What is the role of
parody in Plato’s Symposium?
The Symposium, narrated by Apollodorous, is
an account of a banquet given by the tragedian Agathon after his first victory
at the dramatic contest held in the Lenaian Festival in Athens. In the Symposium, each guest was obliged to
give a speech on the topic of Eros, Love.
Each speech gives us a different philosophical viewpoint of Eros. Some argue that each speech
contributes to a philosophical understanding of Eros in ascending order (Sheffield
27-32); others argue that all the speeches are essentially individual
contributions, with “each attempting to go better than the one before in an
apparently haphazard way” (Rowe 8). Nevertheless, the positions put forward by
the speeches are in dialogue with one another, preventing the reader from
rooting on a single authorial voice and identifying it as Plato’s (Danielewicz
1). Often, through their arguments and manners of speaking, these speeches are referencing,
if not ridiculing, the ideas of others. Eryximachu’s pedantic style in his speech
is a satire of his “self–importance” and his “extraordinarily good opinion of
the significance of medicine” (Nehamas and Woodruff xvi). Aristophanes’ use of
myth in his speech is in and of itself parody. However, as long as the role of
parody is concerned, these two examples are nothing in comparison to Agathon’s
speech, which “reminded Socrates of Gorgias” (198C3). These parodies must be
taken into account if we wish to truly understand the Platonic meaning of Eros by not ascribing views of others to
that of Plato.
First, however, it is
only sensible that I define parody. The earliest use of the term is in
Aristotle’s Poetics, which suggests
that parody has a penchant for low comedy and humour founded in ridiculing
other, serious genres (Danielewicz 16). However, I find the definition proposed
by Danielewicz himself particularly useful for my analysis: he defines parody
“as the representation of someone else’s words or ideas which, through humorous
exaggeration or recontextualisation, enables them to be seen anew and
reassessed” (17-18). Complementing this definition, Andrea Nightingale defines
parody as something which “one must either identify an entire text from a given
genre, a cluster of allusions to a specific text from a given genre, or the
sustained use of the discourse, topoi, themes,
or structural characteristics of a given genre” (Nightingale 8). A parody,
then, serves not to distort the view of others to aid one’s own argument. On
the contrary, it highlights the assumptions and flaws of opposing arguments to
guide the reader to his own conclusion. Through these parodies, Plato places
those arguments under a magnifying glass and exposes the inherent breakdown of
their logical chains of reasoning. As such, he prepares the reader for his own
chain of reasoning. From these definitions, Agathon’s speech in the Symposium serves well to illustrate the
role of parody in Plato’s philosophical literature.
Much of Agathon’s
speech considers the materialistic form of Eros.
Eros is the “youngest of the gods” (195C1)
which makes him “the most beautiful and the best” (195B4). In this case,
Agathon considers youth beautiful, providing a stark contrast to Diotima’s
concept of beauty as rising stairs: “from one body to two and from two to all
beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from
customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the
end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end
he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful” (211C2 – 211D).
materialistic characteristic of Agathon’s Eros
is delicacy, and Agathon turns to Homer’s poetry to illustrate this: “hers are
delicate feet; not on the ground / Does she draw nigh; she walks instead upon
the heads of men” (Iliad, xix.92-93). Eros
touches whatever comes his way, turns away the harsh and settles inside the
soft. Albeit those in question may be souls, gods and men, the quality –
softness – that Eros desires is a
physical attribute: softness (195D7-196A).
The third is fluidity.
“If he were hard, he would not be able to enfold a soul completely or escape
notice when he first entered it or withdrew” (196A3-196A4). As such,
Danielewicz argues that Agathon’s focus on the physical qualities of Eros are motivated by a view of the
physical mechanics of desire (Danielewicz 70).
The parodic aspect of Agathon’s
speech comes in two forms – the rhetorical and the conceptual. The grandiose
ending of the speech is an “extreme parody” (Nehamas and Woodruff 45) of
Sophist Gorgias’ exciting style, which has taken Athens by storm ten years
before the year in which the dinner party took place.
moves us to mildness, removes from us wildness. He is giver of kindness, never
of meanness. Gracious, kindly – let wise men see and gods admire! Treasure to
lovers, envy to others, father of elegance, luxury, delicacy, grace, yearning,
desire. Loves cares well for good men, cares not for bad ones. In pain, in
fear, in desire, or speech, Love is our best guide and guard; he is our comrade
and our savior. Ornament of all gods and men, most beautiful leader and the
best! Every man should follow Love, sing beautifully his hymn, and join with
him in the long he sings that charms the mind of god or man. (197D4-197E5)
The ending is a
wonderful showcase of the poetic devices that Gorgias taught his students –
lyric meters, internal rhymes, balanced phrases etc. In particular, the passage
is saturated with metrical units familiar in Greek poetry: ionic trimester,
cretic dimeter, trochaic tetrameter, Anacreontic dimeter and iambo-dochmiac (Dover
124). In fact, the use of meters is even more poetic than in some of the works
of Gorgias, prompting the suggestion that it is not only a parody of Gorgias
but also one of Agathon’s own style (Nehamas and Woodruff 45).