Cover image for Plato's Dialectic at Play: Argument, Structure, and Myth in the Symposium By Kevin Corrigan and Elena Glazov-Corrigan

Plato's Dialectic at Play

Argument, Structure, and Myth in the Symposium

Kevin Corrigan, and Elena Glazov-Corrigan


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02462-2

$40.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02913-9

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280 pages
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Plato's Dialectic at Play

Argument, Structure, and Myth in the Symposium

Kevin Corrigan, and Elena Glazov-Corrigan

“Its literary sensibility and systematic lucidity make this work a remarkable contribution to the debates concerning Plato’s Symposium as well as the vexata quaestio of the relation between poetry and philosophy or, more broadly, art, literature, imagination, and thinking.”


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The Symposium is one of Plato’s most accessible dialogues, an engrossing historical document as well as an entertaining literary masterpiece. By uncovering the structural design of the dialogue, Plato’s Dialectic at Play aims at revealing a Plato for whom the dialogical form was not merely ornamentation or philosophical methodology but the essence of philosophical exploration. His dialectic is not only argument; it is also play.

Careful analysis of each layer of the text leads cumulatively to a picture of the dialogue’s underlying structure, related to both argument and myth, and shows that a dynamic link exists between Diotima’s higher mysteries and the organization of the dialogue as a whole. On this basis the authors argue that the Symposium, with its positive theory of art contained in the ascent to the Beautiful, may be viewed as a companion piece to the Republic, with its negative critique of the role of art in the context of the Good. Following Nietzsche’s suggestion and applying criteria developed by Mikhail Bakhtin, they further argue for seeing the Symposium as the first novel.

The book concludes with a comprehensive reevaluation of the significance of the Symposium and its place in Plato’s thought generally, touching on major issues in Platonic scholarship: the nature of art, the body-soul connection, the problem of identity, the relationship between mythos and logos, Platonic love, and the question of authorial writing and the vanishing signature of the absent Plato himself.

“Its literary sensibility and systematic lucidity make this work a remarkable contribution to the debates concerning Plato’s Symposium as well as the vexata quaestio of the relation between poetry and philosophy or, more broadly, art, literature, imagination, and thinking.”
Plato’s Dialectic at Play makes a significant and original contribution to the study of Plato in general and the Symposium in particular. It is stylish and erudite in its writing, theoretically sound, and textually precise. The goal of the book is twofold: to determine the structure of the Symposium as a whole and to ascertain the relationship between the dialogue’s explicit philosophical themes and its apparently nonphilosophical details. The analysis proceeds sequentially through each of the speeches in the Symposium, and the authors focus primarily upon ways in which this dialogue provides the attentive reader with principles for interpreting the text. This self-referentiality is enormously complex, and the authors simultaneously demonstrate this complexity and carve for the reader a path through this maze. The work demonstrates the power inherent in the familiar themes of the Symposium (especially the transformative character of the ascent to beauty) while also developing a new ‘Platonism’ according to which Plato is simultaneously a remarkable philosopher of art (contra familiar interpretations of the Republic, a work the authors argue is a companion piece to the Symposium) and an artistic innovator (earning the honor of being the first novelist). The scholarship is strong and well grounded in contemporary and classical sources and commentators. This reinterpretation and defense of the Platonic philosophy is very relevant to contemporary Plato studies (especially those influenced by contemporary Continental philosophy) while being quite refreshingly original. The book will be valuable to students of Plato in a wide variety of fields, especially philosophy, classics, literary studies, and political theory.”
“Kevin Corrigan and Elena Glazov-Corrigan have teamed up to produce an original, elegantly written, and daring interpretation of the dialogue as a whole. . . . I found the book stimulating and enjoyable to read.”
Plato’s Dialectic at Play is a wide-ranging, intelligent and energetic book whose complexity is a fine companion to the artful complexity of the Symposium itself. As such, it deserves careful reading (and rereading) by historians of philosophy, intellectual historians, and all those interested in the intersection of literature and philosophy.”

Kevin Corrigan is Professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.

Elena Glazov-Corrigan is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Emory University.



1. Apollodorus’s Prologue: An Imitation of an Imitation

1.1 The Historical Frame

1.2 Apollodorus and Mimetic Narrative

1.3 The Force of Hybris

1.4 Malakos versus Manikos: Soft or Mad?

1.5 Anachronisms?

2. Aristodemus’s Prologue: The Destruction and Transformation of the Factual Frame of Reference

2.1 The Story

2.2 Sufficiency and Beauty: Emerging Criteria for Judgment

2.3 The Spatial Order?

2.4 Mimetic versus Hubristic: The Destruction of the Factual Narrative

2.5 Sophistic Education in the Context of Other Dialogues: Protagoras, Phaedo, Republic

2.6 Between Religious Observance and the Cycle of Opposites

2.7 “The Father of the Discourse”

3. The Order of the Speeches: Formulating the Problem

3.1 Eros

3.2 Encomium

3.3 The Problem of the Significance of the Early Speeches

4. From Character to Speech: The Early Speeches and Their Significance

4.1 Phaedrus: The Ardent Apprentice, but Confused Mythologue

4.2 Pausanias: The Sophistic Sociologue

4.3 Hiccups and Eryximachus, the Homogenic Doctor-Scientist

4.4 Aristophanes: The Poet as Educator

4.4.1 Aristophanes’ Speech and Socrates’ Criticism of Mimetic Art in the Republic

4.4.2 The Possibility of Anachronism and Plato’s Vanishing Signature

4.4.3 Aristophanes’ Speech as a Parody of Philosophical Dialectic

4.4.4 Aristophanes’ Speech and Individual Identity

4.4.5 Aristophanes’ Hiccups Revisited

4.5 Agathon: The Sophistic Theologue as the “Climax” of an Unselfcritical Tradition

4.5.1 Advance over the Previous Speakers?

4.5.2 Agathon as Theologue Without Need

4.5.3 The Shadow of the “Good”: Agathon’s Portrait in the Context of the Republic

4.6 Conclusion

5. Diotima-Socrates: Mythical Thought in the Making

5.1 Introduction: The Problem

5.2 The Elenchus of Agathon and the Question of Truth

5.3 The Role of Diotima

5.4 Eros-Daimôn

5.5 Diotima and the Art of Mythmaking Revisited: The Birth of Eros

5.6 Love: Relation or Substance?

5.7 Rhetoric and Dialectic

5.8 Criticism of Aristophanes and Agathon

5.9 The Curious Case of Procreation in the Beautiful

5.10 The Concluding Sections of the Lesser Mysteries

5.11 Preliminary Conclusion

6. The Greater Mysteries and the Structure of the Symposium So Far

6.1 The Movement of Ascent: Structure

6.2 The Movement of Ascent and the Earlier Speeches

6.3 Immortality and God-Belovedness

6.4 Overall Conclusion

6.4.1 “Platonic Love”: The View So Far

7. Alcibiades and the Conclusion of the Symposium: The Test and Trial of Praise

7.1 The Figure of Dionysus and the Face of Socrates

7.2 The Role of Alcibiades

7.3 The Test of Praise

7.4 The Trial of Praise

7.5 Eros, the Tyrant, and His Revelers

7.6 Identity and Diversity: The Uniqueness of Socrates

7.7 Logoi Opened Up: An Image for the Symposium?

7.8 The Concluding Scenes: Rest and the Self-Motion of Thought—“Socrates Standing Seeking”

8. Conclusion: Plato’s Dialectic at Play

8.1 Character, Voice, and Genre

8.2 Bakhtin and the Dialogical Character of Novelistic Discourse

8.3 The Symposium as the First “Novel” of Its Kind in History

8.4 Plato’s Dialectic at Play: Art, Reason, and Understanding

8.5 Plato’s Positive View of Art

8.6 Structure, Myth, and Argument

8.7 Soul-Body and Human Identity

8.8 “Platonic Love” and “Plato”

Select Bibliography



The Symposium is one of Plato’s most accessible dialogues, an engrossing historical document as well as an entertaining literary masterpiece. Editions, translations, and commentaries abound. In the past decade alone a number of volumes have emerged in English, French, Italian, German, and other languages. Why then the need for another book?

This book addresses one of the central problems of the Symposium or of any major Platonic dialogue: the character of the connection between what are apparently nonphilosophical details, so strikingly embedded in the narrative, and the philosophical preoccupations of Plato’s middle dialogues, most notably, the Republic. The Socrates of the Republic, for example, argues that the tragedian cannot be simultaneously a comic poet, while the Socrates of the Symposium argues with both a comic and a tragic poet (Aristophanes and Agathon) for the opposite view. Is this detail, among so many others, purely accidental? Much of contemporary scholarship has considered the question scarcely worth asking: such fleeting subtleties are too open to overelaborate or heavy-handed misreadings. Yet the puzzle of the relationship between the philosophical and the nonphilosophical in Plato remains a real question for any reader, inviting, yet frustrating, interpretation, not unlike Alcibiades’ portrayal of a Silenus-Socrates in the concluding speech of the Symposium.

We take up a rather dangerous question here, namely, how to read a philosophical dialogue that, probably more than any other, is so disarming and ingenuous in its artful, literary qualities. No small issue is at stake. Is the artist who wrote the Symposium the same Plato whose Socrates banished artists from the polis in the Republic? Or, an even bigger issue: does it make sense to try to read a dialogue as a whole and to bring together into one view, as it were, the nonphilosophical and philosophical pathways of Plato’s work?

As our title indicates, in this book we argue for a new way of interpreting the Symposium and its various structures. In fact, we aim, among other things, to show that there is a strong, however playful, connection between all the speakers of the drinking party and what is perhaps the dialogue’s central image: the metamorphosis of the apprentice, dedicated to love, as he or she moves ever up on Diotima’s ladder of ascent to the beautiful itself. This connection, rich in its implications, only emerges fully, as we shall show, in the figure of the whole and cannot be grasped simply from the dialogue’s surface or from one of its parts. Why then this artfulness, and how important is the structural organization of the Symposium that we propose here?

The dialogue’s structure, hitherto for the most part unnoticed by investigators (for it is carefully concealed in the text), and the inherent literariness of this hidden structure reveal a Plato for whom the dialogical form was not merely ornamentation or philosophical methodology, but an integral part of both philosophical and artistic exploration. Plato’s dialectic is not only argument; it is also play. This is why, we argue, Diotima’s philosopher-Eros has inherited his artful craftiness from his divine father, Poros (Plenty, or Resource). If to play is a divine gift for Plato, then it becomes clear that, by ignoring this aspect of his writing, some contemporary scholarship has created a totalitarian, rather prohibitive Plato who can be attacked or deconstructed at will as the bulwark of unfashionable, institutional thinking or whose single-minded destructive and manipulative art can be contrasted unfavorably with that of the supposedly more authentic rebellious, anarchic martyr, Socrates.

We seek to show that the speakers in the Symposium are not merely inferior cartoon-figures surrounding the tour de force of Socrates-Diotima’s view of love. There is, instead, a connection between the persona of each individual speaker and his (and in the case of Diotima, her) speech or view of the nature of love, and thus the ascent on the ladder of love is characterized by both the insights and the failures of each participant in the dialogue. In this light, the ladder of ascent is not only a philosophical or mystical vision, whose purpose is to instruct the unenlightened; it also operates in the narrative as a living structural axis that gives direction and energy to so many other seemingly accidental details that both precede and follow on Diotima’s higher mysteries. In this sense, too, we argue, the dialogue has to be read as a whole, each part contributing something vital to the pattern of the whole, in a pattern that goes beyond the speech of Socrates alone.

This analysis produces a rather new view of the Symposium and also permits us to demonstrate, in particular, that the ascent to the beautiful, characteristic of the Symposium, provides, in the pattern of the dialogue as a whole, a carefully articulated and subtle, positive theory of art, which should be read as a companion piece to the examination of art in the context of the good, undertaken in the Republic. These two views of art and creativity, therefore, one so artfully concealed in the Symposium and the other explicitly argued by Socrates in the Republic, must surely be allowed to converse and contrast with each other rather than to constitute separate narrative fiefdoms. In other words, we propose a multidimensional and intertextual form of artistic thought in the dialogues, a complex form that undermines the current image of a linear Plato.

In turn, such an approach leads us to argue that if the Symposium is to be read as a companion piece to the Republic and, in particular, to Socrates’ views and criticisms of art in that dialogue, then the extreme distrust of art commonly associated with Plato and deduced for the most part from the surface of only one of many dialogues is simply insufficient. Rather, the Symposium and Republic together constitute a necessarily broader tableau upon which at least two different directions of thought have to be pursued at the same time.

Why, then, is Plato’s positive view of art presented in the Symposium in so covert and understated a manner compared to what appears to be the case in the Republic? This is not a simple issue, for the question calls for a reading of Plato in a light that has not been characterized of the majority of mainstream scholarship on the subject. We argue for a view of Plato as not merely a major philosophical thinker, but also a playful multidimensional writer who is saturated with all the subtleties of his highly cultivated Athens and yet, at the same time, so demonstrably capable of provoking self-critical trajectories of reflective possibility outside the boundaries of his own space and time.

In the first five chapters we develop the necessary background to the more detailed examination of the dialogue’s structure as a whole. This complex design begins to emerge when a character is juxtaposed with his or her narrative or with those of others, and for this reason, our first speaker is not Phaedrus (who is so often simply assumed to hold this position) but Apollodorus, the passionate disciple who has heard the tale from Aristodemus and checked it out with Socrates. The characters of the speakers are accidental neither to the voice, vision, or ideology that directs their lives, nor to the overall construction of the dialogue. This overall structure is presented fully in Chapters 6 and 7 (in connection to the Symposium) and the broader questions of the relationship between characterization, genre, and philosophy are examined in Chapter 8 in relation to the middle dialogues and especially the Republic, as well as to some contemporary concerns, notably in relation to our claim that, according to the major criteria worked out by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, the Symposium is the first novel in history.

The precise design, then, is as follows:

In Chapter 1 we discuss the role of Apollodorus in the dialogue and show that his narrative, heard from Aristodemus, is not merely a story within a story, but rather a narrative, three times removed from so-called reality, albeit in somewhat tongue-in-cheek Platonic fashion. Apollodorus’s acquired role as Socrates’ disciple in this regard is highly significant, even if it has been overlooked by many earlier commentators. This frame of the dialogue and its potential relation to the Republic does not seem to have been noticed before.

The focus of Chapter 2 is the character of Aristodemus (and Socrates as initially presented by him) and his factual account of the events, to which he himself was an eyewitness. An examination of what appears to be straightforward unambiguous factuality, introduced by yet another disciple of Socrates (Aristodemus), shows that this particular level of discourse is not as straightforward as it may appear, but instead is destroyed, punctured, and transformed throughout by the thoughts, questions, and jests that it frames but cannot direct. For this reason, the seemingly accidental details of the mise-en-scène are so very hard to interpret: they appear at a level of narrative within which their significance can be neither more fully understood nor determined. Nonetheless, this level of narrative implicitly contains them all.

In Chapters 3 and 4 we show, first, that if the orderly narrative frame of Aristodemus is insufficient and ultimately incapable of giving direction to the details it introduces, the following narrative frame—the order and nature of the speeches—is as ambiguous and unclear as the structure and role of Apollodorus’s and Aristodemus’s prologues. Some of the more influential scholarly views about the early speeches are presented and evaluated in order to give context to the first five speeches and to the pronounced organizational and even “ascending” principle underlying their order. In opposition to some recent prominent views, however, we argue that each new speech does not so much “cap” the previous one as, instead, introduce an ever more complex, comprehensive, and potentially philosophical design that each speaker in turn fulfills and yet frustrates—fulfills, because of that individual’s dedication and love, but frustrates, because of the weight of personal blindness, attachments, and narrow-mindedness. For this reason, the ascending order is hard to discern, for it is governed not only by the individuals’ and genres’ capacities, but also by their failures. From this perspective, above all, each of the speeches appears in an entirely new light. But perhaps the most striking questions at this narrative level concern Aristophanes’ speech, and the level of inquiry that he both so brilliantly fulfills and yet also clearly betrays, and Agathon’s masterful, inspired, but ultimately hollow speech. In the emerging examination of the relationship between the individual successes and failures of each speaker, the arguments of the Republic about mimetic art and the shortcomings of artistic vision return again not merely as a counterpoint, but also as an implicitly articulated and forcefully contrasting, philosophical challenge.

We examine in Chapter 5, first, the pivotal focus of Agathon’s elenchus for the dialogue (also more comprehensively treated in Chapter 8) and, second, the new beginning involved in Socrates’ introduction of a dialogical principle of inquiry as well as in the highly significant figure of Diotima herself. We argue for a more complex understanding than has been usual of Diotima’s position in the dialogue as well as of her teachings. Here, in this conversation—framed, however, from many conversations—argument, myth, and structure come together in a rather unique form of dialectic, one in which Diotima’s apparent capacity to “comment” on earlier proceedings (though she was not present) together with the hidden echoes of earlier speeches yields a dynamic interplay of ideas. The nature of these images or ideas as lenses through which to see beyond themselves—lenses to which both mythos and logos contribute—as well as the importance of mythos to dialectic, are examined in this context.

Chapter 6 contains an analysis of Diotima’s higher mysteries and reveals that here lies a major key to the structure of the Symposium, not as the center of a constructed discourse, but rather as a multidimensional energy focus for the pulsating design that informs so many of the narrative structures of the work. It is in this living relationship between multiple narrative designs in Socrates-Diotima’s speech, in which different frames of reference momentarily coalesce, that Plato’s positive theory of art first appears indirectly, a theory impossible to uncover if the narrative is viewed as a static structure or a preestablished hierarchy.

In Chapter 7 we explore yet another unstable, disruptive, and even violently intruding discourse: Alcibiades’ divided praise and yet trial of a Socrates who is neither a Dionysus figure—contrary to what has so often been supposed—nor again an Apollo figure, but Socrates, a unique individual and yet at the same time an image, that is, not the solid paradigm whose figure determines the whole “get-together” or drinking party. In this perspective, Alcibiades’ double-edged testimony bears witness to the radical freedom of dialectical thought, namely, its feature that it cannot compel agreement but must always stand open either to testing or to corruption. Alcibiades’ love-hate relationship with Socrates is also colored by the language of praise and trial that poignantly evokes the broader context of the life and death of Socrates. Once again the relation between the individual character and the character of the vision that Alcibiades espouses is crucial to our investigation.

In Chapter 8 we take up the examination of the dialogue as a whole in relation both to broader issues of Plato’s dialogues and to modern and contemporary concerns. Here we examine the genres of the narrative so far analyzed and argue for a broader principle of organization that can best explain the multiple narrative strategies of the Symposium. Here we find confirmation of the general view held by Nietzsche that it was Plato who created the genre of the novel, but in our examination of the dialogical characteristics of this new genre we reject Nietzsche’s insistence that Plato is governed by any procrustean or narrow-minded rationality and follow instead a dialogical polyphonic design, in part prompted by Bakhtin’s development of the major criteria of novelistic discourse. On these strict Bakhtinian criteria, the Symposium is demonstrably the first novel in history.

In order to argue for this new understanding of the Symposium, we have had to revisit many common assumptions about the early speeches and have often disagreed with some of the most widely accepted scholarly interpretations. But one objective of the book is to show how many previous interpretations, though undoubtedly missing the mark, are nonetheless perfectly comprehensible in their own right from the perspective of the more complex design we have uncovered. The picture of the whole, as is clear from the preceding outline, emerges very gradually once some of the more habitual reactions to the dialogue’s images are given a new focus: and the core of our argument only begins to be articulated fully in Chapters 6, 7, and finally 8. The result is, first, a new interpretation of the Symposium as a whole as well as of each of its parts, speakers, and narrative layers and, second, a rather new view of the Symposium in relation to the other middle dialogues, especially the Republic.

Our general goal, however, is clear from the outset: we aim to bring to light the structural design that underlies the Symposium, and on this basis, we subsequently clarify how this fits into what appear to be major concerns elsewhere in the middle and later dialogues. The result, we believe, is a new contribution to the reading of Plato and a significantly different understanding of many of his important questions, particularly, the relationship between philosophy and art, myth and argument, soul-body and human identity, the nature of “Platonic love” and, finally, the unusual character of Plato’s writing itself.

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