Sipping At The Symposium

Literary symposia from classical Athens to Muriel Spark


When we think of a Symposium — that is to say, a literary work taking for its title the Greek word for a drinking party — we are likely to think immediately of Plato, whose dialogue bearing that title describes a rather sedate party (early on the protagonists decide that they will not drink heavily) in the course of which Socrates gives his memorable account of the nature of love, taught to him by the priestess Diotima of Mantineia. According to Diotima, far from being a purely carnal matter, love also has an intellectual and abstract side, and under its influence men can aspire to a love of the form of the beautiful.

But other literary symposia have come down to us from antiquity. Xenophon also composed one, an account of a banquet given by Callias in 421 BC. Here again Socrates is the central character, and again he makes a speech on the superiority of spiritual love to the carnal variety. Menippus, the Cynic philosopher all of whose works have been lost, is also said to have written a Symposium.

More mischievous altogether, however, is the much later Symposium written by the rhetorician and satirist Lucian (who, as it happens, relished the works of Menippus).  Lucian’s is an account of a party given by Aristaenetus to celebrate the wedding of his daughter Cleanthis to Eucritus, a banker who is also a student of philosophy. Lycinus, who attended the dinner, describes for his friend Philo the other guests, who were almost all philosophers: Zenothemis the Stoic, Hermon the Epicurean, Cleodemus the Peripatetic, Ion the Platonist, Diphilus the tutor, Histiaeus the grammarian, Dionysodorus the rhetorician, and Alcidamus the Cynic. Philo is very impressed by this guest list:

Good for Aristenaetus, I say, because in celebrating the greatest festival day there is, he thought fit to entertain the most learned men in preference to the rest of the world, and culled the bloom, as it were, of every school, not including some and leaving out others, but asking all without discrimination.

But the shallowness of Philo’s naive admiration is exposed by the course of events. Under the influence of wine, the true nature of all the philosophers is revealed, and in all cases it proves to be at variance with their lofty intellectual pretensions. Zenothemis the Stoic tries to steal food from the banquet, Cleodemus the Peripatetic makes a clumsy pass at the pretty cup-bearer who is serving him, Alcidamas the Cynic is distracted from verbally attacking the other guests by the arrival of a huge cake, which he proceeds to eat. Hetoemocles, another Stoic, who had not been invited, sends a letter of reproach to Aristaenetus, which is read out and launches the party, already going seriously awry, down the path of actual violence and attempted rape, as Alcidamas tries to ravish the flute-girl:

The learned men were playing the rake and abusing each other and gorging themselves and bawling and coming to blows: and Alcidamas even made water right there in the room, without showing any respect for the women.

The party then breaks up in confusion and the philosophers, variously wounded and embarrassed, go their several ways, though not without being pursued by some well-aimed insults. Zenothemis the Stoic, hurt in the nose and the eye, howls that he is dying of pain, to which Hermon the Epicurean makes the apt response: “Just remember, Zenothemis, that you do consider pain of some consequence after all!”

Lucian’s exposure of false philosophies and false philosophers shares a number of details with Plato’s Symposium, which suggest that Lucian wished his work to be read as a disenchanted riposte to its Platonic predecessor. He also provided a strong clue as to how he wanted his Symposium to be read when he gave it the sub-title of “The Lapiths”, a mythological ancient Greek tribe who lived in Thessaly and derived their descent from Apollo. In context, the sub-title alludes to what we learn from Greek mythology about the violent events which marred the wedding feast of the Lapith king Pirithous. The Lapiths and the Centaurs (also descendants of Apollo) had been invited but the Centaurs, unused to wine, began to rape the other guests, including the bride, Hippodamia. A general fight broke out, in which the Lapiths defeated the Centaurs, who were driven out of Thessaly. The myth of the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs was later interpreted as a warning about the correct use of wine, which is to be taken dilute and in moderation.

The parallel between the myth and the events of Lucian’s Symposium is clear and precise, and it reveals Lucian’s work to be a sophisticated, belated text in which the dignified materials of philosophy and mythology are handled with an astringent disingenuousness. Astringency and quizzical intelligence are also in play in a third literary Symposium, the 1990 novel Symposium by Muriel Spark. It too pivots around a party which gathers together a miscellaneous group of innocents, chancers, and schemers. 

Spark’s sense of the literary lineage in which she is working is shown by her novel’s twin epigraphs, one from Lucian and the other from Plato. From Lucian she took Philo’s bemusement at the violent turn taken by this gathering of learned philosophers: “the affair even ended in wounds and the party was finally broken up by the shedding of blood.” From Plato, she took Aristodemus’s befuddled recollection of how that earlier evening had ended, with all but Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon either under the table or gone to bed, but the still-lucid Socrates arguing that “the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.” These two epigraphs guide the novel as it refuses to settle into either comedy or tragedy, and as it draws ever more outlandish violence into its scope. Spark also positioned her novel on the edges of her distinguished predecessors. In Plato, the discussion of the nature of love is disrupted when a group of revellers force their way in. In Lucian, the decorum of the wedding feast is repeatedly overthrown by a series of intrusions. In Spark’s novel this element from the earlier symposia is given a modern twist. The temporary staff who are servicing the dinner party are supplying information to a gang of burglars about houses likely to be empty because the owners are out socialising. It is a stroke of social inversion — the follies and vanities of the high exposing them to the predations of the lowly — which finally moves Spark closer to Lucian than to Plato.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens