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Where is the Good? The Place of Agathon in the Symposium

Phillip Horky

How can philosophers attain the Good?  In this paper, I propose to investigate this question by way of an unusual route: through analysis of the seating arrangements, and re-arrangements, in Plato’s Symposium.  It is my contention that a careful investigation of the narrative play involving the seating positions of the speakers in the Symposium presents us with a new account of the means to obtain wisdom from the Good in Plato’s middle dialogues.

Traditionally, some scholars and critics of Plato have approached the problem of the Good in Plato’s corpus by trying to obtain a definition of it or reduce it to a single principle; such is the content of Aristotle’s description of Plato’s lecture on the Good as ‘One’ (ap. Aristox. El. Harm. II.30-31; cf. Gaiser 1980). As is well known, however, Plato himself is more oblique in his treatment of the Good in his middle dialogues: in the Republic, the Good cannot be defined as such (R. 506d-e).  Often, scholars turn to Aristotle’s description of the ‘unwritten doctrines’ of Plato, mentioned by Aristotle (Phys. 4.2 et al.), in order to supply a possible definition (e.g. Krämer 1990).   But, as I argue, this is an unnecessary interpretive move, as Socrates himselfin the Republic is willing to supply some information about the Good, namely its location ‘in the intelligible realm’ (R. 508b-c).  Then, by way of analogy to the myths of the Divided Line and the Cave, Socrates advances upon a description of how the philosopher might make the intellectual ascent (cf. Taylor 2008). 

In a similar fashion, in the Symposium, Plato concerns himself with the issue of locating the proper place for the Good, but in a remarkably playful way: by exploiting the narrative effects of the seating and re-seating of Agathon, the ‘good man’.  From the moment Socrates arrives and disrupts the original seating order, the correlation between position of speakers on the couches and attainment of wisdom via touch becomes a recurrent topos in the dialogue (Smp. 175d-e).  There, the positioning of the speakers on the couches, especially viz. Agathon, is playfully advanced as indicating the transmission of wisdom from who is behind to who is in front on the couch (i.e. from erastes to erômenos).  As I argue, at two other key narrative moments in the Symposium when the seating arrangement is disrupted (arrival of Alcibiades at Smp. 213a-d and arrival of the drunken komastai at Smp. 223b), Plato exploits the hierarchical seating positions of the speakers in order to develop a dialectical relationship with the ontological/epistemological hypostases of the 'Ladder of Love', as illustrated in Diotima’s speech (Smp. 210a-211d).  The first disruption makes it possible for the reader to correlate the seating positions and eight steps on the ladder given in Diotima’s more detailed version; the second disruption explains why Socrates in the Symposium never provides an encomium of the Good (i.e. Agathon), and it intertextually anticipates the return of Socrates in the late dialogue Philebus, where a stated project is the grasping of a sufficient definition of the Good (Phlb. 13e).

Session/Panel Title

Philosophical Poetics

Session/Paper Number

19.5

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