Friday, December 18, 2015

Plato’s Symposium in the light of his Second Letter

I have suggested that Plato wrote the Parmenides after his return from Sicily in 366 to function as his substitute jointly with the Republic after his planned definitive departure from Athens, i. e. before leaving Athens for Sicily in 360. Jointly, these two dialogues were to protect his disciples against the hostile questioning of the theory of Forms. But as Plato informs us in the Seventh Letter, he left Sicily in 366 having agreed to return there when Dionysius would invite him back, after making the affairs in Sicily safe for him, ending the war in which he was engaged. This means that his main preoccupation must have been with his forthcoming departure for Sicily, and thus with Dionysius; the Second Letter, written in this period, corroborates this supposition.

Plato opens the Second Letter by voicing Dionysius’ disquiet: ‘I hear from Archedemus that you think that not only I myself should keep quiet but my friends also from doing or saying anything bad about you’. After insisting that Dionysius’ worries are groundless, caused by false insinuations of sophists, Plato answers Dionysius’ question how ‘after this (meta tauta) you and I ought to behave to each other’: ‘If you altogether despise philosophy, leave it alone. If, again, you have been taught by someone else or have yourself invented better doctrines than mine, hold them in honour. But if you are contented with my doctrines (ei ara ta par hêmȏn soi areskei), then you should hold me also in special honour … if you honour me, you will be thought to be honouring philosophy (philosophian doxeis timan); and the very fact that you have studied other systems as well (hoti dieskopeis kai allous) will gain you the credit, in the eyes of many, of being a philosopher yourself.’ (312b2-c4, tr. Bury).

In the Parmenides Plato leaves ‘unanswered’ the objections against the Forms raised by Parmenides, noting that those objections, and many others on top of those, pertain to the Forms of necessity’ (anankaion echein ta eidê, 135a1), so that ‘only a man of considerable natural gifts’ will be able to understand that there are the Forms (135a5-b2). As the introductory scene to the dialogue clearly indicates, Plato himself was acquainted with such objections since his early days; the message, which is thus incorporated in the Parmenides, is that no objections against the Forms can sway a man who can properly contemplate them. This message was relevant both concerning Dionysius and Plato’s disciples in the Academy. The Parmenides points to the Republic, where the road to the Forms is delineated; the philosophical problem concerning ‘the King of All’, which Dionysius wants Plato to clarify to him, and which Plato in the Second Letter explains ‘in riddles’, points to the Good, in which Plato’s theory of the Forms culminates in the Republic, yet the Republic was far from ideal as a point of reference as far as Dionysius was concerned, for it was inseparably linked to the main thought that brought Plato to Sicily in the first place, the thought that philosophers should obtain royal power or kings become philosophers, and thus with Dionysius’ fears concerning Dion’s and possibly even Plato’s political aspirations. (Dion was brother-in-law and son-in-law of Dionysius’ father, Dionysius I. When Dionysius died in 367, Dion believed that the young Dionysius might become the philosopher-king under the guidance of Plato.)

Plutarch says in the Life of Dion: ‘Dion had hopes, as it seems likely, that by means of the visit of Plato he could mitigate the arrogance and excessive severity of the tyranny, and convert Dionysius into a fit and lawful ruler; but if Dionysius should oppose his efforts and refuse to be softened, he had determined to depose him and restore the civil power to the Syracusan people; not that he approved of a democracy, but he thought it altogether better than a tyranny in lack of a sound and healthy aristocracy. Such was the condition of affairs when Plato came to Sicily, and in the first instances he met with astonishing friendliness and honour. For a royal chariot, magnificently adorned, awaited him as he left his trireme, and the tyrant offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the great blessing that had been bestowed upon his government. Moreover, the modesty that characterized his banquets, the decorum of the courtiers, and the mildness of the tyrant himself in all his dealings with the public, inspired the citizens with marvellous hopes of his reformation. There was also something like a general rush for letters and philosophy, and the palace was filled with dust, as they say, owing to the multitude of geometricians there (the translator Bernadotte Perrin notes: ‘Geometrical figures were traced in loose sand strewn upon the floor.’). After a few days had passed, there was one of the customary sacrifices of the country in the palace grounds; and when the herald, as was the custom, prayed that the tyranny might abide unshaken for many generations, it is said that Dionysius, who was standing near, cried: “Stop cursing us!” This quite vexed Philistius and his party, who thought that time and familiarity would render Plato’s influence almost irresistible, if now, after a brief intimacy, he had so altered and transformed the sentiments of the youthful prince. They therefore no longer abused Dion one by one and secretly, but all together and openly, saying that he was manifestly enchanting and bewitching Dionysius with Plato’s doctrines, in order that the tyrant might of his own accord relinquish and give up the power, which Dion would then assume … As a consequence of all this, Dionysius became at first suspicious, and afterwards more openly angry and hostile …’ (Plutarch, Dion xii. 2 - xiv. 4, tr. Bernadotte Perrin) – As we can learn from Plutarch’s Life of Dion xxxvi, he drew on the best available historical sources: Ephorus of Cume (c. 405-330 B.C.) and Timaeus of Tauromenium (c.356-260 B.C.).

Plutarch’s account resonates with Plato’s account in the Seventh Letter: ‘On my arrival I found Dionysius’s kingdom all full of civil strife and of slanderous stories brought to the court concerning Dion. So I defended him, so far as I was able, though it was little I could do; but about three months later, charging Dion with plotting against the tyranny, Dionysius set him aboard a small vessel and drove him out with ignominy. After that all of us who were Dion’s friends were in alarm lest he should punish any of us on a charge of being accomplices in Dion’s plot; and regarding me a report actually went abroad in Syracuse that I had been put to death by Dionysius as being responsible for all the events of that time. But when Dionysius perceived us all in this state of mind, he was alarmed lest our fears should bring about some worse result; so he was for receiving us all back in a friendly manner; and, moreover, he kept consoling me and bidding me be of good courage and begging me by all means to remain (329b7-d5) … He became indeed more and more devoted as time advanced, according as he grew familiar with my disposition and character, but he was desirous that I should praise him more than Dion and regard him rather than Dion as my special friend, and this triumph he was marvellously akin to achieve (kai thaumastȏs ephilonikei pros to toiouton). But the best way to achieve this, if it was to be achieved – namely, by occupying himself in learning and in listening to discourses on philosophy and by associating with me – this he always shirked owing to his dread of the talk of slanderers, lest he might be hampered in some measure and Dion might accomplish his designs. I, however, put up with all this, holding fast the original purpose with which I had come, in the hope that he might possibly gain a desire for the philosophic life; but he, with his resistance, won the day (330a2-b7, tr. Bury).’

I have pointed out that Plato wrote the Parmenides to help his disciples in disregarding and discarding any arguments against the Forms as irrelevant, and that it could do so only hand in hand with the Republic in which the Forms are demonstrated as the only objects that can be truly known – all other objects are subjects of mere opinion. In so far as it was designed to function as a substitute for Plato in his absence, the Parmenides was as relevant for Dionysius after Plato’s departure from Sicily in 366 and before his planned return, as it was to be relevant for Plato’s disciples in the Academy after Plato’s planned departure from Athens. But since the Parmenides could not fulfil this function on its own, and since the reference to the Republic was unhelpful, to say the least, Plato had to write a new text with Dionysius in mind, which would fulfil the same role concerning him that the Republic was to play concerning the Academy. Plato’s brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon figure prominently in the introductory scene in the Parmenides, pointing the reader to the Republic, in which they play a leading role side by side with Socrates. Glaucon links the Parmenides to the Symposium. I shall argue that in the light of the Second LetterPlato wrote the Symposium after the Parmenides, so that these two dialogues should defend his philosophic position during his absence from Sicily. Glaucon was the obvious choice for the task of linking these two dialogues and supplanting the Republic as far as Dionysius was concerned. In the Republic Socrates characterizes Glaucon as a man devoted to Eros (anêr erȏtikos, 474d4) just after telling him that ‘until philosophers are kings in their cities, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness (dunamis politikê) and wisdom (philosophia) meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest of their evils’ (Rep. 473c11-d5, tr. B. Jowett); in the Symposium Glaucon is eager to hear all the speeches devoted to Eros (peri tȏn erȏtikȏn logȏn, 172b2), which were spoken at Agathon’s banquet. As Plutarch pointed out, after Plato’s arrival to Sicily Dionysius did not abandon his predilection for banquets, but these were now characterized by modesty (aidȏs sumposiȏn, xiii, 3); the Symposium was an obvious theme for a text that in Plato’s absence Dionysius was to compare with anything that the sophists at his court could present him with.

Envisaging his return to Sicily, Plato had to compose a writing that would successfully compete not only with any writings of the sophists, but with anything they could offer Dionysius in their lectures and discussions on philosophy. In the Symposium Plato does his best to fulfil this task: ‘the Symposium is perhaps the most brilliant of all Plato’s achievements as a dramatic artist’. (A. E. Taylor, Plato, 1926, p. 209) But Plato had to make it clear to Dionysius that if he really wanted to devote himself to philosophy, no writing of his, however brilliant it might be, could be a substitute for his presence and the power of his spoken word. This is why he says in the Second Letter, referring to ‘the King of All’, i.e. the Good that reigns as King in the intellectual sphere in the Republic (basileuein tou noêtou genous te kai topou, Rep. 509d2): ‘I myself have never yet written anything on these subjects, and no treatise of Plato exists or will exist, but those which now bear his name belong to a Socrates become fair and young ‘(314c2-4, tr. Bury). This pronouncement performs both these tasks; it ostensibly refers to all Plato’s writings, but in particular to the Parmenides, in which Plato presents us with a young Socrates, and even more so to the Symposium, in which Apollodorus ‘met Socrates fresh from the bath and sandalled’. And as the sight of Socrates wearing sandals was unusual, Apollodorus ‘asked him whither he was going that he had been converted into such a beau: - “To a banquet at Agathon’s”, he replied … “I have put on my finery, because he is such a fine man” (hina kalos para kalon iȏ).’ (174a3-9, tr. Jowett). Socrates in the Symposium made himself unusually beautiful, and in his contribution to the banquet he takes us to his youth; Socrates presented in the speech was presumably even younger than he is in the Parmenides.

In the Second Letter Plato sets aside the view of the Republic that the philosophers can accomplish the greatest things (ta megista) as philosophers only when they acquire royal power (Rep. 497a); it is only an advisory role to Dionysius, as a teacher and companion, that he now appears to aspire to: ‘It is natural for wisdom and great power to come together, and they are for ever pursuing and seeking each other and consorting together’ (310e5-6, tr. Bury).

Referring to his doctrine concerning the Good, the King of All, Plato tells Dionysius: ‘There are hardly any doctrines, I believe, which sound more absurd than these to the vulgar, or, on the other hand, more admirable and inspired (thaumastotera kai enthousiastikȏtera) to men of fine disposition (pros tous euphueis)’ (314a2-5, tr. Bury). The Symposium presents the ascent to the Form of Beauty as the most admirable and inspired journey, which only a man of fine disposition can aspire to.

Plato in the Second Letter appealed to Dionysius’ philotimia, his love of glory: ‘Now as for you and me, the relation in which we stand to each other is really this. There is not a single Greek, one may say, to whom we are unknown, and our intercourse is a matter of common talk; and you may be sure of this, that it will be common talk also in days to come, because so many have heard tell of it owing to its duration and its publicity (310d6-e4) … Now my object in saying all this is to make it clear, that when we ourselves die men’s talk about us will not likewise be silenced; so that we must be careful about it. We must necessarily, it seems, have a care also for the future, seeing that, by some law of nature, the most slavish men pay no regard to it, whereas the most upright do all they can to ensure that they shall be well spoken in the future’ (311c1-7, tr. Bury).

In the Seventh Letter Plato characterizes Dionysius as follows: ‘Now besides being naturally gifted otherwise (ho de oute allȏs estin aphuês) with a capacity for learning (pros tên tou manthanein dunamin) Dionysius has an extraordinary love of glory (philotimos te thaumastȏs)’ (338d6-7, tr. Bury).’ In the Symposium Plato points to the love of glory as a step in the ascent to the Form of Beauty. Diotima tells Socrates: ‘I am persuaded that all men do all things, and the better they are the more they do them (hosȏi an ameinous ȏsi, tosoutȏi mallon) in the hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue (huper arêtes athanatou kai toiautês doxês eukleous); for they desire the immortal’ (208d7-e1, tr. Jowett).

Bury translates the lines 338d6-7 in the Seventh Letter as if Plato put his finger on three distinct character traits of Dionysius: ‘being naturally gifted otherwise’, ‘with a capacity for learning’, and ‘having an extraordinary love of glory’. But Plato speaks of only two character traits, for he links Dionysius’ extraordinary love of glory with his capacity for learning; it was his capacity for learning of which he was extraordinarily proud and which attracted him to Plato even after the expulsion of Dion. It is to this trait that Plato appeals in the Symposium, where Diotima extols wisdom (phronêsin), and in particular ‘the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far, which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice’ (209a5-8, tr. Jowett).

In the Symposium Plato chose a priestess Diotima as the accomplished guide to the Form of Beauty; she can extol the virtue of a statesman without arousing any suspicion that she herself aspired to political supremacy by bringing philosophy and true politics into personal unity. In the Epistle VIII – ‘written some months after the seventh letter, i.e. shortly before Callippus, the murderer of Dion, had been driven out in turn by Hipparinus, the son of Dionysius the Elder and the nephew of Dion’ – Plato advises the three antagonistic parties to unite and choose three kings, who were to be the chief priests. (See Bury’s ’Prefatory note’ to Epistle VIII)

In the Symposium Aristophanes in his speech refers to the dispersal of the Arcadians into villages by the Lacedaemonians, which took place in 385 B.C., fourteen years after the death of Socrates (193a); Diotima in her speech to the young Socrates refers to Aristophanes’ speech as ‘a myth’ (legetai de tis logos, 205d10); when Socrates ended Diotima’s narrative, Aristophanes ‘was beginning to say something in answer to the allusion which Socrates has made to his own speech’ (212c4-6). With Dionysius in mind, Plato thus emphasizes that Diotima’s speech was his speech, composed for Dionysius’ benefit.

By far the most important connection between the Second Letter and the Symposium is the dramatization in the latter of ‘the question, which is the cause of all the mischief’ (to erȏtêma ho pantȏn aition esti kakȏn, 313a4), formulated in the former. In the Second Letter Plato says: ‘The human soul strives to learn, looking to the things that are akin to itself, whereof none is fully perfect. But as to the King and the objects I have mentioned (hapanta ta kala, ‘all the beautiful things’ in 312e3), they are of quite different quality. In the next place the soul inquires – “Well then, what quality have they?” But the cause of all the mischief, O son of Dionysius and Doris, lies in this very question, or rather in the travail which this question creates in the soul; and unless a man delivers himself from this he will never really attain the truth.’ (312e4-313a6, tr. Bury)

Bury’s “Well then, what quality have they?” stands for Plato’s alla poion ti mên; when we consider this question and Agathon’s opening to his speech in the original, it becomes apparent that Agathon’s speech in the Symposium can be seen as a dramatization of this question in the Second Letter. In Jowett’s translation, Agathon opens his speech as follows: ‘The previous speakers, instead of praising the god of Love, and unfolding his nature, appear to have congratulated mankind on the benefits which he confers upon them. But I would rather praise the god first, and then speak of his gifts; this is always the right way of praising everything.’ (194e5-195a3) Jowett’s ‘But I would rather praise the god first, and then speak of his gifts; this is always the right way of praising everything’ stands for hopoios de tis autos ȏn (but of what quality is he) tauta edȏrêsato (who gave these gifts), oudeis eirêken (nobody has said). Heis de tropos orthos pantos epainou peri pantos (but there is one right way of praising everything), logȏi dielthein (to discourse in detail) hoios hoiȏn aitios ȏn tunchanei peri hou an ho logos êi (of what quality happens to be he of whom one speaks and of what quality are the things of which he is the cause, 194e7-195a3). To make the connection apparent, I used Bury’s ‘of what quality’ to render Agathon’s hopoios, hoios, and hoiȏn, which correspond to poion in the Second Letter.

Socrates in his speech praises Agathon’s approach, yet shows him that he went all wrong in his praise of Eros. One must first find out who (what) is the object of the praise, and only then ask of what quality he (it) is: dei dê (one must), hȏsper su diêgêsȏ (as you have set out), dielthein auton prȏton (to explain him first), tis estin ho Erȏs (who is Eros) kai poios tis (and of what quality he is), epeita ta erga autou (and then his deeds, 201d8-e2). The question ‘who’ (tis) or ‘what’ (ti) must precede the question ‘of what quality’.

Let me yet observe that Plato playfully presents the Symposium in its closing scene both as a corrective of the Republic and as its affirmation. In the Republic Socrates tells Adeimantus: ‘Even when two species of imitation are nearly allied, the same persons cannot succeed in both, as for example, the writers of tragedy and comedy – did you not just now call them imitations?’ Adeimantus replies: ‘Yes, I did; and you are right in thinking tht the same persons cannot succeed in both.’ (395a3-7, tr. Jowett)

In the closing scene of the Symposium Socrates compelled Agathon and Aristophanes ‘to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also. To this they were constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument. And first of all Aristophanes dropped off, then, when the day was already dawning, Agathon. Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home.’ (223d3-12, tr. Jowett) Here Plato dramatizes the tripartite soul of the Republic (435a-441c): comedy appeals to desires, epithumiai, the lowest part of the soul – Aristophanes, a writer of comedies, is the first to fall asleep; tragedy appeals to passions, thumos, which is the intermediary part of the soul – Agathon, a writer of tragedies, is the next to fall asleep; intellect, nous, is the highest part of the soul – Socrates, a philosopher, is the only one who remains waking, leaves the party, and spends his day in Lyceum discussing philosophy as usual.

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