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§ vii. The Dialogue as a Whole: its Scope and Design.

No small degree of attention has been paid by the expositors of our dialogue to the question regarding its main purport—“de universi operis consilio.” It is plausibly argued that there must be some one leading thought, some fundamental idea, which serves to knit together its various parts and to furnish it with that “unity” which should belong to it as an artistic whole. But wherein this leading idea consists has been matter of controversy. Some, like Stallbaum, are content to adopt the simplest and most obvious view that Eros is the central idea, and that the design of the whole is to establish a doctrine of Eros. Others, again, have supposed that Plato was mainly concerned to furnish his readers with another specimen of the right method of handling philosophical problems. But although either of these views, or both combined, might be thought to supply an adequate account of the design and scope of the dialogue if it had ended with the speech of Socrates, they are evidently inadequate when applied to the dialogue as it stands, with the addition of the Alcibiades scenes. In fact, this last part of the dialogue—the Third Act, as we have called it—might be construed as suggesting an entirely different motif,—namely, laudation of Socrates in general, or perhaps rather (as Wolf argued) a defence of Socrates against the more specific charge of unchastity. That this is one purpose of the dialogue is beyond dispute: many indications testify, as has been shown, that Plato intended here to offer an apologiam pro vita Socratis. Yet it would be a mistake to argue from this that the main design of the dialogue as a whole lies in this apologetic. Rather it is necessary to combine the leading idea of this last Act with those of the earlier Acts in such a way as to reduce them, as it were, to a common denominator. And when we do this, we find—as I agree with Rückert in believing—that the dominant factor common to all three Acts is nothing else than the personality of Socrates,—Socrates as the ideal both of philosophy and of love, Socrates as at once the type of temperance and the master of magic. Our study of the framework as well as of the speeches has shown us how both the figure of Socrates and his theory dominate the dialogue, and that to throw these into bolder relief constitutes the main value of all the other theories and figures. This point has been rightly emphasized by Rückert (p. 252): “utique ad Socratem animus advertitur; quasi sol in medio positus, quem omnes circummeant, cuius luce omnia collustrantur, vimque accipiunt vitalem, Socrates proponitur, et Socrates quidem philosophus, sapiens, temperans. Quem iuxta multi plane evanescunt, ceteri vix obscure comparent, ipse Agatho, splendidissimum licet sidus ex omnibus, ut coram sole luna pallescit.”

It seems clear, therefore, that the explanation of the “Hauptzweck” of our dialogue which was given long ago by Schleiermacher is the right one—“propositum est Platoni in Convivio ut philosophum qualem in vita se exhiberet, viva imagine depingeret”: it is in the portrait of the ideal Socrates that the main object of the dialogue is to be sought.

The theory of Teichmüller and Wilamowitz as to the occasion on which the dialogue was produced has no direct bearing on the question of design. They suppose that it was written specially for recital at a banquet in Plato's Academy; and, further, that it was intended to provide the friends and pupils of Plato with a model of what such a banquet ought to be. But it would be absurd to estimate the design of a work of literary art by the temporary purpose which it subserved; nor can we easily suppose that Plato's main interest lay in either imagining or recording gastronomic successes as such. Equally unproven, though more suggestive, is the idea of Gomperz that this dialogue περὶ ἔρωτος was inspired by an affection for Dion.


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