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(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.


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).

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