The Role of Diotima

The Role of Diotima in Plato’s “Symposium”: the Dialogue and its Double

Paper given at the First Latin American Area Conference of the International Plato Society and X Archai International Seminar: “Plato’s styles and characters, between literature and philosophy”, University of Brasília, August 22-2012.


I shall examine the reason why, in the ‘Symposium’, Socrates delivers his lesson about erôs through a mouthpiece character, Diotima, who expresses herself within a dialogue. I show first that each character of this reported dialogue (Diotima and Socrates when he was younger) can be considered as a mix of both characters of the frame dialogue (Agathon and Socrates as an achieved philosopher): Diotima is Socrates considered from the point of view of a poet and a follower of the sophists, whilst the young Socrates is Agathon dressed up as a dialectician. From then on, I try to demonstrate that the mask of Diotima, and more generally the whole dialogue reported by Socrates, are literary devices designed to provide a lesson in communication besides a theory of love. These devices show that the dialectician must adapt his lesson to his addressees, they bring out the limits of a lesson on erôs delivered in the form of a didactic monologue, and they vindicate the necessity of teaching by reporting a dialogue, whether orally or in writing.[1]


I would like to examine what appears to be an exemplary case of the intimate connection between philosophical content and literary form in Plato’s dialogues: the way Socrates, in the Symposium, after having discussed for a while with his table companion Agathon, chooses to praise Eros (201d-212c). Unlike the former orators, the dialectician doesn’t deliver a speech in his own name but reports the theory of a priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who allegedly initiated him into the mysteries of Eros. Moreover, instead of reporting the theory through a long monologue, he embeds Diotima’s words in a dialogue which involves Socrates himself, when he was younger. Why Diotima? Why a reported dialogue? These are the two questions I intend to address jointly.

Until now, most studies focused on the first question (why Diotima?) and proposed three main answers. The first one is that Plato introduced the character because she was a philosopher who historically existed and taught Socrates.[2] The second interpretation, which is the prevailing one, considers that Diotima is a literary device that represents the philosopher par excellence: as such she conveys to the audience of the banquet, and to the readers of the book, what the philosophers, Socrates and Plato, really think deep down about matters of love.[3] In this reading, the use of a mouthpiece may be accounted for through different motives: (1) investing the theory with prestige and authority;[4] (2) enabling Socrates to preserve his mask of ironic ignorance and to remain polite as he contradicts his host Agathon;[5] (3) showing that Plato was emancipated from Socrates’ thought.[6] As a priestess and a woman, Diotima may also (4) symbolize what philosophy owes to the religious paradigm of inspiration[7] or (5) to the feminine paradigm of pregnancy.[8] A third strand of interpretation takes in earnest the comparison Socrates draws between the priestess and the “accomplished sophists” (οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί, 208b) and notes that her manners as well as many points of her theory confirm such an identification.[9] In this respect, far from being the representation of the true philosopher and the faithful mouthpiece of Socrates and Plato, Diotima may be used to play ironically upon and to ridicule the pretended omniscience of the sophists, or to parody the earlier speeches.[10] As a colourful sophist, the character may also be for Plato the key element in a general poetic enterprise, which consists in challenging Aristophanes or trying to create a new literary genre.[11]

The purpose of this paper is not so much to contradict these explanations as to suggest a new one which may help to reconcile some views that are outwardly contradictory, in particular the views that Diotima is a philosopher and that she is a sophist. I shall argue that with Diotima Plato acts just like his legendary father Apollo[12] who, according to the famous Heraclitean fragment, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.[13] His intention is neither to communicate directly through her mouth and her appearance what eros and philosophy are, nor to hide ironically or poetically what he or Socrates truly thinks. His purpose is rather to show how a philosopher can communicate his philosophical knowledge when he has to speak or write within an enunciative situation that does not altogether suit the practice of philosophy. Thanks to Diotima, Socrates and Plato deliver a lesson in communication besides a lecture on eros.

However, as such, Diotima is part of a larger tool of communication, that is, the whole dialogue between her and the younger Socrates, reported by Socrates himself. Thus, if we recall the two questions I asked initially – Why Diotima? Why a reported dialogue? –, in order to propose a new answer to the first one, we must first and foremost answer the second one, a question that has not been investigated enough by modern scholars.

I. The dialogue and its double

The function of the reported dialogue may appear conspicuous if we first look at the similarities between the protagonists of this conversation[14] (Diotima and the younger Socrates) and those of the dialogue in which this conversation is embedded – Socrates, who reports the conversation, and his audience. The latter are mainly Agathon, and more generally all the earlier speakers to whom this speech is indirectly addressed. Each character in this fiction (Diotima and the young Socrates) appears to be a combination of Socrates and his audience at the symposium.

I.1. Diotima

To begin with Diotima, the very content of her theory seems to be a compromise between the point of view of the dialectician Socrates and that of his main addressee, Agathon, particularly insofar as she seems to consider that the soul is as perishable as the body.[15] Another point is her attitude to the nature of the supreme idea which the initiate is to behold at the end of the philosophical ascent: the form of Beauty and not the form of Good.[16] However, within the limits of this paper I cannot discuss the content of Diotima’s speech in the depth it deserves. I shall focus on the formal features of the discourse and study how, in the way she delivers her theory, the priestess mediates between the purposes of the philosopher and the expectations of his audience.

The ‘father of the speech’[17] is not Socrates but Phaedrus who proposed through his constant complaints to Eryximachus that Eros, as a great god, should be the subject of a laudatory ode.[18] Such an epideictic mode of expression matches the tastes and the skills of all the former speakers, particularly of Agathon who is characterized by Socrates as a master of public discourse[19] and a follower of Gorgias.[20]

But delivering an encomium contradicts Socrates’ own inclinations in two main respects: firstly a eulogy is a long speech and secondly it intends to communicate in a dogmatic way the ideas of the speaker to the public.[21] The dialectician may indulge in long speeches (μακρολογία), admittedly, as is the case in the Phaedrus, but he always uses this mode of expression as a second best way designed to meet the expectations of his interlocutors.[22] When Socrates has the choice of weapons, he prefers to use dialogue in the form of short questions and short answers (βραχυλογία).[23] This is the best way to teach the truth about anything since it prevents the participants from branching off and losing sight of the question of essence.[24] Moreover, genuine Socratic teaching amounts to questioning the student so that he finds a universal and transcendent truth by himself.[25]

In the Symposium, although Socrates agrees to the initiative of Eryximachus and Phaedrus, he still exhibits his preference for brakhulogia and dialectical inquiry. When Agathon is about to speak, Socrates leads him into a question-and-answer discussion, but the dialectician is soon called to order by Phaedrus who reminds him of the rules of the game:

Phaedrus broke in and said ‘My dear Agathon, if you answer Socrates’ question (ἐὰν ἀποκρίνῃ Σωκράτει), it’ll no longer matter to him in the slightest how any of the things we’re doing here turn out – so long as he has someone to converse with (διαλέγηται), especially someone beautiful. I myself enjoy listening to Socrates conversing (διαλεγομένου), but it’s my business to see to our encomium to Love and get the required speech from each one of you (ἀποδέξασθαι παρ᾽ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου ὑμῶν τὸν λόγον); so when the two of you have paid your dues to the god, then you can have your conversation (διαλεγέσθω).’ (194d, trans. C. Rowe, modified[26])

After Agathon’s speech, and before reporting the theory of Diotima, Socrates asks Phaedrus for a provisory dispensation (199b) and interrogates Agathon again (199b-201c). At the end of this question-and-answer session, that turns out to be a refutation (ἔλεγχος), Socrates emphasizes that the universal truth and not himself is responsible for the outcome of the cross-examination:

‘I am unable, Socrates, to argue against you (σοὶ ἀντιλέγειν),’ said Agathon; ‘let it be as you say.’

‘No, it’s rather the truth (τῇ ἀληθείᾳ), beloved Agathon,’ Socrates said, ‘that you can’t argue with, since there’s nothing difficult about arguing against Socrates.’ (201c)

This statement is consistent with what Socrates says to the tragic poet at the outset of the drinking party: contrary to what Agathon imagines, real knowledge cannot be transferred between two minds as water flows from a cup to another:

Agathon (…) said ‘Come here, Socrates, and recline beside me (παρ᾽ ἐμὲ κατάκεισο), so that I can also have the benefit of contact with that bit of wisdom of yours (τοῦ σοφοῦ ἁπτόμενός σου ἀπολαύσω), the bit that came to you in the porch. It’s clear that you found (ηὗρες) what you were looking for, and have it in your possession (ἔχεις); you wouldn’t have come away before you had.’ Socrates sat himself down and said ‘It would be a good thing, Agathon, if wisdom were the kind of thing that flowed (ῥεῖν) from what is fuller (ἐκ τοῦ πληρεστέρου) into what is emptier in our case (εἰς τὸ κενώτερον ἡμῶν), if only we touch each other (ἁπτώμεθα ἀλλήλων), like the water in cups which flows from the fuller into the emptier through the thread of wool.’ (175c-e)

Agathon’s prejudices are typical of a follower of the sophists, since these educators consider that their knowledge can be exchanged on the market place like any kind of goods.[27]

Now, when Socrates expounds the bulk of his theory through the mouth of Diotima, he combines his favourite mode of expression (question and answer), and the methodological choices of his audience (continuous oration). Diotima plays the part of the older Socrates – she is assumed to have brought against her ignorant interlocutor the arguments which Socrates has just put to Agathon:

‘So it’s the account she gave that I’m going to try to describe to all of you, starting from what has been agreed between myself and Agathon (ἐκ τῶν ὡμολογημένων ἐμοὶ καὶ Ἀγάθωνι), and doing it all myself, in whatever way I can manage it. (…) I myself was saying to her other things of pretty much the very sort that Agathon was saying to me just now (ἐγὼ πρὸς αὐτὴν ἕτερα τοιαῦτα ἔλεγον οἷάπερ νῦν πρὸς ἐμὲ Ἀγάθων), that Love was a great god, and was of beautiful things; and she then set about examining me by means of the very arguments I was using with Agathon (ἤλεγχε δή με τούτοις τοῖς λόγοις οἷσπερ ἐγὼ τοῦτον), with the outcome that Love was neither beautiful – by my own account – nor good.’ (201d-e)

She first interrogates the young Socrates in a typically Socratic manner, that is to say in the form of brakhulogia (201e-208b), as the older Socrates has done up to then with Agathon.[28] Yet, this first section includes a myth (203b-204a) and at the end of the conversation Diotima expounds her doctrine in a long didactic monologue, without the aid of further questioning (208c-212a). Then she adopts the tone of a mystagogue or a schoolmaster who claims to reveal the truth to an ignoramus, as if Socrates could directly seize what eros truly is just by listening passively to her speech.[29] Incidentally, Socrates compares her to the sophists at the very moment when she tells him ‘εὖ ἴσθι’:

‘and I said: “Well now, most wise (σοφωτάτη) Diotima: is what you say really true?” Like the accomplished sophists (ὥσπερ οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί), she said “You can be sure of that (εὖ ἴσθι), Socrates.” (208b-c)[30]

To reply to an interlocutor (Agathon) whom he characterized as the mouthpiece of a great sophist (Gorgias), Socrates reports the lesson of a teacher whom he compares to the great sophists.[31] And if we remember in addition that mystery religion was particularly fashionable among the Athenian elite of the time,[32] Diotima, both as a sophist and as a priestess of a mystery cult who tells a myth,[33] is principally the mouthpiece of Socrates’ audience. If Socrates deliberately intended to craft an ambivalent character, thanks to whom his mute audience could speak as loudly as himself, it is no accident that Diotima sparks such controversy among scholars.

I. 2 Socrates as a young interlocutor

As for the younger Socrates who replies to Diotima, he may be considered for different reasons as a similarly hybrid character. Like Agathon in front of the older Socrates, he plays in front of Diotima the role of the student, and when Socrates starts reporting the dialogue, he claims that he had formerly given Diotima the same answers as Agathon (201d-e). Like Agathon, this younger Socrates is supposed to be around thirty years old.[34] He seems to share with the poet his ignorance about eros, since he considers Diotima as the “master of truth”[35] she claims to be, and he describes himself as the ignorant and passive recipient of her knowledge.[36]

However, in his way of discussing, this young man proves to have an attitude towards knowledge which contrasts with that of Agathon. In a passage quoted above, the tragic poet clearly considers Socrates’ refutation as an offence, he shamefully admits defeat and retreats into silence:

‘I am unable (οὐκ ἂν δυναίμην), Socrates, to argue against you (σοὶ ἀντιλέγειν),’ said Agathon; ‘let it be as you say (ἀλλ᾽ οὕτως ἐχέτω ὡς σὺ λέγεις).’

‘No, it’s rather the truth (τῇ ἀληθείᾳ), beloved Agathon,’ Socrates said, ‘that you can’t argue with, since there’s nothing difficult about arguing against Socrates. And now I’ll leave you alone (Καὶ σὲ μέν γε ἤδη ἐάσω).’ (201c-d)

Contrary to Agathon, the young Socrates, when refuted by Diotima with the same arguments, proved to be able to reply, even though he did so in a naïve way. He carried on interrogating, and thanks to this active stance, his teacher carried on discussing with him:

‘And she then set about examining me by means of the very arguments I was using with Agathon, with the outcome that Love was neither beautiful – by my own account – nor good. Then I said “What do you mean Diotima (πῶς λέγεις, ἔφην, ὦ Διοτίμα)? Is Love then ugly and bad?”

She said “Take care what you say! (οὐκ εὐφημήσεις;) Or do you suppose that whatever is not beautiful is necessarily ugly?…” (201e)

Afterwards, Socrates didn’t stop asking (202a2, d6-7, e2, 203a9, 204c8, 205b6 etc), objecting (202b5-6, 208b9) or expressing reservations (205b3, 206e4). In the presence of Diotima, the young Socrates was obviously motivated by a curiosity and a critical mind that foreshadowed what he was to become, and later proved to be in of the discussion with Agathon: a dialectician in love with knowledge, who interrogates over and over again. While the young Socrates is characterized as a naive man similar to Agathon, he is endowed, contrary to Agathon, with a “philosophic nature” (ἡ φιλόσοφος φύσις, Republic 410e)[37] And it is thanks to this active attitude that the young man squeezed out of Diotima her theory about eros.

Thus, similarly to Diotima, the young Socrates appears as a mixed character, midway between the grown-up philosopher (Socrates) and his naive addressee (Agathon). While Diotima is the philosopher considered from the poet Agathon’s point of view, the young Socrates is the portrait of the poet as a young philosopher.

But why does Socrates express his theory through such a dramatic device, that matches the sophistication of a postmodern meta-fiction?

II. The function of Diotima and the reported dialogue: a communication tool.

These preliminary observations may help us to understand the function of the dialogue reported by Socrates, that is, to deliver a lesson in communication besides a lecture on eros. This lesson can be divided into three points: thanks to the characters of Diotima and the young Socrates, (1) Plato and Socrates show that they must adapt their lesson to their addressees, (2) they show what value a lesson expounded in the form of a didactic monologue may have and (3) what value a teaching delivered in the form of a reported dialogue may have.

II.1. Adapting to the interlocutor

By talking through the mask of a priestess and a sophist, Socrates compromises with his interlocutors’ viewpoint: he addresses them in a form that gives intelligibility and authority to his theory. By doing so, the dialectician implements the instructions he gives in the Phaedrus (269d-274b): a true orator, that is to say a good dialectician,[38] must know the truth about both his subject matter (259e-266c) and the soul of his addressee (269e-272b).[39] When he knows how this soul is likely to be affected, he can administer convincing logoi to it as a good doctor adapts his drugs to the bodily constitution of his patient:

[Socrates:] Since the power of speech is in fact a leading of the soul (ψυχὴ), the man who means to be an expert in rhetoric must know (εἰδέναι) how many forms (εἴδη) the soul has. Thus their number is so and so (τόσα καὶ τόσα), and they are of such and such kinds (τοῖα καὶ τοῖα), which is why some people are like this, and others like that; and these having been distinguished in this way, then again there are so many forms of speeches (λόγων αὖ τόσα καὶ τόσα ἔστιν εἴδη), each one of such and such a kind. People of one kind are easily persuaded (εὐπειθεῖς) for one sort of reason by one kind of speech to hold one kind of opinion, while people of another kind are for these reasons difficult to persuade (δυσπειθεῖς). (Phaedr. 271c-d, trans. C. Rowe (2005), modified).[40]

Moreover, Socrates argues in the Meno that this rule applies to short dialectical exchanges (βραχυλογία) as well as to rhetoric (μακρολογία): to answer dialectically (διαλεκτικώτερον ἀποκρίνεσθαι, 75d), the philosopher may borrow theories from thinkers his interlocutor is prone to believe (in this instance, Gorgias and Empedocles), even if, as a philosopher, he himself strongly disagrees with these views (Meno 75c-76e).

This implies that the words of the dialectician are to be read necessarily as a synthesis between his own point of view and his listener’s particular set of beliefs. In Plato’s dialogues speaking is, as Montaigne puts it, “half his who speaks, and half his who hears”[41]. We may also say that the words of the dialectician have the “dialogical” value Mikhail Bakhtin brought to light in the monologues of Dostoyevsky’s heroes[42]: the discourse integrates with the interlocutor’s viewpoint it conflicts with. Just like the daemon Eros, described by Diotima as an intermediate (μεταξύ) between ignorance and knowledge (202a), the discourse of the dialectician who reports this description, must be regarded not as a wise logos, but as a metaxu between the knowledge of the dialectician and the point of view of his addressee, who proved to be somewhat ignorant.

There is no alternative to this enunciative strategy. The dialectician who wants to communicate the truth must use language, that is to say a set of images (Cratylus 430a-432d), and a good image, a true image, must fit the point of view of the beholder in order to let him catch a glimpse of the truth.[43]

However, while the dialectician is always forced to compromise, he can show that he does so, and present the discourse he delivers in a form that doesn’t make a misleading implicit claim as to the status of this discourse. When Socrates cannot only interrogate, but has to teach in a dogmatic way, he always lets us know that he is not speaking in his own name, and uses “dialogical” mouthpieces who always prove to be in some way the expression of the interlocutors’ prejudices on the subject. Since all Socrates’ interlocutors are typical examples of the assumed readers of Plato’s dialogues – that is to say ordinary ladies and gentlemen, well-off Athenians who received a good but not a philosophical education[44] – this strategy of explicit adaptation is designed to warn both the audience and the readers against their own prejudices.

II. 2. Limits and good usage of a didactic monologue

One of these prejudices is to assume like Agathon that one can become wise about matters of eros by merely hearing or reading Diotima’s didactic monologue. Such an assumption fits the natural expectation of any listener or any reader. Yet, it contradicts not only Socrates’ habits, as seen before, but the model of communication delivered by Diotima herself through her theory of love. Indeed, according to this theory, the process of learning requires an active and autonomous learner: the soul gives birth itself to its own wisdom when it comes across a beautiful person, a beautiful branch of knowledge or beauty itself, and not by learning a lesson from an outside authority:

[DI. –] “All human beings, Socrates are pregnant (κυοῦσιν), both in body and in soul, and when we come to be of the right age, we naturally desire to give birth (τίκτειν ἐπιθυμεῖ). We cannot do it in what is ugly, but we can in what is beautiful. (…) If ever what is pregnant approaches something beautiful (καλῷ προσπελάζῃ), it becomes gracious, melts with joy, and gives birth and procreates; but when it approaches what is ugly, it contracts, frowning with pain, turns away, curls up, and fails to procreate, retaining what it has conceived, and suffering because of it. This is why what is pregnant and already full to bursting feels the great excitement it does in proximity to the beautiful, because of the fact that the beautiful person frees it from great pain. For, Socrates,” she said, “love is not, as you think, of the beautiful.

[SO. –] Well, then what is it of?

[DI. –] Of procreation and giving birth in the beautiful (Τῆς γεννήσεως καὶ τοῦ τόκου ἐν τῷ καλῷ).” (Symp. 206c-e)

And further:

“For in fact”, she said, “there are those who are pregnant in their souls still more than in their bodies, with things that it is fitting for the soul to conceive and to bring to birth. What then are these things that are fitting? Wisdom and the rest of virtue (φρόνησίν τε καὶ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν). (…) When someone is pregnant with these things in his soul, from youth on, by divine gift, and with the coming of the right age, desires to give birth and procreate, then I imagine he too goes round looking for the beautiful object in which he might procreate; for he will never do so in what is ugly.” (209a-b)

In order to become wise, one must be previously pregnant with wisdom and crave to give birth to it. In other words, one cannot acquire knowledge of anything without being primarily in love with this knowledge.[45] Thus, if a student wants to draw any knowledge of love from a theoretical description similar to that of Diotima, he or she must know love primarily in an empirical way: he or she must be in love with the knowledge of love. And since the very knowledge of love is empirical, the very efficacy of Diotima’s theoretical account can only consist in fostering this empirical knowledge already present in the soul of the interlocutor.

Since Socrates declares that, thanks to Diotima, he has become “expert in matters of love alone” (οὐδέν φημι ἄλλο ἐπίστασθαι ἢ τὰ ἐρωτικά, 177d)[46] we must consider that, in spite of appearances, despite his modest confession (“I didn’t know anything”) and Diotima’s claim (“I will teach you everything”), the young man already carried in his soul, even unconsciously, this empirical knowledge of eros. This implies also that Diotima and her lesson, in the manner of a kalê person and a kalê epistêmê, were the cause, but not the source of Socrates’ knowledge: Diotima’s discourse was for Socrates a chance to give birth to a science already embryonically present in his soul. This interpretation of Diotima’s lesson, and of the way Socrates supposedly benefited from it, may look over-subtle, but it is the only way to align straightforwardly what Socrates and Diotima claim to be with the theory of knowledge they champion.

Moreover, this reading is supported by the literary device through which Socrates delivers his lesson: the reported dialogue. By putting the theory into the mouth of a suspicious sophist who lectures on eros as a master of truth, that is to say in a most un-erotic manner, Socrates and Plato mean the passive recipients of this lesson (Agathon and the reader) not to adopt Diotima’s views uncritically as theirs, and not to rely exclusively on her speech if they want to acquire a full knowledge of eros.

On the other hand, by representing this priestess teaching the young Socrates, and not Agathon, Socrates and Plato lead us to understand which kind of interlocutor is likely to benefit from this teaching and to achieve full erotic knowledge. The audience, listening to or reading Diotima’s lesson, know Socrates as a grown-up philosopher and can guess from what Socrates has turned out to be the very nature of his science about eros, which he claims to have drawn out from Diotima. Indeed, after meeting the lecturing priestess, Socrates did not become a priest himself, nor a schoolmaster devoted to rote learning and repeating factual truths, about eros or any other subject-matter. He did not become a theoretician of love but, above all, a practitioner of the love of knowledge, “a lover (ἐραστής) of the processes of division and bringing together” (Phaedrus, 266b),[47] a man passionately involved in the infinite quest for truth who calls into question others’ certainties in order to communicate to them the eros of knowledge, rather than the theoretical knowledge of eros. As Diotima herself says, Eros in its very nature is not a god and as such is not beautiful, since he is a desiring agent, the lover and not the object of love, the instrument and not the aim of the search for divine forms, especially the form of beauty (204b-c ).[48] Hence, there is no cause for postulating the existence of any Idea of love, similar to the Idea of good or virtue,[49] and this explains why the best theoretical account Socrates can give of eros is a mythical description delivered through the mouth of a priestess (203a ff), a mûthos that can convey no more than an orthê doxa. Now, although the young Socrates appeared to totally lack this theoretical knowledge of love, he proved, in front of Diotima, that he already knew love in an empirical way: as he questioned Diotima, he acted, contrary to Agathon, as a budding philosopher.

We can infer from all these elements that the real virtue of Diotima’s lecture was to be a kalos rather than a true logos.[50] This kalos logos helped Socrates to recognize the value of the desire for knowledge he carried within his soul, and to devote this desire to the search for the essences. Thanks to Diotima, Socrates gave birth to his own science of eros, that is to say his διαλεκτικὴ τέχνη (Phaedrus 276e). This ancillary value of Diotima’s speech is perfectly consistent, on the reader’s part, with the function Socrates grants to the books in the Phaedrus: written words must be used as mere reminders (ὑπομνήματα 276d) for a person who already knows.[51]

Therefore, the complex embedded dialogue form used by Socrates and Plato in the Symposium cannot be considered as a mere vehicle for the conveyance of a Socratic or Platonic theory of love. The literary feature is integral to the theory in three respects: it prevents the reader from misunderstanding (1) the nature of Socrates’ wisdom about love (it is an empirical, rather than a theoretical knowledge), (2) the nature of love itself (it is an active force striving for knowledge rather than a passive object of knowledge) and (3) the nature of any good teaching on love (one must communicate the eros of knowledge rather than the knowledge of eros).

Furthermore, the embedded dialogue shows that the effectiveness of the lesson depends on the philosophical nature of its addressee, and on the use this addressee is willing to make of it. At this point, we encounter once again Montaigne’s view that speaking is a shared experience: Plato’s dialogues show not only that a lesson makes sense if it compromises with the point of view of the addressee, as seen above, but also that this lesson is efficient, and even true, iff the addressee uses it correctly.[52] In this respect, the sophistic nature of Diotima’s speech is relative to the nature and the attitude of her public. This is why the priestess is only compared to, and not plainly identified with, the sophists.[53] Diotima is a sophist insofar as her lesson meets a public as passive and complacent as the pupils of the sophists.

II. 3. The virtue of dialogue

To conclude, Socrates’ enunciative practice can be considered as the demonstration of the advantage of reporting dialogues rather than addressing an audience in one’s own name. This may provide important clues to Plato’s literary practice. Staging in front of Agathon an image of himself dressed up as a dialectician, Socrates encourages him to get right into the part, to identify himself with the young Socrates, that is, to awaken from his shameful muteness and go on discussing with Socrates. The dialogue reported by Socrates has the same function as the discussion carried on with the young slave in front of Meno (Meno, 82b-85b): it is a methodological parenthesis, a metacommunication sequence – Gregory Bateson would call it a metalogue[54] – whose purpose is to help Socrates’ main interlocutor (Meno or Agathon) to go beyond aporia, and convince him that he can and must become active again in order to find the truth by himself. Therefore, we can consider that Socrates intends to affect Agathon in the way he was himself affected by Diotima’s didactic monologue, and to communicate the eros of knowledge rather than the knowledge of eros.

Yet, in the presence of an interlocutor whose philosophical eros proved to be completely dormant, Socrates cannot use a mere didactic monologue, for the admirer of Gorgias would take it at face value as a sophistic lesson. To stir up his interlocutor, Socrates embeds the monologue in a dialogue that is both a critical and a protreptic tool. As Socrates emphasizes in his concluding words, his own purpose is less to teach than to urge his audience to honour eros in the form he described it, that is, as a desire for knowledge. His purpose is to lead his audience, particularly Agathon, towards philosophical inquiry:

‘since I am persuaded (πεπεισμένος), I try (πειρῶμαι) to persuade (πείθειν) everyone else too that for acquiring this possession[55] one couldn’t easily get a better co-worker (συνεργὸν) with human nature than Love is. That’s why I declare that everyone must honour (τιμᾶν) Love, and I myself honour (τιμῶ) what belongs to him and practise it (ἀσκῶ) more than anyone, and call on everyone else to do so (καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις παρακελεύομαι), and both now and always I eulogize the power and courage of Love to the best of my ability.’ (212b, my italics)

The result of this method is provisionally positive: like Meno, Agathon after the “metalogue” takes up discussing with Socrates again and until the end of the night (223c-d). But as in the Meno this positive result is a flash in the pan: thanks to the distancing function of the narrative, the reader, by hindsight, is aware that for lack of serious philosophical education and practice, Agathon will spend his last years not as a dialectician interrogating himself and his fellow citizens about virtue and justice, but as a poet in exile singing the praises of a tyrant.[56] As in many dialogues, the discussion between Socrates and his contemporaries is full of promise but proves to be, in the long run, a complete educational failure.[57]

Therefore, the actual effectiveness of Socrates’ method must not be merely considered at the level of the oral exchange between Socrates and his interlocutor, but at the level of the literary communication between Plato and his readers. While the young Socrates is a double of Agathon, both Agathon and the young Socrates are doubles of the reader, since they are two kinds of addressee of the lesson about eros. To use a concept investigated by Umberto Eco, we could say that each character is a lector in fabula[58]: Agathon, as a passive recipient and a typical product of the traditional education, is the reader’s most obvious double; Socrates as the double of this double, is a more indirect image. But since the reader can compare the opposite attitudes of these two images of himself, he is prompted to distance himself from his obvious double, and to identify rather with Socrates. Thus, Socrates may be considered as a portrait of the reader – as well as of Agathon – as a young dialectician. While Agathon is called to leave his passive position of hearer, the reader is indirectly prodded into leaving the book he or she is currently reading in order to practise philosophy. Like the dialogue reported by Socrates, the dialogue written by Plato intends to transmit both the theoretical knowledge of eros and the eros of knowledge,[59] by engaging his addressee in a complex process of mimetic pedagogy, a “play of character” already studied by Ruby Blondell.[60]

This erotic purpose and this call to identification is not by any means the only common point between Socrates’ and Plato’s practices of the reported dialogue. Just as Socrates makes known those to whom Diotima’s theory is addressed, Plato, before making the dialectician speak, always makes his audience speak. By characterizing this audience dramatically and stylistically, he shows with which characters and beliefs the dialectician is going to compromise. In the Symposium, this may explain, in part, the function of the first speeches delivered about eros, from Phaedrus to Agathon, which is an issue that still sparks controversy among scholars.[61] In my view, one function of these discourses is to show whom Socrates is going to address and to adapt to.

Furthermore, in order to make it plain that the dialectician’s discourse is adapted and belongs to the listener as well as to the speaker, Plato lets his favourite mouthpiece (Socrates) either interrogate his audience or act as a performer who, when he undertakes to expound a theory, never does it in his own person, but uses such dialogical masks as the character of Diotima. In this way, he shows that he adapts to his audience and that, in spite of appearances, he still makes his audience speak. The character of Socrates may be used by Plato as the character of Diotima is used by Socrates: as a way of showing that his discourse is addressed to an audience and that the expression of his knowledge is relative to the enunciative situation. That is why Socrates may be considered as a mouthpiece for the author but cannot be confused with him: Socrates is not merely Plato, but a figure of Plato expressing himself within a given enunciative context, and explicitly adapting his discourse to a definite audience.[62] Whereas Socrates’ interlocutors are lectores in fabula whose function is to show us how we are expected to read, Socrates, although he is talking, can be viewed as a scriptor in fabula whose purpose is to show how Plato writes.

If this interpretation is correct, Socrates’ discourse must always be considered as ironical and always requires a critical reader who takes into account the literary characteristics of the dialogical framework, even when and especially when, this discourse appears to be delivered in a dogmatic way. However, this interpretation implies at the same time that Platonic and Socratic irony must not be considered, as they are traditionally, as a way of concealing anything.[63] In Plato, irony is rather a means of exhibiting what kind of enunciative strategy the dialectician has to implement when he expresses himself. In Plato, the purpose of the ironist is far from misleading anyone: irony aims to prevent the audience from any kind of misunderstanding about the way they must listen to or read the discourses of the philosopher. [64]

[1] My thanks to Paul Demont, Luc Brisson and Ruby Blondell for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

[2] Taylor 1949, pp. 224-25; Waithe 1987, pp. 101-9; Songe-Møller 2002, p. 104.[3] See McPherran 2006, p. 91, n. 43.

[4] Kranz 1958, p. 80; Sier 1997, pp. 3 and 8; F. Sheffield considers the figure of Diotima as Socrates’ “euporetic alter ego” (Sheffield 2012, p. 134)

[5] This is the most commonly given reason. See Robin 1929, pp. XXV-XVI and LXXVI; Bury 1932, p. XXXIX; Cornford 1950, p. 71; Wippern 1965, p. 126; Allen 1991, p. 46; Sier 1997, p. 9; Erler 2003, p. 162.

[6] Hermann 1839, p. 523; Vlastos 1981, p. 21; Reeve 2004, p. 96, and 2006, p. 135.

[7] Ficino 2002, pp. 127 and 150-1; Friedländer 1964, p. 157-9; Frede, D. 1993, p. 415; Horn 2012b, pp. 2 and 13; Sampson 2013, pp. 104-6.

[8] Ast 1816, p. 312; Rosen 1968, p. 203; Dover 1980, p. 145; Halperin 1985 and 1990; Lesley 1992; Brisson 1998, pp. 63-4; Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan 2004, pp. 114 and 116; Hobbs 2006, p. 264.

[9] Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1919, p. 298; Neumann 1965, pp. 33-59; Dover 1980, p. 145; Rutherford 1995, p. 192.

[10] Stallbaum 1857, p. 147; Nails 2006, pp. 184-5; Wildberger 2012, p. 21.

[11] Gold 1980; Erde 1976, p. 161.

[12] See Woodbridge 1929, p. 2; Plato was said to be born on Apollo’s birthday (Diog. Laert. 3. 2).

[13] 22 B 93 DK.

[14] To be precise, one should speak of conversations, since Socrates summarizes several meetings with Diotima (207a5-6).

[15] 207e-208a; compare with Phaed. 72e-84b. On this question, see Hackforth 1950, pp. 43-5, Luce 1952, pp. 137-41 and Frede, D. 2012, pp. 154-6.

[16] 212a; compare with Prot. 351b-357c, Rep. VI 507c-509d, Phil. 20d. On these apparent inconsistencies with “Platonism” see Neumann 1965, pp. 33-59.

[17] πατὴρ τοῦ λόγου, 177d.

[18] See 177a-d. “laudatory ode” translates ὕμνους καὶ παίωνας (176a), ἐγκώμιον (177b) and ἔπαινον (177b and d).

[19] 194b: Socrates congratulates him for his splendid display of eloquence in the theatre.

[20] 198c: according to Socrates, Agathon borrowed the beautiful vacuity of his eulogy from the sophist.

[21] Of course, another non-philosophical feature of such a eulogy is that it does not primarily intend to tell the truth, as Socrates puts it (198d-199a). Yet, I won’t address this question here; see Nightingale 1993.

[22] See Phaedr. 236d-237a and 241e-242b: Socrates describes himself as the hostage of Phaedrus, the young lover of rhetoric.

[23] See Prot. 328e-329a, 334e-335c; Gorg. 449b-c, 461d-462b, 466b; H. Min. 364b-c; Soph. 217c-218a.

[24] The “What is it?” question. See Prot. 335b: Socrates characterizes brakhulogia as “διαλέγεσθαι ὡς ἐγὼ δύναμαι ἕπεσθαι”.

[25] See Meno 79e-82b, 85b-86c; Theaet. 148e-151a. This opposition between makrologia and brakhulogia is equivalent to the distinction made at the end of the fifth century between “rhetorical” and “dialectical” argument. As M. Frede (1992, p. 207) shows, this distinction is primarily one of modes of discourse and of argument, rather than one of style.

[26] All the following texts and translations of the Symposium are from Rowe 1998, with modifications in the translation.

[27] Cf. Prot. 313c-d and Soph. 223c-224e; see Nails 2006, p. 196 and Brisson 2006, pp. 250-1.

[28] Rehn (1996, pp. 82-3) emphasizes this point.

[29] See Symp. 204d1-2 (πειράσομαί σε διδάξαι), 206b3-8 (Οὐ μεντἂν σέ … ἐθαύμαζον ἐπὶ σοφίᾳ καὶ ἐφοίτων παρὰ σὲ αὐτὰ ταῦτα μαθησόμενος), 207a4-5 (ἐδίδασκέ με), 207c5-7 (διδασκάλων δέομαι … μοι λέγε καὶ τούτων τὴν αἰτίαν καὶ τῶν ἄλλων τῶν περὶ τὰ ἐρωτικά).

[30] According to R. G. Bury (1932, note ad 208c), “ὥσπερ οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί” translates “in true professorial style”. Bury notes that the link between the didactic form of the speech and the characterization of Diotima as a sophist had already been pointed out by Wolf (1782), Hommel (1834), Schleiermacher (1807) and Ast (1816). See also Stallbaum 1857, p. 147: “Ridet sophistas, de quibuslibet rebus ita disputantes, ut videri vellent earum veritatem prorsus habere perspectam atque exploratam” (my italics).

[31] In fact, it is the didactic form, not the content, of Diotima’s speech that is sophistic. As Ruby Blondell reminded me, this didactic mode used by the sophists is not exclusively or intrinsically sophistic: it is a direct heir of traditional Greek methods of education, which were authoritarian and paternalistic. See Blondell 2002, pp. 95-9.

[32] See Strauss 2001, p. 15 and Nails 2006, pp. 202-3. In the days following the party, Phaedrus and Alcibiades were accused of having profaned the Eleusinian mysteries. As Debra Nails argues against Martha Nussbaum (1986), Plato does not conflate philosophy and mystery religion (see Nails 2006, pp. 184-5 and 193).

[33] Since Theon of Smyrna, many commentators have pointed out that Diotima describes the ascent to divine beauty metaphorically as the successive stages of the initiation rites of a mystery religion (204a-212c). See Dupuis 1892, pp. 21-3 and Jaeger 1961, p. 132.

[34] Socrates claims to have met Diotima about ten years before the plague that struck Athens in 430 B.-C. At that time (440) Socrates was about thirty years old, that is to say the age of Agathon at the date of the drinking party (416). See Athenaeus, Deipn, 217a, Robin 1929, p. XLV, Sier 2012, p. 55, n. 4, Nails 2002, pp. 8-10.

[35] I borrow this phrase from Marcel Detienne (1996).

[36] See above, n. 30.

[37] Monique Dixsaut (2001, pp. 129-186) demonstrated that the ‘philosophic nature’ is essentially erotic.

[38] True rhetoric is equivalent to philosophy (Phaedr. 261a) and dialectic (Phaedr. 266b-d, 269b).

[39] On both aspects, see Ayache 2002, p. 153.

[40] See also Phaedr. 277a-c.

[41] “La parole est moitié à celuy qui parle, moitié à celuy qui l’escoute.” Montaigne, Essais, 3. 13.

[42] Bakhtin 1984.

[43] On the inescapability of mimetic language, see Kosman 1992, pp. 91-2 and Sayre 1992, p. 231.

[44] See Bury 1932, p. LVII, Rowe 1998, p. 9, Sheffield 2006, p. 23.

[45] 209c: ἃ πάλαι ἐκύει τίκτει καὶ γεννᾷ. This paradoxical view is consistent with Plato’s theories about knowledge expressed in other dialogues (Rep. VI 518b-519a, Theaet. 148e-151e, Phaedr. 278a). It fits particularly the theory of reminiscence (Phaedr. 249b-c, Meno 81a, Phaed. 72e-84b).

[46] See also 201d5 (ἣ δὴ καὶ ἐμὲ τὰ ἐρωτικὰ ἐδίδαξεν) and 207a4-5 (Ταῦτά τε οὖν πάντα ἐδίδασκέ με).

[47] Τούτων δὴ ἔγωγε αὐτός τε ἐραστής, ὦ Φαῖδρε, τῶν διαιρέσεων καὶ συναγωγῶν, ἵνα οἷός τε ὦ λέγειν τε καὶ φρονεῖν.

[48] See also Rep. 476d-477b, 478c-480a.

[49] See Sheffield 2006, p. 44.

[50] By the way, as he congratulates Diotima’s on her myth, he doesn’t say “ὀρθῶς” or “ἀληθῆ λέγεις” but “καλῶς γὰρ λέγεις” (204c).

[51] Cf. also Phaedr. 275d and 278a. See Sayre 1992, p. 231.

[52] This view is close, albeit not identical, to Wittgenstein’s second theory of language (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 43: “Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.”)

[53] ὥσπερ οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί, 208c.

[54] According to G Bateson “A metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same.” (Bateson 1972, p. 21)

[55] That is, the contemplation of the idea of beauty.

[56] Archelaus of Macedonia. See Brisson 1998, p. 25 and Nails 2006, p. 205. On the retrospective irony created by the elaborate process of transmission, see Halperin 1992, p. 100.

[57] See Withlock Blundell 1992, p. 133 and 171.

[58] Cf. Eco 1979.

[59] This conclusion is similar to that of David Halperin (1992, p. 119-129), but my point is quite different: according to Halperin, the eros communicated by the dialogue is a hermeneutic desire to understand a literary text, not a philosophical desire to search after the essences; in addition, this desire is supposed to be stimulated by the insoluble contradictions of the text, not, as I consider, through a precise mimetic strategy of identification.

[60] See Blondell 2002, pp. 39, 46-8, 80-94.

[61] See Rowe 2006, p. 21 and Sheffield 2006, p. 24.

[62] As Aryeh Kosman says, one should discuss Platonic ventriloquy rather than Platonic silence: “the ventriloquy we call drama, or more generally, literature: not the simple renunciation of or withdrawal from speech, but the displacement of speech, its projection into a created other.” (Kosman 1992, p. 75)

[63] In this respect, I disagree with the esoteric approach of the Tübingen scholars.

[64] See Wildberger 2012, p. 33: “zielt wahre Sokrates-Rezeption nicht auf Sokrates selbst, sondern auf das Gebären in Sokrates. Das gleiche gilt natürlich auch für Platon-Rezeption. Wer immer nur Leser bleibt, hat verloren.“ (my italics). See also Reeve 2006, p. 138.


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Illustration : Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – In Bed  © Wikimedia Commons.


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