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Katabasis in the Setting of Plato’s Symposium Revisited

Katabasis In The Setting Of Plato’s Symposium Revisited


In an earlier article (Steel 2004), I drew attention to the importance of descent imagery in the Symposium for building a more complete understanding of the dialogue.  Through careful analysis of the speeches made by the various banqueters, I demonstrated that Plato refigures elements of Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld in Book XI of the Odyssey and his subsequent sailing homeward in his own story of Socrates’ journey to Agathon’s feast and his subsequent departure homeward. The present article is a clarification and a further development of those findings.

A considerable amount of scholarship has been devoted to the study of ascent imagery in the dialogue. However, the central concern of my 2004 examination of descent imagery in Plato’s Symposium was to point out that we cannot fully appreciate the meaning of the dialectical ascent (anairesis) without recognizing that Plato wishes to convey that a simultaneous descent (katabasis) is also taking place – that, effectively, katabasis and anairesis are in some fundamental sense identical in nature, and that inasmuch as we descend, to that extent also do we ascend (and vice-versa). Indeed, the Greek word for ascent (anairesis) is itself conjoined to the word for descent (katabasis); the verb anaireo as Plato uses it to describe the movement of dialectics (cf. Republic 533c) originally referred to the “taking up” of dead bodies from a battlefield in order that they might be buried.

My earlier analysis of katabasis imagery in the Symposium was aimed at unpacking the meaning of this strange, simultaneous, double-movement of dialectical ascent and dramatic descent. The point of the article was to begin scholarly and philosophic discussions concerning what insights might be gleaned from our becoming cognizant of the erotic journey depicted in the Symposium not simply as a unidirectional one, but rather as a double-movement. At the time, I had hoped that by drawing attention to Plato’s masterful ability to express this double-movement, we might gain further insight into the Heraclitean dictum about reality that “the way up and the way down are the same” (Diels-Kranz [hereafter DK] 22 B 60; Steel 2004, 60).

My analysis of katabasis imagery in Plato’s Symposium has its precursor in Eric Voegelin’s discussion of life-death imagery in Plato’s corpus. Briefly, following Voegelin’s insight that “death can mean either the entombment of the soul in its earthly body, or the shedding of the body” just as “[l]ife can mean either earthly existence, or freedom of the soul from the frenzy of the body” (Voegelin 1957, 42), I contended that “the banqueters and Socrates are alive and dead in different ways” (Steel 2004, 62). The banqueters, though alive by virtue of their earthly existence, are likened to the dead in Hades insofar as they suffer from a spiritual disorder that Voegelin calls “pamphylism”; that is, their psychic life is likened to a kind of death due to their inward refusal to accept the rule of reason (logos) over their appetites. Put another way, the psychic disorder of pamphylism arises where unequals (namely, the reasoning and appetitive parts of the soul) are treated as equals, or where the rule of the ruling part is not recognized by that which ought to be ruled. Moreover, this disordered state of soul is likened to death inasmuch as it is a state of immobility in which the soul engages in neither ascent nor descent.

The pamphylism that Voegelin discusses in relation to Plato’s Republic finds its articulation in the Symposium through the pederastic behaviours of the majority of the banqueters, as well as in the hatred-of-reason (misology) demonstrated by Aristophanes (Steel, 2004). On the one hand, the pederasty of the banqueters is likened to a kind of death of the soul which, from the fact of its frenzied pursuit of bodily pleasures, can find no release from its disorders but remains entombed and at the whim of pleasure (hedone). On the other hand, a misology that denies the possibility of ascent through the logos of dialectic, or that refuses to recognize the difference between sophistry and philosophy is also a form of erotic deadness (Steel, 2004).

However, where the banqueters are erotically dead in the sense that they are either held entombed by the frenzy of their base passions or they make the “fatal error” of mistrusting logos (Rosen 1968, 124-125), Socrates is dead in a far different sense, being one who practices philosophy, or “the art of dying” (Phaedo 67e). It is in this alternative manner of being dead or of dying that Socrates, out of all the banqueters, is uniquely alive in the second sense outlined by Voegelin; for whereas the other banqueters may be “alive” by virtue of their earthly existence, only the soul of Socrates enjoys freedom from the frenzy of the body, and only the soul of Socrates assents to the rule of reason. In light of the katabasis imagery found in the Symposium, we begin to see that the well-known dialectical ascent that occurs in the speeches is not only an overcoming of erotic death; so too is it the case that such an erotic ascent only occurs where the death of the soul entombed is confronted and overcome through the descent that is equally well the essence of philosophy, or this “art of dying” (Steel 2004).

Shortly after my original foray into the significance of katabasis imagery in the Symposium, Plato scholar and philosopher Zdravko Planinc wrote an extended and careful analysis of Plato’s use of Homeric imagery in the dialogue (Planinc 2004). While I have no difficulties with Planinc’s excellent scholarship in his 2004 article, and while I recognize how far-reaching his writing and authorship has been in the development of a strand of academic study that takes the relation between Plato’s corpus and the Homeric texts very seriously (Planinc 2001, 2003), I wish to re-visit, further develop, and hopefully clarify my analysis of katabasis imagery in light of some of his criticisms.

(i) On the Significance of Pederasty in Plato’s Symposium

Planinc criticizes my analysis of the linkages between the Odyssean katabasis and the katabasis image as it appears throughout the various speeches in the Symposium as part of what he calls my “bellicose campaign” (Planinc 2004 326). Although I am uncertain in what manner my writing about katabasis imagery was particularly “bellicose,” the criticism seems to be that I have somehow misconstrued the significance of pederastic eros in the dialogue, that perhaps I have vilified pederasty in a way that is unwarranted or unrelated to Plato’s depiction of it in the Symposium, and that I have not taken pains to consult some of my teachers regarding their own views on the role that pederasty plays in Plato’s corpus. Being myself a high school teacher for many years, I have some experience in the proper instructional relationship between adults and children; like Planinc, I too understand and recognize the importance of healthy relations between teachers and students. In order to address Planinc’s concerns that my analysis has somehow been “bellicose,” let me therefore clarify why I have focused upon the pederastic practices that are portrayed throughout the Symposium, how such practices were understood at that time in history, how they were addressed in law, and what in particular Plato has written about the sort of pederasty that is depicted in this dialogue.

In ancient Greece, and in Plato’s dialogues in particular, two words are used to refer to youths: neanioi and paides. Briefly, neanioi is a term used to speak of those “young men” who were of the age to have just begun to grow facial hair (cf. Symposium 181d) – say around high school age — whereas paides is a term used to refer to children not yet having reached puberty – typically younger boys from the age of seven upward. According to Aeschines in Against Timarchus, the potential for the exposure of boys to pederasty was carefully monitored under the law, and there were severe legal penalties imposed against pederasty in classical Athens (9-22).  For instance, the law prescribed that school must take place during daylight hours, and that no boy should be left alone with his teacher (9-10).  Violation of the law in this regard was punishable by death (12).  A public official was set to oversee the education of boys, both in the choric dances and in the gymnasium.  Naked wrestling between boys and men was prohibited, and at the festivals of the Muses, it was legislated that the chorus leader (choregus) must be more than forty years old (10-12).   Still other laws were put in place concerning the prostitution of boys, and the law of hybris protected not only young boys, but also women and slaves on penalty of a fine or even death (13-22).  In her excellent book, The Reign of the Phallus, Eva Keuls points out that Athens went to great lengths to protect her young sons from male sexual predators.  Stringent measures existed in the Athenian legal system against prostitution, and these laws were used to protect sons from fathers who might sell them to older men for wealth or status.  That being said, Keuls remarks that it is difficult to determine what counts as prostitution and what does not in Athenian law.  Pederasty involved the giving of “love gifts” and social favours, but this transaction seems to be distinguished from prostitution.  In addition, Keuls argues that prostitution was usually assigned to a specific place like a brothel, and homo-erotic activity that counted as prostitution and that was outlawed by sanctions was activity between coevals rather than between older men and boys (Keuls 1985, 296-298). Nonetheless, it is precisely against the backdrop of these “harsh” Athenian laws that the old pederast Pausanias wages his own “bellicose campaign” to have such laws overturned (Symposium 180c-185c).

That pederastic practices were condemned in strong terms by Plato throughout his corpus is no secret. For instance, in the Republic, Socrates discusses the erotic affection that may properly exist between an older person and a youth. In keeping with the passage cited by both Planinc and Voegelin (Voegelin 1957, 18; Planinc 2004, 326) concerning Plato’s affection for Dion, Socrates remarks:

“a lover may kiss, be with, and touch his boy as though he were a son, for fair purposes, if he persuades him; but, as for the rest, his intercourse with the one for whom he cares will be such that their relationship will never be reputed to go further than this. If not, he’ll be subject to blame as unmusical and inexperienced in fair things.” (403bc)

Clearly, the pederastic eros that is the focus of praise among the banqueters in the Symposium is not at all like this fatherly sort of affection. The matter of pederasty is further examined and subject to criticism in Plato’s Laws as being destructive to the promotion of virtue and moderation (836a-837a). Also – and with particular resonance when we study the Symposium — we hear Plato’s own condemnation of pederasty in his Seventh Letter as it relates to the proper running of such banquets or symposia. Remarking on his own experiences of drinking parties while abroad, Plato writes:

“This was the view I held when I came to Italy and Sicily, at the time of my first arrival. And when I came I was in no wise pleased at all with “the blissful life,” [bios eudaimon], as it is there termed, replete as it is with Italian and Syracusan banquetings; for thus one’s existence is spent in gorging food twice a day and never sleeping alone at night, and all the practices which accompany this mode of living. For not a single man of all who live beneath the heavens could ever become wise [phronimos] if these were his practices from his youth, since none will be found to possess a nature so admirably compounded; nor would he ever be likely to become temperate [sophron]; and the same may truly be said of all other forms of virtue. And no State would remain stable under laws of any kind, if its citizens, while supposing that they ought to spend everywhere to excess, yet believed that they ought to cease from all exertion except feastings and drinkings and the vigorous pursuit of their sexual lust [aphrodision].” (326bd)

Plato’s criticism of pederasty – here stated explicitly in his own voice, and linked to such practices at symposia – is clear. And although Plato’s remarks here are perhaps “bellicose,” to use Planinc’s words, they are certainly a remarkable inversion of Pausanias’ own campaign in the Symposium to institute law reforms in Athens that would further subject its youth to the fevers of old men entombed in their bodies and unable to practice the “art of dying.”

(ii) Philosophic Journeying as a Genuine Double-Movement

Apart from criticizing the emphasis I place on the pederastic practices of the banqueters as evidence of their erotic deadness, and consequently of their inability either to ascend dialectically or descend as philosophers able to die to themselves, Planinc further dismisses the particular emphasis I bring to the hidden imagery of katabasis in the Symposium as a “fascination” (Planinc 2004, 327). In his view, such “fascination” with katabasis prevents one from seeing the “obvious”: namely, that it is by means of the imagery of ascent in the Symposium that we are made aware of the full amplitude of Socrates’ eroticism (Planinc 2004, 327). Here, the suggestion seems to be that ascent and descent are not, as I suggest, mirror images of one another, where “at either end of the ascent and descent we find ‘the Good’ (dramatically in the person of Agathon) and ‘the Beautiful’ (dialectically in the speech of Diotima)” (Steel 2004, 73). Rather, the significance of katabasis is to be diminished in favour of accentuating anairesis as what is primary. Planinc concludes his dismissal of the attention I bring to bear on the equality of the double-movement, as well as upon pederastic eros as a form of erotic death that impedes this movement, by saying that my own acknowledgement that “Alcibiades, who engages in pederasty, is not portrayed as one of the erotically dead” serves to undo my argument completely (Planinc 2004, 327; cf. Steel 2004, 76). A brief response to this contention is in order.

That Alcibiades is not erotically dead is clear from the torn state of his soul. He certainly finds himself, like most of the other banqueters, attracted by the pleasures associated with pederastic practices; and of course, Alcibiades “has come to Agathon having gone away from Socrates, as one having ‘succumbed to the honours of the many’” (Steel 2004, 76).  That is, Alcibiades desires the honours and power afforded by the esteem of the many; but unlike the other drinkers by virtue of his torn psychic state, in the presence of Socrates, he is unable to praise anyone else (214d). Hence, on the one hand, Alcibiades is, like the others at the banquet, entombed by his own penchant for bodily pleasures, for honour, esteem, and power; but on the other hand, unlike his fellows in his awareness of the tension he suffers within his soul, and by which he is made to feel shame in his concern for such things, he recognizes that “it was not worth living to be as I am” (216c). In this regard, the figure of Alcibiades suggests that the possibility of erotic ascent – as well as for that descent that occurs in the “art of dying” that is philosophy – “remains open even to pederasts” (Steel 2004, 77).

However, acknowledgement of Alcibiades’ torn state does not “undo” my argument concerning the significance of katabasis; nor does it undermine the observation that pederastic eros is an impediment to the dual-movement that is philosophy. Indeed, the extent to which Alcibiades recognizes philosophy (in the person of Socrates) as a way of life “truly worth living” is the same extent to which he also recognizes his own vain pursuits as shameful, as lacking in genuine worth, and as things that must be put aside – that is to say, he ought to “die” to them — if he is truly to pursue wisdom. That Alcibiades recognizes he must die to the pursuit of pederastic pleasures and to the allure of his worldly ambitions if he is to engage in the double-movement of philosophy as both “immortalization” (Symposium 212a; cf. Nicomachean Ethics X.vii.8) and “the art of dying” (Phaedo 67e) is no reason to suppose that the frenzies for such things which pull him away from philosophy are not real and genuine impediments to embarking upon the journeying that is this dual-movement of dying and immortalizing. And sadly, we know from history that Alcibiades was, in the end, unable to overcome the enticements of his frenzied entombment; in the absence of Socrates, he was unable to practice the “art of dying” that is philosophy in order that he might truly immortalize; in the end, Alcibiades turned away from Socrates to further his ambitions, only to meet a violent death and to drag Athens to her own destruction in her desire for glory and acquisitions (pleonexia).

Turning once again to my argument: the purpose of this article is, by drawing attention to the significance of katabasis in Plato’s Symposium, to show that the movement of philosophizing is not unidirectional, nor is it even primarily one of ascent;  rather, philosophy is a dual movement much aligned with the Heraclitean dictum that, “The way up and the way down are the same.” That is, on the one hand, the soul engages in an ascent (anairesis) towards the source of psychic order through the pursuit of wisdom wherein it is reminded of (anamnesis) and seeks out (zetesis) the Beautiful through each experience or suffering (pathos) of the beautiful; on the other hand, such a one simultaneously engages in a descent (katabasis) into the investigation of the disorder that exists within the soul; both ascent and descent involve a purgation or purification of the spirit. This purgation entails suffering through death and rebirth — whether that process be understood in philosophic terms as “the art of dying” through which the soul undergoes the painful process of sprouting wings (Phaedrus 251a-252c), in shamanic terms as being rent apart by demons and subsequently reconfigured spiritually (Eliade 1964), or in religious-contemplative terms wherein the soul is cast like Jonah into “the belly of the beast of the sea” to abide in the dark “until the spiritual resurrection which it hopes for” (St. John of the Cross Regardless of the formulation used, the “immortalizing” (to athanatizein) that occurs through wisdom’s genuine pursuit always involves a humbling of the soul in order that it might be exalted (Matthew 23:12). As St. John of the Cross writes:

“[E]ven as the ladder has those same steps in order that men may mount, it has them also that they may descend; even so is it likewise with this secret contemplation, for those same communications which it causes in the soul raise it up to God, yet humble it with respect to itself. For communications which are indeed of God have this property, that they humble the soul and at the same time exalt it. For, upon this road, to go down is to go up, and to go up, to go down, for he that humbles himself is exalted and he that exalts himself is humbled.” (II.xviii.2)

The ladder images used by St. John of the Cross, by Plato and St. Bonaventure (1956), as well as by various shamanic societies (Eliade 1964, 487-494; Cooper 2001, 80-121) depict the pursuit of wisdom simultaneously as an anairesis and a katabasis; moreover, the upward-downward motion of philosophia is at the same time an inward and transformational motion. For this reason, Meister Eckhart refers to the innermost part of the soul as a “citadel”; he writes that it is this part of the soul that is like God, and no other (Eckhart 1994, 163-164). Divested of all its mortal trappings, its thoughts, its passions, and its self-will, the soul is immortalized, or rendered divine by participation (St. John of the Cross II.xx.5). In Eckhart’s formulation, “He [God] is found within”; that is to say, the upward-downward-inward movement locates God “in the ground of the soul, in the innermost part of the soul, in the intellect, not going out and not looking at any thing” (174). Speaking of this same inward movement, Plato writes in his Phaedrus that it is “upon the soul of the learner” (en tei tou manthanontos psychei) that “the living word” (ton … logon … zoonta kai empsychon) which is of “unquestioned legitimacy” (gnesion) is written (276a). These infallible words (logoi) written on the soul are much akin to the Logos of which Heraclitus speaks and according to which all things come into being (DK 22 B1); this Logos is Wisdom, and according to Heraclitus, “Wisdom is one thing: to understand the thought which steers all things through all things” (DK 22 B 41). St. Teresa of Avila likewise addresses the inward motion involved in wisdom’s pursuit. She likens the soul to an “interior castle” with many “mansions” or chambers, where in the centremost chamber resides “the King,” or God (I.ii.8).

In all such “wisdom literature,” the pursuit of wisdom entails the practice of dying. Citing St. Gregory, Eckhart writes: “it is good advice that we should behave in this world as if we were dead,” for “only those who are entirely dead to the world can possess God in full measure” (Eckhart 1994, 165). Indeed, the wealth of mystical and philosophic literature that supports the contention that katabasis is not properly conceived of as subordinate to anairesis seems clearly enough to suggest that my remarks concerning the significance of katabasis in Plato’s Symposium are not simply to be dismissed as a “fascination”; rather, in the dramatic setting of his masterpiece in which the Odyssean katabasis is embedded, Plato would have us recognize a deep, underlying truth: namely, that we ought not suppose that we correctly understand what it means to ascend without recognizing that anairesis and katabasis are equivalents; that is, we cannot embark upon the one sort of odyssey or journey without simultaneously undergoing the other. In the remainder of this paper, I wish further to elaborate upon my argument concerning the significance of pederasty as a form of erotic death that is not amenable to philosophy’s dual movement on the one hand, as well as to offer additional textual support for the claims made by both Planinc and myself concerning Plato’s use of Homeric imagery in Plato’s Symposium.

II. “Logographic Necessity” in the Dramatic Framing and Delay of the Tale of the Symposium and its Relation to the Odyssean Katabasis

In Athanaeus’ Deipnosophistae, we learn that Agathon’s victory at Lenaea and his fabled banquet occurred in 416 B.C. A foreboding air therefore hangs over the drinking party depicted in the Symposium, since it occurs shortly before the defamation of the Hermae, an act of impiety and treason intended to portend bad things for Athens if she follows the plans of Alcibiades to launch the Sicilian Expedition in 415.  Plato has framed the dialogue very carefully.  At some point after the banquet, Aristodemus relates what he saw and heard to Apollodorus.  Apollodorus then asks Socrates directly concerning the accuracy of the account.  Two or three days prior to the discussion between Apollodorus and his companion, Apollodorus also tells the story to an inquisitive Glaucon.  There is much debate as to the precise date of Apollodorus’ account (Strauss 2001; Bloom 2001, 72; Allen 1991; Dover 1980, 78; Anton 1996, 209-35; Bury 1932, lxvi); however, there is general consensus that the discussion to which the reader is privy occurs some ten to fifteen years after the original drinking party (symposion) is said to have occurred.

Much scholarly effort has been exerted to understand the significance of the framing of the story and the delay in its telling.  Leo Strauss has argued that at the time of the profanation of the mysteries in 416, there was considerable hysteria and danger associated with the mutilation of the Hermae and its consequences for the expedition to Sicily.  Alcibiades was a prime suspect in the desecration (Thucydides VI, 27.1-3; 6.28.1-2; 6.53.1; Plutarch 18.2-21.5; Gribble, 1999), and both Phaedrus and Eryximachus were also accused (Andokides 1.15, 1.35; Gagarin and Macdowell 1998, 106, note 13; 111, note 32; Missiou 1992, 24, note 31).  Hence the delay in Plato’s retelling, for only many years later would it have been safe to speak about the events of that fateful night.

Stanley Rosen describes the dialogue as an affair of loose tongues;  it is a revelation of the mysteries of love, as well as an example of impiety towards the Olympian gods, who are not the subject of the banqueters’ encomiums.  Hence, layers of narrative framing, distance in time, admissions of incompleteness in the account (180c, 178a, 223bc), as well uncertainty as to the precise factual verbiage of the speeches all serve to protect the author, Plato, from accusations of impiety. Indeed, Rosen points out that the story’s narrator, Aristodemus, is said by Xenophon in his Memorabilia to have been an atheist (I.iv.2); he is therefore an efficient means by which Plato can himself reveal the mysteries to his readers with impunity (Rosen, 1968, 18).  R.E. Allen indicates a further reason for the peculiar framing of the tale;  he states that “it would have been impossible to put into Socrates’ own mouth the scene with Alcibiades at the end, because it is an encomium of Socrates” (Allen 1991, 19).

The arguments of Rosen, Strauss, and Allen are all valuable for understanding both the framing of the story and the long delay in the telling of the tale of the Symposium.  However, they do not adequately explain the peculiar character of the dialogue.  If we are earnestly to examine the “logographic necessity” of the Platonic dialogue, we must ask ourselves questions about the meaning of the whole in relation to its parts.  According to Strauss,

“[a] writing is good if it complies with ‘logographic necessity,’ with the necessity which ought to govern the writing of speeches: every part of the written speech must be necessary for the whole;  the place where each part occurs is the place where it is necessary that it should occur;  in a word, the good writing must resemble the healthy animal which can do its proper work well.” (Strauss 1964, 53; cf. Phaedrus 275d4-276a7 and 264b7-c5)

Strauss, Rosen, and Allen have each undertaken to explore the frame’s logographic necessity superbly, showing the manner in which the framing and time lag expose the intent of the author to reveal the mysteries with impunity.  However, their account of the frame and the delay is not adequately related to the story within the frame.  The necessity of the delay and the complex framing of the underlying revelation is clear from their work, but the “logographic necessity” of the story within the frame is not.  A host of questions remain unresolved.  What binds the inner story to the outer frame, for instance?  Why, with the exceptions of two spates with Agathon (193e-194e, 199c-201c), and Socrates’ account of his discussion with Diotima (201d-212a), are there extensive speeches rather than dialogue?  How is this peculiar form necessary in relation to the framing and delay?  What is the meaning of the events in Aristodemus’ prologue in relation to the frame and the speeches?  Why has Plato chosen such a peculiar group as speakers at the banquet?  Why is Socrates afraid at the end of the first five speeches, and what connection does the end of the Symposium have with the framed beginning, the events leading up to the banquet, and the speeches themselves?

There is considerable evidence that the common thread linking the prologues of Apollodorus and Aristodemus to the speeches, and the speeches to the end of the account is an allusion to Homer’s Odyssey.  This thread of meaning has largely been overlooked by scholars;  and yet this thread is crucial in order to discern the “logographic necessity” of the different parts of the dialogue in relation to the whole.  Both I and Planinc have offered interpretations of how the presentation of the various speakers at the banquet is modelled upon Odysseus’ meeting with the shades during his descent to Hades in Book 11 of the Odyssey. Planinc has, in addition to this, offered a very fine analysis of how the “framing” story of Circe in Books 10 and 12 is also incorporated into the dialogue. In what follows, I offer further evidence that not only are Books 10-12 used; Books 6 and 7 of the Odyssey are also referenced in Socrates’ journey to the dinner. In brief, the retelling of the tale by Aristodemus after a long delay is akin to the telling of the tale by Odysseus to King Alcinous and Arete after many years of journeying;  Socrates’ dressing up for the Agathon’s banquet is akin to Odysseus’ dressing up for the banquet of Alcinous.  Socrates’ delay on the road and on the porch is akin to Odysseus’ delay in the garden and at the threshold of the King’s palace.  Alcinous and Arete express the desire to stay up all night listening to Odysseus’ tale;  Socrates does in fact stay up all night talking with Agathon and Aristophanes.  The speeches of the shades during Odysseus’ descent to Hades are akin to the speeches of the banqueters in the Symposium (Steel 2004; Planinc 2004).  Socrates’ fear at the speeches is akin to Odysseus’ fear upon hearing the “eerie clamor of the dead.”  Finally, Odysseus’ “second sailing” homeward is akin to Socrates’ dialectical ascent with Diotima from the depths of Hades to the vision of Beauty Itself (Steel 2004).

(i) Aristodemus’ Prologue (174a-175e): Aristodemus as Odysseus

 One particularly troublesome line in the prologue of Aristodemus has escaped adequate interpretation.  Aristodemus is concerned about having an excuse for coming uninvited to the banquet, and he asks Socrates to devise a defence for bringing him.  Socrates replies at 174d, speaking in the voice of Diomedes to Aristodemus, who is compared to Odysseus: “When two go together (syn te du erxomeno)… we’ll take counsel about what to say on the way” (Iliad 10.224; cf. Protagoras 348d). The quotation is unusual, since normally Plato cites Homer in order to compare Socrates with Odysseus.  At 174d, however, Socrates is clearly not the Odyssean figure.  Allen simply interprets this line to suggest that “two heads are better than one” (Allen 1991, 113, note 168).  Rosen argues that the quotation compares Socrates and Aristodemus to the Achaeans who are about to enter the camp of their Trojan enemy;  in this case, the enemy is their fellow banqueters.  Rosen further suggests that the passage is a “Platonic joke” meant to emphasize the martial character of the banquet.  We are not to take the equation of Odysseus and Aristodemus seriously (Rosen 1968, 24).

On the surface, Rosen’s interpretation of 174d seems accurate.  There will indeed be a certain animosity between Socrates and the other banqueters;  there is martial imagery in the speech of Phaedrus;  the encomiums themselves are set down by Agathon as a contest between himself and Socrates, at the end of which Socrates emerges victorious, walking away at daybreak while all the others lie sleeping.  However, given the undercurrent of katabasis in the Symposium, Rosen’s interpretation of this quotation is found to be unsatisfactory.  First, in Plato’s Laws, the Athenian stranger details the atmosphere of symposia not as one of “men who are fighting enemies in war, but rather of friends communing with friends in peace and with goodwill” (640b).  Unlike Diomedes’ midnight raid on the Trojan camp, Socrates has come to the home of Agathon on invitation and in the spirit of friendship. At 212d, for instance, Agathon explicitly states that only “close friends” (epitedeion) will be let into the banquet. Unlike in the Protagoras, Socrates and his companion are not barred from entering the gathering, but are warmly welcomed.  Second, if we recall that the gathering of sophists attended by most of the members of Agathon’s banquet in the Protagoras is explicitly compared to the katabasis of Odysseus (Steel 2004; Planinc 2004), and if we then follow the imagery of Odyssean katabasis as it is presented in the Symposium, we find that the banqueters are not Trojans, but fellow Achaeans in the depths of Hades.  Just as Odysseus communes with his dead friends and family over the pit of blood, so too will Socrates commune with his fellow citizens over wine, the blood of Dionysus.  Rosen is correct to see martial imagery in the quotation;  however, the image is not meant to connote enemies, but rather friends who are in some way dead.

Rosen’s claim that the equivocation of Aristodemus with Odysseus is a “Platonic joke” that we cannot take seriously is untenable given the imagery of katabasis that runs through the dialogue.  Rather, Aristodemus is called Odysseus at 174d because it is Aristodemus who will one day tell the tale of Socrates’ journey to the Hades of the banquet, just as Odysseus one day finally relates the tale of his own katabasis.  Aristodemus certainly looks like Socrates;  indeed, on the occasion of the banquet he appears to look more like Socrates than does Socrates himself.  The tale of Socrates’ own Odyssean katabasis must be told by an Odyssean figure.  This is the “logographic necessity” of 174d;  if it were simply a “Platonic joke,” the quotation would be an unnecessary embellishment.  The undercurrent of katabasis is also the reason why Socrates must appear as Diomedes temporarily;  he is unable to tell the tale on his own because such a tale is impious.  It is, as Rosen notes, a revelation of the mysteries.

(ii) Aristodemus’ Prologue (174a-175e): The Adorned Socrates

Imagery of Odysseus’ preparations for the banquet at the palace of Alcinous is prevalent throughout Aristodemus’ prologue.  We find a unique portrayal of Socrates at 174a.  He is “bathed” and “anointed”;  he has “slippers on his feet, which he seldom wore,” and he is “beautifully dressed.”  In this peculiar depiction of Socrates, Plato bids us to consider why he would be dressed in a manner that is not his custom.  Many scholars have offered reasons for his fine dress (Guthrie 1971, 69, note 2; Friedlander 1969, 7; Bury 1932, vii, 7). Bloom suggests that Socrates, “ordinarily the virtuoso of the good and the useful… tonight is dedicated more to the beautiful than the good.”  According to Bloom, the “adorned Socrates” of the Symposium is a “less authentic” Socrates who is meant to depict what Bloom considers to be a disjunction between the beautiful and the good in the work of Plato (Bloom, 2001, 75). Rosen similarly depicts Socrates’ costume as an “ironic artifice” meant to conceal his hybris (1968, 22). Although these explanations have merit, they do not explain why Socrates, who always appears both physically prepared (215a-222b) as well as psychically ready for dialectic, should dress up on this occasion but not on any other. Given Socrates’ usual mental and physical preparedness, one wonders what precisely would be ironic about a cleaned-up image of Socrates.  Simply put, if dialectical ascent upon a ladder of love is full participation in the mysteries of Eros, then what precisely is so different about this meeting that warrants different apparel?  Where do we find the “logographic necessity” behind Socrates’ dress?

In fact, the image of a “beautifully dressed” Socrates is not ironical.  An ironic interpretation would suggest that Socrates appears “adorned” and therefore physically prepared for the mystery rite, but that, in reality, he is not prepared.  Irony is out of place here.  Planinc argues much more illuminatingly that the events of Socrates’ arrival at Agathon’s party are based on books 10-12 of the Odyssey, that is, the story of Odysseus’ descent to Hades, and its framing context, the story of Odysseus’ relation to Circe (Planinc 2004, 327.) While I find no fault with this interpretation, I would alternatively suggest that the description of Socrates’ journey to the banquet in the prologue of Aristodemus is an allusion to Books 6 and 7 of the Odyssey.  Odysseus, having met Nausicaa with a mixture of friendship, erotic love, and shame, has been offered the protection of Zeus as a stranger on Phaeacian soil.  Additionally, Nausicaa has offered him a tunic and cloak, some olive oil in a golden flask, and she tells him to wash himself in the running stream.  Out of a sense of shame before the “beautiful young ladies” (kouresin euplokamoisi, 6.222), Odysseus first asks them to leave while he washes the brine from his shoulders and rubs his body with oil.  Afterwards, on the advice of Athene, Nausicaa invites Odysseus to the banquet at her father’s palace (6.227-246).  After telling his tale at the banquet, Odysseus is finally able to return home.

Socrates has also been invited to a banquet, after which he too will return home.  Like Odysseus, he bathes;  he anoints himself with oil, and he dresses beautifully in preparation for the feast (174a).  Indeed, just as Odysseus prepares for his “second sailing” by cleaning up before climbing aboard a foreign vessel homeward, so too does Socrates prepare for his own dialectical “second sailing” upward through the ladder of love imagery in the speech of the foreign prophetess, Diotima (Steel 2004).  In this way, Socrates’ own preparations prior to the speeches allude to Odysseus’ preparations for the banquet at which he will recount the tale of his own katabasis in order to go home.  By means of this allusion to the Odyssey, we are bid by Plato to consider the ascending speeches of the banqueters as part of a descent or katabasis into Hades.

(iii) Aristodemus’ Prologue (174a-175e): Socrates’ Delay

Along the way to the banquet, Aristodemus recalls that Socrates turned his thought inward (prosechonta ton noun) and fell behind (174d), bidding him to go on ahead.  When a servant of Agathon is sent to inquire after him, Socrates is found “having retreated into a neighbour’s porch” (175a).  Aristodemus assures Agathon and the others that this is an ordinary occurrence for Socrates, and that they should leave him alone (cf. 220cd).  This “habit” (ethos) of Socrates is attested to in no other dialogue.  We are led to wonder why this contemplative ethos is not mentioned elsewhere if it is such a common pastime for Socrates.  Clearly, the image of a solitary Socrates, disengaged from discussion with others, has some extra significance in the Symposium (cf. Friedlander 1969, 8);  it alerts us once more about Socrates’ impending katabasis.

In the Odyssey, Nausicaa bids Odysseus to wait while she goes on ahead without him to her father’s palace.  Odysseus’ hesitant progress along the way is mentioned twice (7.81-83; 7.133-138).  In the first instance, Odysseus is approaching the dwelling of Alcinous the King, and he keeps on stopping before he reaches the threshold.  In the second instance, Odysseus stands before the house for a while before stepping over the threshold, just in time to witness the Phaecians pouring libations from their cups to Hermes the “swift-appearing” (argeiphontes).  In Socrates’ own journey to the house of Agathon, the Odyssean parallel is clear.  As in the Odyssey, Socrates’ hesitant progress along the way is mentioned twice (174d, 175a).  In the first instance, like Odysseus, Socrates waits while his companion goes on ahead. In the second instance, Socrates’ stance on the neighbour’s porch is akin to Odysseus’ pause at the house of Alcinous.

The “logographic necessity” underlying Socrates’ choice to stand on the neighbour’s porch rather than on the porch of Agathon can be discerned best in light of the upcoming katabasis.  Odysseus stands on the threshold of the home of Alcinous.  Alcinous is a good king.  His orchards are lush and bountiful;  the fruit never fails nor runs short either in winter or in summer.  All production in the garden is attuned perfectly to the cosmic cycles, and the reign of Alcinous is clearly well-ordered (7.112-121), as is his banquet.  Socrates, unlike Odysseus, does not seek repose near the threshold of the banquet hall, but chooses a neighbouring porch instead.  This is because the threshold of Agathon’s dwelling is not akin to the gate of Alcinous;  unlike the palace of Alcinous, the house of Agathon is in disarray.  The servants are made like masters according to his wishes (175b).  Moreover, Agathon’s form of production is not Alcinian fruit but a prize-winning tragedy.  That Socrates does not marvel in Agathon’s garden porch is an indication that there is something dissimilar and disordered about his productions.  Indeed, following the Odyssean imagery up to this point, we regard the threshold to Agathon’s house as the gateway down to Hades.

 III. Pederasty, Erotic death, and its Relation to the Katabasis of Plato’s Symposium

Odysseus enters the banquet hall of King Alcinous at the end of the dinner, just at the moment when the captains and counsellors of the Phaeacians are pouring libations from their cups to Hermes (7.134-138).  The allusion made to this banquet by Plato is meant to remind us of the important status of Hermes. Hermes is the messenger of the gods who permits good communications between gods and human beings.  He is the god of ascents, and yet, as psychopompos, he is the quintessential god of descents.  Hermes is therefore an intermediate figure, similar to the daimon Eros in the speech of Socrates (199c-212c). Indeed, when we read Karl Kerenyi’s excellent study of Hermes and Eros (Kerenyi 1976, 74-79), we are likely to recognize that much of Plato’s description of Eros in the Symposium is borrowed from older accounts of Hermes.

Hermes is a god of key significance for Athens in 416 B.C.  In the absence of good relations with the messenger god, Athens’ expedition to Sicily will not have divine favour, and impiety prior to such a major military manoeuvre portends certain disaster (Furley 1996).  Andokides records that the mutilation of the statues which were popularly thought to mediate relations between the citizens of Athens and the god himself led to the arrest and execution for some and flight into exile for others (1.34), and the god’s desecration proves to have serious and fatal consequences in the failure of the Sicilian expedition. Agathon’s banquet takes place on the eve of this profanation.

Both Socrates and Odysseus arrive late for dinner.  However, unlike Odysseus, Socrates does not enter at the end of dinner at a moment of high piety, but right in the middle of a gorge, as is evident from the remarks of the banqueters at 176ac.  Hence, the reference to Book 7 of the Odyssey here is by way of contrast: this feast is clearly not akin to the banquet of Alcinous, but its din is likened to the “eerie clamour of the dead” who swarm forth upon Odysseus (11.43, 633).

(i) Competitive Pederasty in the Symposium

According to the logic of the image of katabasis that permeates the Symposium, the banquet at Agathon’s home is a banquet of the erotically dead (Steel 2004).  Their speeches in praise of Eros are, in fact, speeches in praise of the youthful Phaedrus. Eryximachus, Phaedrus’ companion (hetairo, Phaedrus 268a) and lover (erastes), proposes the speeches, claiming that they belong to Phaedrus (177a) as “father of the discourse” (177d).  The pederastic connotations of the ensuing speeches are suggested by Eryximachus, who first states his own intentions:  he desires to “make a contribution” (eisenenkein) of his own that will “gratify” (charisasthai) Phaedrus.  Put both crudely and literally, Eryximachus as erastes desires “to bear into” Phaedrus by sexual penetration in order to make his “contribution” of semen, ostensibly for Phaedrus’ own sexual gratification.  Such, in fact, is likely to have occurred after the speeches, when Eryximachus is seen leaving with Phaedrus “and some others” late into the night (223b).  Plato may here be suggesting that it is this group of revellers who were responsible for the mutilation of the Hermae, and the desecration of the mysteries of love in a pederastic orgy. The profanity of pederasty is also exposed in the proposal of Eryximachus as a kind of incest, for in buggering Phaedrus he would also be buggering his own “father.”

Competitive pederasty is proposed by Eryximachus as the object of the speeches, and the speeches are continually directed at Phaedrus, the master of ceremonies (194d, 197c, 199b).  Eryximachus wants those present to “adorn the god” (kosmesai ton theon, 177d), and he equivocates the name of Phaedrus with the god.  Just as the speeches are arranged in ascending order in honour of Eros, so too are the speeches to be read in descending order as each successive speaker vies to out-compete the others for the sexual favours of Phaedrus, their collective beloved (eromenos) and god.  As a god, Phaedrus becomes a symbol of what is highest and most praiseworthy for the banqueters.  However, as we know from Plato’s Phaedrus, what Phaedrus himself praises is not the lover but the non-lover (230e-234d). Similarly, in the Symposium, he praises the unerotic beloved (178a-180b). Hence, in competing for and in praising an unerotic or non-loving man-god, the banqueters expose their own erotic incapacities. By their praise for the unerotic, they are shown to be erotically dead.

(ii) The Influence of Empedocles: On the relation of Pederasty to Katabasis

As discussed earlier, Agathon’s banquet is related to the banquet of Alcinous by way of stark contrast.  Hermes is defamed that night in 416 rather than piously honoured, and both the house and its master are disorderly rather than well-ordered. We know from the Laws that children under the age of eighteen are not to taste wine at all (666ac).  After this, and up until the age of thirty, citizens will be permitted to taste wine with due measure, but drunkenness is prohibited.  Only as a man approaches forty years of age will he engage in the “mystery rite” (teleten) of symposia.  Agathon and Phaedrus are under forty years of age in 416. Hence, some of the drinkers at Agathon’s symposium – including its host — are too young for the “mysteries” (teleten) of symposia; moreover, even the older ones speak out of order – for Aristophanes speaks after Eryximachus, contrary to the seating arrangements — and the banqueters are generally shameless in their pursuit of pleasures. Indeed, both a proper sense of shame as well as orderliness in speech are key elements of any well-run symposium (Laws 671cd). Unlike Agathon’s home, the house of Alcinous is not filled with license and pederasts, but with nobility gathered around a royal husband and wife.  Whereas Odysseus must grasp at the knees of lady Arete in order to go home, Socrates visits the home of a cross-dressing homosexual and must avoid being groped himself by the host, who seeks his “wisdom” by means of a physical touch he likens to a siphon (175de; cf. Steel 2004, 73).  Pederasty and license come to the fore as the main features that distinguish the “eerie clamour” of Agathon’s crowd (ochlon) from the gathering at the palace of King Alcinous.

Agathon’s ochlon, with the exception of Aristophanes, is explicitly described at a prior engagement detailed in the Protagoras as a gathering of shades in Hades (314c-316b; Steel 2004; Planinc 2004).  The sophist Protagoras leads a great long chain of students up and down in the portico of Callias.  Both Phaedrus and Eryximachus are seen as pupils sitting before the sophist Hippias of Ellis;  Pausanias is caught in bed with a young Agathon, and is sleeping beside the sophist Prodicus.  In the Protagoras, Hades is filled with both sophists and their pederastic pupils;  in the Symposium, the pederastic pupils remain, but the sophists have disappeared.  Plato coaxes us to consider the meaning of their absence.

I and others have dealt at length with the shadowy identities of the various banqueters as they relate to the Odyssean katabasis (Steel 2004; Planinc 2004). However, other scholars have also noted the considerable influence of Empedocles among the speakers at the banquet.  Empedocles predates the sophists as a pre-Socratic philosopher.  He was a Sicilian doctor and a high-born citizen of Acragas.  Perhaps it should not be considered coincidental that Empedocles’ dedication of his poem to his boy lover runs: “And Pausanias, son of wise Anchites, you listen!” (Laertius 8.60). Like Empedocles, Pausanias, son of Anchitus, is said to have been an Italian doctor of some renown;  moreover, Italian doctors are said to have competed for honours against the Asclepiads (Inwood 2001, 162-163). Eryximachus, an Asclepiad in competition with Pausanias of Cerameis for the favours of Phaedrus, makes use of Empedocles’ teachings concerning the cycles of love and strife.  Aristophanes too makes use of Empedocles’ image of an epoch of double beings (Dover 1980, 112, 118), as for instance, when Empedocles speaks of “[creatures with] rolling gait and countless hands” (DK 31 B 60).  In the fragments, we read:  “Many came into being with faces and breasts on both sides, offspring of oxen with the faces of men;  others again sprang up that were offspring of men with the heads of oxen – creatures in whom male and female were mingled, furnished with sterile parts” (DK 31 B 61).  Agathon too alludes to Empedocles’ theory of cosmic cycles in his own advocacy of “like to like” pederastic activity (195b).  Moreover, his speech follows the style of Gorgias, who is said to have been a student of Empedocles.  In this way, the presence of sophists in the Hades of the Protagoras is replaced by the presence of Empedoclean imagery in the Hades of the Symposium.

Brad Inwood examines the relation between Empedocles’ philosophy and pederastic practices in his extant fragments (Inwood 2001).  According to Empedocles, the four “roots” (rhizomata) of earth, air, fire, and water are forever mixing under the dominion of love (philia) — also variously referred to by aphrodite, connoting sexual attraction, and storge, connoting the affection between parents and children — and separating under the dominion of strife (neikos). As a cycle of mixture and separation, the regularly recurring termini are total mixture formed by the complete domination of love, and total separation of all elements from each other in the reign of strife (Inwood 2001, 43).  Between the recurring termini are epochs of increasing mixture (following complete separation) and increasing decay (following complete mixture).  Empedocles considers the current epoch to be one of increasing decay, and it is in this “real world of strife” that “we hear of the way living beings are created in the history of our present world, and how sexual reproduction keeps it going” (Inwood 2001, 48).  Inwood finds that the separateness of the sexes is seen by Empedocles as one of strife’s separative functions.  He also notes that “the futile effort to reunite with others is love’s doing – but love is losing power.  To collaborate with love and indulge in procreative sex is merely to struggle against the inexorable plan of the cosmos” (Inwood 2001, 48). He finds a parody of this Empedoclean viewpoint in Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium.

Inwood further directs his readers to a passage from Hippolytus’ Refutatio that displays Empedocles’ disdain for procreative sexual relations: “And he teaches those who listen to such arguments to be self-controlled with respect to intercourse with women, so that they will not collaborate with and partake in the works produced by Strife, who always dissolves and separates the work of love (CTXT-10g)” (Inwood 2001, 88-90, 91).  In this text, procreative sex is viewed as collaboration with strife.  As Inwood notes, “for us this is counter-intuitive.”  However, for Empedocles, procreative unions between the sexes serve to reaffirm the separation inherent in sexual differentiation.  Inwood explains:

“By participating in an activity which depends for its very possibility on separateness and difference, we are in effect giving our approval to those differences.  We live our lives on the assumption that the strife-induced opposition is natural and right, and by engaging in reproductive activities, we are tending to prolong the world of strife.” (Inwood 2001, 65)

To work against the cycles of existence is impious, according to Empedocles.  Those who hold this belief will do their best to live in accordance with the cosmic cycles;  they will keep separate what is by nature separate.  Hence, also the prohibition against beans that runs: “Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands off beans (kuamon)!” (DK 31 B 141). According to Inwood, the word “kuamoi” was thought by most people to refer to the legume, but careful scholarship has shown that in this place kuamoi refers to the “causes of conception,” or the testicles.  Empedocles’ prohibition is meant to draw men away not from eating beans but from a desire for heterosexual sex.  However, Empedoclean prohibitions against procreation certainly leave room for much other sexual activity, including pederasty and homosexual unions (Inwood 2001, 64-65, note 149; cf. 150-151).

Empedocles is not simply a pederast;  he is also termed a pre-Socratic philosopher.  Hence, the contrast made between the Empedoclean and Socratic descents in light of their different attitudes towards pederasty is meant to speak to the nature and content of philosophizing as a psychic activity. Out of all the Platonic dialogues, only in the Symposium does Socrates claim to know nothing but “erotic things” (ta erotika, 177d).  This unique statement refers not only to dialectical anairesis, but also to the katabasis of Socrates, and it is by means of Socrates that Plato intends to reveal the mysteries of love to his readers.  Just as Socrates proclaims his knowledge of the daimonic, so too does Empedocles proclaim that he has looked into the daimonic depths:  “I wept and wailed when I saw the unfamiliar place” (DK 31 B 118).  Hades is seen by Empedocles as “an unpleasant place where there are blood and wrath and tribes of other banes,” and “they wander in darkness in the meadow of Ate” (DK 31 B 121).  The daimonism of both Socrates and Empedocles is similar insofar as it involves katabasis.

However, Socrates’ own katabasis is also much different from that of Empedocles.  Unlike the Empedoclean katabasis, the descent of Socrates – although Socrates admits that it is fearful at 174a, 194a, and 198a – is not filled with anguish and despair.  Empedocles renders the character of his own experience of katabasis as an “oracle of necessity”:

“There is an oracle of necessity, an ancient decree of the gods, eternal, sealed with broad oaths, that whenever one of the daimons who has won long-lasting life, in sinning, stains his dear limbs with blood, or in strife has sinned and sworn a false oath, for thirty-thousand seasons he wanders, far from the blessed ones, being born throughout that period in all kinds of mortal shapes, exchanging one painful path of life for another.  For the strength of ether chases him into the sea, the sea spews him forth onto the surface of the earth, earth casts him into the beams of the blazing sun, and the sun throws him into the eddies of ether.  One receives him from the other, and all hate him.  I too, am now one of these – a fugitive from the gods and a wanderer – trusting in raging strife.” (DK 31 B 115)

According to Empedocles, all living things are daimonic, and a daimon is a highly stable mixture of all six basic elements: earth, fire, air, water, love and strife. Daimons are eventually, like all compounds, destined to dissolve when the reign of strife becomes complete and the roots which form us separate completely again.  In the passage cited above, Empedocles speaks of daimonism as having arisen from a disturbance ending the complete reign of love.  A stain of blood or a broken promise sets in motion the daimonic movement away from complete mixture towards total separation.  Daimonism is therefore the inherent characteristic of the current epic of gradual disintegration and decay.

Empedocles experiences existence as participation in daimonic decay and strife.  Movement in the opposite direction according to love is against the cosmic cycles, and contrary to the destiny of the daimon. For him, daimonic movement is uni-directional and epochal;  all are bound ever to descend into decay;  erotic ascent is considered to be a wretched impiety and contrary to the cosmic cycles, at least during the epoch of disintegration and neikos.  For Empedocles then, existence during the reign of strife is uniquely cave-like; “we came down into this roofed-in cave” (DK 31 B 120), and here we shall remain until our daimonism ends in total dissolution.  There is no “way up” from the cave, as there was in Plato’s Republic (514a);  there is no path that leads into the light of the sun.  The cave is “roofed-in” (hypostegon), letting in no light. There is only a prison full of anguish and despair until the end of this epoch.  The terrible despair that permeates the katabasis of Empedocles perhaps accounts for the traditional story concerning his death, for he is said to have leapt down into the volcanic depths of Mount Aetna (Laertius 8.67-74).

Plato replaces the sophists in the Hades of the Protagoras with the shadow of Empedocles in the Symposium.  Unlike the sophists, Empedocles has experienced the depths of the Dionysian soul through his own katabasis.  Unlike Socrates, however, he cannot conceive that erotic journeying occurs also in a double-movement – that is, in a descent that is at the same time an ascent towards the Beautiful.  For this reason, he is trapped in Hades and unable to ascend.  Like Socrates, Empedocles is disciplined against both pleasures and pains; both men have prepared themselves physically and psychologically for katabasis.  However, unlike Socratic eros, Empedoclean daimonism is corrupted by a pleasure that comes to the anguished souls of those who deny the possibility of ascent;  this is the pleasure of destruction, and of assisting in the decay and disintegration of the cosmos.  Empedocles views such activity as being in accord with the epochal separation of the roots.  Pleasure derived from “trusting in raging strife” is the fruit of his piety.  In order to be pious, however, pleasure can only arise from non-generative daimonic activities;  moreover, all such action must avoid the inter-mingling of unlike things.  In the Symposium, pederasty is the image of Empedoclean daimonism;  the pleasures of pederasty originate in the non-generative coalescing of like with like, and in the corresponding decay of compounds into their separate roots.

To summarize: the double-movement that is philosophy – that is to say, a simultaneous katabasis-anairesis – entails a kind of dying and rebirth that is dissimilar to the erotic deadness that is manifest in the lives of the various banqueters. Their pederastic eros is very much akin to the daimonism that drives Empedocles’ own particular variety of katabasis; however, just as the banqueters have descended into a Hades of their own making through enslavement to their lusts, their desires, and their misology, so too is Empedocles’ descent a product of his own delight in non-generative eros and cosmic disintegration. Inasmuch as Empedocles delights in these things, he has not truly died to himself. That is to say, he has not truly practised the art of dying; consequently, he has not practiced philosophy as immortalization.

IV. Conclusion: Socrates’ Fear, Courage, and Dying in relation to Katabasis in the Symposium

Throughout this article, I have attempted to flesh out the significance of the “directional ambivalence” that is at the heart of Plato’s Symposium by pointing to the equal importance of the hidden katabasis imagery alongside the “obvious” imagery of anairesis; by noting both movements, we come to see the act of philosophizing not as a uni-directional endeavour, nor primarily as one of ascent, but rather as a double-movement. Elsewhere, I have cited Voegelin’s remarks about this double-movement in order that we might puzzle over the strange relation between fear and love in the dialogue, or what precisely is the impetus for the soul’s erotic movements during its odyssey:  “From the depth of the psyche that has sunk into death and disorder ‘comes the force that drags the philosopher’s soul up to the light, so that it is difficult to say whether the upper There is the source of his truth, or the nether There that forced him up’” (Steel 2004, 60; cf. Voegelin 1957, 62). Put another way, Voegelin’s remarks here about the upward-downward movements as depicted in Plato’s Republic invite us to wonder about the extent to which not only love (eros), but also fear (phobos) plays an important role in the psychic life of the philosophic wayfarer. For instance, how are we to understand Socrates’ stated fear at 174a, 194a, and 198a? Planinc takes this fear to be “ironic” – that is to say, it is not a real or genuine fear; in his view, “Socrates has no fear” (Planinc 2004, 339). Again, for Planinc the main or “obvious” thing of importance in the Symposium is the overt ascent imagery (Planinc 2004, 327). However, if we entertain the possibility that it may be correct to find an equality between katabasis and anairesis in the dual movement of philosophizing, and when this movement is contrasted dramatically with the erotic death of the other banqueters, we are led to take Socrates’ three statements about his fear more seriously. Indeed, the need to take his stated fear as serious seems to follow when we acknowledge him as courageous, for how could courage be said to exist where there is no fear? Courage is not the same thing as fearlessness, which is more like being foolhardy or rash (thrasys); courage is rather the virtue that directs human activities towards the good even in the face of fear.

Socrates is frequently accused of being “ironic,” a fact that he brings up in his defence speech while dealing in particular with the fear others have voiced to him about the real possibility of his being put to death (Apology 38a). Earlier in this same speech, Socrates addresses the question of when it is appropriate to be ashamed, and therefore of what is the proper object of fear. Asking himself the question, “[A]re you not ashamed, Socrates, of having followed the sort of pursuit from which you now run the risk of dying?” he replies: “What you say is ignoble, fellow, if you suppose that a man who is of even a little benefit should take into account the danger of living or dying, but not rather consider this alone whenever he acts: whether his actions are just or unjust, and the deeds of a good man or a bad” (28ab). A bit later in this same speech, Socrates distinguishes what is unworthy of fear from what is truly fearsome. On the one hand, he contends that “to fear death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem to be wise, but not to be so.” Put another way, to fear bodily death is to presume that one knows death to be a great evil. On the other hand, Socrates states: “I do know that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey one’s better, whether god or human being” (28b); hence, it is not bodily death or deprivation of earthly goods that ought to strike fear into us; rather, our fear and shame are well-placed when they accord with the threat of doing something that is hurtful to our character – something that threatens not bodily death, but rather the erotic death of the soul: essentially the cessation of the double-movement that is philosophy. Indeed, to engage in activities that would preclude philosophizing is, for Socrates, what is truly shameful or fearsome. It is for this reason that Socrates tells his fellows: “I, men of Athens, salute you and love you (philo), but I will obey (peisomai) the god rather than you; and as long as I breathe and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing” (29d). Fearing not bodily death but rather the erotic death that is the cessation of the double-movement of katabasisanairesis, Socrates voices his fears about those things that would stymie the artful dying that is philosophy. As I have tried to demonstrate, an image of this cessation is manifest dramatically in the pederasty and misology of the shades of Hades gathered together at Agathon’s banquet.

Having already dealt with the first two instances of Socrates’ fear earlier (Steel 2004), let me here make some brief explanation concerning the reality of Socrates’ fear at 198a. Agathon’s speech occupies an important place in the Symposium.  He is the last to speak before Socrates, and the only speaker to receive applause from everyone at the banquet (198a).  Socrates mentions only the speech of Agathon as having made him fearful (198a), and of all the banqueters, he engages in dialectic with Agathon alone (193e-194e, 199c-201c). Moreover, it is only in response to Agathon’s speech that Socrates mentions the katabasis explicitly.  The meaning of the special status attributed to Agathon in the Symposium is illuminated by the imagery of the katabasis that underlies the dialogue. In my examination of this imagery (Steel, 2004), I found that the applause afforded to Agathon as “king of the dead” was meant to resonate as the “eerie clamour of the dead” in the Odyssey (eche thespesia, 11.633).  It is precisely this “eerie clamour” that makes both Odysseus and Socrates fearful, and in both cases it is their cue to ascend. The image of katabasis also helps us to understand why Agathon alone is engaged in dialectical inquiry with Socrates.  Socrates is particularly concerned in the third and fourth interludes (193e-194e, 198a-199c) with his own stated fear and Agathon’s lack of shame, both of which are intimately related to Agathon’s dramatic portrayal as a shade. The subsequent elenchos of Agathon (199c-201c) is meant as preparation for the anairesis — for the blood sacrifice of Socrates’ dialogue with Diotima that follows (201d-212a).

Just prior to Agathon’s encomium, in the third interlude between the speeches about Eros (193e-194e), Eryximachus praises the speeches that have already been made about Eros;  he adds that the speeches to follow – namely, those of Agathon and Socrates – will be especially clever, for he claims that both Socrates and Agathon are clever concerning the things of love (deinois peri ta erotika, 193e).  Socrates responds by suggesting that, although the speeches have been beautiful, “if you were where I am now, or perhaps rather where I will be once Agathon also has spoken well, you too would be very afraid (mal’an phoboio) and you’d be just as I am now in everything” (194a).  This terse statement bids us to reflect concerning what Socrates means.  Why is he afraid?  And where exactly is Socrates?

Examining these questions, we notice that Socrates is afraid because of where he is in the speaking order.  Speakers at the banquet must praise the person to their right (222e).  As one who loves wisdom, Socrates wants to praise the good (agathon), and yet Agathon sits to his left; consequently, by strict order of the speeches, Socrates cannot praise the agathon.  Being prevented from praising or loving the good is indeed fearsome, for the only alternative seems to be praising what is not good, and hence shameful things. Moreover, Agathon’s speech may not be worthy of praise:  it may not be a good speech about Eros.  If Socrates wishes to praise the agathon, his own praise for the speech of Agathon which is about to ensue will be partial at best.

However, Agathon misunderstands Socrates’ comments about his fears;  he takes Socrates’ fear as ironic, and he supposes that Socrates is flirting with him.  Agathon playfully accuses Socrates of intending to drug him (pharmattein boulei me, 194a) with praise in order to confuse him before his spectators (theatron).  Socrates denies Agathon’s accusations, saying that he is aware of Agathon’s courage (andreian) and his greatness of thought (megalophrosynen) before large audiences; he suggests that the smaller audience present at the symposion would affect him no differently (194b).  Agathon disagrees with Socrates, saying that the many (hoi polloi) who attend the festivals are unintelligent (aphronoi) but that the few (oligoi) who are present at his banquet are thoughtful men (emphrones). By his rhetorical use of the divisions “few” and “many” and their corresponding meanings of “thoughtful” and “unintelligent,” Agathon prefaces his speech about Eros with flattery for his audience.  He, not Socrates, is attempting to drug them and to flirt with them.  Socrates, however, rejects his flattery, just as he rejected the flattery of Eryximachus.  He exposes the inadequacy of Agathon’s distinction between the few and the many, noting that everyone at the banquet was also in attendance at the festival, among the many.

Socrates has shown Agathon that the distinction he has drawn between the “few” and “many” does not necessarily correspond to the distinctions “intelligent” and “unintelligent”.  He continues in his rude and unflattering fashion by asking Agathon if he entirely lacks any sense of shame (aischyne, 194c).  Agathon admits that he would perhaps feel shame before the wise, but Socrates presses him further.  Socrates suggests that it is not clear that the guests at the banquet are wise, nor is it clear that they are in any way different from the many who attend the festivals.  Agathon does shameful things before both groups, and as was previously noted (Steel, 2004), Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae is witness to this fact.  Again, Socrates asks Agathon if he has no shame, saying, “Wouldn’t you be ashamed if you thought you were doing something shameful before the many?” (194d).  Being ashamed is the right response to doing something shameful, regardless of whether or not it is done in the presence of many or only a few witnesses.  Even if you are alone, it is still shameful to do shameful things.  It is precisely in this that Socrates’ fear lies, not as one who fears death, but rather as one who knows “it is bad and shameful to do injustice.” Socrates’ fear is as one concerned with whether “his actions are just or unjust, and the deeds of a good man or a bad” (Apology 28ab), and his elenchus of Agathon vindicates the many from the shameless few;  for the few have no license to be irresponsible and shameful before them. He calls upon Agathon to have shame before the smaller multitude that is present with him.  Shame is a prerequisite for embarking upon katabasisanairesis;  one cannot stand before the Beautiful without a sense of shame at one’s own imperfection before perfect Beauty.

However, not only Agathon lacks shame.  Phaedrus too is shameless, and he perceives that Socrates is about to hijack their encomiums to Eros.  This is unappetizing to Phaedrus, as “father of the discourse” (177d).  As we have seen, all the speeches in praise of Eros made by the pederasts are, in effect, praise of Phaedrus.  Phaedrus’ own speech is praise of himself, for it offers praise of his own phantasmagoric army of lovers who would be willing to die for him.  Pausanias’ bellicose speech demanding legal reforms to relax Athenian laws against pederasty is offered to Phaedrus (185c);  Eryximachus’ speech begins with criticisms of Pausanias’ encomium (185e-186a), but there is no mention of the faults in Phaedrus’ speech, suggesting that Eryximachus is behaving as a rival lover.  At the end of the dialogue, Eryximachus and Phaedrus leave together (223bc), which suggests that homo-erotic activities will ensue between boy and the old man.  Phaedrus wants to be praised by Agathon as well.  He wants shameful things to follow shamelessly, and he entreats Agathon to “render what is due to the god” — namely, himself.  Agathon, because he is without shame, responds agreeably, saying “nothing prevents me from speaking” (194e).  In effect, he answers Socrates’ question, “Yes, I have no shame.”  Socrates’ attempt at effecting a katabasisanairesis for the banqueters during the third interlude is consequently cut short by the speech of Agathon.

The peroration to Agathon’s speech (197ce) is the stylistic culmination of his entire encomium (194e-197e).  Socrates likens it to the raising of the Gorgon’s head by Persephone (198bc), an image taken directly from the katabasis of Odysseus (11.632-635; cf. Steel 2004, 79). Unlike all the other speeches, Agathon’s encomium has met with resounding applause from all the banqueters.  This applause, when considered in conjunction with the image of Odysseus’ katabasis, is very much like the “eerie clamour” emanating from the hordes of dead who surround him (Steel 2004).  Just as the Odyssean katabasis culminates in “green fear” (chloron deos, 633), so too does the Socratic katabasis culminate in fear of the ochlon that has no shame before the beautiful.

The peroration acts as an eloquent flourish for his encomium, and yet it also reveals the faults in Agathon’s own speech.  As noted by Aristotle, Agathon’s tragedies are unsatisfactory because he tries to include too much material in them, much as though they were epic rather than tragedy (Poetics, XVIII. 13-16).  Agathon, inspired and filled with Eros, lacks measure and moderation.  Although he claims Eros as his “best saviour” (197e), Eros is unable to save Agathon from his erotic deadness as a shade trapped in Hades.

Instead of salvation through an erotic katbasisanairesis, Agathon is driven mad with eloquence.  The peroration is crammed with unargued statements.  It is ordered metrically and therefore possesses a distinctly poetic character (Dover 1980, 122-124); however, because the contents of the various statements about Eros are not related to one another in any clear manner, the peroration is rendered largely incoherent.  Moreover, it is unrelated to the rest of Agathon’s speech.  On the one hand, Agathon’s peroration fails to sum up the points made earlier in the speech;  consequently, he leaves his speech without any final, complete and coherent vision.  On the other hand, Agathon uses the peroration to introduce a myriad of new, unexplained attributes of Eros, such as being the origin of festivals, gentleness, goodwill, and the “gracious good.”  Eros is further described as the object of contemplation among the wise, and as the possession of the fortunate;  he is the father of luxury, charm, and graciousness;  he is a guide, defender (epibates), comrade in arms, and the best saviour.  It is unclear from Agathon’s speech how Eros is any of these things.

Agathon’s frenzied finale is a comical depiction of his own sexual incontinence;  he releases all of his erotic desires in the space of a flurried orgasm in speech.  His frantic peroration shows that he lacks the necessary erotic stamina to make a real and proper ending in matters of love.  His erotic release is premature.  His encomium is not worthy of Eros, being unable to follow Eros to the end.  Agathon thus exposes his own erotic limitations.  Socrates is the only lover who remains;  and he is the only one at the party who is able to follow the god to the finish.



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This was originally published in three parts in Anamnesis (2014).

Sean SteelSean Steel

Sean Steel

Sean Steel is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Sessional Instructor at the University of Calgary and a public school teacher. He is author of The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education (SUNY, 2015) and Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom (Peter Lang, 2017).

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