Starting in his adolescence, Alcibiades was a student, and a follower, of Socrates. Both of them used erotic language in speaking to, and of, each other. Is it reasonable to identify their relationship as paederastic?
As defined in the Symposium, the object of Socratic eros (stemming from Aphrodite Urania rather than Aphrodite Pandemos) is the pursuit of truth jointly undertaken by the lover and the beloved. In view of this distinction, Socrates’ assertion of being in love with (ἐράω) Alcibiades at Gorgias 481d, cannot serve to identify him as a pederast, any more than a similar assertion can be used to impute pederasty into a loving relationship between a father and a son. Indeed, when at Gorgias 491e-492a Callicles argues in favor of indulging passions regardless of conventions, Socrates inquires whether a man who has an itch and wants to scratch, and may scratch in all freedom, can pass his life happily in continual scratching: καὶ πρῶτον μὲν εἰπὲ εἰ καὶ ψωρῶντα καὶ κνησιῶντα, ἀφθόνως ἔχοντα τοῦ κνῆσθαι, κνώμενον διατελοῦντα τὸν βίον εὐδαιμόνως ἔστι ζῆν. (494c). After Callicles avers that the man who scratches himself will thus spend his life sweetly (ἡδέως) and happily (εὐδαιμόνως), Socrates inquires whether the same licence applies to the life of a catamite (κίναιδος). Is not that awful, shameful, and wretched (δεινὸς καὶ αἰσχρὸς καὶ ἄθλιος)? Or will Callicles dare (τολμάω) to assert that such men are happy if they can freely indulge their wants? Whereupon a shocked Callicles inquires whether Socrates is not ashamed (αἰσχῡνῃ) to lead the discussion into such topics (494e). But Socrates responds by locating the object of shame in the person who says outright that those who enjoy themselves with whatever kind of enjoyment, are happy, and draws no distinction between the good and bad sorts of pleasure (495a).
In Xenophon’s Memorabilia [1.2.29-30], Socrates notes that Critias, later to be infamous as one of the thirty thugs the Spartans installed after their victory over Athens, desires a certain Euthydemus and is trying to use him sexually. When Critias ignores Socrates’ protestations, the philosopher remarks that Critias “has the sensibility of a pig, desiring as he does to rub up against Euthydemus like pigs rubbing themselves against stones.” This coarse image, like Socrates’ description in the Gorgias of homosexual desire as an “itch,” takes us to the heart of what passive homosexual eros means in ancient Greek literary remains: The worst example of the destructiveness of eros, it is a compulsive bestial power controlling the mind, an omnivorous force that stands synecdochically for all the natural greedy appetites that threaten civilized order.Mockery of the pathic urge as an unwholesome itch was a stock device in Athenian culture. Thus Aristophanes:
—Bruce S. Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, Westview Press, 1997, p. 115
ὡς ἡδὺ τὸ μέλος ὦ πότνιαι Γενετυλλίδες
καὶ θηλυδριῶδες καὶ κατεγλωττισμένον
καὶ μανδαλωτόν, ὥστ’ ἐμοῦ γ’ ἀκροωμένου
ὑπὸ τὴν ἕδραν αὐτὴν ὑπῆλθε γάργαλος.
καί σ’ ὦ νεανίσχ’ ὅστις εἶ, κατ’ Αἰσχύλον
ἐκ τῆς Λυκουργείας ἐρέσθαι βούλομαι.
ποδαπὸς ὁ γύννις; τίς πάτρα; τίς ἡ στολή;
τίς ἡ τάραξις τοῦ βίου; τί βάρβιτος
λαλεῖ κροκωτῷ; τί δὲ λύρα κεκρυφάλῳ;
τί λήκυθος καὶ στρόφιον; ὡς οὐ ξύμφορον.
τίς δαὶ κατόπτρου καὶ ξίφους κοινωνία;
τίς δ’ αὐτὸς ὦ παῖ; πότερον ὡς ἀνὴρ τρέφει;
καὶ ποῦ πέος; ποῦ χλαῖνα; ποῦ Λακωνικαί;
ἀλλ’ ὡς γυνὴ δῆτ’: εἶτα ποῦ τὰ τιτθία;
τί φῄς; τί σιγᾷς; ἀλλὰ δῆτ’ ἐκ τοῦ μέλους
ζητῶ σ’, ἐπειδή γ’ αὐτὸς οὐ βούλει φράσαι;
― Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 130-145
Oh! ye venerable Genetyllides, what tender and voluptuous songs! They surpass the most lascivious kisses in sweetness; I feel a thrill of delight pass up me as I listen to them. [To Euripides] Young man, if you are one, answer my questions, which I am borrowing from Aeschylus’ “Lycurgeia.” Whence comes this androgyne? What is his country? his dress? What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? What relation has a mirror to a sword? [To Agathon] And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man? Where is your tool, pray? Where is the cloak, the footgear that belong to that sex? Are you a woman? Then where are your breasts? Answer me. But you keep silent. Oh! just as you choose; your songs display your character quite sufficiently.
― translated by Eugene O’Neill, Jr.
Thus depiction of political decay in terms of a generalized sexual unrestraint is perhaps best seen in the debate between Just Logic and Unjust Logic in the Clouds. The two Logics are struggling for the soul of Pheidippides, a young fop whose father has sent him off to Socrates to learn how to use clever argumentation to get out of paying the bills the old man has run up financing his son’s aristocratic pretensions. Just Logic warns Pheidippides that if he follows the hedonistic relativism of Unjust Logic, gratifying all his appetites and rationalizing them with clever speaking, he will end up with a “wide asshole” (euruprôktos), either from being buggered or from having a radish stuck up his ass, the traditional punishment for adultery. Giving in to indiscriminate sexual appetite leads to passive homosexuality or seducing other men’s wives, both seen as crimes of “outrage” violating the cultural order. Unjust Logic shrugs, So what? The whole city is filled with men with “wide assholes”—the politicians, the tragic poets, the orators; even the members of the whole audience have “wide assholes” because they are controlled by a sexual appetite so powerful it compels them to be sodomized or to seduce other men’s wives. At this point a despairing Just Logic admits defeat, for the whole city is, he admits, made of “fucked ones,” all corrupted by social and political institutions that exist only to gratify without restraint their appetites and passions rather than limiting and controlling them. So it is that references to the big erect penis in Aristophanes’ plays signifies the surrender to a destructive excess and greed, since the organ presumably is oversized from overuse. If you follow Unjust Logic, Just Logic warns Pheidippides, you will have just such a “big cock.” Likewise in the Knights the Sausage-Seller tells Demos, the personified people of Athens, that if they listen to Kleon, Aristophanes’ type of the corrupt politician, they will be “completely hard,” pure unrestrained appetite.
—Bruce S. Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, Westview Press, 1997, p. 117
καὶ τὴν Θέτιν γ’ ἔγημε διὰ τὸ σωφρονεῖν ὁ Πηλεύς.
κᾆτ’ ἀπολιποῦσά γ’ αὐτὸν ᾤχετ’: οὐ γὰρ ἦν ὑβριστὴς
οὐδ’ ἡδὺς ἐν τοῖς στρώμασιν τὴν νύκτα παννυχίζειν:
γυνὴ δὲ σιναμωρουμένη χαίρει: σὺ δ’ εἶ Κρόνιππος.
σκέψαι γὰρ ὦ μειράκιον ἐν τῷ σωφρονεῖν ἅπαντα
ἅνεστιν, ἡδονῶν θ’ ὅσων μέλλεις ἀποστερεῖσθαι,
παίδων γυναικῶν κοττάβων ὄψων πότων κιχλισμῶν.
καίτοι τί σοι ζῆν ἄξιον, τούτων ἐὰν στερηθῇς;
εἶεν. πάρειμ’ ἐντεῦθεν ἐς τὰς τῆς φύσεως ἀνάγκας.
ἥμαρτες, ἠράσθης, ἐμοίχευσάς τι, κᾆτ’ ἐλήφθης:
ἀπόλωλας: ἀδύνατος γὰρ εἶ λέγειν. ἐμοὶ δ’ ὁμιλῶν
χρῶ τῇ φύσει, σκίρτα, γέλα, νόμιζε μηδὲν αἰσχρόν.
μοιχὸς γὰρ ἢν τύχῃς ἁλούς, τάδ’ ἀντερεῖς πρὸς αὐτόν,
ὡς οὐδὲν ἠδίκηκας: εἶτ’ ἐς τὸν Δί’ ἐπανενεγκεῖν,
κἀκεῖνος ὡς ἥττων ἔρωτός ἐστι καὶ γυναικῶν:
καίτοι σὺ θνητὸς ὢν θεοῦ πῶς μεῖζον ἂν δύναιο;
τί δ’ ἢν ῥαφανιδωθῇ πιθόμενός σοι τέφρᾳ τε τιλθῇ,
ἕξει τινὰ γνώμην λέγειν τὸ μὴ εὐρύπρωκτος εἶναι;
ἢν δ’ εὐρύπρωκτος ᾖ, τί πείσεται κακόν;
τί μὲν οὖν ἂν ἔτι μεῖζον πάθοι τούτου ποτέ;
τί δῆτ’ ἐρεῖς, ἢν τοῦτο νικηθῇς ἐμοῦ;
σιγήσομαι. τί δ’ ἄλλο;
φέρε δή μοι φράσον:
συνηγοροῦσιν ἐκ τίνων;
τί δαί; τραγῳδοῦσ’ ἐκ τίνων;
δημηγοροῦσι δ’ ἐκ τίνων;
ἔγνωκας ὡς οὐδὲν λέγεις;
καὶ τῶν θεατῶν ὁπότεροι
καὶ δὴ σκοπῶ.
τί δῆθ’ ὁρᾷς;
πολὺ πλείονας νὴ τοὺς θεοὺς
τοὺς εὐρυπρώκτους: τουτονὶ
γοῦν οἶδ’ ἐγὼ κἀκεινονὶ
καὶ τὸν κομήτην τουτονί.
τί δῆτ’ ἐρεῖς;
ἡττήμεθ’: ὦ κινούμενοι
πρὸς τῶν θεῶν δέξασθέ μου
ἐξαυτομολῶ πρὸς ὑμᾶς.
― Aristophanes, Clouds 1067-1104
Thanks to his discretion, Peleus won the right to marry Thetis.
Yes, a little too discreet between the sheets, I heard, that’s why
she ran out on him, because he simply wasn’t outrageous enough in bed.
You know some women like it that way, you horny old Cronus stud!
Just consider, dear boy, what a life of discretion consists of,
and all the hedonistic delights you would miss out on—boys, girls,
drinking games, fancy food, fine wine, a good laugh.
How on earth could you endure life without these necessities?
Now, let us move on and discuss the needs of human nature.
Suppose that you’ve been indulging in an illicit love affair. You are discovered!
A scandal! What will you do? You are finished, because you don’t have the means
to argue your way out of trouble. But if you choose to make my acquaintance,
your nature can run free, with a spring in your step and a smile on your face,
and shameful thoughts will never even cross your mind. If the husband accuses you
of adultery, plead innocence and blame Zeus. Say that clearly he can’t resist his lust
for women, so how can you, a mere mortal, be expected to have more strength than a god?
Yes, but what if he takes your advice and gets punished by pubic plucking, scrotal singeing,
and a jolly good rectal radish ramming. No argument of yours is going to help him after that!
You mean people might think that he liked his asshole spread wide?
Yes, what could possibly be worse than that?
Will you concede to me if I can prove this point to you?
If you can, you’ll not hear another peep out of me.
How would you describe most of our lawyers?
They’re wide asses.
Quite right, and what about our tragic dramatists?
All wide asses.
Yes, indeed. And our politicians?
Definitely wide asses.
Then surely you must see that you are defending a lost cause.
I mean, take a good look at the audience.
What would you call most of them?
And what do you see?
By all the gods, most of them are ... wide asses!
(He starts pointing at individual members of the audience.)
Well I know he is, and he definitely is,
and that long-haired chap over there and ... oh my!
Well then, what have you got to say for yourself now?
I have to admit that you fuckers
have beaten me.
Here, take my cloak,
I think I might give it a try myself!
(Exit Superior Argument through the stage left door.)
― Aristophanes, Clouds, translated by Peter Meineck, in The Trials of Socrates: Six Classic Texts, Hackett, 2002, pp. 151-153
εὖ γε ξυνέβαλεν αὔτ’: ἀτὰρ δῆλόν γ’ ἀφ’ οὗ ξυνέγνω:
ὁτιὴ ‘πιώρκεις θ’ ἡρπακὼς καὶ κρέας ὁ πρωκτὸς εἶχεν.
― Aristophanes, Knights, 427-428
|Leader of the Chorus:
He argued rightly; to steal, perjure yourself and make your arse receptive are three essentials for climbing high.
― translated by Eugene O’Neill, Jr.
τί Ζῆν’ ἀυτεῖς; ταῦτα δ’ οὖν οὕτως ἔχει.
ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν αὐτὰς ἀποσχεῖν οὐκέτι
οἵα τ’ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνδρῶν: διαδιδράσκουσι γάρ.
τὴν μέν γε πρώτην διαλέγουσαν τὴν ὀπὴν
κατέλαβον ᾗ τοῦ Πανός ἐστι ταὐλίον,
τὴν δ’ ἐκ τροχιλείας αὖ κατειλυσπωμένην,
τὴν δ’ αὐτομολοῦσαν, τὴν δ’ ἐπὶ στρούθου †μίαν†
ἤδη πέτεσθαι διανοουμένην κάτω
ἐς Ὀρσιλόχου χθὲς τῶν τριχῶν κατέσπασα.
πάσας τε προφάσεις ὥστ’ ἀπελθεῖν οἴκαδε
ἕλκουσιν. ἤδη γοῦν τις αὐτῶν ἔρχεται.
― Aristophanes, Lysistrata 717-728
Why rend the air for Zeus? You see our plight. The truth is, I can’t keep the wives away from their husbands any longer; they’re running off in all directions. The first one I caught was over there by Pan’s Grotto, digging at her hole, and another was truing to escape by clambering down a pulley-cable. And yesterday another one mounted a sparrow and was about to fly off to Orsilochos’ house when I pulled her off by her hair.
― Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women, translated and edited by Jeffrey Henderson, Routledge, 1996, pp. 66-67
nam dextra pater inquinatiore,Whereas Martial finds his object of sexual contempt in the cloven anus of Charinus:
culo filius est voraciore
|Secti podicis usque ad umbilicum
nullas relliquias habet Charinus,
et prurit tamen usque ad umbilicum.
O quanta scabie miser laborat!
Culum non habet, est tamen cinaedus.
― M. Valeri Martialis Epigrammaton. Liber VI, 37
|His butt ripped up to his belly-button,
though no channel remains to Charinus
yet he tingles to his belly button.
O what an itch besets the wretch!
With no arse, he’s still a pathic.
― translated by MZ
But taken on his own terms, the Socratic philosopher must be credited with his repudiation of love that proceeds against the natural order. Similar considerations apply to the metaphoric description of Socrates’ ironic engagement in a chase of Alcibiades and his youthful beauty (κυνηγεσίου τοῦ περὶ τὴν Ἀλκιβιάδου ὥραν) in Protagoras 309a. Finally, in the Symposium 215-218. Plato has Alcibiades report Socrates’ rebuttal of his carnal advances. Even in the case of Socrates and Alcibiades, despite the sentiments of his would-be eromenos, Socrates makes his unconcern with carnal love clear on numerous occasions. Just as not all men who love animals qualify as zoophiliacs, not all men who love boys qualify as homosexuals. Attributing any kind of homosexuality to Plato, founders on Laws 1.636c & 8.841d describing this practice as a barren (ἄγονα) and unnatural (παρὰ φύσιν) transgressive enormity (τόλμημα).
Plato’s representation of Socrates as intoxicated by a glimpse of Charmides’ body (Charmides 155d) in no way contradicts the underlying facts of the matter that foreground his deliberate avoidance of sexual intercourse with his male students and followers. As the story goes, Socrates expressed his infatuation with beautiful young men up to, and exclusively of, the point at which they were eager to reciprocate his love. Thereupon he would disappoint them by expressing his allegiance to Aphrodite Urania at the expense of repudiating earthly love that aimed at the wrong object, love that substituted bodily gratification instead of philosophical pursuits. A consistent reading of Plato must account for this narrative. There is nothing in his portrayal of Socrates to imply any transgressions of principles laid down later on in the Laws.
A particular joke between Socrates and his friends seems to have been his supposed passion for Alcibiades. It is mentioned several times in Plato, and most interestingly in a fragment of the Socratic Aeschines, where it is compared to Bacchic frenzy.1 [1. Pl. Prot. 309a, Gorg. 481d, Alc. I, ad init.; Aesch. fr. 11c, p. 273 Dittmar. At Symposium 217a ff. Alcibiades is made to speak of his own mistaken impression that Socrates wished to sleep with him.]For my part, the love I bore to Alcibiades brought me an experience just like that of the Bacchae. They, when they are inspired, draw honey and milk in places where others cannot even draw water from wells. Similarly I, though I have learned nothing that I could impart to a man to do him good, nevertheless thought that, because I loved him, my company could make him a better man.The irony is apparent. The erotic delusion of Socrates, comparable to those of frenzied maenads, is that by his love he might be able to convert the dissolute Alcibiades to a better way of life. With this goes Alcibiades’s own description, in Plato’s Symposium, of Socrates’s impregnable chastity and ability to make him feel ashamed of himself. In the First Alcibiades Socrates is arguing generally that a man’s self is his mind or spirit (psyche) and the body only an instrument which it ‘governs’ and makes use of for living. This gives him the opportunity to point out what he means by true eros and to denounce the current version of homosexual love; for he who loves Alcibiades’s body does not love Alcibiades but only something belonging to him.2 [2. 131c. See further pp. 150ff. below.] In lighter vein, there is a pleasant exchange in Xenophon (Symp. 8.4) between Antisthenes and Socrates. Antisthenes says he loves him, and the Silenus-like Socrates replies, ‘But the less said about your love the better, since you love me not for myself (literally “my psyche”) but for my looks’. Later (8.23) he says seriously, ‘to consort with someone who loves the body rather than the soul is slavish’.
We may trust Plato’s account of Socrates’s philosophy and practice in matters of sex not only because there is no reliable evidence to the contrary, nor because, had he been given to pederasty, the conventions of the time imposed no need of concealment. It is more important that the character which Plato presents is absolutely convincing, but the most unchallengeable part of his evidence lies not in his direct praise of Socrates but in his own philosophy. Holding the views on eros which he did, he could not have been such an admiring disciple had Socrates himself fallen short of them. It must indeed have been the influence of Socrates which helped him to transcend so notably the current morality of his time. He condemned pederasty both in the Republic and the Laws.1 [1. Rep. 403 a-c. At Laws 838e, homosexual intercourse is condemned on the grounds of its barrenness as ‘deliberate murder of the human race, sowing seed on rocks and stones where it will never take root and bear its natural fruit’. At 636c it is called ‘unnatural and the height of shameless and incontinent indulgence’. That Plato forbade this intercourse is agreed by Aristotle, Pol. 1262a32ff.]
— W.K.C. Guthrie, Socrates (A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 3, Part 2), Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 75-76
César van Everdingen, Socrate, Xanthippe et Alcibiade
Plato condemns homosexual intercourse both in the Republic (III 403a-c; compare Aristotle Politics II 1262a.32-37, Nicomachean Ethics VII 1148b.27-30) and in the Laws. At Laws VIII 838e (compare 841d, 836c-e, I 636c) homosexual intercourse is condemned because of its sterility, and because the practice of it can render men unfit for marriage, and because it is contrary to nature and and a shameless indulgence. Plato accurately portrays, in the Symposium, common fifth-century Athenian sentiment in the matter of homosexuality; but that sentiment was not his own, any more than it was Socrates’, as may be inferred from Alcibiades’ failure to seduce him. In the Symposium, Diotima will treat the intercourse of man and woman as a divine thing, an an immortal element in the mortal living creature (206c); men fertile in body turn to women and are lovers in that way, aiming at immortality and remembrance and happiness through the begetting of children (208e). Diotima will also recognize a different kind of pederasty, which is not sexual but aimed solely at education (209b-c); it is a stage in the ascent to Beauty itself (211b).
— R. E. Allen, The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 2: The Symposium, Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 17-18
Jean Léon Gérôme, Socrate allant chercher Alcibiade dans la maison d’Aspasie
Socrates was put to death in 399 B.C. on a charge of impiety, and the Symposium brings together two figures who influenced, each in his own way, the outcome of the trial. Aristophanes is the chief of the “Old Accusers,” and the Clouds contributed to the prejudice against Socrates by portraying him as a sophist (Apology 18b-c, 19b-c). But the heart of the charge of impiety, confirmed by the controversy over the verdict afterward, was corrupting the youth. An example of that corruption was Socrates’ relation to Critias and Charmides, two of the Thirty Tyrants, who had Alcibiades killed and would have killed Socrates if their government had lasted. But the palmary example was Socrates’ relation to Alcibiades — Alcibiades, widely believed guilty of sacrilege, who led Athens into the stunning reversal of the Sicilian Expedition, who betrayed Athens to Sparta. Plato has now shown, out of Alcibiades’ own mouth and in language which recalls that of Socrates in his speech of defense in the Apology, the nature of the relation between Socrates and Alcibiades. He has also shown the inner connection between Alcibiades and Aristophanes. The importance of the speech of Alcibiades is indicated by the fact that the narrative form of the dialogue, from its very beginning, has been shaped by it. For if one asks why Aristodemus is introduced as narrator instead of Socrates, the answer is that Socrates could not have narrated the scene with Alcibiades. Alcibiades is concerned to praise Socrates rather than Eros. It would have been an affront to modesty, indecorous, to have Socrates narrate such praise of himself. This also helps explain the introduction of Diotima, for Socrates could scarcely be made to offer an encomium of Eros which, when Alcibiades praises him, turns out to fit Socrates himself. The speech of Alcibiades is integral to the narrative structure of the Symposium, and this implies that it is integral to the meaning of the Symposium.
It is certain that Alcibiades’ relation to Socrates was used, perhaps not explicitly but by implication, against Socrates at his trial. When Anytus and Meletus charged Socrates with corrupting the youth, they expected his judges to remember, not only Critias and Charmides, who became members of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 B.C., but Alcibiades. It becomes the more important, then, to consider what Alcibiades says. First, there was never a sexual relation between Socrates and Alcibiades, and this because Socrates refused it; again, the high distinction accorded Alcibiades as a soldier in service to Athens might better have been awarded to Socrates; again, their relation, though intimate, was distinguished by the fact that Alcibiades precisely did not follow Socrates, but went another way: the charge against Socrates of corrupting the youth is met by Alcibiades’ remark that he was drawn away from Socrates though being “worsted by the honors of the multitude.”162 [162. 216b. Cf. Republic VI 491b-492d, 494a-495b.] It is Athens, not Socrates, that corrupted Alcibiades, who explicitly says that he would have lived differently if he had lived by Socrates’ precepts. No doubt Socrates was hard to know: on the outside a Silenus, an ugly satyr, on the inside he contained a golden image of divinity. By an irony, the Athenians not only did not know Socrates, they did not know themselves, or that they corrupted the youth. It is an ironical enough comment on the trial. Alcibiades is Aristophanes in action, the old accuser and the old accusation.
That the reader is meant to be reminded of Socrates’ trial by Alcibiades’ speech is further shown by language that echoes the speech of the Apology. Alcibiades addresses the company as jurymen and judges, issues a mock charge against Socrates for ὕβρις, outrage, a recognized head of fault in Athenian law, and asks the jurors for their vote (219c).
Plato’s portrait of Socrates in the Symposium is a powerful defense of Socrates. Socrates himself could not have been made to say these things, but they needed to be said; Plato gets them said by the device of having Alcibiades himself say them — and letting Aristodemus narrate what he said.
Alcibiades undertakes to praise, not Eros, as previous speakers had done, but Socrates; and he praises Socrates not only for his temperance and courage, especially courage in battle, but for his wisdom. This introduces fundamental incongruity into the speech of Alcibiades, for Socrates has said over and again that he is not wise, except in the love-matters he learned from Diotima. If wisdom implies possession of knowledge, then Alcibiades is confused. He has identified the object of love with someone who lacks that object, identified wisdom with the philosopher who loves wisdom and does not possess it. In short, Alcibiades has done exactly what Agathon did: he has confused love with the object of love, desire with what is preeminently desirable – “this genuine divinity, this wonderful man” (219c). In the intensity of the love of Alcibiades for Socrates, a human being is elevated to the status of an ultimate object of desire. This is an emotional mistake that ultimately rests on an intellectual mistake: Alcibiades has confused a human being with goodness itself. The passion he feels is appropriate to the ultimate object of desire, Beauty itself, not to a lover of wisdom who lacks what he loves. In treating as ultimate a person who points beyond himself, Alcibiades is worshipping a kind of graven image.
Nor is Alcibiades happy. He is tortured, divided against himself, and his very comparisons show it. There is beauty in his comparison of Socrates to the statues of Silenus that contain the image of a god; but silenes are very like satyrs, and Alcibiades also compares Socrates and his words to the satyr Marsyas and his music. Marsyas challenged Apollo himself, and when he lost, he was flayed alive for his hubris, and his hide stretched into a wineskin (Euthydemus 285d). It is an ugly, angry image; but then, Alcibiades, the passionate lover, also sometimes wishes Socrates dead (216b-c). Odi et amo.
Indeed, his very praise of Socrates is close to condemnation. He turns to Socrates and says, “You are outrageous [ὑβριστής], are you not?” (215b; compare 221e). In context, this is something more than an affectionate jibe. ὕβρις was a recognized head of fault in Athenian law, involving interference with someone else’s rights ranging from insolence to wanton violence, and partaking of both crime and tort. When Pausanias wants to praise the best kind of Eros, the heavenly Eros, he says it is without ὕβρις, without lust or lewdness, but also without outrage. Alcibiades charges Socrates with ὕβρις because Socrates refused to give in to sexual seduction, and if the charge anticipates the Apology, the charge of hubris is also implied in Alcibiades’ comparison of Socrates to Marsyas.
This theme knits the end of the Symposium to the beginning. In the beginning, Agathon, ever courteous, invited Socrates to lie next to him so that he might absorb Socrates’ wisdom by proximity, as by a wick. Socrates, equally courteous, disclaimed his own wisdom by comparison to Agathon’s, whose victory in dramatic competition had shown his wisdom to the whole of Athens. Agathon replies to Socrates with the exact words Alcibiades will use: “You are outrageous [ὑβριστής], Socrates” (175e), and suggests that Dionysus will be the judge of their contending claims. That is, Dionysus will judge between Agathon’s claim that Socrates is wiser and Socrates’ claim that Agathon is wiser.
The presence of Dionysus at this drinking party is recalled again with the introduction of Aristophanes, whose whole business as a comic poet has to do with wine and sex (177e). But the decision between Agathon and Socrates is made not by Dionysus, but by the argument begun in the elenchus of Agathon and carried through in the speech of Diotima: Agathon is not wise because he quite literally, by his own admission, does not know what he is talking about; Socrates is not wise — as Diotima directly says (210a) and Socrates throughout has protested — because he is a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, and can love only what he lacks. Now comes Alcibiades, a symbolic representation of Dionysus himself, very nearly the god’s epiphany, offering praise of Socrates which from the point of view of either Dionysus or Aphrodite amounts to condemnation. He loves him, he has been enslaved by him, he would like to see him dead. The epiphany of the wine-god is a servant; the surrogate of a chthonian deity has been bitten by a snake. 163 [163. Dionysus was represented crowned with snakes: Euripides, Bacchae 99-104. Alcibiades enters crowned with fillets of ribbons.]
The hubris of Socrates in refusing sexual seduction is something more than what Alcibiades describes as temperance, self-control. If Eros is wish for happiness and implies desire for generation according to body or soul, much sexual desire is not Eros. Specifically, Alcibiades’ desire for sexual intercourse with Socrates was not Eros, because it was sterile. The Eros praised by the others at the banquet, the Eros of romantic love, is at best an image, an εἴδωλον, of genuine Eros, exemplified in the philosopher and embodied in Socrates. The hubris of Socrates consists in a principled disdain. If Eros is wish for what is truly good, then asceticism in respect to desire and especially sexuality, that most tempting and troubling of all desires, is implied in the Symposium and at the core of its moral psychology.
— R. E. Allen, The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 2: The Symposium, Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 105-108
Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrate arrache Alcibiade du sein de la Volupté, 1791, Musée du Louvre
| μείζω δέ τινα καὶ ὀξυτέραν ἔχεις εἰπεῖν ἡδονὴν τῆς περὶ τὰ ἀφροδίσια;
οὐκ ἔχω, ἦ δ' ὅς, οὐδέ γε μανικωτέραν.
ὁ δὲ ὀρθὸς ἔρως πέφυκε κοσμίου τε καὶ καλοῦ σωφρόνως τε καὶ μουσικῶς ἐρᾶν;
καὶ μάλα, ἦ δ' ὅς.
οὐδὲν ἄρα προσοιστέον μανικὸν οὐδὲ συγγενὲς ἀκολασίας τῷ ὀρθῷ ἔρωτι;
οὐ προσοιστέον ἄρα αὕτη ἡ ἡδονή, οὐδὲ κοινωνητέον αὐτῆς ἐραστῇ τε καὶ παιδικοῖς ὀρθῶς ἐρῶσί τε καὶ ἐρωμένοις;
οὐ μέντοι μὰ Δί', ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, προσοιστέον.
οὕτω δή, ὡς ἔοικε, νομοθετήσεις ἐν τῇ οἰκιζομένῃ πόλει φιλεῖν* μὲν καὶ συνεῖναι καὶ ἅπτεσθαι ὥσπερ ὑέος παιδικῶν ἐραστήν, τῶν καλῶν χάριν, ἐὰν πείθῃ, τὰ δ' ἄλλα οὕτως ὁμιλεῖν πρὸς ὅν τις σπουδάζοι, ὅπως μηδέποτε δόξει μακρότερα τούτων συγγίγνεσθαι: εἰ δὲ μή, ψόγον ἀμουσίας καὶ ἀπειροκαλίας ὑφέξοντα.
― Plato, Republic 3, 403b-c
|“Do you know of greater or keener pleasure than that associated with Aphrodite?” “I don’t,” he said, “nor yet of any more insane.” “But is not the right love a sober and harmonious love of the orderly and the beautiful?” “It is indeed,” said he. “Then nothing of madness, nothing akin to licence, must be allowed to come nigh the right love?” “No.” “Then this kind of pleasure may not come nigh, nor may lover and beloved who rightly love and are loved have anything to do with it?” “No, by heaven, Socrates,” he said, “it must not come nigh them.” “Thus, then, as it seems, you will lay down the law in the city that we are founding, that the lover may kiss and pass the time with and touch the beloved as a father would a son, for honorable ends, if he persuade him. But otherwise he must so associate with the objects of his care that there should never be any suspicion of anything further, on penalty of being stigmatized for want of taste and true musical culture.” “Even so,” he said.
― translated by Paul Shorey