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The Symposium

Plato

216c - 223d

212c - 216c

Study Questions

Summary

Alcibiades asserts that Socrates pretends to be erotically attracted to younger men and to be completely ignorant, but that these are all covers. In fact, he lives with great moderation, is very wise, and has no interest in bodily concerns. Once Alcibiades became aware of Socrates' great wisdom, he hoped to seduce Socrates with his good looks in order to glean some wisdom from him. But when he finds himself alone with Socrates, Socrates just converses with him as he always does, not making any kinds of advances. On one occasion, he went with Socrates to the gymnasium and they wrestled together, alone, but Socrates still made no advances.

Finally, Alcibiades gave up on waiting for Socrates to make an advance and started actively pursuing him. He invited Socrates to dinner on several occasions, and once they stayed up talking so late that Alcibiades was able to convince Socrates to stay the night.

Alcibiades pauses here to note that he would not go on were he not so drunk. Like someone who has been bitten by a snake, Alcibiades has been bitten by philosophy, but since everyone else here has also been bitten, he feels comfortable sharing his story.

Once Socrates and Alcibiades had rested themselves upon the couches, Alcibiades put it straight to Socrates, telling him that Socrates was the only lover good enough for him and that he would gratify Socrates in any way he wished if Socrates would help to make him a better person. Socrates replied that if things were as Alcibiades had put them, Socrates would be getting the short end of the stick, exchanging deep wisdom for cheap thrills.

Alcibiades joined Socrates under one sheet but by the end of the night, Alcibiades had not managed to arouse Socrates in the least. Alcibiades felt humiliated, but admired Socrates' self-control. He found further evidence of Socrates' admirable qualities when the two served together in a siege against Potidaea. Socrates was better than all the others at putting up with food shortages and with the winter, and when there was a feast, Socrates could drink everyone under the table without even getting tipsy. On one occasion, Socrates spent an entire day and night standing still, thinking about a problem. In battle, Socrates showed great bravery, once saving Alcibiades' life.

Alcibiades concludes his speech by remarking that we cannot liken Socrates to any other person, past or present. At best, we can compare him to a satyr who is god-like on the inside. Alcibiades warns Agathon not to be fooled or seduced by Socrates in the way he has been.

Everyone is much amused by Alcibiades' speech, and Socrates warns Agathon that the sole purpose was to create trouble between Socrates and Agathon. Agathon notes that Alcibiades has placed himself between Socrates and Agathon, and to remedy this, Agathon goes and sits on Socrates' right so that Socrates can now deliver a eulogy in praise of him.

Just then, a large group of revelers breaks in and drinking and disorder ensue. Aristodemus falls asleep only to wake up at dawn. The only ones still awake are Socrates, Agathon, and Aristophanes, who are still drinking wine and engaging in dialogue. Socrates is trying to convince them that anyone who can write tragedy should also be able to write comedy, and vice versa. Eventually the other two fall asleep, and Socrates gets up, goes to the Lyceum, bathes, and spends the rest of the day as he normally does, before going home to bed in the evening.

Commentary

Alcibiades' speech serves primarily to show that Socrates exemplifies the qualities of the ideal lover alluded to in Diotima's speech. He seems completely aloof from physical pleasures, disdainful of Alcibiades' sexual advances, and seeks to lead Alcibiades and other youths through the ascent toward the Form of Beauty. Further, Alcibiades' depiction of Socrates on military campaigns suggests that he is rough and brave, much like Diotima's physical characterization of Love.

The relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates is also interesting in this respect. Alcibiades, as the younger, handsome man, would be expected to be the loved one of Socrates, and Socrates would be expected to pursue him in order to gain sexual gratification. Alcibiades finds none of his advances working, and ends up switching roles, where he becomes the lover in hot pursuit of Socrates. Still, he fails to arouse Socrates and gratify him as he'd hoped. This leaves Alcibiades humiliated, puzzled, and admiring of Socrates.

Christopher Gill provides an interesting reading of Socrates' behavior toward Alcibiades that also explains why Socrates is so clearly flirtatious with Agathon, Alcibiades, and others, when he is by no means interested in sex with them. Gill compares Socrates behavior toward Alcibiades with his normal method of dialectic. In the dialectic, Socrates will question someone who purports to have wisdom in a certain matter, and show that person to be confused and mistaken. The dialectic ends in a state of aporia, where the interlocutor is humiliated and puzzled, forced to rethink his old assumptions. It seems that perhaps Socrates does the same thing in romantic pursuits. By showing indifference to lesser pleasures such as sexual arousal, Socrates deconstructs and subverts Alcibiades' expectations and assumptions about how lovers should interact. Socrates' behavior leaves Alcibiades similarly puzzled and humiliated, and forced to rethink his assumptions about love. Ideally, Socrates would be able to lead Alcibiades toward a deeper understanding of love by being his teacher and guide. Before he can do so, he must demolish Alcibiades' old assumptions and help him to start thinking afresh.

Alcibiades' speech also relates the kind of love that Socrates advocates with the kind of love that is normally spoken about. While attractive men might have an erotic pull on other men, Socrates' great wisdom also has a very strong erotic pull. Though Socrates is not himself physically attractive (Alcibiades likens him to a satyr), his great wisdom draws Alcibiades with greater force than any handsome man could. The pursuit and love of wisdom--philosophy, in other words--is thus presented as the most desirable of all kinds of love, and with the strongest erotic pull. While we may quickly grow tired of this or that sexual partner, our attraction to wisdom, truth, and beauty is unrelenting and always fulfilling.

The dialogue concludes the following morning with two significant moments. One is the conversation between Socrates, Agathon, and Aristophanes, which Aristodemus overhears. In it, Socrates is trying to suggest that comedy and tragedy can and should be reconciled. This is a suitable way to end a dialogue that is not only Plato's greatest masterpiece from a dramatic standpoint, but also one which juxtaposes the comic elements of Aristophanes' and Alcibiades' speeches with the more serious (or tragic) elements of Agathon's and Diotima's speeches. Perhaps Plato is suggesting that philosophy is the ideal synthesis, where comedy and tragedy are brought together in a unified whole.

The other point of significance is Socrates' behavior the next day. Neither drunk nor hung-over, Socrates goes about his business as always. His attraction to wisdom is so strong that nothing can tire him out or distract him from his pursuit.

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