What I’m Reading: Symposium and Phaedrus

I’m reviewing two of Plato’s dialogues–the Symposium and the Phaedrus, because both were included in the volume I read. Previously, I’ve reviewed other dialogues by Plato–the Republic and a collection of five dialogues related to the execution of Socrates.


First, let me address the question–“Oh, you’re reading Plato. Isn’t it hard to read?”

And the answer is, no, not at all. I know this is philosophy, but this isn’t Kant or Hobbes or Schopenhauer or somebody like that. Plato writes dialogues, i.e., conversations. His main character is always Socrates, an immensely likable character (how much Plato’s Socrates reflects the real historical man is a matter of endless debate among scholars) who has a knack for leading his friends and students in discussions of philosophical matters that feel totally natural and are pretty easy to follow.

The Symposium is one of Plato’s most beloved works, mostly because it relates the events of a Greek drinking party. Socrates and several others have gotten together to celebrate because their friend Aristophanes, the famous Greek comedian, has won an award for presenting the best play that year. Before they start drinking, they decide each will give a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love, and at the end they’ll judge who gave the best speech.

Each gives a speech in turn praising love, with Aristophanes in particular giving an odd and humorous account. At the end, Socrates gives a high-minded speech about how the best kind of love is philosophical love, which benefits all mankind, and you think that’s the end.

But then the party is crashed by a very drunk, semi-belligerent Alcibiades, the notorious Greek playboy, who tells them all not to heed a word of Socrates, because he doesn’t know a thing about love. Alcibiades gives a rambling but funny account of trying to seduce Socrates, which he thought would be easy because Socrates is an older man, only to find himself thwarted at every turn.

The party ends at dawn with everybody drunk and passed out. Only Socrates remains awake. He walks to town, performs his morning prayers, and goes about his day none the worse for wear, his rational nature completely unaffected by a night of drinking.

Phaedrus Okay, the book with the Symposium included this dialogue as a sort of bonus. It starts off a little lightweight as far as Plato’s dialogues go, though charming, and by the end has reached unsuspected depths.

Socrates runs into his friend Phaedrus one morning on walk in the countryside, and they agree to walk together while Phaedrus explains a speech his friend Lysias gave him, trying to talk Phaedrus into sleeping with him even though they aren’t in love with each other.

At a beautiful creek that they think must by the home to water nymphs, Socrates explains why Lysias’s speech was foolish, point by point. He then goes further, elucidating why one should avoid sophistry like Lysias’s speech and always tell the truth, with digressions on such things as the nature of the soul. At the end, Phaedrus and Socrates walk back to Athens.

Simple in some ways, but so profound I anticipate rereading this in the near future.

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