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That said, Plato's Symposium represents something of an exception to this rule, in that the dating of the work is crucial to its reception. Here as elsewhere in our discussion of this text, it will be useful to think in terms of layers.
Layer #1: The party described by Apollodorus, the narrator (note that the narrator is not Plato, nor is Plato mentioned anywhere in the dialogue!) takes place in 416 B.C.E.; as you know from Thucydides, Athens in 416 was still a democracy and looked well placed to win the Peloponnesian War (the disastrous Sicilian expedition--the brainchild of Alcibiades--was not until a year or two later).
Layer #2: the frame narrative--that is, the dialogue between Apollodorus and "Friend," in which Apollodorus narrates the story of the party--is set somewhere in the period 404-400 B.C.E. By this time, Athens was no longer a democracy, and had conclusively lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta; Alcibiades (ever a controversial figure, and now held at least partly responsible for Athens' downfall) had been exiled from Athens and assassinated by the Persians; Agathon had fled (with Euripides) to Macedon, where he died in 402; Eryximachus and Phaedrus were likewise in exile; both tragedy and comedy were in decline; in short, the fairytale was over. Socrates, however, was still alive and teaching in Athens.
(By the way, according to one tradition Plato was himself a frustrated tragedian who turned to philosophy as as alternative outlet for his authorial ambitions. Do you see any evidence for such a theory in this text?)
Layer #3: The dialogue itself--the text you hold in your hands today--was written by Plato somewhere in the period 385-378 B.C.E. Socrates had been tried and sentenced to death (by drinking hemlock) in 399 B.C.E. Again according to one tradition, Plato was too traumatised to attend the trial of his beloved teacher, but the account he gives of the trial in the Apology makes it hard to believe he wasn't there (then again, Thucydides managed to be equally convincing about debates at which he wasn't present--and which may not even have happened--so you can't be too careful...). Aristophanes, whom Plato blamed for Socrates' death (because of his Clouds, in which Socrates is presented as teaching the youth of Athens to reason speciously and denying the existence of the Olympian gods), had died in 395 B.C.E--perhaps prompting Plato to write this dialogue reconstructing an event at which Aristophanes and Socrates were supposedly present. In any event, all the "actors" in this dialogue were dead by the time Plato sat down to write.
Note also the many additional layers of narratalogical 'business' that
complicate the chain of transmission:
Finally (for now) on the subject of 'layers,' the speeches themselves constitute a form of the 'layering' trope: each speech adds a new layer to the symposiasts' (and Plato's readers') understanding of the idea of Love (eros. By the way, note that the form of 'love' under discussion here is specifically erotic love: that is, the emotional experience that accompanies intense and sustained sexual desire. Unlike family or friend-love [philia], eros is usually directed at a single person). This obviously (since many of the speeches disagree with one another) does not mean that each speech builds on the ideas of the one before it; rather, each invites the reader to view Love in a different light, and thus to arrive, through a process of dialectical reasoning, at a higher understanding of the concept.
Of course, the dialogue is only superficially about Love. What is is 'really' about? What does Plato want us to learn from this dialogue, do you think?
* * *
Some of you may have been bemused by the model of erotic love projected by the symposiasts, which centers on the relationship between a lover (erastes: generally older, less conventionally beautiful but with more to offer in terms of wisdom, wealth, experience, social standing) and a beloved (eromenos: generally a youth whose attractions were chiefly those of physical freshness), both male. (Click here for a vase-painting depicting a man kissing a boy, but be patient; the image is fairly large and may take time to load.)
The Introduction to the Hackett edition of the Symposium has a pretty good summary of the structure and role of the homosexual relationships to which Plato, and his characters, refer (pp. xiv-xv). In fact, marriage was still the basis of the oikos and thus a staple 'family' and economic value of Classical Athens. Homosexual relations between men, insofar as they formed an additional erotic institution, were highly limited; they were meant to be practised only between members of the demos (so not, e.g., between master and slave); only between an older man and a youth; and they had a strong pedagogical flavour, as Nehamas and Woodruff point out (p. xv). In addition, anal intercourse was frowned upon in Athens as a Peloponnesian barbarism (in Lysistrata, Aristophanes makes fun of the anal-centric Spartans); intercourse was more likely to be intercrural (between the thighs: here's a vase painting).
However, the subordination of marital love to this form of homosexual love plays a key role in the rhetorical development of the Symposium: how does it work? Why does this form of love make a better metaphor, for Plato's purposes, than marital love?
For further details on sexuality in 5th-century Athens, click here.
Additional study questions
Note that Socrates does not have the last word in the debate: the final speech on Eros is made by Alcibiades. We may not get to talk about him until Thursday, but in the meantime you can be thinking: what is the meaning of Alcibiades's appearing when he does (and how he does)?
Be prepared to summarize any one of the speeches (except Socrates') in a few words, and to discuss Socrates's speech in plain, clear language that you yourself understand. I.e.: make sure that you yourself understand what each speech, especially that of Socrates, is about!
Boundaries, blurring of: As I noted in the page on Thucydides, the Sophists (who shared Socrates' dialectic method, but not his conviction that some objective truths did exist and could be approached through the judicious application of this method) were also known for their use of antithesis, or bipolar oppositions, to structure their arguments. Pausanias here stands as an example of the classic Sophist: note how easily his argument breaks the issues down into paired opposites, and how far it doesn't get us (note, too, that this kind of easy, black-and-white reasoning is precisely what I don't want to see in your papers).
Pausanias's speech aside, what happens to the following bipolar
oppositions in the course of Plato's work?:
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