This project is a re-interpretation of Plato’s Symposium following a suggestion made by Friedrich Nietzsche in an 1864 essay titled, “On the Relationship of Alcibiades’s Speech to the Other Speeches of Plato’s Symposium.” The scholarly focus of the present work is the preliminary or, first five speeches, of Symposium. Contemporary scholars typically rely on the paradigm of reading the non-Socratic speeches as mere unphilosophical mistakes, to be corrected when at last the dialogue arrives, none too soon, at the properly philosophical speech of Socrates. In taking up Nietzsche’s alternative approach in this work, I emphasize the unique contributions of each speech towards a proper understanding of the role of erōs in human nature, and I trace the developments of those contributions through the movement of the dialogue.
Analyzing the preliminary speeches as an explanation of the nature of erotic ascent reveals a unique and important contribution to the study of Symposium. The speeches, both individually and in relation with each other, deal with inherent tensions that erōs creates. The preliminary speakers signal discomfort with these tensions and attempt to resolve them one way or another. But Socrates’s ladder of love is a true ladder, each rung supported by two rails or poles. Both of these poles must remain solid if the rung is to be supported. Rather than seeking to resolve the tensions definitively along with their attendant discomfort, the tensions must remain in creative symbiosis with one another.
This is consistent with Plato’s broader philosophy. Plato constantly seeks to integrate two poles in his discussions throughout the dialogues. In Republic, he contrasts gymnastic with music. In Statesman, he contrasts courage with moderation. In Laws, he contrasts Spartan sobriety with Athenian drunkenness. In all cases, both elements remain in creative tension. In Symposium, we will find that erotic climbing is a perilous ascent indeed. The preliminary speeches deal with four sets of poles that require integration: body and soul, technē and nomos, emptiness and fulness, and politics and philosophy. Should one of the poles be weakened or disintegrated, they can no longer support the rung to the peril of the climber.
Reading Symposium through the lens of poles supporting the rungs of Socrates’s ladder highlights the political and legal elements of the dialogue. Most importantly, Plato shows that while certain human concerns transcend the political—laws alone cannot lead humans to the object of their deepest desire—epitēdeumata and nomoi nonetheless remain indispensable for the education of erōs.