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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 415-427

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Wisdom, Wine, and Wonder-Lust in Plato's Symposium

M. Andrew Holowchak

PLATO EMPLOYS A VARIETY of literary and philosophical tools in Symposium to show how eroticism, properly understood, is linked to the good life. These have been a matter of great debate among scholars. Cornford, for instance, argues that Symposium must be read along with Republic, in that the latter examines mostly the lower education of gymnastics and music (the "lesser mysteries"), while the former elucidates principally the higher education of philosophers (the "greater mysteries"). 1 Thus, stylistic differences correspond to differences in philosophical aims between the two works. Neumann says that Diotima's teaching is essentially sophistic. Eros by nature aims at the good without the "guidance of reason," which subserves eros. There is no need of conceptual oneness with the good as an independent formal entity, for the aim is reproduction is "always the particular good of a particular being." 2 Dover states that Symposium presents a consilience of reason and desire, which then continually reinforce each other, through a quest for good, which, if reached, is a fusion of reason and desire. Eros, then, is the cosmic force that "propels us on that road." 3 Bretlinger says that the eulogies of Symposium proceed in the manner of the Dionysian cycle of birth, struggle, death, and rebirth. 4 Markus maintains that the confusion of philosophical and literary exposition [End Page 415] and aim is a result of Plato insisting on a philosophy of love, based on eros, that greatly transcends eros in interest and scope. 5 Socrates' own perplexity in the dialogue as well as his insistence that he knows what he is talking about are perfect illustrations of a dialectical growth that eventually even transcends language. In short, the literary style mimics the philosophical maturation and understanding of Socrates' transcendent path. Thus, scholars themselves are far from general consensus on just what Plato was trying to do in this work.

This difficulty is compounded by there being, as Dover observes, "so much unjustified and implausible assertion and so little rigorous argument." 6 These are reasons enough why many philosophers neglect the work. The problem is that in Symposium the rich philosophy of love that Plato expounds is nearly eclipsed by his multifold array and skillful use of literary tools. This makes bringing to light the philosophical merits of the work a much more difficult task than with other works. In consequence, a precise articulation of Plato's own thoughts on love seems an impossible task, or nearly so.

In this article, I argue that Plato's philosophy of love unfolds primarily, though not exclusively, through his exposition of two sets of erotic contrasts: one concerning the proper method of eulogizing (rhetoric versus Socratic dialectic, Socratic dialectic versus "Platonic" eroticism); another concerning character (Socrates versus Alcibiades). If so, then Symposium distinguishes itself from the ethically driven, "Socratic" dialogues of Platoin two ways. First, not only does Plato in Symposium appeal to a much broader spectrum of philosophical interests, he also gives a non-dialectical account of love that is passed on to the symposiasts through Socrates qua "pupil" (and messenger) of the priestess Diotima. Second, in Symposium, Plato uses Socrates the man, not Socrates the dialectician, as a model of excellence of character in order to illustrate the very ideals sketched within the work.


A correlate of my thesis is that Symposium itself reads like an act of copulation that climaxes both in literary and philosophical senses. On the one hand, Plato artfully builds sexual tension through the story line. First, Socrates delays in seeing the Lenaian victor Agathon by one day. This lends itself to erotic frustration both in the obvious sense of Socrates not being able to see the handsome young orator immediately after his success and in terms of Socrates having to put off practice of [End Page 416] his true love—philosophy. Second, when he does go to see Agathon, Socrates' preparation is uncommon: he bathes and even puts on sandals. 7 Furthermore...


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