Friday, December 25, 2015

Adventure classics – What’s love got to do with it?

The Symposium, by Plato
commentary from Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
It’s Socrates’ turn at last to speak on the agreed topic, the nature of love, at what would be the world’s most famous party, as Plato describes in his Symposium. (Will knowing that “symposium” was originally simply a term for a drinking party make any of us look forward more to events labeled with this title at conferences?)

The speaker immediately before Socrates, the poet Agathon, who was also the party’s host, fears his speech will seem ridiculous once a thinker as great as Socrates speaks. But Socrates remains true to his often-stated premise that he is the most ignorant of human beings and modestly (or ironically) puts the authorship of his story on a woman, the priestess Diotima. She was, he says, “my instructress in the art of love.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in her Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, notes that there is no evidence outside of The Symposium for any female religious authority named Diotima, although some writers have speculated that she may be based on the historical figure of Aspasia, a brilliant prostitute who participated in the intellectual circles of Athens.

With this possibility in mind, are the other guests preparing themselves for something racy from Socrates? In fact, in a version of The Symposium from Xenophon, another of Socrates’ disciples, the old philosopher does come across as rather naughty.

In Plato’s version, however, the surprise is the way Diotima upends Socrates’ ideas about the nature of love as neatly as he has done to the claims of the previous speakers. Love, she says, is not a god at all, but a spirit who mediates between gods and mortals, “spanning the chasm which divides them.”

Sexual intercourse and procreation are divinely ordained aspects of love, Diotima tells Socrates. This form of love leads to the desire to possess an individual beloved and to generate beautiful children. But the lover who progresses in knowledge will realize “that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form…(until) drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts.”

It was the version of love that Plato plainly saw for himself. But even that was not to be the last word on the subject.

Socrates has barely finished speaking when “suddenly there was a great knocking at the door of the house, as of revelers” When the door is answered, in bursts the baddest of Athenian bad boys, the beautiful, brilliant, rich, well-born and charismatic young man Alcibiades, who would go on to betray Athens to its enemy Sparta, then Sparta to Athens, then both city states to their archenemies, the Persians, before dying in exile at the hands of assassins.

It was this horrific behavior of a man who had been one of Socrates’ followers that helped inspire the charges of “corruption of the young” against him and lead to his execution. In effect, Goldberger writes, “Alcibiades’ love for Socrates was sterile. Nothing creative or beautiful ever came of it.” Instead, Plato formed himself into the “thought” child of Socrates. “To love Socrates (as Plato did) is to have been impregnated with his intuitions.”

But even Plato, claiming the crown of favorite child for himself, can’t resist the erotic energy Alcibiades brings with him when he bursts into Agathon’s house (or rather staggers, as in the illustration to this post). Although uninvited, the other partygoers beg him to join them. And although the drinking had been moderate up to this point, Alcibiades drunkenly insists on having the others drink deep to his transient, tragic Dionysian splendor.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a January of true adventures with Agatha Christie’s memoir of her life in archeology, Come Tell Me How You Live.)

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