- Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception
Plato's Symposium has been a fertile source of philosophical, literary, and artistic inspiration for more than two thousand years. It continues to inspire debates amid the changing fashions in contemporary Plato interpretation. This volume of papers, which grew out of a conference at the Center for Hellenic Studies in 2005, is divided into four parts. Most of the papers are richly rewarding, but there is space here to do little more than hint at their main points.
Part I, "The Symposium and Plato's Philosophy," has three chapters. Christopher Rowe ("The Symposium as a Socratic Dialogue") implicitly challenges the old consensus about the Symposium as a "middle" dialogue, arguing that it is "early" or "Socratic" in its moral psychology, in part because he doubts that Forms (whose presence have supported the idea that the dialogue is "middle") are very important to the "Socratic-Platonic project" (18). He provocatively—and, I think, correctly—suggests that Forms were imposed on Plato as his signature view by Aristotle. In "The Role of the Earlier Speeches in the Symposium," Frisbee Sheffield argues that the earlier speeches serve as Aristotelian endoxa, stating claims that are reasonable and "disputes worth solving," as Socrates in fact does. Lloyd Gerson's "Platonic Reading of Plato's Symposium" is elegant and substantive in its first (theoretical) section, but plainly Neoplatonic in its interpretation of the dialogue.
Part II, "Interpreting Plato's Symposium," has six chapters. Mark McPherran's deeply informed "Medicine, Magic, and Religion in Plato's Symposium" shows how Plato "used his symposiasts to reveal a new vision of piety through an ascending sequence of speeches—offered like the talismanic objects of an Eleusinian initiation—capped by Diotima's concluding protreptic" (94). Perhaps he will later explain why Diotima's speech is not the end of the dialogue. G. R. Lear ("Permanent Beauty and Becoming Happy in Plato's Symposium") wants to explain the "alien" (97) idea that beauty is central to Plato's ethical theory by showing that beauty is connected to immortality and thence to happiness. The Greeks' attachment of moral value to beauty is well known to classical scholars, however. C. D. C. Reeve's paper on "Alcibiades in the Symposium" takes on the question why Plato had Diotima's transcendent description of the Beautiful interrupted by Aclibiades' drunken entry and speech. Recurrent terms for disorder suggest that this disorderly, but to us fascinating, scene reproduces the very problem to which Diotima's theory was presented as a solution; and hidden within it, as in a bust of Silenus, Alcibiades' speech presents an image of Socrates that is "uncannily correct" (146). Ruby Blondell ("Where is Socrates on the 'Ladder of Love'?") solidly documents her claim that Socrates is not to be conceived as resting in contemplation atop the ladder but as moving up and down, as "[s]omeone who repeatedly ascends and descends, like the daimon Eros" (177). Debra Nails argues that the dialogue sets up a "Tragedy Off-Stage," seeing the tragic deaths of half the symposiasts and Socrates within weeks after the dramatic date of the frame dialogue as being due to the ignorance of the Athenians. The paper well illustrates how knowing the historical facts Plato deploys in the dialogues may profoundly affect their meanings. In "The Virtues of Platonic Love," Gabriela Carone claims, not very surprisingly, that Socrates' speech not only describes an ideal spiritual love, but also helps us understand "ordinary love in our practical lives" (208).
There are three papers in part III, "The Symposium, Sex, and Gender." Luc Brisson ("Agathon, Pausanias, and Diotima in Plato's Symposium: Paiderastia and Philosophia") persuasively argues that the dialogue criticizes a transmission picture of education within a critique of a sexual model of paiderastia. Angela Hobbs ("Female Imagery in Plato") reinterprets spiritual pregnancy in the context of female images, including midwifery and weaving, and in contrast with "male" images of war, hunting, and athletics. She claims, no doubt...