The Structure of Plato’s Symposium

July 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

The philosophical debate that is the focus of Plato’s Symposium culminates in the speech of Diotima. She is a mysterious figure, a brilliant woman with the powers even to put off a plague. What she does here is miraculous too: she manages to tie together everything the speakers said during the gathering into a coherent whole, extracting what proves to be true from that which is false or irrelevant without ever having set foot in Agathon’s house. She holds the answer to the question of the night. She defines love.Every speech on love up until that point anticipates Diotima’s argument in some way, so that we as readers can build up to it much like the characters do. This does not mean that we must have a functional understanding of Agathon’s pompous nonsense before we can understand what love is fundamentally, for the truth (or Truth) can stand on its own. It means rather that the reader goes bouncing around from thinker to thinker. If he is a careful reader at all, he attempts to reconcile the contradictions, find the similarities, and eventually‹if Plato is successful at all‹he will desire some closure, some final explanation which has in it no contradictions. And that desire is the climax of Diotima’s discourse on love, which the reader can finally fully appreciate, since he has engaged with it: “[the lover] gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom.” (210D)If the symposium is an orgy of thought, Diotima is the climax. The buildup is a very carefully ordered series of inferior speeches that build on one another. Phaedrus opens the evening by calling Love “the most powerful [god] in helping men gain virtue and blessedness.” (180B) Pausanias follows by giving Love even more power. He does this by saying that love has a dual nature, both a “vulgar” side and a side that compels a lover to “make virtue [his] central concern.” (185B) Here Plato interrupts the flow with Aristophanes’ “bad case of hiccups,” (185C) which reminds the reader of the casualness of the setting. It suggests to us that even though the characters are knee-deep in abstraction, they are also unavoidably tied to the mundane reality we all know. Eryximachus then speaks. He makes love all-powerful, saying that it “directs everything that occurs.”(186B) This implies a acceptance of Pausanias’ distinction between good love and bad love, for if love is responsible for everything that occurs, and since that which occurs must either be good or bad, then love must have a dual nature.Plato then focuses us on ideas that are less general. Aristophanes’ myth and his consequent definition of love introduce the idea that love is a desire for something that we lack: “Each [human] longed for its own other half.” (191A) Agathon introduces the idea that love is tied to beauty, employing the phrase, “the beauty of the god.” (196B) Socrates concludes this half of the speeches on the nature of love by questioning Agathon. He brings together the idea of lack and the idea of beauty by concluding that “Love needs beauty.” (201B)But it is Diotima, as Socrates quotes her, who brings together all of the different theories. She separates the physical world from the divine world, homosexual love from heterosexual love, and love of the body to a love of beauty itself. She builds up an irrefutable argument which leads inevitably to love being defined principally as the longing to perceive beauty in its true and absolute form, a feat that one can only accomplish through philosophy. In short, she justifies all the speeches before her, not by agreeing with them, but by praising the act of philosophizing. Philosophy is merely love of wisdom. Thus, Plato has inextricably linked his form to his content. It is love that dictated the progression of the speeches, the structure of Symposium. Just as his characters are philosophizing, so too is Plato. He shows us that the way to truth is through a development such as the one he has so carefully sculpted.Symposium though does not end on this unsurpassable high note. Alcibiades’ comical hysteria is a comedown from Diotima’s serious, focused lecture. He is more believable as a character than she is. He is very emotional. He is grappling with a personal contradiction: “[Socrates] always traps me… and makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time.” (215E) This is because he has undergone what, hopefully, the reader has undergone after Diotima’s speech: “…my heart, or my soul, or whatever you want to call it… has been struck and bitten by philosophy.” (218A) Thus Plato ends the speeches with a character to whom we can easily relate. To put him at the end is to suggest that that is where Symposium leaves us as readers. We are shaken and a bit confused, but enthusiastic. So Symposium leaves us in the same state of conflict as Alcibiades. We can choose philosophy as a way of life, or we can continue our “political career.” Plato’s careful placement of Alcibiades in the story is inseparable from what he is actually saying. Again, structure and meaning are indistinguishable from one another.Symposium has an even larger, overarching structure to it, beyond the gathering scene itself. Plato in the very beginning introduces to us the narrator of the story, Apollodorus, who heard the story from a man named Phoenix, who heard the story from Aristodemus, who was at the gathering himself. And of course the reader is aware that there is an author looming behind all these characters, so that the first thing Plato says to us is that Symposium is a story of a story of a story of a story. Anything repeated that many times is doomed to degeneration or idealization, especially when the story deals with Socrates, whom Apollodorus comes dangerously close to worshipping: “I’ve… made it my job to know exactly what [Socrates] says and does each day.” (137A) So we start miles away from the actual event. From this initial haze, Plato brings us progressively upward, towards Diotima’s speech on Beauty. To perceive “Beauty” is to understand perfect form. Philosophy then has brought the reader from the messy world of the fourth-generation story to the Platonic Idea. Yet again, structure and meaning meet.Symposium quite obviously advocates philosophizing. For Plato to make an effective pitch, the work then must justify itself. The reader must at the same time understand both the merits of the arguments themselves and why the arguments are worth having. Plato accomplishes the former through the speeches of the characters, the latter by their placement in the story. This unity is what makes Symposium so convincing.

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