Commentary

The "symposium," 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. First, the guests are cleaned and perfumed by attendant slaves, and then unmixed wine is poured out and tasted, while the guests sing hymns in honor of the gods. One member of the party--Pausanias in this case--is appointed "symposiarch," and determines in consultation with the other guests exactly how much wine will be drunk and to what extent the wine should 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. That Eryximachus sends away the flute-player suggests that this party will be more serious than normal, and philosophical discussion will take the place of erotic stimulation.

The Symposium is framed by several levels of narrative distancing. Apollodorus tells the story to his companion, but the story he tells is actually a retelling of the story he told Glaucon. This story has in turn been gleaned from Aristodemus, and confirmed by Socrates. Glaucon also notes that he has heard a version of the story. Plato, the actual writer of the dialogue, is nowhere found in this cast of characters, so there must be a further level of retelling by which Plato himself learns the story. All this framing serves two immediate purposes. One is to suggest the extreme importance of this dialogue. It is being discussed years after the fact, there are many versions floating about, and everyone wants to hear the story told. The other purpose is to distance the narration from the events themselves, suggesting that Plato's dialogue is not a direct transcription of factual events so much as an imaginative retelling that is probably more fiction than fact. The characters in the dialogue are celebrating a victory for the dramatist, Agathon, and the dialogue itself is a drama, though it treats of philosophy rather than tragedy. This framing also reflects another theme of the dialogue, which is the difficulty of attaining the truth. There are several layers of narrative, and in the story itself we get several different speeches. In both cases, we are given the sense that truth is not something we can be given, but something that must be sifted through, something we must work to acquire.

Agathon's victory comes at the Lenaean festival, one of the dramatic festivals that were so central in Ancient Greek society. Tragedians such as Aeschyllus, Sophocles, and Euripides competed in these festivals presented in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ritual dance, and patron of drama and poetry (Plato, too, wrote some plays, though none of them survive). The winner of the festival became a major celebrity, and was widely celebrated.

Plato was generally skeptical about poetry, and we find expression of this mistrust in Socrates' sarcastic remark to Agathon about his great wisdom. Tragedy purports to lay wisdom upon great crowds of people directly and immediately. As this dialogue and its framing devices suggest, Plato is of a mind that wisdom is something that must be worked toward, not something that can be given easily. Socrates suggests that wisdom is not something one can gain by osmosis, simply by sitting near someone wiser than oneself. Implicit in this suggestion is the claim that tragedy does not transmit wisdom, and that only careful philosophical thinking can be a successful teacher.

We find further evidence of this claim in Socrates' delay in arriving at the party. He gets lost in thought and must stand still where he is and think until he has worked his way through a problem. This kind of inner dialectic is clearly common with Socrates, as Aristodemus is already familiar with it. We might liken Socrates' behavior with that of the stereotypical "absent-minded professor" who cannot deal with day-to-day activities as a result of being so caught up in intellectual pursuits. Socrates does not feel compelled to abide by social norms, valuing philosophy over propriety.

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