“It seems to me that in writing about the deeds of truly good men, it is proper to record not only their serious activities, but their diversions too.” That’s the opening line of Xenophon’s Symposium, a dialogue about the philosopher Socrates and his friends attending a drinking party. It’s a philosophical dialogue about the nature of love, friendship, and goodness. However, it clearly has layers of meaning and we’re warned from the outset that Socrates isn’t being entirely serious here, although he’s not entirely joking either. The whole dialogue is steeped in double meaning and Socratic irony.
We’re told that Callias, a wealthy man who paid a great deal of money to be educated by Sophists, was strongly attracted to an adolescent boy called Autolycus. After watching a horse race together, accompanied by the boy’s father, they all set off for Callias’ house in Piraeus when they spotted Socrates with a group of his friends. Callias invited them to join him for dinner because he was eager to enjoy their conversation.
As the symposium or drinking party gets underway, Callias wants to bring in perfumes but Socrates objects saying that men should smell of the sweat worked up in gymnasia. Autolycus’ father says that’s alright for the young but what about the old – what are they to smell of? Socrates replies “True goodness, of course.” “Where”, the man asks, “are they to get that perfume?” And Socrates replies by quoting the poet Theognis: “Good company will edify you whereas bad will rob you even of the wits you had.” This causes the friends to get into a debate about where Autolycus should find a good teacher and whether virtue can be taught at all.
There’s a lot of good humoured banter, and a bit of light philosophical discussion. Socrates assures his friends that drinking wine gets his approval because “wine refreshes the heart”, and both allays worry while fanning the flame of good cheer. However, he says it affects the human body and mind just as plants are affected by having too much or too little water. When they get too much plants can’t stand up straight in the breeze but when they get just the right amount they grow upright and flourish. So the friends should drink just the right amount. Socrates wisely recommends that they should drink from small goblets so that they moderate their consumption, as that way he thinks they’ll enjoy the evening more. The friends agree.
They begin discussing where each man’s area of expertise lies. When asked what he’s most proud of Autolycus says his father. So Callias remarks that Lycon, in that case, must be the richest man in the world because he obviously wouldn’t exchange all the wealth of the Great King of Persia for his beautiful son. When they come round to Socrates, though, he declares, to their surprise, that the thing he’s most proud of is his expertise as a pimp (μαστροπός).
In typical Socratic fashion, he then proceeds to define what it means to be a pimp, starting with a fairly uncontroversial statement that soon leads to something more paradoxical. A pimp, he says, is someone who represents his client as a pleasing person to everyone he meets. That seems reasonable enough as a starting point for their definition. However, notes Socrates, even someone physically beautiful may give either friendly or hostile looks with the same eyes. They may speak either modestly or insolently with the same tongue, and behave in ways that are either offensive or conciliatory. There are, he’s implying, both pleasant and unpleasant ways that even a beautiful person may behave. So he adds a twist: a good pimp, if he’s going about his work properly, should also teach his client character traits that are pleasing and not just depend upon their looks.
Socrates continues by saying that any pimp worthy of the name should also make his client pleasing not just to one person, or a few, but to many. The friends begin to disagree at this point, perhaps sensing that Socrates is leading them further away from the conventional meaning of the word. Nevertheless, Socrates insists that a “supremely good pimp” would be able to make his client appear pleasing to the entire city. This is a typical maneuver on his part. I think he’s implying that to be pleasing to everyone, you must go beyond mere appearances and actually become pleasing in a more genuine way. As he elsewhere likes to say, you should be as you wish to appear.
To everyone’s surprise, Socrates then concludes that his good friend Antisthenes is just that sort of pimp, having perfected precisely this art. At first, Antisthenes appears mildly offended. However, Socrates reminds Antisthenes that it was he who introduced Callias to the famous Sophist Prodicus. Antisthenes saw that Callias had a great desire to learn philosophy and Prodicus at that time needed money. Indeed, Antisthenes has introduced Socrates to some good people as well by praising both parties so effectively that they fell in love and went hunting for one another. Antisthenes is therefore an excellent pimp, by Socrates’ standards. He means that he’s a good matchmaker for those who should be friends. Antisthenes excels at spotting people who would benefit one another through their acquaintance. He’s good at recognizing individuals’ good qualities and praising them, accurately and truthfully, to one another.
Socrates goes even further and links being a good pimp to being an ideal citizen, like a great statesman.
It seems to me that a man who is able to recognize people who are likely to benefit each other, and who can make them desire each other, could develop friendship between political states and arrange suitable marriages, and would be a very valuable ally for both states and individuals to possess.
Socrates jokes that Antisthenes got offended at first when he called him a pimp because he didn’t realize what he meant but now the term has been properly defined, it’s clear that being a good pimp is actually something to which one should aspire because it benefits the whole of society. The greatest pimps make the greatest statesmen? It’s fair to say this is yet another of Socrates’ famous paradoxes. Antisthenes says he’s no longer offended and that if he actually has the qualities that Socrates attributes to a pimp thenn his soul must be filled with true wealth, by which he means virtue.
As they were discussing philosophy, the man in charge of the entertainers was becoming irritated because they had lost interest in his young dancers. So he starts trying to pick an argument with Socrates. He says “Aren’t you the one they call the ‘thinker’?”, referring to Antisthenes’ play The Clouds, in which Socrates was satirized quite unfairly for being a pompous intellectual. Instead of getting annoyed, Socrates just replies “Yes, that’s nicer than if they called me the ‘thoughtless’, though”, turning it into a compliment. The man persists in trying to pick a fight and brings up some of the things that would later be used against Socrates in his trial: the idea that he talks about celestial phenomena, as if this were a form of impiety. Socrates turns this around as well, though, saying that there’s nothing more celestial than the gods.
As this rather belligerent man goes on and on, spoiling the mood of the party, Antisthenes interrupts accusing him, to the others, of beginning to sound like a slanderer. Socrates tactfully points out that his friends should stop there before they also begin to sound like slanderers themselves. Phillip the comedian, who was about to make fun of the man for being a slanderer, isn’t convinced and objects that if he were to praise him instead he’d be lying, and toadying, instead of telling the truth. Socrates notes that it’s also slander to say that someone is better than everyone else, presumably because praising one person in that way implies criticism of others.
Phillip asks to whom he should compare the man if not better or worse types of people and Socrates tells his friend that he’d be better not to compare him to anyone. He advises Phillip that the way to earn one’s place at the dinner table is to keep quiet when things are better left unsaid. In other words, if you want to be welcome among friends, you have to learn how to avoid pointless arguments. In this way, says Xenophon, the heated conversation of Socrates’ inebriated companions was cooled down. Socrates then persuades them all to sing a song, “as we’re all so keen to have our voices heard”, and thereby artfully changes the subject. And he sneakily persuades the argumentative man to have his dancers perform a routine representing the Graces, who traditionally danced in a circle holding hands, and personified charm, friendship, and harmony. In other words, Socrates found an way to encourage someone who was causing an argument to exhibit his ability to restore harmony and grace to their company, and win praise by doing so.
Celestial and Common Love
After quelling the brewing argument, Socrates turns to praise of Eros or Love.
Gentlemen, we are in the presence of a great deity, as old in time as the eternal gods, and yet most youthful in appearance, who pervades all things in his greatness and is enshrined in the heart of man: I mean Love.
Socrates says he can’t think of a time when he hasn’t been in love with someone or other and he gives examples of all the people his companions love. In particular, Socrates praises Callias for being in love with Autolycus because he’s not attracted by someone pampered but by a youth who’s self-disciplined, courageous, and worthy of admiration. To be attracted by such admirable qualities is evidence of the lover’s own character.
Socrates then brings up the distinction between two Aphrodites: Celestial and Common. He says that there are different shrines for both versions of Aphrodite and she’s worshipped with different rites under either name. The Common Aphrodite he says inspires physical love whereas the Celestial Aphrodite inspires love of the mind, friendship, and more noble behaviour. Socrates says that Callias has the higher, Celestial, sort of love because he loves Autolycus for his good character. Callias invites the boy’s father to accompany them, which proves that there’s nothing about their relationship that needs to be concealed. One of Socrates’ friends, Hermogenes, makes the astute observation that Socrates is to be admired for his exceptional ability to praise others while simultaneously showing them how they ought to behave. That’s like saying that he focuses on the best in people, and their potential for good, and praises this in such as way as to nurture it and encourage them toward greater virtue.
Socrates says that this higher love also brings more pleasure, ultimately, than merely physical love. He says that those who crave others physically often end up criticizing their character whereas love of good character leads to friendship and companionship. Also when we love someone for purely physical reasons, as they grow older, our love naturally wanes, whereas love of the mind grows stronger as our beloved matures. Moreover, sexual desire is an appetite that becomes satiated, like hunger for food, whereas affection for the mind is never exhausted.
There are several advantages, therefore, that allow us to derive more pleasure from the higher type of love. However, Socrates now argues that the love inspired by the Celestial Aphrodite has an even more important advantage. Whereas mere carnal love is often one-sided, it is more natural for love of good character to be reciprocated.
First of all, says Socrates, nobody can really hate someone who considers him truly good. Secondly, nobody can hate someone who places the welfare of his beloved ahead of his own pleasure. Indeed, someone who has the higher sort of love would not even be turned away from his beloved by the “calamity of a disfiguring disease”. Those whose love and affection is mutual therefore look at one another with pleasure, and converse with friendship. They trust one another, and are considerate, sharing pleasure in one another’s successes and sorrow in their misfortunes. They continue in happiness for as long as they are together and in good health, and they care for one another in sickness. This is the true love, according to Socrates, sacred to the Celestial Aphrodite. When people treat one another like this they enjoy the continuation of their friendship even into old age.
Xenophon then portrays Socrates roundly criticizing the merely sexual love of older Athenian men for young boys, which he denounces as exploitative and corrupting. He goes on to say that those who love others only physically are servile and go around like beggars after their beloved. He adds that it’s his higher love that prompts him to speak out thus against its adversary. One who loves only the body is like a person who has rented a plot of farmland rather than one who owns a holding. He wants to exploit it and gain as much as he can in the process whatever the consequences. Those who have the higher form of love, love of another’s character, resemble farmers who nurture the land they own with its long-term value in mind.
Those who are loved for their bodies alone have no incentive to develop good character, moreover. Whereas those loved for their minds are motivated to maintain their good character, and so they naturally care more about virtue. However, says Socrates, the supreme benefit conferred by higher love, the Celestial Aphrodite, is upon the lover himself who is compelled to cultivate good character in order to win the friendship of the beloved, whose character he admires. All the virtues are encouraged by loving another because he possesses goodness. In other words, loving goodness makes us good ourselves, and for Socrates that is love’s greatest gift to us.
If you remember, Xenophon opened the whole dialogue by saying that it was a story about good men enjoying themselves. Although he doesn’t spell this out, Socrates himself, the supreme pimp, has also acted like the supreme lover. He shows love for his friends by wanting to educate them about the nature of love. He wants to them to flourish and become good men. He’s not at all possessive but happy to match them up with other teachers he believes will benefit them in this respect. Indeed, the dialogue ends with the drinking party coming to a close and the youthful Autolycus getting up to leave for home. As the boy leaves with his father, he pauses for a moment, turns back, and says: “I swear, Socrates, it seems to me that truly you are a good man.”
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.