(Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 341) Gabriele Cornelli - Plato’s Styles and Characters Between Literature and Philosophy-Walter de Gruyter (2016)
Parts of the body, interlocutors in the dialogue and citizens in the city are the
objects of an analysis and of an operation presupposing the same methodology
deriving from the identity of the principle that acts in all these realities and from
the “power” (dynamis) and the sovereignty that this principle possesses in rela-
tion to the onta.
After having shown the connections among the texts quoted, I would posit
that Eryximachus’ speech aims to introduce the theme of love in the theorization
of the dialogue as a kind of information-communication, stepping forward as a
different solution to the logos of Gorgias, megas dynastes, enchanter and poison-
er of souls.
As we have noted, Eryximachus’ medicine is presented through the charac-
teristic of a dialogics intersecting different levels of reality (parts of body, of dia-
logue and of political community). By doing this, Plato needs to clarify what a
creation of a homonoia/homologia means, specifying and interpreting the
sense of the fragment of Heraclitus, and – especially – he needs to underline
the political nature of this operation. In fact, if the term homologia is present
along the entire corpus platonicum, it is not possible to state the same for homo-
noia. In the dialogues considered as authentic, this term occurs – besides these
two occurrences in the Symposium – once in the Statesman and twice in the Re-
public: it is only the two occurrences in the Symposium which are in a non-ex-
plicitly political context. Significantly, unifying psychical and political levels,
the political discourse in the Republic puts to work concepts we found in Eryx-
imachus’ speech, even if in two different perspectives: in the Republic, the polit-
ical level is brought into physiology, whereas in the Symposium, the physiologi-
cal level is brought into politics. In this dialogue, in fact, the description of erotic
fluxes, that are present in everything, identifies a physiological plane coinciding
with the political one; and – as we can say – with the Platonic one, which estab-
lishes the analogy between human body and political body.
The style of Eryximachus’ speech is therefore a kind of pastiche, as Mario
Vegetti says, in which, under the imitation of the style of medical writing, is in-
troduced a plane of dialogical and political discourse, aiming at refusing both
the rhetoric of Gorgias and his use of medical analogy. In the perspective in
which we have looked at Eryximachus’ speech, with its connection with medical
treatises, Plato replaces the performative act of the logos megas dynastes of Gor-
gias with the informative-communicative act of the dialogos as the correct rela-
tional structure organized according to the principles of polarity and analogy.³⁰
Cf. G.E.R. Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought,
Bristol Classical Press, 1966.
Gorgias, the eighth orator.
Gorgianic echoes in Agathon’s Speech in
After Agathon’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates takes a little time to make
some comments about it. One of these comments is that the speech brought Gor-
gias to his memory (198c2–5). In this paper we intend to track down in three
complementary levels the diverse reasons why this recollection took place: (A)
regarding the form of the speech, we will try to show that there is an equivalence
in how both Gorgias in his Encomium to Helen and the character of Agathon in
the Syposium construct their respective logoi; (B) regarding the style of writing, we
will see the frequent use in the poet’s speech of the rhetoric resource of “saying
things alike” (isa legein) usually ascribed to Gorgias; (C) finally, regarding the
contents of both speeches we will try to show that many of the elements used
by the sophist to praise the logos in his Encomiun to Helen (EH) may be
found, more or less, in Agathon’s praise of Eros. The article will try to show,
thus, which are the precise elements that may have made Socrates remember
Gorgias after listening to the tragic poet.
A. Form: cosmetic correspondences
Even when at first sight one might think that the speech of Agathon in Plato’s
Symposium has no formal relation with Gorgias’ EH, the truth is that both
speeches share not only the fact of being “enkómia”², but also a similar order re-
garding their formal organization. Let us consider the next six parts of both
speeches: (i) the methodological guideline, (ii) the status quaestionis, mistakes
of the predecessors and aim of the speech, (iii) the logical route to be followed,
(iv) the development of the alternatives given in ‘iii’, (v) a summing up, (vi) a clo-
A longer version of this paper was first published in Elenchos XXXI, 2, 2010, pp. 213–241.
On the matter of the pair “enkómion”–“épainos”, the difference between them is not that clear,
at least in the Symposium, where Socrates uses both terms equally: see v.g. 199a3–6.
(i) The methodological guideline:
EH: paragraph 1 is a preface where the fundamental methodological guideline is
given: the truth of the whole speech will be cosmetic: “order for a city is man-
hood, for a body is beauty, for a soul is wisdom, for an action is excellence,
for a speech is truth” (EH § 1)³. The only “truth” in the EH lies on the formal
order of the speech, i.e. in how the paragraphs connect with each other turning
the whole into a perfectly coherent lógos⁴.
Agathon: Agathon initiates his speech as follows: “but I, certainly, want to say,
first, how (hos) it is necessary that I speak, and then speak” (194e)⁵. This brief
methodological reference is fundamental regarding the way he is going to con-
struct his speech in⁶.
(ii) Status quaestionis, mistakes of the predecessors and aim
of the speech:
EH: between paragraphs 2–5, Gorgias gives the status quaestionis of the issue he
is about to deal with and makes a quick comment about the myth of Helen: her
name was a synonymous with misfortune because of the “belief (pístis) of those
who listened to poets, as well as because of the fame of her name that came to be
remembrance of misfortunes”⁷. On the other hand, after mentioning the mistakes
which those who preceded him in the topic of Helen would have made, Gorgias
explicitly states his aim: “I want, after giving the speech some kind of logic (log-
For the text of the EH we mainly follow the editions of Immisch (1927) and Untersteiner (1967).
However, for the order of the paragraphs we use DK. We translate “prâgma” for “action” to keep
the practical dimension of the latter, which Gorgias emphasizes when he refers it to areté.
For the ‘cosmetic’ character of the truth in the EH, see Mársico (2007).
Even when “eipeîn” is the infinitive used here in every occasion, it is not grammatical to trans-
late it the same each time. In the next section of the paper we will analyze this characteristic
gorgianic prose, almost impossible to translate to any modern language.
According to Bury (1909, “Introduction”, § 3), “in his speech Agathon claims that he will im-
prove on the method of his predecessors. In his attention to method he is probably taking a leaf
out of the book of Gorgias, his rhetorical master and model”.
Something similar does Isocrates in his own Encomium to Helen when, after praising Gorgias
for having written about Helen, he reproaches him that he was not coherent with the title of the
opusculum: “for he says he has written an enkómion of her, but in fact he made an
apología of what has been said by her” (14–15).
ismón tina), to stop the bad fame of the accusation, to show that the accusers lie,
and, after showing the truth, cease ignorance”⁸.
Agathon: “Everyone who has spoken before me does not seem to have praised
the god , but to congratulate men because of the goods the god has
been responsible for; however, no one said that the god gave those gifts because
he is of a certain condition. […] Then, it is fair that we praise, in the first place,
Eros as he is, and then his gifts” (194e-195a). We can see how Agathon also men-
tions the mistakes of those who preceded him and, by doing that, gives a kind of
status quaestionis at the moment when he will start his own enkómion. Finally,
he insists on the methodological guideline⁹.
(iii) Logical route to be followed:
EH: in paragraph 6 we find the possible alternatives regarding the subject of the
speech. The different reasons why Helen might have traveled to Troy will consti-
tute the logical route to be followed: “certainly, either because of the purposes of
fortune, the designs of the gods and the decrees of necessity she did
what she did, either because she was kidnapped with violence, or because she
was persuaded with speech, or because she fell in love through sight” (§ 6)¹⁰.
Agathon: after giving his methodological strategy, Agathon goes into action. In
order to do that, he enunciates his own logical route: “well, if it is right and with-
out offense to say it, I say that while all other gods are happy, Eros is happiest
among them since he is <1> the most beautiful and <2> the noblest” (195a). After
establishing that before worrying about the gifts that the god gives, it is neces-
sary to understand his nature, Agathon states that that nature consists in
The “truth” mentioned here is, of course, the one defined in paragraph 1: a lógos with kósmos.
Therefore the intention of making to cease the ignorance by giving some logismós to his speech.
For the typical strategy of rhetorics and oratory which is to discredit the words of those who
spoke before about the same matter, see v.g. Isócrates, Encomium to Helen §§ 14–15, Busiris 222b,
Panegiric 41b ss. and Bury (1909, ad loc.).
Something similar may be found in the Defense of Palamedes (DP) § 5, when the hero pres-
ents the logical plan he is about to follow: “… I will show you in two different ways (dià dissôn
trópon epideíxo) that does not speak truthfully. Certainly: <1> even if I wanted, I
would not have been able to do it, and <2> if I was able, I would not have wanted to perform
such actions”. After that, he adds: “I go, in the first place, to that statement (lógos) that says
that it is impossible that I do such a thing” (§ 6). Between paragraphs 6 and 12 he develops
this first point. Then, between paragraphs 13 and 21 he develops the second alternative. In
through paragraphs 22 and 27 Palamedes talks to his accuser. And finally, from paragraph 28
to 36 he talks to the judges to conclude his defense in paragraph 37.
Gorgianic echoes in Agathon’s speech
being “the happiest” (eudaimonéstatos) god. After that, he gives two reasons
why that happen: because he is the most beautiful (kállistos) and the noblest (ár-
istos). The explanation of these two characteristics are the logical route to be fol-
lowed in the rest of his speech.
(iv) Development of the alternatives given in (iii):
EH: between paragraphs 6–19 each of the alternatives given in the logical route
is developed. The attention put by the sophist in the order of the speech makes
sense, since it is there, in that kósmos, where the only chance of it being true lies.
That is why in § 6 Gorgias deals with Fortune, gods and Necessity as possible
causes of the trip; in § 7 he deals with violence; between § 8 and § 14 with
lógos; and finally, between § 15 and § 19 he deals with éros.
Agathon: between 195a and 196b Agathon deals with <1> the beauty of the god:
Eros is the most beautiful because he is <1.1> the youngest (neótatos) god, <1.2>
delicate (hapalós), and <1.3> of a soft form (hygrós tò eîdos)¹¹. Finally, in 196a the
treatment of beauty is closed: “about the beauty of the god, these things are
enough”. Then, between 196b and 197c Agathon considers <2> the excellence
of Eros with two arguments: <2.1> everyone serves Eros willingly (hekón) since
he does not submit to anything; and <2.2> the fact that he embodies cardinal vir-
(v) Summing up:
EH: in paragraph 20 Gorgias makes a brief summing up and, after that, he draws
his conclusion: “then, how is it possible to consider lawful the charge against
Helen, who did what she did either in love, persuaded through speech, kidnap-
ped with violence, or coerced by a divine necessity? In any case, she escapes
from the accusation”. The logical route is revisited just to show the reader that
each one of the alternatives anticipated in § 6 was developed and, after that,
the conclusion is drawn: Helen must be acquitted¹².
See 195a-c, 195c-e y 196a-b for each of the three characteristics.
Something similar occurs in paragraph 37 of the DP: “I have said what is related to me. Now,
I finish: certainly, to bring concisely to memory (tò hypomnêsai) the things said before through
long is reasonable before evil judges, but it is not even worthy of consideration that
the first Greeks among the first Greeks do not pay attention or have not in their
memory the things that have been said”.
Agathon: in 197c1–3 Agathon sums up and draws his conclusion: “so, Phaedrus,
I think that Eros first was, being himself mostly beautiful and noble, precisely
because of this, responsible of other things like those for others”. According to
Bury (1909, “Introduction”, § 3), “another mark of formal method is his thon’s> practice of recapitulation”.
EH: in paragraph 21 Gorgias closes his speech by going back to the methodolog-
ical guideline given in § 1: “I took out, through this speech, the infamy of a
woman; I stayed in the norm (nómos) that I established at the beginning of
the speech…”. Finally, in his last words he mentions the famous “paígnion”
that, according to some, proves that the whole EH might have been a mere rhet-
orical exercise or ‘model’ for the pupils of the sophist¹³.
Agathon: in 197e we read: “be devoted to the god, Phaedrus, this speech of mine,
speech that takes part, regarding some things, in the game, and regarding other
things, as much as it is possible for me, in a measured seriousness (spoudês met-
rías)”. We see an explicit reference to the end of the EH by mentioning the game.
In “C” we will deepen many of the things summarized so far. Let us focus,
now, on the style of writing.
B. Style: the ἴσα λέγειν
Already from ancient times the gorgianic prose was considered to have a charac-
teristic style, which was used not only by Gorgias. Philostratus refers to the poet
Agathon with a verb created precisely to explain that style: “and Agathon, the
tragic poet that comedy considers wise and elegant in diction, often, between
the iambs, speaks like Gorgias (gorgiázein)” (Vitae sophistorum I.493). Neverthe-
less, this style is already mentioned in the Symposium after Pausanias’ speech.
Apolodorus is speaking: “after Pausanias paused –you see, the wise men
teach me to say things alike (ísa légein)–, Aristodemus said that Aristophanes
had to speak next…” (185c). The explanation between hyphens makes total
According to Dover (1980, p.123), the reference to the “paígnion” makes of the EH a “a com-
position which is meant to be admired for its elegance, piquancy and skill, but is not a contri-
bution to science or philosophy, let alone to practical politics”.
Gorgianic echoes in Agathon’s speech
sense in Greek, speaking of the sonority of the absolute genitive “Pausaníou pau-
This way of speaking, this “ísa legein” characteristic of gorgianic prose, is
present in some fragments of the historical Agathon –confirming what Philostra-
tus tells us about him–, but also in the character of the Symposium. Let us see a
– Defense of Palamedes § 5: ὅτι μὲν οὖν οὐ σαφῶς <εἰδὼς> ὁ κατήγορος
κατηγορεῖ μου, σαφῶς οἶδα · σύνοιδα γὰρ ἐμαυτῶι σαφῶς οὐδὲν τοιοῦ-
τον πεποιηκῶς · […] οὔτε γὰρ βουληθεὶς ἐδυνάμην ἂν οὔτε δυνάμενος
ἐβουλήθην ἔργοις ἐπιχειρεῖν τοιούτοις.
– Encomium to Helen § 11: ὅσοι δὲ ὅσους περὶ ὅσων καὶ ἔπεισαν καὶ
πείθουσι δὲ ψευδῆ λόγον πλάσαντες. εἰ μὲν γὰρ πάντες περὶ πάντων
εἶχον τῶν <τε> παροιχομένων μνήμην τῶν τε παρόντων <ἔννοιαν> τῶν
τε μελλόντων πρόνοιαν, οὐκ ἂν ὁμοίως ὅμοιος ἦν ὁ λόγος, […] ὥστε
περὶ τῶν πλείστων οἱ πλείστοι τὴν δόξαν σύμβουλον τῆι ψυχῆι παρέχον-
ται. ἡ δὲ δόξα σφαλερὰ καὶ ἀβέβαιος οὖσα σφαλεραῖς καὶ ἀβεβαίοις εὐτυ-
χίαις περιβάλλει τοὺς αὐτῆι χρωμένους.
2) Historical Agathon
– Frag. 3.4: Κούρητες εἶναι, κουρίμου χάριν τριχός.
– Frag. 6: τέχνη τύχην ἔστερξε καὶ τύχη τέχνην –where we also find a
– Frag. 11: τὸ μὲν πάρεργον ἔργον ὣς ποιύμεθα, τὸ δ’ ἔργον ὡς πάρεργον
3) Character of Agathon in the Symposium:
– ἐγὼ δὲ δὴ βούλομαι πρῶτον μὲν εἰπεῖν ὡς χρή με εἰπεῖν, ἔπειτα εἰπεῖν
– ὧν ὁ θεὸς αὐτοῖς αἴτιος · ὁποῖος… (194e7).
– λόγῳ διελθεῖν οἷος οἵων αἴτιος… (195a2–3).
– φεύγων φυγῇ τὸ πάρος (195a8–b2).
– ὁ γὰρ παλαιὸς λόγος εὖ ἔχει, ὡς ὅμοιον ὁμοίῳ ἀεὶ πελάζει. ἐγὼ δὲ
Φαίδρῳ πολλὰ ἄλλα ὁμολογῶν τοῦτο οὐχ ὁνολογῶ… (195b5–6).
– Ἔρως οὔτ’ ἀδικεῖ οὔτ’ ἀδικεῖται οὔτε ὑπὸ θεοῦ οὔτε θεόν, οὔτε ὑπ’
ἀνθρώπου οὔτε ἄνθρωπον (196b6–7).
– οὗτος δὲ ἡμᾶς ἀλλοτριότητος μὲν κενοῖ, οἰκειότητος δὲ πληρεοῖ, […] ἐν
ἑορταῖς, ἐν χοροῖς, ἐν θυσίασι γιγνόμενος ἡγεμων · πρᾳότητα μὲν
πορίζων, ἀγριότητα δ’ ἐξορίζων · φιλόδωρος εὐμενείας, ἄδωρος
δυσμενείας · […] θεατὸς σοφοῖς, ἀγαστὸς θεοῖς · ζηλωτὸς ἀμοίροις, κτη-
τὸς εὐμοίροις · […] ἐπιμελὴς ἀγαθῶν, ἀμελὴς κακῶν · ἐν πόνῳ, ἐν φόβῳ,
ἐν πόθῳ, ἐν λόγῳ, κυβερνήτης, ἐπιβάτης, παραστάτης… (197d1–e2).
C. Content of both speeches: encomium of
lógos, encomium of Éros
Regarding the content of both speeches, we believe that a lot of what the char-
acter of Agathon says about Eros is also asserted by Gorgias about lógos. Let us
see some of those similarities.
1. 195b–c: after Agathon says that Eros is “the most beautiful” of the gods, we
immediately found three of the four causes that Gorgias considers as possible
reasons of Helen’s trip to Troy in the EH. Of course, they do not have the same
argumentative function as in the EH, but the fact is that there, they are at
least mentioned. In 195b-c we read: “… I do not agree when
he says that Eros is older than Cronus and Iapetus. On the contrary, I hold
that he is the youngest of all gods and always young, and also that the old
facts regarding the gods narrated by Hesiodus and Parmenides took place (if
they are true) by the action of Necessity, not of Eros (Anánkei kaì ouk Éros).
For there would have been no gelding or fettering of each other, nor any of
those various violences (bíaia), if Eros had been amongst them”. Let us say
one more time that in Agathon’s argument, Necessity, Eros and violence are
not used in the same way as in the EH (first, fourth and second cause respective-
ly). Nevertheless, their appearance at the beginning of the speech does not seem
hazardous: the same concepts echo in both speeches¹⁴.
2. 195e: Agathon says that Eros is “delicate” (hapalós) since he does not live nei-
ther on earth nor in the heads of humans, but in the softest things among beings
(malakótaton tôn ónton), this is: the characters and the souls (éthe kaì psychaí).
This ‘delicacy’ of Eros that bonds him with the ‘softness’ of the souls is also pres-
ent, in a way, in Gorgias’ EH. The sophist uses two specific verbs when he is talk-
ing about the relation between lógos and the human soul: “plássein” and “ty-
poûn”. We find the first one in paragraph 11 with the lógos as its object: “and
how many have persuaded how many about how many things, and per-
suade , by moulding a false lógos!”. Lógos is, as well as the soul, some-
thing capable of being moulded, shaped and, because of that, implicitly ‘soft’ or
‘malleable’. This lógos that can be moulded is precisely what moulds the souls of
those who listen: “the persuasion that comes with lógos certainly modelled (ety-
pósato) the soul as it wanted” (§ 13).
Let us remember that our aim in the present paper is to try to explain what made Socrates
recall Gorgias after hearing Agathon. The mention of three of the four causes of the EH is, in that
sense, doubtlessly relevant.
Gorgianic echoes in Agathon’s speech
3. 196a: besides this delicacy of Eros, Agathon adds that he is pliant or flexible or
soft (hygrós)¹⁵ of form (eîdos), something that lets him surround the souls and, by
doing that, he can remain unseen (lanthánein). We also find this ‘invisibility’ in
gorgianic lógos: “lógos is a powerful sovereign that with the smallest and mostly
invisible body (sómati aphanestátoi) completes the most divine works” (§ 8).
4. 196a: The biggest proof of the symmetric and flexible aspect of Eros is his “eu-
schemosýne”, literally: his “good (eû)-figure (schêma)”, “good-shape”, his “har-
mony” or “proportion”¹⁶.
This insistence on the harmonious shape of an Eros that is always at war
with deformity and lack of harmony (aschemosýne) recalls the gorgianic defini-
tion of truth: a lógos is true when it has order (kósmos), when it is harmonic, for-
mally organized and developed. The Eros of Agathon, just like the lógos of Gor-
gias, is an example of euschemosýne, this is: a reality that constitutes a kósmos.
This is reinforced a few lines ahead when Agathon says that Eros is “kósmos of
absolutely every god and man” (197e2)¹⁷: the relation between truth and lógos in
the EH is equivalent to that between Eros and every man and god in the speech
5. 196c: “the sovereign laws of the city say that ‘things that may agree
with someone who acts willingly as well are just”. The lines that Agathon quotes
are ascribed by Aristotle (Rhet. 1406a22) to Alcidamas of Elea, an orator that is
supposed to have been a disciple of Gorgias.
6. 197d–e: “in speech (en lógoi), is pilot, sailor, a front-rank-man and also
an excellent saviour”.We can see that Eros is, regarding lógos, the most powerful
sophist since he can hold every position: he can steer the dialectic ship and, “ex-
cellent saviour”, bring it safely to a good harbour.When it comes to speech, there
is nothing Eros cannot do. This omnipotence recalls, mutatis mutandis, that of
gorgianic lógos defined as a “dynástes mégas”, capable of completing “the
most divine works” (theiótata érga). Likewise, we also read in 194e4 that Eros
“participates in a song that sings charming the thought (nóema) of every god
and man”. This capacity to charm (thélgein) ascribed to Eros is ascribed by Gor-
We take this sense of “hygrós” as an antonym of “sklerós”, “hard” (see 195e1). It is worthy to
mention that the term has also erotic connotations that make it close even with “effeminate” (see
Bailly s.v. II.6).
The connotation of “harmony” and “proportion” of the term may be found in the Republic
400c, where the euschemosýne and its opposite, the aschemosýne, are equivalent of the “rhyth-
mic” (eúrythmon) and the “un-rhythmic” (árrythmon) respectively.
The context and the polysemy of the term make it very difficult to justify a final translation
for “kósmos”. Some other possible translations are “government” (Dover), “honneur” (Brisson),
gias as well, but to lógos: “the enchantment inspired through words (hai éntheoi
dià lógon epoidaí) leads to pleasure and moves away from pain” (§ 10).
7. 197e: Agathon finishes his intervention as follows: “be devoted to the god,
Phaedrus, this speech of mine, speech that takes part, regarding some things,
in the game (paidiâs), and regarding other things, as much as it is possible
for me, in a measured seriousness (spoudês metrías)”. We have already men-
tioned the coincidence with paragraph 21 of the EH and the “paígnion”. But
what about the “measured seriousness” that Agathon claims to have had in
It is important to recall the gorgianic definition of poíesis: “I consider and
call absolutely every poetry ‘speech with measure’ (lógon échonta métron)”
(§ 9). What does this definition have to do with what we are discussing? As
Dover has shown meticulously, the speech of Agathon may be scanned just as
if it were written in verse, which could also mean, according to gorgianic param-
eters, that it is a “speech with measure”. Since, as Dover (1980, p. 124) says,
“Plato has taken considerable trouble to give Agathon’s peroration a poetic char-
acter in addition to caricaturing its ‘Gorgianic’ structure”, that is: since the
speech of Agathon is, apart from a rhetorically organized speech, a kind of po-
etry, lógos échon métron, it is likely that Agathon refers to the measured poetic
seriousness of what in fact was a rhetorical game. After all, the character of Aga-
thon is, just like Eros, a poet.
At the beginning of this paper we intended to track down the reasons why Soc-
rates remembered Gorgias after hearing Agathon in the Symposium. Even when
this may seem a pure speculative endeavour, we may think, why not, that maybe
that was the intention of Plato: to cover up the allusion whom, over and over
again if his dialogues, appears as a declared enemy. Why Plato decided to
hide Gorgias behind Agathon is something unsolvable as well. One might answer
that among those present there was already a rhétor like Phaidrus and not a com-
poser of tragedies. Maybe the supposed theoretical rivalry between Socrates and
Gorgias would have made the scene of a symposium shared by both of them im-
plausible. Be that as it may, we do not expect to have demonstrated that behind
the shoulders of the poet arises the head of the gorgianic Gorgon. We have rather
wanted to give some elements that at least allow us to insinuate which were the
possible reasons why Socrates recalls Gorgias after hearing Agathon: “because,
certainly, his speech reminded me of Gorgias…”.
Gorgianic echoes in Agathon’s speech
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Diels, H & Kranz W 1952, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Weidmann, Berlin.
Dover, K J 1980, Edition and Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, Cambridge University Press,
Hunter, R 2004, Plato’s Symposium, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Immisch, O 1927, Gorgiae Helena, Verlag von Walter de Gruyter & Co, Berlin und Leipzig.
Mársico, C 2007, ‘Argumentar por caminos extremos: I) La imposibilidad de pensar lo que es;
Gorgias y la instauración del criterio de verdad como coherencia de enunciados’, in
Castello, L A & Mársico, C T (eds), El lenguaje como problema entre los griegos. ¿Cómo
decir lo real?, GEA, Buenos Aires.
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Platon 2007, Le Banquet, Flammarion, Paris (ed. by L. Brisson).
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Philology Vol.66, pp. 99–155.
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Stokes, M C 1986, Plato’s Socratic Conversations, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
Anyone who fails to notice the element of comedy in this is, I fear, beyond help.
It is usually thought that Socrates cannot abandon Phaedrus and go back across
the river because his daimon forbids him to do so. This voice he hears when he is
about to commit a shameful act, and Phaedrus is in need of a new speech on
Eros, because the former ones do not offer a proper image of the God. Here I
should like to show that Socrates’ return has, in addition, a deeper meaning:
Socrates cannot leave Phaedrus in his ignorance because he has something to
teach his friend, and also because there is something he needs to know about
himself. Socrates has to teach Phaedrus how a real lover acts towards his be-
loved, and by doing so, he has to learn whether he is able to master himself.
This is a decisive moment in the dialogue, in which he reveals himself as a
real teacher, who can transcend both the image of an erupting Typhoon who
wants to devour his victim and also the image of a peaceful citizen, untouched
II. “Dear Phaedrus, where are you going and
where do you come from?”(227a1)
With this question, without further ado, the Phaedrus begins. It seems a simple
question, just an innocent pretext for starting a conversation, but it could also be
interpreted as a deliberate marker of a dynamic psychological process in which
all of us find ourselves: we start from our beliefs and our ignorance, and we try
to open ourselves up to new experience and to knowledge. The question is an-
swered in the horizontal plane of space: Phaedrus says that he is going for a
walk outside the walls, in order to take a rest. The walls protect, the walls en-
close. The pharmakon heals, the pharmakon kills.
Pieper (1964, p. 33).
ὦ φίλε Φαῖδρε, ποῖ δὴ καὶ πόθεν;
The psychological response cannot be offered yet, but remains suspended,
and the whole dialogue is, in a sense, an attempt to answer this initial question
at two different levels: the level of speeches and the level of dramatic action. In
the interaction, each character will receive some revelation about himself, and
after the prayer and dismissal, will be able to go ahead in a different way.
The Phaedrus is composed of fine lace. In this dialogue, as well as in the
Lysis³, what the characters say and what happens in the dramatic action are
the two sides of a single tissue. It is not just that Phaedrus reads a speech written
by Lysias, about the appropriateness of pleasing a non-lover, but that Phaedrus
himself is a prisoner of Lysias’ snobbish rhetoric, which promotes pursuing max-
imum pleasure with minimal complications, while disguised as respect and dis-
cretion. And it is not merely that Socrates makes a speech similar to the previous
one he had heard in order to please Phaedrus, but that Socrates cannot do any-
thing else but pretend to agree formally to the speech, because he competes with
Lysias for Phaedrus’ attention, i.e., because he is, as he says later, “poisoned” by
him (καταφαρμακευθέντος: 242e1).
However, there will come a moment in which Phaedrus himself, who gives
the appearance of glowing with love for speeches, will want to learn from Soc-
rates. He will leave behind the walls of empty words, and will let Socrates
take him to the revelation of what the soul is like and of what it really wants.
And he will find that he can, in imagination, ascend from the refreshing green
spot beside the river along the heavenly paths of the gods to the true valley
where souls are fed.
But to move Phaedrus on from his initial fascination, and to persuade him to
make a change of course will require Socrates’ strategic subtlety. And in spite of
it, his first attempt will end in failure.
III. “If I don’t know Phaedrus, I have forgotten
The first game of flattery starts. Phaedrus tells Socrates that what he has to say is
a matter of interest for him, and Socrates pleases him by saying he is eager to
listen to him, at the extreme of sacrifice to himself, several times⁵. Phaedrus pro-
εἰ ἐγὼ Φαῖδρον ἀγνοῶ, καὶ ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπιλέλησμαι.
He says he would follow him to Megara (227 d), and this strange Socrates, who looks like a
foreigner to Phaedrus’ eyes, says he could be led all over Attika by someone waving written
vokes him by putting Lysias’ skills on a pedestal: he calls him δεινότατος, “the
skillful” or also “the most terrible”⁶ (228a1). He wants to be begged, and he pre-
tends he cannot remember what the great Lysias wrote. Socrates reacts to this,
aware as he is of the fact that Phaedrus knows the speech by heart and wants
to show off, having met someone who is sick with passion for hearing speeches,
a maniac like himself, a fellow who could lead him to ecstasy (συγκορυβαν-
Both characters are presented as united in their poetic madness, and we
know how in Corybantic cults (ἐν τῇ τελετῇ τῶν Κορυβάντων) the initiate is en-
throned amidst dancing and enthusiastic singing (cf. Euthydemus 277d). Such in-
deed will be the atmosphere of what lies ahead. After Lysias’ speech is over, Soc-
rates will find it “brilliant” (δαιμονίως 234d1), and will confess to having entered
into Bacchic delirium with him (234d5: συνεβάκχευσα) when looking at his di-
vine head as he was reading the speech. This Socrates is presented by Plato
as if he were not able to say openly what he thinks about the content of the
speech, and, apparently, will merely make a few formal comments. Why does
he not do his job? Why does he not openly reject the content, or humiliate
Phaedrus in order to teach him?
Phaedrus is dazzled by the speech of Lysias, and unable to undergo the test
of refutation, while Socrates himself is drawn to enthrone Phaedrus, and cannot
contradict him because he is under the effect of his venom. So much so that his
daimon will have to intervene as the necessary antidote.
Socrates’words indicate that he knows his interlocutor so well that it would
be necessary for him to forget who he is himself, if he were to ignore Phaedrus’
purpose, which is none other than to provoke his admiration.
Later on, when he is about to leave Phaedrus in his ignorance and re-cross
the river, the certainty about what the God deserves and what Phaedrus needs to
know will force him to return. And just as he turned to Phaedrus, Socrates will
return to himself. He will have to leave aside his narcissistic pain at Phaedrus’
having fallen in love so blindly with the rhetoric of Lysias, and with the
young man himself, and by revealing the mysteries of the Palinode to Phaedrus,
he will have the chance to remind himself of them, and to become his best self.
speeches in front of him (230 d). This is surprising, for we know Socrates cannot stand long
speeches (Prot. 334 d; Gorg. 449 b).
Socrates will apply this very adjective to those who do not believe the evidence that love is a
divine madness (245 b-c). He will also use it to describe Lysias’ speech and his own first speech.
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
IV. “I investigate not these things but myself”
Socrates is worried about his true identity, because he has not been able to get to
know himself, and therefore it seems ridiculous to him that he should investigate
what he does not really care about, i.e. the beliefs and myths commonly accept-
ed in the city. What he wants to know is whether he has become “a beast more
convoluted and swollen (πολυπλοκώτερον καὶ μᾶλλον ἐπιτεθυμμένον) than Ty-
phoon or a more peaceful and simpler creature, to whom a divine and clear
lot (ἀτύφου μοίρας) is given by nature” (230a3–6)⁸.
Socrates fears to have become a devious man, dominated by multiple and
opposing desires, a proud, boastful, dangerous beast that destroys everything
it touches. But he is not sure about this; maybe he has become a more civilized
and simpler man, governed by a single principle, and able to participate in a di-
Socrates’ concern may also be an advance notice of the image of the soul as
a winged chariot: will this Socrates be a skillful charioteer able to drive his soul
to his destiny, instead of competing with Lysias for Phaedrus’ attention?
Although the atmosphere of seduction might suggest that Phaedrus is the
potential youth beloved of Socrates, due to his age (between 30 and 40) he
plays the part of lover¹⁰, and this is manifested at the end of the dialogue: Phaed-
rus is Lysias’ lover and Socrates is presented as Isocrates’ (279b1–3). In line with
this, Socrates fights, not for Phaedrus’ love, but to take him away from the rhet-
oric of the Sophists¹¹. Although this intellectual purpose is clearly there, we can-
not ignore the deliberately charming atmosphere and the delicious games of
praise and jealousy, especially manifest in the interludes, which indicate a rela-
σκοπῶ οὐ ταῦτα ἀλλ᾽ ἐμαυτόν.
A Typhoon is a hundred-headed monster with a terrible voice, a fiery belch of smoke, man-
ifested in the furious and devouring eruption of volcanoes (Il. II 782; Theog. 820 ff.).
In terms comparable to the tripartite scheme of the soul in the Republic, Socrates wonders
whether what dominates himself is a multiplicity of appetites, combined with a pride always
ready to rage over nothing (his spirited part), or whether his rational part is in control, able
to tame the appetites, free from vain pretensions, and having access to divine, intellectual con-
De Vries (1969, p. 6) points out how, even when Socrates calls him “young” (257 c 8) or “boy”
(267 c 6), these forms denote Socrates’ intention to emphasize the difference in age when ad-
dressing someone younger that himself.
There is no erotic relationship between Phaedrus and Socrates, according to De Vries (1969,
p. 6); Gooch (1992, pp. 309–312); and Yunis (2011, p. 9), among other scholars.
tionship of complicity and close rivalry between the two friends, whose ups and
downs mark the dynamic of the speeches.
So, from the very beginning, this Socrates does not appear to be the teacher
who leads the discussion with mastery, refuting and teaching, as does the pro-
tagonist of the Protagoras or the Gorgias. This rather tentative Socrates probably
does not know whether he will be able to persuade Phaedrus in the right direc-
tion, because he has tremendous concerns about his own personality. The an-
nouncement of his ‘existential’ doubts leads to ambivalent attitudes, and obvi-
ously Socrates is wounded by the exalted devotion of Phaedrus towards his
beloved (cf. 234e).
One could be surprised or even feel irritated by a Socrates who, when giving
his verdict on Lysias’ speech, shows an evasive attitude. Firstly, led by a “Bacchic
frenzy” provoked by Phaedrus’ reading, he does not proceed directly to contra-
dict him, but rather he ‘enthrones’ the speech by calling it “cool” or “inspired”.
Secondly, he is reluctant to judge the value of the content of the speech and only
seems to notice its formal defects.
However, when Phaedrus provokes him by his view that Lysias’ speech can-
not be bettered (235b: ‘nobody could ever speak about it more exhaustively or
worthily than he has done’), Socrates disagrees and refuses to condescend to
him, recognizing the superior value of other poets, such as the beautiful Sappho
and the wise Anacreon, and other prose writers. He feels that his own ‘breast is
full’, and that he could make another speech, addressed to the divine Phaedrus,
different from the former one and not inferior to it: πλῆρές πως, ὦ δαιμόνιε, τὸ
στῆθος ἔχων αἰσθάνομαι παρὰ ταῦτα ἂν ἔχειν εἰπεῖν ἕτερα μὴ χείρω (235c5–6),
not because he had thought about these matters by himself, but because he has
been suffused with other sources. This reference to Socrates’ breast as full of in-
spiration is a clue from Plato that Socrates now feels courageous enough to start
saying what he really thinks. Not because he is full of ‘vain boastful smoke’ like
a Typhoon, but because he feels supported by a great tradition that says the op-
posite: ‘love is madness’.
Phaedrus interprets this to mean that he will offer a better and longer
speech, and enthusiastically promises a golden statue of both of them at Delphi.
Socrates, in a fit of candor, calls him ’dearest’ and ’really made of gold’ if he
thinks that he is claiming that Lysias was completely wrong, and that he himself
can make a speech that is different on every point from his. That could not hap-
pen –he says- even to the worst possible author¹². Why?
Pieper (1964, p. 29) observes that irony adds certain difficulties to the conversation. Plato
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
I assume it is because Lysias’ speech is partly right and partly wrong. So
Plato is again warning us about the content of Socrates’ next speech: to make
it ‘true’ it must retain some parts and discard other parts¹³. In my view, Socrates
is suggesting that, on the one hand, the praise of the serenity of the non-lover
and the censorship of the lover’s unreason will impress the audience as accept-
able, topical points which nobody would dare to object to, (that could be organ-
ized in a better way) while, on the other hand, the arguments described as ‘dif-
ficult to find’ should be ‘praised’ as invention.
I think this praise is ironical. Lysias has offered a number of “not obvious”
judgments that Socrates will fight. But he speaks in general terms, in a cautious
way, so that Phaedrus does not feel scandalized, while the reader can anticipate
his decision to dissent.
Phaedrus seems to have captured some irony in Socrates’ words. After extol-
ling Socrates for speaking in a measured way, he grants Socrates his ridiculous
permission to “presuppose that the lover is sicker than the non-lover” and then,
placing himself in a position to reward Socrates, he sets a condition: if Socrates
is able to add anything of value to the former speech, he promises him a second
statue, this time in Olympia.
Here again Socrates seems to realize that Phaedrus feels attacked, and that
he simply wants to have the main thesis granted. So he returns to his humble
attitude, and makes clear that he was only criticizing Phaedrus’ beloved in
order to tease him, and so this should not be taken seriously (236b5–8).
At this point Phaedrus returns Socrates his trap: “If I do not know Socrates is
that I have forgotten myself”, he says, because despite the misgivings of his
friend, Phaedrus knows Socrates wants to speak. However, to be sure, he threat-
ens him not to share any other speech with him ever in his life. Socrates follows
him in the game and calls him “evil”, and communicates to him his decision to
makes it look as though his main character is playing the fool when he is in fact building a pow-
erful argument, and gives the impression of being enthusiastic when he is really being critical.
“For example, to take the subject of his speech, who do you suppose, in arguing that the
non-lover ought to be more favoured than the lover, could omit praise of the non-lover’s calm
sense and blame of the lover’s unreason, which are inevitable arguments, and then say some-
thing else instead? No, I think, we must allow these points, and concede them to the speaker.
In their case, we cannot praise their novelty but only their skilful arrangement, but in the
case of arguments which are not inevitable and are hard to discover, the invention deserves
praise as well as the arrangement”: αὐτίκα περὶ οὗ ὁ λόγος, τίνα οἴει λέγοντα ὡς χρὴ μὴ ἐρῶντι
μᾶλλον ἢ ἐρῶντι χαρίζεσθαι, παρέντα τοῦ μὲν τὸ φρόνιμον ἐγκωμιάζειν, τοῦ δὲ τὸ ἄφρον ψέγειν,
ἀναγκαῖα γοῦν ὄντα, εἶτ᾽ ἄλλ᾽ ἄττα ἕξειν λέγειν; ἀλλ᾽ οἶμαι τὰ μὲν τοιαῦτα ἐατέα καὶ συγγνωστέα
λέγοντι: καὶ τῶν μὲν τοιούτων οὐ τὴν εὕρεσιν ἀλλὰ τὴν διάθεσιν ἐπαινετέον, τῶν δὲ μὴ ἀναγ-
καίων τε καὶ χαλεπῶν εὑρεῖν πρὸς τῇ διαθέσει καὶ τὴν εὕρεσιν (235 e 5–236 a 6).
speak with his head covered in order to end quickly and not to feel ashamed to
look at him.
Before the Palinode, this Socrates seems to behave, in part, as a lover of flat-
tery, fearful of drawing the enmity of Phaedrus, and acting in part not unlike the
passionate lover Lysias combats, whose desire clouds his mind (233a).
The evasiveness of Socrates in this interlude, his typical admission of igno-
rance, his desire not to antagonize Phaedrus, and his fear of being ashamed in
front of him, are commonly interpreted as anticipatory signs that the first speech
of Socrates is an imitation of that of Lysias, formally improved but false and blas-
phemous in respect of content. Yet at every turn, interspersed with timid atti-
tudes, we find that Socrates, in his outbursts of sincerity, also offers encrypted
statements whose real goal is confrontation. This tremendous ambiguity in his
attitude makes us think that Socrates feared his own Typhoon so much that
he may have supposed that simply looking at Phaedrus could force him to say
things to please his friend once more, instead of telling him the truth.
So, in my view, it is not in order to protect Phaedrus that Socrates covers his
head, and certainly not because he will tell him what is not true, but on the con-
trary, to protect himself from the influence of Phaedrus¹⁴, i.e. to say without hes-
itation what Phaedrus does not want to hear. The paradox is that Phaedrus, who
apparently does not give any importance to the gesture, will listen, believing that
Lysias’ thesis has been granted.
In defense of the “limpid and civilized creature” who also dwells within him,
Socrates covers his head, in order to open Phaedrus’ mind to his views, even in-
directly, by offering his friend some important clues, which are presented in the
introduction to his first speech and I have summarized as follows:
1.) Socrates asks the Muses to help him; and
2.) He reveals the true intention of the “non lover” by telling a story:
Now there was once upon a time a boy, or rather a youth, of great beauty: and he had many
lovers. And among these was one of peculiar craftiness, who was as much in love with the
boy as the others, but had made him believe that he was not in love. And once in pressing
Tejera (1992, p. 291) thinks that Socrates is blocked here: he is conquered by the eroticism of
the situation, while resisting the sexuality of his answer. He observes that those scholars who do
not perceive this point are unfair towards the self-control of Socrates, who has to make up a
story about a pursuer and a pursued in order to put some distance between his own and Lysias’
position; he mentions Schaerer (1938); De Vries (1969); Cooper (1938); Fowler (1914). Also for
Helmbold and Holther (1952, p. 388) Socrates courts Phaedrus in an emotionally warm atmos-
phere, with multiple references to the eros paidikos.
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
his suit to him, he tried to persuade him that he ought to give his favours to a man who did
not love him rather than to one who did (237b2–5)¹⁵.
This way Socrates makes clear that the wily lover was just in love like the others,
chasing the same thing as all of them: sexual pleasure;
3.) Socrates wants to come to an agreement on a definition of love, its nature and
its power, in order to distinguish the lover from the non-lover: τῷ δὴ τὸν ἐρῶντά
τε καὶ μὴ κρινοῦμεν. Thus, he presents two principles that govern and lead us: a
natural appetite for pleasure and the learned opinion concerning the best, and
he adds that these two principles are sometimes in agreement within us and are
sometimes in a state of strife; and sometimes one, and sometimes the other has
the greater power¹⁶.
4.) Socrates also claims that:
When opinion leads through reason toward the best and is more powerful, its power is
called ‘moderation’ (σωφροσύνη: lit. ‘being in your right mind’ as Nehamas and Woodruff
translate¹⁷) but when desire irrationally drags us toward pleasures and rules within us, its
rule is called ‘excess’ (ὕβρις). Now excess has many names, for it has many members and
Like the Typhoon, it is multiple.
5.) Socrates adds that:
The desire that overcomes rational opinion that strives toward the right, and which is driv-
en to take pleasure in beauty, and again is strongly reinforced by its kindred desires for
ἦν οὕτω δὴ παῖς, μᾶλλον δὲ μειρακίσκος, μάλα καλός: τούτῳ δὲ ἦσαν ἐρασταὶ πάνυ πολλοί.
εἷς δέ τις αὐτῶν αἱμύλος ἦν, ὃς οὐδενὸς ἧττον ἐρῶν ἐπεπείκει τὸν παῖδα ὡς οὐκ ἐρῴη. καί ποτε
αὐτὸν αἰτῶν ἔπειθεν τοῦτ᾽ αὐτό, ὡς μὴ ἐρῶντι πρὸ τοῦ ἐρῶντος δέοι χαρίζεσθαι.
ὅτι μὲν οὖν δὴ ἐπιθυμία τις ὁ ἔρως, ἅπαντι δῆλον: ὅτι δ᾽ αὖ καὶ μὴ ἐρῶντες ἐπιθυμοῦσι τῶν
καλῶν, ἴσμεν. τῷ δὴ τὸν ἐρῶντά τε καὶ μὴ κρινοῦμεν; δεῖ αὖ νοῆσαι ὅτι ἡμῶν ἐν ἑκάστῳ δύο τινέ
ἐστον ἰδέα ἄρχοντε καὶ ἄγοντε, οἷν ἑπόμεθα ᾗ ἂν ἄγητον, ἡ μὲν ἔμφυτος οὖσα ἐπιθυμία ἡδονῶν,
ἄλλη δὲ ἐπίκτητος δόξα, ἐφιεμένη τοῦ ἀρίστου. τούτω δὲ ἐν ἡμῖν τοτὲ μὲν ὁμονοεῖτον, ἔστι δὲ
ὅτε στασιάζετον: καὶ τοτὲ μὲν ἡ ἑτέρα, ἄλλοτε δὲ ἡ ἑτέρα κρατεῖ (237 d 3- e 2).
Cooper (1997) ad loc.
δόξης μὲν οὖν ἐπὶ τὸ ἄριστον λόγῳ ἀγούσης καὶ κρατούσης τῷ κράτει σωφροσύνη ὄνομα:
ἐπιθυμίας δὲ ἀλόγως ἑλκούσης ἐπὶ ἡδονὰς καὶ ἀρξάσης ἐν ἡμῖν τῇ ἀρχῇ ὕβρις ἐπωνομάσθη.
ὕβρις δὲ δὴ πολυώνυμον —πολυμελὲς γὰρ καὶ πολυμερές (237 e 2–238 a 3).
beauty in human bodies, this desire, when it gains the victory, takes its name from the word
for ‘force’ (ῥώμη), and is called ‘love’ (ἔρως).¹⁹
Plato invents this etymology here.
By introducing the distinction between appetite for pleasure, on the one
hand, and right opinion concerning the best, on the other hand, and by claiming
that the first one is called “love”, what Socrates says from this point onwards, in
imitation of Lysias’ speech, refers to love in its ordinary, vulgar sense, i.e., ego-
centric sexual desire. This force, either when concealed by the non-lover or made
manifest by the passionate lover, “has nothing beautiful or worthy in Socrates’
However, it is important to observe that Socrates implicitly anticipates here
the intellectual principle essential to the Palinode. Having defined ἔρως as sex-
ual appetite, and having claimed that both the lover and the non lover share the
same goal, setting aside their external behaviour, there is no difference concern-
ing the quality of their feelings. But Socrates here also mentions ‘right opinion
concerning the best’. If this principle is essential to mankind, ἔρως cannot be
mere passionate desire for sex, and divine erotic madness should include this
‘non innate’ opinion concerning the best, that the teacher should transmit to
This Socrates, apparently too vulnerable, insecure, and amorous, is quite
different from the unconvincing master of the early dialogues who would tire
his interlocutors due to his arrogance and hidden desires of victory at all
costs. This more human and closer Socrates has deployed subtle strategems in
order to reject Lysias’ judgments categorically but indirectly. He even begins to
suspect that perhaps he might beat his own Typhoon. But as he has spoken
so discreetly he will have to go through the bitter experience of facing the fact
that Phaedrus has not noticed that Socrates’ speech actually contradicts that
ἡ γὰρ ἄνευ λόγου δόξης ἐπὶ τὸ ὀρθὸν ὁρμώσης κρατήσασα ἐπιθυμία πρὸς ἡδονὴν ἀχθεῖσα
κάλλους, καὶ ὑπὸ αὖ τῶν ἑαυτῆς συγγενῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν ἐπὶ σωμάτων κάλλος ἐρρωμένως
ῥωσθεῖσα νικήσασα ἀγωγῇ, ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς τῆς ῥώμης ἐπωνυμίαν λαβοῦσα, ἔρως ἐκλήθη (238 b 7–
Sinaiko (1965, pp. 35–36) observes that this definition, based exclusively upon common
opinion, lacks definite limits because Socrates does not specify that this is just one type of
love, and that is why it turns out to be deceitful.
In this sense, the analysis of the psychological ambiguities of Socrates leads to the conclu-
sion, advocated by Friedländer (1960, p. 207), that the first speech of Socrates, far from being
limited to a formal review of the speech of Lysias, exposes the dangers of the speaker’s message.
In the same vein, Calvo (1992, p. 50) understands that this speech is ’deeply true’. And although
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
The speech of Lysias and the speech of Socrates agree verbatim in their re-
jection of possessive, manipulative love, and in the value of self-control. Three
times Lysias emphasizes this aspect of the behavior of the non-lover: 1) he
does not act out of necessity but deliberates willingly on the best (231a4–5),
2) he is master of himself, and chooses what is really best (232a4–6) and will
not be dominated by Eros but by himself (233c1–2). However, in fact they do
not really argue for the same thesis, but for opposite ones, since Socrates has re-
alized that the non-lover is a liar who seeks the same as the passionate lover,
i.e., mere sexual pleasure, unaccompanied by the friendship and consideration
that Lysias claims the non-lover possesses (233a and 233c–d); he only uses ap-
parent self-control to get more easily and effectively what he wants²².
V. “Perhaps the attack may be averted” (238d6)
Socrates finishes the preamble of his speech enthusiastically. He feels that while
speaking he has suffered a divine transport (the place looks divine too, he is
‘quite taken by the madness of the Muses”, everything sounds like a dithyramb)
and he attributes the cause of it all to Phaedrus. He asks Phaedrus to listen to
what follows because, he says, “perhaps the attack (which threatens him)
might be averted.” That, however, is, according to Socrates, in the hands of
God, and they must return to their boy.
In my view, Socrates feels helped by the divine Muses because he was able
to speak frankly, by overcoming his fear of antagonizing Phaedrus.
At the beginning of the story, Socrates identifies the lover as the one who is
dominated by desire, a slave of pleasure, and from that point onwards, nothing
can be of worthy in the long description of his petty behavior with the beloved,
which is summarized in the final judgment “as wolves want lambs, so lovers love
young men” (ὡς λύκοι ἄρνας ἀγαπῶσιν, ὣς παῖδα φιλοῦσιν ἐρασταί: 241d1). Soc-
rates ends the speech and flatly refuses to continue: “you will not hear another
word from me,” he says.
Phaedrus is stunned, because he expected Socrates to describe the advan-
tages of pleasing the non-lover. It is clear that Socrates cannot do this, so he
Socrates will criticize it severely, judging that it is neither healthy nor true (242 e 5–243 a 1), he
“does not deny, in retrospect, its content but only its lack of integration into a broader perspec-
tive” as Ferrari wrote (1987, p. 112).
I agree with Trabattoni (2011, p. 292) that both speeches say the same thing ‘verbatim’, but I
disagree about his conclusion that they defend the same theses in depth.
ἴσως γὰρ κἂν ἀποτράποιτο τὸ ἐπιόν.
wants to get rid of him as soon as possible, and he gives him two justifications: 1)
“the shortcomings for which we have blamed one, in the other are present as the
opposite of them, as good qualities: ὅσα τὸν ἕτερον λελοιδορήκαμεν, τῷ ἑτέρῳ
τἀναντία τούτων ἀγαθὰ πρόσεστιν.” (241e5–6) and 2) “I have said enough about
both of them” (241e7), so there is no need to make the discourse longer.
However, these justifications seem contradictory, because, if it is true that
the non lover behaves well, Socrates has not spoken about him, and if the
same criticism is applied to both of them, then it is not true that the non lover
In my view, the second justification is understandable because in the intro-
duction to his myth, Socrates has spoken of both of them: they both pursue their
own pleasure. Therefore, we cannot conclude that one should please the non-
lover, because both of them seek their own pleasure in an egocentric way, and
since neither of them takes good care of the “beloved” (by appealing to his ‘opin-
ion concerning the best’), none of them deserves any compensation in terms of
sexual pleasure. And though this is obvious to the attentive reader, it is not evi-
dent to Pheadrus.
As regards the first justification, it seems to suggest that if the non lover be-
haved contrary to the way the passionate lover acts, his conduct would be good.
If selfish intruding passion is bad, the lack of it would turn out to be good. Let us
observe that it is not necessarily the lack of any kind of passion which is to be
rejected but the lack of selfish passion.
As it has become clear that for Socrates the non lover apparently controls
himself but he is as selfish as the passionate lover and both of them are ‘wolves’,
we can only infer that the opposite to what is objectionable to both characters is
good. But that has not been said so far. Good divine passion has not entered the
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
VI. “This way my story will meet the end it
deserves, and I will cross this stream and
leave before you put some further
compulsion upon me” (241e8–242a2).
When Socrates realizes that Phaedrus has not understood the message, for he
does not accept that the non-lover is a fake, and apparently is not aware of
the distinction between the opinion concerning the best and the desire for pleas-
ure, he gives up.
Socrates no longer believes he can add anything else, since the seeds of his
words have fallen on deaf ears. So Socrates desperately wants to leave. He has
waged his own battle; has had the impression that he could beat his own Ty-
phoon in a moment of exaltation when his clear-thinking part could tell the
truth to Phaedrus; and had hoped that his friend would have understood the
message. But despite his patience and special care not to oppose him straightfor-
wardly, Phaedrus is convinced that the beloved should please the non-lover.
There are two forces that move the discourse’s tension and dramatic action
forward: uncertainty about the next step and confidence in the divine. This is the
lowest moment in the dialogue, in which Socrates loses patience, and cannot
bear further thought about Phaedrus’ snobbish ideas. Uncertainty overcomes
him, because, despite his strategy and efforts, nothing was enough to awaken
Phaedrus from his delusion.
But has the masquerade ended? We all know the answer. The dialogue goes
on. When Socrates starts crossing the river, Phaedrus appeals to the heat and the
hour to persuade him to stay. Socrates turns round, gracefully praises his ability
to convince, and reveals, to his amazement, that he is the cause of his coming
back and making another speech. Phaedrus is happy that Socrates is no longer
battling him, yet he does not understand his turnaround.
Socrates attributes his return to the fact that when he was crossing the river
he felt the voice of his daimon preventing him from leaving, immediately
guessed that he had committed some fault, and understood why he had felt a
kind of anguish as he was speaking. Lysias’ speech is as dreadful (δεινός) as
the one Phaedrus made him give (242d4–5). This adjective can be translated
as “terrible”, “dangerous”, “powerful”, “skilled”, and “clever”.
καὶ οὕτω δὴ ὁ μῦθος ὅτι πάσχειν προσήκει αὐτῷ, τοῦτο πείσεται: κἀγὼ τὸν ποταμὸν τοῦτον
διαβὰς ἀπέρχομαι πρὶν ὑπὸ σοῦ τι μεῖζον ἀναγκασθῆναι.
Now, Lysias’ speech is terrible because it was false, and Socrates’ speech is
terrible because it was too “simple”, and, to some extent, impious. Socrates has
made a unilateral simplification of love, since he has taken it in its popular
meaning, as mere appetite for sexual pleasure. In this respect, none of the
speeches “said anything healthy or true” (242e5–243a2), because the partial
view does not show the real nature of love and its greatness. Socrates feels guilty,
and attributes his first speech to the pressure and poison of Phaedrus, who,
being in love with Lysias, provoked his jealousy and rivalry.²⁵
VII. Soc.: “Where is the boy to whom I was
speaking? He should hear this also; if he
does not, he may rush to please the
non-lover. Phaed.: “Here he is, always by
your side, very close, whenever you want
The love of friendship which Socrates feels for Phaedrus reveals itself, after the
Socratic turnaround, as increasingly more serious, strong and committed. In gen-
eral terms, we should not interpret the relationship between them as erotic.²⁷ On
the one hand, because the dialogue ends by presenting them as two friends who
have all in common, including the experience of being two adults who each love
It is time to purify and sing the glories of authentic love, which is a divine madness that
drives the soul to its true destiny, at the edge of the cosmos. The sight of beauty overwhelms
the master with the sacred memory of Perfect Beauty, initiates the growth of new wings, and
fills him with the overwhelming desire to lead the soul of the disciple, which he guesses is sim-
ilar to his own, and also to the god he had elected in the celestial procession.
ποῦ δή μοι ὁ παῖς πρὸς ὃν ἔλεγον; ἵνα καὶ τοῦτο ἀκούσῃ, καὶ μὴ ἀνήκοος ὢν φθάσῃ χαρισάμε-
νος τῷ μὴ ἐρῶντι. οὗτος παρά σοι μάλα πλησίον ἀεὶ πάρεστιν, ὅταν σὺ βούλῃ.
Nussbaum (1986, p. 204; p. 211) thinks that Socrates is the lover par excellence, and that
Phaedrus is the pleasing beloved, and she takes this episode as an open confession of mad di-
vine love between them. Gooch (1992, pp. 309–312) has tried to refute this interpretation by
showing that the motive of the relationship is always friendship, and that, at the end of the dia-
logue, they do not plan to start a life in common but to return to their respective beloveds, not
merely to appreciate their beauty but to take them towards the life of wisdom. Only when the
lover controls the black horse can he see in his beloved the memory of perfect Beauty (who
is sitting on her throne by Moderation), and it is their pure love what will make their souls ac-
quire the wings necessary to ascend. See also De Vries (1969, p. 113).
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
their young ones, and on the other hand, because divine eros does not mark the
reciprocal interaction between the two characters throughout the dramatic ac-
tion; the intention of the palinode is to inspire Phaedrus towards a common ob-
ject of heavenly worship. And yet these extraordinary tender words, perhaps the
most critical in the dialogue, manifest their emotional overflowing in a kind of
brief action in the action or “play inside the play”. Socrates addresses Phaedrus
as if he were his lover, while Phaedrus, solicitous, replies as if he were adopting
the role of his beloved. Why?
From my point of view, this requirement of Socrates, in this peculiar circum-
stance, before starting his new song, is due to his deep desire to call Phaedrus to
a different, more attentive attitude, in order to capture the meaning of the ‘song’s
content’. In a sense, the rivalry game is over; Socrates wants no more competitive
parodies. Phaedrus has been playing the distracted snob, the indifferent and su-
perficial listener. But now Socrates attempts to cure his friend of his blindness,
so Phaedrus needs to be in the right mood too²⁸. And the paradox is that now he
is ready to listen, to devote all his attention to his love-master, precisely because
Socrates was about to leave him.
That said, I should like to add that, in my view, although the purpose of the
relationship between the characters is not predominantly erotic, but didactic,
this does not mean that it does not imply some elements that could be placed
on the border line between what belongs to friendship and to the art of erotic
Is it because the topic of discussion is mad divine love that it requires a cer-
tain “passionate” tone? In a sense, but not only for this mimetic, formal, external
Socrates describes a particular erotic relationship that is the highest and
happiest a man can have, which implies that the lover should be full of divine
madness. This revelation has direct and immediate consequences for their per-
sonal lives. Socrates is teaching Phaedrus to play the role of the lover with Ly-
sias, but in order to do so, he himself has to assume the role of the lover with
Phaedrus, to enable him not only to listen to the right description of love and
acquire a desire for it, but also to imitate his own careful approach strategy,
his emotional demands and, more importantly, his divine views as well. Only
when Phaedrus acquires a taste of this real passionate love can he become in-
spired to become an authentic lover of someone else.
Hackforth (1952, p. 53), against Friedländer, thinks that this is a mere game. Even so, one
should try to clarify its meaning in the dramatic action.
So this special lover must be a double lover. He needs to be in love with phi-
losophy in order to be able to take a philosophical character to his peak. This
requires redirecting his relationship with Lysias, and, in the first place, compel-
ling his beloved to rewrite his speech saying exactly the opposite: the beloved
should give his favours to a lover rather than to a non-lover (243d5–7) because
the lover is caring and is a teacher.
We are now able to understand why Phaedrus is the cause of the return of
Socrates: Phaedrus needs to learn what true and liberated love is, in order to
heal himself from the seduction of a fraud, for he could not escape from it by
the mere criticizing of vulgar love. And he should learn it by means of another,
mythic narrative and the loving care of Socrates himself ²⁹. He will learn because
the story says the same thing as does the attitude of Socrates in the dramatic ac-
In the framework of this dialogue, Plato lets Socrates persuade Phaedrus,
and defends the role of the art of rhetoric. At this point his main character
sets aside his jealousy, his desire for competition, and takes off the mask of con-
descension to literary, avant-garde, fashionable theses. He becomes brave
enough to speak his mind to a Phaedrus who has surrendered, as a master-
lover should do, without shame or fear. Only after Socrates masters his own at-
titude towards Phaedrus, is he able to recite the Palinode. He had to turn away
for a second, he had to listen to his daimon, he had to master his Typhoon in
order to let the ‘limpid creature’ within him say the words that could operate
the change in Phaedrus, and plant the fertile seeds that could grow in his soul.
Thus, in general terms, the ideal that the dialogue proposes is not an intel-
lectually rewarding life of loneliness, but a life that can only go up, if it has the
guidance and care of the teacher who always turns back to tell new stories and
pose the right questions, while he delights in contemplating the graceful beauty
of the young man, and the way his soul is progressing. This is a life that is mod-
eled after the divine procession, which takes only the minimum of essentials,
and whose destiny is to evoke beautiful, elusive memories.
The Palinode will exert purification on both. In an effort to free Phaedrus
from his vital and theoretical ignorance concerning true love, Socrates has re-
leased himself, through the mediation of his daimon, from the appetites and
fumes that threatened him. His turnabout enables him to get to know himself
and emerge as a true driver of souls.
I do not agree with Griswold’s thesis (1986, p. 71) that, in making a second speech, Socrates
is more concerned with his own spiritual benefit rather than with that of Phaedrus.
Plato’s Phaedrus: A Play Inside the Play
But the Platonic ideal of love par excellence, i.e., an intellectual, emotional
and sexual togetherness without genital relations, is not to be realized by Socra-
tes and Phaedrus in their lives. The characters in the dialogue have helped to
bring it out for the benefit of the reader. And they have done it so effectively,
with their words so interwoven, with their attitudes, gestures and over-reactions
so vivid, that they have made us believe –at least throughout the play inside the
play- that they had fallen in love. The divine and terrible Plato managed to de-
ceive us…for a while. At the end, he deliberately has let us go free from decep-
Bossi, B, 2000, ‘Is the Lysis really aporetic?’ in T. Robinson – L. Brisson, (eds.), Plato,
Euthydemus, Lysis Charmides, Proceedings of the V Symposium Platonicum, Selected
Papers, Academia, Sankt Augustin, pp. 172–179.
Calvo Martínez, T, 1992, ‘Socrates’s First Speech in the Phaedrus and Plato’s Criticism of
Rethoric’, in L. Rossetti (ed.), Understanding the Phaedrus, Proceedings of the II
Symposium Platonicum, Academia, Sankt Augustin, pp. 47–60.
De Vries, G J, 1969, A Commentary on the Phaedrus of Plato, Amsterdam.
Ferrari, G. R. F, 1987, Listening to the Cicadas, A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus, Cambridge.
Friedländer, P, 1960, Platon, III, Berlin.
Gooch, P, 1992, ‘Has Plato changed Socrates’ heart in the Phaedrus?’ in L. Rossetti (ed.),
Understanding the Phaedrus, Proceedings of the II Symposium Platonicum, Academia,
Sankt Augustin, pp. 309–312.
Griswold, C, 1986, Self-knowledge in Plato’s Phaedrus, New Haven and London.
Hackforth, F. B. A. 1952, Plato’s Phaedrus, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary,
Nussbaum, M, 1986, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge.
Pieper, J, 1964, Love and Inspiration, A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus, London.
Sinaiko, H, 1965, Love, Knowledge and Discourse in Plato: Dialogue and Dialectic in
Phaedrus, Republic and Parmenides, Chicago and London.
Tejera, V, 1992, ‘The Phaedrus, Part I: A Poetic Drama’, in L. Rossetti (ed.), Understanding the
Phaedrus, Proceedings of the II Symposium Platonicum, Academia, Sankt Augustin,
Trabattoni, F, 2011, ‘Un’interpetazione “platonica” del primo discorso di Socrate nel Fedro’ in
G. Casertano (ed.), Il Fedro di Platone, Napoli, pp. 285–305.
Yunis, H, 2011, Plato, Phaedrus, Introduction and Commentary, Cambridge.
He longs for him, he hates him and he
wants him for himself: The Alcibiades Case
between Socrates and Plato
The central idea that we will here defend is that two different but complementary
movements are at play within the skillful construction of the dramatic figure of
Alcibiades in the interior of the Platonic dialogues: first, a deft rhetorical con-
struction, strongly marked by an emphasis on Alcibiades’ sexual paranomia,
that is, on his deviant sexual behavior, which is in turn functional to a political
strategy of memory control, regarding the posthumous defense of Socrates and
his paideia as responsible for creating the ethical-political figure of Alcibiades.¹
The chosen locus of research will precisely be Plato’s Symposium, where
eros and paideia draw the fabric of dramatic and rhetorical speeches and, espe-
cially, the beautiful picture of the relation between Socrates and Alcibiades.
In order to so do, we will focus, firstly, on two important facts, which are es-
sential for the correct understanding of the dialogue, both of which appear at the
beginning. First, it is said that Socrates, Alcibiades and the others (172b) were
present at the famous banquet, and second, that the banquet and the erotic
speeches of the participants were so celebrated as to attract the attention for sev-
eral decades to come.². One can thus collect from these first exploratory obser-
vations that the memory of that meal is thus the memory, far beyond the
other symposiasts, and through the erotic speeches, of something very precise:
that is, a particularly significant relationship, that between Socrates and Alci-
The very structure of the dialogue leaves no doubt about the centrality of the
relationship between the two: Diotima’s speech would in fact seem the culmina-
tion of the discussion about love, from a theoretical point of view, and the dia-
logue could then end there. However, it is exactly at this point that Alcibiades,
Thanks to Nicholas Riegel for his very generous and competent revision of the english text. A
previous version of this paper has been already published in Plato journal 14 (2014).
It certainly is the case of noting that in Xenophon ’s namesake Symposium, even if it is another
banquet, this time in the house of the wealthy Callias of Athens, in Piraeus, held with the pretext
of celebrating the recent victory at a pankration competition, in the Great Panathenaic of 422/3,
of the young Autolycus, the son of a certain Licon, in the third part of it (ch. 8) Socrates says
exactly one erotikos logos to signify the importance of that memory (according to Pinheiro
mask of Eros and Dionysus, model lover, comes into play. In a way, it is possible
to say that, playing with the lexicon of the Symposium itself, all the speeches
longed and missed the entrance of the lover’s own mask, the incarnation of
Eros: Alcibiades. In his great literary skill, Plato seems to be able to converge
all the speeches towards the final mise en scène of Alcibiades’ entry.
Socrates’ first speech (213d) after Alcibiades’ entry sets the tone of the char-
acter: here Socrates expresses his fear of Alcibiades’ mania and philerastia, that
is, of his excesses in love.
Agathon, see if you can defend me for the love for this man gave me no little trouble. From
the moment I have fallen for him I am not even allowed to look or talk with one beautiful
young man, he, overcome by jealousy and envy, makes incredible scenes, insults me and
gets close to coming to blows. Please take care that this is not the case right now, and in-
stead try to keep the peace between us, because I loathe both his mania as his pederasty
The plea for Agathon to control Alcibiades in his violent excesses in eros should
not go unnoticed. The binding of erotica and violence is not only the character’s
card, but, as we shall see, his leitmotif throughout the dialogue.
With the excuse of having drunk too much wine, Alcibiades, significantly,
refuses to continue the erotikoi logoi game, claiming to be able of speaking
only about Socrates, and on this to want/to be able to tell only the truth
(214c–d). With this speech of Alcibiades, therefore, the record of the conversa-
tion changes: from theory to history, from praise to the truth (a true Dionysiac,
characterized by mania and parrhesia of drunkenness – oinos alethes, 217e: in
vino veritas), from concepts to images (215a), being those of a life lived side by
side (as in the case of military service), being, especially, those with great mim-
etic skill chosen to represent the real Socrates.
The very first image that Alcibiades uses is the one from the Sileni statues.
The image goes beyond the approximation, widely perceived by ancient iconog-
raphy, between the human typology of Socrates (some ugliness, fleshy lips, etc.)
and the Silenus image. Here Alcibiades refers to something more precise, prob-
ably something that we know nowadays only through the Russian Matryoshkas
statues, dolls that contain within them other dolls. The Sileni statues to which
Alcibiades refers to, therefore, tend to be monstrous and tacky statues that
once opened, reveal to contain within them statues of deities. In the same
The translation is mine. But the translation of “ blows “ was suggested to me by Schiappa de
way – this is the moral of the image – Socrates would have been: a mask of him-
self, ugly and rude on the outside, but divine on the inside.
A detail from this image that often escapes the translators – Brisson, in this
sense, well noticed it (1998, 217, N526): Alcibiades literally refers to statues that
are in the laboratories of the hermoglupheioi, that is, the sculptors of herms
But this initial and veiled reference to the herms cannot be considered cas-
ual.⁴ On the contrary, it inaugurates the Platonic politics of memory. In fact, Aga-
thon’s banquet would have happened a few months before this major event. On
the morning of June the 8th, 415, it seems, it was found that all the herms had
been mutilated, according to the testimony of Thucydides, “on the front” (proso-
pa, VI, 27, 3), which primarily means a mutilation of their sexual attributes.
Placed at the entrances and exits of houses and temples, at intersections and
at the city gates, the herms were – symbolically – entrusted with the protection
of the city. The horror arisen by such tremendous sacrilege was boosted due to
having been committed during a particularly critical juncture for Athens: the
preparation for one of the most ambitious (and dangerous) military expeditions:
that against Syracuse and its powerful allies. The suspicion of a sacrilegious act
– one which also had a humorous side to it, so to speak – should usually fall
upon the mess and brawl of some drunken youths. Plato seems, somehow, to
want to endorse this version. In fact, the story of the very arrival of Alcibiades
at the symposium at Agathon’s house seems to contain a reference to suspicions
that the Athenian people had come down on Alcibiades and his companions:
while Socrates and the others spend the night drinking at home, and moderately,
Alcibiades arrives at dawn, drunk and – that is what the text suggests – having
wandered through Athens in an altered state. An Athenian would not need to use
much fantasy in order to imagine Alcibiades and his drunken parties committing
any sort of profanity. Plato’s insistence on this version should also be one of the
reasons for the telling of the second interruption of the banquet at the end of it
(223b), held also by several other drunken youths. That is, Plato seems to insist
presenting nights of rioting in the street, right at the time of the herms’ mutila-
tion, thus endorsing the lightest version of the motives that lay behind the sac-
And yet, if this may seem a non troppo veiled admission of Alcibiades’ and
his party’s guilt by Plato, freeing Socrates and his group of this suspicion, it is
more likely that Plato is masking (after all, we are talking about the banquet,
Likewise, Plato’s game is probably present in the use by Alcibiades of the hermaion term,
which also refers to herms, in order to describe his fate when he met Socrates ( 217a).
He longs for him, he hates him and he wants him for himself
that is, of one most able game of masks) something more severe. Actually, in
contemporary sources, the suspicion of desecration does not fall so much
upon drunken youths: rather, a plot came more easily on people’s mind, hatched
up in an articulate manner, by groups intending to weaken the confidence of
Athens and its democracy at a time so delicate in its history, wanting by this
to restore oligarchy or tyranny.⁵
Let’s see Thucydides’ account on this matter:
No one knew who had done this, but large rewards were offered by the state in order to find
out who the criminals were, and there was also a decree passed guaranteeing immunity to
anyone, citizen, alien or slave, who knew of any other sacrilegious act that had taken place
and would come forward with information about it. The whole affair, indeed, was taken
very seriously, as it was regarded as an omen for the expedition, and at the same time
as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the democracy (Thucydides, VI,
Obviously, conspirators groups like these actually existed, as evidenced by the
successive staseis that profoundly shaped the fifteen or twenty successive
years of Athens’ democracy. They were called hetairias, groups of friends, com-
panions. The members were all of high social origin, and their meetings were
usually associated with the ritual of the banquet and the symposium. That is,
the suspicion falls exactly on top of a group like the one Plato sets in the Sym-
posium, happily gathered a few months before the mutilation. In fact, several of
these hetairias were charged and brought to trial, through the use of exceptional
legal instruments such as the eisaggelia.⁷ Athens starts to get obsessed with the
risk of a return to oligarchy, or worse, to tyranny. Gradually – Thucydides is the
main source on this issue – a rich, excessive, rebellious and powerful figure such
as that of Alcibiades gets to meet all the conditions to concentrate on itself the
fears of the democratic people. Thucydides states that plainly:
As for Alcibiades, the same enemies of his who attacked him even before he set sail now
renewed their attacks, and the Athenians took a serious view of the matter. Now that they
thought they had discovered the truth about the Hermae, they were all the more inclined to
believe that the sacrilege with regard to the mysteries, in which he was implicated, had
Several contemporary commentators – Nails rightly notes (2002, 20) – seem to fall into the
Platonic trap, and consider as a prank the case of the herms (prank: Dover 1970), underestimat-
ing motivations and political impacts of the gesture.
Trans. R. Warner (1972).
Cf. for the narration of events and the operation of emergency laws De Romilly (1995, 82).
been done by him as part and parcel of the same plot against the democracy (Thucydides,
VI, 61: 1).⁸
But Alcibiades was never formally charged in relation to the case of the herms.
However, within the climate of terror and slander prevailing while Alcibiades
was preparing for the Syracusan expedition, there appears an explicit complaint
against him of having committed another sacrilegious act: the accusation was
that he participated in a parody of the mysteries, in a private home. Androcles
tried to connect the two desecrations, the herms and the parody of the mysteries,
as prologues to a threat to democracy. Plutarch thus reveals the defamatory in-
tentions of Androcles:
Androcles, the orator, presented as witnesses a few slaves and metics who accused Alci-
biades and his friends of having mutilated other statues and of having parodied the mys-
teries under the effect of excessive drinking. It was said that a certain Theodoros played the
harbinger, Pulition the torch bearer, Alcibiades the hierophant, and that the other elements
of the group as spectators watched, playing the role of the initiated into the mysteries (Plu-
tarch, Alcibiades, 19, 1–2).⁹
Although Alcibiades participation in the case of the herms was never proven, the
association of the two sacrileges strongly marked Athens’ public mind.¹⁰ Thus, in
fact, Thucydides describes the reaction of the Athenian people:
These events had impressed themselves on the people of Athens and, recalling everything
that they had heard about them, they were now in an angry and suspicious mood with re-
gard to those who had been accused in connection with the mysteries; everything that had
happened was, they thought, part of a plot aiming at setting up an oligarchy or a dictator-
ship (Thucydides, VI, 60, 1).¹¹
The economy of this text does not allow us to monitor the troubled months that
followed this complaint. Suffice to say that it was initially denied, and Alcibiades
was able to travel as strategos, towards Syracuse. However, while in the middle
of the expedition, a woman from a prominent family, Agariste, raised another
version of the same charge of parody of the Eleusinian mysteries: but this
time, it was alleged to have happened in the house of Charmides, member of Al-
Trans. R. Warner (1972).
The importance of the charge of Androcles to the fate of Alcibiades is also confirmed by Thu-
cydides (VIII, 65, 2), on the occasion of the former’s murder.
It is significant in this sense, Thucydides’ ( VI, 28, 1) mixing of the two charges, one regarding
the desecration of the herms and the other regarding the parodies of the mysteries.
Trans. R. Warner (1972).
He longs for him, he hates him and he wants him for himself
cibiades’ hetairia. She accused him of playing the central role in it, the one of the
high priest.¹² Considering the seriousness of the charge, a ship was immediately
sent to Sicily in order to bring Alcibiades to stand trial in Athens. The rest is well
known: the flight of Alcibiades marks his first betrayal and the exile.¹³
What matters most is that from this moment on, Alcibiades begins plausibly
to be considered one of the major reasons for the defeat of Athens and the main
cause of the crisis into which the city was plunged. And with him all those who
belonged to his group. There is certainly nothing new in stating, as does Cen-
trone, that “the proximity to so controversial a figure as Alcibiades was one of
the real causes of the death of Socrates” (1999, xxxviii).¹⁴ And the distrust of
the city towards the groups of “philosophers” that remitted to him.
Nor does it surprise us that the so-called Socratics committed themselves,
from this tragic moment on, to refuting the accusation of Socrates having
been Alcibiades’ mentor, to the point – as stated by Gribble – of reversing the
charge: “the allegation that Socrates corrupted Alcibiades, the charge made by so-
ciety against philosophy, is not just refuted but turned on its head: it is society
which corrupts Alcibiades and others like him” (1999, loc. 394 Kindle Edition).
In the same way as the others Plato, also a Socratic, concerns himself with
what might be called the Alcibiades’ affaire (or the Alcibiades’ Connection). Re-
alizing there obviously was no way to deny the deep connection between Socra-
tes and Alcibiades, he uses a most clever dramatic construction with the inten-
tion of operating a political intervention upon the memory of this relationship,
that is, of rewriting history, thus producing another apology for Socrates, with
the intent of relieving him of a more precise charge, which must have especially
weighed upon Plato and upon Socrates’ memory: of him having been Alcibiades’
lover/mentor (trying to translate the broad vocabulary regarding the erastes/ero-
The idea is obviously not novel. Already Gomperz (1905, 394) considers Al-
cibiades’ speech as a response to Polykrates, who in the late 90’s of the fourth
century, that is, a few years after the death of Socrates, is thought to have written
A comprehensive review of the charges can be found both at About the mysteries as well as at
About his return, speeches that the also involved Aldocides writes during the last turbulent years
af the fifth century.
Nails (2002, 15) notes rightly that tradition knows two other recalls of Alcibiades and that
they are often mixed one for the other.
I devoted myself to the examination of these causes in a recent article published in the Pro-
ceedings of the 2008 Socratica Congress, to which I refer (Cornelli & Chevitarese 2010). Efforts to
unravel the reasons for this conviction and death are certainly not irrelevant, although I must
agree with Ferrari that this constitutes “a perhaps insoluble problem” (Ferrari 2007, 20).
an act of accusation against Socrates. The main witness to the existence of a ka-
tegoros, of an accuser identified by the critics as Polykrates, is Xenophon’s Mem-
orabilia (I, 2, 9).¹⁵ Although Robin (1908) considered the possibility of this direct
response to Polykrates as toute gratuite (1908, 60), and preferred, in the same
case, to think of a polemic between Plato and Aristophanes, who would then
have been considered by Plato “among Socrates’ opponents, the one whose in-
fluence at that time was still worth fighting against” (1908, 61). The fact is that
Plato, since he associated Socrates dramatically with Alcibiades, seemed to ev-
eryone to be feeling the need to defend him.
Socrates having the need of, somehow, being defended from Alcibiades is a
recurrent topos in the dialogues. Consider, for example, the famous divine pro-
hibition (daimonion enantioma) that prevented Socrates from speaking to Alci-
biades at the beginning of Alcibiades Major (130a).
Not surprisingly, much of Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium tends to em-
phasize the defeat of Socrates’ paideia, thus reinforcing the impression of a
strong apologetic tendency. Socrates’ very words, at the end of the praise, under-
line this defeat, when they attempt to debunk the prevarication, the use, the un-
fair exchange between Socrates’ true and ephemeral beauty, which Alcibiades
sought to carry out, in his own admission (218e). The term that Socrates uses
to indicate this “forcing of the issue” of Alcibiades is very significant: pleonek-
tein. Alcibiades is thus set in a context of violence and prevarication that de-
scribes those years of Athenian imperialism, and which Vegetti masterfully sum-
marized using the concept of “anthropology of pleonexia” (Vegetti 2003).
Thus, in a large part, the praise of Socrates by Alcibiades can be considered
more of an apology.
Let’s, for example, think about the very use of the images of the Sileni stat-
ues, which illustrate the need to overcome the appearance, the historical and un-
comfortable mask of Socrates, to look at a truth about his life and his legacy,
which still remains hidden to the majority. For Alcibiades says “none of you
know him” (216c –d). It is not difficult to see that through the voice of Alcibiades,
Plato himself is saying this to Athens.
The apologetic sense is especially evident in Socrates’ insistence, as the Al-
cibiades account goes, that he abandon ta Athenaion pratto, the political issues
of Athens, to devote himself to the care of oneself (emautos). Obviously, both in
re as in post factum, such an advice to abandon politics, when addressed to the
great statesman, a true Athenian political animal, is doomed to failure, but it is
functional to the politics of the Platonic memory, in his historiographical project,
Xenophon refutes these accusations with the same force throughout ch. 2.
He longs for him, he hates him and he wants him for himself
which is to mark a separation between Socrates and the Athenian staseis of his
The wonderful 221 and 222a pages, on the Socratic logoi, which metonymical-
ly participate in the image of the Silenus statue, which Alcibiades attributed to
Socrates himself, so common on the outside, but divine on the inside, closes
with the admission that these same speeches “tend towards, for those who
want to become kalo – kagatho”) (222a). That is, the paideia of Socrates, although
it may seem atopic, is indeed deeply committed to the ideals of the kalo–kagathia
that guide the Athenian politeia.
Thus, the problem is not Socrates’ teachings, but, rather, Alcibiades’ inabil-
ity to overcome his philotimia, his love for the honors of the many (216b). This
philotimia, of which Alcibiades is an almost paradigmatic example within the
ancient world (according to Thucydides, Alcibiades Major, Plutarch, passim),
on the one hand, moves him away from Socrates, thus escaping from his coun-
seling, but on the other makes him feel ashamed of his own weakness. Giorgini
(2005, 454) puts it well when he says that “without a doubt, the figure of Alci-
biades represented the widest failure of both Athenian education and socratic
To explain Alcibiades’ immunity to the Socratic paideia, in order to save Soc-
rates from defeat, Plato makes use of a rhetorical strategy that comedy, oratory
and Thucydides himself had already outlined: Alcibiades’ philotimia and weak-
ness would essentially indicate unequivocal feminine traits.
But this weakness of Alcibiades is not a simple association of immoderate
demand for honors and wealth, with the parallel representation of the ethics
of the feminine gender as necessarily connected to philothimia and to some
weakness with respect to pleasure seduction. There is something more precise
regarding the characterization of the paranomia of Alcibiades as a man, which
makes him both feared and admired in the eyes of his contemporaries and
even in the several centuries of tradition that followed. Once more Gribble rightly
points out that “in the last ten years of the Peloponnesian War the constant am-
bivalence and indecision which characterized the Athenian attitude towards Al-
cibiades crucially undermined Athenian policy” (1999, loc. 61).
This indecision, a mixture of fear and attraction, is in a way the description
of Athens’ erotic relationship with Alcibiades. Aristophanes understood this
well, when in The Frogs he makes Dionysus say that Athens “wants him,
hates him and longs for him”.¹⁶ The meaning of this statement takes a very spe-
cial connotation when you think that it was presented at the theater in the year
Frogs 1425: ποθεῖ μέν, ἐχθαίρει δέ, βούλεται δ’ ἔχειν.
405, while Alcibiades was in exile and the war was almost lost, and that Diony-
sus is dramatically visiting, in the afterlife, the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripi-
It is Thucydides himself (VI, 15) who tells us of the great paranomia of Alci-
biades, as the one which scandalized the Athenians (oi polloi) the most, regard-
ing his diaita, his lifestyle. A paranomia which is described more precisely as
kata to eautou soma, that is, regarding one’s own body. Although you can cer-
tainly think of such excesses as the bodily pleasures of food and drinking, the
expression refers more precisely to sexual deviancies (Gribble 1999
loc. 1094).¹⁷ It is no accident that Antisthenes states that Alcibiades would be
“paranomos towards women as well as regarding the remainder of his diaita”
(Caizzi frag. 29).
Alcibiades’ paranomia seems to carry within it a very precise sexual charac-
terization. This is clearly shown by the large number of anecdotes, information
and dramatic representations that characterize the tradition on the character.
Since childhood, according to Plutarch, Alcibiades’ fame has been linked to
female behavior. This is emblematic in the case of a famous fight, the central
space for defining the male gender, in which Alcibiades surprisingly makes
use of a bite:
Once, when he found himself in trouble during a fight, in order not to fall, he brought to-
wards his mouth the arms of the opponent that dominated him, and almost grabbed them
from side to side. That one, dropping his prey, said: ‘You bite, Oh Alcibiades, just like
women do!’ – and Alcibiades replied: ‘No, just like the lions!’ (Plutarch, Alcibiades 2,
Alcibiades’ answer – “not as a woman, but like a lion!” – refers itself more im-
mediately to another central passage of Aristophanes’ comic reflection in The
Frogs, on what to do with Alcibiades. The character Aeschylus actually says:
“first of all, one should not raise a lion in the inner city. But if someone so
does, then he must bend to its character” (1432–3). The lion, associated not
only with the figure of Alcibiades, but more generally with an unruly and poten-
tially dangerous social role within the community (in Homer, Achilles is a lion –
Il . 18. 318–22), is in the fifth century Athenian context an image that immediate-
ly refers to the most feared tyrannical tendencies. Herodotus associates the
The proof is also a fragment of Eupolis ( fr. 351 Kock), where, regarding both pleasures –
drinking and sex –, Alcibiades stood out as much as to be considered practically the inventor
of new forms of performance: πιπίνειν, something like getting back to drink in the morning
and λακκοπρωκτία, idleness, licentiousness.
Translated by Maria do Ceu Fialho and Nuno Simões Rodrigues.
He longs for him, he hates him and he wants him for himself
image of the lion with that of tyrants (V, 56; V, 92); and again Aristophanes, at the
Knights (1037), speaks of a woman giving birth to a lion in Athens; Callicles, in
Plato’s Gorgias, compares the submission of the best and the strongest citizens to
the city’s laws to the one that is established in order to train young lions
This double feral and feminine imagery attributed to Alcibiades eventually
pushes his representation more towards the wilderness than to the civilizing cul-
ture. Such a dichotomy between nature and culture is a strong mark of the rhet-
oric of gender. That is, as a lion and a woman Alcibiades flees from the moral
norm and the established policy, outraging the social uses and threatening, in
his irreducible difference and his ongoing challenge, the culture of sexual ap-
pearance promoted by the polis.¹⁹
In the political crisis of the late fifth century Athens, Alcibiades’ sexual para-
nomia, therefore, plays a key role in the representation of an individual driven by
his excesses and incapable of the metron, which has been established as the
great democratic value (Darbo-Pechanski 2009, 51). Accordingly, this gender
characterization reveals its inherent political connotation: “sexual pleasure is
seen as the strongest and most dangerous of the desires of the body, hence its