Perrystroika's Reviews > The Symposium

The Symposium by Plato
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Jun 17, 12

bookshelves: favorites, ancient-greeks

This book is that great rarity, a work of astonishing and absolute perfection. It is a poem filled with beautifully realized dramatic scenes and characters, and also an astonishing and powerful work of philosophy, a perfect and harmonious integration of the head and the heart. The Symposium is a series of speeches on the nature of love given at a drinking party. It is divided into twelve sections. Twelve is a magical number for Plato. There are twelve Olympian gods, approximately twelve lunar cycles within every solar year, and twelve notes in the chromatic musical scale. Socrates goes to the party of the young playwright Agathon. There he meets and attempts to educate the cream of Athenian society. Unfortunately, for Athens and for him, they've been badly educated by the Sophists. Their spiritual corruption is made visible in their ideas about love. This early cycle of speeches includes Aristophanes' famous allegory of the divided beings. What is not mentioned is that Plato depicts Aristophanes (an enemy of Socrates, who helped get him tried and executed) as a monster of appetite, drinking and belching. The upshot of the story is that Aristophanes is a partial human being, not a complete person. Then Agathon gives his speech, and it's a very pretty speech. It glitters like costume jewelry. Aristophanes conceives of love as a lack; but it's clear that Agathon lacks for nothing. Totally self satisfied, utterly complete by himself, Agathon seems to love nobody but himself. This early part of The Symposium is a spiritual ancestor of Dante's Inferno. It's a portrait of a society lost souls, locked completely in their own isolation.

Then Socrates stands up, and gives perhaps one of the greatest speeches in the Platonic cannon, thought it is technically not a speech. it is a dialogue with a woman named Diotima. What, Socrates asks, is Love? Is Love a God or is he mortal? Well, the answer is that he is neither. Love is a daemon, a creature neither wholly divine and nor wholly mortal. Eros is that immortal element that lives in ourselves, that part that desires beauty and immortality. For while we are mortal, when we look upon one who is beautiful, we desire to beget and procreate with them and create progeny, thus gaining a kind of immortality for ourselves. So goes the "ladder of love" where first we learn to love a beautiful body, and then we learn to love the soul that animates the body, for what most makes a beautiful body is a beautiful soul. Then we learn to love those qualities of the soul that make it beautiful, namely wisdom and goodness. And from loving the soul, the lover than learns to love the eternal forms of wisdom and goodness. Our love leads us inevitably to eternity. It is a longing for perfection and eternity, and leads us to try to perfect and improve ourselves and others.

This, then, is the vocation of the philosopher, to beget in beauty. And who is this lover than, but the Philosopher? For the root meaning of Philosophy is to the "love of wisdom", who, trapped between heaven and earth, is driven by an infinite longing to beget in love and beauty and wisdom, and to bring these things about in the souls of others and improve them.

And this, we are left to understand, is Socrates. For Socrates is the spirit of love and brotherhood that dwelt in the city of Athens, going into the Agora and trying to educate and improve his fellow citizens, a good deed for which they would later kill him.
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