Symposiums were an essential component of the ancient Greek social practice. The main room for men, known as the andron in Greek language, hosted the party, which was comprised of two parts. A meal was served in the first segment, while the second part involved drinking of diluted wine, conversations, speeches and songs (Allen 205). The andron consisted of squarely arranged couches to ease conversation between freeborn males, who were the guests in the symposiums. After the meal, the guests were cleaned and perfumed the slaves of the attendants before tasting the unmixed wine. One party participant was appointed the ‘symposiarch’ to determine, in consultation with the rest of the party members, the amount of wine to be served and its concentration. The Agathon’s tragedy triumph party, as described by Plato, is one of the typical ancient symposiums, which reveals the guests’ influence to the nature of the party, as well as the narrator’s effect.
The nature and the social status of the guests at the symposium immensely determined the manner in which the party faired including the amount and concentration of the wine served, as well as the conversations and speeches, among other elements of the event. Socrates among other respected personalities, such as Alcibiades, Eryximachus, Phraedrous and Aristodemous had converged at Agathon’s house to celebrate with him upon winning the first prize in the Lenaean festival that took place on the previous day of the party date (Candiotto 24). Clearly, most of the guests present were renowned intellectuals of the time that included poets, doctors and politicians, and commanded immense respect in the society. Thus, the Plato’s symposium was characterized by speeches, conversations and moderate wine drinking, and an immense philosophical appeal because of the Socrates’s compelling influence.
In ancient Greek tradition, symposiums were highly important events that were organized for entertainment. Prior to the event, Socrates bathed and wore sandals, a thing he rarely did, to signify the importance of the party that he was about to attend that evening. However, such parties largely included a dramatic aspect comprising of poetry, games, songs and comic discussions, among others, and moderate or reduced conversations of immense seriousness between the guests. Notably, in the Plato’s symposium, as narrated by Apollondorus, serious discussions and speeches hijacked the dramatic nature of the party and largely involved a competition of ideologies between the guests (Luz 16). Clearly, Socrates attendance drifted the event from an entertainment and celebration orientation to a forum for enlightened exchange of ideas and competition for influence.
Socrates and philosophy occupied a prestigious position in the society at the time of the Plato’s symposium hence directly or indirectly provided definitions of enlightenment by setting implicit or explicit rules of engaging a wide range of issues. For instance, at the time of invitation to the party, Agathon insisted that the presence of elites such as Socrates at the party would make it one of the most spectacular of all symposiums. However, the philosopher and his contemporaries never attended such gathering because their playful nature and their reduced importance. Socrates decided to attend the symposium after the host expressed immense sadness because of the failure to secure their attendance (Allen 204). Therefore, the social status of Socrates and the rest of the elite is revealed by Agathon’s enthusiasm regarding their participation and their ability to increase the value of the less important.
The impact of the Socrates started to be felt immediately he arrived at the party when Agathon invites the philosopher to share a couch with him to benefit from his great wisdom. However, the philosopher replies the host in a mockery style by indicating that if wisdom could freely flow from the more to the lesser wise, he would be the biggest beneficiary of the two. The satirical statement and the increased respect that Socrates commanded from some of the present guests, such as Phraedrous, Alcibiades and Aristodemous established a robust philosophical authority over drama, which formed the foundation of the rest of the night’s activity. For instance, Agathon, after being cornered by the philosopher’s wisdom suggested that they should engage in a philosophical competition later in the night hence set the stage for the speeches and conversations that followed. In addition, the suggestion to reduce the amount of wine taken, by Eryximachus, a doctor by profession, because of the increased effects of the hangover from previous night drinking on all the guests except Socrates, who took moderate amounts of wine, seem to have been influenced by the philosopher. Furthermore, the guests’ decision to send away the female expected to provide entertainment seemed to have been influenced by the Socrates’ reduced attraction to physical love and his preference of philosophical reasoning. Thus, the philosopher directly determined the event by changing or setting the rules of definition, as well as well as indirectly through immense respect that he commanded and the statements he made.
The Plato’s symposium was narrated by Apollondorus to an anonymous companion, who was a rich businessman. Apollondorus remembers the accounts of the party he had given to Glaucon (the Republic’s main interlocutor and a half-brother to Plato) who had scanty details of the event from unreliable sources. Apollondorus heard the story from Aristodemus, one of the symposium’s guests, and counter checked some of the facts from Socrates. Aristodemus, the first level narrator, was a great admirer of his friend Socrates, who invited him to the party, hence his version of the narrative was maybe largely philosophical to glorify the great philosopher (Socrates). In addition, the Socrates’s confirmation of facts may have resulted to the philosophical aspect of the symposium. Furthermore, Plato was a protégé of Socrates hence may have deliberately picked the philosophical aspect and ignored the rest of the symposium’s elements to portray an increased value of his discipline. Thus, the narrators possessed immense control of the narrative, which probably they used to develop a perspective of the symposium aimed at an ulterior motive.
Some of the narrators’ effect is manifested in the supremacy of philosophy over other disciplines, which is evident throughout the narrative. For instance, the image of the Socrates portrays a very wise man who easily outshined every guest in the symposium, as well as was immensely praised by a big number of guests present. In addition, the philosopher pointed and rectified errors in the speeches of the guests who spoke before him hence seemed to offer an undisputable reference of the correct and the wrong. Furthermore, while offering his speech, Socrates referred his arguments from a female character known as Diotima, who he claimed that gave him the wisdom about love, which he in turn was passing to the guests in style that virtually made the woman one of them (Candiotto 32). Notably, symposium guests were exclusively freeborn males and women participation in the events was reserved for entertainment and under no any circumstance a woman was supposed to give wisdom to men. Thus, the Socrates’s decision to indirectly include a woman guest expresses the authority that he commanded, and may have been deliberately inserted by the narrators to portray the importance of philosophy and philosophers in the Greek society of the time.
Some scholars argue that the Plato’s symposium is to some extent fictional and most of the characters in the party were an imagination of the philosopher. Specifically, Plato’s description of the Socrates changes from a person in his early age literature towards a fictional character that he used as his mouthpiece, in the philosopher’s middle and later dialogues. Therefore, the figure of Socrates in the Plato’s Symposium, which is one of his middle age dialogue, may have been exaggerated to fit the desires of the philosopher.
The Kylix, a black footed cup created in c. 500 BCE, which is the approximate time that the Plato’s symposium took place, reflects the event as described by the philosopher. The interior part of the vase depicts vines with grapes on the outer band and a scene of a symposium around the middle strip, as well as gorgon’s head at the core of the cup. In addition, the painting on the vase includes a slave serving wine to the symposium’s guests. The Gorgon, which could turn a person into a stone, is placed at the center of the phase to show the seriousness of the matters handled in the Plato’s symposium, while excluding other participants, such as women who graced events of that kind, reveals the transformation that resulted from Socrates and other elite’s attendance (Luz 21). Thus, Plato may have used the Kylix to develop an imaginary symposium, which represents his views on the events.
Symposiums’ guests and the narrator of their occurrence can immensely shape their nature. For instance, Socrates’s attendance completely changed Agathon’s party, which was organized to celebrate his first tragedy prize. The philosopher drifted the event from a dramatic orientation to a philosophical discussion, which involved serious conversations, using immense respect that he commended and well thought statements. On the other hand, the narrators may have distorted the real appearance of the event to portray philosopher as more important compared the rest of the disciplines. Aristodemus, Apollondorus and Plato, were some of the greatest admirers of the Socrates and Philosophy hence may have deliberately represented a philosophical perspective of the meeting to make the disciplines look more appealing compared to others, such as medicine and poetry.
Allen, Sarah. “Plato And Levinas”. Symposium, vol 14, no. 2, 2010, pp. 202-206. Philosophy Documentation Center, doi:10.5840/symposium201014229.
Candiotto, Laura. “Review of Cooksey T. L., Plato’s Symposium: A Reader Guide.” Plato Journal, no. 12, 2012.
Luz, Menahem. “The Rejected Versions In Plato’S Symposium”. Plato Journal, vol 14, 2014, pp. 9-22. Coimbra University Press, doi:10.14195/2183-4105_14_1.