A Gentleman Laughing, Dancing, and Singing: Socrates in Xenophon’s Symposium

In response to the accusations from Aristophanes that Socrates is ignorant and un-erotic, both Plato and Xenophon respond as if in unison with one voice: Socrates is both knowledgable and erotic. In Plato’s Symposium we are given the only glimpse of Aristophanes outside of his comedies, and he is revealed to be a worthy, albeit envious, thinker whose continence allows him to keep up with Socrates, remaining awake into the early morning, though in the end it is Socrates, alone, who survives the night. The philosopher, alone, survives the drinking party in Plato. In Xenophon’s Symposium Aristophanes does not appear, but instead of Aristophanes in the flesh, a comedian is ridiculed in the character of Philip, the jester who is desperate for laughter. This is Xenophon’s dissatisfied response to Aristophanes. However, Xenophon is not a heavy or “lofty” writer in the same way Plato is.

In his writings Xenophon presents to us two extremes of being: an account of the “going up” of Cyrus, the great emperor of the greatest regime of the ancient world (which is coupled with a down-going of Athens) and his “recollections” of the speeches and deeds of Socrates. In his Oeconomicus and also his Symposium, we see a lighter treatment of a third possible way -the way Xenophon ultimately chooses in his own personal life, the life of a gentleman, noble and good (contra Plato’s philosophic abstraction and political troubles a la the Seventh Letter). In Plato’s Symposium, Eros is the philosophic longing that opens itself up to potential excesses (Alcibiades), while in Xenophon a certain moderate form of Eros emerges, an Eros that strengthens the bonds of friendship and citizenship -the love of a gentleman.

Taken in another light, Xenophon reveals himself to be a comic writer: the ultimate subject of comedy is philosophers meeting non-philosophers, or as Aristotle calls it, a “missing of the mark” by people claiming to have greater wisdom than they, in fact, possess. Xenophon’s Symposium is the most playful of his writings on Socrates, while the Oeconomicus is his account par excellence and the Memorabilia is Xenophon treating seriously the question of whether or not Socratic deeds have more significance than speeches. The Symposium is Xenophon’s playful treatment of the highest deeds of Socrates. The scene is of Socrates at a drinking party in pursuit of moderation -which is often coupled with wisdom for Socrates.

Unlike Plato, Xenophon is typically the narrator of his works. He presents them from his own perspective, though in his Apology he clouds his own perspective by choosing to name Hermogenes, an enthusiastic follower of Socrates, as the originator of the story. Notably in his Symposium, Xenophon is not a present character persay, though some (Leo Strauss) have suggested Xenophon appears in the form of the mysteriously unnamed “Syracusan” who provides an alternative to Socrates. In the opening lines, Xenophon makes a case for why the deeds of Socrates are worthy of being remembered.

In Xenophon’s Symposium, he decides to recount not only serious acts of “great” and “good” men, but also lighter experiences, like a drinking party that is filled with laughter. The scene takes place after the horse race at the panathenaic games, as Callias and Niceratus are proceeding home (Callias is enamored with the boy-victor Autolycus). However, Callias suddenly spots Socrates with Critobulus, Hermogenes, Antisthenes, and Charmides and he invites them to dinner. Callias is the originator of the action of the plot. Socrates is hesitant because of Callias’s association with the sophists, but eventually the group (not Socrates) relents and joins Callias.

Upon arriving at the banquet, Xenophon notes that “a person who took note of the course of events would have at once come to the conclusion that beauty is in its essence something regal, especially when, as in the present case of Autolycus, its possessor joins with it modesty and sobriety” (1.8). Thus, to Xenophon, beauty comes to light as ‘something regal’ and is furthered in its virtue with ‘modesty and sobriety.’ However, we know from Plato’s Symposium that not all people come to a banquet for modesty and sobriety (a la Alcibiades). At any rate, Callias is under the influence of Eros -Love for the boy Autolycus. Suddenly, Philip a “jester” and a “fool” arrives unexpectedly and joins them for dinner, though he does not arouse any laughter much to his chagrin, so he begins to weep on the couch until the members laugh out of pity for him. Philip is the parallel character to Plato’s Aristophanes in his Symposium, the comedian who is dependent upon the laughter of the crowd for satiety. After they please Philip with laughter, he joins them for the meal.

Then an unnamed “Syracusan” man arrives with a flute girl and some acrobats for entertainment. Socrates is delighted. They discuss introducing fine perfumes, though Socrates prefers the finer scent of nobility of soul, and they discuss whether such a virtue may be taught to the young men. Socrates puts the conversation on hold to observe the acrobatic girl, and he praises her, noting that women can learn anything men can, though they have inferior “judgment” and “physical strength” -however Antisthenes then notes that Socrates has a most difficult and unaccommodating wife, Xanthippe, so how can he make such claims? Socrates says, in effect, that if he can survive a difficult woman like Xanthippe, then he can deal properly with all of mankind, which is his purpose. 

The conversation then takes a remarkable turn to the dancing girl, with all members commenting on her form and courage. Recall Socrates’s comparison between a healthy body and a healthy city, with each part fulfilling its proper virtue and function. Similarly, Socrates comments on her limbs and head and body all acting together and completing the dance to perfection and he takes delight in the form. The dance of politics is connected to the biology of the human being in both Plato and Xenophon. Indeed, Nietzsche later praises the ability for dancing person to return again one day. The dance is preferable to long-distance runners who sacrifice the rest of their body for their legs, or the prize-winning weight lifters. Dancing gives the body symmetry and health in every part.

Socrates describes how just the other day Charmides caught him dancing in the early morning (2:19). Charmides was afraid because he did not know how to dance so he fled the scene. The group laughs at the thought of an elderly and overweight Socrates dancing.

Then Philip, the jester, tries to imitate the dance but he makes it a silly “burlesque” and a “grotesque” representation of the original dance. The comedian misses the mark in his attempt at dancing, and is thus worthy of laughter. He does not perfect the art of dancing, the art of politics, and he does not make them more beautiful or timely.

The men begin consuming wine, and Socrates hopes they will pursue moderation, in order to avoid wild intoxication and instead Socrates wants the group to be “brought by persuasion to a gentler and more sportive mood.” Socrates’s resolution is unanimously approved by the group of democratic men, with one addendum added by Philip. The servants must race around the room with wine, in imitation of a chariot horse-race.

Charmides turns the conversation to Love and they agree to be fulfilled by Callias’s promise to deliver profound orations of the kind he promises at the beginning (a promise that is never fulfilled). So Callias agrees to proclaim the most valuable knowledge he possesses (recall Socrates claimed not to possess knowledge). The group agrees to go around the room with each man boasting of his greatest, most valuable knowledge.

Callias claims to possess the knowledge of how to make men better, by instructing them in righteousness. Callias believes himself to be an educator of the greatest kind. Later, in Chapter 4, Callias justifies this claim at the request of Socrates by saying he teaches righteousness by giving away money. Callias is a philanthropist, a self-proclaimed giver.

Niceratus boasts of his ability to memorize and repeat all of the Iliad and the Odyssey as instructed by his father so that he would be a good man. The group engages in a discussion discounting the rhapsodes. Later, in Chapter 4, he boasts that Homer has written about practically everything under the sun, thus his knowledge is excellent.

Critobulus claims he takes greatest pride (the conversation has moved from “most valuable knowledge” to “greatest pride in”) beauty, and making other men beautiful. Later, in Chapter 4, Critobulus boasts of his handsomeness. Without his beauty, he has nothing. Critobulus is vain (he is also the interlocuter with Socrates in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus).

Antisthenes takes greatest pride in wealth, though he claims not to have a penny, but he apparently has a large piece of land. Antisthenes also justifies himself in Chapter 4 as being free from greed, a foul temptress, since he has enough money. The desire for wealth is a tyrant and now he has leisure and can live within his means as he so chooses. The crowd laughs and agrees with Antisthenes.

Charmides draws swords with Antisthenes by taking greatest pride in his poverty. Later, in Chapter 4, he praises freedom over slavery, hence a lack of money is preferable because now that he is poor no one pays him any mind. He is free to do as he pleases.

Socrates says he values most the “trade of procurer” for he could make a lot of money had he worked in procurement. The group laughs at him. Socrates’s justifies himself through a dialectic in Chapter 4. Socrates’s praises the ability to be a “go-between” or a uniter of marriages, cities, friends and so on. He longs for the spaces in between where justice lies in some sort of exchange as discussed in the Republic. Perhaps this is a clue into the larger Socratic project.

Philip, the jester as suggested by Lycon, praises the ability to make people laugh (though recall his inability at the outset of making any of the men laugh). Philip justifies his claims in Chapter 4, as he is invited to see friends at fine parties to bring laughter. Philip is surely the most ridiculous, Falstaffian character in the text.

Lycon says he takes greatest pride in his son, Autolycus (who blushes). In turn, Autolycus says he takes greatest pride in his father.

Lastly, Hermogenes claims that he delights in the goodness and power of his friends and the regard they have for Hermogenes (now the conversation has devolved from possessing knowledge, to taking great pride, to what delights people). In Chapter 4, Hermogenes gives an account of the gods as a reason for his success, but Socrates is unsatisfied. He asks for how Hermogenes has curried favorable delights from the gods. Hermogenes says they are brought on by praising the gods and behaving rightly. Socrates is clearly amused.

Also, Charmides asks the “Syracusan” what he is proud of, but his answer, surprisingly, is not the boy (as would have been expected). Instead, he is apprehensive about the boy.

The Syracusan later accuses Socrates of being the ‘Thinker” a la Aristophanes’s play while the group is discussing absurd notions of music as a hissing noise. Aristophanes’s burlesque play of Socrates was released a couple years prior to this banquet as documented by Xenophon. Per the Syracusan’s claim, Socrates is blamed for the absurdity of the conversation. When Philip interjects, and the rest of the group starts talking, Socrates suggests they all sing. Socrates sings them a song. He then delivers a long monologue praising the lovers of virtue (an encomium that is the antithesis of Socrates’s excessive Diotima speech in Plato) and the recollections of Xenophon close with a play miming Dionysus and Ariadne, a play so believable that all the members announce they will go home to pursue their own wives. Ironically, Socrates is the only married man who does not go home to his wife. Socrates goes out to walk with Callias, Lycon, and his son.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s Shorter Socratic Writings as edited and translated by Robert C. Bartlett, a Professor at Boston College.

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