The Symposium – Plato

Like the situation with Hilaire Belloc’s works in last weeks blog entry I have several books by Plato but have never read them so he was an obvious choice for this week. Regarding the title, apparently a symposium meant something very different in ancient Greece to the way we use the word today. Nowadays a symposium would be “an occasion at which people who have great knowledge of a particular subject meet in order to discuss a matter of interest” but the ancients saw it as a drinking party held after a meal usually with musicians present. However in the case of the one described by Plato in this work the flautist is dismissed before starting to play and each person there is asked to give a short talk on a topic decided by the host, specifically the god of Love. It soon becomes clear just what different social mores the ancient Greeks lived by than we do today. Let’s take an extract from one of the early speeches:-

There can be no doubt of the common nature of Love which goes with the common Aphrodite; it is random in the effects it produces, and it is this love which the baser sort of men feel. It’s marks are, first, that it is directed towards women quite as much as young men; second, that in either case it is physical rather than spiritual; third, that it prefers that its objects should be as unintelligent as possible, because its only aim is the satisfaction of its desires, and it takes no account of the manner in which this is achieved. That is why its effect is purely a matter of chance and quite as often bad as good. In all that it partakes of the corresponding nature of its goddess, who is far younger than her heavenly counterpart, and who owes her birth to the conjunction of male and female. But the heavenly Aphrodite to whom the other Love belongs for one thing has no female strain in her, but springs entirely from the male and for another is older and consequently free from wantonness. Hence those who are inspired by this Love are attracted towards the male sex, and value it as naturally the stronger and more intelligent. Besides even amongst the lovers of their own sex one can distinguish those whose motives are dictated by this second Love, they do not fall in love with mere boys, but wait until they reach the age at which they begin to show some intelligence, that is to say until they are near growing a beard.

Extract from the speech by Pausanias in The Symposium by Plato

Yes the Love discussed by the various participants in this symposium is homosexual and specifically that between men and adolescent boys. I knew that the ancient Greeks were keen on pederasty but had no idea how much it was regarded as superior to relationships between men and women before reading this work. Speaker after speaker continues to praise the theme of ‘The Lover’ (a virile adult male) and ‘His Beloved’ (an adolescent boy or possibly young adult male) and denigrates love between men and women as clearly inferior until we at last reach the last speaker, Socrates. Not that he contradicts the previous speeches, but he does instead look to establish the nature of the God of Love himself and what the nature of love and desire is. It is worth mentioning that those men that take a particularly young boy as their Beloved are not rejected out of hand, but it is not regarded as such a high love as those that wait until the boy is fourteen or fifteen years old.

After Socrates has finished and at the very end of the book, a very drunken Alcibiades bursts in to the gathering and requests to be included, but then notices Socrates and becomes agitated as he regards himself as having been grossly insulted by him in the past. The nature of this ‘insult’ becomes clear when he is encouraged to speak in praise of Socrates and it turns out that he had so wanted to become Socrates’ Beloved that he invited him to his home several times in an attempt to seduce him. Socrates however clearly values intellectual over physical interactions and had rebuffed his attentions each time.

The problematic subject of the book is particularly an issue due to when my edition was published by Penguin Books, i.e. 1951, so sixteen years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which legalised sex between men (although definitely not between men and boys) was passed in the UK. It is therefore highly doubtful that a contemporary work dealing with the same subject would have been permitted and not banned under the Obscene Publications Act even though no homosexual acts are actually described in the book. Indeed in the introduction to the book, presumably written by the translator, Walter Hamilton, although not ascribed to him he writes:-

we must first face a fact which is so repugnant to the orthodox morality of our own times that there is a serious risk of it destroying the value and pleasure of The Symposium for many readers. The love with which the dialogue is concerned, and which is accepted as a matter of course by all the speakers, including Socrates, is homosexual love; it is assumed without argument that this alone is capable of satisfying a man’s highest and noblest aspirations, and the love of man and woman, when it is mentioned at all, is spoken of as altogether inferior, a purely physical impulse whose sole object is the procreation of children.

As is my usual habit I didn’t read the introduction until after I had completed the text, I don’t like the spoilers which are invariably included in this section and this would have been a big one. Walter Hamilton was master and honorary fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge and translated several books of ancient Greek for Penguin Books, I have enjoyed this translation as it was very readable so I’ll definitely be pulling other works he has translated off my shelves for future blog entries.