Seducing Socrates: The comedy and tragedy of Plato’s Symposium

The Symposium is Plato’s most literary text, but for all that it is no less philosophical. In his vivid portrayal of a dinner party for the elite of Athenian society Plato plays out complex discussions about the relationship between literature and philosophy, the nature of education, and the pursuit of true wisdom. Even in Alcibiades’ drunken tale of how he unsuccessfully tried to seduce Socrates, an examination of the nature and practice of philosophy underlies the joke.

This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades drunkenly disrupting the Symposium

This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades disrupting the Symposium

Alcibiades was an immensely skilled war general who secured many key victories for Athens. He was extremely charismatic and popular, but his career was one of scandals that squandered his young promise. He was eventually 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 helped them for several years before allying with Athens again. The Symposium is set before all this, 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.

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Pindar Pythian 8: Man is the dream of a shadow

Pindar is generally considered both Greek lyric’s best poet, and its most difficult. He is most famous for his epinicians, poems celebrating victors at Greek games such as the Olympics. The beauty of these poems has caused a lot of argument among scholars, chiefly due to the fact that we know Pindar was paid to write them. Scholars struggle with the concept that such beauty is the product of a poet who has been hired by a wealthy, aristocratic victor, and whereas some see an elegance and wisdom in his verses that transcends this motive, others argue that everything within his odes is geared towards praising his employers.

Pythian 8 is concerned with, among other things, the brevity and insecurity of life. His description of the victor’s success is overshadowed by a vision of those he has defeated:

Returning to their mothers, sweet laughter does not
rouse delight around them: hidden down alleys and avoiding their enemies 
they cower, bitten by misfortune.

This sad image is then followed by a description of the glorious victor, flying on the wings of his success:

He who is allotted some new fine thing,
buoyed by hopes at his great splendour,
takes flight
on the wings of his manly strength,
thinking of that which is greater than wealth. In a short time
the delight of mortals grows: but it falls the ground
shaken by hostile will.

Even the image of the glorious victor is underlined by the reminder that it is transient and vulnerable.

Then follows perhaps Pindar’s most celebrated lines. They are extremely difficult to translate, and unfortunately any attempt comes across a bit clumsy and fails to do justice to the Greek:

Creatures of a day! What is someone? What is no-one? 
Man is the dream of a shadow. But whenever the radiance of Zeus comes,
a bright light and gentle life rests upon him.

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Horace’s Carpe Diem Ode and Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero: Seize the day and place as little faith as possible in the hours to come. Horace’s most famous line comes at the end of Ode 1.11, an address to a girl called Leuconoe. He warns her against trying to read the future; for no man can know his fate, and to make plans is hopeless because any day could be our last. So instead we must seize the day, make the most of the present moment. Keep pouring the wine, for even as we speak our short time on earth is flying past.

Leuconoe, do not ask, it is wrong to know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.

Translation by David West (2008)

Horace’s philosophy is called Epicureanism, the philosophy that we must accept our fortune and and its unpredictability. It was a very popular philosophy and he expounds Epicurean ideas in lots of his odes, usually quite seriously. He is very preoccupied with man’s fate and the finality of death. In this ode he uses nature as a metaphor for life, where the storm represents life’s vicissitudes. The storm can also be read as a metaphor for the dangers and discomforts that threaten the philosopher’s inner tranquility. His conversation with Leuconoe is a safe haven; with wine and company it is an attractive contrast to the wild outdoors, and so emphasises the need to snatch such moments and enjoy their shelter from life’s storms.

So why in my title have I put this ode with Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress? The similarity between the two has been noted by the scholar Anderson, and it is I think pretty valid. As Horace senses time flying past even as they speak, so Marvell says:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity

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