Mark Vernon is a writer, journalist, broadcaster and blogger. He is also Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. Mark began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England, had a period as a committed atheist, and is now an agnostic, if a religiously-inclined one. His academic interests led him from physics to philosophy via theology. He is the author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, The Philosophy of Friendship, and Business: the Key Concepts. Mark has written for The Guardian, The Philosophers' Magazine, The Financial Times and Management Today. Here he discusses Plato's Symposium.
Mark Vernon on the Symposium by Plato
Plato's dialogue on eros - passionate love - is a masterpiece. Few would question its place in the top ten philosophical works of all time. Ever since Plato wrote it, around 380 BCE, it has been praised. It has profoundly influenced writers as diverse as Augustine and Freud, Shakespeare and Nietzsche, and in ways not always to their liking.
Iris Murdoch, in an interview with Bryan Magee, outlined some of the differences between philosophy and literature, and why it is so difficult to write well in both genres. Literature, she said, deliberately tries to do many things: it entertains, it mystifies, it is artful, it has a voice. These characteristics are integral to its primary purpose. Philosophy, on the other hand, need not have any of these elements. Some would go so far as to say it should have none of them. It may entertain as an aside. It might have a voice. It should not mystify, though it may discuss mysteries. For, above all, it strives to do one thing: to understand. It is a rare writer that manages a synthesis of the two: Murdoch cites Plato's Symposium as such an exceptional case.
A quick recap on the 'story'. Socrates is at a banquet, a symposium, held to celebrate Agathon's first victory, with his first play, at the Lenaian festival in Athens in 416 BCE. The evening was subsequently remembered because of what was said during it, not least by Apollodorus, the person through whom Plato narrates what happened. Also present were Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus and Aristophanes - and then later on, Alcibiades, the military general and former student of Socrates. Each made a speech on love.
Aristophanes' speech stood out because of the myth he related: humans were originally hermaphrodite-like wholes that were cut in half as a divine punishment, and so now spend their lives looking for their 'lost halves'. Socrates' speech surpassed even that, because of the mysteries about love that he remembered being told by a priestess, Diotima - the greatest of which was the ascent of love that climaxes in a beatific vision. This beatific vision is of Beauty itself, that is, it is a manifestation of Plato's theory of Forms.
What is so wonderful about the Symposium, and why I recommend it, is that it is relatively easy to discover even for the casual reader. It opened up for me when I realized that it could be read and re-read - because, like religious texts, it operates simultaneously at many levels. The rational is only the level that strikes one first, because academe is inclined to read it in that way. But you cannot miss that it is not a treatise. For one thing, Plato presents all sorts of views, arguments and counter-arguments, in the dialogue. Scholars debate and sometimes settle what they regard as Plato's most likely opinion; they draw attention to where his logic falls short. But valuable though that is, it is only part of the response Plato sought to evoke.
For it is a philosophical drama, too. The characters do not merely represent positions, but play a part in the debate. For example, after Diotima has described the pinnacle of the ascent - the goal of loving - and the Form of Beauty springs into view, the next thing that happens is that Alcibiades, a goal of loving and form of beauty as widely celebrated in ancient Athens as David Beckham is today, similarly 'springs' into view as he bursts into the room. The word used for both epiphanies is exactly the same - exaiphnēs. In other words, Plato is not just questioning his metaphysics, he is mocking it. What can he mean by that? What kind of philosophy is this?
This is a piece of writing that moves seamlessly between thought and feeling. It embraces the quest for meaning at every level, from the pleasure of rational pursuit, through the ecstasies of love, to the immortal longings that, one way or another, lie behind not just philosophy but the human condition itself.
The Symposium represents a philosophy that seeks not to win an argument but to cultivate a way of life. By showing as well as telling, Plato managed to convey the Socratic way of life. In the gap between the writing on the page and the life of the reader arise suggestions as to how his quest might be incarnated again. The aim is to engage not only at the intellectual level of critique but at the imaginative level of wonderment and, finally perhaps, to achieve - in the beatific vision - a profound sense of silence.