On Plato’s Symposium

"On Plato's Symposium," Munich: Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, 1994. Reprinted in The Argument of the Action, 2000.


“Some platonic dialogues are bound closely to the life and times of Socrates, and some are set at a particular time of day. The Phaedo and Symposium satisfy both criteria; they are also non-Socratically reported dialogues, and both contain Socrates’ own account of his early thought. The Phaedo tells of the last hours of Socrates, from the early morning to the setting of the sun, when Socrates remembers at the last moment that he owes a cock to Asclepius; the Symposium tells of an evening party that ended when the cock began to crow, and Socrates left the poets Agathon and Aristophanes asleep and when about his usual business. The Phaedo and Symposium between them occupy a full day. In prison Socrates identifies philosophy with the practice of dying and beign dead; at Agathon’s house he identifies philosophy with eros. If each definition is as partial as their temporal setting, the whole of philosophy is somehow comprehended by these two dialogues. As the practice of dying and being dead is the practice of separating body and soul and in its dialogic counterpart the exercise of separating an argument from its conditions, so eros should be the practice of putting body and soul together and its dialogic counterpart, the practice of unifying argument and conditions. Ultimately, of course, the disjunctive and conjunctive modes of interpretation should yield to an understanding of the double practice of (sunkrisis and diakrisis) – of collection and division – whose single name is dialectic; but it would be well to start, in the case of the Symposium, with the peculiar difficulties we face if we accept the invitation to put its six or seven praises of eros back into a unified whole.