The following are notes on Plato’s Symposium. They may not contain anything new, just remarks on one of Plato’s greatest works written after confronting common contemporary perceptions of Socrates and, more genrally, Greek philosophical thought, with what is actually described in the book. These remarks may be set within the larger context of the decline of the classics in the West. We will lump philosophical remarks on the Symposium together with more pragmatic considerations in contemporary politics.
Socrates, and with him, Greek philosophy, is typically seen by us as an early rationalist, a kind of ancient precursor of the Enlightenment who criticized the gods (understand: religion and tradition) in order to discover rational truth (understand: a positivist scientific worldview). His most famous saying, “I only know that I know nothing” is often used to justify rejection of revealed religious dogma. This view of Socrates is largely the product of 18th century Enlightenment philosophers projecting contemporary intellectual development back onto Antiquity—perhaps in an attempt to anchor themselves in a historical tradition? A closer scrutiny of Socrates’ words and deeds, and descriptions of him by his contemporaries reveal that he was far from being an early rationalist rejecting the old religion and advocating a new, Cartesian-style positivist science trying to discover through reason the inner workings of the universe.
Atheism, and even deism, is certainly not what he argued and died for, and he may even be the polar opposite of the scientific-age rationalist sage we have made him out to be. Among all of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium is perhaps the one that has the most mystical flavor and, as such, is his best. Reading through the pages is like being held by the hand into a higher metaphysical and poetic reality. Socrates is at the center of it all. The plotline and how it unfolds, Socrates’ very speech as well as Alcibiades’ description of him present Socrates as a mystical and religiously-inspired figure and teacher.
Let us first set the stage of the drama. The speeches were heard by one Aristodemus, who was present at the gathering but did not speak. He later retold them to Appolodorus, who opens the Symposium, who then told them to Plato himself, if we are to identify the unnamed friend of Appolodorus at the beginning with Plato. He later committed those words in writing. We, the readers, therefore learn of the substance of the speeches told at the gathering fifth-hand. Such removal in time gives the work all his flavor and helps it achieve the dreamy atmosphere that captures us so. Distance, because it defines an unknown place, translates into a sense of awe and mystery. This sense of awe and wonder generates authority. Authority is something we cannot fully grasp, yet recognize as real, affecting us in some way and, moreover, as something positive. Through a distancing effect, Plato introduces Socrates as an authoritative figure. From the very first sections, we know that we are about to enter something mysterious and awesome (something which rational science does not, and cannot trigger in us).