Plato’s Shaggy and Sly Victory

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain, illustration


A comparison with a shaggy dog tale—with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”—may help us appreciate and begin to think about an “elusive passage” in Plato’s Symposium. In Twain’s text, the narrator goes seeking news of the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley and ends up hearing stories about an inveterate gambler named Jim Smiley. In Plato’s case, Apollodorus, who was not at a wonderful party many years prior, tells what he has heard about this party from Aristodemus, who had gone uninvited. The result is a lengthy (and well-known) narration of seven different speeches about Eros and love. Ignoring Plato’s role as creator of the fictional text, and the fact that the original text of the Symposium was lost several millennia ago—we are reading copies of copies of copies which include any number of “interpolations” from the copiers—nonetheless, we might count ourselves lucky that Aristodemus and Apollodorus had such extraordinary memories, being able to remember so much of the content of the party talk and even the different rhetorical styles of the speakers.

But about the final several hours of the party, Apollodorus reports that Aristodemus said he was exhausted and fell asleep. Awaking several hours later, he saw that all the other revelers had either left or were sleeping. Except for: the host, the great writer Agathon (who wrote only tragedies); the great writer Aristophanes (who wrote only comedies); and Socrates. They were still drinking wine, and Socrates—as ἄτοπος (out of place) as ever—was still talking philosophy and championing a most un-Athenian idea. This was that a writer should know how to write both comedy and tragedy, and that, indeed, tragic and comic poetry is one and the same. (In Athens, as in American television, even the actors were different—some did comedy, some tragedy. Only Shakespeare and a handful of other playwrights have been successful at both genres.)

Meanwhile, the great playwrights of the Symposium, Agathon and Aristophanes, were exhausted, nodding off, not following Socrates’s arguments very well, but allowing themselves to be convinced or feigning conviction. And as for the contents of these arguments, the specifics of what Socrates said, Aristodemus reported that, since he’d been asleep, he’d missed a good deal, and what he might have heard after waking (hungover), he could not remember.

Is Plato suggesting that we construct our knowledge from bits of things overheard when we’re not asleep and bits that, when drunk, we’re willing to accept?

Thus our comparison. In Twain’s case, we never get story 1 (about the Reverend), only 2, 3, 4, 5—the fifteen-minute nag, the dog Andrew Jackson, the frog Dan’l Webster, etc. In Plato’s case, we get seven lengthy speeches, and nothing of the last one. And both writers call attention to these lacunae. That is, Twain or his narrator might have told a perfectly entertaining story about Jim Smiley’s betting without ever mentioning Leonidas. Plato or Apollodorus or Aristodemus might have related the encomiums to Eros and love without mentioning this other conversation about tragedy and comedy. When, in the sixteenth century, the first French translation of the Symposium was published, it left the whole last scene out. Alternatively, might Twain and Plato have been more generous, also making up lines about the Reverend, the tragic, and the comic?


What to make of Plato’s shaggy dog story? Did he add the memory lapse to have some fun, first and foremost—to pull our legs? Or was he, say, calling our attention to what an absurd and artful fabrication his Symposium was? Was he taking a moment to remind his readers (his friends and students, people who may have known the flesh-and-blood Socrates) of how Socrates was not only an indefatigable dialectician, he could drink everyone under the table? N.B.: Here already we see glimmers of the “tragic”—or η σπουδή: the spoude; the elevated or earnest—merging with το γελοίο: the geloio; the low, laughable, ridiculous. And perhaps Plato was, or was also, suggesting something about our knowledge, how we construct it from bits of things overheard when we’re not asleep and bits of things that seem plausible when we’re drunk?

To the curious, the scholarly, any who wish to explore further the Symposium—the philosophy professor Richard Patterson’s “The Platonic Art of Comedy and Tragedy” (Philosophy and Literature, 1982) is recommended. (“Elusive passage” comes from there). However, as far as I know, to date only one English-language scholarly article has specifically addressed the final scene of the Symposium. That article, “The Tragic and Comic Poet of the Symposium” (Arion, 1975), was written by the classicist Diskin Clay. According to Clay, except for a German text from the 1930s, none of the modern commentaries on the the Symposium treats its final scene “as an integral and essential part of the dialogue rather than an ‘epilogue.’”

Patterson focuses on self-ignorance. Clay proposes that the last scene allows us to appreciate that the Symposium is less about love than about writing and thinking.

Patterson focuses on self-ignorance; what I will describe as an un-span-able gap between truth and our ideas about ourselves, our circumstances, the consequences of our actions, and what “the good” is—how best to act and live. From this perspective, we can see how the tragic and comic can be one and the same, self-ignorance leading either to ruin or ridicule, and to shame in both cases. Alcibiades’s self-ignorance led him away from the study of philosophy to the pursuit of glory and political power, and thus, tragically, he not only betrayed himself, he did about as much as one human being could do to bring to its knees the great Athenian empire and its oligarchy, Plato and his family included. On the other hand, giving self-ignorance a comic cast, in The Clouds, Aristophanes’ satire of Socrates and the sophists, a rich fool tells the great teacher that he is not interested in glory and power, it will be enough if he can learn how to pervert justice and evade his creditors.

Another combination of the elevated and the low, of the tragic and comic. In the Apology, Plato—perhaps in jest?—suggests that The Clouds slandered Socrates and contributed to his being sentenced to death, and in the Laws Plato suggests that Athens had lost its harmony and become a “base theatrocracy,” ruled, that is, by its playwrights (as some now say Americans are ruled by the media, its advertising and propaganda). And yet, according to legend, Plato also once wrote—with tongue in cheek?—that the Graces, in search of a temple that would never fall, found the soul of Aristophanes.

Clay’s point in a nutshell is that the last scene of the Symposium allows us to appreciate that the core subject of the text is not, and has not been, love, but rather writing and thinking, and, more precisely, the capacity of a real writer or intellectual (a Plato or Socrates) to combine the comic and the tragic, or to be simultaneously ludicrous and serious, awe-inspiring, educational. (Cf. Oscar Wilde?)

Thus, for example, in the Symposium, Alcibiades, drunk—in vino veritas?—talks about the combination of the comic and the tragic in the speeches of Socrates. On first listen, he says, these speeches may well seem ridiculous. “He talks about mules, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and tanners, and seems to be always saying the same things in the same ways. But if you go deeper, if you get inside these speeches, you will find that they are the only speeches that are based in good sense, and that they are the most divinely inspired and most inspiring, and also the most comprehensive, taking into consideration all that we should think about if we wish to be beautiful and good.” (A lot of good this did Socrates most-favored pupil: Alcibiades! Plato sets the Symposium at a moment, in 416 B.C., just before Alcibiades’s warmongering led to disaster in Sicily—hundreds of Athenian ships and thousands of Athenian soldiers lost in a single stroke.)


A vase, circa 500 BC, depicting ancient Greek boxers training for competition

The Symposium is commonly read as a discussion of love, “Platonic love,” as we have come to call it. The subject is at least equally a competition, or a series of competitions, some overt and some half-hidden. The party has been hosted by Agathon to celebrate his first victory in a dramatic competition. The partygoers decide to stage a competition, to see which of them can give the best speech in praise of Eros. This leads to series of mini-competitions, between Phaedrus and Pausanias, Erixymachus and Aristophanes, Agathon and Socrates. Socrates emerges the winner, and, as described above, at the very end he seems to be prolonging his triumph, forcing Agathon and Aristophanes, the only two still half awake, to agree to an iconoclastic proposition (about tragedy and comedy), a proposition that suggests that they themselves are rather limited writers. (Echoes of Aristophanes’ previous description of how, like flat fish, men and women show traces of their having been sliced in two, “the soul of each wishing for something else that it cannot express”.  It is said that Molière was a failed tragic actor and wanted nothing more than to be able to write a good tragedy.)

Socrates was able to best Agathon and Aristophanes because they were playing his game: talking rather than writing. But hiding just off stage is Plato.

We have already noted how Socrates in his conversation combined the comic and the tragic (or the spoude; that is, with eccentric Platonic ideas by which the elevated or earnest is necessarily tragic?). And Socrates’s life and habits also combined these elements. But he himself was not a writer. It might even be said that at the party he was able to best Agathon and Aristophanes because they were playing his game: talking rather than writing. But hiding just off stage is the third writer: Plato. And he, too, has made an entry in the competition: the text of the Symposium, with its wonderfully diverse combination of arguments and rhetorical styles; its combination of the ludicrous and the serious; and the education it offers through both of these means.


“The Jumping Frog” also describes a series of competitions. And there is the stranger’s rich line about Dan’l Webster, the great orator-frog: “Well, I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.” It is only after the stranger leaves that Smiley realizes he’s been tricked; the stranger has filled Webster’s throat with buckshot.

Can we say that by the Symposium we are similarly tricked? By Plato staking his claim when the cocks are beginning to crow and the last remaining interlocutors are too tired to listen? And Aristodemus not only doesn’t hear or can’t remember Socrates’s final arguments, he is unable to realize that the real argument has already been made, and not orally by Socrates, but in writing, by a master, Plato.

In framing a discussion of love as a series of competitions, what was he trying to tell us about love, or about competition?

In my essay on Plato’s Lysis—“Friendship, Deception, Writing”—I take a similar analysis one step further, exploring what the narrative framing of one of Plato’s dialogues may have to tell us about that dialogue’s ostensible subject—i.e. friendship. Thus is suggested a question for further reflection: In framing a discussion of love as a series of competitions, what was the coy Plato trying to tell us about love, or about competition?

With help from Margaret Mead and other sources, a recent New Yorker article on dating stressed that the search for love or for a partner is, above all, a context in which women compete with one another. A character from a 1920s short story is quoted: “Men were only the gloves with which one slapped the face of girls. It was women one dueled.” Were he able to speak, Dan’l Webster might say something similar about frog jumping and the US Congress, and Plato, for his part, about speechmaking, debate, beautiful-boy-seeking—and philosophy?

—William Eaton


William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo and a writer of essays and dialogues. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century was published last year by Serving House Books. His essay on Friendship, Deception, Writing in Plato’s Lysis appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Agni.


Town and Gown, a 1923 collection by (Mr.) Lynn Montross and Lois Seyster Montross (George H. Doran company publishers)Credits & Links

Greek vase from a blogpost: Stanford Report,” February 1, 2013: “Stanford classics professor debunks image of the ‘noble’ ancient athlete; Classics scholar Susan Stephens says that modern sports may be misguided in attempting to emulate ancient Greek and Roman athletic ideals.” From the text:

[A]lthough people today have a romantic view of noble Greek competitors, Stephens says that “sport was just one example of an agon, a contest. The idea was to defeat people.” Competition was part of the fabric of Greek life. Musicians and singers also competed in games. The first prize for a musician at Athens’ Panathenaian Games was a cash prize worth roughly the amount a skilled craftsman would earn in three-and-a-half years. Even Greek physicians would vie against each other in public diagnoses, . . .

Alexandra Schwartz, Work It: Is dating worth the effort? The New Yorker, May 23, 2016. This is a discussion of Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). The short-story quoted appears, I believe, in Town and Gown, a 1923 collection by (Mr.) Lynn Montross and Lois Seyster Montross (George H. Doran company publishers).


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Plato’s Shaggy and Sly Victory

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