Translated literally as “drinks party” was a central and highly ritualized part of Greek social practice. The party takes place in a square room, the andron, which is the main room in the men’s part of the house. Guests at the symposium, who are always freeborn adult males, recline on couches, two to a couch, arranged in a square that allows easy conversation. The party is sharply divided into two parts. First, there is the meal, which is not a particularly ritualized affair. Once the meal is done, the drinking begins. One member of the party is appointed “symposiarch,” and determines how much wine will be drunk and to what extent the wine will be mixed with water. Normally, the subsequent drinking is accompanied by conversation, singing, and speeches. Male and female slaves provide music and other entertainment, and serve as “escorts,” flirting with, though rarely having sex with, the guests. 

Frame Narrative

A tale in which a larger story contains, or frames, many other stories. In frame narratives, the frame story functions primarily to create a reason for someone to tell the other stories; the frame story doesn’t usually have much plot of it own. 


The Greek term for lover is erastes. The term is intimately bound up with relationships between older men and young boys in Athenian society. Such relationships were both passionate and socially regulated. The older man generally courted the boy (usually a teenager), with the boy playing the passive, shy role. Both roles had strict limits: the men could be prosecuted for seducing youths if they were overly aggressive, and the boys could be censured for prostitution if they sold sex. Ideally, the relationship between a man and a boy eromenos was one of teaching as well as love, with the older man imbuing the boy with knowledge and virtue (literally, "making him pregnant with" these ideals). 

Form (Theory of Form)

According to Plato’s metaphysical Theory of Form, there is an aspect of reality beyond the one which we can see, an aspect of reality even more real than the one we see. This aspect of reality, the intelligible realm, is comprised of unchanging, eternal, absolute entities, which are called “Forms.” These absolute entities—such as Goodness, Beauty, Redness, Sourness, and so on—are the cause of all the objects we experience around us in the visible realm. An apple is red and sweet, for instance, because it participates in the Form of Redness and the Form of Sweetness. A woman is beautiful because she participates in the Form of Beauty. Only the Forms can be objects of knowledge (that is, Forms are the only things we can know about).


The Greek word for virtue is arete, which can refer both to individual virtues like courage or generosity or to the general virtue of a given person. 


The elenchus is the primary method of Socratic philosophy. Essentially a cross-examination, it proceeds by an intensive series of questions and aims to lead the interviewee to conclude for himself that he or she does not know what he or she thought (a state of uncertainty, or aporia, with regard to the topic at hand). 


The Greek word eros can mean both love in the strict sense and desire in a broader sense, so the scope of the word is unclear by its very nature. The later speeches in particular tend toward this broader interpretation. Diotima gives what is perhaps a satisfactory answer by suggesting that, while all kinds of desire might be considered love, we normally restrict use of that term to one particular kind of desire, the desire that exists between two human beings.


"Knowledge" is the usual translation of the Greek word episteme. It is a mistake to think of this knowledge, however, as a body of information that can be communicated simply. Rather, episteme also includes the types of skill more frequently referred to by words like craft, profession, art, or science. The kind of knowledge being discussed by Socrates is, then, more like the knowledge of a language, or the ability to play music; it contains elements of theory that can be laid out by verbal rules, but it also contains a practical element.

We can uncover some sense of what is entailed in this by tracing the roots of the word "ethics," which is the central form of knowledge being argued over by Socrates and Protagoras. The Greek root of ethics, ethos, denotes a person's habits, or the inner character of their behavior. One's ethics are embodied in all of one's habits. To be truly known, virtue must infiltrate and shape all aspects of one's life. Once knowledge is understood in this way, Socrates's claim that it is impossible to commit an evil action in the knowledge that it is evil starts to make more sense. However, the question of how such knowledge can be learnt is not explicitly answered within the dialogue, although elements of the form of the Socratic dialogue provide clues.

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