Polyphony in Plato’s Symposium:
The philosophical use of a literary device
I will study the entanglement of voices, or “polyphony”, in Plato’s Symposium, on the assumption that this literary device conveys a philosophical lesson in communication. The complexity of the literary setting may allow Plato to show why a philosopher, to communicate his philosophical lesson properly to his audience (orally or in writing), must at the same time act as the mouthpiece of other points of view, particularly the points of view of his addressees.
I wish to probe the significance of the most puzzling aspect of Plato’s dialogues, namely their polyphony. These texts express several views among which the author’s cannot be easily identified (Bakhtin, Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan). My case study will be the most polyphonic of all Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium (Brisson, Halliwell). In this dialogue even if we take Socrates to be Plato’s mouthpiece, his voice is mingled with others which may qualify or distort it:
- Socrates’ account of eros is preceded by five competing speeches: each contains important ideas that surface in Socrates’ theory;
- Socrates does not speak in his own name but reports the lesson of a priestess (Diotima) who teaches like a sophist;
- Finally, Socrates’ teaching is challenged by the accusations of Alcibiades, and his lesson is reported through the voices of narrators who prove to be dubious philosophers.
This baroque arrangement has led many commentators to discuss the philosophical value of the non-Socratic voices, and thus Plato’s commitment to these dissenting points of view (Vlastos, Nussbaum, Sheffield et al., Havlíček & Cajthaml, Horn, Araújo & Cornelli, Hyland).
My purpose is not to evaluate the discourses but rather to study the way they interact with each other. I assume that this polyphonic structure of voices conveys Plato’s philosophical teaching, as strongly as the voices themselves, taken separately: through each feature of this complex structure, not only does Plato make his lesson in eros more precise than by writing a philosophical treatise in his own name, he also delivers a lesson in philosophical communication: he shows how a philosopher should give voice to his thought within a given communicative situation:
- By having Socrates borrow and correct the traditional views of eros expressed in the previous speeches, Plato shows that a philosophical speech is not primarily a brand new discourse (καινὸς λόγος): it is the clear-sighted rethinking of ordinary views. Thus, Plato may use the dialogue form not to teach his reader directly, but to prompt him to search actively how the philosophical lesson of Socrates departs from traditional Greek assumptions (Nightingale).
- The use of Diotima as a mouthpiece and her authoritative tone of voice may be interpreted as a way to warn Socrates’ audience – and Plato’s readership – against the limits of her theoretical account of eros. By staging Socrates as a young and curious interlocutor, Plato may engage us in understanding that being wise on eros does not only consist in hearing Diotima’s theoretical account, but in being practically animated, like the young Socrates, by the eros for knowledge. This use by Socrates of a reported dialogue may give us insight into Plato’s own use of the dialogue form.
- Alcibiades and the narrators claim to love Socrates and his discourse, but their love proves to contradict Socrates’ own theory of philosophical eros. These characters may thus be viewed as “implied readers” whose function is to warn the readers against the way they may themselves be tempted to interpret Socrates’ and Plato’s words. They may also be viewed as “implied authors”, that is, images of other authors of Socratic dialogues (Xenophon, Aeschines) who provided some viewpoints on Socrates and his thought that Plato challenges in his own writings. From this vantage point, the polyphony of Plato’s dialogues does not only convey a lesson in oral communication, that tells us how to speak: it is also a tool of literary communication, through which Plato tells us how he is writing, and how the reader is expected to read him.
Significance of the study
Using modern tools of literary criticism – particularly Bakhtin’s theory of polyphony and Iser’s reader-response theory – this study is likely to shed new light on three issues:
- The complex literary arrangement of Plato’s ‘Symposium’. This is still a much debated question (Gonzales 2008, Tulli forthcoming).
- The relationship between literary form and philosophical content in Plato (Rowe 2007, Cornelli forthcoming). Contrary to a still prevailing view, I shall argue that through the polyphony of his dialogue, Plato discloses his teaching on eros more clearly than by writing a straightforward technical treatise in his own voice.
- Plato as author. By writing in a polyphonic way, Plato promotes an original model of authorship (Foucault, Calame): he shows that an author – by speaking or by writing – should act as the mouthpiece of other thinkers and of his audience. To understand Plato’s originality, I shall compare him with other authors whose writings reveal a similar polyphony, particularly Herodotus (cf. Boedeker) and Thucydides (cf. Demont).
Illustration : Hieronymus Bosch – The Concert in the Egg (detail) © Jean-Louis Mazieres.