restricted access 2 The Question of Beauty in the Symposium
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two The Question of Beauty in the Symposium We face a delicate task in turning now to the Symposium and Phaedrus. On the one hand, we want to pay particular attention to the way the question of to kalon emerges in these dialogues, since that is the focus of the present volume. But on the other, if we simply ignored everything but their references to beauty— jumping into each speech only when the term to kalon is mentioned—we would be ignoring the way Plato wrote. For as I emphasized in the introduction, beauty is one of those issues—in these dialogues at least—which Plato allows to emerge in the context of other issues with which, apparently, it is related. So we have to walk a fine interpretive line here. We have to be true to the dialogues and try to be open to the emergence of what happens in them as it happens, that is, we must read and interpret them as wholes; but this is not a commentary on either dialogue, and so our task is not to address every issue in them with more or less equal focus. We shall want to pay special attention to one particular emergence, that of the question of to kalon, for the manner of its emergence is extraordinary. One thing at least we can say in this regard, for the Symposium: by the time of Agathon’s speech (195a √.), beauty has taken a place at the center of the discussion of eros. Agathon indicates this by characterizing eros as both beautiful itself and as loving the beautiful. It is that claim with which Socrates— perhaps strangely, given everything that has been said by the previous speakers —begins his speech. And by the time of Socrates’ speech, we shall see the status of beauty in its relation to eros undergo a set of remarkable transformations 28 ⭈ plato and the question of beauty that we shall have to follow with great care. But we cannot simply begin with Agathon’s invocation of beauty or we would fail miserably to be true to the dialogue. So we must begin at the beginning, as it were, trying at once to understand something of the whole and to pay special attention to the emergence of the question of beauty. The dramatic frame of the dialogue presents to us the character who will report what went on at the party at which the speeches on eros were given, signifying to us, in one of its most elaborate presentations in all the dialogues, that we are distanced from the actual event itself. Our interlocutor will be Apollodorus, whose most striking characteristic, we learn, is that he is a fanatical disciple of Socrates and who regards everyone as miserable except Socrates (173d). This becomes all the more important as we learn that even Apollodorus was not actually present at the discussion, but learned about it from yet another fanatical disciple of Socrates, Aristodemus (173b). That we learn of the discussion from two very biased interlocutors who share essentially the same biases prepares us to be wary of what, on first reading, surely looks to be the case: that the early speeches are merely a prelude to the real truth of the dialogue, which is contained in Socrates’ speech. Of course that is the impression we would expect from these two highly prejudiced speakers! But we are invited to look to the early speeches to see if much more is not going on there than this biased impression would suggest. The second feature of the dramatic frame of potential relevance to our reading is that, in passing and with no future relevance to the dialogue, Apollodorus mentions that the person to whom he is speaking is a certain Glaucon (172c). Whether or not this otherwise irrelevant fellow is the Glaucon of Plato’s Republic, the name will inevitably call up to the reader that dialogue and is no doubt intended to do so. Why? One possible reason is that whereas the Symposium (and the Phaedrus as well) more or less praises eros, the Republic will present us with an almost relentless criticism of eros—beginning with Cephalus’s expression of relief at being free of ‘‘that monster’’ (Republic 329c), to the Draconian rules regarding sex, to the final identification of eros with tyranny in book 8.1 Each dialogue, it is thus indicated to us, must be qualified by the other; neither is the whole story, much...