Thursday, 7 January 2016

Book Review - The Symposium by Plato

The Symposium by Plato, translated by W. Hamilton

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951                     (Penguin Classics Series)

Love, that most mysterious of emotions, is the theme of The Symposium. So many philosophers and religions have dealt with this subject, and it is amazing how all conclusions tend to merge. Plato, writing nearly 400 years before Christ, comes to conclusions that are not so different from those of other belief systems.

Sometimes referred to as The Dinner Party, The Symposium is constructed by Plato around the after-dinner speeches of a group of men at a dinner party, speeches they give in lieu of the usual musical entertainment that would be normal for the after-dinner drinking session. The dinner party guests include Pausanias, Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Agathon and of course Socrates. These are the main protagonists in the discussion, initiated by Agathon, on the nature of the God Love.

The discussion takes the form of each member of the symposium delivering a panygeric on Love, and what they see as the most important features and factors in the makeup of Love. Plato arranges the speeches in a way that leads the reader from the outer surface of Love (Love is noble in that it leads the Lover to show the best of themselves), through to Socrates' contribution, which goes beyond the love of fellow man, to Love being an all-encompassing emotion that can be seen in everything.

Plato leads the reader through several phases - it's hard to disagree with any of the speaker's ideas about what is great about Love, but as each speaker adds more depth, the reader's mind is opened yet more to how Love engenders all that is good in the World.

Socrates himself structures his talk as reporting on a conversation with one of his teachers, Diotima. By the time that Socrates rises to speak we have looked at how love grows, how it brings out the best in men, and how Love is the desire for beauty - at first external beauty, but then the discussion moves on to the desire for the beauty within. Socrates rises to dismiss the notion that Love is the desire for beauty, rather that it is the desire for good.

According to Diotima (and by inference Socrates and Plato) Love transcends the merely physical, it is the desire to propagate the Good, and to achieve immortality by doing so. This can be done in a physical way by producing offspring, but as a man grows in wisdom from love of physical beauty in particular to physical beauty in general, from love of another's soul in particular to love of souls in general; to love of all beauty everywhere "absolute, existing alone with itself, unique, eternal, and all other beautiful things ... partaking of it, yet in such a manner that, while they come into being and pass away, it neither undergoes any increase of diminution nor suffers any change", he has reached the ultimate goal of Man.

Alcibiades then enters the dinner party drunk, and eschews the discussion on love for a panygeric on Socrates himself. Acibiades, in the story of his failed seduction of Socrates, shows the reader that Socrates himself is someone who has reached that ultimate goal.

A short work, there is much to ponder here, as would be expected from Plato. It is interesting to compare Socrates' view of the power of love to the expressions of Christian and Buddhist writings. While Ancient Greece is very different to today, as indeed is shown in The Symposium, human thought on the big questions shows amazing consistency over time.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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