Classics, Personal

What’s a little sarcasm amongst friends?

I have taken to reading a paragraph or two of Plato’s Symposium every morning – in Greek. The Greek is different from New Testament koine and it is so well written.

If you are unfamiliar with Symposium, Plato uses the setting of a drinking party to present contrasting views of Eros or “love.” Eros has an interesting, multi-layered, sometimes very disturbingly sexual meaning in Greek. It was a complex idea which the Greeks often personified as a deity. The dialogue in Symposium takes place among Socrates and about a dozen other men as they take turns explaining the cause of Eros.

One of the things that catch my eye when I read it is the sarcasm that runs through the whole work. Socrates has got to be one of the most sarcastic people ever featured in a philosophical work. As Plato writes him, Socrates has a retort for everything and the longer the drinking party goes, the better he gets. And the other guys at the party are just as quick witted. They speak to each other in these fast exchanges that are extremely male but also quite profound.

Let me give you an example of the exchange. One of the companions, Aristophanes, has just finished a discourse on human nature. He has explained quite elaborately how man was created with two heads, four arms and four legs and the gods split them in half and now they run around embracing anything they can find. (It is his explanation for, among other things, adultery and homosexuality.)

I have translated it dynamically to convey more of a sense of what they’re saying rather than try to refine it into some kind of classical English.

ARISTOPHANES: There, Eryximaches, is my Word [logos] about Eros, which is distinct from yours. I’ve asked you not to make fun of it because we want to hear what the others have to say – since only Agathon and Socrates are left.

ERYXIMACHES: I will obey you because I enjoyed your Word [logos]. If I didn’t know Socrates’ and Agathon’s experience in erotica, I would fear they would be left speechless after hearing everything we’ve heard; but you can see that my confidence in them is unshaken."

SOCRATES: Your own knowledge is impressive, Eryximachus. But if you sat where I sit, or rather where I’ll be after Agathon’s turn, you would be more afraid and be up against a hard place as I am.

AGATHON: You’re trying to bewitch me, Socrates, so that I’ll be flustered by the high expectations everyone has for my speech [erountos].

SOCRATES: Me? Agathon, how could I possibly forget the way you carried yourself on stage with your troupe? How you looked out at the vast crowd to show you meant business with your production and how it did not bother you at all? Why would you be flustered on account of a few guys [anthropon] like us?

AGATHON: Now, Socrates, I hope you don’t think I am so arrogant that I have forgotten that anyone with intelligence is more afraid of speaking to a few brilliant, quick men than to a crowd of fools.

SOCRATES: Oh no, Agathon, that would be wrong of me to think you would be so foolish. I have no doubt that among such men whom you consider clever, you would think more of them than the crowd. But perhaps to you, we are no better than the crowd for we were there, among the crowd at your play. Perhaps you would only be intimidated among a group of truly brilliant men who would not go to the show?


SOCRATES: So, before the crowd [and by implication, us], you would not be ashamed of doing something you would consider shameful [before brilliant men]?

PHAEDRUS: My dear Agathon, if you keep answering Socrates, he will distract you because all he ever wants to do is argue. I enjoy listening to Socrates’ arguments, but he’s getting us off topic and you both have speeches to make. Give your speeches, give the god [Eros] his due and then have your argument.

I don’t know whether I have done the text justice in my translation/paraphrase, but I think I’ve captured the sense of it. Here is a group of guys I would enjoy hanging out with. They are quick-witted, completely comfortable in each other’s presence, and they are willing to just go at it. I love Eryximaches slam on Socrates and Agathon: “If I didn’t know Socrates’ and Agathon’s experience in erotica…” The subtle implication of what he is saying is that perhaps Socrates and Agathon have a little more homosexual experience than the rest of the group. But then, Socrates comes back with: “Your own knowledge is quite impressive.”

This is just a group of guys in the locker room, trading jabs.

And this is why I love the classics. When you read them as if they are classics – to be esteemed and revered – they lose their wonderful earthiness. Are these guys, including the great playwright Agathon and the philosopher Socrates, any different than any of the guys I know today, some 2,400 years later? Not really. It is good to know we’re all human, and that being human hasn’t changed that much over the millennia.

Because being human hasn’t changed much, the God we need has not had to change. We’re still the same fallen race, and he is still the same loving Father. We’re no worse or better than our predecessors; and Jesus is still sufficient for our restoration.

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