I am dating the Symposium in 364/3 B.C.; Plato in my view wrote it after the sailing season, in which he sent Dionysius the Second Letter, passed, without Dionysius summoning him and Dion back to Syracuse.
In the Second Letter Plato tells Dionysius: ‘according to Archedemus’ report you say (phê̢s gar dê kata ton ekeinou logon) that you have not had a sufficient demonstration (ouch hikanôs apodedeichthai soi) of the doctrine concerning the nature of the First (peri tês tou prôtou phuseôs) … the matter stands thus (hôde gar echei): Related to the King of All are all things (peri ton pantôn basilea pant’ esti), and for his sake they are (kai ekeinou heneka panta), and of all things fair he is the cause (kai ekeino aition hapantôn tôn kalôn) … About these, then, the human soul strives to learn (hê oun anthrôpinê psuchê peri auta oregetai mathein poi’ atta estin), looking to the things that are akin to itself (blepousa eis ta hautês sungenê), whereof none is fully perfect (hôn ouden hikanôs echei). But as to the King (to dê basileôs peri) and the objects I have mentioned (kai hôn eipon, i.e. ‘things fair’ of which the King of All, that is the Good, is the cause), they are of quite different quality (ouden estin toiouton). In the next place the soul inquires (to dê meta touto hê psuchê phêsi) – “Well then, what quality have they (alla poion ti mên;)?” But the cause of all mischief, O son of Dionysius and Doris, lies in this very question (tout’ estin, ô pai Dionusiou kai Dôridos, to erôtêma ho pantôn aition estin kakôn), or rather in the travail which this question creates in the soul (mallon de hê peri toutou ôdis en tê̢ psuchê̢ engignomenê); and unless a man delivers himself from this (hên ei mê tis exairethêsetai) he will never really attain the truth (tês alêtheias ontôs ou mê pote tuchê̢).’ (312d5-313a6)
In the Symposium Plato presents Agathon as an example of a man asking poion, translated by Bury in the Second Letter as a question of quality. Agathon opens his encomium on Eros with the words: ‘Let me say first (Egô de dê boulomai prôton men eipein) how I ought to speak (hôs chrê me eipein), and then speak (epeita eipein). The previous speakers, instead of praising the god of Love, and unfolding his nature, appear to have congratulated mankind on the benefits which he confers upon them (dokousi gar moi pantes hoi prosthen eirêkotes ou ton theon enkômiazein alla tous anthrôpous eudaimonizein tôn agathôn hôn ho theos aitios, hopoios de tis autos ôn tauta edôrêsato, oudeis eirêken). But I would rather praise the god first, and then speak of his gifts; this is always the right way of praising everything (heis de tropos orthos pantos epainou peri pantos, logô̢ dielthein hoios hoiôn aitios ôn tunchanei peri hou an ho logos ê̢. houtô dê ton Erôta kai hêmas dikaion epainesai prôton auton hoios estin, epeita tas doseis). (194e4-195a5, translations from the Symposium are Jowett’s)
Jowett’s translation does not allow the reader to find any connection with the Second Letter. The fault is not Jowett’; the problem is deeper. The English language does not have any interrogative pronoun corresponding to poios ‘of what quality’, and no demonstrative pronoun corresponding to its correlatives hopoios and hoios. I would call these ‘adjectival’ interrogative and demonstrative pronouns, for the interrogative poios expects adjectives as the answer, the demonstrative hopoios and hoios stand (mostly) for adjectives. Agathon goes on to say: ‘May I say without impiety or offence, that of all the blessed gods he is the most blessed (phêmi oun egô pantôn theôn eudaimonôn ontôn Erôta, ei themis kai anamesêton eipein, eudaimonestaton einai autôn) because he is the fairest (kalliston onta) and best (kai ariston)?’ (195a5-7)
In the Second Letter Plato qualifies the poion question as pantôn aition estin kakôn, which Bury translates as ‘the cause of all mischief’. Whenever I come across the word ‘mischief’, I hear or read it in the sense of ‘bad behaviour (especially of children) that is annoying but does not cause any serious damage or harm’, as my Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary puts its meaning 1. This meaning of the word does not correspond to what Plato says. But under 3 the Dictionary says ‘(formal) harm or injury that is done to sb or to their reputation’; this sounds better. But since Plato speaks of ‘harm’ done to thinking, which he elucidates in the Symposium, I would suggest taking pantôn aition estin kakôn as ‘the cause of everything that goes wrong (in argument)’.
Socrates opens his questioning of Agathon with the words: ‘In your oration, my dear Agathon, I think that you were certainly right in proposing to speak of the nature of Love first (Kai mên, ô phile Agathôn, kalôs moi edoxas kathêgêsasthai tou logou, legôn hoti prôton men deoi auton epideixai hopoios tis estin ho Erôs) and afterwards of his works (husteron de ta erga autou) – that is a way of beginning which I very much approve (tautên tên archên panu agamai, 198c3-6).’
Jowett’s ‘speak of the nature of Love’ for Socrates’ hopoios tis estin ho Erôs misrepresents Plato; ‘to speak of the quality of Love’, however awkward, would be better. Jowett’s ‘I very much approve’ goes well with his ‘to speak of the nature of Love first’, but not with Socrates’ hopoios tis estin ho Erôs ‘of what quality Eros is’; in view of Socrates’ further questioning of Agathon his panu agamai either must be taken as ‘I greatly wonder at’, with a tinge of irony, his kalôs moi edoxas (199c3) as ‘you seemed to me beautifully’ (not ‘you were certainly right’ as Jowett takes it), or his prôton (‘firstly’, 199c4) must be understood as ‘before’ in relation to husteron ,‘afterwards’, not absolutely as ‘first’ (199c5).
Socrates asks next: ‘And as you have set forth his nature with such stately eloquence, may I ask you further (ithi oun moi peri Erôtos, epeidê kai t’alla kalôs kai megaloprepôs diêlthes hoios esti, kai tode eipe), whether Love is by his nature the love of something (poteron esti toioutos hoios einai tinos ho Erôs erôs) or nothing (ê oudenos; 199c6-d2)?’ Socrates’ kalôs, amplified by megaloprepôs, is translated by Jowett ‘with such stately eloquence’. Can a reader with no Greek divine that just a sentence before Jowett translated Socrates’ kalôs moi edoxas as ‘you were certainly right’?
Socrates: ‘And tell me (tosonde de eipe) whether Love desires that of which love is (poteron ho Erôs ekeinou hou estin Erôs, epithumei autou ê ou;).’ – Agathon: ‘Yes, surely (Panu ge)’. – Soc. ‘And does he possess (poteron echôn auto), or does he not possess, that which he loves and desires (hou epithumei te kai era̢, eita epithumei te kai era̢, ê ouk echôn;)?’ – Agathon: ‘Probably not, I should say (Ouk echôn ge, hôs to eikos ge).’ – Soc. ‘I would have you consider (skopei dê) whether “necessarily” is not rather the word (anti tou eikotos ei anankê houtôs). The inference that he who desires something is lacking in that thing (to epithumoun epithumein hou endees estin), and that he who does not desire a thing is not in lack of it (ê mê epithumein, ean mê endees ê̢), is in my judgement (emoi men gar thaumastôs dokei), absolutely and necessarily true (hôs anankê einai).’ (200a2-b2)
This argument does not work in English (or in Czech for that matter), unless we wilfully narrow our notion of love to the Greek notion of erôs. When Jesus says ‘Love your enemies’, he says agapate tous echthrous humôn, he could never have said erate tous echthrous humôn.
Socrates: ‘Love is the love of beauty (allo ti ho Erôs kallous an eiê erôs) and not of deformity (aischous de ou;)?’ – He assented (Hômologei). – Soc. ‘And the admission has been already made (Oukoun hômologêtai) that love is of something which one lacks and has not (hou endeês esti kai mê echei, toutou eran;)?’ – Agathon: ‘True (Nai).’ – Soc. ‘Then Love lacks and has not beauty (Endeês ar’ esti kai ouk echei ho Erôs kallos)?’ – A.: ‘Certainly (Anankê).’ – S.: ‘And would you call that beautiful which lacks beauty and does not possess it in any way (Ti de; to endees kallous kai mêdamê̢ kektêmenon kallos ara legeis su kalon einai;)?’ – A.: ‘Certainly not (Ou dêta).’ – S. ‘Then would you still say (Eti oun homologies) that Love is beautiful (Erôta kalon einai, ei tauta houtôs echei;)?’ – A.:’I fear (Kinduneuô) that I said what I did without understanding (ouden eidenai hôn tote eipon).’ – S.: ‘Indeed, you made a very good speech (Kai mên kalôs ge eipes), Agathon (ô Agathôn), but there is yet one small question which I would fain ask (alla smikron eti eipe). Is not the good also the beautiful (t’agatha ou kai kala dokei soi einai;)? – A.: ‘Yes (Emoige).’ – S.: ‘Then in lacking the beautiful (Ei ara ho Erôs tôn kalôn endeês esti, ta de agatha kala), love lacks also the good (k’an tôn agathôn endeês eiê)?’ – A.: ‘I cannot refute you, Socrates (Egô, ô Sôkrates, soi ouk an dunaimên antilegein). Be it as you say (all’ houtôs echetô hôs legeis). – S.: Say rather, beloved Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth (Ou men oun tê̢ alêtheia̢, ô philoumene Agathôn, dunasai antilegein); for Socrates is easily refuted (epei Sôkratei ge ouden chalepon). (201a9-c9)
I can’t help cringing at Jowett’s ‘you cannot refute the truth … for Socrates is easily refuted’ for Plato’s Ou men oun tê̢ alêtheia̢ dunasai antilegein … epei Sôkratei ge ouden chalepon. Is there any dialogue of Plato where Socrates can be seen refuted, let alone ‘easily refuted? Antilegein means ‘contradict’, ‘speak against’. Socrates is shown contradicted in many dialogues of Plato, but no one of his interlocutors, while contradicting Socrates, thinks he is contradicting the truth. The moment Socrates makes them see that their position is untenable, i.e. that they ‘speak against the truth’, they concede defeat.
Having shown Agathon that his hoios esti Erôs ‘of what quality Eros is’ led him astray, Socrates turns to ‘his’ speech on Eros: ‘And now, taking my leave of you (Kai se men êdê easô), I will rehearse a tale of love which I heard from Diotima of Mantinea (ton de logon ton peri tou Erôtos, hon pot’ êkousa gunaikos Mantinikês Diotimas), a woman wise in this (hê tauta men sophê ên) and many other kinds of knowledge (kai alla polla … peirasomai humin dielthein 201d1-6) … As you, Agathon, suggested, it is proper to speak first of the being and nature [‘quality’] of Love (dei dê, ô Agathôn, hôsper su diêgêsô, dielthein auton prôton, tis estin ho Erôs kai poios tis), and then of his works (epeita ta erga autou, 201d8-e2).’
On the margin of my Oxford text I wrote down Bury’s note: ‘Cf. ‘Agathon in 195 A [hoios hoiôn aitios ôn, 195a2-3’], observe the significant addition by Socrates of tis estin.’ An apposite remark. I cannot but marvel with what delicacy Socrates transforms Agathon’s hoios into poios tis, and how diplomatically he introduces the all important tis estin (‘who is’) question. Compare the insistence with which he puts the ti esti question in the Hippias Major, asking the sophist Hippias ‘what beauty itself is’ (auto to kalon hoti esti, 286d8-e1), or the ‘What is piety (to hosion hoti pot’ eiê, 6d2)’ question in the Euthyphro, which he puts to Euthyphro, asking the ti esti question with greater and greater vehemence throughout these dialogues. The importance of the ti esti question is well emphasized by Aristotle in Metaphysics A, where he says that Plato ‘has used only two causes (duoin aitiain monon kechrêtai), that of the essence (tê̢ tou ti esti) and the material cause (kai tê̢ kata tên hulên), for the Forms (ta gar eidê) are the causes of the essence of all other things (tou ti estin aitia tois allois), and the One [the King of All of Plato’s Second Letter, the Good of his Republic] is the cause of the essence of the Forms (tois d’eidesi to hen, 988a9-11, tr. W. D. Ross)’.
Plato was quite harsh with Dionysius in the Second Letter concerning the poion question, ‘the cause of all that goes wrong’ (ho pantôn aition estin kakôn, 313a4). In the Symposium he shows how the poion question makes all go wrong for Agathon in his encomium on Eros, but far from being harsh with him, when he brings in the tis estin question (ti estin ho Erôs, 200e8) at the end of their discussion, he speaks of it as if it were Agathon’s own original idea. On the dating of the Symposium that I have proposed, concerning Dionysius, he makes amends. In view of the Second Letter, on reading the Symposium Dionysius could not but identify himself with the young, beautiful, and talanted Agathon.