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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Plato’s Symposium 189a-193e: Aristophanes on the Nature of Love

Ancient Greek sexuality is a fascinating topic. In the Symposium the great philosopher Plato explores the nature of love, and one form of love he particularly admires is that between two males.

The scene is the Greek Symposium; a drinking party where the Athenian male elite would discuss philosophy and perform poetry. The distinguished guests decide that at this Symposium they will discuss the topic of ‘Love’, and so in turn each man gives a speech about what he considers love to be.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

The speech I have focussed on here is that of Aristophanes, the famous Athenian comic playwright. True to his profession it is a very funny speech, at least in an Ancient Athenian sort of way, but it is also incredibly charming, and very interesting in its portrayal of homosexual relationships.

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