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.
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.