A Correct Symposium According to Plato’s Laws

Written by on June 26th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Ethics, about Plato Pedagogy Greek

|||Plato, and Thomas L. Pangle. The Laws of Plato. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.|||

Plato’s Symposium He [the lawgiver] should have said to himself, “If our citizens grow up from youth lacking experience in the greatest pleasures, if they aren’t practiced in enduring pleasures and in never being compelled to do anything shameful, their softness of spirit before pelasures will lead them to suffer the same thing as those who are overcome by fears. They will be enslaved in another and more shameful fashion to those who are capbable of enduring pleasures, who know about pleasures, and who are sometimes human beings vicious in every way. They’ll have souls that are part slave and part free, and will not be worthy of being called courageous and free men without qualification.” Laws 635c-635d.

In his Laws Plato has the Athenian stranger make a defense for symposia, the drinking parties popular in Athens. The purpose of the defense is to show a possible way in which a city might proscribe a law or custom which forces its citizens to conquer pleasure1 in much the same way that Megillus says the Spartans conquer pain.2 That is, the Athenian stranger is arguing that a legislator should create laws not simply for one side of virtue, but for both3–“ἐκ νέων εἰ ἄπειροι τῶν μεγίστων ἡδονῶν οἱ πολῖται γενήσονται…πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς ταὐτὸν πείσονται τοῖς ἡττωμένοις τῶν φόβων (if from their youth citizens should be ignorant of the greatest pleasures…they will suffer as those who were weak from fear)”.4 Since Megillus had put forward a defense of laws with a view to war–that the aim of such laws were to train each citizen to endure pain and fear so that when the time for courage and manliess in war arose, each would have been tested and able to stand with confidence–the Athenian stranger takes up the defense of the Symposium which he suggests trains each citizen to endure pleasure so that when the time for moderation and self-control arose each would have been likewise tested and able to stand firm.

Such a defense of the symposium is not easy.5 It is one thing to assent to the general proposition that each citizen ought to learn moderation in the face of pleasure, but it is another, more difficult thing to say that a citizen learns moderation through continual exposure to pleasure, since just such a thing seems the definition of ‘the immoderate.’6 When the Spartans subjected themselves to pain and suffering it was not simply to expose those who could not endure, but also to form a more enduring spirit. Likewise, a defense of a symposium must show not simply that it exposes those who are weak to pleasure, but that it teaches the weaker to become stronger. And it is difficult to see how a symposium would help those weak to pleasure become stronger. For a symposium to be a custom through which a city might teach its citizens virtue, particularly how to act virtuously against the excess of drinking, the Athenian stranger must show that it is possible to teach virtue through a symposium.

In order to show that it is indeed possible to teach virtue through a symposium the Athenian stranger must dispel any false notion of what a symposium is. The idea which the Athenian stranger must dispel is that at a symposium one drinks and makes merry with one’s friends, or some such similar idea. Instead, he wishes to instill the idea that a symposium is a place in which ideas are freely shared without the inhibition of shame. Such a definition, while necessary to move the argument forward, is practically deceptive. The debauchery of the symposium which Kleinias and Megillus revile is in fact the ordinary way in which a symposium is conducted. The Athenian stranger must by degrees convince them that not only are symposia pedagogically useful, but that no symposium has ever yet been conducted correctly, and what Kleinias and Megillus had thought were symposia were in fact nothing more than corruptions made through ignorance and vice. The Athenian stranger must convince Kleinias and Megillus that although they were right that men at symposia throw moderation out the window and become debauched, still it is not on account of the symposium that they did this, but rather because when they attend a symposium they do so without the proper end of a symposium in mind. Hence, the inversion of what Kleinias and Megillus had thought a symposium was–and indeed what everyone would have thought a symposium was–is drawn out by the Athenian stranger more from an equivocation than a demonstration: a symposium is not what you thought it was Megillus, the Athenian stranger seems to say, but something else entirely; and likewise those men whom you call debauched, they are indeed debauched and it is through their debauchery that they have transformed a symposium from a custom through which one learns moderation and virtue into an excuse to exercise vice. The Athenian stranger’s analogy of an ignorant man blaming cheese ought to be reformulated to admit that no one, not the ignorant man who blames cheese nor even the knowledgeable man who praises it, has ever even tasted cheese.7 It may very well be the case that the cheese, and also the symposium, are worth praising; but no one can do so from experience.

But if we cannot know about sympoisa-as-they-ought-to-be, we can at least analyze symposia as they are conducted. And it is also the case that the most convincing argument for symposia-as-they-ought-to-be is entirely separate from the need to drink. The purpose of the ideal symposiums seems to be education. Indeed, in response to a question from Kleinias–“συμποσίου δὲ ὀρθῶς παιδαγωγηθέντος τί μέγα ἰδιώταις ἢ τῇ πόλει γίγνοιτ’ ἄν; (But from a rightly taught symposium, what great thing would come about to individuals or to the city?)”8–the Athenian stranger points out that “παιδευθέντες μὲν εὖ γίγνοιντ’ ἂν ἄνδρες ἀγαθοί (being well educated makes men good).”9 Kleinias then asks the Athenian stranger a question which prompts a discussion not of the symposium per se but of education. Kleinias asks, “δοκεῖς ἡμῖν, ὦ φίλε, τὴν ἐν τοῖς οἴνοις κοινὴν διατριβὴν ὡς εἰς παιδείας μεγάλην μοῖραν τείνουσαν λέγειν, ἂν ὀρθῶς γίγνηται (you seem to us, friend, to say that this way of spending time with wine is a great way to extend education, should it be done right).”10 But it seems that the differentiating characteristic of an ideal symposium and an actual symposium is that one promotes education and the other does not. The reason why wine is present, we are told, is that it removes our sense of shame so that each participant may freely enquire and learn without embarrassment. But such freedom from shame is not characteristic only of wine. It is always the case that a group of friends are able to interact with each other without the fear of judgement. And camaraderie and earnest investigation seem to be the real recipe for good conversation, and through good conversation one learns and becomes better. Wine, on the other hand, can remove too much shame, so to speak, so that one acts irresponsibly; more so, often one is doubly ashamed after the fact.

When the discussion in Plato’s Symposium begins, the first thing proposed is that no one would be compelled to drink an excess of wine. And as the conversation continues there is no indication that a lack of wine prevented honest and intelligent discourse. No one seems too ashamed to take his turn at making a speech about love. And each speech is earnestly heard. The conversation is ruined, however, not by a lack of participation, but when Alcibiades enters already drunk, and insists that everyone should drink instead of talk.11 After being rebuked Alcibiades makes an attempt at a speech, but soon the otherwise fruitful conversation degrades into drunken revelry. It is only Socrates, at the end, who withstands the testing of too-much-pleasure, and who goes about his normal day unaffected night before. We cannot say, however, that the symposium was ruined because Alcibiades and the later drunken revelers brought alcohol to them, for alcohol was already available. What Alcibiades brought was ridicule. After Alcibiades enters drunk none of the participants felt able to talk without the fear of mockery, especially mockery about their focus on somber and serious conversation instead of drinking.

It is my opinion that the Symposium is described by the Athenian stranger accurately when he says “μόρια δ’ που σμικρὰ καὶ ὀλίγα [ὀρθόν], (little bits of a few of them were done right).” For although judged as a whole the Symposium was a disaster–the whole affair degenerated–still some aspects of it were correct according to what was said by the Athenian stranger in the Laws. First, drink was used only as means to loosen the tongues of the participants. Because no one seemed reserved or unable to participate, drink played a very minor role in the Symposium, especially through Socrates’ speech. Second, the conversation was aimed at the discovery of some serious topic through which everyone involved was the better and wiser. And third, whenever the conversation did wander, the participants were eager to restore the original topic and to continue the speeches. On the other hand the Symposium was also done incorrectly in many respects. First, the reason why the participants did not drink was not out of a sense of moderation or virtue, but because they simply could not handle the wine. When drink was forced upon them at the end, they relented without much resistance, and therefore they never successfully tested their endurance nor mastered their own need of pleasure. Second, many of the speeches given were praised not on account of their validity or whether they were believed or not, but simply because they were good speeches. It was left to Socrates to point out the internal contradictions in many of the speech. Third, and most important, the gathering did implode. That Alcibiades so easily deterred the conversation shows a distinct lack of resolve and self-control among the participants. No participant except Socrates was capable of performing his daily duties on the day after the event, since all were, presumably, too inebriated or too hung over.

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  1. ἠνάγκαζε καὶ ἔπειθεν [νομοθέτης] τιμαῖς ὥστε κρατεῖν αὐτῶν [ἡδονῶν], ([the lawgiver] forces and persuades them so that they overcome them [pleasures]) Laws, 634a

  2. [ἔτι τοίνυν καὶ τὸ τέταρτον] ἔγωγε πειρῴμην ἂν λέγειν, τὸ περὶ τὰς καρτερήσεις τῶν ἀλγηδόνων πολὺ παρ’ ἡμῖν γιγνόμενον ([Still for the fourth thing] I would try to say that we have made much about the endurance of suffering) Laws, 633b and ὅμως δ’ ἔμοιγε ὀρθῶς δοκεῖ τὸ τὰς ἡδονὰς φεύγειν διακελεύεσθαι τόν γε ἐν Λακεδαίμονι νομοθέτην (But nevertheless it seems right to me that the lawgiver in Lacedaemonia has urged us to flee from pleasures) Laws, 637a

  3. ὁ Διὸς οὖν δὴ καὶ ὁ Πυθικὸς νομοθέτης οὐ δήπου χωλὴν τὴν ἀνδρείαν νενομοθετήκατον, πρὸς τἀριστερὰ μόνον δυναμένην ἀντιβαίνειν, πρὸς τὰ δεξιὰ καὶ κομψὰ καὶ θωπευτικὰ ἀδυνατοῦσαν; ἢ πρὸς ἀμφότερα; (The lawgiver of Zeus and also the Pythian lawgiver of Apollo did not legislate a lame courage, being able to resist on the left-side alone, but being powerless against the right, the clever and cunning? Or towards both?) Laws, 634a

  4. Laws, 635d

  5. “τὸ μὲν ἀληθές, ὦ ξένε, διισχυρίζεσθαι ταῦτα οὕτως ἔχειν, πολλῶν ἀμφισβητούντων, θεοῦ (the truth of this, oh stranger, of which many disagree, is for a god to affirm.)” Laws, 641d

  6. There is a shift in the meaning of moderation within the text. Megillus seems to suggest that moderation is the refraining from (too much) pleasure, while the Athenian stranger by degrees comes to suggest that moderation is simply the correct response to pleasure. Part of the difficulty of the text is deciding what exactly is meant by “correct.” 

  7. Laws, 638c

  8. Laws, 641b

  9. Laws, 641c

  10. Laws, 641d. See also 642a which argues that to give a proper account of the correct way in which someone ought to conduct symposia, the Athenian stranger must first give an account of what is correct in music, which in turn requires the consideration of what is correct in education. 

  11. Symposium, 212e