The Contest of Wisdom between Socrates and Agathon in Plato’s Symposium

Steven Robinson
  • Ancient Philosophy, January 2004, Philosophy Documentation Center
  • DOI: 10.5840/ancientphil20042415

Plato's Dionysos in Symposium

What is it about?

Plato employs a complex system of Dionysiac symbols in his dialogue Symposium. One aspect is revealed by the so-called 'contest of wisdom' that Agathon invokes between himself and Socrates. Further Dionysiac associations of both characters then set up a contrast between kinds of wisdom (ultimately, philosophy vs. poetry), and Socrates' subsequent 'victory' amounts to ordering a hierarchy of discourses within the polis. The goal of the erotic problematic is then to integrate, and thereby unify, these divided discourses.

Why is it important?

This article makes several potentially important claims. It shows that tragedy is not being rejected by Plato, but validated at a level below philosophical discourse. It shows how the concern with eros is about integration of diverse parts within a whole. It moves forward toward settlement of the issue of genre in Plato's own writing, clearly distinguishing it from both drama and Socratic dialogue. It enframes and thematizes the erotic speeches and marks off Alcibiades' speech as concerned with a different problem. It affirms Plato's discipleship of Socrates and discloses significant information about Socrates' status as a philosopher. It details some of the powerful associations that Plato has set up between philosophy and mystery-religion.


Dr Steven R Robinson (Author)
Brandon University

This article addresses just one aspect of the complex system of Dionysiac symbolism that Plato has employed in Symposium. Others will have to follow in further publications and research. Some have been articulated (as was this) in my unpublished dissertation. All require further elaboration. I expect this path of research to lead to a solution of the riddle about tragedy and comedy at the end of the Symposium, but I'm not quite there yet.

The following have contributed to this page: Dr Steven R Robinson