Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

PLATO: Symposium

When was the last time you walked into a bar and heard a bunch of guys discussing the nature of love in a philosophical tone? That’s sort of what Plato’s Symposium is all about. Drinking and philosophy generally don’t mix. When most guys start drinking they believe they’re saying profound things but are really just acting goofy. That’s the usual result of a dazed mind and confused thinking. Socrates was an exception. He could out-drink everybody in the bar and still remain clear headed. Philosophy was his passion in life and alcohol didn’t affect his mission of bringing philosophy to everyone he met. Apparently he was successful at it. One of Socrates’ pupils admits that …I don’t know anything that gives me greater pleasure, or profit either, than talking or listening to philosophy. But when it comes to ordinary conversation, such as the stuff you talk about finance and the money market, well I find it pretty tiresome personally, and I feel sorry that my friends should think they’re very busy when they’re really doing absolutely nothing. Of course, I know what you think of me; you think I’m just a poor unfortunate philosopher, and you’re probably right. But here’s the difference: I don’t think that you’re unfortunate, I KNOW you are. This is the kind of attitude that can get you into a fight in a bar. It eventually got Socrates killed.

Ordinary people may be forgiven for asking if there’s a link between philosophy and real life. Of course philosophy professors say there is. But let’s put it to the test and find out for ourselves. Let’s take a common human experience: love. Everybody knows about love and everybody has an opinion. What can philosophy tell me about love that I can’t find out in my local bar? In Symposium we find not just one, but several answers:
PHAEDRUS: Love is a god…the ancient source of all our highest good.
PAUSANIUS: There are two kinds of love: earthly and heavenly. The earthly Aphrodite’s Love…governs the passions of the vulgar. Heavenly love… is innocent of any hint of lewdness.
ERYXIMACHUS: Love is the ordering principle or harmony that is necessary to the good of all things.
ARISTOPHANES: The real nature of man is like this…in the beginning…the race was divided into three: male, female, and hermaphrodite.
(they were originally one creature, with four arms and four legs, two faces, etc. but because of human pride Zeus) cut them in half…(now) love is always trying to reintegrate our former nature, to make two into one, and to bridge the gulf between one human being and another.
AGATHON: Love is…tender, beautiful, wise, temperate, the loveliest and the best of the gods, and the author of virtue, peace and friendship among men.

So there’s philosophy for you. Ask a simple question and you get five different answers. And according to Socrates, they’re not even the right answers. For Socrates, love is a life-long search for beauty. The right answer goes something like this: Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung; that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special study that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself…if man’s life is ever worth living, it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty. There are at least three good options here. You can (1) go to a bar, drink beer and listen philosophically to Hank Williams sing I’m so lonesome I could cry; (2) sit home and read Plato; or (3) forget about love and go do something else.


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