Terrific meeting last week on the Symposium, Stephanus 180c4-185d5

Though we started this week, our second, talking about the different conceptions of love emerging from the text, one person reminded the group that the professed aim of the text is to praise Love, not to figure out what Love is. We’ll come back to this topic at our next meeting later this week.

Under consideration this week was Pausanias’s account of Heavenly vs. Common Love. Many members of the group the previous week had expressed discomfort with the homoeroticism of the text, and especially the opening discussion of love of men for boys (and conversely). I’d suggested that we focus on the more themes of the speeches, for example, the idea that love elevates by making us care enough about the regard of the beloved that we act at our most virtuous. On reflection the men rejected, with good reason, the idea that we could evaluate that proposal’s merits without thinking about the nature of the power relationships among the partners. So they though they were not thrilled to have to think about those lovers they were interested in the meta questions about why the abstract principles about love and virtue might be more apt in some pairings than in others.

Pausanias goes on to argue just as drinking, singing, or having a conversation considered in themselves are neither good nor bad, honorable nor shameful, likewise with Love. And at 181a5 he proposes that Love is worthy of praise depending on “whether the sentiments he produces in us are themselves noble.”  (My italics.) The oldest member of the group, and longest timer too, who in the decade I’ve known him has become a wide and careful reader, compared this claim to Hamlet’s famous line:

We think not so, my lord.

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.

I should say that he contrasted these claims, which gave rise to a lively discussion about whether Shakespeare’s point was that value judgments are nothing more than projections (a version of some sort of relativism) or rather that, as they took Pausanias to be arguing, Love could be turned to very real good or bad purposes, or take very real good or bad forms.

A final astute observation from yet another member of the group: at 183d6, we get what looks like a warm up to a summary of the main points above about Love not being intrinsically honorable or a disgrace, and yet “– its character depends entirely on the behavior it gives rise to.” (My italics again.) They wonder whether we are supposed to notice the move from the sentiments produced in us and the behavior it gives rise to, which of course notoriously — hello, akrasia — do not always track. I introduced the concept, and promised a discussion of it at another time, with text with arguments about weakness of will in front of us. In the mean time, the pens flew across their papers noting the new word and concept.

We ended with the ideas of Love as essentially valueless, and awaiting value, which will come either from the feelings it produces in us, or the behavior it induces in us (or both). And what if those things don’t match? Does it make sense to think of Love itself as empty of value? And by this point, we are indeed no longer in the realm of the man/boy.

Up next: What you got for us, Eryximachus?

Observation: discussion this night was quite similar to any in a college class with a handful of good, engaged students. The main difference: as is usually the case feelings run high about the text, about having a chance to have their views heard by the group. And these men wonder urgently about how fair Plato is being to the speakers and arguments and theories, and how seriously Plato (and the dialogue’s various mouthpieces) takes the competing accounts: ever wary of straw men, ever wary of gamesmanship bullshit.


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