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"Plato's Symposium" by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869


When we think of a Symposium — that is to say, a literary work taking for its title the Greek word for a drinking party — we are likely to think immediately of Plato, whose dialogue bearing that title describes a rather sedate party (early on the protagonists decide that they will not drink heavily) in the course of which Socrates gives his memorable account of the nature of love, taught to him by the priestess Diotima of Mantineia. According to Diotima, far from being a purely carnal matter, love also has an intellectual and abstract side, and under its influence men can aspire to a love of the form of the beautiful.

But other literary symposia have come down to us from antiquity. Xenophon also composed one, an account of a banquet given by Callias in 421 BC. Here again Socrates is the central character, and again he makes a speech on the superiority of spiritual love to the carnal variety. Menippus, the Cynic philosopher all of whose works have been lost, is also said to have written a Symposium.

More mischievous altogether, however, is the much later Symposium written by the rhetorician and satirist Lucian (who, as it happens, relished the works of Menippus).  Lucian’s is an account of a party given by Aristaenetus to celebrate the wedding of his daughter Cleanthis to Eucritus, a banker who is also a student of philosophy. Lycinus, who attended the dinner, describes for his friend Philo the other guests, who were almost all philosophers: Zenothemis the Stoic, Hermon the Epicurean, Cleodemus the Peripatetic, Ion the Platonist, Diphilus the tutor, Histiaeus the grammarian, Dionysodorus the rhetorician, and Alcidamus the Cynic. Philo is very impressed by this guest list:

Good for Aristenaetus, I say, because in celebrating the greatest festival day there is, he thought fit to entertain the most learned men in preference to the rest of the world, and culled the bloom, as it were, of every school, not including some and leaving out others, but asking all without discrimination.

But the shallowness of Philo’s naive admiration is exposed by the course of events. Under the influence of wine, the true nature of all the philosophers is revealed, and in all cases it proves to be at variance with their lofty intellectual pretensions. Zenothemis the Stoic tries to steal food from the banquet, Cleodemus the Peripatetic makes a clumsy pass at the pretty cup-bearer who is serving him, Alcidamas the Cynic is distracted from verbally attacking the other guests by the arrival of a huge cake, which he proceeds to eat. Hetoemocles, another Stoic, who had not been invited, sends a letter of reproach to Aristaenetus, which is read out and launches the party, already going seriously awry, down the path of actual violence and attempted rape, as Alcidamas tries to ravish the flute-girl:

The learned men were playing the rake and abusing each other and gorging themselves and bawling and coming to blows: and Alcidamas even made water right there in the room, without showing any respect for the women.

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