In the Symposium, Plato gives us one of the most close-up and personal
pictures of Socrates we have. Socrates himself
never wrote a line that we know of; all that we know of him (his
personality, his views, his biography) we get through Plato's ey
es and pen. We cannot, therefore, know how accurate or embellished this
account is. The elaborate way Plato introduces the
"story" of the Symposium may lead you to believe that it is a fiction, just
as the other works we will read this semester are.
You can decide that for yourself.
The Greek word "symposium" means something like "drinking party," but it
also means something like "a convivial [look it up]
evening of drinking and intellectual conversation." It has been borrowed
into English. Look it up in your dictionary. You might
translate it "feast." ¯
Notice that the work begins in medias res. Who is Apollodorus speaking to as
the work opens? We learn that there was a
supper at the home of Agathon, at which Socrates was a guest. Aristodemus
(an uninvited guest at that dinner) later
described that evening to Phoenix, as well as to Apollodorus. Phoenix passed
on the story to "another person," who in turn
told Glaucon about the occasion. Apollodorus then recounted it in detail to
Glaucon, and later to his unnamed "companion."
It is this last account that we are reading. Why all this elaborate
spaghetti of accounts? One effect is surely to lend an
aura of verisimitude [look it up] to the events--to make it sound like it
really happened. (Note on p. 2 that Socrates later
confirmed some of th e details of this story.) Another is perhaps to "cover"
any objections to the details of this account--in
fact to call into question the absolute accuracy of the account. In any
case, it is not simply a clumsy, boring opening. The
writer (Plato) has a strategy in mind.
Who is Agathon? What is this symposium in celebration of? How long ago did
it take place? What does that tell you about
how unusual an evening it was? What was the subject those present chose to
What does Apollodorus' comment about Socrates' sandals tell you about
Socrates? (He was traditionally thought of as not
at all good looking.) What does "unbidden" mean? Notice the use to which
Homer's lines are put.
What is comical about the arrival of Aristodemus at the feast? Notice that
the Greeks spend such an evening reclining on
couches rather than sitting at a table. What kind of impression of Socrates
do you get from the description on p. 4? Notice
the way Socrates deflects any and all praise from himself to the speaker.
Why does Agathon mention Dionysus? What is a libation? Notice that they
drink after they eat. Who is Aristophanes? Why is
Socrates "an exceptional being"? Notice that on this occasion "drinking is
to be voluntary," which tells you that at such a
gathering it is usually not voluntary--a little like going the (reported)