical sources, including Hesiod, who represent Eros as a quite different figure, a primal procreation deity rather than the later, more refined, god of love. This version is the one cited by Phaedrus when he claims, "Love is a primordial god." In general, the Symposium makes no systematic attempt to differentiate between these two traditions concerning Eros: rather, speakers pick and choose aspects of the two to suit their rhetorical purposes.

It is important, however, to distinguish the Eros of Plato's time from later versions, which have more in common with the modern concept of Cupid. Eros, as described in the works familiar to the symposiasts, is a mischievous winged youth, not a chubby, prankish infant. He is a potent figure, and he may be benevolent, as some of Agathon's guests argue, but he is neither infantile nor harmless.

Satyr

In Greek mythology, a satyr is a nature spirit, originally depicted as a man with horselike features and later as a half-man, half-goat. Proverbially drunk and lustful, satyrs served as companions to Dionysius, the Greek god of wine, and were often associated with music and theatre. With these traits in mind, it is hard not to see a measure of verbal irony in Alcibiades's likening Socrates to a satyr. Socrates is serious, clear-headed, and seemingly immune to drunkenness—and, to Alcibiades's disappointment, he has less interest in sex than most humans, let alone satyrs. There are, however, two points on which it makes sense for Alcibiades to liken Socrates to a satyr. One is his appearance: satyrs were usually portrayed as hard-featured, with big eyes and prominent brows, and Socrates is thought to have possessed these traits, too. The other, less superficial point of comparison is Socrates's power of persuading his listeners. In addition to their wine-fueled escapades, satyrs were thought to be masters—according to some, the originators—of pipe playing, charming listeners with their music. Socrates, then, is a "satyr" who enthralls people with his words and turns them into philosophers.

Two notable satyrs are mentioned by name in the Symposium, with both appearing in Alcibiades's speech. Marsyas was the satyr said to have invented the aulos, an early reed pipe usually played in pairs. More precisely, he was credited with the discovery of the aulos after it had been invented by the goddess Athena. He was sometimes conflated with the woodland god Pan, who is also usually depicted as a satyr and a gifted pipe player. In comparing Socrates to Marsyas, Alcibiades thus emphasizes his teacher's skill as an orator. He may also be accusing his teacher of being a bit arrogant: Marsyas, according to most versions of the myth, met his end after he proposed a contest between himself and Apollo, god of music.

The other allusion is a little more obscure, since it refers to a type of artwork known only through ancient Greek writings. Later on in his speech, Alcibiades compares Socrates to Silenus, the father of the race of satyrs and the foster father of Dionysius. In Classical Greece, Silenus was the subject of nesting figurines, with a satyr on the outside and a beautifully adorned statue of a god on the inside. For Alcibiades, these figurines offer the perfect symbol for Socrates, who is rough and perhaps even ugly on the outside but inwardly beautiful because of his wisdom and self-discipline. Remarkably, no examples of these once well-known sculptures have survived.

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