It was the world’s most famous drinking party but the guest of honor almost didn’t show up. Then, after religious ceremonies perhaps intended to placate whichever gods were in charge of hangover remedies, the guests decide after all that they were still feeling the effects of the previous night’s heavy drinking. They vote to send the hired musician home and decide to do more talking than drinking. Even so, some of them manage to pass out and have to sleep it off at their host’s home. Years afterward, a friend of the tardy guest decides to write a play about the whole thing, employing a great deal of his very active imagination.
For somebody like me, whose public school knowledge of Socrates was of a wise old man bravely facing his tragic death, the notion of Socrates as self-deprecatingly funny was a startling revelation.
Socrates’ death had in fact had a profound effect on his young friend and student Plato, who was in his twenties at the time, nearly 50 years Socrates’ junior. And yes, it was Plato who wrote the most moving account of his friend’s death which turned him away forever from the political career his family dreamed of for him. And yet, the Socrates Plato brought back to life in The Symposium radiates the joy of living.
Set in approximately 422 BC (when Plato himself was only a small child), The Symposium opens with a pair of friends chatting about the party one of them attended years before at which the guests spend the night talking about love. In a friend of a friend frame the narrator states that the one he heard the story from, Aristodemus, claimed to have met Socrates one day freshly bathed and actually wearing shoes (or at any rate, sandals), which particularly caught his attention because the philosopher more commonly went around barefoot.
The reason for being so dressed up, Socrates tells him, is that he is on his way to a party at the home of a rich friend. And by the way, Aristodemus, how about coming along too?
Slightly nonplussed by the thought of showing up to a party uninvited, Aristodemus at first demurs. But at Socrates’ insistence, he decides to put the burden of explaining his presence on Socrates himself: “I shall say that I was bidden of you, and you will have to make an excuse.”
However, when Aristodemus arrives at the house of the party’s host, Agathon, he finds that Socrates has been struck by some philosophic thought and has dropped behind out of sight.
A search ensues, Socrates is discovered in the portico of a neighboring house and refuses to stir. “Let him alone,” Aristodemus says. “He has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason.”
Halfway through supper, Socrates reappears. His friends are only too well acquainted with his idiosyncrasies, and have decided to begin eating without him. And although Agathon might have grounds to be offended by his guest’s behavior, he only teases him gently to share the “wise thought which came into your mind. . . and is now in your possession."
But first, of course, there is the important matter of drinking to consider.