The Symposium

The Symposium


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Xenophon the Athenian was born 431 B.C. He was a pupil of Socrates. He marched with the Spartans, and was exiled from Athens. Sparta gave him land and property in Scillus, where he lived for many years before having to move once more, to settle in Corinth. He died in 354 B.C.

The Symposium records the discussion of Socrates and company at a dinner given by Callias for the youth Autolycus. Dakyns believed that Plato knew of this work, and that it influenced him to some degree when he wrote his own "Symposium."

Entertainment at the dinner is provided by the Syracusan and his three performers. Their feats of skill thrill the attendants and serve as points of conversation throughout the dialogue. Much of the discussion centers on what each guest is most proud of. All their answers are playful or paradoxical: Socrates, for one, prides himself on his knowledge of the art of match-making.

Xenophon consciously and carefully chooses his characters in this dialogue. Those who attend the symposium (422 B.C.) are all gentlemen (kaloikagathoi) and are united by their status. Later, however, their disagreements will lead them to conflict. The contemporary readers of the Symposium would have been familiar with each character’s history, and would have recognized the ironic circumstances of the dialogue.

Socrates: The main character in the work. Socrates drives and controls the conversation at the symposium. He values the craft of match-making because a good match-maker can arrange suitable marriages and friendship between cities.

Xenophon begins the dialogue by saying that he thinks the deeds of men not only in their serious times, but also in their playful times, are worth mentioning. He expresses his desire to explain the deeds on such a particular occasion, at which he himself was present (Xenophon's presence at the symposium is doubted, since he would have been too young to attend at the time).

After they finished eating, an entertainer from Syracuse, who had been invited by Kallias, came with his entourage of performers including a girl good at flute playing, a girl who danced spectacularly, and a very pretty boy who played the cithara and danced 2.1). The flute player and the boy play their instruments together in a performance which pleases Socrates. He praises Kallias for the dinner and the entertainment which he provided. Kallias then suggests that the party should enjoy some perfumes, but Socrates refused, saying that men ought to smell of gymnastic exercise and the men with whom they associate. This leads to a discussion of the teachability of virtue (2.6), which Socrates suggests they drop because it is controversial. The dancing girl is about to perform with the flutist (2.7).
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