(Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 341) Gabriele Cornelli - Plato’s Styles and Characters Between Literature and Philosophy-Walter de Gruyter (2016)
part of the Socratic conceptual platform is forged through the appropriation
and reformulation of some of the topics put forward in these discourses. To
quote a couple of examples: from the discourse of Eryximachus and Aristo-
phanes, Socrates takes up the conciliatory role of Éros; from that of Agathon
he takes its methodological precept as to how a eulogy should be done, etc.
As in all dialogue, there are points about which the interlocutors agree and oth-
ers about which they do not. But what is important, in philosophical terms, is
that precisely in the context of this agreement and confrontation of positions
the complex physiognomy of the erotic phenomenon is gradually revealed in
the Symposium, taken each time from a different perspective or point of view.
With this traditional reading of the dialogue in mind, the question that arises
is whether the first five discourses and the last (and unexpected) one by Alci-
Bury (1932, pp. xxv-xxvii, xxxvi), to quote just one example, subscribes to this position in re-
gards to the discourses of Phaedrus, Pausanias and Agathon.
biades do not also partly contribute, in their way, to the configuration of the Pla-
tonic theory of love. Starting from the dramatic-philosophical polyphony that
forms the backbone of the dialogue, and borrowing a term from the Nietzschean
philosophical lexicon,³ I am interested in proposing here, in contrast to the tra-
ditional interpretation, a reading of the Symposium in perspectivist terms. This
stems from the assumption that the erotic issue cannot be grasped unidirection-
ally (as if the truth about Éros could only be approached from the perspective of
the Socrates-Diotima discourse, or as if this could exceed, in Hegelian terms of
annulment and preservation, the other discourses), but through seven theoreti-
cal perspectives in harmony. The Symposium would thus imply a perspectivist
way of accessing the nature of love; a way in which all discourses are –to use
Kierkegaard’s words (2000, p. 108)– “like a sliding telescope, the one presenta-
tion ingeniously merges into the other”. Under this proposed reading approach,
each of the seven theoretical perspectives contains a partial grain of truth about
the erotic phenomenon. As if Plato, faced with the question of how love is under-
stood by the intellectual elite of his era embodied in the orators of the symposi-
um, said to us: if there is a truth about love, this can only be revealed through
the combination of perspectives put forward. This is not to minimize the claim
for truth (tied specifically to interaction between éros and philosophy as support-
ed by the theory of the Ideas) implied in the discourse of Socrates-Diotima, but
rather to approach and measure the partial grains of truth which the other dis-
courses reach (underestimated generally in traditional readings of the dialogue),
which, through a subtle play of rectification and complementation orchestrated
by Plato, contribute to enlightening areas of meaning of the erotic experience
that the Socratic discourse does not allow us to grasp. If, as Nietzsche states
(1983, p. 120), Plato lifted Socrates out of the street “to exhibit him in all his
own disguises and multiplicities”, in the Symposium that is masked behind
seven discursive perspectives to offer a typology or thought in spiral form
(hence the choice of indirect style) about love.
Let us bear in mind that Plato could –following the discursive register culti-
vated by some sophists– have written a treatise on love, approaching its nature
from a single perspective. But it is clear that he preferred to dialogue with all the
avatars that a conversation among a group of people entails (abrupt interrup-
tions, changes in order, oversights, ironic comments, silences, humorous passag-
es, hiccoughs, sneezes, etc.) where each orator makes his small contribution to
the reflection on love. Each discourse thinks and translates the erotic phenom-
For the notion of ‘perspectivism’ in the Nietzschean corpus, cf. especially Nietzsche (1992, p.
87; 1990, pp. 245–246).
Perspectivism, Proleptic Writing and Generic agón
enon in its own way and according to the discursive genre (rhetoric, medical, po-
etic, philosophical, etc.) on which each is based, while demonstrating the impos-
sibility of reducing it to an unambiguous concept. In other words, each orator
says in his own way not the truth (as Socrates states: “Regard this speech,
then, Phaedrus, if you want to, as spoken in eulogy of Éros”, Smp. 199b2–4)
but a foreshortening of truth about love. As Barthes notes in this regard (1982,
p. 225): “What the guests try to produce are not proved remarks, accounts of ex-
periences, but a doctrine: Éros is for each of them a system”. Plato presents to us
a framework of theoretical perspectives through which he comes to tell us that
regarding the nature of love there is no explanation that can be sustained pre-
cisely: hence perhaps the subsequent conceptual reformulation of his erotics
in the Phaedrus, where Éros ceases to be a daímon in order to regain his status
as a god: “What Plato shows us,” Lacan states (2003, p. 54) “in a fashion that
will never be unveiled, which will never be revealed, is that the contour that
this difficulty outlines is something which indicates to us the point at which
there is the fundamental topology which prevents there being said about love
something which hangs together.” The diversity and complexity of the erotic
phenomenon thus exceed in the Symposium any conceptual attempt to establish
its ultimate sense –as noted in traditional readings–within the narrow limits that
one discourse implies. Apollodorus’ tale implies not just spoiled pieces of rib-
bon, but also different musical versions of the same theme.
The perspectivist approach of the erotic issue is then, diametrically opposed
to the readings that go out of their way to find in Plato a systematic will. That
which could be a defect turns out to represent one of the central virtues of the
dialogue. Because the Symposium is a perfect work in that it refuses to reduce
the nature of love to a closed conceptual whole, in that rather than seeking to
close, it seeks to put forward the perspectives of a given problem:
If –as Heidegger argues (2000, pp. 181–182)– we scrutinize the traditional configuration of
Plato’s philosophy as a whole we notice that it consists of particular conversations and
areas of discussion. Nowhere do we find a “system” in the sense of a unified structure plan-
ned and executed with equal compartments for all essential questions and issues. Various
questions are posed from various points of approach and on various levels, developed and
answered to varying extents.⁴
See, along the same lines, Dover (1978, p. 160, n. 9): “It was not Plato’s practice to reconcile
what he said in one work with what he had said previously in another work, hence it is often
difficult to decide if he has changed his mind or if he is expressing different aspects of the
The very choice of the dialogue format expresses the way that Plato finds to com-
municate the impossibility –inherent to the philosophical job in hand– of saying
something (whether it be about love, the soul, poetry, etc.) that can be sustained
definitely. The discourses can be read in this sense as interventions on love,
which in not being able to give an unambiguous meaning, ultimately take on
the obdurate multiplicity that characterizes the human erotic experience. Start-
ing from this first current we can see the complex erotic scheme of the dialogue
in the light of an incessant play of seven discursive perspectives correcting and
complementing each other. As in no other work, in the Symposium Plato refines
the point of view technique, no longer placed –as in most of the dialogues– in
two archetypal characters (Socrates and those interlocutors on hand) but frag-
mented among seven figures (not counting the two narrators, Apollodorus-Aris-
todemus). The Symposium thus involves a choral structure of diverse tonalities
that, only through their counterpoint, produce the sought after philosophical ef-
II. Proleptic writing and dialogic-philosophical
In the Symposium Plato puts into practice like in no other dialogue a kind of pro-
leptic writing (prólepsis: in advance, foreshadowing), in the sense that each eu-
logy contains fragmentary advances of topics that, through a subtle play of rec-
tification and complementation, will be taken up again in posterior discourses.
This proleptic writing is connected to perspectivist writing, as each discursive
position is made up from its counterpoint with the other theoretical perspectives.
Let us see some examples of this discursive counterpoint, through which Plato
develops wisdom about love in the Symposium. In his eulogy, Pausanias rectifies
the indivisible concept of Phaedrus’ Éros in favour of a dual concept (the older
and motherless Éros of Uranus, and the younger, more common Pandemus) but
follows the young orator in the estimation of the Éros of older origin (Uranus),
which contrasts at that time with the position taken by Agathon, who conceives
of Éros as the youngest and most delicate of the gods, in order to distance him
from the area of Necessity (Anánke), violence and discord in which the Hesiodic
genealogy drawn up by Phaedrus had placed him. Although Eryximachus picks
up the dual concept of the Éros opened by Pausanian, he does so within a nom-
inal resignification (an “ordered” Éros that instils harmony and health, in con-
trast to an “excessive” type that engenders discord and disease) and a solid ex-
pansion of its area of influence (limited in the case of Pausanias to the plane of
Perspectivism, Proleptic Writing and Generic agón
human souls) and to a micro and macro cosmic level, at the core of which Éros
operates over all things human and divine through a harmonizing role
(Smp. 187b4–6). With the dual concept of the god displaced to the plane of an-
cient human nature, the cosmic power of Eryximachus’ Éros is recovered from
another perspective in the discourse of Aristophanes and in that of Socrates-Di-
otima. In the former, this recovery is carried out not only from the doctor or
curer-restorer role that Aristophanes’ Éros takes on, but also in the context of
the cosmic explanation (the sun as the father of the male gender, the land
that of the female, and the moon of the androgyne) of the descendents of the
three sexual genders that characterise our primitive spherical being. In the dis-
course of Socrates-Diotima, this recovery can be seen in the intermediary (meta-
xý) and cohesive role of the Éros-daímon, whose power allows it to establish
community (homilía) and contact (diálektos) between gods and men
The strategy of mythical justification of paiderastía (“attraction to boys”)
from the Uranus Éros (motherless), as read in Pausanias’ discourse, foreshadows
somehow Aristophanes’ strategy in relation to the sexual tendencies (heterosex-
ual, homosexual and lesbian) of his spheres, once divided by the divinity. The
restrictive perspective that the Aristophanic discourse establishes around the
possibility of restitution of our old original half (“the fortune that falls to few
in our day”, Smp. 193b5–6) reappears, from another conceptual perspective,
in Socrates’ discourse in the light of the restricted character that Diotima assigns
to the understanding of the final revelation (Idea of beauty) at the end of her
erotic initiation: “I doubt if you would approach the rites and revelations to
which these, for the properly instructed, are merely the avenue” (Smp.
210a1–2). The trilogy of debauchery, disease and pain that Aristophanes works
from, as a consequence of the original iniquity of primitive human nature, can
be understood as a response to the trilogy of harmony, health and love as com-
municated in Eryximachus’ discourse. And, in turn, we can think of an erotics of
the mutilated body in Aristophanes’ discourse, because in Eryximachus’ dis-
course it was possible to introduce previously the perspective of a double erotics
of the body, whose devaluation in Pausanias’ discourse became patent through
the association between Aphrodite Pandemos and carnal love.
The methodological precept that Agathon sets out at the start of his dis-
course foreshadows the enunciation that will follow that of Socrates-Diotima,
as well as the relationship that this establishes between his Éros and the cardinal
virtues (justice, bravery, moderation and wisdom) ultimately is reconfigured in
Alcibiades’ discourse around the figure of Socrates as the cause of such virtues
in men. In the Socratic refutation of Agathon’s discourse, Plato not only fore-
shadows in terms of structure and form the relational character (Éros is desire
for something), lacking character (Éros is desire for that which is lacking) and
intermediary character (Éros is neither beautiful nor ugly, nor good nor bad)
which the conceptual pair of Éros-daímon will have in the Socrates-Diotima dis-
course, but also this refutation constitutes a foreshadowing of that which Dioti-
ma will do to Socrates, who until the encounter with the priestess thought –like
Agathon and the other orators– that Éros was a great god and that, therefore,
had to be put in the place of the loved (Smp. 201e2–7).⁵
In light of these examples, which we mention here to illustrate the proleptic
writing that Plato applies in the Symposium, I believe it is easier to see in what
sense the perspective taken by Socrates does not imply, at the time of its appear-
ance, a new concept in radical terms, given that his discourse is unthinkable
when separated from the play of counterpoints that is taken on with the remain-
ing interventions, which are important within the conceptual architecture of the
dialogue in revealing partial aspects of the erotics issue. To put it in the terms
with which Kant (1984, p. 16) referred to Hume’s legacy: “If we begin from a
well-grounded though undeveloped thought that another bequeaths us, then
we can well hope, by continued reflection, to take it further than could the saga-
cious man whom one has to thank for the first spark of this light”. This play of
rectification and complementation, of continuity and antagonism among the
seven discourses is overshadowed in what we call the traditional reading of
the Symposium, as the latter approaches the work from the narrow antinomy
of dóxa (five first discourses) – alétheia (discourse of Socrates-Diotima). In keep-
ing with the dialogical character that his philosophy takes on, Plato would be
saying, through the choral or polyphonic structure that informs the Symposium,
that the truth about a given matter (such as, in this case, that of éros) is con-
structed –and is only possible– through a dialogical-philosophical counterpoint.
III. An agón of discursive genres
The Symposium begins with a joke (paízon, Smp. 172a1–5)⁶ and concludes with
an apologia of the true artist as artist of tragedy and comedy. This fact, which
An exhaustive analysis of the Socratic refutation of Agathon’s discourse can be read in Payne
(1999, pp. 235–253).
One of the most interesting analyses of the joke that begins the dialogue can be read in Stokes
(1993, p. 128). The Cratylus also starts with a joke: one character (Cratylus) says to another (Her-
mogenes) that his name is not his name. Leading from the etymology of his name (“of the stock
–genos– of Hermes”, interpreter of divine will, god of commerce and theft), Cratylus maintains
that Hermogenes has an incorrect name as this does not reflect his reality characterized by the
Perspectivism, Proleptic Writing and Generic agón
tends to be overlooked, is not a minor matter within the conceptual architecture
of the work. From beginning to end in the Symposium Plato makes all the most
renowned discursive genres (rhetoric, scientific, comic, tragic and philosophical)
of his era interact around a reflection on love. But to better understand this one
must bear in mind the agonistic mentality running through democratic Athens,
the intellectual capital of Greece since the mid 5
century BC, the most presti-
gious city in wisdom and power, according to Plato’s testimony, and the city
with the greatest freedom of speech (Ap. 29d7–8, Grg. 461e1–3). Deleuze and
Guattari (1993, p. 10) cast light on this relationship between the agonistic men-
tality and the Athenian democratic polis as a community of both free men and
It is in this first aspect that philosophy seems to be something Greek and coincides with the
contribution of cities: the formation of societies of friends or equals but also the promotion
of relationships of rivalry between and within them, the contest between claimants in every
sphere, in love, the games, tribunals, the judiciaries, politics, and even in thought, which
finds its condition not only in the friend but in the claimant and the rival (the dialectic
Plato defined as amphisbetesis. It is the rivalry of free men, a generalised athleticism:
Along similar interpretative lines, Cassin (1994, p. 12) stresses that the Greek agón
ultimately refers to the meetings and tournaments that took place for the pur-
pose of a ‘game’, a ‘combat’, a ‘trial’ or a ‘theatrical performance’; these consti-
tute the four possible types of antagonism among competitors, wrestlers, plain-
tiffs and actors. With regards to the erotic agón, there is nothing more eloquent
than the words of Pausanias on the forms that pederastic love takes in Athens:
Now our law has a sure and excellent test for the trial of these persons, showing which are
to be favoured and which to be shunned. In the one case, accordingly, it encourages pur-
suit, but flight in the other, applying ordeals and tests (agonothetôn) in each case, whereby
we are able to rank the lover and the beloved on this side or on that (Smp. 183e6–184a4).
Basing his argument on a key passage from the start of the dialogue, in which
Agathon says to Socrates “A little later on you and I shall go to law (diadikasó-
metha) on this matter of our wisdom, and Dionysus shall be our judge”
(Smp. 175e7–9), Hadot (2008, p. 87) interprets that the Symposium as a whole
could have been titled The Judgement of Dionysius, thus underlining the agonal
character of the work in relation to the sophia. Such is, in short, the situation
lack of resources and skill with words, hence in his case the name is not seen to fit the reality,
which is the subject of the dialogue (Cra. 383a4–384c6).
that is the setting for Plato’s Symposium, and that, it might be said, reflects the
agonal character of the Greek mentality itself in the era: as a result of the victory
of the poet Agathon in a tragic contest, we witness the celebration of an agón
among seven theoretical perspectives of love, the revealing of which implies in
turn, in the last section of the dialogue, an erotic agón between Socrates, Alci-
biades and Agathon.⁷
If we then approach the Symposium from the mentality of the agón or, rather,
as a combat of arguments (agón lógon) or “symposium of discourses” (tôn lógon
hestíasis, Ti. 27b7–8)⁸ around the problem of love, we should not be surprised by
the proposal to read the dialogue in the light of an agón among discursive gen-
res, or in other words, as a regulated exchange of discourses (lógoi) around a
subject (éros) which implies, like all agonal space, hints of tension and anger
among the interlocutors. This accounts for passages such as the following, in
which, after Aristophanes’ discourse and with the expectancy generated
among the diners over his imminent discourse on Éros, Socrates says to the doc-
Eryximachus, made a fine hit (egónisai): but if you could be where I am now—or rather, I
should say, where I shall be when Agathon has spoken—you would be fitly and sorely
afraid, and would be as hard put to it as I am (Smp. 194a1–4).
Those “prose plays” (Po. 1447b10 –15), to put it in Aristotelian terms, that are the
Platonic dialogues, only put those characters on the stage whose main mission is
to personify different discursive points of view. Or, to put it another way, they are
at the service of a lógos that represents them and they submit to the play of dia-
logue exchange. A dialogue between lógoi rather than between characters, to the
extent that Plato sometimes goes to the extreme of personifying a reasoning or
argument (lógos).⁹ The very choice of the dialogue form aims, as Nussbaum
claims (1995, pp. 36, 133), to show us a confrontation of positions, the different
aspects of a given problem, and to highlight the loss that any “solution” can en-
For the subject of the competition of the discursive genres and the role of philosophy in rela-
tion to them, see Mársico, among others (2002, pp. lxxvi-lxxxi).
Cf. also Lg. I 640b7–8, where symposia are defined as “meetings of friends who share in
peace a good disposition towards friends”. Unlike Plato, in his Symposium Xenophon does
not let the flautist, dancer and zither player go, but they accompany the diners throughout
the evening. See in this regard Prt. 347c3-e1, where Plato draws a counter position between
the symposia of upper-class, educated men and those of ordinary men.
See, among other examples, Phd. 87a7–9, 89b9-c4, Rep. 457c1–2, 461e7–8, 503a7-b1, and
Perspectivism, Proleptic Writing and Generic agón
Plato uses the dialogue to motivate a view, to make us feel the force of a problem and to
explain the practical roots and implications of a solution. The plan is to show us diverse
responses to a problem, allowing them to be ‘examined’ as the dialogue progresses. If
this is done properly, by the end we will clearly see both the nature of the problem and
what options are within our reach.
Ultimately, what is left standing at the end of the Symposium are seven theoret-
ical perspectives through which Plato seeks to show the complex nature of the
erotic problem. As if in writing the dialogue he told us that to speak of love it
is not enough to be a philosopher, but also a rhetorician, a physician, a poet
(tragic and comic), a politician.
Although the “Socratic dialogues”¹⁰ as a literary genre are not a creation of
Plato’s, it is Plato who unlike other disciples of Socrates raises the dialogue for-
mat –as can be seen in the Symposium– to an exceptional artistic level, convert-
ing this mixture of literary form and philosophical content into the instrument
par excellence of philosophy. The Platonic dialogue thus becomes a framework
of literary procedures and argumentative strategies that, as Nietzsche discerned
in the 19
century, leads to the prototype of a new form of polyphonic art;¹¹ an
amalgam that condenses within it registers belonging to different discursive gen-
res of the period (poetry, scientific and historic treatises in prose, rhetoric, phi-
If –Nietzsche claims (1973, pp. 120 –121)– tragedy had absorbed all preceding artistic gen-
res, the same can be said, in an eccentric sense, of the Platonic dialogue, which was created
by mixing all available styles and forms together so that it hovers somewhere midway be-
tween narrative, lyric and drama, between prose and poetry, thus breaking the strict older
law about the unity of linguistic form. The Platonic dialogue was the boat on which the
older forms of poetry, together with all her children, sought refuge after their shipwreck.
Plato really did bequeath the model of a new art-form to all prosperity, the model of the
This Nietzschean interpretation turned out to be the precursor of contemporary
reading of the Platonic dialogical genre as “intertextuality”, “polyphony” or
“conversation” among traditional discourse genres, subscribed to by interpreters
Cf. with Aristotle, Po. 1447b11.
For aspects relating to the issue of structure and function in Platonic discourse, the unity
between literary form and philosophical content, the use of argumentative and literary techni-
ques, and the various hermeneutic problems that the dialogue form entails, cf., among other
works, Vicaire (1960, pp. 77–149, 158–192), Santa Cruz (1996, pp. 11–24), and Cossutta &
such as Gadamer (1977, pp. 636–637), Nussbaum (1995, pp. 179–181, 183), and
Nightingale (1995, pp. 1–12), among others.
But the Platonic dialogue not only implies a complex and polyphonic dra-
matic structure, but also a break with traditional genre distinctions. Different
“voices” operating in Plato’s dialogues can be explained by the “conversation”
that Plato maintains with traditional discourse genres.¹² Within his intellectual
project, this polyphonic form of philosophy, as well as incorporating said genres
into his dialogues, allows Plato to redefine philosophical work as a specialized,
discursive and social practice, opposed to the traditional (pre-Platonic) concept
of philosophy as “intellectual formation” in the broad sense. Although he de-
fines the philosophical register as opposed to that of traditional discourse gen-
res, through the dialogue format Plato manages to appropriate and intertwine
procedures connected to those same genres he criticises. Hence, even when
the dialogic form is sought to stand as an alternative to the discursive genres
with which he enters into a critical discussion (as can be read in Lg. VII 817a-
e, in the mouth of the character of the Athenian), he still incurs a positive
debt with them.
In this perspective, if Plato contradicts himself it is because –to paraphrase
Walt Whitman– his dialogues contain a multitude of voices. Precisely because
understanding of the polyphonic dimension of the dialogue and of the Platonic
concept of philosophy condition each other, the reflection on love which can be
taken from the Symposium cannot be taken from the different discursive registers
that dealt with this topic, hence Plato configures his erotics by dialoguing be-
tween genres. In other words, Plato is fully conscious that to approach the nature
of love it is essential that there be an interaction between the different intellec-
tual representations reflected in the most renowned discursive genres of his day.
Rather than revealing the truth about love through one discourse in particular,
this dialogue concentrates on a perspectivist approach of the erotic experience,
whose truth can be deduced from the dialogic-philosophical agón between such
genres. The Symposium is, in this respect, the best and the clearest example of
Plato’s philosophical-literary versatility,¹³ and one of the dialogues that best il-
lustrates the mix of genres that characterises his work.
For the definition of “discursive genre” as a “way of thinking”, “system of the imagination”
or “grammar of things” capable of constructing a coherent model of the world, see especially
Nightingale (1995, p. 3).
Cf. in this regard Rosen (1968, p. xxxvi). On the polyphonic structure of the Platonic dia-
logue, see also Migliori (2005, pp. 11–46).
Perspectivism, Proleptic Writing and Generic agón
Barthes, R 1982, Fragmentos de un discurso amoroso, Siglo XXI, México.
Brisson, L 1998, Platon, Le Banquet, GF – Flammarion, Paris.
Brochard, V 1940, ‘Sobre el Banquete de Platón’, in Estudios sobre Sócrates y Platón,
Losada, Buenos Aires, pp. 42–81.
Burnet, J 1900–1907, Platonis Opera, Oxford Classical Texts, Oxford, 5 vols.
Bury, RG 1932, The Symposium of Plato, W. Heffer and Sons, Cambridge.
Cassin, B 1994, Nuestros griegos y sus modernos. Estrategias contemporáneas de
apropiación de la antigüedad, Manantial, Buenos Aires.
Cornford, FM 1974, ‘La doctrina de éros en el Banquete de Platón’, in La filosofía no escrita,
Ariel, Barcelona, pp. 127–146.
Corrigan, K & Glazov-Corrigan, E 2004, Plato’s Dialectic at Play: Argument, Structure, and
Myth in the Symposium, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania.
Cossutta, F & Narcy, M 2001, La forme dialogue chez Platon. Évolution et réceptions, Jérôme
Deleuze, G & Guattari, F 1993, ¿Qué es la filosofía?, Anagrama, Barcelona.
Dover, KJ 1978, Greek Homosexuality, Duckworth, London.
Dover, KJ 1980, Plato, Symposium, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Gadamer, HG 1977, Verdad y método I, Sígueme, Salamanca.
Grube, G 1983, El pensamiento de Platón, Gredos, Madrid.
Guthrie, WKC 1990, Historia de la filosofía griega, Gredos, Madrid, vol. IV.
Hadot, P 2008, Elogio de Sócrates, Paidós, Barcelona.
Heidegger, M 2000 , Nietzsche, Destino, Barcelona, vol. I.
Juliá, V 2004, Platón, Banquete, Losada, Buenos Aires.
Kahn, CH 1996, ‘The object of love’, in Plato and the Socratic Dialogue. The Philosophical
Use of a Literary Form, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 258–281.
Kant, I 1984 , Prolegómenos a toda metafísica futura que pueda presentarse como
ciencia, Charcas, Buenos Aires.
Kierkegaard, S 2000 , Sobre el concepto de ironía, en constante referencia a Sócrates,
in Escritos, Trotta, Madrid, vol. I.
Lacan, J 2003, El seminario de Jacques Lacan. Libro 8: la transferencia, Paidós, Buenos Aires.
Liddell, HG, Scott, R & Jones, HS 1968, A Greek-English Lexicon, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Mársico, CT 2002, ‘Estudio preliminar al Banquete’, in Platón, Banquete, Altamira, Buenos
Aires, pp. lxxvi–lxxxi.
Martínez Hernández, M 1986, Platón, Banquete, in Platón, Diálogos, Gredos, Madrid, vol. III.
Migliori, M 2005, ‘La struttura polifonica del Fedro’, in Quaderni Bombesi, Rivista Semestrale
di Filosofia e di Scienze Umane della scuola di Alta Formazione Filosofica “B. Spaventa”
, Bomba, I, pp. 11–46.
Nietzsche, F 1973 , El nacimiento de la tragedia, Alianza, Madrid.
Nietzsche, F 1983 , Más allá del bien y del mal, Alianza, Madrid.
Nietzsche, F 1992 [1884–1888], Fragmentos póstumos, Norma, Colombia.
Nietzsche, F 1990 , La ciencia jovial, Monte Ávila, Caracas.
Nightingale, AW 1995, Genres in Dialogue. Plato and the Construct of Philosophy, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.
Nussbaum, MC 1995, La fragilidad del bien. Fortuna y ética en la tragedia y la filosofía
griega, Visor, Madrid.
Osborne, C 1994, Eros Unveiled. Plato and the God of Love, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Payne, A 1999, ‘The Refutation of Agathon: Symposium 199c-201c’, Ancient Philosophy,
vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 235–253.
Radice, R 2003, Lexicon: Plato, Electronic edition, Biblia, Milano.
Reale, G 2004, Eros, demonio mediador, Herder, Barcelona.
Reeve, CDC 2006, ‘A Study in Violets: Alcibiades in the Symposium’, in JH Lesher, D Nails &
FCC Sheffield (eds), Plato′s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception, Center
for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC, pp. 124–146.
Rosen, S 1968, Plato’s Symposium, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Rowe, CH 1998, Plato, Symposium, Aris & Phillips Ltd, Warminster.
Santa Cruz, MI 1996, ‘Formas discursivas en la obra escrita de Platón’, in J. Aguirre Sala (ed),
Las formas discursivas en la obra de Platón, Universidad Iberoamericana, México,
Stokes, MC 1993, ‘Symposium 172a-c: a Platonic phallacy?’, Liverpool Classical Monthly
vol. 18, no. 8, p. 128.
Vicaire, P 1960, Platon: Critique littéraire, Klincksieck, Paris.
White, FC 1989, ‘Love and Beauty in Plato’s Symposium’, Journal of Hellenic Studies,
vol. 109, pp. 149–157.
Perspectivism, Proleptic Writing and Generic agón
Graciela E. Marcos de Pinotti
Plato’s Argumentative Strategies in
Theaetetus and Sophist
In Theaetetus and Sophist, Plato accomplishes a construction operation of his
adversaries which leads him to associate doctrines regularly attributed to Hera-
cliteans or Eleatic thinkers with different sophistical positions. However, his pri-
mary purpose is not to refute historical positions, but to assert fundamental the-
ses and principles of his own philosophy. So I am not interested here in
evaluating the legitimacy of such associations, or “dialectical combinations”,
as Cornford (1935, p. 36) calls them. I will focus instead on the peculiar kind
of argument he employs for the refutation of both kinds of opponents. This is
a sort of peculiar argumentation, as I will try to show, which does not appeal
to the existence of the Forms but to the conditions of the possibility of language.
In Theaetetus, Plato associates Protagoras’ doctrine with the Heraclitean the-
sis. His main arguments against these positions assume there is a meaningful
use of language and certain conditions which make it possible. Plato’s opponent
uses language, but he does not accept some of the conditions his practice en-
tails. He tacitly admits that there is meaningful language as long as he is
ready to communicate his position, but the content he disseminates is incompat-
ible with that admission. Heracliteans, for example, claim that everything is in
flux and that nothing stays. But since total instability would make the language
practice impossible, their thesis, which is refuted as soon as it is made known,
appears intrinsically incoherent. Protagoras –I mean the Protagoras Plato trans-
mits– also contradicts himself: his thesis that the truth is relative to each one
becomes false as soon as it is asserted. A similar strategy is adopted in Sophist,
where it is Parmenides’ figure that gains relevance. The sophistic denial of false-
hood is related there to the Parmenidean denial of speaking or thinking of that
which is not. Plato means Parmenides contradicts himself when declaring that
non-being is unthinkable and not to be spoken of or uttered in the discourse,
and the Monist does so as well when he uses the name to claim that ‘one
alone is’. Those who deny the possibility of any kind of blending or combination
also contradict themselves, as the mere assertion of their thesis forces them to
combine names in the discourse. In all these cases, there would be a contradic-
tion between what is said and what for Plato is implied in saying it. His argu-
ments would therefore respond to a similar strategy intended to bring to light
some necessary premises without which, what we say, or what we want to be ca-
pable of saying, could not be said.¹
In this paper I attempt to show that resorting to the factum of language rath-
er than to the assumptions of the Forms is not a flaw in these arguments. On the
contrary, this assures them a greater scope than the one of those arguments
which Socrates proposes to his followers in Phaedo or Republic. The arguments
I have chosen to analyse try to persuade every speaker (a fortiori the philoso-
pher) who is ready to accept certain premises that Plato deemed necessary for
our language practice.
1. The Factum of Language in Theaetetus.
Refutation of Heracliteanism and
Self-Refutation of Protagoras
1.1. The Heraclitean thesis is introduced in Tht. 152c as Protagoras’ secret doc-
trine, implied in his theory of man as the measure of all things. Such a thesis
claims that “nothing is one thing just by itself, and that you can’t correctly
speak of anything either as some thing or as qualified in some way”
(Tht. 152d2–4). As a result of movement, change, and mixture with one another,
“all the things which we say are –which is not the right way to speak of them–
are coming to be” (Tht. 152d7–8). The attribution of being to things conceals
their flowing nature and it provides them with some firmness and determination
which they do not have. Hence the need to reform our language, which, in a
world which is subject to changes in all respects as the Heracliteans describe
it, would become useless. If their thesis is true,
We should exclude ‘be’ from everywhere (…) nor ought we to admit ‘something’, ‘some-
one’s’, ‘my’, ‘this’, ‘that’, or any other word that brings things to a standstill. We ought,
rather, to use expressions that conform to the nature of things, and speak of them as com-
ing to be, undergoing production, ceasing to be, and altering; because if anyone brings
things to a standstill by what he says, he’ll be easy to refute in doing that (Tht. 157b3–c2).²
The Platonic strategy is in a way similar to the one used by Aristotle in his defense of the Non-
contradiction principle in Met. IV, often characterised as trascendental. On the nature and scope
of trascendental arguments see Cabrera (2007).
Pl., Theaetetus: translated by McDowell (1973).
Graciela E. Marcos de Pinotti
The Heracliteans, convinced that everything is unstable, suggest reforming lan-
guage, producing one which is foreign to any kind of permanency. If everything
comes down to movement, possessive and demonstrative words would be avoid-
ed, since, as they denote stability, they turn out to be inappropriate to refer to
something which is subject to constant change and which does not preserve
its identity throughout time.³ Instead, we are forced to resort exclusively to
verbs which express such processes. Otherwise, we would be refuted: facts
would deny what is said.
However, later on, the idea of radically reforming language is abandoned
and the thesis of universal flux, according to which everything is changing in
all respects, is refuted. It is now understood that such a position, far from offer-
ing support to the definition of knowledge as a sensation, or to the Protagorean
dictum of man as the measure of all things, leads to the fact that “every answer,
whatever it’s about, is equally correct” (Tht. 183a5–6). Concerning the new lan-
guage, in keeping with the universal flux, which it seemed necessary to produce
in accordance with the Heraclitean doctrine, it is now uncertain whether there is
one which is indefinite enough to fit in that position. Some kind of permanency
is the sine qua non of the meaningfulness of language, so that if the assertion
“nothing is, everything is changing” makes sense, it is false, since some sort
of stability is possible.⁴ The factum of language shows that the extreme Heracli-
teans cause the collapse of what they presuppose when asserting their thesis
whose truth would prevent saying something meaningful.⁵ This is among
those positions which condemn their followers to silence, or, if they decide to
For Sedley (2003, p. 8), “such modes of discourse are intended as fully in the spirit of Hera-
clitus himself, and arguably, far from being and abandonment of truth, as representing the one
way in which language can capture the truth about the world”. According to Boeri (2006, p. 107,
n. 97 ad loc. 157b-c), if the Heracliteans are right, “no queda claro cómo se podría comunicar a
los demás la teoría del cambio perpetuo. Platón vuelve sobre este problema (en 183a-b) y, como
se verá, el punto constituye un detalle decisivo para hacer posible la reducción al absurdo de la
See Tht. 181b-183c. The problem is to determine whether Plato’s argument entails that there is
certain stability in the physical world, or that there must be something stable somewhere and
this something stable is the Forms. In my view, Plato never accepted the extreme Heraclitean
doctrine claiming that all sensibles are in constant flux. His argument against this doctrine of
total instability in Tht. requires stability in sensibles.
Sedley (2003, pp. 8–9) argues that radical flux does not lead to the collapse of language, but
of dialectic. If “every answer, whatever it’s about, is equally correct” (Tht. 183a4–6), there can be
no dialectic, and, more specifically, no definitions, so Theaetetus’ definition of knowledge really
does undermine itself.
Argumentative Strategies in Theaetetus and Sophist
express it, they are condemned to self-refutation: its mere stating makes the
speaker contradict himself.
At this point, we wonder whether the assumption of the existence of the
Forms is necessary to give sense to this argument, or whether we have to do
our best to understand it without resorting to the hypothesis of the Forms. Ac-
tually, the reading of Theaetetus as a whole confronts us with this dilemma. In
the case of, at least, the argument against the extreme Heraclitean doctrine, it
results from it that (i) nothing can have any description applied to it (182d4),
(ii) all answers are equally right (183a5) and (iii) all existing language is useless
except perhaps the phase “not so” (183b4). These consequences are introduced
by Plato as obviously unacceptable⁶ and sufficient for anyone, not only the sup-
porters of the Forms to reject the thesis in question. Therefore, reading the argu-
ment without resorting to the existence of those realities assures it, as far as I
can see, a greater scope than in the other case.
1.2. An argumentative strategy resorting again to language and to what is in-
volved in it is used by Plato in order to accuse Protagoras of refuting himself.
I refer to the argument known as peritropé⁷ or self-refutation (Tht. 171a6–d8).
The passage describes a hypothetical dialogue between Abdera’s Sophist and
a majority opposing his doctrine, for whom the opinions are not always true –
as would follow from the man-measure dictum – but could be true or false in-
stead. Protagoras, by agreeing that everyone judges something which is, some-
how admits that their opponents’ belief is true. But as soon as he does so, he
has to concede that his own belief is false. While his opponents do not admit
being wrong, Protagoras, “according to what he has written”, has to concede
that they are right.
Regardless of whether this criticism is valid or not, which has been greatly
discussed by Theaetetus’ scholars, I am interested in focusing on the contrast be-
tween the theses supported by the Platonic Protagoras and what he is forced to
concede to his opponents in virtue of his own admissions. Examples of the for-
mer are that man is the measure of all things, “that no one is better at discrim-
inating someone else’s experience than he is”, that every opinion is true or “that
everyone has in his judgments the things which are” (171a9). Examples of the lat-
ter are “that their opinion is true –that is, the opinion of those who believe that
what he thinks is false”, or “that his own opinion is false” (171b1–2). In the first
According to Robinson (1950, p. 9), “we are tacitly given to understand that these consequen-
ces are obviusly false and therefore the view which entails them must be false too”.
From Sextus Empiricus (P. 2, 128a1): turning an opponent’s arguments against himself (LSJ).
Graciela E. Marcos de Pinotti
case, we have Protagoras’ general statements in which the notion of truth is in-
volved. They are introduced here by homologeîn, which implies peace and agree-
ment, leaving aside any kind of constraint or violence.⁸ Instead, in the second
case, Plato uses synchoreîn, a verb which has a strong nuance of involuntariness,
of reluctant acceptance.⁹ In Tht. 171a8, b1, b12 and c1, it expresses the conces-
sions Protagoras unwillingly makes to his opponents. The difference is analo-
gous to the one between what has been agreed or explicitly acknowledged
and what is implied in it. Since we are not always willing to accept what follows
from our assertions, these uses of homologeîn and synchoreîn would allow mak-
ing a distinction between giving our immediate consent to something and ac-
cepting it unnaturally, forced to acknowledge what follows from our assump-
By referring to Protagoras’ work, Plato wants to suggest that he, simply by
trusting his truth to writing and making his doctrine known, considers it true
not only for himself, otherwise, he would not have made it public. When subject-
ing his truth to the opinion of the rest of men, the Sophist ends up setting up the
other’s point of view, off which denial the thesis of man as the measure of all
things feeds, at least under Plato’s individualistic reading. The conclusion is
that Protagoras’ doctrine is disputed “by everyone, beginning with Protagoras
himself” (Tht. 171b10 –11), so his truth “isn’t true for anyone: not for anyone
else, and not for Protagoras himself” (Tht. 171c5–7).
The conflict that Plato intends to highlight is between Protagoras and his
own, not others’, admissions, rather than the conflict that confronts him with
the opinion of the majority. His doctrine carries the germ of its own ruin. Wheth-
er Protagoras admits it or not, when the aim for the truth which encourages his
formulation is disputed, the doctrine proclaiming the impossibility of such judg-
ment refutes itself.¹¹ The moral of the Platonic argument, interpreted as such, is
It means agree with, say the same things as (LSJ). See Tht. 171a9: homologôn tà ónta doxázein
hápantas; 171b2: homologeî alethê eînai; 171b7: homologeî kaì taúten alethê tèn dóxan.
See Thucydides, I, 140, cited in LSJ.
See Marcos de Pinotti (2006, pp. 214–218), where I argue that in Tht. 171a-c synchoreîn does
not exactly mean admitting what the other has said, but what follows from one’s own admis-
sions. The difference is crucial: one refers to the other’s right to mistrust my assertions, whereas
in the other, the conflict is posed to oneself. The uses of synchoreîn in Tht. 166b2 and 169d6 are
particularly clear in this sense. Out of the multiple uses recorded by LSJ, where synchoreîn refers
to the moment in which a weakened army has to give up territory, see p.e. Phd. 94b, 100a (ac-
cede, assent to, acquiesce in); Rep. 383a, c, 489d, 543b, Euthphr. 13a, c (concede or grant in argu-
ment); Cra. 435b (agreement, consent) and Phdr.234e (one must concede).
See Narcy (1994, p. 340, n. 231 ad loc. Tht. 171a): “En face d’un Protagoras isolè par son
propre principe, ceux qui ont l’opinion contraire sont nécessairement plusieurs. Voilà donc
Argumentative Strategies in Theaetetus and Sophist
that there are no speakers who do not challenge Protagoras’ doctrine. Whoever
wants to express how things are just for him has nothing better to do than to re-
main silent. It is not by chance that the fertile land to refute Protagoras, as well
as the Heracliteans, is that of lógos as the oral expression of what is thought. This
reappears in Sophist, to which I will refer below, where the resorting to language
becomes even more relevant.
2. The Factum of Language in Sophist.
On How to Refute Those Who Deny
This dialogue, devoted to the problem about falsehood, in which Plato discusses
several positions of Eleatic roots, offers more examples of the refutation strategy
that we have found in Theaetetus. At least three times Plato faces his opponents,
taking advantage of inconsistencies between what they say and the speech itself,
trying “to show that what is proposed and how it is proposed are inconsistent
and incompatible” (Wilmet 1990, p. 97).¹² But the peculiarity of the arguments
of Sophist is that they are addressed against explicitly denying positions,
which try to deny something (not-being, or multiplicity, or combination) abso-
lutely. However, Plato perceives that no absolute denial can thrive in the field
of language. The following arguments are addressed against positions which
Plato considers untenable because the truth of what they deny is a sine qua
non of the meaningfulness of that denial.
2.1. The first example belongs to the discussion about what is not anything at all,
a non-existent which has no entity, not even the necessary one to be able to
think or say that it is not. The expressions with which we try to refer to it do
not succeed in saying it, and, thus, do not manage to reach the status of
names. In turn, nothing which is can be ascribed to that which has no sort of
being. The number, as a unity or as plurality, is among the things which are,
therefore, it cannot be added to what has no being at all. The problem is that
una opinion qui n’est pas celle de celui-là seul à qui apparît, et qui suffit, par son existence
même, à invalider le principe énoncé par Protagoras”.
Such a method, Wilmet adds, “is already implicit in the early, ’definition’ dialogues, where
Socrates forces someone to say what he thinks, i.e., forces him to speak, and tries to derive from
that sole speech either inconsistencies or conclusions that the speaker is not ready to endorse. It
becomes all the more explicit in later dialogues, especially Theaetetus and Sophist (…)”.
Graciela E. Marcos de Pinotti
just by saying ‘things that are not’, or ‘that which is not’, we are illegitimately
adding the number –either plurality or the unity respectively– to what has no
being at all, and consequently no determination at all.¹³ No expression we
might coin could escape this fate. Language is condemned to think, express, pro-
nounce and say what is. It forbids any kind of reference to what is not anything
at all. The conclusion is that which is not at all not only “is unthinkable, not to
be spoken of or uttered or expressed” (Sph. 238c10 –11),¹⁴ but cannot even be
spoken of as unthinkable or being incapable of being spoken of or uttered or ex-
pressed. When trying to do so, we contradict ourselves. In order to speak correct-
ly about the non being (perì autoû, 239b10), we should neither ascribe unity nor
plurality to it, but without doing so, it is not possible to make a statement about
something. The conditions a statement about what is not anything at all should
meet are incompatible with those which any statement as such has to meet. The
attempt to express something about what has no being at all is futile. To what
extent then did Parmenides not contradict himself when denying the possibility
of thinking of or speaking of that which just simply is not? The subtle Platonic
argument, though in the beginning it seems to confirm the Eleatic prohibition,¹⁵
implies that Parmenides could not even formulate his own dictum. When saying
that the non-existent cannot be thought of, expressed, etc., he contradicted him-
self (Malcolm 1967, p. 136).
2.2. In the same direction goes the Monism refutation in Sph. 244b ss. In the first