The Desire for Recognition in Plato’s Symposium

Arethusa 41: 237–262 (2008)
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The paper argues that thumos, which is never explicitly mentioned as a part of the soul in the Symposium, plays a major role in the dialogue. In light of the Republic’s characterization of thumos as the source of emotions such as of love of honor, love of victory, admiration for courage, shame, anger, and the propensity to become indignant at real or imaginary wrongs, the paper argues that both Phaedrus’ speech and the speech of Alcibiades are shaped by thumoeidetic motivations. While Phaedrus’ stress on shame, honor, glory and courage aims at proving that Eros inspires virtue, the speech of Alcibiades shows that thumoeidetic motivations are not sufficient to shape a noble character. The dependence on recognition, the ambiguous role played by shame, and the tension between what is admirable and what just happens to be admired are implicit shortcomings in Phaedrus’ speech. When the same themes come back in Alcibiades’ speech they work as negative counterpoints to Phaedrus’ main arguments. Alcibiades’ obsession with power and victory dominates his ambivalent encomium of Socrates. The speech does not reveal who Socrates really is. Rather, it shows how the philosophical life can be misunderstood when reason’s best ally takes over in the souls of men.
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