On Socrates, Dancing and Philosophy: Xenophon, Symposium II 15-20

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

– from Yeats, “Among School Children”

We are all familiar with Nietzsche’s pronouncement about god and dance; Montaigne says the most “notable” thing about Socrates is that he learned to dance when old. It did not occur to me that the origin of this idea is Xenophon – Xenophon I had actually read before – until recently. I’ve been reading Dustin Gish, “Xenophon’s Socratic Rhetoric:  A Study of the Symposium,” pp. 95-102, where he discusses the linkage between philosophy and dancing clearly. Many of the insights below are from his work, if not all.

Xenophon’s Symposium II, 15-16, trans. Todd:

At this point the boy performed a dance, eliciting from Socrates the remark, “Did you notice that, handsome (kalos) as the boy is, he appears even handsomer (kallion) in the poses of the dance than when he is at rest?”

“It looks to me,” said Charmides, “as if you were puffing the dancing-master.”

“Assuredly,” replied Socrates; “and I remarked something else, too – that no part of his body was idle during the dance, but neck, legs, and hands were all active together. And that is the way a person must dance who intends to increase the suppleness of his body. And for myself,” he continued, addressing the Syracusan [the dancing-master], “I should be delighted to learn the figures from you.”

“What use will you make of them?” the other asked.

“I will dance, by Zeus!”

Gish points out that the relation between beautiful (kalos) and more beautiful (kallion) is one of motion and proportion. The “poses of the dance” is a word that you could translate as “forms” (96), but I don’t want to get into that issue too deeply. The usual Platonic word for “forms” is some variant of eidos, and kalos puts us with the “noble” and “beautiful” more than “true.”

“Suppleness” is not unimportant: you can go to Yeats above and see the full significance – this is about a work (“labor”) where soul does not emerge at the expense of body, in contrast to what marks labor generally, i.e. “death.” Again, philosophy is the practice of dying and being dead: the center of Socrates’ own list being “legs” is about taking oneself from one realm to another willingly, with total control of the destination pursued. The rhetorical linkage of the philosopher here is between “life” (motion) and “beauty,” and that is because of “suppleness” – we have plenty of stories of the gods living well otherwise.  (“Forms” – poses of the dance – may be what Socrates is truly deliberating.) In fact, just as all the other gods laugh because of Hephaestus’ deformity at the end of Iliad Book 1, Socrates is laughed at for his pronouncement that he wants to learn how to dance.  Symposium II, 17 – 19:

This raised a general laugh; but Socrates, with a perfectly grave expression on his face, said: “You are laughing at me, are you? Is it because I want to exercise to better my health? Or because I want to take more pleasure in my food and sleep? Or is it because I am eager for such exercises as these, not like the long-distance runners, who develop their legs at the expense of their shoulders, nor like the prize fighters, who develop their shoulders but become thin-legged, but rather with a view to giving my body a symmetrical development by exercising it in every part? Or are you laughing because I shall not need to hunt up a partner to exercise with, or to strip, old as I am, in a crowd, but shall find a moderate-sized room large enough for me (just as this room was large enough for the lad here to get up a sweat in), and because in winter I shall exercise under cover, and when it is very hot, in the shade? Or is this what provokes your laughter, that I have an unduly large paunch and wish to reduce it? Don’t you know that just the other day Charmides here caught me dancing early in the morning?”

“Indeed I did,” said Charmides, “and at first I was dumbfounded and feared that you were going stark mad; but when I heard you say much the same thing as you did just now, I myself went home, and although I did not dance, for I had never learned how, I practiced shadow-boxing, for I knew how to do that.”

Gish talks about perfect gentlemanship – that a gentleman must be noble (kalos) and good, and how Socrates is playfully leading the gentleman in the Symposium to where they ought to be. So I think what is happening here is that the philosophic life is condescending to the noble: I mean, the argument about the proportion of the body and expert athletes may not fit with Socrates’ philosophic endeavors. Socrates could overpursue a line of thought to the detriment of all others; love of wisdom does not necessitate expertise in any given subject, but will more than likely end up with a deformed mastery over one or two. As Aristophanes has noted in the Clouds, “health” is not the end of the philosophic life. To know how man ought to live according to nature is not the same thing as figuring that out in the first place.

Where Gish is exceptionally good is in describing how this private activity of dancing – which looks to be madness – actually appeals to one of the gentlemen. Socrates has couched the argument for dancing in terms of utility (99), and Charmides takes three things from it (100): Socrates dances, but without proper training (love of wisdom vs. wisdom?); without a (private) explanation, Socrates’ deeds look insane; finally, Charmides imitates Socrates in his own way.

There is something inherently noble and useful in the philosophic life, but it is very radical: the key to nobility is dancing privately? It’s not hard for us to see how the teaching works at a political level: the football teams West Point and Annapolis field have a very tough time against any other school, because soldiers need to be proportional, whereas modern American football demands a specialized sort of athleticism. Moreover, the notion that the leading men in society should take time to better themselves privately – not just be concerned to mesmerize people publicly – is advanced directly by this teaching.

Still, Socrates was dancing privately, and not for the sake of being noble. In a sense, he is always dancing privately, and no criterion of utility can describe or explain that other than the very vague claim that there is a sort of labor unique to those who love wisdom, where the dancer is indistinguishable from the dance.


  1. I like. I won’t say much more, but I like this post and the idea behind the discussion: “Moreover, the notion that the leading men in society should take time to better themselves privately – not just be concerned to mesmerize people publicly – is advanced directly by this teaching.”

  2. Now I’m inspired to dance – literally, not philosophically – not for the wisdom, or nobility, or passion, but because you showed me the value of getting all our parts moving. Out with the stationary bike! In with Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive.”

  3. Alice- that is my definite preferred exercise method. Whenever my husband isn’t here I’ll put on some techno and hop around the living room for 40 minutes or so. It’s sooooo much more fun than hanging out in the gym or even going for a walk.

  4. Brilliant.

    Kierkegaard, who made constant reference to Socrates has Johannes Climacus say that Socrates was ‘a solo dancer in honor of divinity”. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript). I’m afraid I’m just going to let that hang there without commentary…



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