Encountering Plato's Symposium

In an article appearing in the March 1897 number of the Atlantic Monthly, Harvard professor Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) lamented the dominant influence of German-style scientific philology on classics professors in American institutions of higher learning. “The present generation of classical philologists,” Babbitt wrote, “reminds one of a certain sect of Japanese Buddhists which believes that salvation is to be attained by arriving at a knowledge of the infinitely small. Positions, it is said, have recently been given in American colleges to men who have shown their assimilation of the classical spirit by writing theses on the ancient horse-bridle and on the Roman door-knob.”

As even a quick glance at some recent issues of peer-reviewed classics journals will attest, the tendency of classicists to focus their scholarly attention on minutiae of little interest to non-specialists has only intensified in the decades since Babbitt penned his essay. Thanks in large measure to the pseudo-scientific manner in which most contemporary classicists are forced to write, many academic books and articles on the ancient Greeks and Romans seem positively reader-proof.

Not all classical scholars have been content with this state of affairs, however. Bristling at the hyper-pedantry of his colleagues, for example, in the 1870s Friederich Nietzsche unsuccessfully attempted to transfer his professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel to philosophy. In a posthumously published essay called “We Philologists,” Nietzsche excoriated his fellow classicists for their self-defeating pettifoggery. “Ah, it is a sad story, the story of philology!” Nietzsche averred. “The disgusting erudition, the lazy, inactive passivity, the timid submission. Who was ever free?”

The classical scholar and translator William Arrowsmith (1924–92) proved similarly captious about the deadening narrowness of scientific philology. In a scathing essay originally published in 1966 called “The Shame of the Graduate Schools,” Arrowsmith observed, “For most of a century now academic humanists have been greedily domesticating and assimilating scientific procedures; and they still insensibly pattern their research after scientific research, as though their imitation were a kind of sympathetic magic which would win them the tangible success of science or at least confer scientific respectability on their efforts.”

To the camp of Babbitt, Nietzsche, and Arrowsmith, one can now add Alex Priou, an ancient philosopher and political theorist who serves as a faculty member in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the University of Colorado Boulder. Although still a young scholar, Priou is already a prolific researcher, with numerous monographs and articles to his credit. At the start of his latest book, Musings on Plato’s Symposium, Priou articulates his misgivings with much academic scholarship on Greece and Rome and demonstrates his sympathies with a more humanistic approach to the study of the ancients.

“This book is decidedly not a work of scholarship, stubbornly not,” Priou notes with characteristic frankness.

It offers a holistic interpretation of Plato’s Symposium, as is conventional among scholarly books, but departs by presenting it as a series of musings, beginning with the puzzles of the dialogue’s various parts, long perplexing to me, and ascending therefrom in the direction of the whole. I have chosen this style because I am interested not so much in speaking to scholars as I am in guiding those similarly perplexed, those whose questions come from within and whose paths are their own, rather than those who take their bearings by the community of the learned, with their pre-existing concerns and themes.

By courting a wide audience for his reflections, Priou has succeeded in producing a slim volume that captures much of the nuance and brilliance of Plato’s Symposium and demonstrates that serious writing about the ancients need not be recondite and foreboding.

There were earlier hints of Priou’s disenchantment with the current state of academic publishing. His voluminous output includes a few contributions to Arion, a journal linked to the Arrowsmith legacy that provides scholars with the only peer-reviewed outlet for readable and accessible writing about the classical world. But surely Priou’s service as a co-host on The New Thinkery podcast is the clearest sign of his scholarly inclinations. Along with his good friends David Bahr and Gregory McBrayer, Priou has, since 2020, treated listeners to a weekly series of conversations on political philosophy, broadly conceived.

As its Aristophanic name suggests, The New Thinkery is a charming mix of philosophical acumen and uproarious tomfoolery. Although Priou, Bahr, and McBrayer take their subjects seriously, they don’t take themselves seriously, and the podcast is enlivened by the sorts of (occasionally scatological) gags and barbs one might expect from quick-witted buddies who have known one another for years. Although, as a former guest on the show, I may be biased, I consider The New Thinkery the best political philosophy podcast in existence and exactly the sort of advertisement for the discipline that is urgently required in our anti-humanistic age.

The humorous spirit that animates The New Thinkery can also be detected in Musings on Plato’s Symposium. In a series of 49 brief chapter-lets, Priou provides a deep dive into Western culture’s most profound dialogue on the nature of love. Written in an aphoristic style that recalls Nietzsche, the book is chock-a-block with bold and whimsical flourishes. In substance, however, Priou’s reflections on the dialogue seldom strike the reader as particularly Nietzschean. The book’s brief preface announces its author’s indebtedness to the Straussian tradition—more specifically, to the views on Plato’s Symposium previously articulated by Leo Strauss and Seth Bernadete. Although in places one can detect its Straussian bona fides, Priou’s Musings on Plato’s Symposium should be a valuable companion for readers of various intellectual inclinations.

Priou’s Plato becomes a clever critic of technology as a panacea—a viewpoint that Priou rightly suggests is especially valuable for us to encounter today.

Throughout the work, Priou relentlessly complicates Plato’s Symposium—challenging the superficial meanings often ascribed to its speeches and posing to readers a series of questions that demonstrate some of the dialogue’s seemingly endless subtleties. Priou’s penchant for nuancing Plato starts with its very title; although the dialogue is called the Symposium, he notes, the text does not portray the event as a drinking party, but rather as a gathering focused on speeches in praise of erōs. “The puzzle of the title,” Priou cleverly suggests, “may … be resolved thus: it is a warning not to grow too intoxicated with the dialogue’s manifest beauty, a caution advising us instead to attend to Socrates and his peculiar sobriety, however intoxicating or mad he may at first appear.” Similarly, Priou quotes the political philosopher Allan Bloom’s rapturous remarks about Aristophanes’ famous speech in the Symposium, and then proceeds to question and dismantle what he calls Aristophanes’ “excessively corporeal account of love.”

Priou often deliberately relates the themes of the Symposium to present-day concerns, thereby advertising the relevance of Plato—and, more expansively, of ancient philosophy—to the contemporary world. Given his role teaching Great Books to engineering majors at Boulder, we should not be surprised to discover that Priou’s discussion of Eryximachus’s speech is especially profound. Priou suggests that this address, which praises the art of medicine as capable of controlling nature, may seem risibly hubristic, since the medical sciences were in such a primitive state in Plato’s day. But Priou notes that many in the contemporary world remain every bit as arrogant about the promise of technology as Eryximachus is in the dialogue. “Must not Eryximachus, and those among us today who share his intention,” Priou asks, “even as we outstrip his accomplishments, admit that being is a mystery, near the center of which is man?” Ancient authors often seem more attuned to the potential downsides of technological change than are modern Americans, with their whiggish faith in societal improvement and insatiable desire for creature comforts. Priou’s Plato becomes a clever critic of technology as a panacea—a viewpoint that Priou rightly suggests is especially valuable for us to encounter today.

To be sure, Musings on Plato’s Symposium cannot serve as a full-scale introduction to the dialogue in a traditional sense. Despite some fantastic commentary linking the Symposium to the vicissitudes of the Sicilian Expedition and, more expansively, the Peloponnesian War, the book treads lightly on the historical background surrounding the work. It also lacks extended discussion of various prolegomena—e.g., the textual history of the Symposium and the place of the dialogue in Plato’s corpus as a whole—that are the bread and butter of such introductions.

But what the book lacks in the more mundane features associated with student commentaries, it more than makes up for in its probing questioning about the dialogue. Priou has not aimed to produce a pedagogical commentary—though the book could adequately serve this purpose in many respects—but rather a series of reflections that underscore the meatiness and complexity of Plato’s Symposium. Disparagers of the Great Books approach to education often presume that courses focused on canonical texts prove insufficiently critical of them. Priou shows that this need not be the case. His subversion of many readers’ expectations regarding the Symposium, in fact, is exactly the sort of exegetical strategy requisite to revive humanistic inquiry.

Priou routinely introduces issues that qualify the dialogue—issues that other readers are likely to have missed or failed to notice adequately, either because they lack Priou’s philosophical training or did not read the dialogue with sufficient attention and care. He casts a gimlet eye on the Symposium, spurring the reader to examine Plato’s work with greater insight and, in many places, suspicion. As enamored with Plato as Priou obviously is, he’s no colorless and passive cheerleader for a great work.

Musings on Plato’s Symposium is a wonderful book. More than that: It’s implicitly a call to fellow scholars to join its author in providing readers with innovative and accessible writings that showcase the depths and subtleties of humanistic masterworks. If more scholars wrote like Priou, perhaps a revival of the humanities in American culture would seem less farfetched.