So Alcibiades speaks. He compares Socrates to likenesses of Silenus, the drunken companion and teacher of Dionysus, from which appear statues of the gods, an image which prepares Socrates’ full identification as a man opening up to reveal divine, beautiful and amazing images (216e) and, later, the identification of his words as revealing “likenesses of virtue” (221e-222a). Socrates is then compared to the satyr Marsyas, who “charmed” (ἐκήλει) men through his skills at playing the flute. Socrates has the same power as Marsyas, but through his words. These leave all who hear him speak « struck with admiration, » « astounded » and « possessed » as by a god (215c-d). So when Alcibiades hears him, his heart « leaps » and tears come to his eyes, his soul is thrown into commotion and deeply affected, and he is effectively completely overpowered. When he hears Socrates’ words, even if another is speaking them, he is affected deep in his soul. The words chosen are those of drunkeness, possession and ecstatic experience. The physiological symptoms described here were probably those experienced in the rituals of the Mysteries such as the Eleusian mysteries: tears, commotion of the soul, possession, etc. Interestingly, many of those symptoms (tears, wonder, atypical behavior) would carry over into Christian mystic experience. We are far from the modern scientific, neutral outlook.
Later, Alcibiades describes how Socrates turned down his (sexual) offers, how he walked barefoot in the cold, and how he stood motionless seized by a trance all day and night. This listing of Socrates’ behavior, added to the elements already described (the removal in time, the closed space, the initiation rite and its effects) contribute to make of Socrates an out-of-this-world man who initiates us, listeners and readers, into the divine mysteries he has himself learned.
The book ends as the doors of the closed room open and a troup of drunk revellers enter, now effectively throwing the gathering into confusion and disorder. We have now fully come back down to earth, the world of passions and pathos. Daily life resumes. In spite of this, Socrates retains his otherworldly demeanor, he is unaffected by the outside world as he is the only one not to fall asleep and spends the rest of the day as he usually does.
The book ends with a last riddle: Socrates is seen trying to convince Agathon and Aristophanes (the last two guests awake, respectively a tragic poet and the famous comic writer) that the same man is to be at once a tragedian and a comedian. What is the meaning of this obscure affirmation? It may be that Socrates, in my opinion at least, is here referring to himself and Alcibiades, and to the fundamental and necessary duality of our nature (we discussed this point above). The same man must be at once a writer of tragedy and a writer of comedy; the same man must at once be a composition of a spiritual and a wordly nature. That this anecdote is placed at the very end is significant. We have left the world of direct spiritual contemplation and must return to our human categories of thought. What we have here are two apparently contradictory statements placed together and creating an intellectual puzzle. Isn’t it the very definition of dialectics? This internal dialectical statement leads to an external dialectical process involving the reader himself. What Plato is telling us is that there may be more to it than what has just been expounded in his book. If the interpretation given above is true, we are facing a dilemma: if wholeness means being at once of two natures, then we are forced to conclude that Socrates has not himself achieved completeness, as he is only of a spiritual nature. So what is missing? It is up to us to solve that contradiction and answer the question. Leaving the reader with more questions for him to answer is perhaps what makes Plato so delightful, lively and engaging to read.