Plato’s Symposium prelude.
A symposium was usually a gentleman’s drinking party. This is an unusual one. It has been going on for hours with no drinking. The participants agreed at the outset to forego wine in favour of entertaining one another with speeches in praise of love. Phaidros, Pausanias, Eryximachos, Aristophanes and Agathon have spoken; Sokrates is just subsiding to applause when a knock comes at the door. Alkibiades blunders in, very loud, very drunk and covered in garlands. Boisterous confusion follows. When they catch sight of one another Alkibiades and Sokrates engage in a mock display of lovers’ jealousy (or maybe it’s real). Alkibiades proclaims that everyone should at once get as drunk as he is. He insists on contributing a symposiastic speech, not in praise of love but in praise of Sokrates. He drapes his garlands over Sokrates and begins.

My praise of Sokrates, here goes.
Begin with a likeness –
just to give you a mental image.
(Images are true):

that Silenus doll
they sell in the shops,
you know the one,
you can crack it in two

and surprisingly inside are
little figures of gods –
he’s like that. He’s a bit like
Marsyas the satyr too.

He has Marsyas’s lips
except Marsyas puts his lips
to his flute to
ravish you.

Sokrates just talks.

Talk here is common.
In Athens orators are hot –
Perikles for instance.
Now Perikles is good, but

listening to him can be pretty predictable.
When Sokrates speaks, on the other hand,
I experience something uncanny,
I don’t know what

it is – a wild feeling
like a heart attack, or like dancing –
those nights you dance as if in a trance
and glance in the mirror to find you’re in tears.

I’m not drunk.
This is different.
I know it sounds
like the same old same old,

but that man can carry you off your head.
His talk made me weep.
I ran from him.
I can’t live that way.

He tells me (which is true) that
my values are wrong: I’m just a crowd-pleaser.
He says my whole life
is papier-mâché.

Well, I don’t want to sit by this siren till I die of old age.
So what’s the reason I can’t turn the page?
Simple answer. Shame.
He’s the only man in the world who can see through my game.

Yet the fact is, if he were to
from the world vanish,
my heart would

Let’s go back
to my original analogy:
as satyr.

He likes beautiful men, as everyone knows.
Near them he lights up, he goes fizzing
round the room
like a carbonated vapour.

At the same time
he claims to know nothing,
be ignorant,
empty, the opposite of wise.

It’s a pretty good disguise.
But crack him open –
you find something utterly different inside –
not like gold, not like god,

not like any other beauty –
I glimpsed it once.
And after that I
had to do everything he said.

But my calculation was, say
he’s seriously hot for my looks and my charm –
all I do is gratify him,
he’ll tell me everything in his head.

Such was my view of my looks and my charm.
I sent everyone away and met him one to one.
(Sokrates, speak up
if I’m getting any of this wrong.)

I was assuming, you see, we’d immediately fall into
one of those special conversations lovers have when alone.
Well, nothing happened.
He conversed as usual. At the end of the day went home.

I took him to the gym.
We worked out.
All alone.

Nothing happened.
Sokrates 2 Alkibiades 0,
I said to me.
So I stopped being coy,

asked him to dinner.
Hmmm, he said but eventually, reluctantly agreed –
as if I were the lover and he
the sought-after boy!

The first time he came, he just ate and left.
The second time, I had a ploy.
Kept him talking far
into the night.

When he rose to go I said,
It’s late,
you’re tired,
no doubt a bit tight,

just stay. He lay down on the little bed by my side.
Now the next part of this
I would not confide
except I’m

A: drunk
B: too honest to stop
C: like one of those snake-bitten people
who can only talk about snakebite.

But of course this is worse –
I’ve been bitten in my heart or my soul or whatever we call it –
by the philosophic words of this man:
those words can zero in.

They strike, they wound, they go
in the system.
I’ve a very tender system.

And those words make me do
whatever they want.
But now, looking round this room
I see

pretty much all of you’ve shared in the –
should I say crazy? should I say sublime?
of Sokrates’s philosophy:

Agathon, Phaidros,
Eryximachos, Pausanias,
Aristophanes –

if I tell you
what I did and what I said.
give me your sympathy, please.

Going back to that night:
the lamp was out, the slaves withdrawn.
No point being subtle, I thought. Just say it.
I shook him.

‘You asleep?’
‘Why, no.’
‘Tell you what I’ve decided.’
‘Okay, by all means.’

‘You, in my view, Sokrates,
are the only worthy lover I’ve had.
But you’re shy to get anything going.
Here’s my position:

failing to gratify you would be folly on my part.
This [gestures to self]
or anything else you need – my wealth, my friends –
it’s yours. I have one goal: for me

to be the best Alkibiades I can be.
You could help. Better than anyone else.
I’d be ashamed not to give a man like you
whatever he wants.’

At this Sokrates, in his usual ironic manner,
said, ‘Alkibiades darling,
you’re no fool after all
if you see in me some power to make you better.

It must be a kind of beauty vastly different than your own,
a rare kind, an extraordinary kind –
so what you’re proposing
is an exchange of beauty for beauty?

Now is that a fair deal? Your beauty for mine? Alleged for true?
Sounds like the same old bargain of bronze for gold.’
Then he warned me off deal-making in general,
said something else about the eyes of the soul,

and that was that.
I declared I’d made my feelings clear
and now it was up to him.
He said okay.

I’d shot my bolt, so to say.
Pretty sure I’d scored a hit.
So I got up, threw my coat over us – it was winter –
crawled under his cloak and wrapped my arms around this miraculous man.

And we lay that way all night long.
(Sokrates, speak up if I tell a lie.)
Now you, gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you:
did he not flout me, disdain me, make mock of my looks and my charm?

Don’t you call that insulting?
For I swear by the gods and all the goddesses,
when I rose in the morning I had no more slept with Sokrates
than if I’d lain with my father or brother.

You can imagine what a state I was in.
Affronted yes, but marvelling
at the self-control of the man!
His inner strength, his integrity are like no other.

So I didn’t want to act hysterical and lose him,
but I had no idea
how to seduce him.
Money, I knew, was not his interest.

And I’d already played
what I thought was my ace (the looks and the charm).
I was baffled, bedazzled, didn’t know what to do.
Then we got called up: winter is

not a good time to go to war.
the siege,
we bivouacked together.

Well, first of all, hardship was nothing to him.
He could go without food,
he could drink us all under the table.
But his attitude to cold weather

amazed us most – winters there are fierce: one time
we had a frost so cold no one would leave the tent,
or else they’d put on all their clothes
and wrap their feet in felt and fleece.

This man went out in his usual shirtsleeves,
no shoes at all,
and crossed the ice
without fuss.

The others looked askance at him.
He was ‘mighty of heart’
like a hero in Homer.
He worried them.

Here’s another example.
Early one day he was struck by a thought
and stood from dawn in the same spot,

He just couldn’t get it,
continued to stand, continued to ponder.
Noon came on.
The others were noticing.

‘Sokrates has stood in the same place since dawn,’
said one to another,
‘thinking something.’
It was a notably hot summer day.

At evening some took their bedding outside
and watched him to see if he’d stand there all night.
He stood there all night.
And at dawn, after offering a prayer to the sun, he went his way.

Here’s another. This is a good one.
Was the day I got my medal of honour
from the generals.
To this man here, no one else, I owe thanks

for saving my life.
I was wounded. He refused to leave.
He got me and my weapons off the field intact.
I urged everyone in the higher ranks

to give you the medal that day,
Sokrates, you know this is true.
You cannot rebuke me.
You waved it away.

And then the battle of Delium,
the big retreat.
I was on horseback, Sokrates on the ground.
He was marching beside another man,

totally calm, completely unflustered –
in fact, to steal a phrase of yours,
if I can,

he was ‘swaggering along like a kingfisher bird’,
tossing a glance from side to side
as if making quite clear he was not one to mess with.
Of course he and his comrade got home just fine.

That’s a lesson of war:
act cool, no one lays a finger on you.
Ah, so many lessons, so many stories
if I had time.

So many great men to compare him to.
Perikles! Akhilles! Nestor! all those
celebrated heroes of the present and the past –
but no.

No one is like this.
His strange way of being.
His strange way of talking.
There is no likeness.

At least not among humans.
Let’s go back
to my original analogy:
satyrs and Silenuses.

What I forgot to say before –
his language cracks open
just like those dolls.
At first everything he says

sounds a little bizarre:
it’s all donkeys and cobblers and men who tan leather,
ever the same examples,
ever the same jargon.

But look inside!
They open up
into something astonishing!
Call it a god, or moral perfection,
or an inexplicable pure gold bargain –

his are the only words that make sense!
And that, gentlemen, is my praise of Sokrates.
I mixed it up with a bit of blame.
He did after all insult my pride.

For we all know a lover and his boy
are not interchangeable.
Yet Sokrates acts as if he were the boy dazzler
and I the old guy begging for love.

He’s done the same
to any number of others.
Agathon, watch out.
I don’t want to say he’s a hustler.

I don’t want to say you’re a fool.
But recall what they told us at school:
by suffering we learn.
Now it’s your turn.

Symposium: postlude
So Alkibiades ends his speech. There is laughter from the others, who perceive him to be still very much besotted with Sokrates. Then Sokrates delivers a rebuke, accusing him of trying to stir up trouble between himself and Agathon. So the traditional erotic triangle comes poking up through gentlemanly protocols and symposiastic gamesmanship: Alkibiades loves Sokrates who loves Agathon whose love is undeclared. Just then the party is invaded by a crowd of revellers. Chaos ensues. A great deal of wine is drunk. Many hours pass but by dawn most of the guests have gone home or passed out on the floor. Only Agathon, Aristophanes and Sokrates are still there, still awake, still drinking, still philosophising. Around sunrise Agathon and Aristophanes doze off. Sokrates tucks them into their cloaks and goes his way.




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