Plato’s “Symposium”: The Dramatic Trial of Love

Plato was a moralist. An ethicist. He was concerned with the primacy of action, of engagement, in a world that was deeply iconoclastic, barbarous, and savage. Love of wisdom allows for the creation of that space where ethical and loving life is possible. This means that eros must remain to any understanding of the self, world, and politeia. It also means, however, that the energy of love be directed—though not subverted—to productive ends. Eros was on trial in Plato’s time. In the course of the dialogue, Plato attempts to defend and exonerate Eros from the de-mythologizers. We are left to judge if he succeeded.

As part of my usual column at TIC, this essay focuses on my academic concentration: the Classics and Plato. In this essay I offer a reading of Symposium as Plato’s attempt to re-mythologize and defend Eros against the de-mythologizers (especially Eryximachus) and those who would threaten to subjugate Eros to pettier pursuits (Pausanians and Phaedrus), and expose the insufficiency of the playwrights (Aristophanes and Agathon), even though “Plato stands on the side of the poets rather than the ‘philosophers.’ In fact, the dialogue is a mythological drama about the fate of love and its place in the new world born of technology, the political, and the philosophical.”

You can read the essay here: Plato’s “Symposium”: The Drama and Trial of Eros.

You can read my academic commentary on understanding Plato’s Republic here: Savagery, Irony, and Satire in Plato’s Republic.

3 thoughts on “Plato’s “Symposium”: The Dramatic Trial of Love

  1. Now I want to re-read symposium. 🙂. I suppose I will get to re-read all these various works that I read in the past 10 years once I get my degree, which should be in about three years I suppose I will get to re-read all these various works that I read in the past 10 years once I get my degree, which should be in about three years . Lol.

    But your essay has sparked I thought that flies bye my mind at various occasions:

    With Plato it Seem to be marking off or describing a certain situation similar to what Kant seems to be confronting as well: that is a certain type of approach or awareness that looks around the world and sees a kind of difference in thoughtful reckoning from itself. For example with Kant it was a “superstitious thought“ or something like that I forget exactly their terms that he uses in the various categories that he’s confronting with reason.

    Similarly, we can think back to the ancient Greeks and perhaps consider that what they were coming upon as reason was similarly marked off by “barbarianism”.

    And for myself I tend to look back to the ancient Greeks since it was 2500 years prior, and look at these little bastions of civilization amidst an overwhelming world of human beings that were “not reasonable”, that were somehow crass in their thoughtful view and undertaking upon the world.

    Am I creating a picture for you well enough here?

    What I’m trying to get out is it easy for us navigate us to look back at the ancient Greeks and go oh look how far we have gotten today. As though indeed there was this sort of class of human beings all over the world that indeed were barbarians and didn’t think very rationally or reasonably or philosophically, and then there was this small group or city of civilized people that started to think rationally.

    And then we look at the German enlightenment and maybe whatever other philosophers that were going around Europe at the time (I am not particular Lee informed about the details of all this history) and we see this group of people that are looking around the rest of the planet or at least in Europe and they see a bunch of superstitious people as opposed to us reasonable and rational people.

    OK I just kind of repeated it twice a little bit differently I rephrased what I’m trying to paint a picture of.

    So what I’m still aiming toward is I wonder if we are any further nowadays then we were 200 years ago as we were 3000 years ago?

    It seems to me that it is only now in our present moment that we gauge ourselves as so much further and advanced then these other historical conditions of mankind.

    Because I look around the world and where a lot of people see us so civilized and so reasonable and instead of maybe hundreds of people that I can think philosophically now we have thousands upon thousands storming over the Internet about their great philosophical insights etc.

    But I’m not so sure. Somehow I think we are in the same condition; that is, that the overwhelming number of people just use terms but are actually thinking no better than the superstitious barbarians. And that there’s only very few people that actually are using reason and rationality.

    And then I go a step further and I ponder if this is just the constant state of humanity and that we’re not headed towards any doom and gloom because of anything human beings do, but actually human beings have been existing the same way since it’s universal inception and since our human conception.

    What do you think about that?

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    • Let me try again:

      Human beings are no more reasonable or intelligent than they were 200 years ago or 2000 years ago. We merely repeat the same kind of existence over and over again seeing ourselves as central and significant and as obviously progressed from our ancestors. And that this condition is just the eternal he present condition that happens for human beings at every moment no matter what time period We’re talking about.

      We are not getting any nearer to causing our own extinction then we were back when the Bible was written. But that somehow these two conditions go hand-in-hand; which is to say the idea that we are progressing from our ancestors, and the idea that there’s going to be some great reckoning because we are becoming so smart or so stupid.

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  2. Well since I don’t believe nature is socially constructed we are the same today as we were in the past. Moreover, I find Plato deeply insightful when you really begin to understand him (though as a Plato and classics scholar I may perhaps have a tremendous unfair advantage in my comprehensive knowledge of the Greeks and my work with with). Take the obvious example of what I was talking about de-mythology and re-mythology. I didn’t have the word count ability to discuss this, though it may in some ways be implied for the astute reader.

    Eryximachus is not simply engaged in “de-mythology.” He is engaged in a re-mythology of his own. Love pervades the whole cosmos and is integrated with the cosmic forces of the seasons, etc. In destroying the old mythologies of Eros, he is equally engaged in his own new mythologization of Eros. We see this today with the New Atheist and New Materialist ilk. They de-mythology the old cosmos and “superstitions,” but simply substitute their own: rational man, progress, “secularity,” etc.

    This is the real impetus behind the “Noble Lie.” Plato is not endorsing a noble lie for the sake of lying, he’s informing us that all societies are constructed on grand myths. We see this today in all sorts of forms. Plato, however, is very much afraid of what accepting Eryximachus’ cosmos would entail.

    If anything, I’m an adherent to historical and cultural decline theory. Instead of getting better, humans are getting worse. At least the ancients knew some basic things about life and society that we have altogether rejected or have forgotten. In this respect, Nietzsche was also right, in my mind, that modernity’s great ideological dreams: liberalism and socialism, just lead to the death of man in a catatonic state of pleasure seeking existence until extirpation. That’s no way to live life…

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