The Symposium is Plato’s most literary text. In the context of a dinner party for the elite of Athenian society, Plato plays out complex discussions on the relationship between literature and philosophy, the nature of education, and the pursuit of true wisdom.
One of the key characters within this text is Alcibiades. Alcibiades was a skilled war general who secured many key victories for Athens. He was charismatic and popular, but his career was one of scandals after he was exiled from Athens for mocking religious rituals and defacing statues of the god Hermes. In exile he defected to Sparta, the enemy of Athens, and served with them for several years before allying with Athens again. The Symposium is set before any of this took place, when Alcibiades was still the pride and joy of his city, but there is a strong sense of the reckless nature that would be his downfall.
So far the dinner guests have taken things easy since they’re all a bit hungover from the previous night’s drinking. Socrates has just finished speaking when Alcibiades drunkenly stumbles in, propped up by a flute girl. They invite him to sit down and Alcibiades proposes to show the others how he has been badly treated by the philosopher. He says that he fell in love with Socrates after listening to him talk and plotted to seduce him. After various failed attempts, he grew bolder and invited Socrates to his house for dinner. It got late and Alcibiades persuaded him to stay the night. The slaves were dismissed and he made his move:
And so, gentlemen, with the lamp extinguished and the slaves outside, it was now the right time to clarify matters to him, and to speak freely. I nudged him saying:
“Are you sleeping”
“Certainly not” Socrates replied.
“Do you know what I’m thinking?”
“I think that you are the only worthy lover for me, but you seem to shrink from saying so. This is my position: I think it would be wholly stupid of me not to gratify you in this, and whatever else you might need – from what’s my own or what I can get from my friends. For there is nothing more important to me than being the best person I can, and I think that no one could help me more than you. I’d be far more ashamed before wise men for not pleasing such a man as you, than I would be before the ignorant masses if I did.”
And Socrates, listening to this, replied very ironically, as is typical of him.
“Oh dear Alcibiades, you are no fool, if it is true that I have this supposed power to make you a better person. You must think me irresistibly good-looking, something far better to your own good looks. But if you try to strike a bargain that exchanges my beauty for yours, you plan to gain no little advantage. You are trying to exchange true beauty for what only looks good, gold for bronze. But, friend, look closer, so that you’re not deceived about what I have to offer. For your mind’s eye only sees clearly when your eyesight fails, and you’re still a long way from that.”
“I’ve told you my side of the story” I replied, “And I intend nothing other than what I said. And so, you must decide what you think is best for both of us.”
“That’s a good idea,” he said, “We will put our heads together and decide what we must do, what is best for us and everyone else.”
After this conversation I thought I had wounded him with my arrows. I got up and, before he could say anything else, I put my cloak around him (it was winter) and lay down under his own short cloak. I put my arm around this amazing, spiritual man, as he truly is, and we lay there all night. And don’t say I’m lying Socrates when I say that, after this, he spurned me and despised me and laughed at my charms. He was a brute. And I thought I was worth something, gentlemen of the jury! – for you are now the judges of Socrates’ high-handed behaviour. You may as well know, by the gods and goddesses, that having spent the night with Socrates, I got up have having done nothing more than if I’d slept with my father or an older brother!
Tradition has it that Socrates was the only man who was able to control Alcibiades, but here Plato suggests that ultimately Alcibiades was not satisfied with his abstract truths. He misunderstood the beauty of Socrates and thought it could be exchanged for physical pleasure. Socrates however was not willing to exchange “gold for bronze”, and so Alcibiades turned his back on the wisdom that could have saved him from himself.
Alcibiades is very much a comic figure in this scene. He drunkenly spills his secrets to the guests, confessing that he, a beautiful and brilliant war general, failed to seduce ugly old Socrates. But the story is also a tragic one. When the Symposium was written Alcibiades was long dead, assassinated by agents of the Persian king, his extravagant brilliance burned out.
But if Alcibiades’ tale is a tragedy then what of Socrates? The philosopher was sentenced to death in 399 BC. Is his story not equally as tragic? Many scholars have read this passage as a criticism of Socrates, reproaching him for his selfish contempt of society in contrast to the charismatic, worldly Alcibiades. The philosopher is an isolated figure who spurns the attractions of our world, finding them pale and insignificant when compared to the philosophical truths of beauty and virtue. It is a lofty choice, and could perhaps have been construed as an arrogant one.
Personally I find it difficult to get my head around the idea that Plato is criticising a man he praises so highly. But one of the things about Plato is that he never tells us exactly what he thinks. His writings play out the words of characters, and there is no doctrine, no point where he explicitly says, “this is right, this is how you should think”. Rather it is up to us to sift through his texts and find their true meaning. We must clear our own way on the path to unchanging and eternal wisdom, and in doing so we ourselves learn to be philosophers.
There are a lot of artistic representations of the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates. Some show Alcibiades as the willing pupil, some as the great war general, but mostly he is portrayed as a hedonist dragged away from sensual pleasures by Socrates. Below are a few examples: