Friday, December 3, 2010

The Symposium: the love-song of Alcibiades, the meaning of tyranny in Athens and America, part 2

In part 1 on the Symposium: love and beauty as image and argument here, I discussed Diotima’s story of Eros, son of Poros (resource) and Penia (penury), as a gesture at the uniqueness of Socrates. The second such image is Silenus and to a lesser extent, the flute playing satyr Marsyas, conjured in Alcibiades' drunken, plotting, empty and resourceful speech about his love for Socrates. Alcibiades comes in to the symposium inebriated, and demands that the symposiasts, who have refrained from serious drinking for speeches, now really drink. His is a speech of fierce passion, as Strauss says, of spiritual or in some genuine vein, religious agony: eros demonstrated. He is bitten, he says, by a snake (218a). For his is a case of love of Socrates – although Socrates is his elder, not a usual object – because of the hidden beauty of Socrates’s philosophy, Socrates’s soul. A fool for love, he is no fool. As one can see in the images on the first floor of the New Acropolis Museum, Sileni are ungainly and uncouth on the outside, but if one opens them up – in Alcibiades’s words, sees into them – they are filled with uncanny golden statues. So it is with Socrates, Alcibiades reports, he once glimpsed. It is important to underline the significance of a mere glimpse, as opposed to Diotima’s account of the idea of beauty. It is perhaps true opinion, but no knowledge (yet). Alcibiades is a years-long frustrated, divided and wayward seeker.

Alcibiades will soon founder politically, defile the images of Hermes, publically release or betray secrets of the Mysteries, and be ostracized by Athens. The city he loved and had contempt for now did not love him back. He was the great leader who had persuaded the assembly to vote for the Sicilian expedition. This was a war of aggression and conquest on a second front, warned against by Pericles in his final address, which would bring down Athens. One hidden meaning of the drunken speech in the Symposium: the politics and the fate of Athenian democracy leap to the fore; the dialogue on love is thus also, unexpectedly and profoundly, political.

Now as Strauss notes. one possible meaning of the dialogue is that Alcibiades learns his contempt for the Mysteries from Socrates. Socrates is eventually executed, Plato might be suggesting, for the crime of which Alcibiades, in his public disgrace, is but a follower. The fall of the lover is a sign of the command and guilt of the beloved. In a genuine fit of reactionary imagination, Strauss then concludes that if only Alcibiades, and not the bumbling, anti-imperial expedition (practically a peacenik, no doubt), conventionally religious, stupid when faced with mortal danger and stupifying Nicias, had commanded the Athenian forces, Athens would have defeated Syracuse. This is a dismal reactionary cliché: if only Hitler had relied on the generals to fight the war on the Russian front, if only Johnson hadn’t relied on Westmoreland in Vietnam, if only…*

Here Strauss’s scholarly interpretation gives way to prejudice. For the whole point, for Plato, of Alcibiades’ speech and the Silenus image is that Alcibiades does not get Socrates. Alcibiades has glimpsed the golden images within, but has not seduced Socrates, with his beautiful body – no brilliant plan - to share them (216c-217). He can neither grasp Socrates’ knowledge nor though he hears and believes the injunction, live by virtue. Eros is not simply sexual, Plato says, nor even to be emulated or acquired simply by opening oneself physically. Socrates’s irony is devastating: if I really possess the golden images you think you see, the trade you propose is not a fair one.** Alcibiades would have to work to acquire knowledge (he would have to join the path to perhaps become- also - a physical lover). As Alcibiades tells us drunkenly and thus explicitly, he is shamed by Socrates and only Socrates can shame him (216b). For he hears Socrates talking, dully and uncouthly, of craftsman. Where fools scorn (but one of Alcibiades's inner voices which motivates his public conduct is, by implication, such a fool), Alcibiades's experiences the inner argument of Socrates, might follow the questions as Corybants hear the flutes, might sit by Socrates until he becomes an old man…Here too is a beautiful but to Alcibiades, seemingly false image of love. He might become a man like Socrates or Plato. But he is haunted by a question that pulls him down (see the image of the dark horse in the Phaedrus). What then will be Alcibiades’ share of public greatness?

And Socrates will not go along with Alcibiades’ idea of such greatness…

Alcibiades hungers for philosophy, yet turns away. He goes to lead the people, corruptly. Still, he has sought virtue philosophically; every time he sees Socrates (and we may recall how he is caught, these many years later, stunned at the presence next to Agathon – Agathon unphilosophical, once again a conventional public notion of what is good, is what Alcibiades courts – of his love for the interrogating Socrates. For Socrates asks: what is virtue? what is the good? what is leadership (or in the Straussian mantra: statesmanship)? and these questions sting Alcibiades...

Alcibiades is thus shamed by Socrates, and his own, through a glass darkly understanding of the search for virtue. He hungers for philosophy; he strays into corrupt politics, imperial speeches to curry the adulation of the many. But Alcibiades is not a great leader precisely because he is in it for himself, because he is not moved to, but shamed by virtue, because he hungers to eat, in the metaphor of the Republic, and his endless appetite invites the Athenian demos to consume Syracuse…

Hermocrates, who briefly and silently appears in the Timeaus, will lead the Syracusans to crush the Athenian aggression, an answer to the act and an answer to the psyche that leads, drunkenly, to it. He and not Alcibiades is a Periclean leader, or better yet, comparable to the initial leaders of Athens against Persia (cf. Thucydides, History).

One may imagine that Alcibiades himself reveals Socrates's politics only if one has the prejudice – Strauss’s and his followers – that Socrates wanted philosophical-kings – as I have argued, he never envisioned or enacted anything of the sort – or that Plato did. The latter is more likely, but as I suggest here, here, and here, inter alia, a false direction created for students who resemble Alcibiades, smart quasi-tyrants and anti-democrats, bringing them in, to show them virtue. In this, Plato may have emulated Socrates. Yes, one meaning of the Silenus image is: Alcibiades glimpses the golden statues but has no ability to persist in, to question what they mean. For Alcibiades could have become, nearly was, an Alexander the Great-like leader, conquering and murdering here and there. But the latter is Aristotle’s vision, not Plato’s – hence Aristotle’s failure perhaps to become leader of the Academy when Plato died, his counsel to Alexander who murdered Plato’s other student (a better student) Demosthenes for resisting Macedonian empire.

The Republic's seeming advisor-to-tyrants’ vision is diametrically opposed to Socrates. There is no evidence in the Symposium that Alcibiades’s way is inspired by or even encouraged by Socrates. Quite the contrary. Neither the philosophical nor the physical eros was consummated. Hence Alcibiades’ shames…

Here the contrast of Alcibiades, well known historically for his fate, and Glaucon, Plato’s brother, unknown to history except through the Republic (he is mentioned in the Symposium), is especially important. Glaucon is the main figure in the Republic. But Glaucon, unlike Alcibiades, is he whom Socrates persuades not to become a tyrant or traitor (as Alcibiades did when ostracized)…Love of philosophy, seen even dimly (Plato makes a lot of fun of Glaucon staggering around, demanding that Socrates explain the idea of the good in a long night, Socrates saying I will as much as you can understand, and teasing/joking at Glaucon’s errors) possesses Glaucon. Glaucon, too, is stung by the snake (the sting-ray). Like Alcibiades, Glaucon, merely glimpses philosophy, but unlike Alcibiades, he understands virtue.

Or take Polemarchos, the dull thug on the first page of the Republic, listening to Socrates about and identifying Thrasymachos’s errors by the end of book one, who becomes “philosophical,” we are told, in the Phaedrus. Polemarchus leads the democrats and will die fighting the Tyranny of the Thirty in the Pieraeus. Philosophical and political: like Socrates, doing what is right by the argument to resist unjust laws, yet sustain democracy against tyranny. Argument, for Socrates, is like the great stream of jazz into which some musicians say they enter when they are playing ("some version of the laws' argument speaks to me," Socrates says to Crito, "as the Corybants [the participants in the Mysteries] hear the flutes, its murmur," he says for the only time in all the dialogues, "overpowering. Ask, Crito, if you have other questions, but you will not convince me...").

In the Seventh Letter, Plato says in his own voice that he had, as a young aristocrat, disdained the democracy, looked hopefully to the leadership of his relatives Critias and Charmides (two leading tyrants) who invited him to join. But Plato did not. That Tyranny, he said, then made the vanished democracy look like a golden age (Just think of Cheney). Plato is ironic and elliptical about many things. But as it turns out, he is quite plain about this one…

Now Socrates also does conduct himself toward Alcibiades erotically. Alcibiades depicts him as the “marsh-goose looking sideways” in battle, a stout foe. But he is an odd bird, a Silenus, from the standpoint of eros (no Meno or Alcibiades or Helen). When Alcibiades is wounded (220e), Socrates saves him and his armor (his honor as well). Alcibiades urges the leaders to honor Socrates. But because of Alcibiades's importance (Socrates was an artisan, is also an odd bird, a philosopher), the leaders then decide to honor…Alcibiades. And Socrates urges them to it. On one level ironic, that is also the act of a lover (a self-effacing one). But Socrates’s act is also ironically not what will help Alcibiades politically. Quite the contrary. Wisdom and eros do not always go together (it is more about Socrates's shunning public honor - in fact, a decent but as it were, self-serving act - than pushing it on his lover, and what happens to Alcibiades is proof of the wisdom in Socrates's resistance).

Alcibiades always floats like a cork on top of his near doom in battle, on top of his treachery, eventually coming back in the defeated Athens, a man of great capacity who rises again, despite adversities, on the acclaim of the masses, or saved from death (interestingly by Socrates). Socrates could have been content to save him, not (receding into the background) to cause him to be honored (of course, whether Socrates could have prevented class from winning out in the “democracy,” where leaders were often aristocrats and supported aristocrats, might be doubted)…(A) Strauss(ian) might try to read this vacuously as Socrates urging or subordinating himself to Alcibiades’s “political leadership.” More likely, it is Plato’s comment on even the madness of Socrates as a lover (and of course, someone who shunning public honors, has a merely human wisdom).

The Silenus is an image of what penia and poros may achieve when brought together. Bearing golden images within, Silenus is a completion of eros; possessing such images may be what Socrates learned, at least by and in the moment of drinking the hemlock. Appolodorus is cynical except for following Socrates. Stung by eros, Alcibiades follows Socrates. Socrates’s tale of Diotima dominates and transforms the drinking party (the only other powerful or enduring one is Aristophanes’s, though Alcestis, who gives her life for her callow and unloving husband Admetus – an incarnation of petty patriarchy - is in another speech a real image of love). The whole dialogue casts Socrates up in the images of eros and Silenus. But the Symposium, also, corresponds to, echoes the drinking party in the Phaedo. Alcibiades even speaks to men of the jury (o andres dikastai – 219c), the drinkers who will judge Socrates's disdaining of Alcibiades’s once youthful charms. Montaigne’s saying in his essays, “to philosophize is to learn how to die” gains flesh from these stories.

The third tale is that of Aristophanes. Aristophanes initially has the hiccups and cannot speak. Eryximachus, the doctor, gives him a remedy and then warns against his making a comedy, like the Clouds perhaps, of the whole event (185e, 1899a-c, 193e) Aristophanes must be healed from comedy, to some extent, to speak of love as in the tale he tells, lovers must find the other half, to be healed. The vision - the round, doubled humans rolling swiftly - are of course comic (this is Aristophanes, after all).

Amusingly all the other speakers, except Socrates and Aristophanes, gild the lily about eros "the god." As Socrates says, they engage in a false eulogy, whereas he, to speak, must tell the truth. Eros is an in-between or spiritual creature, rather than a god, one who nonetheless lifts us out of our mortality…But Aristophanes, too, speaks the truth, lifts us out of our mortality, as much as Socrates. Their speeches are interrelated, contestants for a truth fabled but not yet fully revealed; they go on talking, long after Aristodemus, who recounted the tale to Apollodorus, has dozed off, into the dawn. Here, too, is some hidden meaning, something that this memory of a memory does not relate.

On Aristophanes’s view, human beings were once joined in a ball. But filled with pride, they did not just worship but assaulted the gods. So Zeus cut them in half, like a sorb apple or a flat fish, and knitted them up separately. Note the element of clumsiness, the not quite beauty of this woundedness, of sexuality (one might note the clumsiness as well even of the original rounded figures).

But the halves yearn for each other. Some are male and female and, with Zeus’s help, recreate the species. Some, Plato’s Aristophanes says, are manly – what Plato unstintingly, perhaps ridiculously praises (it is amusing that Harvey Manfield, follower of Strauss, proponent of bashing gays in his urging of Bush’s tyranny, brutal conquest of other peoples, suppression of ordinary citizens at home, is all into Manliness) - and seek male love. And some are lesbians. Perhaps at last in America, we are conquering the vicious forms of bigotry against the last two kinds of humans divided, whose yearning Aristophanes recounts…

The features of eros that are real enough, that one seeks one person, as if one were incomplete (psychologically, as Jung might say, we are all initially incomplete, and seek to find some of the aspects of ourselves, hidden from us, lurking in the sea of the unconscious, in one other person). Yes, there are many possible lovers and one can learn from many; still, the intensest experience is perhaps always of one person. Diotima’s and Socrates’s story captures the element of pain and emptiness in being apart (as one is, mortal), the relentless searching that is part of eros. That story captures the endless resourcefulness of eros, the fading and dying and renewal (resurrection) and purpose. But Socrates needs the tale to lead also toward wisdom (not so often an accompaniment of eros, and when seeking beauty, perhaps a wonderful concomitant but not simply the heart of it). It is that which perhaps subtly divides him from Aristophanes (and in a different way, from Alcibiades, drunken with love of Socrates and sorrow for, love of himself). Aristophanes continues the conversation. It is the question of this relationship which the dialogue leaves one with…


*One might draw a current if complex parallel to today's reactionary hope, General David Petraeus. As Andrew Bacevich, a military professional and hence sensitive to changes in military strategy points out, the initial Bush/Rumsfeld/Pentagon approach was “shock and awe” – use obliterating technology and a thin invading force to conquer others. This was met and defeated by the Iraqi insurgency. Petraeus and Donald Kagan then recycled an opposite tactic: COIN, based on Petraeus’s 25 year old Ph.D. thesis on the Vietnam, and a “surge” to achieve it. The US would supposedly protect the civilian population of Iraq against an insurgency, supported and participated in by parts of that population. An idle and self-contradictory gesture, counterinsurgency is doomed from its inception.

Thus, as we saw with General McChrystal’s fatal Rolling Stone interview, the soldiers resisted, wanting to be protected by overwhelming fire power and blow up civilians (protecting some civilians was the torturer and warmaker McChrystal’s one decent, albeit tactical insight). Invaders are unlikely shepherds of civilians.

As Bacevich underlines, these two approaches are contradictory; the surge and COIN do not represent a strategy for winning the war, of which there is no conception in the American military elite, but a stopgap in getting out. Washington rallies around this, including the cowardly Democrats, but there is no thought – despite increased and extended engagement in Afghanistan – about why any of this should work. But the dullness of the elite has impeded the ability of many Americans, Bacevich suggests, to ask "first-order questions" about strategy (Bacevich here overlooks the anti-war movement and the much more considerable majority anti-war sentiment).

Petraeus’s increasingly obvious and miserable failures – quasi-colonial, in a post-colonial era, the white man’s burden where ordinary white people have long become resistant to the poisons of colonialism - the Iraq and Afghanistan aggressions and occupations were, in fact, bound to fail. That the military has no idea of what victory would look like just underlines this point. Petraeus is very sophisticated, diplomatic, or rather a bit obsequious with higher-ups (Bush, Obama). But as Bacevich also reports, the military’s strategic silence or better, emptiness and dull expansion of losing wars is coupled with mad neo-con love songs, paeans to the great “strategist” and conqueror. Thus, Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan rhapsodize those military heroes who “come in pairs”: “Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Laebienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.” (Washington Rules, p. 205)…And incapable of embarrassment, Fred Kagan even works for Petraeus (and against Obama's instinct to withdraw troops even in 2011) and advised President Bush “to surge, surge…” Power, status, money come from conjunction… Thus, in Fred and Kim’s image, Petraeus is practically an Alcibiades…But he is not smitten, no truth-telling, would-be philosophical drunk at a symposium.

Truly, one cannot make this stuff up…

**The ideology of Platonic love has grown out of a stale academic misreading of what the dialogue is about. Alcibiades will not live up to the trade, wants to seduce Socrates to be his advisor (a philosopher-tyrant with the emphasis on tyranny, and Socrates isn’t about advising tyrants…)

Eros can perhaps not be (fully) realized in negativity of soul. Once again, however, Socrates saves Alcibiades’s life, then causes him falsely to be celebrated. Signs of some eros on Socrates’s part…

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