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Plato’s The Symposium

Plato’s The Symposium is one of the author’s most famous and well-known works. It is a recollection of a conversation had about the virtues and identities of love discussed by Socrates, Agathon, Alcibiades and others at a dinner party held at the house of Agathon. The conversation is discussed years later when Apollodorus is asked to recall the event. The title of the work itself refers to a sort of dinner party held at one’s house where philosophers would get together to discuss issues and chosen topics.

In this case, the chosen topics of love and Apollodorus relates how all the chosen speakers offered their individual views on the concept of love as a god, as a concept among mankind, as a principle by which to live life, and as a means of conflict or peace. It would be easy to read The Symposium and interpret the work with love as its only theme throughout the speeches by the various philosophers. Love is undeniably a theme present in the speeches given and in the conversations between the men, but it is not the only one. Intertwined with the theme of love is the theme of honour.

In discussing love, the philosophers also use honour as a theme to represent how love and honour or the lack of one or both are often intertwined and interrelated. There are several points in the small sections of dialogue that occur before, during and after the long speeches by the philosophers that relate the theme of honour as it pertains to the parties speaking. These inferences do not directly mention honour or being dishonoured, but it is represented in the actions or the gestures of the men speaking and how they speak to one another.

This structure of inserting conversations within conversations serves to make Plato’s work somewhat confusing and requires the reader to be very focused, but it also allows the reader to almost hear the multiple conversations going on at once. Most of us have had conversations with several people in which many people were discussing a variety of topics at once and it’s easy to imagine how this could have taken place with a group of philosophers and old friends and how one of them could have relayed a gesture of honour towards a friend in the course of conversation.

Professor David Simpson explains Plato’s intertwining conversation structure in The Symposium “The very structure of The Symposium is a dizzying maze: a set of Russian dolls or Chinese boxes in which speeches contain other speeches and whole conversations are quoted at three or four removes” (Simpson 1998). In proving honour as another underlying theme, these interlocking and intertwining conversations serve to connect themselves by the themes of both honour and love.

The first time that one of these common gestures of honour and respect is made is when Apollodorus and his companion begin walking and discussing the symposium that took place years ago. Apollodorus remarks that he is not the best speaker and so he enjoys hearing other speakers that are better at public speaking than he is and also enjoys talking about them and praising them.

His companion shows him respect and honour by retorting his statement about himself and telling Apollodorus that he is a good public speaker too and that’s why he came to Apollodorus to learn what happened at the symposium at Agathon’s house. This same structure occurs later after Apollodorus has started relating the events that took place at the symposium. After arriving at Agathon’s house, Socrates disappears into a separate part of the house to lie down and won’t get up. The others opt not to start talking without him, saying that to do so would dishonour Socrates.

When he joins the group, there is recognition of his presence to honour him before the conversation that had been occurring prior to his arrival is allowed to continue. Later, to distract listeners from making him talk and give his discourse about love, Socrates begins a separate conversation with Agathon and the conversation is on the topic of honour, not love. Socrates asks Agathon if he would be comfortable talking in a group of very wise men instead of the group of old friends he is currently surrounded by.

His point is to ask Agathon if he would feel dishonoured by offering his opinion in the presence of wise men or if he would be just as capable of giving his opinion on a topic in the presence of great intelligence as he would sitting around a dinner table drinking and talking with friends as he is doing. The focus of Socrates’ question is not about Agathon’s comfort level talking in front of others that are wiser than he is, but about whether he felt that his honour would be at stake if he tried to do so.

The actions of Alcibiades shortly after Socrates’ discourse on love also convey a sense of honour and honouring one another through offerings. Alcibiades gives Agathon ribands when he arrives, which presumably are wreaths or garlands worn around the head. He gave Agathon a lot of these as a means of honouring Agathon in his household, but when he sees Socrates sitting there as well he takes back some of the ribands he gave to Agathon and gives them to Socrates, saying that he has to honour Socrates too because he is such a great speaker.

These are all examples of conversations within the main conversations being had about the concept of love where statements made or gestures offered among the men convey an underlying theme of honour. The first speaker of the night is Eryximachus and he states that his proposal is that each of them gives a speech in honour of love. He does this because he recalls how his friend Phaedrus has often remarked to him that there are no discourses praising or honouring love.

Eryximachus states that he has even heard speeches given that have been devoted to praising salt for its usefulness and necessity in everyday life, but there are very few devoted to love or the god of love. This statement by Eryximachus sets the tone that all of the speeches to follow will be in honour of love and will be given as a way of honouring love. This introduction of sorts begins to intertwine the concepts of love and honour and the speeches that follow reinforce this relationship.

Phaedrus begins by saying that Love as a god should be honoured because he is the oldest god and that there is no documentation of Love having any parents, which is one of the reasons that poets have shied away from honouring Love in words. Phaedrus intertwines the concepts of love and honour by stating that a lover is more likely to consider the consequences of their actions because they will think about not only how those actions will affect them, but also affect their lover.

A lover will also tend to act honourably because they are afraid of being found out by their lover. Phaedrus offers the thought that for a lover it would be more devastating and crushing to be found to be acting dishonourably by one’s lover than by one’s own parents. He proposes that an army made up of people in love would be more just and forthright than the army currently in place because they would always act honourably out of respect for their lovers.

He uses the example of Achilles and Patroclus and relates how Achilles turned down the guarantee of avoiding death in favour of avenging Patroclus, his slain lover, to restore his honour for him. Pausanius follows Phaedrus and begins by stating that there are several Loves and that they should all be honoured and praised as much as one god would be worthy of honouring if there was only one Love. He then discusses the physical love for boys. He justifies it by pointing out Aphrodite’s male origins and by saying that they aren’t boys, but young minds that are still being developed.

In discussing the legal ramifications of being in a sexual relationship with a boy he says that these relationships should be illegal because the future intentions of the boy cannot be determined to be honourable or dishonourable towards their present lover. He uses examples of other countries in which a relationship with a boy is seen as the highest form of dishonour a man can have to his character. He also praises their own country for embracing the concept of open loves as honourable and for adhering to the belief that it is more honourable to love someone that is noble but not as beautiful than to love someone beautiful but not as noble.

It is not surprising that the concept of pederasty is brought up in Plato’s work, since, as pointed out by Hein van Dolen, “The often outspoken poems and the philosophy of Plato have resulted in our expression ‘Greek Principles’ to describe male homosexuality” (van Dolen 1995). Plato’s work often contained references to this practice, but it is interesting to note that in this context Phaedrus’ comments relate to both the themes of love and honour in relation to this practice. Eryximachus offers the statement that there is honour in indulging good men but to indulge bad men in any way is to dishonour oneself.

He discusses the duality of elements of love, nature and humanity and uses examples like hot and cold or dark and light. In Eryximachus’ speech as in that of Phaedrus there is an underlying theme that Plato often used in his works and that is applied relevantly here on the dual topics of love and honour. Howard Robinson explains Plato’s theory of dualism: “Plato believed that the true substances are not physical bodies, which are ephemeral, but the eternal Forms of which bodies are imperfect copies” (Robinson 2007).

Eryximachus echoes this sentiment with the analogy of the physician and his medicine acting as one and again with his list of examples of opposite elements in nature and mankind that operate opposite one another in a dual sense. He uses the analogy of a symphony to explain that there can be no harmony in differences and contrast and that you can’t have a symphony out of a group comprised only of discord and clashing elements. He states that one must find harmony in opposites and respect differences in order to exist in harmony with them.

His underlying themes is showing respect for elements different than one’s own and still showing honor and love to those whose beliefs or lifestyles might be different than our own. He then uses the example of nature to relate the theme of honor in relation to the gods and mankind. He states that the seasons of nature blend together harmoniously in spite of the fact that the different seasons contain elements that clash, like hot and cold temperatures. The relationship between the gods and mankind must have honor in order to keep it a beneficial relationship for both sides.

In this way the relationship between the two is like nature in that there must be harmony found within the potential discord. Aristophanes speaks next and he relates an early history of mankind, asking the other philosophers not to laugh at him, about how there used to be three sexes and how man looked very different in the beginning. He describes how these early creatures were very strong and defiant of the gods, often defying and dishonoring them. As punishment and to teach them the consequences for their actions Zeus had them split in two to divide them and to diminish their strength and power.

This is another example of Plato intermingling the concepts of love and honor. When comparing Plato and Aristotle, Martha C. Beck describes Plato’s tragic characters by saying, “Those who are motivated will use their power for their own personal gain, whether it be honor, wealth or personal power” (Beck 1988). Plato often conveyed a caution about the abuse of power by showing how love and family can be taken away when one uses one’s power to try to gain honor, wealth or prestige. Here, the example being used by Aristophanes conveys a similar message.

This is a statement about love being taken away when honor is not given. The early men didn’t honor Zeus so he stopped caring about them and indulging them and he split them in two to teach them a lesson. Aristophanes also explains that this leads to the belief that each person has another half somewhere in the world and that in finding that other half a person will find their true love. In order to find that true love, however, one must honor the gods so that the gods will let the two halves find each other.

This again relates the necessity to have both love and honor working together to function and prosper. During his discourse, Socrates relates a conversation he had with Diotima about pregnant bodies versus pregnant souls. He states that pregnant bodies conceive and give birth to children and all their imperfections. Pregnant souls are more honorable and rare because they give birth to wisdom and virtue. Socrates is tying together the concepts of physical love with honor.

He states that the wisdom and virtue that are the offspring of a pregnant soul are the characteristics of the gods, and this is why gods have temples raised to honor them and offerings made to them and no such honors are ever bestowed upon mortal men. He seems to make the statement that beauty of the mind is more honorable than physical beauty. It could be that he believes this because a beautiful mind is capable of producing works of art, music and literature that will last far longer than a mere beautiful body would.

He could also be inferring that a beautiful mind has a closer connection to the gods than a person with a beautiful body but an average mind, so they are more loved by the gods because they are more capable of honoring them with more fitting tributes. The last speech of the evening comes from Alcibiades and his is one of the strongest arguments for the themes of honor and love playing an equal role in Plato’s work. His discourse is part speech and part personal attack on Socrates, who he feels has insulted and rejected him previously.

He states that Socrates has no appreciation for the honor of mankind and that he is too preoccupied with the concepts of love and honor as they pertain to the gods to appreciate them in relation to mankind. Alcibiades recalls an interaction with Socrates in which he revealed his love for Socrates and the two spent the night together. He expected that love to be returned but instead Socrates treated him coldly and rejected him the next morning. He feels insulted and dishonored by Socrates’ treatment and tells his fellow philosophers that Socrates talks a lot about honor and goodness and virtue but has none himself.

Alcibiades’ speech is an example of a personal feeling of dishonor causing love to turn to hatred. He seems to be intentionally trying to slander Socrates because he feels dishonored by the man. This personal attack is a very understandable example of how the loss of one element leads to the loss of the other. Each speaker offered a different view on the subject of love and what it meant to them. As a result, the connection between love and honor was also presented in a different perspective with each speaker.

But through Plato’s work one can see how love and honor both meant different things to each philosopher, but each connected the two elements in some way. The theme of love may be the initially recognizable theme in Plato’s work, but the speeches and dialogue between the characters show how honor is just as important of a theme as love and how the two must work together for either of them to exist at all. References Beck, M. (1988). Tragedy and the Philosophical Life: A Response to Martha Nussbaum. Online. Lyceum. Vol. VIII. June 4 2010.

http://lyceumphilosophy. com/? q=node/60 Plato. The Symposium. Trans. Christopher Gill. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Robinson, Howard. (2007). Dualism. Online. Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. June 4, 2010. http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/dualism/ Simpson, D. (1998). The Symposium: Structure and Organization. Online. DePaul University. June 4, 2010. http://condor. depaul. edu/~dsimpson/tlove/symposium. html Van Dolen, H. (1995). Greek Homosexuality. Online. June 4, 2010. http://www. livius. org/ho-hz/homosexuality/homosexuality. html

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