Friday, July 22, 2011


I'm reminded of the profundity of Plato's methodology any time I see a short "quote" from his dialogues  casually bandied about the internets. Inevitably it's either useless, misleading, or just plain false.

This one arrived in my twitter feed today, retweeted by the dozens:

Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart's desire; the other is to get it. ~ Socrates

First, this is a George Bernard Shaw quote, not some self-contained chestnut from "Socrates" (who never wrote down a word for posterity to use and abuse). Second, even if Socrates did say this, it was during a conversation. Are you so sure that you can profitably excise such a statement from its dramatic context, with no loss in meaning? 

Much better to always remember the last paragraph of the Symposium-- full of drama, not quite "clear"-- and recall that charged yet shrouded scene when interpreting any loose "quotes" from the Athenian gadfly.

Agathon arose in order that he might take his place on the couch by Socrates, when suddenly a band of revellers entered, and spoiled the order of the banquet. Some one who was going out having left the door open, they had found their way in, and made themselves at home; great confusion ensued, and every one was compelled to drink large quantities of wine. Aristodemus said that Eryximachus, Phaedrus, and others went away-he himself fell asleep, and as the nights were long took a good rest: he was awakened towards daybreak by a crowing of cocks, and when he awoke, the others were either asleep, or had gone away; there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon, who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round, and Socrates was discoursing to them. Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also. To this they were constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument. And first of all Aristophanes dropped off, then, when the day was already dawning, Agathon. Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home.

Thank God Plato's philosophical artwork is un-tweetable.