Thoughts on the Setting of Plato’s Symposium

There are, in essence, two kinds of Platonic dialogues: narrated dialogues and dramatic dialogues. Narrated dialogues are unique in that they are framed -a person’s memory is the central crux of the dialogue (whether Socrates or someone else). For example, The Republic is recollected by Socrates the day in after his conversation at the house of Cephalus. Additionally, The Theaetetus is recounted by two traveling foreigners many years later, long after the death of Theaetetus and Socrates. Similarly, our dialogue in question today, The Symposium, is framed by a conversation from which we, the audience, are twice removed.

Aristodemus is the original leak for the events of The Symposium, taking place in 416 BC, the day after Agathon’s poetic victory at the Lenaia (roughly around January each year), and also shortly before Alcibiades’s failed quest to Sicily in which he was recalled to Athens and accused of heresy for profaning the sacred Eluesian mysteries. The tone is therefore, on the one hand, affable in exuberant in celebrating Agathon’s victory, and also ominous with the looming air of crisis. Exposing secrets is a profanation, and therefore it is a base act in ancient Greece. In response to the allegations Alcibiades fled to Sparta to avoid certain death. This is the necessary background and context to the dialogue. The story in the Symposium is told by Apollodorus to a comrade, based on the original account of Aristodemus, and it takes place many years later when Alcibiades has returned to Athens and the hysteria of the masses has subsided.

Apollodorus, called “soft” for his inferior “love for Socrates” and his emotional disposition, is sought after by Glaucon, brother of Plato and present at the discussion in the Republic. Apollodorus is happy to recount the work of Socrates. He is a cheerful but simple fellow. He only retells the account of Socrates upon request, but he does so gaily and without philosophic inquiry on his own account. Earlier Glaucon had to venture outside the city limits to Phaleron, the port town where Apollodorus resides, to find an accurate account of what happened at The Symposium, or the “Banquet.” He originally tried to receive it from Phoenix son of Phillipus, a figure in Xenophon’s Symposium. Phoenix’s father is portrayed as a clown, a member of the older generation while Phoenix and Apollodorus are members of a younger generation. Glaucon does not get what he wants from Phoenix so he ventures out to Phaleron to Apollodorus. Apollodorus also has a kind of condescending evangelism, or ‘philosophizing’. However, philosophy proper does not have a missionary zeal, though it does profane mysteries by seeking the truth and proclaiming it.

Apollodorus recieved the story from Aristodemus, a small man who didn’t wear shoes, but he also confirmed details with Socrates. Thus the audience is twice removed from the event: Aristodemus to intimate followers of Socrates, and Apollodorus to the general public many years later after the madness of the profanation has subsided. Leo Strauss presumes this date approximately 407 BC. Aristodemus was invited to the house of Agathon by none other than a ‘beautiful’ Socrates, kalon meaning beautiful, moral, pleasing to the eye as well as the mind’s eye, or a lovable thing. Socrates was rarely dressed beautifully or bathed, but he was going to the celebration of Agathon’s victory.  On his way, he perverts a proverb from Homer showing a meal between Agamemnon and Menelaus. In Greek, the ‘just’ implies an obligation, such as a civic duty to pay one’s debts (a la Cephalus in Book I of The Republic), but the noble or the beautiful transcends this obligation. Neither Socrates nor Aristodemus were invited to the dinner.

Socrates turns inward on the way to Agathon’s neighborhood, and Aristodemus arrives to an open door and Agathon graciously invites him in, though he was not invited to the party. Unlike in The Protagoras, the door is open indicating a much more liberal and sophisticated environment. The scene is characterized by perfect anarchy, perfect liberty. Agathon asks about Socrates, as Aristodemus rarely went anywhere without Socrates. Agathon orders his boy (servant is always read as “boy” in Greek) to go find Socrates and for Aristodemus to lie down with Erixymachus. Agathon wants Socrates to be compelled to attend, but Aristodemus protects Socrates ensuring that he will not be compelled.

Eventually, Socrates arrives halfway through the meal and Agathon asks him to lie with him to absorb his wisdom at the farthest seat. Socrates exchanges with Agathon in irony, a dissembling that demonstrates his superiority without actually saying it. A certain kind of double-handed politeness between gentlemen.

After they eat and make libations, they start to drink and we learn of other attendees, six in total prior to the bombastic arrival of Alcibiades at the end. Pausanias and Alcibiades are soaked and hungover from drinking the day before at the festival and are looking for an easy way to drink. Erixymachus, a physician, recommends against drinking and they all decide only to drink as it suits them. In addition, the female flute player is dismissed to entertain the women, it is a strictly male-only affair. Note: the traditional components of a symposia are dismissed by unanimous opinion at the outset, as well. Additionally, the irony of the Alcibiades situation is that Plato demonstrates Alcibiades’s innocence by showing that it was not the Eleusian mysteries that were profaned but rather it was a different priestess from Mantineia that divulged mysteries and they were recounted by Socrates. This is the context for The Symposium, a story recounted by Apollodorus to an intelligent comrade as they travel up from Phaleron to Athens.

At its root, The Symposium is an imitation of Aristophanes’s play entitled Frogs, in which Dionysus judges a contest between the old tragedy of Aeschylus and the new tragedy of Sophocles and Euripides, and as a reactionary, pain-loving antiquarian naturally favors Aeschylus. The Symposium gives us Plato’s response to Aristophanes, and also a refined contest between philosophy and poetry, an ancient contest as identified by Homer, with Socrates reigning supreme over the noble Agathon and the hiccuping Aristophanes.

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