Two Passions in Plato’s Symposium: Diotima’s To Kalon as a Reorientation of Imperialistic Erōs

In Heather L. Reid & Tony Leyh (eds.), Looking at Beauty to Kalon in Western Greece: Selected Essays from the 2018 Symposium on the Heritage of Western Greece. Sioux City, IA, USA: Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa. pp. 95-110 (2019)
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In this essay, I propose a reading of two contrasting passions, two kinds of erōs, in the "Symposium." On the one hand, there is the imperialistic desire for conquering and possessing that Alcibiades represents; and on the other hand, there is the productive love of immortal wisdom that Diotima represents. It’s not just what Alcibiades says in the Symposium, but also what he symbolizes. Alcibiades gives a speech in honor of Socrates and of his unrequited love for him, but even here Alcibiades recounts his attempted seduction of Socrates as a failed conquest, as an unsuccessful attempt to violently take possession of something that Socrates has within him. Even more importantly, in 416 BCE (the dramatic date of Agathon’s symposium) Alcibiades was soon to encourage his fellow countrymen to set off on the ruinous Sicilian expedition. Alcibiades’s actions behind-the-scenes of the "Symposium" reveal the clearest manifestation of his imperialistic erōs (for political power in Athens). They also constitute some necessary background to the dialogue, which Plato’s Athenian readers would have had in mind. Where else can we catch a glimpse of this disastrous desire? It is best illustrated in Thucydides’s "History." I show that the beginnings of this political passion can already be seen in Pericles’s funeral oration (2.35-46, specifically 2.43.1) and that after Pericles’s death, Alcibiades stokes this erōs to such a fevered pitch that the Athenians agree to launch the tragic venture against Sicily. Opposed to this political passion, is Diotima’s. She tries to reorient this misguided erōs and presents an alternative form of desire for everlasting wisdom (philosophia).

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Mateo Duque
State University of New York at Binghamton


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