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Socrates in Plato’s Symposium: a lover of wisdom who lacks wisdom on love

Abstract

Traditional interpretations of the Symposium tend to treat Socrates as Plato’s mouthpiece, interpreting the philosophical meaning of the text based on Socrates’ speech alone. The aim of this essay is to discern whether incorporating literary elements, such as Socrates’ characterization and interaction with other characters, into the interpretive process changes the philosophical meaning of the Symposium. For this purpose I examine two aspects of Socrates’ character: his physiology and psychology. I demonstrate how Socrates’ oddity poses a problem for the theory that he is a mouthpiece for Plato’s philosophy verbatim and suggests that, contrary to traditional interpretations, he has not completed the erotic ascent described by Diotima and hence does not possess complete knowledge of love. In my analysis I pay particular attention to the speech of Alcibiades and the interpretations of Martha Nussbaum and James McGuirk. I then conclude by demonstrating how an ignorant Socrates’ characterization and role in the narration illuminates something essentially Platonic: the role of physical love in understanding beauty and the value of lived experience.

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