The Symposium
385-380 BCE

If you are looking for an entry point into Greek philosophy but worried that nothing could be more dull, this short little book is not a bad place to start. Philosophy as so much philosophy happens – with intellectual sitting around, drinking and talking about sex.

There’s a party in town, and all the cool philosopher-types are going. They lie about on couches and hit the booze. They talk about drinking and who can best hold their alcohol. They talk about food. They talk about sex – and, this being a moment in Greek history known for the man-boy love thing, a major theme is sex with boys and why it’s so much better than sex with women. They argue about who shares a couch with whom, brag about their conquests and whine about Socrates who is the uber-slut one day and Mr. Hard-To-Get the next. And through it all, they have a little competition to see who can give the best speech about love.

The narrative is where the action is. The speeches, of course, are where the philosophizing is, and, as so often, Plato uses the character of his old master Socrates to speak his own ideas – and not just to win the competition, but to do so with more than a little trash-talking of the others in the process. There is talk of history and myth, debate of the nature of the gods and the relationship between the divine and the earthly, consideration of love as a spiritual yearning and a physical need. And there is Socrates, hitting it out of the park in the last pages with his claim that there is no love without an absence to be filled, no love without a desire to possess.

A damn fine little book, and a whole lot of fun. Read it aloud with a lover. In the bath. With a bottle of wine. It’s how it was meant to be read.