Some highlights on our final meeting on the Symposium

“Alcibiades is an idiot and let me tell you why he’s an idiot.” And later the same person, eager to praise Diotima’s account of Love, asked me after I’d disagreed with him about the merits of one of her sub arguments: “Let me ask you, when you finished this part of her speech, what did it make you think?” He was clearly laying a Socratic trap for me, to the utter delight of us all. He was not imitating the Socratic method, but seamlessly taking it up, not even conscious at first that that was what he was doing.

All seven of the men in the meeting tonight wanted to talk about the last 30 pages of the dialogue, and in particular (Socrates’s report of) Diotima’s speech, and the closing pages detailing Alcibiades drunken party crash. The four people who had a chance to read and discuss their passages (I often ask everyone to bring in some passage they found wonderful or interesting or confusing or stupid, and to be prepared to say a little about why) made excellent choices, and read and commented with on them real feeling and insight. At one point, after someone had read a passage that in my view was the most important in the dialogue, and I started to excitedly agree with the choice and passage, the longest standing member of the group, RM, gently cut me off by asking what the reader had to say about why he chose the passage. RM was dead right, of course, and I not only yielded the floor, but was reminded in a vivid way, I hope, to have taken to heart always to give the men in the group as much time as they need to express their views. It’s one of the few places they have the opportunity to work them out, and to talk critically to each other about them, and doing so is a lot more important than hearing what I have to say about the material (usually :)).

When the next person asked to read his passage, and he gave the page number, someone asked him to give the Stephanus number of the text. It’s a little hard to explain why but it was clear that the question was not meant to show off the questioner’s knowledge, rather to help the reader make that leap into using the new term. I’d introduced that terminology last week, and, as is always the case, many seized on the new vocabulary and all the information packed into it — about the invention of that pagination, the practice of professional philosophers who do scholarship on Plato, and so on — and were eager to put the new term to use, in a community that likewise uses and understands it.

And finally, waiting in the entry room to the school while the men filed out through the metal detector (something I hate to be on the bench witnessing as I wait for the van to pick me up because it is embarrassing for them to have to take their belts and shoes off, have their pens and books taken from them and examined, and so on, in front of me) an inmate not in the group asked a man from the group, DG, standing near where I was on the bench what we were reading. DG showed him the book (cover: Plato on Love) to which he asked incredulously “What would we get out of a book like that?!” DG answered that he’d learned a lot of interesting things about what a great philosopher like Plato thought about love, but mainly it makes [them] figure out their own views. For once I was glad that van had taken so long to get to the school.

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