The Political Nature of Plato’s Symposium
The dramatic setting of Plato’s Symposium obscures its function as a discourse that establishes the political philosophy of its author. The effort to identify the political within an ostensibly apolitical dialogue reflects the ancient attempt to use the casual and leisurely as a tool for prying open the more serious. I want to suggest that readings of the Symposium which do not attempt to uncover fully the political achieve only a partial understanding of Plato’s program within the work. I also want to establish the possibility that Plato relies on a historical and literary intertext with writers such as Thucydides and Aristophanes in order to key the reader into the underlying, and potentially dangerous, political nature of the dialogue. When such historical intertext goes unnoticed or is dismissed, the reader constructs, I submit, an insurmountable obstacle for the understanding of the work. On the other hand, only when the reader recognizes Plato’s use of historical material, can the Symposium be viewed properly as a forum for the development of political philosophy in the guise of a literary drama.