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§ ii. The Framework of the Dialogue.


(A) The Method of Narration and the Preface.

The Platonic dialogues, viewed from the point of view of literary form, may be divided into two chief classes. To the first class belong those in which the story of the discussion is told directly by one of the protagonists; to the second class belong those in which the story is told indirectly or at second-hand,—a mode of narration which involves the further characteristic that dialogues of this class are necessarily prefaced (and concluded) by some explanatory paragraphs. This second class, moreover, falls into two subdivisions, according as the narrator is or is not represented as being himself present at the discussion. It is to the latter of these subdivisions, in which the narrator is not an eye-witness but reports the matter only at secondhand, that the Symposium (together with the Theaetetus and Parmenides) belongs.

It is noteworthy also that, with the exception of the Phaedo and Parmenides, ours is the only dialogue in which the narrating witness is not Socrates himself. The reason for this is obvious: eulogy of Socrates being one of the main purposes of the dialogue, it would be unfitting to put the story into his mouth, and make him the trumpeter of his own praises. Instead of doing so, Plato selects as the sources of the narrative persons of such a character as to produce the effect of verisimilitude. The way in which Aristodemus, the primary source, and Apollodorus, the secondary source, are described is evidently intended to produce the impression that in them we have reliable witnesses. Apollodorus1, “the fanatic,” is put before us not only as a worshipper of Socrates, imbued with a passionate interest in philosophical discourses such as are here to be related, but also as an intimate disciple who had “companied with” Socrates for the space of nearly three years past and during that time had made it his peculiar task to study the every act and word of the Master (172 E). Moreover, the story of the special occasion in question he had diligently conned (οὐκ ἀμελέτητος, 172 A, 173 C).

Aristodemus2, the primary source and actual narrator, is spoken of by Apollodorus as “an old disciple” and one of the most intimate with the Master in earlier years, and in his own narrative he represents himself as following Socrates with dog-like fidelity, and showing the closest familiarity with his ways and habits—a man so single-hearted, so engrossed in matters of fact, as to be constitutionally incapable of tampering with the truth. As the “minute biographer,” Aristodemus is the prototype of all later Boswells.

Further, the impression of veracity made by the character of the narrators is enhanced by the express statement that in regard to some points at least (ἔνια 173 B) the account of Aristodemus was confirmed by Socrates. The points in question are probably (as Hug observes) those which specially concern the picture drawn of Socrates himself. At any rate, it is in regard to these that we have the detailed testimony of Alcibiades, emphasized by repeated asseverations (214 E, 215 A, etc.), and endorsed by the silence of Socrates.

In addition to the evidence it contains for the dates of the narration and of the banquet3, and the vivid picture in miniature which it presents of a certain group of Socratics in whom an ardent admiration for the Master was blended with a limited capacity for understanding the deeper side of his practice and doctrine—as if to go barefoot and to rail at filthy lucre were the sum and substance of Socraticism,—there are two further points in the Preface which deserve attention.

Apollodorus, although asked only for the λόγοι spoken at the banquet (172 B, 173 E), proceeds to give a full account of the accompanying incidents as well (ἐξ ἀρχῆς...διηγήσασθαι 174 A). This may be taken to indicate that for estimating the effect of the dialogue as a whole we are meant to pay regard not only to the series of encomia but also to the framework of incident and conversation in which they are set.

Glaucon, in asking Apollodorus for the desired information concerning the “erotic discourses,” states (172 B) that he has already heard an account of them from “another man” (ἄλλος τις), which account was unsatisfactory (οὐδὲν σαφές), and that the authority quoted by this unnamed informant was “Phoenix, son of Philippos.” To this Apollodorus adds the fact (173 B) that this Phoenix was indebted to the same source as himself, namely Aristodemus. What precisely these statements signify it is not easy to determine, since the identity of Phoenix, as well as that of the anonymous informant (ἄλλος τις), is unknown to us. But it seems reasonable to infer that there was already in existence, when Plato wrote, at least one other account of a banquet at which Socrates, Alcibiades and Agathon figured, and that it is Plato's intention to discredit it. That such is the intention is shown not only by the phrase οὐδὲν εἶχε σαφὲς λέγειν, but also by the statement that the evidence of ἄλλος τις was one degree further off from the primary source (Aristodemus) than is that of Apollodorus. Further, the assumption of some such controversial intention throws light on the emphasis laid on the veracity of the narrative—to which attention has been drawn above—and gives it a more definite motive. It is as if the author means us to read into his preface something to this effect: “Socrates has been misrepresented: it is my task to clear his reputation by putting the facts in their true light.”

If this, then, be a right reading of the hints thus given, what is the distorted account which Plato thus discredits, and who its author? Unfortunately this must remain a matter of conjecture. The most obvious suggestion to make is that the author in question is Xenophon, and the account alluded to his Symposium. But Xenophon's Symposium is most probably a later work than Plato's; and it is a further objection that the persons represented by Xenophon as present at the banquet are not—with the exception of Socrates—the persons mentioned by Glaucon.

We are obliged, therefore, to look further afield for the author whose identity is thus shrouded. The best suggestion I can offer is that Polycrates the rhetor is the writer intended. In favour of this we may adduce the fact that Polycrates is κατήγορος whose calumnies Xenophon aims at refuting in his Memorabilia4. It is by no means improbable à priori that Polycrates in his attacks on Socrates described, amongst other incidents, a banqueting-scene in which Socrates and Alcibiades were pictured in an odious light. And if we take the Banquet of Xenophon to be a genuine work, the very fact that Xenophon thought it necessary to supplement his Memorabilia by such a work might be construed as showing that the author of the slanders he is at such pains to refute had already libelled Socrates in connexion with a similar scene. But unless, by some happy chance, further light should be shed upon the history of Polycrates' literary activity, it is hardly possible to get beyond the region of conjectural speculation, or to hope for a definitive solution of this obscure literary problem.


(B) The Prologue of Aristodemus.

In the Prologue, with which Aristodemus's narrative opens, special attention may be drawn to the following points:—

a It is significant that the first person to appear on the scene is Socrates. We are led at once to admire his good humour and ready wit as shown in the playful tone of his conversation (1) with Aristodemus (174 A, B), in which he makes jesting quotations from Homer and indulges in a pun on the name of Agathon (cp. the pun he makes on Gorgias, 198 C); and (2) with Agathon (175 C—E). These amiable traits in the character of Socrates are further illustrated in other parts of the dialogue.

b Socrates on the way becomes lost in thought and fails to put in an appearance till the banquet is already far advanced (174 D, 175 C). Aristodemus explains to Agathon (175 B) that this is no exceptional occurrence (ἔθος τι τοῦτ᾽ ἔχει). That this incident is intended to be specially emphasized as typical of Socrates' habits becomes clear when we notice how Alcibiades in his speech (220 C) describes a similar incident as taking place in one of the campaigns in which he served. The corroboration thus effected is one of many examples of the literary care and ingenuity with which Plato in this dialogue interweaves incident with speech. Another example occurs a little further on (176 C) where Eryximachus, discussing the question “to drink or not to drink,” describes Socrates as ἱκανὸς ἀμφότερα: this statement, too, we find amplified and confirmed by Alcibiades (220 A). Both these matters illustrate that entire subordination of flesh to spirit in which Socrates was unique.

c Agathon (175 C ff.) expresses a desire to share in the “witty invention” which Socrates had discovered on his way: Socrates with his usual mock-modesty disclaims for himself the possession of σοφία, except of a poor kind, but congratulates Agathon on the fine and abundant σοφία he has just been displaying so conspicuously: and the conversational banter concludes with Agathon's remark—“Presently, with the Wine-god as umpire, you and I will fight out our wisdommatch.” Here, at this early stage, we have struck for us one of the key-notes of the dialogue. For one main motive of the dialogue as a whole is to exhibit the σοφία of Socrates, his intellectual as well as moral supremacy. And we find, in the sequel, that this is done largely by pitting him against Agathon, over the wine-bowl. In this we have the reason for the juxtaposition of the two speeches, matched, as it were, one against the other. His speech is, in itself, one sufficient proof of the superiority of Socrates over his rival. But there are also other proofs: there is the masterly criticism and confutation to which Socrates subjects the belauded poet; there is the express statement, confirmed by expressive action, of Alcibiades, in which is asserted the superiority of Socrates not merely to Agathon but to all others who make claim to σοφία (213 E, 215 C ff.); and finally the Wine-god himself bestows on Socrates the palm when, in the concluding scene, we see him alone pursuing discussion with unflagging zeal and with a clearness of head undimmed by long and deep potations while his rival drowses and succumbs to sleep. Thus the διαδικασία περὶ τῆς σοφίας runs through the book, and always, from beginning to end, νικᾷ Σωκράτης.

To this we may add one minor point. Agathon, in this preliminary play of wit, applies to Socrates the epithet ὑβριστής, “a mocker.” And this, too, is a trait upon which Alcibiades, in the sequel, lays much stress. ὕβρις is one of the most striking characteristics of the SatyrSocrates (216 E, 219 C).

d Another example of the literary interweaving—or the method of “responsions,” as we might term it,—which is so marked a feature of the dialogue, is to be found in the statement of Socrates concerning the character of his own knowledge. His speciality in the way of science is, he announces, “erotics,” and this is his only speciality (177 D). Accordingly, when we find Socrates in the sequel delivering a discourse on this subject we are evidently intended by Plato to feel that his views are to be taken seriously as those of one who professed to be an expert in this subject if in nothing else. And this intention is emphasized when we come to the later passage (the “responsion”) in 198 D where Socrates again refers to his conviction that concerning “erotics” he knew the truth (εἰδὼς τὴν ἀλήθειαν). It is hardly necessary to add that “erotics,” construed in the Socratic sense, constitutes by no means an insignificant department of knowledge (φαύλη τις σοφία 175 E), as Socrates modestly implies, inasmuch as it is practically coextensive with a theory of education and involves an insight into the origin, nature and destiny of the human soul.

e In 177 B we have an interesting parallel between Plato's language and that of Isocrates. In Hel. 210 B,τῶν μὲν γὰρ τοὺς βομβυλίους καὶ τοὺς ἅλας καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα βουληθέντων ἐπαινεῖν κ.τ.λ.,” Isocrates scoffs at the eulogists of “bees and salt and such-like trumpery,” and his language is echoed in the allusion (put in the mouth of Eryximachus quoting Phaedrus) to a βιβλίον ἀνδρὸς σοφοῦ ἐν ἐνῆσαν ἅλες ἔπαινον θαυμάσιον ἔχοντες πρὸς ὠφέλειαν (177 B). This eulogist of salt is commonly supposed to be Polycrates, since encomia on similar paltry subjects—mice, χύτραι, ψῆφοι—are ascribed to him5. Dümmler, however6, takes the reference to be to Antisthenes (Protreptikos), on the strength of the statement in Pollux VI. 16. 98: βομβύλιος δὲ τὸ στενὸν ἔκπωμα καὶ βομβοῦν ἐν τῇ πόσει, ὡς Ἀντισθένης ἐν προτρεπτικῷ. And for ἅλες as eulogized in the same work he quotes also Rep. 372 B ff. (ὄψον ἕξουσιν ἅλας). It may be added that a further allusion to the βομβύλιος, as στενὸν ἔκπωμα, may be discovered in the mention of ἔκπωμα μέγα in Sympos. 213 E. Since Antisthenes seems to have devoted a good deal of attention to the subject of μέθη7, one is inclined to suppose that his views are alluded to in Sympos. (176, 213-14); and another allusion to him may be found in the mention of the χρηστοὶ σοφισταί who eulogized Heracles (177 B), since Heracles was, notoriously, the patron-saint of the Cynics8. However much they might differ on other points, Plato and Isocrates were agreed in so far as both found the Cynic leader an objectionable person.

f A significant indication is given us at the conclusion of the Prologue that the account of the speeches which follows is not an exhaustive account, but only a selection. And it is a selection that has been sifted twice. For Apollodorus states (178 A) that neither did Aristodemus remember all the views put forward by every speaker, nor did he (Apollodorus) remember all that Aristodemus had related. This statement is further confirmed by the later statement (180 C) that Aristodemus passed over the discourses of several speakers who followed next after Phaedrus. We are to infer, therefore, that there was a good deal of speechifying at the banquet which was not ἀξιομνημόνευτον. But why Plato is at pains to emphasize this point is not wholly clear. It may, of course, be merely a literary device meant to enhance the verisimilitude of the account, since the speeches actually related might be thought insufficient to occupy the length of time supposed to elapse between the end of the δεῖπνον and the hour of Alcibiades' arrival—which would probably not be early. It is possible, however, that we should look for a deeper reason. If so, may not the intention be to brush aside and discredit other speeches stated by another author9 (ἄλλος τις, 172 B) to have been delivered on this occasion?


(C) The Interludes.

The first Interlude, worthy of the name, occurs between the second and third encomia (185 C—E), and it is noticeable, first, for the reference to the “isology” of the rhetorical sophists; secondly, for the device by which the natural order of speakers is changed (Eryximachus taking the place of Aristophanes); and thirdly, for the alleged cause which renders such a change necessary, namely the hiccough (λύγξ) of Aristophanes. As regards the significance of this last matter considerable diversity of opinion exists among the commentators. Of the ancients, Olympiodorus (vit. Plat. 3) supposed that Plato here ἐκωμῴδησε Ἀριστοφάνη when he εἰσάγει αὐτὸν μεταξὺ λυγγὶ περιπεσόντα καὶ μὴ δυνάμενον πληρῶσαι τὸν ὕμνον: and similarly Athenaeus (187 C) writes τὸν μὲν ὑπὸ τῆς λυγγὸς ὀχλούμενον...κωμῳδεῖν ἤθελε καὶ διασύρειν: and Aristides (or. 46, II. p. 287), ἀλλ᾽ οἶμαι λύζειν αὐτὸν ἔδει, ἵνα εἰς ἀπληστίαν σκωφθῇ. Of the moderns, some have followed the ancients in supposing that the incident is meant to satirize Aristophanes and his intemperate habits (so Stallbaum, Rückert, Steinhart); while some (Stephens, Sydenham, Wolf, Schwegler) take the object of the ridicule to be not so much the habits of the poet as his speech with its “indelicate ingredients.” On the other hand, Schleiermacher held the view that Eryximachus with his “physiological and medical notion of love” is here being satirized; while Ast—whose view is shared in the main by Hommel, van Prinsterer and Rettig—argued that the real object of the ridicule is Pausanias, by whose speech Aristophanes implies that he has been “fed up” to the point of loathing. This view Rettig thinks is supported by the phrase Παυσανίου παυσαμένου, which he takes to indicate Apollodorus' ridicule,—by the allusion made by Aristophanes to Pausanias' speech in 189 C,—and by his mention of Pausanias again in 193 B; and he construes the hint of another possible cause ( ὑπό τινος ἄλλου, 185 C) as “affording the key to the hidden meaning of the word πλησμονή.” This view, however, is open to the objections (urged by Rückert against Ast) that, first, it makes Aristophanes guilty of excessive rudeness in feigning a hiccough to show his disgust (“aliud est in convivio iocari, aliud in scena,” e.g. Nub. 906 ff., Ach. 585 ff., the places cited by Rettig); and that, further, there is no plain sign that the hiccough was feigned, but on the contrary the whole incident is stated by Aristodemus as matter-of-fact. It seems safe, therefore, to conclude that the most obvious view— that of the ancients—is nearest to the truth. The incident shows up Aristophanes in a ludicrous light, and at the same time it gives further occasion to Eryximachus to air his medical lore; so that we can read in it the intention of satirizing gently both these personages. But to construe it as aimed at Pausanias is far-fetched and improbable: he is already disposed of in the satirical reference to sophistical “isology”; and to discover a fresh allusion to him in the “other cause” of the hiccough is to discover a mare's nest, for—as the Scholiast ad loc. informs us—other physical causes of this symptom were as a matter of fact recognized by the medical profession, and it is only polite on the part of Aristodemus to leave the matter open.

The second Interlude (189 A—C) and the third (193 D—194 E) call for no special remark.

The fourth Interlude (198 A—199 C), which follows on the speech of Agathon, is linked to the third both by a remark which Socrates addresses to Eryximachus, and also, at the close, by his appeal to Phaedrus (cp. 199 B with 194 D). Here, in even a greater degree than in the previous Interludes, Socrates is the central figure of interest, and this position he continues to hold throughout the rest of the dialogue. This Interlude, indeed, may be regarded as one of the cardinal points of the structure, in which the First Act, as we may term it, passes on into the Second; and in the Second Act we reach at length the theoretical climax, in the doctrine of Socrates-Diotima. To this climax the present Interlude, wherein is laid before us Socrates' confession of rhetorical faith, serves as prologue.

The fifth Interlude (212 C—215 A) is by far the longest and, as regards the action of the piece, the most important. For it introduces a new actor, and he a protagonist, in the person of Alcibiades. The contrast is striking between the prophetess in her soaring flights to the heavenly places of the spirit and the tipsy reveller with his lewd train who takes her place in claiming the attention of the audience. The comic relief which, in the earlier scenes, had been supplied by Aristophanes, as γελωτοποιός, is now supplied by Alcibiades. We should notice also how a link with the Second Act is furnished here, at the commencement of the Third Act, by the mention of an attempt by Aristophanes to reply to an observation made by Socrates in the course of his speech. But apart from this, the rest of the speakers and banqueters are left out of account except only Agathon, Socrates and Eryximachus. The action of the last of these here is parallel to his action at the commencement of the First Act where he had taken the lead in fixing the rules for the conduct of the symposium. As regards Agathon and Socrates, the most important incident in this Interlude is the decision concerning their contest in σοφία which is pronounced by Alcibiades, when, acting the not inappropriate part of Dionysus, he awards the crown to Socrates,—an incident to the significance of which we have already (§ ii. B, C) drawn attention.

Of the Epilogue or concluding scene (222 C—end) it is unnecessary to say much. The persons that figure most largely in it are the three central characters, Alcibiades, Agathon and Socrates; while towards the close the rest of the characters receive, as it were, a farewell notice. When the curtain finally falls, it falls significantly on the solitary figure of Socrates, the incarnation of the Eros-daemon, behind whom in his shadow stands the form of his erastes, the “shadow”-biographer Aristodemus.


1 Apollodorus appears also in Phaedo 59 A, B as one of those present with Socrates “on the day when he drank the poison in the prison”; as characteristically exhibiting most marked symptoms of grief [this statement would support the epithet μαλακός as well as μανικός in Symp. 173 D]; and as a native of Athens (τῶν ἐπιχωρίων). In Apol. 34 A he is one of those present at the trial of Socrates; and (in 38 B) one of those who offered to go bail to the extent of 30 minae. Pfleiderer takes Apollodorus to represent Plato himself, by a piece of ironical “Selbstobjektivierung,” a notion which had already occurred to me.

2 For Aristodemus, see also Xen. Mem. 1. 4. 2 where Socrates converses περὶ τοῦ δαιμονίου πρὸς Ἀριστόδημον τὸν μικρὸν ἐπικαλούμενον, καταμαθὼν αὐτὸν οὔτε θύοντα τοῖς θεοῖς οὔτε μαντικῇ χρώμενον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν ποιούντων ταῦτα καταγελῶντα.

3 With regard to this evidence, see Introd. § viii.

4 See Cobet, Nov. Lect. pp. 662 ff.; Gomperz, G. T. II. pp. 63, 118. Gomperz (II. 343) supposes the Gorgias to be a counterblast to Polycrates' indictment of Socrates, and Alcibiades' eulogy in Sympos. to have the same motive: “Plato had a definite motive for placing such praise in the mouth of Alcibiades—we refer to the pamphlet of Polycrates....This writer had spoken of Socrates as the teacher of Alcibiades—in what tone and with what intention can easily be guessed....Plato himself had touched on the subject (of the liaison between the two men), harmlessly enough, in his youthful works, as, for example, in the introduction to the ‘Protagoras.’...But after the appearance of Polycrates' libel, he may well have thought it advisable to speak a word of enlightenment on the subject; which is exactly what he does, with a plainness that could not be surpassed, in the present encomium” (op. cit. 394-5). Gomperz, however, does not bring this hypothesis into connexion with the passage in the Preface of Symp. discussed above. There may be an allusion to the same matter in Protag. 347 C (cp. Xen. Symp. VII. 1).

5 So Hug (Sympos. ad loc.) following Sauppe and Blass: also Jebb, Att. Or. II. 99. I may note here an inconsistency as to the date of Polycrates' “Accusation” in Jebb, Att. Or. I. 150-51 compared with ib. XLV: in the latter place it is set in 393 B.C.

6 In this Dümmler (Akad. p. 66) follows Winckelmann (Antisth. fr. p. 21). Polycrates, however, may be alluded to as well as Antisthenes, as the terms of the reference are wide (ἄλλα τοιαῦτα συχνά); moreover, a close relation may have existed between these two writers.

7 See Dümmler, Antisthenica, pp. 17 ff.

8 See Gomperz, G. T. II. p. 151; Dümmler, Akad. p. 66.

9 See above, § ii. A, ad fin.

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hide References (23 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (19):
    • Isocrates, Helen, 12
    • Plato, Republic, 372b
    • Plato, Symposium, 172a
    • Plato, Symposium, 172b
    • Plato, Symposium, 173c
    • Plato, Symposium, 173e
    • Plato, Symposium, 175c
    • Plato, Symposium, 177b
    • Plato, Symposium, 185c
    • Plato, Symposium, 189c
    • Plato, Symposium, 193b
    • Plato, Symposium, 194d
    • Plato, Symposium, 198c
    • Plato, Symposium, 198d
    • Plato, Symposium, 199b
    • Plato, Symposium, 213e
    • Plato, Symposium, 215a
    • Plato, Symposium, 215c
    • Plato, Symposium, 219c
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (4):
    • Plato, Apology, 34a
    • Plato, Phaedo, 59a
    • Plato, Symposium, 173d
    • Plato, Protagoras, 347c
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