Thursday, January 28, 2016

Symposium - Plato

The narrative framing for this dialogue is really something else.  The story is told fourth or fifth hand; someone heard someone else telling about this and he heard it from someone.  This allows Plato to generously put words in people's mouths.  Who knows, it may bear some resemblance to an actual event?
In any case, 'Symposium' tells the story of a party.  The party goers partied too hard the night before and don't have a head for strong drink two nights in a row.  Instead, it is decided that they will each speak about 'love'.  They will take turns and go around the table and say something about it.
The speeches are interesting, though not world shaking.  They mostly range from 'love is the source of all good things' to 'some loves are more pure than others'.  My favorite is from Aristophanes (yes, that Aristophanes) where he suggests that in prehistory, all humans were joined together as a pair.  Each pair was split apart and 'love' is a strong desire to return to that earlier paired condition.  He also explains that some number of the pairs included men with men and women with women.
Socrates is the last to go (natch) and he explains that he was taught quite a bit about love by a woman who trained him in the arts of love.  He was primarily taught that love is a thing that, even when a man has it, he wants more of it.  In this, it is different than health or happiness in which people become content.  He also believes that love is a process in which the person perfects themselves as a person and (eventually) through pursuit of philosophy.
After Socrates ends, a latecomer, Alcibiades, enters.  He decides to also speak of love, though his is scorned love.  At an earlier time, he tried to let Socrates seduce him but Socrates didn't do so.  Alcibiades decided to pursue Socrates instead and ended up doing so by trying to become a better man.  This is where we get the term 'Platonic love'.

This work is rightfully praised as a look at what life must have been like in ancient Athens.  We learn a lot about how loving relationships worked, including older men with younger men.  The form here is much less conversational than the other Platonic dialogues I've read and more like an extended scene from a novel.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.

While reading this, I was constantly reminded of one of my favorite books, 'Time Enough For Love' by Robert Heinlein.  That book also features long stretches of people talking to each other about philosophical matters, including 'love'.  Heinlein has his main character, Lazarus Long, divide love into two categories, eros and agape.  He also gives an exact definition of agape love, 'the condition in which someone else's happiness is essential to your own happiness'.
I couldn't help but wonder if Heinlein had read 'Symposium' at some earlier time.

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