Symposium in Suffolk
Socrates would not have felt at home in FramlinghamBy John Ryle • 1997 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 835 words
It has become the most celebrated dinner-party in the world. Of the eight guests, one is late and one a gatecrasher; several are intoxicated; all are indiscreet. Their subjects of conversation include love, religion, politics, and homosexuality in the armed forces. The event is subject to extensive comment by people who were not themselves present.
I’m not talking about The Dinner Party, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about a supper in Suffolk due to be shown on Channel 4, where the guests’ expressed nostalgia for Thatcherism and intolerance of racial and sexual minorities have been attracting unfavourable comment in the press. It’s another, more time-honoured occasion that I’m thinking of, a pioneer event in the genre of dramatic dialogue. It took place not in Suffolk, but in Athens, and antedates the Channel 4 film by a couple of millennia: that’s to say, the Symposium, by Plato.
In the Symposium, Plato imagines that an Athenian playwright, Agathon, invites Socrates and half-a-dozen guests, including a doctor and a politician, to dine with him. They talk mostly about love and sex and soldiering. Two and a half thousand years later, the guests at Channel 4’s TV dinner in Framlingham (who include a publican, a musician and the manager of a petrol station) also discuss various aspects of these subjects, voicing opinions about homosexuality that I dare say neither you nor I —and certainly not Plato or Socrates—would share. Specifically, one of the eight guests at Framlingham is reported to have recommended chemical castration for gays in the military, though he has since denied that this is what he meant to say.
If chemical castration is a proposal we find ourselves taking exception to, the guests at Agathon’s symposium would have found it very odd indeed—a bit mad in fact. It would have surprised them that sex between men in the army was an issue at all. The Greeks—or these Greeks anyway—were concerned with establishing criteria for proper behaviour between sexual partners, male or otherwise, military or civilian, not with proscribing particular categories of object of desire.
Much of the discussion recorded in Plato’s Symposium concerns love between men—the occasions on which it should be considered a virtue and those on which it should be seen as a weakness. Military service is one context where, by general agreement among the guests, it is regarded as a virtue. One of the guests, Phaedrus, says that an army should consist entirely of lovers. Their loyalty to one another, he argues, and their sense of honour, would make them invincible. (He is referring to the sacred band, the army of the city-state of Thebes, which was said to have been organized on this principle.)
Only lovers, Phaedrus argues, are willing to lay down their lives for each other. This argument, he notes, applies equally to women and to men.
On this subject the guests at the Symposium, unlike the Framlingham Eight, have the advantage of having at least one soldier among their number, the celebrated but unstable young general, Alcibiades. Alcibiades arrives at the party late and drunk, after Phaedrus has given his speech, but it’s unlikely that he would have disagreed with Phaedrus’ view: his own contribution to the proceedings is a passionate and rueful account of his own earlier failure to seduce Socrates.
They do things differently in Framlingham
The diners of Framlingham are probably aware that things were done differently in Ancient Greece. And if they were to respond to unflattering comparisons between their own party and the Symposium, they might start by drawing attention to the exploitative and hierarchical character of the social order in Greek city states. The inequitable basis of ancient Greek society, its reliance on the institution of slavery—so they might argue if they chose to—could be held to discredit the opinions of its members.
But if slave-holding were considered to vitiate the opinions of classical Greek thinkers, then all the sources of Western civilization—our moral philosophy and our material prosperity—would be tainted in the same way. There may be radical culture critics who consider that this is indeed the case, who believe that the heritage of classical civilization in its entirety is discredited by the exploitative nature of the society that produced it. But I suspect they do not include any of the Framlingham Eight, who seem more interested in local gossip than the classical founts of western thought.
I doubt if any of the Framlingham Eight would have got invitations to Agathon’s original do. Not that Socrates would be snobbish about pub-owners or petrol station managers. He himself was originally a stone mason. But he preferred to surround himself with those who were handsome and intelligent, and I’m afraid none of the Framlingham Eight quite fits the bill. In any case, they’ve already had their fifteen minutes of fame. And to judge by the reported level of conversation at their dinner party, fifteen minutes is quite long enough. ★