How does Plato's Symposium show influence from Homer, the Pre-Socratics, Sophocles, and Euripides in dialogue, themes, and argument progression?

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Plato demonstrates how he has drawn upon the ideas of many Greek authors by crafting the setting of a banquet in which seven men philosophize on the concept of love in the Symposium. Eryximachus alludes to Pre-Socratics in his speech and writes in a style familiar to Euripides, while Phaedrus references the heroic works of Homer to progress his stance on love.

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History records that Plato first met Socrates around 490 BC and from this meeting he began to develop his overall philosophy, which continued to evolve throughout his lifetime. Many of his beliefs stemmed from lessons he learned from Socrates, as well as other famous philosophers of Ancient Greece.

Plato’s Symposium

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Symposium is presented as a series of speeches by various Greek intellectuals on the topic of love. The dialogues collectively form the parameters of Plato’s philosophical views on the subject matter. To reach his conclusions about love, the author relies on his understanding of the many facets of love as expressed by the likes of Homer, the pre-Socratics, Sophocles, Euripides, and others. As Socrates states at the beginning of the work,

“I think that at the present moment we who are here assembled cannot do better than honour the god Love. If you agree with me, there will be no lack of conversation; for I mean to propose that each of us in turn, going from left to right, shall make a speech in honour of Love. Let him give us the best which he can; and Phaedrus, because he is sitting first on the left hand, and because he is the father of the thought, shall begin.”

Plato demonstrates his allusions to the opinions of the Ancient Greek philosophers by means of a setting at a drinking party. The guests take turns discussing their respective thoughts on love. For example, when Eryximachus delivers his speech to the guests, he mentions the philosopher Heracleitus, a pre-Socratic who argued a unity of all things in life. The somewhat extreme theory propounded was that opposite things are identical because everything is in a constant state of change. Eryximachus adopted this philosophy:

“There are in the human body these two kinds of love, which are confessedly different and unlike, and being unlike, they have loves and desires which are unlike; and the desire of the healthy is one, and the desire of the diseased is another . . . united by disunion . . . both loves ought to be noted as far as may be, for they are both present.”

Another example Plato uses to allude to the philosophical thoughts of Ancient thinkers is found in the speech by Phaedrus. Phaedrus discusses love with his allusion to the god, Eros and his connection to human beings:

“Love is a mighty god, and wonderful among gods and men . . .numerous are the witnesses who acknowledge Love to be the eldest of the gods. And not only is he the eldest, he is also the source of the greatest benefits to us.”

Phaedrus continues by citing characters from Homer like Achilles and Alcestis to demonstrate self-sacrifice of heroes and the bravery of love:

“That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.”

There are many other references to verify the sources of Plato’s philosophical positions in Symposium. For example, Socrates mentions Homer’s Odyssey in his speech, along with a citation from Euripides. Plato also includes mention of the style of Menalippe, who is the daughter of Euripides.

In Symposium, it is clear that Plato uses the Socratic Method of arriving at truth through dialogue. He alters the method by presenting the dialogue in a speech format, but in the end Plato, through the character of Socrates, expresses his opinions on love after considering the arguments and positions of the drinking-party guests. Some speakers are fictional, created by Plato to advance the conversation, but all make references to the ideas of some of the giants of classical Greek literature to demonstrate Plato’s reliance upon their thinking in drawing his conclusions.

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In the Symposium, Plato has the banquet guests make numerous references to earlier Greek writers. Much is made, in one stretch of the dialogue, of Homer's alluding to Menelaus's having been an inferior to Agamemnon in battle but nevertheless coming uninvited to a feast. It is merely an incidental allusion, but a point is made about one of the interlocutors, Aristodemus, having come to the banquet uninvited, and it may have some bearing on the value of the comments Aristodemus makes within the dialogue. Eryximachus, another guest, then indicates he will make the exordium of his speech in the style of the Menalippe of Euripides. Eryximachus goes into a long quotation of a statement by Phaedrus, in which Phaedrus has lamented the lack of praise for Eros (Love, the main subject of the Symposium) "even by the sophist Prodicus" and others who had extolled the exploits of Heracles. Additional references are made to the "deeds of Love" by the gods as recorded by Hesiod and Parmenides.

These allusions to the Greek poets of the past, though they are done in passing, establish a framework in which Plato contextualizes the debate about Love. They also, to some extent, serve as a foil to the deeper thinking which is to follow. The centerpiece of the dialogue is, of course, Socrates's own analysis of Love, which he himself attributes to the foreign prophetess Diotima, Socrates being too modest to present the ideas as his own.

It is clear that Plato intends the speech of Socrates, which he withholds until the others have finished, to show not necessarily the wrongness, but at least the relative superficiality, of what the other guests have stated. Even if we as readers didn't know that Socrates was Plato's idol, this would be obvious from the fact that Socrates takes the discussion about Love specifically into a further realm where he talks about the motivations and drives that lie at the heart of human life overall. Other interpretations are possible, of course, and I am not entirely sure I fully understand all the points Plato has Socrates make. However, the Symposium incorporates a wealth of ideas, presented in the guise of a discussion among friends and rooted in the literature of Homeric and classical Greece.

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The speech of Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium praises Eros, the god of love. In the speech, Phaedrus refers to many important earlier works by poets and philosophers in support of the importance of love and how love can inspire brave and noble actions.

An example of how love makes people brave and self-sacrificing, according to Phaedrus, is the case of Alcestis, the eponymous heroine of a play by Euripides, who volunteers to sacrifice her own life for that of her husband.

Phaedrus states that in Homer's Iliad, Achilles is inspired to return to the battle, despite knowing that it will lead to his death, out of his love and grief for his lover, Patroclus.

Finally, Phaedrus cites Parmenides as an example of an early philosopher who describes Eros as among the oldest of the gods.

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In Plato's Symposium, seven very different men get together for a drinking party ("symposion" in Greek, literally 'drinking together') and talk about the definition and nature of love; each of the men offers an encomium to Eros, the god of love and desire. I'll mention three examples from the different speeches that show that Plato has drawn upon earlier thinkers:

1) In the speech of Erixymachus, the doctor, he makes a reference to the pre-Socratic natural philosopher Heraclitus when he talks about love, harmony, and the coming together of opposites. Erixymachus criticizes Heraclitus who thinks that opposites come together; Erixymachus argues that it is only similar things that are capable of being attracted, one to another. Aristophanes' tale of the round people is also presumably inspired by Empedocles.

2) Socrates refers to a story from Homer's Odyssey in his speech (at 198c):

For his speech so reminded me of Gorgias that I was exactly in the plight described by Homer: I feared that Agathon in his final phrases would confront me with the eloquent Gorgias' head, and by opposing his speech to mine would turn me thus dumbfounded into stone.

This is a reference to Book XI of the Odyssey.

3) At 199a, Socrates refers to Euripides' Hippolytus by quoting the famous line about his tongue having sworn but not his mind. This is but one of numerous references to Euripides. The very character of Agathon, the tragedian, alludes to Euripides and perhaps also to Sophocles.

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