Monday, January 26, 2009


In Plato’s Symposium, Plato uses Alcibiades’ dialogue to display his frustration with the social expectations for love and his inability to meet those expectations. Alcibiades inability to involve himself in a productive sexual relationship demonstrates the impotence caused by the overemphasis of eroticism. The tragic nature of the character of Alcibiades is that he realizes he is unable to gain virtue through sexual relations, and therefore is forced to remain mortal and yet he is unable to change himself.

The Symposium is set during the Dionysian festival, immediately following the poet and playwright, Agathon’s victory in a play contest. The pageantry of this festival for Dionysus, the goddess of wine and fertility, emphasizes the Athenian expectations Alcibiades must confront. Athenians celebrated fertility and the reproduction of human life. Therefore heterosexual relationships were justified by its creative power. This emphasis created a social expectation that sexual relationships should be productive.

The guests of the party in the Symposium met during a festival celebrating the productivity and fertility of heterosexual relationships to justify their homosexual relationships by giving eulogies to love. Because heterosexual relationships were justified in giving birth to children, to justify homosexual relationships one would have to prove them equally productive. This forces Alcibiades to consider his own behavior in the context of these expectations and justify his sexual relationships.
Socrates tries to justify homosexual relationships by relating Diotima’s differentiation between heterosexual relationships, those who are physically pregnant with babies, and homosexual relationships, those who are pregnant in terms of the soul and produce virtue in their partner. This is done by the homosexual lover passing knowledge and wisdom on to his beloved. Thus, Socrates successfully justifies homosexual relationships and with this reasoning he demonstrates to the other guests that their homosexual relationships must be productive to be justified.

Despite Alcibiades’ many male lovers Plato describes Alcibiades as unable to achieve any productive sexual relationship because he fails to become the virtuous man that a productive relationship would produce. Alcibiades admits to caving “in to my desire to please the crowd.”(Plato 216B) Alcibiades is prevented from having a productive relationship by his sexual impulses and overemphasis on physical eroticism, which can be called his impotence.

Alcibiades’ overemphasis of physical eroticism is shown in his attempt to seduce Socrates. Alcibiades is more focused on the sexual act and the physical gratification that would come from it, than on the philosophical effect that the act would have on his soul. While Alcibiades knows that Socrates views the sexual act as a means of producing a more virtuous man, he pretends to actually understand how this happens only as a ploy to convince Socrates that their sexual relationship would be productive. Alcibiades said, “So what / I did was to invite him to dinner, as if I were his lover and he my / young prey.” (Plato 217C) Alcibiades demonstrates to Socrates that he fundamentally misunderstands the productive nature of sexual relationships, and therefore, will be unable to use any sexual relationship to improve his soul.

Socrates does not have a sexual relationship with Alcibiades because Alcibiades cannot engage in a productive sexual relationship, and Socrates is unwilling to enter such an unproductive relationship. Socrates attempts to explain this to Alcibiades: “You seem to me to want / more than you proper share: you offer me the merest / appearance of beauty, and in return you want the thing itself, ‘gold / in exchange for bronze’” (Plato 219A). Socrates is unwilling to help Alcibiades, not because Socrates is inadequate, but because Alcibiades is so corrupted that he could not be helped by any relationship.

This impotence in sexual relationships has greater consequences for Alcibiades than simply preventing him from having a sexual relationship with Socrates. As Diotima states, the product of a sexual relationship gives the partners immortality, either through children or virtue, “Reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of / immortality.” (Plato 207A). Because Alcibiades cannot accomplish this, he is doomed to mortality.

The tragedy of Alcibiades’ impotence is that he realizes his inadequacies and yet is unable to change himself. Alcibiades’ inability to understand the productivity of sexual relationships leaves him in a state of unending frustration, as he understands that he lacks virtue, but is unable to become virtuous. Despite the lessons Socrates attempts to teach him, Alcibiades remains unable to understand Socrates’ reason for not having a sexual relationship with him.

Plato further supports his depiction of Alcibiades as frustrated about how sexual relations are the way to becoming virtuous, by alluding to Alcibiades’ comparison of Socrates as the flute player Marsyas, a mythic half-man, half-goat flute player always depicted with an erection. It is not simply praise of the power of Socrates’ speech. “The only difference between / you and Marsyas is that you need no instruments; you do exactly / what he does, but with words alone.” (Plato 215D) Rather, he is demonstrating his jealousy of Socrates’ sexual productivity. The comparison of Socrates with Marsyas, is an intentional act demonstrating his sexual jealousy.

Plato’s subtle use of Alcibiades’ dialogue and relationship with Socrates to portray Alcibiades’ tragic inability to become virtuous through sexual relationships demonstrates the impotence resultant of overemphasizing erotic relationships. Alcibiades’ inability to have a productive sexual relationship condemns him to mortality. The tragedy of the character of Alcibiades is both his comprehension of his lack of virtue and his inability to change himself.

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