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Jack’s Naughty Bits: Plato, The Symposium

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Jack's Naughty Bits


Hunchbacked,

bad-skinned, defaced, abject and generally hideous, could you love him for

his brain alone? I am not referring to my high school self (though the description is not far

off), but to the great ugly duckling of intellectual history, Socrates. While there is a long

tradition of physically repugnant philosophers (Plotinus, as I mentioned in a former

column, was leprous and nosable at some distance), Socrates’ physical monstrosity is the

most legendary. No real surprise, then, that philosophy has always insisted on a

distinction, if not a conflict, between mind and body, for the better part of the guys writing

the stuff down would have loved to saw themselves off at the neck.


    

Yet no matter how hideous Socrates was, the boys continued to line up behind him

(or in front, as the case may have been). So what was the draw of this guy who was not

only twice their age but unbelievably self-satisfied, condescending and always on the

move? Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary: the brain. Big brain, historical brain, still-respected-after- two-millennia brain. You can imagine how comforting this idea was to

a dateless high school pedant, believing that, one day, he too might woo with cognition

alone. Ah, but then few are born with Socrates’ brain (even Nietzsche, who was no

troglodyte, had a hard time getting lucky). But don’t despair, in most cases, brains do

prove sexy in time. So for those of you out there who have prayed and hoped, waiting with

a candle in the window, I give you this, a parable of the pull of the perspicacious:

Alicibiades’ account of trying to seduce Socrates.



* * *



From The Symposium by Plato



He and I were alone together and I thought that when there was nobody with us, I should

hear him speak the language which lovers use to their loves when they are by themselves,

and I was delighted. Nothing of the sort. He conversed as usual, and spent the day with me

and then went away. Afterwards, I challenged him to the palestra; and he wrestled and

closed with me several times when there was no one present; I fancied that I might succeed

in this manner. Not a bit. I made no way with him. Lastly, as I had failed hitherto, I

thought that I must take stronger measures and attack him boldly, and, as I had begun, not

give him up, but see how matters stood between him and me. So I invited him over to sup

with me, just as if he were a fair youth and I a designing lover. He was not easily

persuaded to come; he did, however, after a while accept the invitation, and when he came

the first time, he wanted to go away at once as soon as supper was over, and I had not the

face to detain him. The second time, still in pursuance of my design, after we had supped, I

went on conversing far into the night, and when he wanted to go away, I pretended that the

hour was late and that he better remain. So he lay down on the couch next to me, the same

on which he had supped, and there was no one about but ourselves sleeping in the

apartment.


    

All this may be told without shame to anyone. But what follows I could hardly tell

you if I were sober . . . For I have been bitten by something worse than a viper’s tooth; I

have known in my soul, or in my heart or in some other part that worst of pangs, more

violent in ingenuous youth than any serpent’s tooth, the pang of philosophy . . .


    

When the lamp was put out and the servants had gone away, I thought that I must be

plain with him and have no more ambiguity. So I gave him a shake and said, Socrates, are

you asleep? No, he said . . . and so without waiting I to hear more I got up, and throwing

my coat about him crept under his threadbare cloak, as the time of year was winter, and

there I lay during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms . . . And yet,

notwithstanding all, he was so superior to my solicitations, so contemptuous and derisive

and disdainful of my beauty — which, really, as I fancied, had some attractions — hear, O

judges; for judges you shall be of the haughty virtue of Socrates — nothing more happened!

And when I arose, I did so as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.