Study Questions on Plato's Symposium

In the Symposium, Plato gives us one of the most close-up and personal pictures of Socrates we have. Socrates himself never wrote a line that we know of; all that we know of him (his personality, his views, his biography) we get through Plato's ey es and pen. We cannot, therefore, know how accurate or embellished this account is. The elaborate way Plato introduces the "story" of the Symposium may lead you to believe that it is a fiction, just as the other works we will read this semester are. You can decide that for yourself.

The Greek word "symposium" means something like "drinking party," but it also means something like "a convivial evening of drinking and intellectual conversation." It has been borrowed into English. Look it up in your dictionary. You might translate it "feast."

Notice that the work begins in medias res. Who is Apollodorus speaking to as the work opens? We learn that there was a supper at the home of Agathon, at which Socrates was a guest. Aristodemus (an uninvited guest at that dinner) later described that evening to Phoenix, as well as to Apollodorus. Phoenix passed on the story to "another person," who in turn told Glaucon about the occasion. Apollodorus then recounted it in detail to Glaucon, and later to his unnamed "companion." It is this last account that we are reading. Why all this elaborate spaghetti of accounts? One effect is surely to lend an aura of verisimitude to the events--to make it sound like it really happened. (Note that Socrates later confirmed some of th e details of this story.) Another is perhaps to "cover" any objections to the details of this account--in fact to call into question the absolute accuracy of the account. In any case, it is not simply a clumsy, boring opening. The writer (Plato) has a strategy in mind.

Who is Agathon? What is this symposium in celebration of? How long ago did it take place? What does that tell you about how unusual an evening it was? What was the subject those present chose to discuss?

What does Apollodorus' comment about Socrates' sandals tell you about Socrates? (He was traditionally thought of as not at all good looking.) What does "unbidden" mean? Notice the use to which Homer's lines are put.

What is comical about the arrival of Aristodemus at the feast? Notice that the Greeks spend such an evening reclining on couches rather than sitting at a table. What kind of impression of Socrates do you get from the description on p. 4? Notice the way Socrates deflects any and all praise from himself to the speaker.

Why does Agathon mention Dionysus? What is a libation? Notice that they drink after they eat. Who is Aristophanes? Why is Socrates "an exceptional being"? Notice that on this occasion "drinking is to be voluntary," which tells you that at such a gathering it is usually not voluntary--a little like going the (reported) rounds at some fraternities or sororities, where each person in turn is obliged to take a drink. Who is Euripides?

What is a "sophist"? What does Socrates say about the subject of love? Why is Aristophanes "always in the company of Dionysus and Aphrodite"?

Jot down a few notes on the presentation of each speaker (or mark up your book clearly). What we are given is a collection of different ways of looking at "love"; think about it: if you asked ten people to define "love," how many different definitions would you get? You should know each argument/definition of love and how each differs from or builds on the next. What is the "argument" of Phaedrus? Hesiod is a great Greek writer, thought by many to be second only to Homer, who wrote about the creation of the world. Notice Phaedrus' pairing of "lover" and "beloved youth." What does Phaedrus say is the power of love? He finally mentions women! Read the stories of Alcestis, Orpheus, and Achilles and Patroclus in Hamilton.

How does Pausanias refine Phaedrus' definition of love? What point does Pausanias make about the love of women? What is "wantonness"? What kind of love does he recommend/denounce on p. 9? on p. 11-12? (Where is Lacedaemon? What kind of people live there?)

Why does Plato include a physician among the company, do you think? Does he talk like a doctor? How does his outlook color his account of love? Look up Asclepius in the dictionary. Who are Urania and Polyhymnia (Hamilton)? The four "elements" were thought by the Greeks to be the hot, the cold, the moist, and dry. All things were a combination of these (fish are cold and moist, the sun is hot and dry, earth is cold and dry, etc.), and balance of them in any living thing was thought to be necessary for good health (not a very strange idea). What is "temperance"?

What does Aristophanes' reference to "our muse" mean? His description of the original genders is, of course, meant to be funny, but it is also profound. Read his speech carefully and come to class prepared to explain what these creatures looked like--exactly. What is the origin of our belly-button? What does "parts of generation" mean? What does "androgynous" mean (what is an "android")? Who is Hephaestus? What do you think of his "message" by the end of his speech?

Notice how suspicious Agathon is of Socrates' motives. What does that tell you about Socrates? Is he as simple and straightforward as he tries to seem? What does Phaedrus imply about Socrates' motives?

First Agathon describes Love's beauty, then his virtue (power + goodness). What do you think of his flowery speech? How old do you think Agathon is?

Socrates, of course, comes last. Why? What is the tone of Socrates' opening remarks? (You will have to read a ways in order to find out.) What is the "Gorgonian head" (Hamilton)? What does Socrates really think of Agathon's speech? Socrates says he can only speak in his own manner; what is his own manner?

When Socrates says he would just like to ask Agathon a few question before he embarks on his own speech, picture Columbo saying the same thing (in his rumpled trenchcoat, with his mussed-up hair and that vague screwy look in his eye). Look out! His method of examination has been named the "Platonic dialogue," in which he draws out the truth by asking what seem to be ridiculously simply questions. Watch him.

To what admission does he bring Agathon in the middle of page 25?

Diotima. A woman. A woman so wise that she is wiser than the wisest man who ever lived: Socrates. Notice that she uses the same kind of examination technique that Socrates does. We know nothing about her. What do you think? Did Socrates invent her? Did Plato? We cannot know. What is "a mean"? She says love is "a great spirit," a "daemon." How does her (or is it Socrates'?) definition of love differ from those we have already read? What is wisdom? What is virtue?

What do all men [i.e., people] love? Why is beauty so important? Why is death so important? Why is it important to have poets and artists in any society? What is "true" love between two people like? Lycurgus and Solon were great Greek lawgivers whose ideas about law survive to the present day.

Notice Diotima's "even you" reference. She uses the same deprecating language with Socrates that he uses of himself. Why? "Forms" are an important idea in Plato's work. Plato (and perhaps Socrates) holds that we know that a chair is a chair (and not a camel) because there is an eternal, unchangeable, non-physical "form" of a chair that we know. We, in effect, (unconsciously) compare the object before us to the form and decide that it is a chair. There is likewise a "form" for everything we can know. What, for Socrates, are the most important things in life?

Plato was not the last thinker to suggest that this world must be "used" in order to gain entry to higher truths or experiences. What does he say is the "use" of this world? What do you think Plato means by "divine beauty"? By "reality" (or realities), Plato means "real virtue": "for he has hold not of an image but of a real virtue, and bringing forth and rearing true virtue, he will become the friend of God..."

So Socrates claims that all this wonderful stuff he has so glowingly described contains none of his own ideas--yet another way in which Plato distances us from the subject, obfuscates once again. He's a slippery one--why? That does not seem to be the way the people around him "hear" what he has to say. Apollodorus presents Socrates as the hero of the piece, surely. What are we supposed to think?

Plato plays Columbo in more ways than one. You'd think the dialogue would end here, but, no, a drunk stumbles in (a perfect Columbo move), supposedly disrupting the whole evening, with its high-toned discussion, only to add something further to the whole discourse on love--something very down to earth. Who is Alcibiades? He claims he is "speaking the truth"; that should pique your interest.

Now, you'd think that someone like Socrates might be a lover of someone like Alcibiades, but no, quite the opposite--and the drunkard (in vino veritas--there is truth in wine) describes the philosopher as "the fairest of the company," though by all accoun ts Socrates was anything but handsome. Enjoy Socrates' dry sense of humor. He has his tongue in his cheek most of the time. Having spoken so deprecatingly of himself up to now, here he acts as if he knows he is extremely (physically) desirable. Why do es Alcibiades call him "this universal despot"?

OK, guys, what you think of this guy's wine glass?! The subject of Socrates' drinking habits comes up again and again. Why, do you think? What do you make of Eryximachus' question?

"Truth"--keep your eye on that word. Who is Silenus? Be sure you understand the "figure" (i.e., simile) that Acibiades uses to describe Socrates. What is a "satyr"? Who is Pericles? What effect does Socrates have on Alcibiades? Does that surprise you, given the drunken man you see before you? His drawing out of his simile is really marvelous. Could you make such extended use of a simile?

What do you make of his statement that he knows Socrates better than anyone? Alcibiades has "opened" Socrates and "looked within at his serious purpose." This seems to put him in a very special position (and in a perfect position to have the last word in this discussion). Just when he seems to be getting serious, however, he gives you an account of a very funny "seduction scene" that backfires. Read it slowly and enjoy it.

What of Socrates' response? It is honest--cruelly honest. The astounding thing about Socrates is that he is always the same. Why is this ability so absolutely amazing? Alcibiades calls him a "wonderful monster." Alcibiades then turns to examples of this apparently superhuman talent. What does "allegory" mean? Why does Socrates use the kind of language he does (of "pack-asses and smiths")?

What is Plato's response to all this? Then, a second interruption, this time of the sort we had expected when Alcibiades arrived. Notice that they "spoiled the order of the banquet." Who remains awake? What do they talk about? What does Socrates do when he leaves? Could you?

Return to Course Page

Rev 1/97