Response Paper – Plato’s Symposium

Published January 29, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

So in this class I’m taking, we have a weekly reading assignment, and a paper due the same week on the reading, which he usually calls a “thought paper” or a “response paper.”  This week, the required reading was the Symposium and the recommended reading was the Republic.  Since the latter was only recommended, I put it on the back burner (and consequently only got through about half of it) and based my paper entirely on the Symposium.  Since there was no guidance about just what we’re supposed to say about it, I ended up spending most of the paper talking about the mythological examples Phaedrus uses early on because, well, I’m me.  It’d be weird if I didn’t focus on the mythological examples.  (I am, btw, going to finish reading the Republic, in that I have a lot I want to say about it so far, only I want to read the rest first so I don’t make an even bigger idiot of myself than usual.)

Anyway, since most of the paper focuses on mythology, I thought I’d go ahead and post the paper here, as it fits the theme of the blog.  In my own defense, I should point out, I would normally follow a better format, attempting the opening-middle-conclusion route.  But given how little these papers are worth to our grades — in fact, I’m not 100% certain he always reads them — I didn’t feel like putting in that extra effort this time.  I’ll probably get my act together next week.  I hope.  I just want to make it clear that this is not really representative of my finished, polished work.  It is, appropriately enough, more akin to a blog post than a regular paper.


            To a certain extent, what someone gets out of a text like Plato’s Symposium depends on what the person brought in with them. More specifically, people tend to get hung up on points that are closer to their own interests. In my case, that’s the intersection between myths and the greater society, as well as various gender issues.

Right from the start of the speeches, my attention was caught by Phaedrus’ examples. He gives three examples of the conduct of “lovers” towards the ones they love, all from well known myths. His very first example refutes everything that Kenneth Dover would have us believe about the way the Greeks viewed the concepts of “lover” and “beloved” in that in Phaedrus’ first example, the “lover” in question is Alcestis, who voluntarily dies to protect the object of her affection, her husband Admetus. Unlike Dover’s definition of Greek love, which largely focuses on the lover dominating the beloved sexually, particularly through anal penetration, here the “lover” is a devoted wife, who is unlikely to have been sexually dominating her husband. (Such an arrangement is possible, to be sure, but it would have been abhorrent to the ancient Greek mentality, and such a wife would be spoken of as a monster, not praised as a paragon of duty and virtue, as Alcestis routinely was.)

Phaedrus continues to flout modern scholars’ expectations (bringing up the question of how they got those expectations in the first place, when this text so plainly defies them) by next citing a more conventional lover in the form of Orpheus, who certainly would have played the dominant (and penetrative) role in his relationship with his wife Eurydice. But Orpheus fails as a lover, in Phaedrus’ view, because he was unwilling to die for the sake of his dead wife.[1] Phaedrus’ third example is Achilles dying to avenge Patroclos, an example that’s slightly warped mythologically, but more warped logically.[2] His logical warp—which isn’t even pointed out by the others, presumably because it’s so glaring that there was no need to do so—is that earlier in his speech, right before the Alcestis example, Phaedrus says that “it’s only lovers who are willing to die for someone else,” and yet in the Achilles example, Phaedrus clearly and emphatically says that Patroclos was the lover in their relationship, despite what Aischylos had said on that matter.[3]

Perhaps the reader was meant to take Phaedrus’ enormous logical gaffe to mean that he wasn’t the brightest bulb (the sharpest stylus?) in the bunch, and to write off his position entirely, and yet the overall structure of the dialog doesn’t seem to encourage completely writing off any of the earlier speeches. The speeches seem to embody the ascending path described in Socrates’ Diotima speech, in that each one—despite its flaws—is consistently higher and ‘better’ than the one preceding it. The very fact that Phaedrus uses three such popular myths for his examples seems to imply, to my mind, that his opinion is a distillation of beliefs common among the people of Athens at that time.

If that is, indeed, what Phaedrus was meant to represent in this dialog, then there is something quite significant about that fact, in that two of his three examples involve heterosexual love between a husband and wife, a thing that modern scholarship insists was all but unheard of in classical Athens. Love between a man and his mistress (as with Pericles and Aspasia) perhaps, but with his wife? Given the frequency of arranged marriages in ancient Athens, and the large age differences between husbands and wives, not to mention the lack of education for women and the lack of social contact between men and women, it is hardly surprising that love is usually viewed as having been entirely absent there.[4]

More surprising still, Phaedrus was not the only one to introduce the concept of heterosexual love to this discussion of homoerotic Love. Aristophanes’ myth of the bi-formed early humans—one of the most frequently cited passages of the Symposium—explains all three sexual preferences as completely natural and determined before a person’s birth.[5] Above and beyond the unique mention of female homosexuality, Aristophanes’ presentation of a potentially even, perfect union between men and women is without any strong parallels within ancient Greek writing.[6]

Additionally, in this dialog, the ideal being presented by Socrates is alleged to have been taught to him by an unexplained female acquaintance named Diotima.[7] While Socrates’ claim is clearly false—unless we’re to believe that this Diotima could have predicted the arguments he would hear at a symposium years later—the fact that he makes it at all is significant. For a conversation being conducted only by men, on the subject of love between men, the female presence is astonishingly strong in this dialog. After establishing that the willingness to die for love in Alcestis and Achilles was born of their desire for immortal fame for their courage, Diotima/Socrates asserts that “Men who are pregnant in body…are drawn more towards women; they express their love in trying to obtain for themselves immortality and remembrance and what they take to be happiness forever in producing children.”[8] The metaphor of pregnant men continues into Diotima/Socrates’ ideal, the men “pregnant in mind” whose love (expressed with other men) gives birth to philosophy and the arts. Despite the sexism of leaving women out of the artistic and philosophical process—had Plato forgotten about Sappho, the tenth Muse?—the dialog overall is surprisingly accepting of women.

                [1] This is one of several places where this edition’s notes really fall down on the job. The note on Phaedrus’ tale of Orpheus states that “Phaedrus’ version of the myth is unknown elsewhere.” (Christopher Gill, Notes in Plato, Symposium, trans. Christopher Gill, (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 69) Phaedrus’ claim that the gods “thought he was soft….because he didn’t have the courage to die for his love” and that they caused his death “at the hands of women” for that reason was not presenting a variant version of the tale, but was an interpretation of the already common tale in which Orpheus failed to save Eurydice, turned to homosexuality (a fact strikingly omitted from Phaedrus’ tale, considering the subject under discussion is homoerotic love) and/or insulted Dionysos by refusing to worship any god other than Helios, and was torn apart by Dionysos’ Maenads. (The notes also seemed to present death at the hands of Maenads as if that was not death at the hands of women, despite that Maenads are by definition female.) Plato, Symposium, 11.

                [2] The mythological warping being that Achilles entered the Trojan War with the foreknowledge (from his divine mother) that he would die in that war, so he had already given up any hope of returning home long before Patroclos’ death. Phaedrus is referencing either the Iliad or Aischylos’ lost Myrmidones in making the claim that Achilles specifically added his own death to Patroclos’, but without being able to read the Myrmidones, it’s impossible to say whether he’s inaccurately referencing Homer, or less inaccurately referencing Aischylos. In the Iliad, Achilles has already made his choice to die at Troy, and so his facing down and slaughtering Hector does not in any way meet Phaedrus’ claim that “if he killed Hector he would die himself” because his death was already guaranteed, whether he killed Hector or not. It’s impossible to say for sure how Aischylos treated Achilles’ return to battle following the death of Patroclos, but given that Achilles doesn’t meet his death in that trilogy (the so-called “tragic Iliad”) but in a later trilogy (largely focused on the battle against Memnon), it seems unlikely that Phaedrus is referencing Aischylos accurately, either. There were likely a large number of other texts telling the tale, but Homer and Aischylos are the two master poets (in the case of this myth) whose works were considered the ideals towards which other poets could only strive in vain, so while Phaedrus might be referencing a lesser work, it is unlikely, particularly considering his direct reference to Aischylos a few lines later.

                [3] Plato, Symposium, 11-12.

                [4] In other city-states, particularly Sparta, love between a husband and wife might not have been viewed as quite as unlikely.

                [5] It is often remarked that this passage is particularly odd coming from Aristophanes, whose comedies so frequently mocked “effeminate” men who played the passive role in homosexual relationships. Given that Aristophanes had specifically ridiculed both Agathon and Socrates in his plays, his entire inclusion in this dialog is quite odd, and presumably Plato had some reason for including him. (Perhaps his portrayal is more insulting than we realize?)

                [6] Gill, Notes in Plato, Symposium, 72.

                [7] Despite the introduction’s assertion that Diotima would be a priestess or prophetess, the fact is that the only educated women in ancient Greece—in general—were high-end courtesans, who needed to learn as much as possible to be able to entertain their customers as hostesses as well as in the standard sexual manner. This led me to the assumption that she was a particularly intelligent and experienced courtesan. The introduction’s point about the etymology of her name (and the name of her home town) is valid, but does not rule out the possibility that the contemporary reader might have assumed her to be a courtesan, especially considering the subject matter at hand is Love, something a priestess, prophetess or other respectable woman would have little to no experience with.

                [8] Plato, Symposium, 46. Diotima/Socrates’ analysis of the motivations of Alcestis and Achilles is more than a bit off in Alcestis’ case, since she died to protect her husband from death, but much more accurate in Achilles’ case, since he is almost always portrayed in classical times as deeply concerned—sometimes nearly obsessed—with the lasting fame of his name.


Wow, copy-pasting out of Word instead of WordPad makes a huge difference!  It kept my footnotes and everything!  (I guess I really oughta get a copy of Office for my Internet computer, huh…?)

Regarding footnote 4 there, I really wanted to cite something about the different romantic/marital practices in Sparta.  I know I’ve read something fairly detailed about that, and I had thought it was in a book I have by Paul Cartledge, since he’s sort of the go-to expert about classical Sparta.  But then it wasn‘t in that book, so now I’m not sure where it was.  Oh, maybe it was in one of those journal articles I read in researching my quasi-YA series?  Well, wherever it was, I didn’t have it to hand to cite it, and since this wasn’t supposed to be a very detailed paper (and was already twice as long as the assigned minimum length) I figured it was okay to just let it go.  If he calls me on it, I’m sure I’ll be able to find the information somewhere.  (The chances of that happening seem slim, however.)

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