I am dating the Symposium in 364/3 B.C., after the sailing season passed, in which Plato sent Dionysius the Second Letter.
When Plato wrote his Second Letter declaration concerning his dialogues as belonging ‘to Socrates become fair and young’, he apparently thought that the time for his writing dialogues was over; summoned back to Syracuse he would devote himself fully to the realization of his politico-philosophical ideal, guiding Dionysius to the Good. The way he wanted Dionysius to view his dialogues can best be seen in the light of the Meno passage to which he alluded in the Second Letter.
In Meno 100 a Socrates says: ‘To sum up our enquiry – the result seems to be, if we are at all right in our view (ei de nun hêmeis en panti tô̢ logô̢ toutô̢ kalôs ezêtêsamen te kai elegomen), that virtue is neither natural nor acquired (aretê an eiê oute phusei oute didakton), but an instinct given by God to the virtuous (alla theiâ̢ moira̢ paragignomenê). Nor is the instinct accompanied by reason (aneu nou hois an paragignêtai), unless there may be supposed to be among statesmen some one (ei mê tis eiê toioutos tôn politikôn andrôn) who is capable of educating statesmen (hoios kai allon poiêsai politikon). And if there be such a one (ei d’ eiê), he may be said to be among the living (schedon an ti houtos legoito toioutos en tois zôsin) what Homer says that Tiresias was among the dead (hoion ephê Homêros en tois tethneôsin ton Teiresian einai), “he alone has understanding (oios pepnutai); but the rest are fleeting shades (toi de skiai aissousi)”; and he and his virtue in like manner will be a reality among shadows (t’auton an kai enthade ho toioutos hôsper para skias alêthes an pragma eiê pros aretên).’ (99e4-100a7, tr. B. Jowett)
Displaying Socrates’ desire to know the truth, the desire that always ended in the admission of his philosophic ignorance, these dialogues depicted the historical Socrates, yet transcended him by pointing to Plato as the man who alone has understanding. The Second Letter proclamation applies the least to the Republic, in the second Book of which Plato’s brother Glaucon compels Socrates to transcend his ignorance in search for the true nature of virtue. In the sixth Book, although Socrates recoils from discussing the Idea of the Good, pleading his ignorance (506c), Glaucon intercedes – ‘I must implore you not to turn away just as you are reaching the goal’ (Mê pros Dios hôsper epi telei ôn apostê̢s, 506d2-3) – and Socrates says: ‘Let us not at present ask what is the actual nature of the good (auto men ti pot’ esti t’agathon easômen to nun einai), for to reach now what is in my thoughts would be an effort too great for me (pleon gar moi phainetai ê kata tên parousan hormên ephikesthai tou ge dokountos emoi ta nun, 506d8-e3)’. It is not Socrates, however fair and young, who says he has the Idea of Good in his thought, it is Plato. And yet, the Second Letter itself with its reference to Dionysius’ mistrust of him, his trying to find out what Plato’s business really is (Letter II, 312a), indicates that it was the Republic with its emphasis on the unity of true philosophy and true politics that prompted Plato to relativize his adherence to the project of the Republic by declaring that the dialogues which now bear his name ‘belong to a Socrates become fair and young’.
Since the Second Letter did not achieve its purpose – Dionysius did not summon Plato and Dion back to Athens after reading it – Plato had to present to him the revised version of his intended Syracusan mission in a manner open to the public eye and thus to the public scrutiny; he wrote the Symposium.
As I have pointed out in my previous posts on the Symposium, Diotima’s discussion on Eros corresponds to Plato’s Second Letter with its attempt to turn Dionysius toward undertaking the arduous task of becoming a philosopher. But what function perform the preceding speeches on Eros, those given by Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Agathon, in this respect?
Phaedrus says in his encomium: ‘I know not any greater blessing (ou gar egôg’ echô eipein hoti meizon estin agathon) to a young man who is beginning life (euthus neô̢ onti) than a virtuous lover, or to the lover than a beloved youth (ê erastês chrêstos kai erastê̢ paidika). For the principle which ought to be the guide of men (ho gar chrê anthrôpois hêgeisthai pantos tou biou) who would nobly live (tois mellousi kalôs biôsesthai) – that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honour, nor wealth, nor any other influence is able to implant so well as love (touto oute sungeneia hoia te empoiein houtô kalôs oute timai oute ploutos out’ allo ouden hôs erôs). Of what I am speaking (legô de dê ti touto;)? Of the sense of honour and dishonour (tên epi men tois aischrois aischunên, epi de tois kalois philotimian) without which neither states nor individuals ever do any good or great work (ou gar estin aneu toutôn oute polin oute idiôtên megala kai kala erga ergazesthai). And I say that a lover (phêmi toinun egô andra hostis era̢) who is detected in doing any dishonourable act (ei ti aischron poiôn katadêlos gignoito), or submitting through cowardice when any dishonour is done to him by another (ê paschôn hupo tou di’ anandrian mê amunomenos), will be more pained at being detected by his beloved than at being seen by his father, or by his companion, or by anyone else (out’ an hupo patros ophthenta houtôs algêsai oute hupo hetairôn oute hup’ allou oudenos hôs hupo paidikôn). The beloved too, when he is found in any disgraceful situation, has the same feeling about his lover (t’auton de touto kai ton erômenon horômen, hoti diapherontôs tous erastas aischunetai, hotan ophthê̢ en aischrô̢ tini ôn). And if there were only some way of contriving (ei oun mêchanê tis genoito) that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves (hôste polin genesthai ê stratopedon erastôn te kai paidikôn), they would be the very best governors of their own city (ouk estin hopôs an ameinon oikêseian tên heautôn), abstaining from all dishonour (ê apechomenoi pantôn tôn aischrôn), and emulating one another in honour (kai philotimoumenoi pros allêlous); and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world (kai machomenoi d’an met’ allêlôn hoi toioutoi nikô̢en an oligoi ontes hôs epos eipein pantas anthrôpous).’ (178c3-179a2, translations from the Symposium are Jowett’s)
Phaedrus includes heterosexual love in his encomium on Eros: ‘Love will make men dare to die for their beloved – love alone (Kai mên huperapothnê̢skein ge monoi ethelousin hoi erôntes); and women as well as men (ou monon hoti andres, alla kai gunaikes). Of this, Alcestis, the daughter of Pellas (Toutou de kai hê Pêliou thugatêr Alkêstis), is a monument to all Hellas (hikanên marturian parechetai huper toutou tou logou eis tous Hellênas); for she was willing to lay down her life on behalf of her husband, when no one else would (ethelêsasa monê huper tou hautês Andros apothanein).’ (179b4-8)
This ‘indiscriminate’ praise of Eros provides the occasion for Pausanias’ criticism. Pausanias points out that there are two gods of Love (duo Erôte), as there are two goddesses of Love, the older one, the daughter of Uranus (Ouranou thugatêr), the heavenly (Ourania) Aphrodite, and the younger one, the common (Pandêmos) Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus and Dione (Dios kai Diônês) (180d5-e1): ‘The Love who is the offspring of the common Aphrodite (Ho men oun tês Pandêmou Aphroditês) is essentially common (hôs alêthôs pandêmos esti), and has no discrimination (kai ergazetai hoti an tuchê̢), being such as moves the meaner sort of men (kai houtos estin hon hoi phauloi tôn anthrôpôn erôsin). They are apt to love women as well as youths (erôsi de hoi toioutoi prôton men ouch hêtton gunaikôn ê paidôn), and the body rather than soul – the most foolish beings they can find are the objects of this love (epeita hôn an erôsi tôn sômatôn mallon ê tôn psuchôn, epeita hôn an dunôntai anoêtotatôn) which desires only to gain an end (pros to diapraxasthai monon blepontes), but never thinks of accomplishing the end nobly (amelountes de tou kalôs ê mê).’
At this point I must digress. Passing on to the description of the Eros associated with the heavenly Aphrodite, Jowett translates: ‘But the offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part, – she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her.’ What is ‘a mother in whose birth the female has no part’? Plato says simply: ‘But the Eros of the Heavenly one (ho de tês Ouranias), who, firstly (prôton men), is not participating in the female (ou metechousês thêleos) but only in male (all’ arrenos monon) – and this is the love of youths (kai estin houtos ho tôn paidôn erôs) – then, secondly (epeita), being older (presbuteras), she has no wantonness in her (hubreôs amoirou, 181c2-4).’
If we wish to know how the Heavenly Aphrodite became ‘the motherless daughter of Uranus’ (hê amêtôr Ouranou thugatêr, 180d7), we must go to Hesiod’s Theogony. Uranus kept the children, which he had with Gaia, hidden (apokruptaske) in the depth of the Earth (Gaiês en keuthmôni) (157-8). So Gaia made a great sickle (teuxe mega drepanon, 161-2) and told her children, if they wanted to obey her, they might repay their father’s outrage. They all were frightened (pantas helen deos) and not one of them dared to speak (oude tis autôn phthenxato, 167-8)), only Kronos, the youngest (hoplotatos) and most formidable (deinotatos, 137) of them, promised his mother to do the deed (170-173), for the father conceived unseemly deeds first (proteros gar aeikea mêsato erga, 173). The great Uranus (megas Ouranos) having brought the Night (Nukt’ epagôn), spread himself all around Gaia in his loving desire of her (amphi de Gaiê̢ himeirôn philotêtos epescheto kai r’ etanusthê pantê̢). The son, from the hiding place (ho d’ ek lochoio païs), with his left hand reached up (ôrexato cheiri skaiê̢), with the right he grasped the enormous sickle (dexiterê̢ de pelôrion ellaben harpên), briskly cut off the testicles of his father (philou d’ apo mêdea patros essumenôs êmêse) and threw them to fly behind him (palin d’ erripse pheresthai opisô, 178-182). As he threw the testicles from the land upon the stormy ocean (kabbal’ ap’ êpeiroio poluklustô̢ epi pontô̢), they were carried by the ocean’s waters for a long time (hôs pheret’ am’ pelagos poulun chronon), from around the divine flesh and skin white foam arose (amphi de leukos aphros ap’ athanatou chroos ôrnuto); in it a girl was reared (tô̢ d’ eni kourê ethrephthê, 189-192): Aphrodite was born (192-206).