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the Complete Review
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To purchase Symposium

Title: Symposium
Author: Xenophon
Genre: Dialogue
Written: ca. 371 BCE (Eng. 1923; rev. 2013)
Length: 102 pages
Original in: classical Greek
Availability: in: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology - US
in: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology - UK
in: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology - Canada
in: Le banquet / Apologie de Socrate - France
in: Das Gastmahl - Deutschland
Tutti gli scritti socratici - Italia
in: Recuerdos de Sócrates - España
  • Greek title: Συμπόσιον
  • Translated by E.C.Marchant and O.J.Todd
  • Revised by Jeffrey Henderson
  • There are numerous other translations of this work
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

B : well-presented, neatly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Classical Philology . 21:3 (7/1926) Geneva Misener

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The complete review's Review:

       If Memorabilia is a Socratic-sampler, featuring a variety of individual short exchanges on a large number of topics, and Oeconomicus is a more focused and wide-ranging single dialogue (sneaking in another inside it), Symposium is a more casual get-together report. Xenophon even introduces it by making clear that he's offering his impression of a (slightly) different side of Socrates and his buddies:

     To my mind it is worthwhile to relate not only the serious acts of gentlemen but also what they do in their lighter moments.
       The occasion is a celebration, Callias hosting a dinner for young Autolycus -- the boy he is courting, who has just won a pancratium-contest -- and Autolycus' father. Running into Socrates and some of his followers on their way home, Callias invites them, and while Socrates initially isn't inclined to go he changes his mind. Symposium is then the account of that banquet and the banter there. The discussion does tend towards the philosophical, but it is also kept quite playful -- and not just thanks to the clown that shows up, Philip the comedian (whose jokes in any case bomb).
       The major question that is discussed, put to many of those present, is what those assembled take the greatest pride in -- Callias, for example, saying: "It is that I believe I have the ability to make people better".
       The question makes the rounds, and then each example is examined more closely. Socrates' answer clearly takes the others by surprise -- and surely is unexpected: "Procuring". He means it seriously, of course -- *seriously*, as in also allowing him to offer yet another lesson, teasing them with his promise:
     After the rest had laughed at him, he said, "Go ahead and laugh, but I know that I could make a lot of money if I cared to follow that trade."
       Of course, over the course of the evening and the various strands of conversation Socrates can't keep from getting up to his usual old tricks: as one guest recognizes: "in flattering Callias you are in fact teaching him the sort of person he should be". So also, his insistence on some very specific ideas -- pouring some cold water on the modestly debauched gathering by, for example, insisting: "love of the soul is far superior to love of the body".
       The appeal of Symposium is in the range of the conversation, and especially the light-hearted joshing. Socrates' famous ugliness is the subject of some fun -- a beauty contest, of sorts, with Critobulus -- while he offers an explanation why he is married to Xanthippe -- a woman who is, as one of the guests notes: "the hardest to get along with of all the women there are -- yes, or all that ever were, I suspect, or ever will be". Far from taking offense at that characterization of his wife, Socrates explains that's the very reason for being with her:
I observe that people wishing to become expert horsemen do not acquire the most docile horses but rather those that are high-spirited, believing that if they can manage this kind, they will easily handle any other. My course is similar. Humankind at large is what I wish to deal and associate with; and so I have got her, well assured that if I can endure her, I shall have no difficulty in my relations with all the rest of human kind.
       With the far-ranging discussions, there are a variety of interesting titbits strewn in too -- not least Socrates' denigration of those who have memorized and can recite all of Homer, as he asks: "do you know of any tribe sillier than rhapsodes ?" The reason he gives for not thinking much of them is: "they don't know the inner meaning of the poems" -- a claim he unfortunately does nothing to substantiate. (In Memorabilia it is another who belittles them -- "rhapsodes, I know, are consummate as reciters, but they are very silly characters themselves" -- but Socrates surely agreed with that claim as well.)
       The idea of 'gentlemen' -- prominent already also in Oeconomicus -- also features here, with Socrates going so far as to respond regarding those who are past the age of working up a good physical sweat:
"What about those of us who no longer exercise in the gymnasia ? What should we smell like ?"
     "Gentlemanliness, surely !" replied Socrates.
       Surely .....
       In the 1923 original edition, E.C.Marchant and O.J.Todd translated καλοκἀγαθίας as 'Nobility of soul' here ; 'Gentlemanliness' is Jeffrey Henderson's 2013 revision -- and helpful in repeating the term (and its variations) that Socrates uses -- and sets as an ideal -- throughout the Xenophontic dialogues. So also in the very opening of this work, Henderson has Xenophon find it: "worthwhile to relate not only the serious acts of gentlemen", where Marchant/Todd had: "worth while to relate not only the serious acts of great and good men". The word-choice remains slightly problematic -- contemporary readers surely think of 'gentleman' in a quite specific way that doesn't quite capture what Socrates means, but over the course of this volume containing all of Xenophon's Socratica, readers do get a decent sense of what he's getting at.
       If the subject-matter of Symposium is, at least in part, less obviously appealing -- particularly the boy-love (watched over by dad, no less) -- it is, literarily, the most successful of Xenophon's four works on Socrates -- not least in being narratively the most cohesive. (Oeconomicus tries hard to be a convincing conversation, but Socrates' lengthy recitation of a different conversation within that one is certainly awkward.) The philosophical discussions may not seem as serious as in the other works, but a decent amount is conveyed even along with all the joking -- and the humor certainly doesn't hurt, helping make it the most entertaining read of the quartet.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 April 2020

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Symposium: Xenophon:
  • Xenophon at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Xenophon books and writers
Other books by Xenophon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Historian and philosopher Xenophon (Ξενοφῶν) lived ca. 430 to 354 B.C.E.

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