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Fw: BMCR 2005.04.54, Richard Hunter, Plato's Symposium

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  • Edward Moore
    ... From: To: ; Sent: Friday, April 29, 2005 9:57 AM Subject: BMCR 2005.04.54,
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      Subject: BMCR 2005.04.54, Richard Hunter, Plato's Symposium

      > Richard Hunter, Plato's Symposium. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
      > 2004. Pp. 150. ISBN 0-19-516080-0. $14.95 (pb).
      > Reviewed by Joseph A. Almeida, Franciscan University of Steubenville
      > (jalmeida@...)
      > Word count: 2454 words
      > -------------------------------
      > Plato's Symposium is the second installment in the series Oxford
      > Approaches to Classical Literature. The express purpose of the series
      > is to introduce Greek and Latin literature to first-time readers by
      > providing literary and historical context, offering a balanced and
      > engaging assessment with a brief survey of subsequent influence, all to
      > demonstrate the enduring power (p. vi) of the text under consideration.
      > The primary emphasis of each volume is to be on the literary work
      > itself (p. v), while reflecting to some degree the personal scholarly
      > interests of the volume's author. Within this purpose Richard Hunter
      > intends an "introductory and explanatory study of the Symposium" useful
      > for relative newcomers, but also aimed to persuade the unfamiliar to
      > take up the Symposium "without delay" (p. ix). H. further specifies
      > these intentions by adopting in principle the animating spirit of the
      > series' intellectual founder, Charles Segal, to show always why
      > classical literature still matters. So H. declares his own
      > demonstrandum that "there are few works that still matter more than
      > Plato's Symposium "(p. ix). It is on these criteria that judgment of
      > H.'s efforts must turn.
      > Besides a short preface, H. offers four chapters. In the first,
      > "Setting the Scene," he discusses the world of symposia, Eros, the
      > Symposium's complex narrative structure, and finally something of the
      > nature of Socrates as a purveyor of wisdom. In the second chapter "Eros
      > before Socrates," H. undertakes the obligatory accounting of the
      > various encomia of the Symposium's participants, from Phaidros to
      > Agathon, leaving Socrates to his own chapter. Thus in chapter 3, "The
      > Love of Socrates," H. probes Socrates on Diotima on love. In the final
      > chapter, "The Morning After," we get something of the nachleben of the
      > Symposium, from Apuleius to Woody Allen.
      > In chapter 1, newcomers to Plato hear first about questions of
      > chronology: standard accounts of the dating of Agathon's gathering and
      > of the dialogue itself, but a new suggestion (apparently original)
      > dating Apollodorus' narration to just after the death of Alcibiades.
      > They learn next about Greek symposia: that they are a sacred space, a
      > closed and 'alternative society' of elite males (p. 6); that they were
      > the locus of education, a vehicle for the transmission of elite culture
      > to Greek youth; and that their proceedings were spoudaiogeloion, i.e.,
      > serio-comic, leading to the playful laughter of the mutual mockery of
      > an elite male bonding. H. points out that in a brilliant combination of
      > form with substance Plato embodies the seriocomic in the very
      > compositional elements of the dialogue. He constructs the characters,
      > for example, as exaggerations of themselves, playing a role through
      > their speech-making. In the speeches themselves Plato also reveals some
      > of his "most brilliant parodic and self-parodic writing" (p. 9).
      > Playfulness notwithstanding, the subject matter of the dialogue is most
      > serious: namely, the relation of eros to the form of the beautiful
      > itself. H. notes further that the figure of Alcibiades embodies many of
      > these sympotic elements and that his comparison of Socrates to Silenus
      > is "programmatic" (p. 1): behind Socrates' playfulness is serious
      > philosophy in reach of interpretative efforts.
      > H. explains next that "by its very nature" (p. 19) the symposium is
      > inseparable from eros, taken both as appetitive faculty and as a divine
      > being. As opposed to philia, eros is an impetuous force requiring
      > continual satisfaction of recurring desires. In the context of actual
      > symposia eros can aim at sensual satisfaction of either the hetero- or
      > homosexual kind. In a literary representation of a symposium eros
      > becomes the subject of discourse and composition. Further, since by
      > likeness Dionysius is associated with eros, so are wine with symposia.
      > This association emphasizes the double-edged potencies of eros, at once
      > a destructive power, suspending rationality, yet necessary for the
      > continuation of the species. Its destructive force was a favorite motif
      > of Attic tragedy and thus a commonplace to Plato. Since for H. all of
      > the speeches in the Symposium pertain to homosexual eros, he briefly
      > describes homosexuality in Athens and attempts to distinguish Greek
      > paiderastia from more negative (and possibly misleading) modern
      > associations. His view is that Athenian homosexuality was a
      > controversial and complex subject, a view which he believes the
      > Symposium itself reflects.
      > H. turns next to the Symposium's narrative structure. Aristodemus as
      > source to multiple versions of the story and Apollodorus's own
      > retelling to the unnamed inquirer represent for H. both a Platonic
      > interest in narrative experimentation as well as Plato's playful
      > awareness of the philosophic and literary paradox of the Socratic
      > dialogue. H. sees the shoeless Aristodemus as a comic image of Socrates
      > and thus Apollodorus as an image of Plato, with the unnamed inquirer
      > representing the general audience, i.e., persons interested in Socratic
      > ideas but with little philosophic sophistication. At the same time, the
      > difference between Apollodorus and Plato points in another direction.
      > Whereas Apollodorus's Socrates is an historical figure, Plato's is an
      > intellectual construct, "a figure with which to think" (p. 28). For H.
      > this distinction shows both that Agathon's symposium as told by Plato
      > was a largely fictional event and that in composing the dialogue Plato
      > was himself aware of the "problematic status" of writing an "unchanging
      > account of a quintessentially oral occasion, the elite symposium" (p.
      > 29).
      > H. concludes the introductory remarks of the first chapter with
      > comments on the implications of Socrates' uncharacteristic attire and
      > his more familiar philosophic trance. Socrates' shoes -- practically
      > foppish given his customary sartorial minimalism -- represent the
      > literary character of the Symposium, namely, "philosophy putting on its
      > party face" (p. 30). Nevertheless, the subject matter is serious.
      > Socrates' own dandified appearance evokes the profound question with
      > which the dialogue is concerned, namely, the nature of beauty itself.
      > If Socrates' attire was unusual, the philosophic trance which made him
      > late to Agathon's party was not. The trance sets Socrates' philosophic
      > routine against the extravaganza of Agathon's victory celebration and
      > philosophy's more private process against the public modality of
      > rhetoric represented by each participant's exaggerated performance.
      > Thus for H. the trance prefigures the opposition between rhetoric and
      > philosophy which will become more and more apparent as the dialogue
      > progresses.
      > In Chapter 2, H. comes to the pre-Socratic speeches. On the whole, he
      > is concerned more with the implication of the literary parameters than
      > with mere logic. While he does summarize content, he offers critique
      > and reflections linking argument to the things which the speakers
      > person or occupation may imply. Thus Phaedrus shows studied use of
      > literary sources arranged for epideictic effect, but he is not troubled
      > by a loose fitting of exempla to point. Pausanias is an erastes who
      > exploits a linguistic distinction in two cult names of Aphrodite to
      > justify longstanding, mostly, but not totally, "soulful" pederastic
      > relationships of the sort he maintains with Agathon. H. notes that
      > modern interest in Pausanias's speech has focused on the accuracy of
      > his depiction of Athenian homosexual practices. Eryximachus takes up
      > Pausanias's dichotomous division of eros but applies it to the whole of
      > nature through a universal science of erotics. Critics have found
      > Eryximachus's theory ridiculous, but H. prefers to see this doctor as
      > knowingly participating in the playful self-deprecation typical of
      > elite symposia. Aristophanes' account of split beings is for H. the
      > mythic counterpart of Eryximachus's science, although its explanatory
      > force is restricted to the moral sphere. H. notes that modern readers
      > have found particular affinity to Aristophanes' points that love makes
      > a person whole and that it is an ecstasy of feeling, a metaphysical
      > reality beyond the mere pleasure of sex, concomitant upon the union of
      > lovers. Nevertheless, H. judges the account deficient, leaving no room
      > for intellect, just as he struggles to find likenesses between the
      > Platonic Aristophanes and the poet of the comedies. Agathon's speech
      > is the most self-conscious, ornate, and excessive of all the
      > pre-Socratic encomia -- "Greek prose as close to metrical poetry as it
      > ever got" (p. 73). For H., however, the real point is its utter lack of
      > substance, since this fact, in the last speech before Socrates',
      > focuses attention on the notorious charge that rhetoric has nothing to
      > do with truth and brings to a point the opposition in the dialogue
      > between rhetoric and philosophy.
      > In chapter 3, H. examines Socrates, his focus on the truth of eros, and
      > Alcibiades' profound misunderstanding of Socratic erotics. Although the
      > focus of Socrates' encomia is truth, he nonetheless presents it, as did
      > the previous speakers, in a self-aware, self-parodying manner
      > appropriate to the sympotic occasion. Thus H. points out that Socrates
      > himself bears a resemblance to Diotima's description of eros -- an
      > unshod, impoverished, wanderer -- and is the subject of Diotima's
      > Socratic cross-examination and the recipient of her "Socratic" long
      > speech (p. 82). Doctrinally, it turns out, that eros is not a god,
      > because he desires but does not possess beauty; he is a daimon whose
      > business it is to lead those pregnant in soul to birth beautiful logoi.
      > For H. this pedagogy exists in a homosexual sphere of relations, a more
      > purified version of Pausanias's notion (p. 89). The second stage of
      > eros's work is a leading of the way in the ascent of the ladder of
      > beauty to the very form of beauty itself, the telling of which is for
      > H. "one of the finest descriptions of Plato's most famous metaphysical
      > concept" (p. 79). It is precisely here that Alcibiades breaks in on the
      > party, ultimately, after learning the program of the evening, to
      > deliver a drunken encomium on Socrates. H. points out that, as Socrates
      > has become an image of eros, Alcibiades speech is, in a way, consistent
      > with the party's rule. However, there are reversals which show
      > Alcibiades' ignorance. He is an eromenos praising an erastes, although,
      > as it turns out, not one of Pausanias's stripe. He compares Socrates to
      > a Silenus, odd on the outside but full of knowledge on the inside, thus
      > misunderstanding the nature of Socrates' claim to ignorance and the
      > real nature of his knowledge. In the same vein of misconception, he
      > thought he could trade sexual favors for wisdom. In a comedic twist
      > appropriate to the sympotic environment, an inebriated Alcibiades
      > reveals how he wasted his best seductive tricks on a totally immune
      > Socrates. For H. this twist is not only hilarious, but a "master
      > stroke" (p. 102) of apologetics. Alcibiades own words exonerate
      > Socrates of the charge of corruption of the youth. His own extreme
      > political ambitions blinded him to the reality of Socrates' truly
      > beneficial Diotimic eroticism.
      > In the final, and in some ways the best chapter of the book, H. traces
      > the influence of the Symposium in subsequent, mostly western, thought.
      > Accessibility, even to those without philosophical sophistication, (p.
      > 113), its setting as a last flourish of the golden age of Athens (p.
      > 114), and the universal appeal of its subject (p. 115) are reasons in
      > H.'s mind for its enduring power. Thus Plato's art has evoked
      > imitations, proper and distorted in ancient literature, e.g. Plutarch's
      > Erotikos and Petronius's Satyrica. In the voice of Pausanias it has
      > provided the intellectual terms in times when openness was taboo for
      > serious discussions of male homosexuality (p. 115). In the voice of
      > Aristophanes it provided models for love affairs at the periphery of
      > societal tolerance (p. 117). Aristophanes' story has also provided a
      > backdrop for psychoanalytic theorizing about the role of sexual desire
      > in human relationships (p. 117). H. notes further that the Symposium
      > can and has attracted the serious attention of opposite agenda, e.g.,
      > the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, largely condemning its
      > homosexuality (p. 122 ), and a U.S. federal appellate judge, awakened
      > thereby to the possibilities of a serious discussion of same sex
      > relations (p.120). H. also finds middle ground in those, e.g., Shelley,
      > who celebrate the Platonic genius while explaining away what were for
      > them unpalatable elements (p. 123). Beyond imitation and evocation H.
      > also notes the power which Alcibiades' Silenus image has had on
      > theories of textual interpretation throughout the ages, e.g. as
      > theoretical background for various practices of allegorical reading in
      > neo-Platonists and Christian schools of thought. Interestingly H. ends
      > his discussion somewhat abruptly with an example of such an
      > interpretation applied to the Symposium itself in the Christianizing
      > commentary of the Renaissance scholar Marsilio Facino.
      > H. has produced a dense little volume, which combines standard
      > observations on the Symposium with some clever, apparently original,
      > interpretative lines of thought. There are many points in the book
      > which students of the Symposium will find valuable, and some which even
      > experts will find interesting (e.g. the treatment of narrative
      > structure). The question, however, is whether it is too dense to serve
      > the targeted audience of new-comers to Plato. In some sense H.'s
      > account reads like a commentary because he aims his remarks at specific
      > stretches of the dialogue, even if sometimes the text is only in the
      > background. In any event, it is certainly a difficult task -- one might
      > even say impossible -- to follow H.'s remarks without more than a
      > passing familiarity with the specific content of the dialogue (and
      > sometimes also of late fifth-century Athenian history). For one thing
      > H. provides no simple, self-contained summary of the plot, action, or
      > argumentation of the Symposium. For another, H.'s continual technique
      > is to refer to parts of the dialogue not yet specifically discussed to
      > illuminate the part or point under examination. Typical instances are
      > the numerous references to Alcibiades in the introductory chapter
      > (e.g., p. 10) and the referral of elements in a particular character's
      > speech to Socrates's speech, which does not occur until near the end of
      > the dialogue (e.g., p. 57). Consider also whether it does not require a
      > fair grasp of Athenian political history to appreciate H.'s notion of
      > the apologetic character of Plato's portrayal of the relationship
      > between Alcibiades and Socrates. Does such a treatment qualify as
      > introductory? Can the mere initiate to Plato profitably follow these
      > allusions? Perhaps H. intended an introductory approach that would
      > tantalize his initiates with alluring interpretative suggestions just a
      > bit out of their reach. At any rate, H. emerges from the mode of
      > commentator in his last chapter. There he presents an account of the
      > Symposium's influence under three broad categories: historical,
      > thematic, and interpretative. With this technique he makes a compelling
      > case for the dialogue's importance, even to those less familiar with
      > its specific content. This is why, given the book's stated purposes, I
      > find the last chapter to be the best. Whether the book accomplishes its
      > task of providing a suitable introduction for new-comers to Plato is
      > open to question. On the other hand, both the tantalizing allusions and
      > especially the account in chapter 4 of the Symposium's wide and varied
      > influence go a long way in persuading the less familiar to seek without
      > delay initiation into the world of Socratic eroticism.
      > -------------------------------
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