Historical Context for The Symposium by Plato
Although we today might take the “dialogue” to be an unusual, even surprising, form for the exposition of philosophy – which we are more used to associating with lengthy and weighty prose treatises – dialogue was by no means a form unique to Plato. Other disciples of the philosopher Socrates wrote “Socratic dialogues,” too. Earlier philosophers wrote in a variety of forms that we might consider odd today – maxims, paradoxes, even poetry. In any case, the engaging literary form of dialogue reflects the centrality of debate in resolving moral problems (for example, the ethical questions dramatized by Aeschylus and Sophocles), which were ever at the forefront of Plato's mind.
Plato’s Symposium (written around 385 BCE) portrays an evening party among close male associates and friends. The dramatic date of the gathering within Symposium is 416 BCE, identifiable from the historical record of the tragic poet Agathon’s victory in Athens' annual drama competition, to which the play alludes. The comedian Aristophanes is recognizable from his Clouds– staged several years prior to the party, in 423 – in which Socrates is caricatured. Plato's Symposium is populated by historical figures of Athens, though the dialogue is a work of the author's imagination (he would have been only 11 years old in the year 416).
A symposium (“drinking together”) was a social gathering of high-status male guests who wore garlands and reclined on long couches, while being served wine by slave boys and sometimes entertained by hired (non-citizen) women. The party represented in Plato’s Symposium is on the small side – symposia could be gatherings of as many as thirty. Party-goers would have been used to singing songs and hymns in honor of various gods—drinking songs of this sort have survived from antiquity until today. Symposiasts might expect to be entertained by song, dance, poetry and even rhetoric—but not rigorous philosophical debate.
The topic of discussion among the symposiasts in this text is eros, or love – but above all love containing the element of desire, as opposed to the type of love one might have for family or friends. The partygoers of Symposium would not have recognized the type of language and categories we now use to describe sexuality and sexual orientation. It is sometimes useful to think of the penetratorand the penetratedas more useful categories for understanding the relative status of sex partners in ancient Greece. Desire, therefore, might be expressed for women or younger males in ways that were not exclusive; younger men, whatever their feelings may have been, were not supposed to exhibit desire for older men.
Among the real-life characters in the dialogue, the most problematic is Alcibiades (451-404 BCE), an enduring figure of controversy for disciples of Socrates (such as Plato), critics of Socrates and for the Athenian public. A brilliant politician (or, perhaps, manipulator) and military general, Alcibiades rose to superstar prominence and power early. Precocious, handsome, wealthy, persuasive –even seductive – Alcibiades attracted both praise and censure from the Athenian public. His association with Socrates posed a major moral question, however: Alcibiades was part of a group, including several other associates of Socrates, accused of mutilating the city’s protective statues (known as “herms”) and mocking sacred rites in advance of an invasion of Sicily for which he himself had advocated. Implicit in this accusation was that Alcibiades was attempting to undermine Athens’ democracy.
It is still a matter of debate whether Alcibiades did indeed commit these acts of impiety or whether his political enemies were using the herms’ destruction as an opportunity to undermine him. If this was the case, the scheme worked. For Alcibiades was recalled from Sicily, where he was serving as a general, in order to stand trial. He escaped, however, and, rather than face the legal system, he defected to the Spartans, Athens’ great enemy in the decades-long Peloponnesian war. Following his defection, Alcibiades was (again) recalled home by an Athenian public yearning for his return. Alcibiades returned in the role of fleet commander in the ongoing war—though after a series of military defeats, he was removed from his post and departed Athens again, only to be murdered by political enemies while abroad.
Alcibiades had already been dead for 15 years – maybe more – by the time Plato sat down to write his Symposium; Socrates himself had also been dead for a decade. But questions remained: Was Alcibiades’ association with the supposedly great teacher Socrates an influence for good or ill? Could Socrates really be such a great teacher if one of his closest and most prominent associates turned out to be so vain, arrogant and even treacherous? How responsible for Alcibiades’ later political career and demise was the philosopher? Whether and how Socrates was to blame for the rise of a figure who, through his personality and policies, had done such grievous harm to Athens continued to greatly disturb Socrates's students and associates long after the philosopher's death. Xenophon (a younger student of Socrates) would write a vigorous defense that Alcibiades was no real disciple, but rather used the philosopher to satisfy his own ambitions. Plato himself would devote one of his early works (Alcibiades I) to capturing the moment of Socrates and Alcibiades’ first encounter. In the course of this dialogue, Socrates convinces Alcibiades that his entry into politics is precipitous as he has neither the self-knowledge nor understanding of goodness and justice to attempt to lead the democracy in good faith. At the end of the Symposium, Alcibiades declares his allegiance to the philosopher while also showing that Socrates’ lessons have been lost on him – perhaps suggesting that Alcibiades went bad despite, not because, of Socrates’ efforts.
Written by Kate Brassel, Core Instructor, Classics, Columbia University
H. Benson, ed. A Companion to Plato. Blackwell (2006)
R. Kraut, ed. The Cambridge companion to Plato. Cambridge (1992)
D. Nails. The People of Plato: a prosopography of Plato and other Socratics (2002)
D. Halperin. “One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,” Diacritics 16 (1986) pp. 34-45
A.A. Long. “Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy,” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988) pp. 150-171