- Plato’s Symposium: A Critical Guide by Pierre Destrée, Zina Giannopoulou
Plato’s Symposium offers an enticing range of topics for the critical-guide treatment of philosophical classics now in vogue. The current volume contains thirteen essays of consistently high quality devoted to such issues as the nature of erotic desire and its orientation toward the forms, the ethical question of how best to live in the pursuit of wisdom, Plato’s engagement with poetry, and his use of dramatic interaction between speakers to advance his philosophical agenda.
An admirable feature of the volume is the close attention that is paid to all parts of the Symposium. Many discussions of the dialogue focus exclusively on Socrates’s speech, but Destrée and Giannopoulou have taken care to avoid this narrowly focused approach. Giannopoulou takes up the frame dialogue and the prologue to Socrates’s entry into the gathering at Agathon’s house. She observes that the stops and starts of recollected narrative rely on two distinct models of reporting the passage of time and the operation of desire. In the frame dialogue, Apollodorus’s reports encourage us to experience a regression back into the past while, in the prologue, Aristodemus and Socrates show us how desire can direct us progressively from the past into an unfolding future. Jeremy Reid investigates the moral psychology of all the speeches, excluding Socrates’s, and argues that these speeches set out those psychic qualities helpful and harmful for the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Franco Trivigno takes up the question of whether Plato means his portrait of Eryximachus to be satirical or respectful. For Trivigno, the presence of serious elements in this speech—a coherent structure, the use of technical medical terminology—does not conflict with, and even supports, Plato’s intention to satirize the self-forgetfulness of experts in whatever field. The speech of Socrates, of course, receives its share of attention: essays by F. C. C. Sheffield, Andrea Nightingale, Christopher Shields, Anthony Price, and Richard Kraut are devoted to teasing out the implications of this speech for our understanding of erotic love and its interior orientation towards the forms (Sheffield and Shields), the ambiguous status of the soul and its prospects for immortality (Nightingale), the perplexing question of whether the drive to give birth in the beautiful typifies all love or only one species of love (Price), and whether and how our love for the forms comports with the eudaimonist commitment to pursuing happiness as the highest good (Kraut). Other essays show how the speech of Socrates must be understood in relation to another speech: David Sedley comments on the ideal of assimilation to the divine that emerges first in the speech of Aristophanes, as the half-humans that we now are strive to recover our original and divine spherical form, and is given greater emphasis in Socrates’s speech. Radcliffe Edmonds and Destrée utilize the speech of Alcibiades to gain new insight into the speech of Socrates and what it tries to tell us about the best human life. Edmonds’s essay, one of the highlights of the volume, uses the tools provided by research into ancient Greek mystery rituals to support philosophical understanding. Alcibiades profaned the mysteries not by ignoring prohibitions on revealing secret knowledge but by attempting to use for his own purposes what was properly a public good. Edmonds employs this understanding of what it meant to profane the mysteries to shed light on Plato’s conception of where Alcibiades went wrong in his relationship with Socrates. [End Page 159]
Two quibbles remain. The first is that several of the essays (those of Sedley and Kraut, for instance) take as their point of departure a conception of the life devoted to intellectual contemplation as one that threatens separation from the desires and practical concerns of the ethical life. Plato’s decision to model the life of philosophy on the full development of erotic desire should indicate that the Aristotelian distinction between intellectual and ethical virtues does not find...