The Significance of Feet in Plato’s Symposium
Plato’s Symposium presents an account of the party given at the house of Agathon, where Socrates and Alcibiades are in attendance. The men at the party take turns eulogizing the god Eros. In Agathon’s eulogy, he describes Eros as a soft and tender being. When Socrates speaks, however, he makes a correction of his host’s account, by saying the soft and tender thing is the beloved, and not the lover, as Agathon would have it. When Alcibiades enters the party toward the end of the dialogue, he complains that Socrates is deceiving Agathon. Alcibiades was once the lover of Socrates, and if he knows anything about his beloved, it is that Socrates is a tough man who can drink without getting drunk and wander the streets of Athens day in and day out without shoes to protect his feet. Though it may seem preposterous that feet matter in a dialogue about love, throughout the Symposium, the condition of the character’s feet helps determine who is the lover and who is the beloved, and furthermore, that those who run away from love in shame are cowardly and those who stand still are noble.
Alcibiades could love Socrates for the very reason that he is tough and unwavering. At the beginning of the dialogue, when Socrates is on his way to Agathon’s house he "retreat[s] to a neighbor’s porch and stands there, and when [Agathon] call[s] him, he is unwilling to come in" (236).1 Though Agathon and the other men want Socrates to join them, Aristodemus who is "most in love with Socrates at the time" says: " No, no, leave him alone. That is something of a habit with him. Sometimes he moves off and stands stock still wherever he happens to be" (236). Aristodemus shows respect and admiration for Socrates’ habit, for it is indeed noble to stand firmly in one place. An earlier lover of Socrates, Alcibiades also loved this quality and praises it in his recollection of a campaign in Potidaea. Alcibiades recalls: " Once, he had gotten a thought, and he stood on the same spot from dawn on, considering it; and when he made no progress, he did not let up, but stood searching" (283).
In these two instances, it is clear that Socrates is the beloved, and the two men admire his self-discipline and "uprightness." If standing still is indicative of nobility then fleeing or running away is naturally indicative of the opposite –shame and vulgarity. Alcibiades had a habit of running away because of the shame that Socrates caused him to feel. When Alcibiades speaks of other encounters with Socrates he says: "I have become a runaway to avoid him" and "I stopped my ears and took off in flight, as if from the Sirens, in order that I not sit here in idleness and grow old beside him" (279). On the surface it is clear from this passage that Alcibiades is not the most noble of men, but further significance is contained in these words with respect to Agathon’s eulogy of Eros. In his eulogy he says: "First he is the youngest of...