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Symposium | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Plato's Symposium is generally considered the foremost Western philosophical meditation of the meaning of love in all its contexts. The Symposium, thought to have been written between 380 and 360 BCE, features Plato's mentor, Socrates, engaging in lengthy debate with other philosophers, statesmen, and notable officials about the varieties of and reasons for love as we know it. Modeled on a gathering of friends and prominent figures, the Symposium presents philosophical dialogue in the form of a series of speeches from all in attendance. For centuries, philosophers, students, and scholars alike have turned to the Symposium in search of a definition of Eros, the Greek word for love.

1. Plato's Symposium may have been written in response to a play that mocked Socrates.

Scholars speculate that Plato's Symposium was a response to a particular play that ruthlessly mocked Socrates, Plato's mentor. The playwright Aristophanes wrote and produced The Clouds in 423 BCE, which included a cruel portrayal of Socrates—which many believe contributed to Socrates's ultimate conviction and death sentence. The Clouds depicted Socrates as using his philosophical prowess primarily to avoid debt, essentially acting as a charlatan by conning others with fancy rhetoric.

Aristophanes's later play Frogs, written in 405 BCE, tells of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, judging a contest between two tragic poets. Plato modeled his intellectual contest in the Symposium on this dramatic competition in Frogs, and he shows the crowd ruling in favor of Socrates as a sort of retribution against Aristophanes's insulting depiction of the philosopher.

2. A Symposium speaker, Alcibiades, once seduced the wife of an enemy king.

One of the thinkers present at Plato's gathering, Alcibiades, was a notoriously persuasive figure. A famous Athenian politician, Alcibiades also had a distinguished career as a military general, and he became renowned for both his skills of rhetoric and his prowess in battle. He was extremely popular with women throughout Greece; this became abundantly clear during the Athenian war with Sparta, when he became a traitor to his home city and sat in the court of the Spartan king, Agis II. While he was there, Alcibiades successfully seduced the king's wife—a triumph he would brag about for years to come.

3. Plato may have just been a nickname.

Although the philosopher has been immortalized as "Plato," this was likely just a nickname. Historians believe Plato was actually named Aristocles after his grandfather. The name Plato was derived from the Greek word platos, meaning broad, and likely was attributed to the philosopher in reference to his physique. Some speculate that he was first called Plato by his wrestling teacher, who noticed his remarkably broad shoulders. Others argue that the name was an insult and referred to Plato's unusually broad forehead.

4. Scholars still debate the true meaning of Eros in Plato's Symposium.

In ancient Greece, Eros was the name given to the god of love in the Greek pantheon. However, the philosophers in Plato's Symposium, while clearly aware of the religious connotations, use the term in a variety of ways to flesh out its meaning beyond the representative deity. Although considered a god, Eros is also described as a "great daimon," or connection between men and gods, in the Symposium. After the discussions of different types of love in the Symposium, and their relation to Eros, scholars still argue about exactly what Eros means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Eros as, "love conceived by Plato as a fundamental creative impulse having a sensual element," clearly stressing the inclusion of a romantic component.

5. The term platonic love originates from Symposium.

Platonic love—or the love in a nonsexual friendship—traces its origins to the Symposium. Today, the term platonic is used to describe two people whose love for one another excludes romantic or sexual relations. Many scholars believe the truest example of the term is actually the love that Plato felt for his mentor, Socrates, and vice versa. Theirs was a friendship with its roots in the mutual respect of ideas and admiration of each other's wisdom. Socrates places this type of love as higher than love based on sexual desire and beneath only love for pure knowledge itself.

6. Socrates allegedly saved the life of another Symposium speaker in the heat of battle.

Although Socrates is well known for his philosophical thought in the dialogues of Plato, he also had a career in the Athenian military. During the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE), Socrates fought for Athens against the Spartans. Although contemporary depictions of Socrates show him as a frail old man, the philosopher was a competent infantryman during his service and, before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, participated in the siege of Potidaea in 432 BCE. It was here that he allegedly saved the life of Alcibiades, another speaker at Plato's Symposium, on the battlefield. Alcibiades would go on to become a powerful leader in Athens after the war and participate in philosophical discussions with Socrates and his companions.

7. Despite his love for Socrates, Plato often compared his mentor to a nasty insect.

Almost everything we know about Socrates comes from the accounts and dialogues of Plato, who generally showed great respect to his mentor. However, Plato's dialogue Apology gave rise to a rather insulting descriptor of Socrates: the "gadfly of Athens." A gadfly refers to any biting or stinging insect that torments people or livestock. The term was applied to Socrates due to his tendency to mercilessly provoke the citizens of Athens to think differently, essentially pestering them with his philosophical inquiries and challenges to the status quo. Although it's unclear what Socrates would have thought of his characterization as a gadfly, it was this proclivity to question everything that contributed to his trial and subsequent death sentence in 399 BCE.

8. After his father died, Plato's mother married her uncle.

Plato's mother did something that by modern standards would be considered extremely taboo: she wed her uncle after the death of her first husband. Plato's biological father died when he was very young, and his mother wed her uncle, Pyrilampes, who was a successful ambassador to the Persian court. This type of marriage wasn't uncommon in ancient Greece, however, as marriage was seen as more of an opportunity for upward mobility than a declaration of love. Marriages between uncles and nieces, cousins, and half-siblings were commonplace, as such unions kept wealth and property within the family.

9. One city-state actually tried Plato's idea of a military regiment of paired male lovers.

In the Symposium Phaedrus proposes a military regiment consisting of paired male lovers based on the belief that this would increase their productivity and prowess in battle. This idea was actually put into practice in Thebes around 378 BCE. The "Sacred Band of Thebes" was modeled on this idea, each soldier paired with another through ceremonial vows. The regiment was incredibly successful, first winning a battle against a much larger group of Spartans in 375 BCE and later helping to end Spartan domination of Thebes altogether in 371 BCE at the Battle of Leuctra.

10. The term symposium has more to do with alcohol than philosophy.

Although the term symposium conjures up images of lengthy debate and deep, reflective discussion, the word originally referred to a raucous, alcohol-infused gathering of friends. Symposium can be most accurately translated as "drinking together"—and this was the case at Plato's symposium. Despite the depth of the gathering's conversations, all in attendance were likely drinking heavily throughout the event. True symposiums were strictly male-only affairs, although servant girls were invited to dispense refreshments and play music as the men chatted.

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