Illustrated by Linda Baker-Smith
Plato's meditation on love, with a new foreword by A. C. Grayling.
The Symposium, Plato’s meditation on passionate love, or the Greek erōs, is both pivotal to our understanding of his wider philosophy and one of Ancient Greece’s greatest and most beautiful literary triumphs. In a lively dialectic, Plato considers love’s complex nature, distill- ing the desire for physical love from the love of virtue and goodness, and guiding us to a recognition and appreciation of true Beauty, in its essential and unchanging Platonic Form. As A. C. Grayling explains in his new foreword, we discover that ‘love is in essence the desire for all kinds of good there can be – happiness, nobility, moral goodness, beauty itself ’.
Although the symposium, or drinking party, is imagined, its attendees are real Athenian socialites, including the poet Agathon, the comic playwright Aristophanes, and Socrates, Plato’s revered teacher and mentor. In place of the usual drinking, each symposiast agrees to take turns eulogising Erōs, the god of passionate love and sexual lust. With great skill and satisfying realism – at one point the doctor Eryximachus must skip his turn due to a bout of hiccups – the speeches unveil love’s many faces. Aristophanes, in perhaps Plato’s most celebrated literary achievement, describes how human beings once had double bodies, with two faces and two sets of limbs, and that there were once three human genders – male, female and androgyne. Having been split in two by Zeus, we are compelled to chase our lost other half, a yearning that defines our differing sexualities. With each careful argument, Plato begins to extricate unbridled craving from noble love, and elevate the enriching communion of mutual admiration between two souls. In Socrates’ climactic exposition, and the drunken speech of the gate-crashing Alcibiades, the brittle shell of sexual desire is peeled away, and Plato reveals love’s ascending route to his unchanging Forms, the only true path to Platonic ‘goodness’ and perfection.
Included in this edition are an introduction and notes by the translator Robin Waterfield. Linda Baker-Smith’s fresco-like illustrations show us love in its many guises, while her vibrant binding design depicts a winged Erōs.
In reading the classic philosophical works of the past we take at least two attitudes to them simultaneously. One is that we examine them for the cogency and persuasiveness of their arguments. The other is that we seek in them the seeds of our own thoughts in response. There is much in Plato – even when we recognise the often dissatisfying nature of his views – that nevertheless provokes and inspires: A. N. Whitehead once described philosophy itself as ‘footnotes to Plato’, not wholly accurate but suggestive anyway, because Plato identified many of the questions central to philosophical endeavour and which are still discussed today. In the case of love, in all its variety and importance to our lives, not much in the Symposium might seem persuasive as an analysis of the phenomenon, but its place in Plato’s work gives it a special interest, and serves as a starting point for reflection of our own. Add this to its literary value and historical interest, and it is one of the high points of Plato, and an unmissable read.
Plato (c.429–347 bc) has exerted immeasurable influence on the Western philosophical tradition. Born into a wealthy Athenian family, he was a student of Socrates, who was sentenced to death in 399 bc for corrupting the Athenian youth, and who appears as a character in many of Plato’s famous dialogues. Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the first Western institute of higher education, where he tutored Aristotle. His works encompass questions of ethics, aesthetics, mathematics and politics; among his many seminal tracts are the Republic, an exploration of possibilities for an ideal government, the Phaedo, part of a cycle depicting the death of Socrates, and the Symposium.
A. C. Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. Until 2011 he was Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited over thirty books on philosophy and other subjects; is a frequent contributor to the Literary Review, Observer and Times Literary Supplement; and is an equally frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 3, 4 and the World Service. His most recent books include The God Argument (2013) and Friendship (2013).
Robin Waterfield was born in 1952. After graduating with a First in Classics from Manchester University, he went on to research ancient Greek philosophy at King’s College, Cambridge. Periods spent as a university lecturer at Newcastle and St Andrews were followed by time as a copy-editor and commissioning edi- tor at Penguin Books. He is now a consultant editor, writer and translator, whose books range from philosophy to children’s fiction. His acclaimed translations include selections of Plutarch’s Greek Lives (1998) and Roman Lives (1999), Herodotus’ The Histories (1998) and several other Platonic dialogues, including Republic (1993, published in a Folio Society edition 2003).
Linda Baker-Smith is a freelance illustrator. She gained a First in Graphic Design from Bower Ashton College of Art and Design, and has since worked for many of the major publishing houses, design groups and magazine publishers, including Penguin Books, Ebury Press and The Times. She has exhibited her work at Lambeth Palace and The Bishop’s Palace, Wells. Her illustrations for the Symposium were painted on wooden panels in mixed media and completed with collage, with final additions made digitally.
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Review by AbbyDaddy on 30th May 2015
"This edition is simply gorgeous. I did not like the look of the edition online but ordered because of my abiding respect for Plato. In person, this edition’s beauty blew me away. The illustrations a..." [read more]