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«Abstract: While many scholarly interpretations of Plato’s Symposium express skepti- cism toward the content of Alcibiades’ speech, this essay ...»

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The Trial of Socrates

in Plato’s Symposium


University of Colorado Denver

Abstract: While many scholarly interpretations of Plato’s Symposium express skepti-

cism toward the content of Alcibiades’ speech, this essay argues Alcibiades’ portrait of

Socrates is credible on the whole, is consistent with the portrayal of Socrates elsewhere,

and is of great significance for our understanding of philosophical eros as exemplified

in Socrates’ philosophical activity. Furthermore, by putting Socrates on trial for hybris, Alcibiades’ speech raises important philosophical questions as to whether the contempt with which he treated Alcibiades is not part and parcel of the wholesale contemning of human particularity implicit in Diotima’s teaching about eros.

A lcibiades’ speech near the end of Plato’s Symposium, while remarkable in so many ways, is perhaps memorable above all for its imagery in portraying So- crates’ rhetorical effect on the young, his extraordinary moral excellence, and—of course—his peculiar conduct in erotic matters. Curiously, however, the speech is often neglected in scholarly interpretations of the dialogue, as though it had little or no philosophical significance.1 There are a number of factors contributing to this neglect, and among them is the fact that the speech comes right on the heels of Socrates’ Diotima-inspired speech on eros, which is commonly taken to be the properly philosophical exposition in the dialogue.2 Beyond this there is the fact that the speech is delivered by Alcibiades of all people—the man who, not long after the dramatic date of the dialogue, is involved in the scandalous profaning of the Eleusinian mysteries, who is largely responsible for the disastrous expedition to Sicily, and who then becomes a traitor to the Athenians.3 But there is, further- more, a factor which I shall explore in some detail, namely, that Alcibiades’ speech holds Socrates up for both praise and blame, and the reasons Alcibiades gives as to Socrates’ blameworthiness are unpalatable to many interpreters. Yet, assuming that Plato has a serious purpose in having Alcibiades put Socrates on trial for © 2009. Epoché, Volume 14, Issue 1 (Fall 2009). ISSN 1085-1968. 39–55 40 Robert Metcalf hybris and arrogance (hyperēphania) at the close of the Symposium, I shall argue that Alcibiades’ portrait of Socrates is credible on the whole, is consistent with the portrayal of Socrates elsewhere, and is of great significance for our understanding of philosophical eros as exemplified in Socrates’ philosophical activity.

To begin, we should notice that, in the prologue of the Symposium, Apol- lodoros is asked about the get-together (sunousia) of Agathon and Socrates and Alcibiades, as well as others unnamed, when speeches were delivered about eros (peri ton erotikonlogon) (172a–b)—and yet Alcibiades is noticeably absent from the narrative about this gathering until his sudden entrance following Socrates’ speech.4 Perhaps the singling out of these three characters at the beginning is meant only to highlight the erotic rivalry between Socrates and Alcibiades for Agathon’s attention at the close of the narrated exchanges, at which point the dialogue proper drifts away into noise and disordered drinking. But the mention of Alcibiades at the outset leads the reader to expect that he is to play a significant role in the dialogue—and just what is the role that he plays? While many commentators take Plato’s primary aim in the speech of Alcibiades to be that of presenting Socrates’ involvement with Alcibiades in such a way as to defend him against the charge of having corrupted the youth of Athens,5 what is most striking is the ambivalence toward Socrates conveyed by Alcibiades. Indeed, he manages to offer the highest praise for Socrates while at the same time putting him on trial for hybristically deceiving and mistreating others—and his speech accomplishes both by presenting what is literally a pathology of Alcibiades’ association (sunousia) with Socrates.

Alcibiades’ account of pathos, of Socrates’ way of affecting him and others, is the thread running throughout his speech. Like Marsyas, the legendary satyr who challenged Apollo, Socrates is able to possess (katechesthai) those who hear him (215c–d), the effect (pepontha) of his logoi is to put Alcibiades’ soul in tumult (etethorubēto mou hē psychē), to make him feel that his life, as it is, is unlivable (mē biōton einai) (215e–216a). Even now (eti ge nun), Alcibiades says (which, by the dramatic date of the dialogue, must be nearly two decades since he first started associating with him), Socrates could make him feel the same way (t’auta paschoimi) (216a). In the face of Socrates alone Alcibiades has been made to feel (pepontha) what some might believe he is incapable of: shame (to aischunesthai), for he feels shame at what he has agreed to (aischunomai ta hōmologēmena) with Socrates, since he does not live accordingly but gives himself over to the honor of the multitude (hētēmenōi tēs timēs tēs hupo tōn pollōn) (216b).6 According to Alcibiades, others, too, have been affected (peponthasin) by Socrates’ extraordinary power (dunamis) (216c). But while the others in attendance have undergone this Bacchic madness of philosophy (kekoinōnēkate tēs philosophou manias te kai bakcheias) (218b), not everyone has suffered the pathos of being transformed by Socrates from being the pursued, the eromenos, into the erotic pursuer, the The Trial of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium 41 erastēs. Alcibiades likens it to the pain of a snakebite, and yet Socrates has bitten him in the part most sensitive to pain (to algeinotaton): the heart (kardia) or soul (psychē) (218a). The fact that Socrates seemed to string him along, yet spurned his sexual advances, left Alcibiades at a loss (ēporoun) and in a state of emotional subjection (katadedoulōmenos) (219e). Finally, Alcibiades warns Agathon at the end of the speech to remember the sufferings (pathēmata) of himself, as well as Charmides and Euthydemus and many others, so that Agathon may not ‘learn from suffering [pathonta gnōnai],’ as the proverb goes. But when, at that point, Socrates chides Alcibiades for trying to come between him and Agathon, Alcibiades can only exclaim in a way that sums up his speech about Socrates: Ō Zeu,... hoia au paschō hupo tou anthrōpou! “O Zeus, the things I suffer from the man!” (222e).

While this pathology of associating with Socrates seems, on the face of it, to provide one of the most illuminating portraits of Socrates that we have, many commentators voice skepticism about it and are content to accept in it only what illustrates or otherwise confirms Diotima’s teaching on eros. To be sure, the pathology that Alcibiades presents may offer evidence only his own passionate or emotionally turbulent nature. Given what we know of his character, and given the fact that one of the signature features of Plato’s texts is their attention to character, it is certainly possible that Alcibiades is unsuited to provide a portrait of Socrates, either out of moral “depravity” (as one commentator puts it) or because his politically ambitious character leads him to misunderstand Socrates.7 Yet there are a number of reasons for resisting this tendency to mistrust Alcibiades’ account on the basis of biographical considerations external to the text of the Symposium. First of all, some of the same biographical sources that would lead us to discredit Alcibiades’ character also lead us to be suspicious of Socrates’ motives in influencing the likes of Alcibiades, Critias and Charmides.8 Xenophon’s Memorabilia, for example, describes what we can assume was a common view, that Alcibiades was, of all those in the democracy, the most licentious, hybristic and violent (en tēi dēmokratai pantōn akratestatos te kai hybristotatos kai biaiotatos) (1.2.12), but at the same time Xenophon offers nothing to suggest that Socrates tried to steer Alcibiades away from such acts of hybris.9 Furthermore, it may be the case that, despite his character flaws, it is precisely Alcibiades’ intermittent and incomplete involvement with Socrates that gives him a more accurate view than one who is too closely bound to him, say, the manic Apollodorus or the subservient Aristodemus.10 But most importantly, we should pay attention to the fact that Plato has set the stage in such a way as to authenticate what Alcibiades says: first of all, he is quite drunk as he delivers his speech, and thus free of typical inhibitions from speaking the truth—indeed, he even quotes a variant of the saying in vino veritas (217e); second, he asks more than once that Socrates interrupt him if he should say anything other than truth (214e, 217b), yet Socrates never interrupts him;

42 Robert Metcalf lastly, he alerts the audience’s attention to witnesses who would corroborate his account (215b).11 As we have already seen, the attendees as a group are brought in as corroborating witnesses to the way that Socrates affects people through his logoi (218b), and in addition he mentions Charmides, Euthydemus, “and many others,” as witnesses of the same sort of erotic reversal suffered by Alcibiades. On this last point, we should note that some biographical material external to Plato’s text does, in fact, corroborate Alcibiades’ speech—at least on the issue of the pathos involved in experiencing Socrates’ logoi.12 According to Xenophon, when Socrates met Euthydemus, the beautiful young man thought that he excelled all his peers in wisdom (4.2.1), but in being exposed to Socrates’ logoi he came away utterly dejected, regarding himself with contempt and thinking he was truly a slave (panu athumōs echōn apēlthe kai kataphronēsas heautou kai nomisas tōi onti andrapodon einai) (4.2.39).13 Certainly, some skepticism toward Alcibiades’ speech is prompted precisely by what he says and does within Plato’s Symposium, particularly in regard to his attempted seduction of Socrates. On the heels of Diotima’s inspired teaching, it is difficult not to see Alcibiades as cluelessly stuck at the bottom rung of the ladder of love.14 While he seems to appreciate the first stage of the ascent by recognizing, in conversation with Socrates, that his life is unlivable as it is (mē biōton einai) (215e–216a), he has not yet risen to the standpoint of apprehending the beautiful itself (auto to kalon)—where alone, Diotima tells us, life is livable for a human being (eiper pou allothi biōton anthrōpōi) (211d). Accordingly, Diotima’s account entails that to the extent Alcibiades remains immersed in mere images of the beautiful itself, he will be able to give birth only to images of virtue (eidōla aretēs), not to true virtue, and thus will fall short of true moderation and justice (212a). So if the point of Alcibiades’ speech is to highlight Socrates’ own excellence, and thereby illustrate the details of Diotima’s teaching, it would seem that Alcibiades is able to do this not because he has an adequate understanding of such excellence, but because his own moral failings provide an illuminating contrast.15 Bury, for example, sees the contrast drawn here as that between the moral infirmity of Alcibiades (“a very son of Belial,” he writes) and Socrates as “the perfect exemplar of Eros,” and he writes: “It seems reasonable to suppose that the method of false love is designedly represented as thus in detail contrasting with, and as it were caricaturing, the method of true love: for thereby an added emphasis is laid upon the latter.”16 However, while it surely is important that we understand the difference between Alcibiades’ way of eros and Diotima’s teaching, we must also guard against exaggerating his moral “infirmity,” at least as the latter is evident from the Symposium. Some commentators, for example, assert that Alcibiades is concerned with Socrates only insofar as he is useful to him in furthering his political ambitions,17 or that he is much more concerned with Socrates as a sexual object than as a The Trial of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium 43 philosophical companion18—assertions that seem astonishing, given Alcibiades’ account of how he was affected by Socrates’ philosophy, not to mention his account of his motives in seducing Socrates. Other commentators describe Alcibiades as prostituting himself—that is, offering sexual favors, and even money, in exchange for Socrates’ wisdom.19 Still others portray Alcibiades as being fetishistic in matters of eros, fixating his love on Socrates the individual, and thus being guilty of a kind of idolatry.20 In order to be clear on just what Alcibiades is after in his attempted seduction, it behooves us to review the details of his narrative.

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