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A Curious Reconciliation
Late-Night Dialogue with Xenophette and Platona: On Embodied Philosophy in the Symposia

by

Sarah Snyder
(University of Alberta)

The use of literary devices we normally associate with fiction in the Socratic Symposia of Plato and Xenophon both clarifies and obscures the philosophical arguments in question, in that a truly embodied philosophy is as paradoxically oblique as it is more genuinely compelling. Granted, critics usually —

XENOPHETTE: Hold on a minute! What on earth is she doing?!

PLATONA: Shh, Xenophette. She's trying to write a classics paper, and it's due tomorrow. Besides, what good can we do? We're just parodic projections of her panicked fourth-year-university intellect, anyway. The professor probably won't be too impressed with our untimely intrusion...

XENOPHETTE: But how can she set up a thesis stressing an embodied philosophy and then go on to explicate it by means of a dry and disembodied academic essay? An essay that assumes and emulates the wisdom of a scholarly tradition intent on obliterating the simple power of the first-person point of view?! This scholarly tradition, I might add, is the product of a bunch of dead European men who took Plato way more seriously than he ever took himself. 'Objectivity' and the split between mind and body are not as big in the Symposium as —

PLATONA: Ok, Ok, Ok. You can climb down off your soapbox, Xenophette. I'm listening. And (sigh) I suppose I'm up for a bit of — shall we say — 'dialogue.' But I've heard your ecofeminist rant about the mind / body split before. I don't see why you're bringing it up now.

XENOPHETTE: Well, Plato was all about Ideal Forms, right?

PLATONA: Right.

XENOPHETTE: Which would seem to suggest a penchant for abstraction and objectivity, agreed?

PLATONA: Yes.

XENOPHETTE: But how does Plato express his abstractions, his objectivities?

PLATONA: Hmm... I can see where you're going with this. Even at the height of his philosophizing, Plato's using a cast of pretty varied characters who serve to confirm or contrast with what he's getting across. There are some critics who merely want to distill what they consider the 'real' Platonic truths from these characters and their interactions,1 but the reality is that Plato himself didn't choose any such subject / object disjunct. If he'd wanted to, he could have just listed a catalogue of philosophical propositions.

XENOPHETTE: Exactly. Or, to posit something a little less extreme, he still could have saved a lot of space by simply choosing to write a more moderate monologue — say, Socrates recounting his visit with Diotima, which is the real philosophical 'meat' of the Symposium, according to the critics.

PLATONA: But instead we get a philosophy engaged in a drinking party with the likes of Agathon, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Alcibiades, among others. Not to mention the Symposium's engagement with such things as these characters' clothing, and even their bodily functions, like hiccups!2 Before we really talk about Plato's engaged philosophy, though, I have a couple questions — questions triggered by you mentioning the names 'Socrates' and 'Diotima.'

XENOPHETTE: Uh-oh... But go ahead — shoot.

PLATONA: Well, who's speaking to us in the Symposium?

XENOPHETTE: You mean literally? The narrator? Apollodorus, I believe.

PLATONA: Correct. Was he at Agathon's party?

XENOPHETTE: No, I don't think so.

PLATONA: Again correct. The truth is, Apollodorus only heard about the party from Aristodemus, another follower of Socrates, who was there. And Apollodorus did check the story with Socrates himself, but it had been many years since Agathon first won the prize for tragic drama in Athens. Apollodorus hints at the possibility of the story being garbled by time and memory in mentioning Pheonix's, and hence Glaucon's, previous confusion. Then — get this — Apollodorus further challenges any notions of reliability by calling himself a raving maniac!3 Incidently, did you notice that when Apollodorus was straightening out Glaucon's understanding of the conversation at Agathon's party, they were walking to the city?4 You know — Athens, the birthplace of philosophy! So in a sense, Glaucon was getting the same dose of apologetics, or persuasion to philosophy, that the 'unconverted' businessman5 is about to get in the rest of the Symposium. Could walking be a journey-of-life motif, as well? Though not entirely linear? Later, Aristodemus catches up with Socrates, even surpassing him for a short whi—

XENOPHETTE: You're rambling, Platona.

PLATONA: Right. Thanks. The point I was wanting to make is that all those layers in narrative voice do sort of split apart subject and object.

XENOPHETTE: How so?

PLATONA: Well, the story itself, with all its bits of embedded philosophical truth, is distanced from its actual experiencers, from those who first spoke the words being reported. Because the words have been passed along through so many mouths, the rather Platonic idea that an object — the story, the truth — can exist independently of its experiencing subjects — the people who were at Agathon's party — is implied.

XENOPHETTE: Granted. You have to admit, though, that Plato's construction of the 'unconverted businessman' you mentioned is pretty dialectical.

PLATONA: Yeah. Plato does compel us, as readers, to enter the dialogue by pinning us with the 'you' attributed to Apollodorus' unnamed friend. This seems to imply a contradictory statement to the effect that true philosophical enquiry is always embodied in human interaction.

XENOPHETTE: So is Plato not a Platonist, after all?

PLATONA: Well, not so fast. I haven't talked about Socrates and Diotima yet.

XENOPHETTE: Wait, let me guess. Diotima also raises the question of disembodied voice.

PLATONA: How did you know?

XENOPHETTE: I'm just another one of our writer's projections, remember? We're both coming from the same source.

PLATONA: Ok, enough of the dialectics. Where was I? ...Or where were you, I guess I should say...

XENOPHETTE: Diotima.

PLATONA: Right. Socrates' highest learning of "the art of love"6 is facilitated by an otherwise unknown priestess from a small town...

XENOPHETTE: Which suggests, again, perhaps, that the truth is independent of its vehicle.

PLATONA: So ultimately, the who of Diotima — that she's a woman (quite unusual for a philosopher), that she's from Mantinea,7 et cetera — is not as important as the what that she teaches Socrates.

XENOPHETTE: Why are we even given the who of Diotima, then? And what about Socrates as the embodiment of Eros?

PLATONA: Will you quit anticipating me?

XENOPHETTE: Sorry.

PLATONA: No, you're not. But be my guest. What about Socrates as the embodiment of Eros?

XENOPHETTE: Well, as soon as Socrates has finished recounting Diotima's speech on 'the ladder of love'8 and 'immortal children'9 and all that, Alcibiades shows up with a wreath of violets and ivy in his hair.10 He's raucous and ready to go, pumped up with booze and with lust for Agathon.

PLATONA: I'd call this a jolt back to the 'real world,' counter to Diotima's idealizations.

XENOPHETTE: For sure. But then, when Eryximachus pipes up in his role as the evening's moderator11 and informs Alcibiades of the antecedent order of ceremonies, so to speak, Alcibiades is not only sober enough to give a speech, but agrees to offer an enconium to Socrates in place of Eros.12

PLATONA: Hmm... Pretty suspicious collusion of the 'real' and the 'ideal,' then, in the person of Socrates.

XENOPHETTE: Yup. And it gets better. Almost right away, Alcibiades says, "...but I'll have to use an image."13

PLATONA: So?

XENOPHETTE: So Alcibiades resorts to metaphor when describing Socrates, thereby insinuating that Socrates is beyond the metaphor, just as Diotima's Ideal Beauty is beyond all images.14 The metaphor Alcibiades resorts to replicates this idea.

PLATONA: The Silenus statue — ?

XENOPHETTE: Yeah, you know — an ugly, ordinary-looking satyr opens up to reveal little likenesses of the gods.

PLATONA: The real opening up to the ideal, right? Pointing to, signifying the ideal? Do you think it's safe to go so far as to say the real embodying the ideal?

XENOPHETTE: Yes, but the embodiment is partial — inside the Silenus are likenesses of the gods, not the gods themselves — and there's another qualifier.

PLATONA: What's that?

XENOPHETTE: That Socrates is utterly unique in his embodiment of Eros.

PLATONA: And I suppose even the unconverted friend, way back at the beginning of the Symposium, recognizes Socrates' uniqueness in noting Apollodorus' superlative view of the strange philosopher.15

XENOPHETTE: You got it. Socrates is arguably pretty ordinary — in appearance, in family background, in the things he chooses to talk about16 — but he's by no means normal. He loses himself in thought—

PLATONA: Submersion in the ideal?

XENOPHETTE: Yeah, and not just when he's more or less alone,17 but also when he's accompanying a friend to a party that he himself cared enough about to dress up for!18

PLATONA: Good point. Those repeated references to Socrates normally wearing bare feet and just a light cloak19 definitely conspire to suggest an unusual nonchalance about everyday particulars.

XENOPHETTE: And yet he is "the one man who (can) really enjoy a feast; and though he (doesn't) want much to drink... he (can) drink the best of (them) under the table."20 Or so says Alcibiades.

PLATONA: Don't forget the "most amazingly, no one ever (sees) him drunk" part.21 It seems that Plato's Socrates is entirely abandoned to a strange and disembodied idealism; yet this same Socrates excels them all in battle and in the pleasures of eating, drinking, and making love — pretty ordinary concerns, if you ask me.

XENOPHETTE: Mm-hmm. Reminds me of Alcibiades' cryptic allusion to the "madness, the Bacchic frenzy of philosophy."22 PLATONA: Maybe that's what he means in calling Socrates "absolutely inimitabl(y) ironic."23

XENOPHETTE: Ironic in that he's able to subvert and then reconcile complete opposites? Ideal and real?

PLATONA: Precisely. But I think we're starting to get too esoteric here. Do we have any particulars on how Socrates is a specified embodiment of Eros?

XENOPHETTE: Yes, but they'll sound pretty esoteric, too.

PLATONA: Try me.

XENOPHETTE: Ok, I'll start with the obvious. Eros' parentage24 requires that he be needy, or desiring, and resourceful. Socrates' desire for true philosophy and his cunning in extracting it from a drinking party25 are ample demonstration of his affinity with Eros.

PLATONA: Affinity, yes. But we're looking for embodiment.

XENOPHETTE: Stick with me. Diotima argues that Eros is an in-between sort of character, right?

PLATONA: Yes, as in: inhabiting a place somewhere between bad and good, ugly and beautiful, wise and ignorant, mortal and immortal...26

XENOPHETTE: Right. Because Eros is the agent of desire for the good, the beautiful, the wise, and the immortal, he occupies that intermediary zone, passing back and forth between these binary opposites.27

PLATONA: And now we're starting to echo that bit about Socrates' reconciling the real / ideal split.

XENOPHETTE: Exactly. In fact, Socrates even doubles Eros as the agent of Alcibiades' desire, coercing Alcibiades to reside in that awkward space between the usual roles of lover and beloved.28

PLATONA: Another binary is fused in Alcibiades' description of the state his heart, or "soul, or whatever you want to call it"29 — again, signifiers seem to fail, somewhat, in referencing the ideal — in terms of a snakebite. That's a pretty physical metaphor for a spiritual condition.

XENOPHETTE: And in Plato's estimation, after all, a human being is a curious reconciliation of body and soul, the 'imperishable clothed in the perishable;' so philosophy, as a human endeavor, has to be conciliatory, too.

PLATONA: Yes — though I think you're wandering into anachronism there, with those Christian terms.

XENOPHETTE: Lots of Christians like Plato!

PLATONA: And your point is...? Anyway, I agree with that 'curious reconciliation' phrase you used. It just might work as a summary of Plato's philosophy in the Symposium.

XENOPHETTE: What's absolutely crucial is a dynamic dialectic between Ideal Forms and Eros, the desire for those forms. If it's not dynamic, not fluid, it gets silly and pompous, like Eryximachus' static 'harmonizing' of Eros.30 Aristophanes seems to approach this dialectic, in a sense, in that his folk tale on the origins of human beings is both tragic and comedic.31 He also puts his finger on that element of longing so constitutive of Eros, although Diotima (a.k.a. Socrates, a.k.a. Plato) ultimately shoots his story down, disagreeing with its amoral quality and its exaltation of the 'merely' embodied, that which consummates itself instead of referencing to something higher or beyond.32

PLATONA: In any case, Socrates is Plato's dynamic embodiment of this dialectic.

XENOPHETTE: Yeah. Come to think of it, even in the final scene, he's busy trying to convince Aristophanes and Agathon, the comedian and the tragedian, that a "skillful dramatist" should be able to write both.33

PLATONA: Aha! Another attempt at reconciliation! I rest my case.

(Pause)

XENOPHETTE: Platona?

PLATONA: Mmm?

XENOPHETTE: Didn't the thesis at the beginning mention Xenophon, too?

PLATONA: Oh, dear, you're right. Well, let's just put it this way: our studious author is certainly not Socrates — she needs her sleep.

XENOPHETTE: But I've been waiting this whole time to dig into Xenophon! To argue that his narrative style does an even better job of situating Socrates in the ordinary!

PLATONA: Xen, no, really—

XENOPHETTE: For one thing, it's a real drinking party, with dancing girls and everything,34 not some half-hearted day-after deal. Although I suppose you might say the narrative voice is a little simpler, and doesn't demand the same degree of dialectic involvement...

PLATONA: (Yawn.)

XENOPHETTE: I'd still be willing to wager that Xenophon is a far more conversational read, though. And his Socrates is way funnier. Did you know he uses pimping as the central metaphor for this in-between, reconciling-opposites theme?35 Levity is just as telling as solemnity, you see.36 Xenophon even has Socrates lose a beauty contest against Critoloubus, to emphasize his resemblance with a silenus!37 Platona! Are you awake?!

PLATONA: (Muffled moan.)

XENOPHETTE: There's a final subversion of the connect between mind and body, too, because Socrates does not seem to be very happily married! He brags about enjoying the challenges Xanthippe poses to his fool-hardy 'educational methods,'38 but wanders around like an unconsummated bachelor at the end,39 while the rest of the men go home to their wives' beds...

PLATONA: (Frustrated snort.) Bed! Did you hear that, Xenophette? Go to bed!

XENOPHETTE: Hmpf! Fine! But next time we sabotage an academic essay, we do Xenophon...

  

  

NOTES

1 Cf. Kenneth Dover, for example: "What precedes Socrates' interrogation of Agathon ... and what follows the arrival of Alcibiades are not philosophical." [Plato, Symposium, Ed. Kenneth Dover (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1982), 5.]   <Back>

2 Plato, Symposium, Eds. Nehamas and Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), Cf. 185C.   <Back>

3 173E.   <Back>

4 Cf. Plato, 173B.   <Back>

5 Cf. 173A.   <Back>

6 207A.   <Back>

7 Cf. 201D.   <Back>

8 Cf. 210Aff.   <Back>

9 Cf. 209C.   <Back>

10 Cf. 212E. Violets and ivy are tokens of Aphrodite and Dionysus respectively.   <Back>

11 Cf. 214B.   <Back>

12 Cf. 214E.   <Back>

13 215B.   <Back>

14 Cf. 212A.   <Back>

15 Cf. 173D.   <Back>

16 Cf. 221E.   <Back>

17 Cf. 220C.   <Back>

18 Cf. 174A, 175A.   <Back>

19 Examples include 219B, 220B.   <Back>

20 220A.   <Back>

21 Ibid.   <Back>

22 218B.   <Back>

23 218D.   <Back>

24 Poros 'Resource' and Penia 'Poverty.' Cf. 203Bff.   <Back>

25 "Plato writes ... from first to last as an advocate, an heir to the tradition of didactic poetry, a nursling of Attic drama and a product, no less than the politicians and litigants whom he criticized so articulately, of a culture which admired the art of the persuader." (Dover, viii).   <Back>

26 Cf. 202A, 203D.   <Back>

27 Cf. 203E.   <Back>

28 Cf. 217Cff.   <Back>

29 218B.   <Back>

30 Cf. 186A-189D.   <Back>

31 Cf. 189E-194E.   <Back>

32 Cf. 205E.   <Back>

33 223D.   <Back>

34 Xenophon, Symposium, Ed. Bartlett (Ithaca: Cornell, 1996). Chapter 2, for example.   <Back>

35 Cf. Xenophon, 4 (56).   <Back>

36 This is Xenophon's thesis statement, actually. Cf. 1 (1).   <Back>

37 Cf. 5.   <Back>

38 Cf. 2 (10).   <Back>

39 Cf. 9 (7).   <Back>

  

Bibliography
  

Plato, Symposium. Ed. Kenneth Dover. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Plato, Symposium. Eds. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruf. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1989.

Xenophon, "Symposium." Xenophon: The Shorter Socratic Writings. Ed. Robert C. Bartlett. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. 133-172.

 

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