Plato – The Symposium (Penguin Classics, 1999)
The last time I attempted any Plato was twenty-six years ago when I read ‘The Republic‘ and didn’t really understand it at all. From this and subsequent explorations I came to the conclusion that philosophy just wasn’t for me, although with the recent discovery of Marcus Aurelius I can now amend that statement to ‘some kinds of philosophy are not for me.’
To my mind, it either has to be practical and directly relevant to everyday life and experience, else it is merely an empty and worthless intellectual exercise.
Anyway, I decided that it was time to give Plato a try again: perhaps in the intervening years my wisdom had grown such that I could appreciate the master, and being a very brief tome, The Symposium seemed to be a good place to start.
The basic premise of the work is simple: a bunch of friends get together one evening to drink and someone suggests that they all give a speech in praise of love. The whole event is of course staged so that after a few people expound their ideas, the mighty Socrates sweeps in and astounds everyone with his insight, demolishing everyone else with a few pithy observations.
However, one thing needs to be pointed out to the potential reader of this book: the love they are talking about is mainly the homoerotic type prevalent in 4th century BC Greece (it would take the Romans to romanticise male-female relations). In this model older men take on younger lovers who, in return for their bodily favours, receive knowledge and wisdom.
Typically, I found Socrates‘ speech uninteresting and academic, and exactly the kind of pointless inquiry that doesn’t really shed any light on real human experience. Socrates seems to deviate from the expected themes of the topic and instead equates the highest love with wisdom. Probably not the exciting fare most casual readers are after, I would suppose.
The tale I enjoyed the most, and made the greatest impression on me, was that of Aristophanes, whose amusing and flippant creation myth was most likely included as comic relief. I’d wager, however, that for the average modern reader this particular tale is the highlight of the book.
So, once more I find that I do not get much out of Plato: perhaps I’m missing the point, but anyone hoping for great insights into the age-old subject of love, or indeed anything even remotely germane to to the real world, should look elsewhere for enlightenment.
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