Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Two Symposiums: A Lesson in the Life of the Mind.

One starry night two thousand years ago, a group of free Greek citizens gathered for a symposium at the poet Agathon's house. Sitting on a ring of comfortable couches, the men ate a hearty banquet and prepared for the customary night of entertainment. This night, though, was different from all other nights. Choosing intellectual over physical pleasure, the men sent away the flutist, renounced wine, and dedicated the night to the pleasures of the mind. The program: all the guests were to give a speech expounding on and praising love.

Phaedrus opened by praising the unshakable courage that love confers on mortals. Pausanius was next, explaining the difference between earthly and heavenly—that is, intellectual—love. The last speech belonged to Socrates, who gave the West one of its most penetrating insights and greatest follies. Earthly desire, he said, is the lowest rung of an intellectual ladder whose top is the ultimate truth of the world. But at the end of the night, a drunk and enthusiastic Alcibiades burst into the room; mocking Socrates, joking with the guests, and reminding everyone that pleasure doesn't exist for abstract intellectualism: its real importance lies in colorful, earthly delight.

Alcibiades arrives late.
Once upon a more recent time, a group of American scholars gathered at a modern university for another symposium. The theme this time: Towards a Critical Interpretation of Socratic Dialogue.
After a lunch of turkey sandwiches speared with cellophane-wrapped toothpicks, the first to speak was Professor Max Fischentgraeter from St. Louis. The professer, a balding fifty-one-year-old, talked for an hour and a half about the destabilizing rhetorical techniques employed in the Phaedrus. Next, Professor MarĂ­a Rallavacas gave a frame-shifting talk on the drama of gender in Agathon's Symposium speechAt the end of her presentation, a middle-aged man, name-tag draped over his pot-belly, stood up and rambled for three minutes about his own research. Professor Rallavacas patiently panned a question out of his remarks and gave a detailed, fifteen-minute answer. The audience shifted in their seats, waiting for the next speaker.

At the end of the conference, the bespectacled organizer stood up on stage. Everyone was invited, he said, to submit papers to the annual conference of the Midwestern Institute for Classical Studies, which would be held in October in St. Paul.

Which of the symposiums, do you think, came closer to wisdom? Which advanced the human race farther? Which was more filled with foxlike cunning, ancient resplendence, and innocent delight? And woe to the University of Chicago! I've been to its symposiums, and I haven't seen any drinks or music to abstain from.

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