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In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades is the last person to give a speech. Former speakers praised love and gave their interpretations of it. However, Alcibiades arrives drunk and would rather speak about Socrates. In the past, Alcibiades wanted Socrates to be his lover and Socrates turned him down. In many ways, Alcibiades’ speech about Socrates unknowingly puts his peers’ speeches praising love into perspective.
Alcibiades opens by comparing Socrates to a statue of Silenus and the satyr Marsyas. Socrates and the satyr both use their mouths to trick people, but the satyr uses a flute and Socrates does so with his words alone. Satyrs are spirits that are described as half man and half horse. In Diotima’s speech, love is a spirit that falls between two extremes. Love is neither immortal nor mortal, wise nor ignorant, rich nor poor. By comparing Socrates to a satyr, Alcibiades makes his first association of Socrates with Love. The statue of Silenus depicts a satyr god that is seemingly normal on the outside but is teeming with statues of other gods on the inside. Alcibiades believes that Socrates hides his true nature. On the outside, he seems to be in love with beautiful boys and claims he is “ignorant and knows nothing”. Alcibiades reveals that Socrates does not care about physical qualities and that Socrates’ ideas and arguments are “of the greatest- importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good man”.
Socrates is the only man able to make Alcibiades feel shame because he only follows Socrates’ advice when he is around. Socrates wanted Alcibiades to abandon politics, but he constantly returns to his desire to please the crowd. Seeing as how Alcibiades recognizes Socrates’ advice as “truly worthy of a god”, his failure to adhere to it makes him feel ashamed. This directly goes against Phaedrus’ claim that love imparts a “sense of shame at acting shameful”. Alcibiades wanted to be loved by Socrates and even says that life would be more miserable without him than with him. He feels shame every time he sees Socrates. Even though he keeps experiencing this shame, all he tries to do is “escape from him and keep away”. He is unable to use this shame as a motivation to do what Socrates advises and goes against Phaedrus’ claim.
Despite being unattractive, both satyrs and Socrates have the ability to attract people. Alcibiades retells of his multiple failed attempts of trying to make Socrates his lover. It seems as though Alcibiades is playing the lover’s role and is the one in pursuit. Alcibiades is not after Socrates for his appearance, but rather his wisdom. He compares it to a snake bite, “whose grip on young and eager souls is much more vicious than a viper’s and makes them do the most amazing things”. It attracts Alcibiades more than any physical quality ever could. This shows how philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom is the most desirable type of love. At first, Alcibiades invited Socrates to the gymnasium where they wrestled alone. After dinner and conversation, Alcibiades laid next to Socrates and held him. He said that his “night with Socrates went no further than if I had spent it with my own father or older brother!”. Socrates is clearly not interested in any of Alcibiades physical and sexual advances. These results go against Pausanias’ claim that “the young man…is justified in performing any service for a lover who can make him wise and virtuous”. The sexual exchange for wisdom between the loved one and lover is not observed. It is outright rejected as Socrates does not intend to participate in an unfair trade of wisdom for mere good looks. This shows both Socrates’ restraint and moderation.
In Agathon’s speech, Love’s moral character is said to consist of justice, moderation, bravery, and wisdom. Each characteristic is seen in Socrates throughout Alcibiades’ speech. In regards to justice, Alcibiades says that Socrates views everyone for who they truly are, not for their wealth or beauty. He treats everyone the same and is willing to converse with just about anyone. Moderation is seen in Socrates’ refusal of Alcibiades’ sexual advances. Despite Alcibiades good looks and willingness, Socrates lays there and does nothing. Moderation is also seen in Socrates’ lifestyle. He does not need much to survive and only uses what he needs to get by. He cares little for money, food, alcohol, and clothing. Socrates can withstand extreme physical conditions such as hunger, drunkenness and the cold without much struggle. Socrates’ bravery is seen on the battlefield. He refused to leave Alcibiades behind when he was wounded and refused all of the rewards for saving him. Socrates was a foot soldier that was walking on the battlefield, “with swagg’ring gait and roving eye”. Alcibiades claimed that Socrates was “a brave man who would put up a terrific fight if anyone approached him”. Alcibiades’ speech was centered around Socrates and his wisdom. Wisdom should be his most direct connection to Love’s moral character. Even if Socrates says that he is not wise, by returning to Diotima’s idea that love falls between two extremes, Socrates can be further related to love.
In Diotima’s speech, she describes love to be neither wise nor ignorant. She says that love is a lover of beauty and that wisdom is the most beautiful. Love must be a lover of wisdom and does not yet have it. Alcibiades mentions how Socrates himself has shared in “the Bacchic frenzy of philosophy”. Thus, Socrates is a philosopher that claims to know nothing and matches Diotima’s description of love. Diotima also says that love is not rich, but is also never without resources. Socrates is poor but has managed to survive until old age without any problems.
Alcibiades is a character centered on honor and external pleasures. He wants to be honored by others and wants to show others that he is superior to them. He arrives drunk and is surrounded by flute girls. He rudely interrupts the ongoing discussion and insists on staying. As mentioned earlier, Alcibiades is unable to stop himself from giving in to his desire to please the crowd. Being centered on honor and external pleasure greatly affects his views of love and philosophy. In his pursuit of Socrates, he believes that he can make Socrates his lover through physical things alone. He tells Socrates that he can have “me, my belongings, anything my friends might have”. He truly believes that he could win Socrates over through his good looks and wealth and offers nothing that appeals to Socrates. Socrates and Alcibiades have differing meanings of love. Socrates sees love as more of an exchange of wisdom than anything physical. Socrates tells Alcibiades, “In the future, let’s consider things together. We’ll always do what seems best to the two of us”. Socrates considers this response to be one of love, as they will converse with each other and share knowledge. Since no physical affection results, Alcibiades considers it to be an outright rejection and ultimately cuts his own pursuit short. Alcibiades’ views on philosophy are also driven by external pleasures. He does not seem to be seeking wisdom for the sake of wisdom. He only seems to want it so that he can have the same effect Socrates has on other people. Alcibiades claims that he “know(s) perfectly well can’t prove he’s (Socrates) wrong when he tells me what I should do”. Alcibiades wants the power to be able to prove others wrong in arguments. He never seems to care about wisdom itself, only about the things wisdom can do for him. This is an incorrect approach to philosophy and is one of the reasons why he is unable to pursue a higher level of wisdom.
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