Briefly Noted: Thomas L. Pangle, “Socratic Political Philosophy in Xenophon’s Symposium”

The commentary I recommend on Xenophon’s Symposium is Dustin Gish’s dissertation, “Xenophon’s Socratic Rhetoric: A Study of the Symposium.” Gish has his own translation of the work with notes in the appendices. Still, I realize access to that is problematic for many of you. It’s in the University of Dallas library and something I can read at my leisure.

Pangle’s short commentary on the Symposium is the matter at hand. It is excellent and – more importantly – easily found. Pangle states directly the Socratic relation to the gentlemen of the party:

The heart of the matter is the Socratic understanding of the capacity of the beautiful/noble (to kalon), in both its spiritual and physical dimensions, to evoke loving (“erotic”) devotion – to individuals, to the community or to public service, to virtue, and to divinity (141).

Now if you’ve read the Symposium you know it seems to have a bit more structure than the Memorabilia, but it is still hard to discern what that structure is. Perhaps we can start by saying eros is in some way inimical to order, an order to kalon exists to serve (cf. Strauss, “On Plato’s Symposium”). What is quoted above makes the relation between eros and to kalon look unproblematic. It takes a moment to realize Pangle’s subtlety: to kalon is meant to induce a particular eros. In a sense, eros governs the whole of the matter and can very easily get out of hand (cf. Hiero – can nobility collapse into desire simply?) .

That does not mean some sort of reconciliation between the noble and the erotic is impossible (see esp. 150-151). But it does hint that the difficult structure of the Symposium serves a purpose. We are being led to a full picture of the problem through events that seem disconnected at times. The full articulation of the problem requires us to see how a variety of human types respond to eros (141). Those types create the dialogue as it is; one of the types, as Pangle points out, is the author himself (141, 142 and esp. 151, end).

The structure of Pangle’s essay facilitates finding and focusing on revelatory moments even as it moves chronologically with the dialogue itself. Autolycus, early in the dialogue and the essay, wields a “regal power” because of his “erotic beauty,” as he is a “youth suffused with awe and moderation” (141). The political implications are brought forth by Xenophon. Erotic longings can cause the party to devolve: Charmides’  remark at Symposium 3.1

It seems to me, gentlemen, that, as Socrates said of the wine, so this blending of the young people’s beauty and of the notes of the music lulls one’s griefs to sleep and awakens the goddess of Love.

is not as innocent as it may seem. In context, it threatens to pull the party away from higher discussions of what is fitting for men (Sym. 2.3), the power and responsibility of education (2.8-10), the nature of courage (2.11-12) and the issue of Socrates himself dancing. But Autolycus’ erotic pull, while nowhere near intellectual as Socrates’ efforts, does not seem as base as where the party could go:

Autolycus captivated everyone’s eyes with a universally arresting force. Then, as they gazed, each was induced to undergo one or another spiritual effect. In some, the inspiring possession by the moderate god Eros was evident: this was the case most unmistakably in the lover, Callias – but also, if to a much lesser degree,  in those who assumed more dignified postures in addition to falling silent (141).

We are informed by Pangle that there are those who only fell silent. Perhaps this includes Socrates and Xenophon, who might have been “able to look away from Autolycus, to the other onlookers, where they found something ‘worth contemplating'” (141).

The puzzle has been fleshed out by the narrative. There are at least three groups of people, philosophic, those who respond to honor, those who are more or less governed by their appetites (if restrained, “fear” in some form is the “appetite”). The latter two groups are susceptible to base eroticism. Yet the politics of the situation are complicated. It is obvious eroticism can destroy all serious political phenomena. In some way, though, the city recognizes and perhaps even utilizes eros of a sort. This initially makes no sense: aren’t all serious political considerations thumotic (spirited; taking it here to be more like “concerned with honor”)? However, note where we find a solution to the problem of base eroticism generally –  the beauty contest between Socrates and Critobulus:

Originally, Critobulus had playfully proposed to match his own erotic physical beauty against, not the erotic physical beauty of Socrates, but the latter’s wisdom – his spiritual beauty. It was Socrates who insisted on substituting a contest over sheer physical, erotic beauty (4.18-19) and who then insured that on these terms his defeat would be risibly decisive (5.9-10). With Critobulus’ cooperation, Socrates thus presented his understanding of (his) spiritual beauty, and its relation to erotic physical beauty, under the mask of self-mockery – which he and Xenophon made more significant by turning it into a proleptic parody of his deadly courtroom quarrel before the city’s judges (5.2, 5.10): the city, the civic gentlemen, stand with the claim made by Critobulus on behalf of his (and Autolycus’) erotic beauty (147).

The city at some point does reduce to the opinions of its citizens. Hence, their private opinions being turned into an implicit wish of the city can be said to be erotic. There is another line of thought that could suffice here. Inasmuch the city and philosophy conflict, it is not merely because philosophy appears to corrode civic life, because civic life involves complete mastery of opinion by an authority. It could also because philosophy as eros is in competition with the other people in the city who also claim to be erotic.

Socrates walks a tightrope as if it were the most natural thing. An excerpt from the beauty contest:

Soc. “Do you know the reason why we need eyes?”

Crit. “Obviously to see with.”

“In that case, it would appear without further ado that my eyes are finer ones than yours.”

“How so?”

“Because, while yours see only straight ahead, mine, by bulging out as they do, see also to the sides.”

Crit. “Do you mean to say that a crab is better equipped visually than any other creature?”

Soc. “Absolutely; for its eyes are also better set to insure strength.” (Sym 5.5)

The principle Socrates uses: “the beautiful is that which is well constructed by art with a view to the work for which we acquire each implement, or well endowed by nature with a view to what we need” (147). In making the beautiful the useful, he has also made it  in a fundamental sense conventional (see the Greater Hippias of Plato for more on this; it does seem to me that “by nature” can be appropriated into conventional ends). Eroticism has been given a higher calling which the city must acknowledge. That higher calling might be too high; utility does lead directly to rationality, and can skip past the honorable. But in this case, Socrates has most emphatically put aside the dishonorable. He loses the beauty contest, of course. But Critobulus agrees to the principle, despite its apparent absurdity.

There’s far more than this in Pangle’s essay: his comments on the end of the dialogue and Xenophon’s authorial role are particularly astute. I seriously doubt the Xenophon scholarship I’m planning on reviewing will be this good (I’ve read a good amount already, as you can tell). But we’ll worry about that in future posts.


Pangle, Thomas L. “Socratic Political Philosophy in Xenophon’s Symposium.” American Journal of Political Science 54.1 (Jan 2010): 140-152.

Quotes from Xenophon’s Symposium are from the Perseus Digital Library.


  1. Although I am not familiar with Pangle, I am familiar with Socrates. It is because my teacher tackled his writings and philosophy. I also remember that he was associated with “Know thyself”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.