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Blindness and ReorientationProblems in Plato's Republic$

C.D.C. Reeve

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199934430

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199934430.001.0001

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Alcibiades and the Socratic Craft of Love

Alcibiades and the Socratic Craft of Love

(p.18) Chapter 2 Alcibiades and the Socratic Craft of Love
Blindness and Reorientation

C. D. C. Reeve

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Alcibiades had the right nature to become a philosopher-king. Yet despite having Socrates as a lover and teacher, he failed to become one. Through a close reading of the Symposium, this chapter shows how Plato came to understand this failure as primarily political in nature.

Keywords:   symposium, Alcibiades, Socrates, paiderasteia

Charged with having profaned the sacred and secret rites of the cult of Demeter and Persephone instituted in the city of Eleusis (the so-called Eleusinian Mysteries) and suspect in connection with the mutilation of the Herms (statues of the god Hermes used as boundary markers throughout Athens), Alcibiades, the most brilliant of the Athenian generals, defected to Sparta, where he greatly contributed to the defeat of democratic Athens at Sparta’s oligarchic hands.1 Critias, a relative of Plato, was also implicated in the mutilation of the Herms. He was possible author of the atheistical play Sisyphus and one of the bloodiest of the notorious Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchy installed in Athens in 404 BC by the victorious Spartans. In the eight months of their reign, they executed some fifteen hundred and banished some five thousand of their countrymen. Socrates was the companion and supposed teacher of both men. “You put Socrates to death,” Aeschines says to the Athenians in one of his speeches, “because he was shown to have educated Critias.” In another, he writes, “When your purpose was to accuse Socrates, as if you wished to praise him, you gave him Alcibiades as a pupil.”2

In the Platonic dialogue named for Alcibiades, Socrates is portrayed as the lover who endeavors to set him on the road to virtue by disabusing him of the arrogant self-confidence that his good looks, family connections, and intelligence have given him. Previously, the daimonion prevented Socrates from conversing with him (Alc. 103a4–5); now it has given him the all clear (106a1). By the end of his elenctic examination, Alcibiades seems (p.19) convinced that he lacks the virtue a free man and good political leader must possess, and that he should try to acquire it with Socrates’ help. They will have to change roles, he says, since he will be the pursuing lover, while Socrates will be playing the role of the pursued boy—a theme developed in the Symposium. Socrates replies, using a vivid image to convey what his love will then have achieved: “Then my love (erōs) for you, my well-born friend, will be just like a stork3: after hatching a winged love in you, it will be cared for in return.” Alcibiades understands immediately that the love Socrates wants to hatch in him is a love for justice and virtue: “Yes, that’s right. I’ll start to cultivate justice in myself right now” (135d7–e5).

Though everything seems propitious, and Apollo seems to have given his sign, the dialogue ends on a note of caution that Socrates himself is made to sound: “I should like to believe that you will persevere, but I’m afraid—not because I distrust your nature, but because I know how powerful the city is—I’m afraid that it might overcome both you and me” (135e6–8). The power of the city is pitted, in these closing words, against that of the elenctic Socrates. In the event, it does prove stronger: Alcibiades does not persevere. The problem of how to educate young people in virtue thus emerges as a political problem—a problem not so much for the hero of the elenchus, and for private one-on-one conversations, as for philosopher-kings and public education. In the Symposium, where Alcibiades is a major player, we see why he doesn’t persevere. We see how even his sense of what Socrates might do for him—of who or what Socrates is—has been distorted by social and political forces.

Agalmata of Virtue

Someone “very drunk and shouting loudly” is asking where Agathon is, and “demanding to be taken to Agathon” (Smp. 212d5–7). Alcibiades, the “most beautiful and the tallest man around” (Alc. 104a5), has arrived in the Symposium, crowned with “a thick wreath of ivy and violets, and with a mass of ribbons on his head” (Smp. 212e1–2). The speech he subsequently gives is as riveting and dramatic as his entrance. It is the truth about Socrates, he insists, and he invites its subject to corroborate what he says: “if I ever say anything that isn’t true, break in on me then and there, if you like, and say it’s untrue, because I won’t deliberately say anything (p.20) that’s not true” (214e10–215a2). At the same time, Alcibiades admits that it isn’t easy for someone as drunk as he is to present things “fluently and in the proper order (euporōs kai ephexēs)” (215a3). Given the importance of euporia, its opposite aporia (the puzzled state induced by Socratic elenctic questioning), and the idea of correct order in the dialogue, we are duly warned to interpret the speech with care.

“I declare,” he says, “that Socrates is most like those silenuses sitting in the statuary shops, the ones the craftsmen manufacture, with pipes or flutes, but when opened in the middle, they turn out to have agalmata of gods inside them” (215a7–b3). Unfortunately, no examples of these have survived, “nor are there any references to such a type of statue except in late passages dependent on this one.”4 François Rabelais, writing in AD 1534, thought they were actually painted boxes: “a silenus, in ancient days, was a little box, of the kind we see today in apothecaries’ shops, painted on the outside with such gay, comical figures as harpies and satyrs.”5

With agalmata, we are apparently on less shaky ground. An agalma (from the verb agallein, meaning to glorify or honor something) was typically a figurative statue in honor of a god or—and more often in Plato—a figurative statue of any sort: the puppets that cast their shadows on the walls of the cave are agalmata (R. 7, 517d7).6 It is things like this that Alcibiades initially seems to have in mind. As a silenus contained statues of gods, so Socrates, too, contained things relevantly similar to them. These were so beautiful and attractive, moreover, that Alcibiades wanted them for himself and tells us how he imagined getting them:

As far as his appearance goes—isn’t it silenus-like. It certainly is. His outside covering is like a carved silenus, but inside, when he is opened, gentlemen and drinking companions, you just couldn’t imagine how he teems (gemei) with temperance within…. He is sly and dishonest (eirōneuomenos) and spends his whole life continually playing with people. I don’t know whether anyone else has seen the agalmata inside when he is in earnest and he is opened up, but I saw them once, and they seemed so divine and golden to me, so outstandingly beautiful and amazing, that I had to do, in short, whatever Socrates told me to do. Thinking that he was earnestly attracted by the way I looked at my age, I thought it was a real piece of luck and amazingly fortunate for me, because I was in a position (p.21) to hear from Socrates everything he knew if I granted him my favors. For I was amazingly proud of the way I looked. (216d4–217a6)

It will matter that the exchange Alcibiades proposes is his sexual favors in return for Socrates’ golden agalmata.

A third passage tells us that these agalmata were agalmata of virtue, and that they were also to be found inside Socrates’ accounts or arguments:

As for the sort of man this one is, so strange is he, both himself and his accounts, one couldn’t come even close to finding anyone like him if one looked, whether among people nowadays or among those in the past, unless perhaps if one were to compare him to the figures I’m talking about—not to anyone human, but to silenuses and satyrs, both him and his accounts. In fact this was something I left out at the beginning: his accounts, too, are like the silenuses that open up. For if one were willing to listen to Socrates’ accounts, they’d appear quite ridiculous at first, such are the terms and expressions in which they’re clothed, like some mischief-making satyr’s skin. For he talks about pack asses, and things like blacksmiths, for example, and cobblers and tanners….7 But if one were to see them opened up, and got inside them—then first of all one will find that they are the only accounts one hears with any sense in them, and then that they’re the most godlike and contain within them the most agalmata of virtue, and that they have the greatest reach—or, rather, that they extend to everything that it is appropriate for a man who intends to be fine and good to consider. (221e1–222a6)

The less shaky ground agalmata seemed to provide now seems somewhat less secure. For while Socrates could contain statue-like entities, it is much less clear how his accounts could do this.

Finally, in something Alcibiades reports Socrates as saying, agalmata again seem to be involved:

My dear Alcibiades, you must really be a person of no mean quality, if indeed what you say about me is actually true, and there is in me some power that could make you a better man; it would be an inconceivable beauty that you were observing in me, and one altogether superior to your own fine looks. If, then, because you see it, you’re trying to enter into partnership with me and exchange beauty for beauty, you are trying to do better than me in no small way. On the contrary, you are trying to get hold of truly beautiful things in return for only apparently beautiful ones, and truly are trying to trade bronze for gold. (218d7–219a1)


Yet Socrates shows no inclination to endorse the view that he himself really possesses these truly beautiful things. A cautious “if indeed what you say about me is actually true” is as far as he will go.

When Socrates arrives at the party, Agathon greets him by saying: “Come here, Socrates, and lie down beside me, so that I can also have the benefit of touching that piece of wisdom of yours, the piece that came to you on the porch” (175c7–d1). The simile with which Socrates responds amplifies the sexual overtones of the verbs “lie down” (katakeisthai) and “touch” (haptein)8:

It would be good, Agathon, if wisdom were the sort of thing that flowed from the fuller of us into the emptier, if only we touch each other, as water flows through a woolen thread from a fuller into an emptier cup. If wisdom is like that too, then I put a high value on lying down beside you, because I think it is I who’ll be filled from you with quantities of beautiful wisdom. (175d4–e2)

Alcibiades’ use of the verb gemein (“teems”) at 216d7 is consonant with this picture and so provides support for it. For though it usually just means “to be filled with,” which is also its most common meaning in Plato, kuein (“pregnant”) is one of its synonyms, making “teems” a particularly apposite translation. But if Socrates is being imagined as pregnant with agalmata of virtue, the latter are themselves being imagined as embryo-like entities. Since these are genuinely similar to figurative statues, agalmata is an appropriate and evocative term for Alcibiades to apply to them.

The portrayal of Socrates as a male pregnant with embryonic virtue is one with deep roots in Greek thinking about sexual reproduction. In Aeschylus, for example, Apollo claims that a female serves only as an incubator for an embryo produced exclusively by a male:

She who is called the child’s mother is not

Its begetter, but the nurse of the newly sown conception.

The begetter is the male, and she as a stranger for a stranger

Preserves the offspring.

(Eu. 658–661)9

A similar theory was advanced by the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, who may well have been Aeschylus’ source.10 (p.23) In a later generation, Diogenes of Apollonia and others also accepted some version of it. It is with this tradition that Diotima earlier allies herself when she portrays reproduction as involving pregnant males seeking females in whom to beget, and boy-love as involving a type of psychic pregnancy analogous to it:

Those, then, she said, who are pregnant in their bodies turn their attention more toward women, and their love is directed in this way, securing immortality, a memory of themselves, and happiness, as they think, for themselves for all time to come through children; whereas those who are pregnant in their souls—for in fact, she said, there are those who are pregnant in their souls still more than in their bodies, with things it is fitting for the soul to conceive and to bring to birth. What then are these things that are fitting? Wisdom and the rest of virtue; of which all the poets are, of course, procreators, along with all those craftsmen who are said to be inventive. But by far the greatest and most beautiful kind of wisdom is the setting in order of the affairs of cities and households, which is called temperance and justice. When someone is pregnant with these things in his soul, from youth on, by divine gift, and with the coming of the right age, desires to give birth and procreate, then I imagine he too goes round looking for the beauty in which he might procreate; for he will never do so in the ugly. So he warms to beautiful bodies rather than to ugly ones, because he is pregnant, and if he encounters a soul that is beautiful and well-born and naturally well-endowed, his welcome for the combination—beautiful body and soul—is warmer still, and to this person he is immediately resourceful when it comes to producing accounts concerned with virtue, and what sort of thing the good man must be concerned with, and tries to educate him. (208e2–209c1)

It is these accounts that make “young men into better men” (210c1–3; compare 218e1–2).

In this respect, too, Alcibiades’ portrait unwittingly (he was not present when she spoke) employs some of the same ideas as Diotima’s. For when, as an out-of-order afterthought (“this was something I left out at the beginning”), he locates agalmata inside Socrates’ accounts, he seems to be referring back to an earlier thought in which philosophical discussion rather than sexual contact is the mode of their transmission: “Well, as for me, bitten as I’ve been by something more painful, and in the most painful place one can be bitten—because it’s in my heart, or my soul, or whatever one’s supposed to call it, that I’ve been stricken and bitten by the arguments that philosophy brings with her, which bite into you more fiercely than a snake, whenever they fasten onto a young man’s soul that isn’t without some natural endowment” (218a3–7).

(p.24) Alcibiades at the Adōnia

In the critique of writing at the end of the Phaedrus, Socrates claims that a written account, like the “offspring of a painting,” stands there “as if alive.” Yet it cannot answer questions or attune itself to the needs of different audiences, and “when it is ill-treated and unjustly abused, it always needs its father to help it; for it is incapable of defending or helping itself” (275d4–e5). Its legitimate brother, which is “the living and animate account possessed by the man who knows, of which a written account would rightly be called a kind of phantom image,” is much better and more capable in all these departments (276a1–9). Then comes a telling contrast:

The sensible farmer who had some seeds he cared about and wanted to bear fruit—would he sow them in earnest during the summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in watching it become beautiful within eight days, or would he do that for playful purposes on a feast-day, when he did it at all; whereas for the purposes about which he was in earnest, wouldn't he make use of the craft of farming and sow them in appropriate soil, being content if what he sowed reached maturity in the eighth month? (276b1–8)

Then, an equally telling analogy. A man who has seeds of “knowledge about what is just, and what is beautiful, and what is good” will have “no less sensible an attitude toward his seeds than the farmer” (276c3–5). Thus, when others “resort to other sorts of playful amusements, watering themselves with symposia,” he will amuse himself by writing “accounts concerned with justice and the other virtues,” so as to “lay up a store of reminders both for himself, when ‘he reaches a forgetful old age,’ and for anyone who is following the same track, and he will be pleased as he watches their tender growth” (276d1–e3). But when “he is in earnest about them,” he instead “makes use of the craft of dialectic, and taking a fitting soul plants and sows in it accounts accompanied by knowledge, which are able to help themselves and the man who planted them, and are not without fruit but contain a seed, from which others grow in other soils, capable of rendering it forever immortal, and making the one who has it as happy as it is possible for a man to be” (276e5–277a4). Living accounts (logoi) are now explicitly likened to seeds (spermata)—something on which the Stoics, with their spermatikoi logoi (seminal principles), will capitalize. The educative ideology of paiderasteia thus becomes fused with its erotic reality. It is this fusion that explains why Alcibiades can with equal ease locate agalmata of virtue in both Socrates and his accounts. We might think again of the image of the stork eggs employed in the Alcibiades.

(p.25) Though Alcibiades is not mentioned by name in this section of the Phaedrus, he is hiding in the shadows of Adonis’ garden. As part of the Adōnia, the feast celebrating the love affair of Aphrodite and Adonis, and mourning the latter’s early death, women sowed “seed at midsummer in broken pots and placed these on the rooftops, so that germination was rapidly followed by withering.”11 These were Adonis’ gardens. Three things connect them with Alcibiades. The first is the fact that the seeds Socrates sowed in him withered quickly: “whenever I leave him, I’m giving into my desire for the honor that comes from the masses…[and] I’m off and away from him like a runaway slave” (Smp. 216b4–6). The second is that Alcibiades was suspected of involvement in the mutilation of the Herms—statues of the god Hermes—and in the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, both of which occurred in midsummer, right around the Adōnia. The use of the technical term “uninitiated (bebēlos)” (218b6) suggests that Plato had the profanation in mind. His use of the odd term agalma may be intended to memorialize the mutilation of the Herms, too. The third and most striking is entirely intertextual. In the Symposium, Alcibiades claims that Socrates, while always playing with people about matters of virtue, was in earnest with him about them (216d4–217a6). The Phaedrus, in which play and earnestness about such matters are obsessively contrasted, has obvious bearing on his claim. Someone who had “pieces of knowledge of what is just, fine, and good” (276c3–4) or “accounts accompanied by knowledge” (276d7), it explains, would never, except for playful purposes, sow them in a garden of Adonis like Alcibiades, whose planting-season (adolescence) was long past by the time Socrates began talking philosophy with him (compare Alc. 131c5–d8).

What generally happens to those who see him in elenctic action, Socrates tells us, is that they falsely infer that he is wise about the subjects on which he examines others (Ap. 23a3–5), that he does contain the relevant pieces of knowledge. When Alcibiades describes him as “sly and dishonest (eirōneuomenos),” and as “continually playing with people” (Smp. 216e4–5), he shows himself to have made exactly this inference. He must believe, then, that Socrates is a disingenuous eirōn—an ironist, as we say. So he must also believe, as other people do, that something like knowledge-conferring agalmata exist in Socrates to account for his elenctic competence. “I was in a position to hear from Socrates everything he knew,” he says, “if I granted him my favors” (217a4–5). When Socrates tacitly accepts this description by not objecting, what he tacitly accepts, (p.26) as we saw, is conditional: “if I have agalmata in me, of the sort that provide me with knowledge of virtue, then I am sly and dishonest and am continually playing with people.” But that he has such knowledge of virtue, whether deriving from agalmata or not, is something he always denies. Thus Alcibiades’ sense of privilege—“I don’t know whether anyone else has seen the agalmata inside when he is in earnest and he is opened up, but I saw them once”—stands diagnosed as a common illusion.

Ta Erōtika

Though hesitant to claim that he has any knowledge of virtue, Socrates does make an apparently grand epistemic claim in the Symposium. “I claim not to know about anything,” he insouciantly says, “except ta erōtika” (177d8–9; also Thg. 128b1–6). Literally translated, ta erōtika are “the things of love.” But just as ta phusika is the science of physics and ta politika the craft or science of politics, so ta erōtika is also the art or craft of love—the one given to Socrates in the Phaedrus by Eros himself: “Do not in anger take away or maim,” Socrates says to him, “the craft of love (tēn erōtikēn technēn) that you gave me” (257a3–9). What, we wonder, is this craft, and how can a man who has no worthwhile wisdom possibly possess it?

In the Lysis we find an appealing answer. Hippothales, like a true Socratic, loves Lysis, a beautiful boy, and philosophical conversation (203b6–204a3). But what he does to win Lysis’ love is sing eulogies to him, and that, Socrates argues, no master of the craft of love would ever do:

If you make a conquest of a boy like this, then everything you’ve said and sung turns out to eulogize yourself as victor in having won such a boyfriend. But if he gets away, then the greater your praise of his beauty and goodness, the more you will seem to have lost and the more you will be ridiculed. That is why someone who is wise in the craft of love (ta erōtika) doesn’t praise his beloved until he has him: he fears how the future may turn out. And besides, these beautiful boys get swelled heads if anyone praises them and start to think they’re really somebody. (205e2–206a4)

Persuaded, Hippothales turns to Socrates: “What different advice can you give me about what someone should say or do to get his prospective boyfriend to love him” (206c1–3)? Unlike in the Symposium, where he is laconic, Socrates goes into detail: “if you’re willing to have him talk with me, I might be able to give you a demonstration of how to carry on a discussion with him” (206c4–6). An elenctic examination of Lysis quickly ensues.

(p.27) “This is how you should talk to your boyfriends, Hippothales,” Socrates says when the examination is finished, “making them humble and drawing in their sails, instead of swelling them up and spoiling them, as you do” (210e2–5). What he goes on to say about philosophy, however, shows elenctic discussion to be much more than merely chastening (compare Smp. 204a1–b5):

Those who are already wise no longer love wisdom [or practice philosophy] (philosophein), whether they are gods or men. Neither do those who are so ignorant that they are bad, for no bad and stupid person loves wisdom. There remains only those who have this bad thing, ignorance, but have not yet been made ignorant and stupid by it. They are conscious of not knowing what they don’t know. (Ly. 218a2–b1)

By showing Lysis that he isn’t already wise, by getting him to recognize that he doesn’t know, Socrates is setting him on the right road to love—the one that leads to the love of wisdom, and so to the beautiful itself.

In the Symposium, this way of understanding Socrates’ knowledge of ta erōtika is encoded in a piece of nontrivial wordplay. The noun erōs (verb: eran) and the verb erōtan (“to ask questions”) have cases or parts that are homophonic and homographic. “Allow me to ask Agathon a few more little questions” (Smp. 199b8–10), Socrates says to Phaedrus. “You have my permission,” Phaedrus replies, “ask away (erōta)” (199c1). A few lines later Socrates says to Agathon: “try to say what the case is about love (erōta), too” (199e6). It is as if Phaedrus has told Socrates to love away and Socrates has told Agathon to ask him questions. Elsewhere, a basis for the wordplay is provided by a fictitious etymology:

The name “hero” (hērōs) is only a slightly altered form of the word “love” (erōs)—the very thing from which the heroes sprang. And either this is the reason they were called “heroes” or else because they were Sophists, clever speechmakers and dialecticians, skilled at questioning (erōtan). (Cra. 398c5–e5)12

Thus when Socrates recalls his confident claim to know ta erōtika (Smp. 198d1–2), he explains what he meant by drawing a contrast between the sort of encomia to love given by the other symposiasts and the one that he knows how to give:

It seems, you see, that what was proposed was that each of us should appear to be offering an encomium to Love, not that he should actually offer him one. It’s (p.28) for that reason, I imagine, that you rake up everything you can think of saying and attribute it to Love, declaring him of such a character and responsible for so many things that he will appear as beautiful and good as possible—evidently, to the ignorant sort of people (not, surely, to those with knowledge)….I’m not prepared to give another encomium in that way; I wouldn’t have the capacity to give it. However, if you like, I am willing to say what is really true, on my own terms, and not on those of your speeches, because by your standards I’d be a laughingstock. So, Phaedrus, see whether you want this kind of speech too—whether you want the truth to be told about Love, and in whatever words and arrangement of expressions happen to occur to me. (198e4–b5)

The closing sentence recalls the opening of the Apology, where a similar contrast is drawn in similar terms: “from me you’ll hear the whole truth, but not, by Zeus, men of Athens, expressed in elegant language like theirs, arranged in fine words and phrases. Instead, what you hear will be spoken extemporaneously in whatever words come to mind, and let none of you expect me to do otherwise—for I put my trust in the justice of what I say” (17b7–c3). There as here it heralds an elenctic examination: of Meletus in the one case, of Agathon in the other.

“A thing that desires, desires what it lacks,” the Lysis tells us (221d7–e2). The Symposium delivers the same message yet more stridently: “what is not available, what is not present to him, what one does not have, what he himself is not, and what he is lacking—these are the sorts of things that are objects of desire and Eros” (200e2–5). The elenchus is important to love in part because it reveals the presence of these lacks or emptinesses—emptinesses that, because they were concealed or occluded by the false conceit of knowledge, were erotically inert. The revelation of a hunger thereby becomes a sort of feeding: “When a man has his mouth so full of food that he is prevented from eating, and is likely to starve in consequence, does feeding him consist in stuffing still more food in his mouth or does it consist in taking some of it away, so that he can begin to eat?”13

Even when a philosopher has climbed Diotima’s ladder to the top and has seen the form of the beautiful, what he has in him for his beloved boy isn’t what would fill up his emptinesses but what would activate them, turning them into effective motives to philosophical inquiry. No Platonic philosopher, one might say, no matter how wise and knowledgeable, can ever be more than a Socrates to another person: one must see the forms for oneself. (p.29) For this reason, too, agalmata is a peculiarly appropriate term to use for what such a philosopher does have in him. For an agalma originally had no “relation whatsoever to the idea of resemblance or imitation, of figural representation in the strict sense.” Instead, it was something the aim of which was “to construct a bridge, as it were,” that would reach “toward the divine.” Yet “at the same time and in the same figure,” it had to “mark its distance from that domain in relation to the human world.” It had to make the divine power present, yet emphasize “what is inaccessible and mysterious in divinity, its alien quality, its otherness.”14 Like what is in a Platonic philosopher for another person, agalmata are a bridge to something else—an image for what is itself necessarily beyond images (212a4–5).

The idea of agalmata as a bridge between human and divine reminds us of Diotima’s characterization of Eros as a daimon—a being that is “between the mortal and the immortal” (202d11–e1). “Always poor, far from delicate and beautiful…hard, dirty, barefoot,…always with lack as his companion,” yet also “a schemer after the beautiful and good, courageous, impetuous, and intense, always weaving new devices, both passionate for wisdom and resourceful in looking for it, loving wisdom through all his life,” Eros sounds remarkably like Socrates himself (203c6–d8), whom Alcibiades describes as a “genuine daimon” (219b7–c1). But this implies that Socrates is, in the relevant respect, also remarkably like an agalma, and it like him. So, though Alcibiades claims to have seen agalmata of virtue inside Socrates before he tried to seduce him, it is noteworthy that in the penultimate section of his speech, it is the figure of Socrates as a model of virtue that is front and center. Whether in resisting Alcibiades’ beautiful body or on campaign at Potidea or Delium, he is the paradigm of wisdom, temperance, fortitude, and courage (219d3–221c1).

Aporia and Euporia

The phrase euporei logōn peri aretēs (“resourceful when it comes to producing accounts concerned with virtue”), applied by Diotima to the pregnant and properly philosophical lover of boys (209b8), finds a parallel in last words about Socrates, which are also his last words in the dialogue:

It’s happening again just as it always does…. When Socrates is around, it’s impossible for anyone else to get their share of beauties. So now see how resourcefully (p.30) (euporōs) he’s found a persuasive argument to make this fellow here [Agathon] lie down beside him. (223a6–9)

They are words carefully prepared for: “Wasn’t I being prophetic,” Socrates says, “when I said just now that Agathon would speak amazingly well, and leave me at a loss (aporēsoimi).” “As for the idea that you would be at a loss (aporēsein),” Eryximachus replies, “I don’t think so.” “Just how am I not going to be at a loss (aporein),” Socrates responds, using the verb for the third time, “after so beautiful and multifarious a speech as that?” (198a5–b3). In Diotima’s story of Poros and Penia, we discover how potentially deceptive the words are:

Because he is the son of Poros and Penia, Eros’s situation is like this:…his nature is neither that of an immortal, nor that of a mortal, but on the same day, now he flourishes and lives, when he finds resources (euporēsē[i]), and now he dies, but then comes back to life again, because of his father’s nature, though what resources he gets (porizomenon) are always flowing away, so that Eros is never at a loss (aporei) at any moment, nor rich, and again is in the middle between wisdom and ignorance. For this is how things stand: no god loves wisdom [practices philosophy], or desires to become wise (for gods are wise); nor, if anyone else is wise, does he love wisdom. Nor, on the other hand, do the ignorant love wisdom or desire to become wise; it’s just this that makes ignorance so damaging, that someone who isn’t a beautiful and good person, or a wise one, nevertheless seems to himself to be quite good enough. The person who doesn’t think he needs something certainly won’t desire what he doesn’t think he lacks. (203c5–204a7)

Just as Socrates turns Athenian paiderasteia upside down by playing the part of the pursued boy rather than of the pursuing older lover (222b3–4), by means of his skill in asking questions, he turns aporia into euporia, emptiness into a resource.

The way Alcibiades experiences the aporia Socrates induces in him, however, is quite different:

I lay down under the short cloak that he—this person here—had over him, threw my arms around this daimonic and amazing man, and lay there all night long. You won’t tell me I’m saying anything untrue here either, Socrates. Well, when I’d done all that, this man completely resisted me, disdained me, and laughed at and insulted my beauty—and it was just in that respect that I thought I was something, gentlemen of the jury; for it’s up to you to judge Socrates’ arrogance. You have my word for it, by the gods, and by the goddesses (p.31) too: I got up in the morning having slept with Socrates in a way not the slightest bit more out of the ordinary than if I’d been sleeping with my father or elder brother. What state of mind do you think I was in after that? On the one hand I thought I’d been humiliated, on the other I admired the man for his nature, his temperance and courage, because I’d come across a person with the sort of wisdom and capacity of endurance I thought I’d never encounter. The result was that I couldn’t be angry—how could I?—and deprive myself of being with this man, and yet I wasn’t resourceful enough (ēuporoun) to win him over. For I knew perfectly well he was far more invulnerable to money than Ajax was to iron weapons, and as for the single thing I thought I’d catch him with [my beauty], he’d already evaded me. So I was at a loss (ēporoun), and I went around in a state of enslavement to this man unlike anyone’s to anyone else. (219b6–e5)

What should be experienced as a resource is here experienced as a genuine loss, recoupable only by gaining possession, through seduction or bribery, of Socrates himself, and the agalmata-based wisdom he is imagined to contain. The idea that Socrates’ love could be enjoyed only through joining him in leading the philosophically examined life seems hopelessly far away.

An important passage in Republic 6 suggests that this negative interpretation of Alcibiades is very much Plato’s own. In it he is explaining why philosophers have an undeservedly bad reputation and what the real effect is on their souls of contemplating forms:

The harshness of the masses towards philosophy is caused by those outsiders who do not belong and who have burst in like a band of revelers (epeiskekōmakotas), abusing one another, indulging their love of quarreling, and always arguing about human beings—something that is least appropriate in philosophy…. For surely, someone whose mind is truly directed towards the things that are hasn’t got the leisure to look down at human affairs, and be filled with malice and hatred as a result of entering into their disputes. Instead, as he looks at and contemplates things that are orderly and always the same, that neither do injustice to one another nor suffer it, being all in a rational order, he imitates them and tries to become as like them as he can. Or do you think there is any way to prevent someone from associating with something he admires without imitating it?…Then the philosopher, by associating with what is orderly (kosmiōi) and divine becomes as divine and orderly as a human being can. Though, mind you, there is always plenty of slander (diabolē) around. (500b1–d2)

Alcibiades accuses Socrates of abusing him (Smp. 213d2) and gives a speech entirely about human beings, which is therefore as anti the philosopher Socrates as possible. No wonder it is represented by the latter (p.32) as slanderous in intent: “as if you didn’t say everything for this reason, just to sow slander (diaballein) between me and Agathon” (222c7–d1; also 222d6). Finally, there is the “mass of revelers (kōmastas)” that shows up at the end of the dialogue (223b1–2) and, finding Agathon’s doors as “open” (223b3) as Alcibiades thought he had found Socrates, bursts in and destroys all “order (kosmō[i])” (223b4–5). The echoes are too insistent to be accidental.

Order and Disruption

The order the revelers literally destroy is that established by Eryximachus in his role as master of ceremonies—“I think each of us, beginning to the right (epi dexia), should give a speech—the most beautiful he can manage—in praise of Eros” (177d1–2). When Alcibiades arrives late at the party, Eryximachus tries to impose this order on him, too:

Before you came in, we decided that each of us in turn, beginning to the right (epi dexia), should give a speech about Eros, the most beautiful he could manage, by way of an encomium to him. Well, all the rest of us have given ours; since you haven’t given yours and you’ve finished your drink, the right thing is for you to do it now, and when you’ve given it, to give any instruction to Socrates you like—and he can then do the same with the man to the right (epi dexia), and so on with the rest. (214b9–c5)

As we have seen, Alcibiades does not follow the rule, since he speaks not about Eros, but a human being (214d2–10)—albeit one who is like Eros. Later, when Aristodemus wakes up, he finds order restored: “the only ones still awake were Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates, drinking from a large cup, and passing it to the right (epi dexia)” (223c4–5). Alcibiades and the mass of revelers—and the disorder they represent—seem to have gone.

As prominent in the Symposium as the fourfold repetition of epi dexia, and as deeply associated with Alcibiades, is the fourfold repetition of exaiphnēs (“all of a sudden”): exaiphnēs, the true lover catches sight of the beautiful itself (210e4–5); exaiphnēs, Alcibiades arrives at Agathon’s house (212c6); exaiphnēs, Socrates turns up in Alcibiades’ life (213c1); exaiphnēs, the mass of revelers burst in (223b2–6). What suddenly turns up in each case is a candidate object of love: the beautiful itself for the philosopher’s love; Alcibiades for that of Socrates; Socrates for that of Alcibiades. As for the mass (pampollous) of revelers—it is what (p.33) successfully competes with Socrates for Alcibiades’ love, since it is to “the honors of the masses (tōn pollōn)” that Alcibiades caves in when not by Socrates’ side (216b4–6).

For what suddenly turns up—for what lands the coup de foudre—to be truly beautiful, it has to come at the right place in an order that is first and foremost an education-induced order in the lover’s own soul. This is something on which Diotima is insistent:

The person who turns to this matter correctly must begin, when he is young, to turn to beautiful bodies; and first, if the one leading him leads him correctly, he must fall in love with a single body….I tell you that whoever is led by his teacher thus far in the craft of love, and contemplates the various beautiful things in the correct order (ephexēs)15 and in the correct way, will come now toward the final goal of the craft of love, and will suddenly catch sight of a beauty amazing in its nature—the very beauty, in fact, Socrates, that all his previous toils were for. (210a4–e5)

And the importance of proper order doesn’t end there. To stay in touch with the beautiful itself, the psychological order thus acquired must be sustained. Like Socrates’ own fabled orderliness it must be of a sort that neither wine nor sexual desire nor extremes of hot or cold nor lack of sleep nor normal human weakness can disrupt.

With one clear exception, Eryximachus’ order is followed from before the arrival of Alcibiades until all those present have spoken (214c2). The clear exception is Aristophanes.16 He should have spoken after Pausanias, but he got the hiccups and so yielded his turn to Eryximachus, who praises orderly, harmonious, pious, temperate love, while condemning “the Pandemotic Eros of the many-tuned Muse Polyhymnia.”17 Comedy, which Aristophanes represents, is thus presented as a backward turn, a step in (p.34) as antiphilosophical a direction as the “satyr play—or rather silenus play” of Alcibiades (222d3–4).18

Alcibiades’ portrait of Socrates is the theatrical apogee of the Symposium. That we find it so is a measure of how interesting we find Socrates as a person and “human affairs” more generally—how much we like laughter, intoxication, disorder, disruption. Yet the Symposium diagnoses that interest as dangerously unphilosophical—as potentially an interest in the wrong things. It isn’t Socrates we should be interested in, but philosophy and the forms. Alcibiades’ speech is filled with human interest. But as neither euporōs nor ephexēs nor epi dexia, it is the work of an unreliable narrator—the product of a life that, torn between shame and the desire for the honor of the masses (216b3–6), self-confessedly does not run well (ēporoun, 219e3). Yet in part because of the conceptual density of the term agalmata and the skill with which Plato exploits it, there is a reading of the speech in which the image it presents of Socrates is uncannily correct. Socrates and his accounts do have agalmata of virtue in them, just not ones that, like a randy lover’s embryo-containing semen, are there for the easy taking. To get hold of them, you must change your life.


(1.) See Thucydides, 6–8.

(2.) Aeschines, Against Timarchus, 173; Busiris, 5.

(3.) Nicolas Denyer, Plato: Alcibiades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 247, explains: “Popular ornithology held that once storks had brought their offspring to an age at which they could fly, roles were then reversed, and the offspring tended their parents.”

(4.) Kenneth J. Dover, Plato: Symposium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 166.

(5.) François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (London: Penguin, 1955), p. 37.

(6.) The other occurrences in the dialogues are: Chrm. 154c8; Criti. 110b5, 116d7, e4; Epin. 983e6, 984a4, 5; Lg. 5, 738c6; 11, 931a1, a6, d6, e6; 12, 956b1; Men. 97d6; Phdr. 230b8, 251a6, 252d7; Phlb. 38d10; Pr. 322a5; Ti. 37c7.

(7.) Alcibiades is referring to the crafts and craftsmen that figure in so many of Socrates’ arguments.

(8.) See Lg. 8, 840a4; Aristotle, Pol. 7.16, 1335b40.

(9.) Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Aeschylus: Oresteia (London: Duckworth, 1979).

(10.) Alan H. Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Eumenides (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 206.

(11.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 12.

(12.) At Phdr. 261b6-d9, Socrates mentions “manuals on rhetoric” by the Homeric heroes Nestor, Odysseus, and Palamedes, “which they composed at Troy when they had nothing to do.” The parallels between Gorgias, Defense of Palamedes, and Socrates’ own speech of defense in the Apology have often been noticed. See my Socrates in the Apology, pp. 7–8.

(13.) Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 245n. I owe notice of this passage to Jonathan Lear, Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony (New York: Other Press, 2004), pp. 106–107.

(14.) Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 152–153.

(15.) Ephexēs is the word Alcibiades uses to characterize what his description of Socrates will not manifest.

(16.) The unclear case is Aristodemus, the narrator, who, because he is lying next to Eryximachus (175a3–5), should presumably have spoken after him, had Aristophanes not taken his turn.

(17.) Note kosmios at 187a5, d5, 188a3, c3, 189a3.

(18.) In the Timaeus, the “movement of the Same” is made to “revolve to the right (epi dexia)” (36c5–6) by the demiurge responsible for the creation of the cosmos. And, as in the Phaedrus, where good or philosophical love is identified with the parts of madness “on the right-hand side (dexia[i])” of one of the definitional divisions (266a3–b1) of which Socrates proclaims himself a lover (266b3–4), this movement, too, is associated with philosophy: “whenever an argument concerns an object of reason, and the circle of the Same runs well (euporos) and reveals it, the necessary result is understanding and knowledge” (Ti. 37c1–3).