'Making New Gods? A Reflection on the Gift of the Symposium

In Debra Nails, Harold Tarrant, Mika Kajava & Eero Salmenkivi (eds.), Second Sailing: Alternative Perspectives on Plato. Societas Scientiarum Fennica. pp. 285-306 (2015)
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Abstract
A commentary on the Symposium as a challenge and a gift to Athens. I begin with a reflection on three dates: 416 bce, the date of Agathon’s victory party, c. 400, the approximate date of Apollodorus’ retelling of the party, and c. 375, the approximate date of the ‘publication’ of the dialogue, and I argue that Plato reminds his contemporary Athens both of its great poetic and legal and scientific traditions and of the historical fact that the way late fourth century Athens appropriated them in some way led to the city’s demise at the turn of the century; thus the dialogue is Plato’s challenge to his contemporary Athens to recognize and overcome its flawed relation to its cultural resources. Heard in this way, the key moments are Aristophanes’ implied critique of Pausanias and Eryximachus and Socrates’ implied critique of Aristophanes and Agathon. Proceeding by a close reading, I argue that Plato exposes, for those moved to rise to his challenge, the failure of his great predecessors to conceive the divine in a way that, worthy of the height and otherness divinity requires, can provide substantive orientation for the burgeoning new reason that animates the city’s culture.
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