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Symposium

love, plato, god, beauty, truth, philosopher and ideas

SYMPOSIUM, The. In the (Symposium' Plato tells the story (in the main fictitious, no doubt) of a banquet given by Agathon in cele bration of a tragic victory on the stage. In stead of the usual diversions over their cups the guests propose to entertain themselves with successive encomiums of Eros, the god of love; and of these speeches is formed the bulk of the dialogue. The most notable of the ear lier discourses is that put into the mouth of Aristophanes, the comedian, in which occurs the humorous myth (not without deep significance) of the creation of man as a rounded whole,. with four arms, four legs, etc., and of his slic ing afterward by Zeus into two half-beings, male and female, who are driven by love to endeavor to reunite themselves once again into a perfect whole. When called upon last, Soc rates, with his customary irony, protests his ignorance, but consents to regale the company with a tale he pretends to have heard from a certain wise woman of Mantinea. According to this prophetess, Eros is the offspring of the god Poros and the mortal Penia ((Poverty*); he is thus not properly a god, but a mighty daemon, or intermediary being, whose office it is to form a link between the eternal bounty of heaven and the conscious imperfec tion of mankind. Love, the allegory would say, is not the happiness of possession — for such happiness belongs only to the gods — hut the unsatiated longing to possess. By its creative power it is man's substitute for immortality; for if the individual must perish, yet he is per mitted by love to continue his existence in his children. It is the source of art, leading men to satisfy by the creation of beautiful forms their innate longing for the absolute beauty they can never possess. It is also the cause of philosophy. He is not a philosopher, but a god, who knows the truth; nor is he a philosopher who is unaware of his ignorance; rather, the philosopher• is he, who, being aware of his igno rance, is driven on ever by the soul's thirst for the truth, to learn and to raise his life into one continual communion with the world of ideas. Whether later in date of composition or not, the 'Symposium' is logically a sequel to the mythological portions of the In the earlier dialogue Socrates tells how in some remote age the soul of man, in its winged chariot, followed the procession of the gods to the summit of the celestial vault, and from there beheld the everlasting ideas of truth and justice and beauty and the like, of which things true and just and beautiful in this world are the shadowy transient images. And so, when a

man sees some fair object or person, love is awakened in his soul as a reminiscence of that half-forgotten vision. In the 'Symposium> the mythical nature of love as a reminiscence is less emphasized, but its dynamic and philo sophic function is developed in splendid ima gery. Without this emotional quality, as it is worked out here and as it is suggested in other dialogues, the ideas of Plato would be a curious theme for the metaphysician; with the intro duction of love as the force driving us to par ticipation in their divine nature, the philosophy of Plato is transformed into something that has enthralled poets and artists and entered largely into the rapture of the saints; it has become one of the molding influences of civiliza tion. But it cannot be, said that this influence has been entirely for good. From this source has come the popular notion of "Platonic love," which has acted as a befuddling and enervating ferment in soci ety. It is fair to add that Platonic love, as most of the poets have understood it, is the very reverse of what Plato himself had in mind. Petrarch, for instance, would absorb the uni verse into his passion for a woman; Plato would forget the woman in his pursuit of ideal beauty. It is right to remember also that the conclusion of the 'Symposium' contains the extraordinary confession of Alcibiades, in which, as if Plato was concerned to remove any misunderstanding of his doctrine, Socrates is pictured as the stalwart soldier and as a lover, proof against every seduction of the flesh, a man of iron character above all. Nevertheless Plato's language, when dealing with the pas sion of beauty, is sometimes unguarded. The 'Symposium' is commonly regarded as Plato's most perfect literary production, as perhaps the most perfect piece of prose composition of any age or in any tongue.