Rebecca Stanton
Teaching Portfolio
Last updated November 8, 2002

Complete Teaching Plan (two class periods):
Plato, Symposium

In teaching Plato's Symposium, I have two primary sets of objectives. First, I want to make sure students end up with following information about the text:

  • the basic content of each of the 6 formal speeches, and what differentiates them from each other
  • the historical context of the dialogue (written after the death of Socrates, with a frame narrative set before his death but after the conquest of Athens by Sparta, recounting the events of a party held before the Sicilian expedition and demise of Athenian democracy)
  • the historical roles of Plato, Socrates, Aristophanes, and Alcibiades in relation to one another
  • the meaning, in Attic culture, of the lover-beloved relationships that play an important symbolic role in the text (in very general terms, since students are often all too eager to discuss sex at the expense of other topics).

    Second, I want to make sure they appreciate the literary qualities of the text, chief among them the following:
  • the problems of reliability introduced by the frame narrative [Plato says that Apollodorus (who is giving a rehearsed and admittedly imprefect account of events he did not witness) says that Aristodemus (who was asleep for part of the proceedings, and who is also said to be the originator of a garbled account that Apollodorus' interlocutor has asked him to clarify) said that Socrates said that Diotima said...]
  • the broadly triangular affective construction of the text, in which Diotima and Alcibiades compete, as it were, for the heart and soul of Socrates
  • the extreme ambiguity resulting from the narrative construction, from the deliberate blurring of boundaries between, e.g., comedy and tragedy (Aristophanes gives a tragic speech, Agathon a comic/parodic one; Socrates argues much later that the same author should write both genres), and from the powerful emotional appeal of Alcibiades following the rarefied reasoning of Diotima.
    It generally takes a full two class sessions (four hours) to accomplish these objectives.

    I will have failed if…

  • …students unquestioningly agree with Diotima and feel certain that Plato intended them to do so
  • …students fail to see the humor in many of the portrayals, especially those of Pausanias, Erixymachus and even occasionally Socrates
  • …students laugh along with the symposiasts at Alcibiades, and do not feel for him
  • …students do not "get" the importance of the historical setting (that is, the role of the Symposium in relation to the tragedies of Athens, Alcibiades, and Socrates).

    In teaching Humanities at Columbia, I have found it useful to provide important background information on the class website ahead of time so that I do not have to spend any class time lecturing. Students are required to check the website and contribute preliminary thoughts to an online discussion before coming to class.

    For Symposium, I would provide historical background on the text, including approximate dates of composition and setting, and very brief biographical sketches of the characters. For preliminary discussion, I would pose the following "study questions":

    1) It is useful to think of this text in terms of layers: for example, the "layers" of time involved in its construction. The text itself is written ca. 385-378 B.C.E.; the frame narrative takes place ca. 405-400 B.C.E.; Agathon's party takes place way back in 416 B.C.E. How do these "layers" of time add layers of meaning to the text? Do they also add layers of obscurity? What other "layers" can you discern? For example, can we think of the successive speeches as successive "layers" in the dialogue about Love? If so, what does each new layer add to the overall picture? How would you briefly describe each layer (e.g. is there a "comic layer," a "scientific layer" and so on? Or do these distinctions tend to break down upon inspection)?

    2) This text introduces a number of binary oppositions, for example male vs. female, drunk vs. sober, comedy (Aristophanes' job) vs. tragedy (Agathon's), physical vs. spiritual (or metaphysical), emotional vs. rational, beauty vs. ugliness. What happens to these binary oppositions in the course of the text? Which of the speakers are most dependent on such oppositions and how far does it get them?

    In class
    1) "Big Question." I always begin class with some Big Question on which everyone will be sure to have an opinion, so that the students start out in "active mode" rather than passively listening to me set things up. For Symposium, a good Big Question might be: How would you define love, if you were at such a party? (They should find this more difficult than they expect.) Ask: Did any of the speakers get close to the heart of the matter, in your view?

    2) The First Five Speeches. We segue from people's personal ideas about love to the content of the first five speeches. Take this opportunity to establish the basic argument of each speech, and to note any striking rhetorical features. (If students have trouble remembering exactly who said what, divide them into 5 groups and have each group prepare a brief summary of one speech). Ask students to note the order of the speeches: is there a progression (from particular to universal, concrete/physical to abstract/metaphysical, etc)? How does each successive speech help to prepare us for Socrates' culminating speech?

    Some ideas to pull out from this discussion: Pausanias--note that he introduces the theme of "virtue," and distinguishes between "good' and "bad" love (Socrates will use some of this language) (Ask students what they make of his technique of dividing everything into twos, and whether these dichotomies are validated by the following speeches.) Eryximachus--introduces idea of "balance" and generalizes "love" to applications beyond interpersonal relations. Aristophanes-- moves the discussion to the origins and purpose of love as vs. its effects/symptoms; connects love to forces beyond the human realm. [Ask: How does it serve Plato's purposes to give Aristophanes a fit of the "hiccups" (I always like to think his "hiccups" are really a cover for giggles at Eryximachus' pomposity) so that he switches positions with Eryximachus in the speaking order? Note also that having hiccupped through Pausanias' speech, Aristophanes proceeds to hold his breath, gargle, and finally sneeze his way through Eryximachus' speech--a nice bit of stage business.] Agathon--articulates need to talk about what Love is, rather than what it does (essence vs. accidents). [Ask: Did they find Aristophanes' speech "funny," or Agathon's speech "tragic"? Bring out Agathon's jibes at "old," "ugly" Socrates-- a timely reminder that Socrates, who will talk about beauty, is ugly as well as beautiful, which theme Alcibiades will take up later on.]

    Students will want to discuss Aristophanes' fable of the hemispheres in more detail. There are fruitful parallels with Genesis (later on the syllabus) to be considered: the idea that love is the result of a divine intervention that depletes a previous physical completion and causes us to seek wholeness in one another (Adam's rib, the severing of the spherical folk); the theme of deity taking punitive steps against human overreaching toward divine wholeness.

    3) Socrates' speech. Ask: What, according to Diotima, is Love, and what is it for (what does it do)? Make sure they're clear on the progressive aspect of Love in Diotima's formulation: it leads one to ever "higher" objects, and finally to pure Beauty. Make sure they're clear on the notion of "Platonic form" (explained relatively clearly by Diotima). Ask about the "pregnancy" metaphor: is it better to be pregnant in soul than in body? What, implicitly, becomes of society if everyone's a philosopher? Ask also: does the pregnancy motif crop up anywhere else in the dialogue? How about those statues of Silenus to which Alcibiades compares Socrates (which also represent a blurring of categories: ugly and comical outside, beautiful and solemn within)? Why do you suppose Socrates is repeatedly implicitly compared to a pregnant woman? Which brings us to another big question: Why is Diotima a woman? Is she the first woman we've seen in this text? Is Socrates' re-introduction of Woman into the party (after the flute girl was sent away at the outset) akin to his inviting the deliberately uninvited Aristodemus? Why does Socrates do this? And why is Diotima, a woman, the source of a philosophy that explicitly excludes women from being philosophers?

    4) Alcibiades. Consider the timing and the manner of his interruption. Any parallels with Diotima [e.g., re-irruption of the personal and particular vs. re-irruption of the feminine, both marked by "Suddenly" (exaiphnes)]? What does his speech reveal about Socrates? about Alcibiades himself [note that this is one of the first examples we have of "autobiographical" narrative (even though Plato is doing the writing)]? How does Alcibiades uphold or tear down Socrates' argument? (Which is it?) What does he want from Socrates? Who is "lover," who "beloved" here? Which of them did you root for, as you read Alcibiades' account of their relationship? Which of them knows/understands more about love? How did you feel when you learned that the symposiasts' response was to burst out laughing at Alcibiades' story?

    5) The Frame. Why the complicated "Plato says that Apollodorus says that Aristodemus said that Socrates said…" structure? Is it significant that Aristodemus is both the source of Apollodorus' "good" version of the story and of the "bad" version that initially confused Apollodorus' "friend"?

    6) The Ending. Why is it significant that Socrates is last overheard arguing that "authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy"? [Again, a blurring of boundaries between categories.--There is historical resonance here that they may not see on their own, but is worth bringing out. It serves as a metaphorical extenuation of Socrates--who created stories with happy endings (such as the "good" pupil Aristodemus) as well as tragic ones (Alcibiades). At the same time, Aristophanes, in Plato's view, is as a comic poet who co-authored a great tragedy: the premature death of Socrates.]

    7) Free Discussion/Wrap-Up. How do you end up feeling about Socrates? Does his speech (or Diotima's) make you want to be a philosopher? Do Alcibiades' (and Aristodemus') tales of his endurance increase your respect for his philosophy? What do you make of the way he invites Aristodemus to a party at which he is not welcome, then abandons him, so that Aristodemus must arrive by himself, making excuses for Socrates who has wandered off in a philosophical trance?

    In Alcibiades' tragic passion, Plato subjects Socrates' high-minded model of love (as springboard to wisdom) to the severest possible test: he makes it go head-to-head with a real, live, case of love, one with which many in Plato's audience will identify. In particular, Alcibiades raises one powerful objection to Socrates' reasoning about love: while Socrates has proposed that what we love about a person is their beauty (i.e. that part of them that partakes of the universal Form of Pure Beauty), and that this love can therefore be abstracted to a love of Beauty in general, Alcibiades loves Socrates specifically. To take an abstract example, if Jane is just as beautiful--or even more beautiful--in body and soul as Tanya, why aren't the two interchangeable? In other words, if you love Tanya, why will Jane not do just as well? Does Socrates successfully answer this objection?

    It seems Socrates has successfully followed his own directions and made the transition from the contemplation of physically beautiful individuals to the contemplation of Beauty at some more abstract level; the proof of his success being that he is impervious to the appeal (and to the appeals) of Alcibiades. Is this model of human success--the attainment of perfect abstraction, to the exclusion of human emotion and sensation (note that Socrates is equally impervious to cold, fear, etc., according to Alcibiades' story)--acceptable to you? Or is the price of enlightenment too high?