The prospect of human immortality is manifest in many of Plato's writings, appearing as early as the Apology (28c, 41c–d) and the Crito (54b–d), and as late as Book 12 of the Laws (967d). But nowhere is immortality given so much attention, nor as central a place in Plato's philosophical projects, as in what have traditionally been referred to as his Middle Period works, so it is hardly surprising that we find an extensive treatment of the subject of immortality in Socrates’ own encomium in the Symposium (206e–209e). Eros, Socrates tells us, is not merely a desire to possess the good, but one that pushes us towards possessing the good forever (205a, 206a) and, because of this, eros is necessarily a desire for immortality (207a). However, it is evident that Socrates’ presentation of immortality in the Symposium is fundamentally different from those found in other dialogues. This is not merely because in this work alone Socrates attributes the desire for immortality to eros; rather it is also because the nature of the immortality that Socrates recommends here, and the means by which he suggests it is achieved, are wholly unique to this work. Whereas in other dialogues Plato casts his discussions in terms of the persistence of the soul in some super-sensible realm, here he offers a picture of lovers achieving human immortality by creating memorials (μνῆμαι) that will outlast them.
All quotations from Plato's dialogues in this paper are from their respective translations in John Cooper, Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1997).
2 Besides the Symposium, which is the subject of this paper, each other dialogue that is commonly included in this period contains extensive discussions of immortality. The Phaedo itself is both dramatically and philosophically a meditation on immortality, and issues concerning many facets of immortality are raised throughout. The passages that most explicitly concern immortality in the Republic are found in Book 10 (608d–611d) and the ‘Myth of Er’ at the end of the dialogue (614b–621b). In the Phaedrus Socrates gives a proof of the immortality of the soul (245c–246a), and a dramatization of the soul's journey through the heavens and its fall to earth makes up the rest of the opening of his palinode (246e–248e). The soul's return journey from earth to the heavens is then the subject of the rest of his speech.
3 The Phaedrus also contains extensive treatments of both immortality and eros, but nowhere in this dialogue does Socrates suggest that immortality is an object of erotic desire for lovers.
4 For comments regarding the position Socrates takes regarding the separability of the soul from the body in the Symposium, see n. 14 below.
5 e.g. Hackforth, R., in his article ‘Immortality in Plato's Symposium’, CR 64 (1950), 43–5, accounts for the discrepancy in the presentation of immortality in the Symposium with that of other dialogues by suggesting that Plato revised his opinions on immortality after the Phaedo in the Symposium, only to return to his original position in the Republic and other dialogues. Given that recent Plato scholarship has moved away both from the idea that Plato's works are clearly separable into different periods and from concerns regarding the precise dating of dialogues even within those traditionally separate periods, this interpretation no longer finds much support. Other commentators, such as R.E. Allen, Plato's Symposium (New Haven, 1991), 72, Guthrie, W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. IV (Cambridge, 1986), 391 and Luce, J.V., ‘Immortality in Plato's Symposium: a reply’, CR 66 (1952), 137–41, have offered a different explanation, which is still often accepted by many Plato scholars. In this account it is argued that the discussion of immortality in the Symposium relates specifically to that of embodied souls in all of their particularity, while other dialogues focus on the indestructibility of the divine part of the soul, considered in abstraction from its particularity. It should be noted that those commentators that fall into this later group believe that the account of immortality in the Symposium is commensurate with those of other dialogues.
6 Lear, G., ‘Permanent beauty and becoming happy in Plato's Symposium’, in Lesher, J., Nails, D. and Sheffield, F. (edd.), Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception (Cambridge, 2006), 96–123.
7 Sheffield, F., Plato's Symposium: The Ethics of Desire (Oxford, 2006).
8 The inclusion of Codrus in this list is peculiar, as the stories of Codrus (or rather, the ones that we have), unlike those of Alcestis and Achilles, make no reference to his gaining immortality for sacrificing himself for the sake of his throne. It is most likely that Socrates added Codrus’ name here as a sign that he will seek to replace with his own conception the standard conception of immortality often believed to be held by these other two figures.
9 At 209d Socrates does mention that ‘other good poets’ have also achieved immortality in the same way as Homer and Hesiod, but he neither specifies nor gives any hints as to who these figures might be.
10 It is apparent from these examples that death is still very much on the cards for those who have gained immortality, and this is shown most obviously in the figures of the first group, for whom death is a central motif in the stories told of each. The tales of Alcestis and Codrus focus specifically on the hand they took in their own deaths and, as Phaedrus points out in his own encomium (179e–180a), death lingered over all Achilles’ heroic deeds, as he chose his actions with the full knowledge that they would lead to his demise. But it is hardly surprising that the Garden of the Hesperides remains barred here, as nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates suggest that death is anything but imminent for all mortals.
11 Many speakers in the Symposium appear to be intimately aware of Euripides’ plays. Eryximachus quotes from Melanippe at 177a, and Agathon uses a line from the (now lost) play Sthenoboea at 196e. And Socrates himself demonstrates his intimate knowledge of the playwright by reciting a line from Hippolytus during the elenchus with Agathon that immediately precedes his encomium at 199a.
12 This story differs slightly from the account offered in Euripides’ Alcestis, as in the play it is Heracles that rescues Alcestis from the clutches of death, while in Phaedrus’ account it is the gods who, being so touched by Alcestis’ actions, deliver her from Hades.
13 Even though Euripides is the second most frequently referenced figure in the Symposium, allusions to and quotations from Homer occur four times as often in this dialogue. Homer is referenced at various points by Phaedrus (179b, 179e–180a), Aristophanes (190b–c, 192d–e), Agathon (195d, 196d), Alcibiades (214b, 218e–219a, 219e, 220c, 221d, 221c) and Socrates himself (174c, 174d, 206d).
14 In the Symposium Socrates’ comments concerning the soul are restricted to those which deal with it as an object of erotic attention (210b–c), or as a subject of vicissitudes similar to those of the body (207e–208a).
15 Even at the end of the lover's ascent up the Ladder of Love there is strong evidence to think that the lover is still a living, embodied person here, rather than a disembodied soul. Consider the following passages: ‘And there [in the presence of divine beauty] in life … if anywhere should a person live his life [βιωτὸν ἀνθρώπῳ]’ (211d); ‘Do you think it would be a poor life [βίον] for a human being [ἀνθρώπου] to look there and behold it [divine beauty]?’ (212a). Socrates’ repetition of the terms βίος and ἄνθρωπος here suggest that, even at the top rung of the Ladder, the lover is still a living, embodied human being. Contrast this with the passage in the Phaedo at 81a–b, where Socrates suggests that the soul can only exist in the presence of the Forms after it has left the body, i.e. only after the end of his life.
16 Hackforth (n.5), 44.
17 Allen (n.5), 72.
18 O'Brien, M., ‘“Becoming immortal” in Plato's Symposium’, in Gerber, D.E. (ed.), Greek Poetry and Philosophy: Studies in Honour of Leonard Woodbury (Chico, CA, 1984), 195.
19 Williams, Bernard, in his article ‘The Makropulos Case: reflecting on the tedium of immortality’, in id., Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1965–1972 (Cambridge, 1976), 82–100, uses the example of Elina Makropulos, a character from the Karel Čapek play, The Makropulos Case, who has discovered the means to live forever, to highlight the undesirability of personal immortality. Williams argues that, without the prospect of death lingering over our lives, a severe feeling of tedium would attend all of our actions, thus rendering our lives ‘unlivable’ (p. 95).
20 In the Phaedo there is some evidence that Socrates approached his own death with a similar mindset. He says to those present: ‘If you will take my advice, you will give but little thought to Socrates but much more to the truth’ (Phd. 91b). For Socrates, what is important is not that he lives for ever in all of his particularity – i.e. as ‘Socrates’ – but that what he values most in himself, his concern for the truth, continues on after he dies.
21 Lear (n.6), 108 advances the idea that lovers of honour consider fame to be of supreme value and of central importance to their happiness. However, although this may prima facie seem to be the case for Achilles, who is greatly concerned with his κλέος, it is difficult to see how this is so for Alcestis and Codrus. In both Phaedrus’ and Socrates’ recounting of the story of Alcestis her main concern is said to be her love for her husband, while in the case of Codrus, his priority is the preservation of his throne for his children. Although Socrates does say that each of these figures died for their loved ones in the expectation that the fame they earned through their self-sacrifice would ensure their immortality, the most we could conclude from this is that they value fame in an instrumental way. The same could even be argued in the case of Achilles. First, it is difficult to determine whether Achilles was motivated to action by his love of Patroclus, or his desire for κλέος; and second, the term κλέος captures both the concept of ‘fame’ and ‘glory’ simultaneously. Those who value κλέος would not be content simply with fame, in the sense purely of ‘making a name for oneself’ (ὀνομαστοὶ γενέσθαι) – as, perhaps, some modern celebrities do, unless this fame was related to their glorious deeds. So even in the case of Achilles it could be argued that fame is not that which he values primarily.
22 Both Lear (n.6), 109 and Sheffield (n.7), 107 advance this idea, although the former does so only in the context of lovers of honour.
23 For some commentators, Socrates’ division is indicative of the kinds of virtues that people find to be supremely valuable. Lear (n.6), 108, for example, argues that lovers of bodies, honour and souls are those who believe physical well-being, fame and knowledge respectively to be the ‘central component of their happiness’. He is forced into such a reading because he believes that remembrance is specifically the goal for lovers of honour, and concludes from this that fame is all that such people value. Without recourse to the claim that children and logoi are means of preserving memory, Lear is compelled to conclude that the production of children is indicative of a concern for the preservation of brute physical existence, while the creation of logoi indicates a concern for knowledge. As I have shown in the previous section, however, remembrance is the goal of all lovers, and these creations are merely valued instrumentally as means for the preservation of whatever virtues people hold to be valuable.
24 Another prominent interpretation of why lovers of bodies seek to generate children is advanced by Allen (n. 5), 73 and Dyson, M., ‘Immortality and procreation in Plato's Symposium’, Antichthon 20 (1986), 68–9, who argue that they do so because their aim is not personal immortality, but the immortality of the human species. There is one point in the dialogues where such a view is explicitly advanced. At Laws 721b–c the Athenian justifies his law that all men and women of a certain age must wed and begin producing children, as it is only through childbirth that mortals gain immortality. The Athenian's discussion here is quite reminiscent of mortal possession in the Symposium, as here he argues that humans achieve immortality through leaving behind later generations to replace the ones that are dying away. However, there are two important differences between this discussion of immortality and the one in the Symposium: first, no reference is made here to either memory or remembrances; and second, the Athenian makes no reference to the other two methods of achieving immortality in the Symposium, i.e. through gaining fame or producing logoi.
25 Sheffield (n. 7), 107.
26 See especially the Hippias Minor, a discussion of lying, with continual reference to Odysseus.
27 The two most obvious examples of those whom Plato would label lovers of honour would be Laches and Nicias, two famous Athenian generals who served during the Peloponnesian War, whose discussion with Socrates concerning the nature of andreia (‘manliness’) is dramatized in the Laches. The other most prominent figure who ought to be added to this list is Critias, the future leader of the Thirty Tyrants after the fall of Athens, whose opinions on courage are cross-examined by Socrates in the Charmides. Critias’ concern for honour is shown clearly in Xenophon's Hellenica, where he denounces Theramenes for lacking concern for honour and friendship (Xen. Hell. 2.4.33). Alcibiades, however, is perhaps the most memorable figure. But although he is a colourful character in the Protagoras and the Symposium, not to mention the (most likely spurious) Alcibiades I and II, Socrates never engages in an extensive elenchus with Alcibiades.
28 Alcibiades’ longing for fame is also dramatically described in the Alcibiades I (see previous note), where Socrates claims that the then young Alcibiades is already desperate for his name and influence to ‘saturate all mankind’ (105c3–4).
29 The story of Codrus is most notably preserved in the speech Against Leocrates by the logographer Lycurgus of Athens.
30 I am including poetry here in the category of logoi because in the Republic, and particularly in the Ion, Plato's focus is on the opinions asserted by poets, and the basis for these assertions, rather than the aesthetic features of their creations.
31 Earlier in the Republic Socrates acknowledges the powerful ability of poetry to influence people's behaviour, and even suggests that it has the potential to inspire people to act virtuously, provided that the content of the poetry is noble (Book 2), and that it meets certain formal requirements (Book 3). However, in Book 10 Socrates all but banishes the poets from the city once again, as he here argues that, because poetry appeals to people's appetitive soul, it is a great cause of psychic dissonance, which confounds its audience's ability to judge what is true: ‘So we were right not to admit him into a city that is to be well governed, for he arouses, nourishes and strengthens this part of the soul and so destroys the rational one, in just the way that someone destroys the better sort of citizens when he strengthens the vicious ones and surrenders the city to them. Similarly, we'll say that an imitative poet puts a bad constitution in the soul of each individual by making images that are far removed from the truth by gratifying the irrational part, which cannot distinguish the large and the small but believes that the same things are large at one time and small at another (Resp. 605b–c).
32 I will refer to both of these activities together as ‘writing’, as speeches will be relevant to our present discussion only in so far as they are written down and are therefore accessible to future generations.
33 Interestingly, Socrates claims in the Phaedrus that, through speeches and writing, people are able to attain immortality (258c), though whether this is a direct allusion to his discussion of immortality in the Symposium is difficult to tell. Certainly the kind of immortality that could be yielded from oratory would be far more akin to that raised in the Symposium than the one for which Socrates offers a proof at the beginning of his second speech on eros (245c–e).
34 Although questions of the truth and organic structure of a logos – the topics of the first two parts of Socrates discussion of writing here – may well be relevant to its ability to inspire others to be virtuous, examination of these matters is beyond the scope of this paper, and must be left for another time.
35 In the Symposium Socrates seems to attribute this position to pederastic models of education, in which a lover is expected to impart knowledge to a passive and receptive beloved (see Brisson, L., ‘Agathon, Pausanias, and Diotima in Plato's Symposium: Paiderastia and Philosophia’, in Lesher, J. et al. [edd.], Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception [Cambridge, MA, 2006], 229–51) – an institutional arrangement Socrates attempts to transform into one which is more equal and dyadic in his palinode in the Phaedrus. In other dialogues Socrates also levels this criticism at the sophists, who attempt to use speeches as a way to communicate rigorous, systematic and coherent pieces of thought to their audience. In the dialogues the figure who engages in this activity most avowedly is Protagoras (as dramatized in the Protagoras), who believes that merely hearing one of his speeches is sufficient to make people wise in the subjects of which he talks (318a–b) – a belief shared by many of his supporters (310d). Another sophist who seems to hold such a position regarding education is Thrasymachus who, in Republic Book 1, after several abortive attempts to convince Socrates of the view that justice is the good of the stronger, offers to ‘take [the] argument and pour it into [Socrates’] very soul’ (εἰς τὴν ψυχὴν ϕέρων ἐνθῶ τὸν λόγον, Resp. 345b).
36 I am using the term ‘dialectic’ here, not in the technical sense Socrates advances in the Phaedrus and more completely in the Sophist and the Statesman, but merely as an intercourse between different parties with the intention of testing each other's views and yielding a more complete account of a certain topic.
37 It should be noted that this procedure did not always yield the desired results for Socrates. Although Socrates may have been successful at planting the seed of philosophy in figures such as Crito, Adeimantus and Apollodorus, others, such as Callicles in the Gorgias and Thrasymachus in the Republic, rejected Socrates’ efforts out of hand. But perhaps the most tragic, for Socrates, are those in whom the seed was sown but never came to flower, such as Critias and Charmides (from the Charmides), who went on to be members of the Thirty Tyrants, and most prominently Alcibiades, Socrates’ lover who, despite Socrates’ tireless efforts, rejected philosophy for the pursuit of glory – a path that ultimately led to his ignoble demise.
38 In the past two decades much work has been done on Platonic myth and some commentators have suggested that myths fulfil just this function. See especially Smith, J., ‘Plato's use of myth in the education of philosophic man’, Phoenix 40.1 (1986), 20–34 and Benitez, E., ‘Philosophy, myth and Plato's two-worlds view’, The European Legacy 12.2 (2007), 225–42.
1 All quotations from Plato's dialogues in this paper are from their respective translations in John Cooper, Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1997).
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.
* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.
Usage data cannot currently be displayed