ABSTRACT: In this paper I examine the text of the Symposium to illustrate two non-philosophical responses to Socrates’ pedagogical provocation. While Apollodorus and Aristodemus, two Socratic disciples, demonstrate their erotic commitment to Socrates, they do not practice philosophy. They manifest their non-philosophical behavior in two ways. First, they idolize and imitate Socrates. Second, they constantly tell stories about Socrates. In the first section I analyze Aristodemus’ and Apollodorus’ emotional attachment to Socrates. While both disciples are genuinely protective of Socrates, their behavior often precludes the practice of philosophy. In the second section, I examine the nuances of the narrative frame of the Symposium. Apollodorus and Aristodemus both express their commitment to Socrates by telling stories about him. While their stories do preserve knowledge about Socrates, they are unpersuasive spokespersons for the philosophical life. They remain mired in their personal love for Socrates. In the third section, I interpret Plato’s rhetorical use of anonymity as a strategy designed to mitigate against the dangers of discipleship.

In this paper, I examine the text of the Symposium to illustrate two non-philosophical responses to Socrates’ pedagogical provocation. While Apollodorus and Aristodemus, two Socratic disciples, demonstrate their erotic commitment to Socrates, they do not practice philosophy. They manifest their non-philosophical behavior in two ways. First, they idolize and imitate Socrates. Second, they constantly tell stories about Socrates. Unfortunately, these practices do not lead them toward a genuine philosophical commitment. They remain mired in their personal love for Socrates. I then interpret Plato’s rhetorical use of anonymity as a possible strategy designed to mitigate against the dangers of discipleship.

1. Imitation of Socrates' Non-narrative Behavior

When Aristodemus arrives at Agathon's party without Socrates, his solitary appearance surprises Agathon. Upon seeing Aristodemus without Socrates, Agathon acts as if such an occurrence were an anomaly. Somewhat bewildered, Agathon exclaims "but where is he?" (174e8). Apparently, Aristodemus follows Socrates around everywhere. Apollodorus' concluding description of Aristodemus reveals that the man habitually followed Socrates everywhere; "He [Aristodemus] followed him [Socrates] just as he was accustomed" (223e10).(1) Given this behavior, it is not surprising that Agathon cannot imagine a circumstance in which he would find Aristodemus without Socrates. Early in the dialogue, Apollodorus suggests that Aristodemus engages in this behavior because he is "obsessed with Socrates" (173b).

When Apollodorus tells us that Aristodemus "followed Socrates just as he was accustomed" (223e10), he uses the word, hepomai. The Greek word hepomai carries the sense of "following as an attendant" (Liddell and Scott 310). Aristodemus completely orients himself toward Socrates. His devotion is submissive and servile. Aristodemus exhibits his submissiveness when he exclaims to Socrates that he would not come to the party except "by your having invited me" (174d1). Aristodemus proudly proclaims his servitude. He tells Socrates, "[I will] do whatever you command" (174b2). When he does as Socrates "commands" and goes ahead to the party without him (174d6), Aristodemus enacts his servility before our eyes. When Aristodemus proclaims his willingness to do whatever Socrates commands, he reveals his enslavement to Socrates' words. The indirect speech construction of the narrative frame, reinforced at this juncture, directly links Aristodemus' behavior to Socrates' words. The text reads: "he said, I said that ‘thus, [I will do] whatever you command’" (174b2).

Besides following Socrates around like an attendant and obeying his every command, Aristodemus also attends to the superficial detail of Socrates' behavior. J. Gordon Chamberlin explains that this behavior is paradigmatic of the faithful disciple. He remarks, "a disciple may express this new faith by ardent imitation of the manners, style of life, or other exterior manifestations of the person-idea" (283). Aristodemus illustrates the way that the disciple fawningly imitates every nuance of the master’s behavior. Aristodemus focuses on minutiae. He chooses particular aspects of Socrates' behavior and appropriates them as his own. For example, Aristodemus imitates Socrates' practice of going around barefoot. This aspect of Socrates becomes a supplement for Socrates himself. In this sense, Nussbaum and Halperin are correct to Aristodemus’ behavior as idolatrous. His "exaggerated aping of Socrates’ personal mannerisms" (Halperin 114) becomes a form of philosophical idolatry.

Pedagogically speaking, mimesis is not instrinically undesirable. For instance, one could argue as Aristotle does, that we become virtuous by imitating the actions of the virtuous person (Aristotle). Indeed, Chamberlin speaks of the obligation of the disciple in these terms. He remarks that the disciple has "an obligation to understand the ideas, the point-of-view, the position of the teacher-D" (283). One might well fulfill this obligation by imitating the behavior of the teacher. Unfortunately, if Aristodemus wishes to obtain the contemplative virtue of Socrates, then he imitates the wrong aspects of Socrates’ actions. He does not imitate Socrates’ reflection upon the dominate Homeric discourse. Though Socrates rethinks Homer’s poem, Aristodemus does not. He does meditate on their conversation as Socrates himself does (174d). Aristodemus walks on. Socrates loses himself in thought. Aristodemus does not give a speech in praise of Eros as Socrates does.(2) He does not participate in the conversation about the possibility of the same person writing both tragedy and comedy (223d).(3) In short, Aristodemus does not imitate the actions that make Socrates a philosophically virtuous person. Rather, he imitates the aspects of Socrates that are most recognizable. He focuses on Socrates’ superficial idiosyncrasies.

To be sure, Aristodemus displays an admirable loyalty to Socrates. In his role as a disciple, he is genuinely protective of his master. He keeps Agathon from interrupting Socrates’ philosophical meditation on two occasions (175b1-3, 175c4). Despite this loyalty to Socrates, Aristodemus’ imitative behavior reflects an inability or unwillingness to probe into deeper, more philosophical aspects of Socrates' behavior. Unfortunately, Aristodemus does not emulate Socrates' philosophical inquiries. He has no desire to do so. This lack of philosophical orientation becomes clear as Aristodemus and Socrates talk and walk along the road to Agathon's party. Socrates draws his thoughts inward (174d5). At first, Aristodemus waits for him but then Socrates "commands him to go forward" (174d6-7). The use of the word "command" alludes to Aristodemus' admission of servility (174b2). It also displays Socrates' belief that Aristodemus would be unable to share this philosophical experience with him.

Though Steve Lowenstam proclaims that "Aristodemus...inspires Socrates," his assertion lacks force (86). Socrates falls into this contemplative state while talking to Aristodemus. Had Aristodemus and Socrates been conversing philosophically, Socrates would have continued to participate in the conversation. Plato chooses not to depict Aristodemus giving a speech about Eros. This depiction demonstrates Aristodemus' unwillingness to be like Socrates in any way other than the superficial behavioral similarities he fanatically exhibits.(4) While Aristodemus' behavior insures a physical proximity to Socrates, there is no philosophical proximity. Allan Bloom remarks "this is a problem faced by all great teachers, the fanatic loyalists whose fanaticism is quite alien to the teacher’s disposition. They develop an almost religious reverence for this man whose teaching they are so deeply impressed by but are no themselves in a position adequately to judge" (448).

Fittingly, Apollodorus, the narrator, never mentions Aristodemus' love of philosophy, only his love of Socrates. Apollodorus remarks that "he was a lover [erastes] of Socrates, most especially in those days" (173b6-7). For Aristodemus, Socrates becomes the only object worthy of his eros, the only thing worth serving. Xenophon's depiction of Aristodemus is quite telling on this point. Xenophon relates a "conversion he once heard about the daimon" between Aristodemus and Socrates. Aristodemus remarks that he will believe in such things "whenever they send counselors, just as you say they send, that say what it is necessary to do and not do" (I, IV, 15). Aristodemus wants to be commanded. Socrates commands him. Aristodemus treats Socrates as the divine messenger. Allan Bloom remarks, "the contemplation of his virtues becomes a kind of religion" (530). Aristodemus does whatever Socrates tells him to do. Aristodemus is an idolater; he worships Socrates as divine.

II. Imitation of Socratic Narration

Besides imitating Socrates' non-narrative behavior, Aristodemus also manifests his obsession with Socrates by narrating accounts about Socrates. Aristodemus narrates stories about Socrates so that he can become more like Socrates. Aristodemus customarily narrates accounts about Socrates. Apollodorus makes this point clear. By attributing the origin of his narrative knowledge to Aristodemus, he associates Aristodemus with narrative activity (173b1-2). Further, when Apollodorus tells Glaucon that Aristodemus told both Phoenix and himself about Agathon's party (173b1-2), he attests to the frequency with which Aristodemus probably narrated accounts about Socrates. However, despite the frequency with which Aristodemus narrated, Apollodorus does not trust his story. Apollodorus checks part of Aristodemus' narrated account with Socrates' version (173b5-6). In doing so, he implies that Aristodemus' accounts were not entirely reliable.(5) Apollodorus believes that Aristodemus' obsession with Socrates hinders his narrative ability. Aristodemus does not care for his narration. The only thing Aristodemus cares about is Socrates.

Like Aristodemus, Apollodorus displays his love of Socrates by imitation. However, while Aristodemus imitates both Socrates' narrative and non-narrative behavior, Apollodorus primarily simulates Socrates' narrative activity.(6) On this point, David Halperin remarks, "Instead of engaging in Socratic inquiry, they tell stories about Socrates" (114). Like Aristodemus, Apollodorus tells these narrations to exhibit his dedication to Socrates. Unlike Aristodemus, Apollodorus specifically sees his narrates as a means by which he exhibits his care for Socrates. Apollodorus "has made it his business [epimeles] to know everything Socrates says or does" (172c5). He reveals this careful dedication to Socrates by narrating the entire Symposium. Apollodorus has also made it his business to narrate this knowledge of Socrates to others. Apollodorus defines himself as a bard spreading the Socratic word. On this point, Bloom notes that "Whoever knows the story, repeats it Socrates’ lovers are also proselytizers" (446). Fittingly, Apollodorus focuses first on what Socrates "says [lege]" (172c6). Socrates' words, the stories he narrates, captivate Apollodorus' attention. Apollodorus also orients himself toward Socrates' words when he checks Aristodemus' narrated account with Socrates' version. Using Socrates' words as the touchstone, Apollodorus affirm the veracity of Aristodemus' account. He asserts that it "agrees with what was narrated" (173b5). Apollodorus again displays the primacy he places on spoken narration when he remarks to Glaucon that the road is just right for "speaking and listening" (173b8). Given Apollodorus' infatuation with Socrates' spoken narrations, it is hardly surprising that he imitates them.

Because he values Socrates so highly, Apollodorus proves his narrative prowess before he can worthily narrate an account about Socrates. He displays his narrative credentials.(7) To do so, Apollodorus narrates how he became a careful and practiced narrator. Apollodorus narrates an account about himself narrating an account before he narrates an account about Socrates (172a-173c). Apollodorus' inclusion of himself in his narration shows the pride that Apollodorus takes in his narrating activity. Apollodorus surely recognizes that he simulates Socrates by simulating Socrates' narrative activity. Unfortunately, Apollodorus' pride is hubristic because he does not resemble Socrates in any philosophical sense. One interpreter remarks, "Apollodorus is nothing but a philosophical parrot who...really understands nothing" (Penwill 166). Apollodorus does not imitate Socrates in philosophy. Though Socrates uses narrative with the hope that it will lead others toward philosophical contemplation, Apollodorus does not move beyond the narrative level. Halperin notes, "when Apollodorus gets to the end of it, he simply shuts off, like a gramophone record that has finished playing" (112).

Just as Aristodemus’ imitative behavior has an emotional rather than philosophical motivation, Apollodorus' imitative behavior arises from passion rather than intellect. Several instances in the Symposium testify to Apollodorus' emotional preoccupation with Socrates. Glaucon calls him Socrates' "hetaire" (172b6).(8) Apollodorus himself characterizes Socrates as someone he "spend[s] all [his] time with" [sundiatribo] (172c5). The Phaedo corroborates Apollodorus' emotional attachment to Socrates. Given the characterization of Apollodorus in the Phaedo, it seems more likely that his narrations about Socrates grow out of this emotional attachment rather than from any philosophical interest.(9) While Apollodorus claims that no activity has more importance than philosophizing (173a3) and that he enjoys [chairo] philosophical conversation (173c5), his passion tempers any philosophical endeavor he pursues. His use of chairo reveals the emotional nature of his philosophic experience as the word suggests a sense of great rejoicing and excitement. Despite these protestations, Apollodorus shows little interest in philosophy. Halperin underscores this point as well. He remarks, "Far from being true philosophers, Apollodorus and Aristodemus appear to function entirely as sites of Socratic inscription" (114). While Apollodorus imitates Socrates’ narrative activity, he does not imitate Socrates with respect to philosophy.

Furthermore, his narration threatens to preclude the practice of philosophy altogether. The dialogue begins when someone asks about the erotic and ostensibly philosophic speeches that took place at Agathon's (172a). Instead of telling the speeches and engaging in a philosophical discussion about them, Apollodorus narrates. The dialogue begins with Apollodorus' digressive narrative account about having just recently told the same story. Apollodorus' audience must interrupt him twice to get him to relate the philosophical speeches (173d4 and 173e4). Apollodorus would rather narrate details about himself and Socrates than philosophize about eros and the good. George Penwill characterizes Apollodorus and Aristodemus in the following way:

Aristodemus makes the mistake of supposing that he will become like Socrates if he copies Socrates; Apollodorus that being a philosopher simply involves studying what Socrates says and does. Their love of Socrates has caused them to become figures of fun. (167)

They are a great deal more than mere figures of fun. They are crucial evidence with which Plato indicts Socrates. To explain, Apollodorus and Aristodemus ape and mime Socrates' behavior. They also narrate accounts of Socrates' behavior. In doing so, they produce simulacra of the Socrates. However, the copies obscure the original to such an extent that one wonders if the original would even recognize the copy. The Symposium paints a picture of what happens to philosophy when Socrates’ disciples appropriate Socrates’ narratives. Plato does not write the Symposium as a conversation between Apollodorus and Aristodemus about the nature of justice, or even about the nature of eros that they share for Socrates. While they tell stories about Socrates, they do not practice philosophy. I think that Plato writes the Symposium as he does to suggest that this unfortunate circumstance is not entirely the fault of the disciple. As Xenophon aptly notes, "He [Socrates] made his disciples hope that by imitating him they would become like him" (1,II, 3). The complex narrative frame of Plato’s dialogue shows that Apollodorus and Aristodemus share this hope. Though their idolatrous imitative behavior arises from a love of Socrates, this love produces only narrated stories about Socrates.

III. Plato’s Response

Plato's anonymity is difficult to miss. In fact, "One of the features of the Platonic Dialogues which most immediately strikes the reader is the presence on virtually every page of a character called Socrates and the apparent absence of the author, Plato" (Rowe 1). Simply put, Platonic anonymity is that "Plato says nothing in his own name" (Rosen, Symposium xli). Said in another way, Platonic anonymity is the fact that, "In the dialogues, Plato never explains himself" (Rosen, Symposium xviii). This reticence on Plato's part has vexed, irritated, confounded, and confused Plato scholars for centuries. Solutions to this problem of anonymity vary widely. Some interpreters assume that Socrates, or the Eleatic Stranger, or the Athenian Stranger must simply be Plato in disguise. Gilbert Ryle, for example, believes that Socrates is Plato (165) as does Hugh Tredennick who alleges that "Plato...undoubtedly felt...that he was little more than Socrates' mouthpiece" (13). J. Harward asserts, "It can hardly be doubted that the real Plato is sometimes speaking to us in the person of the Athenian Stranger" (71). Other interpreters argue that Plato's absence in the dialogues must indicate the presence of his "agrapha dogmata" in which he doubtless lectured in his name (Taylor). A few interpreters turn to the Letters to find Plato's authentic voice.(10) Scholars concerned with historical correctness point out that the creator of an ancient "work of art" did not sign their name. For example, Ludwig Edelstein explains Plato's anonymity by arguing that he continues the Pythagorean tradition of writing only in the name of the philosophical master: Socrates. Postmodern interpreters take Plato's dramatic absence as a starting point for their deconstruction of this founding father of idealism.(11) Clearly, the secondary literature offers an abundance of interpretations of Platonic anonymity. One could argue that this self-effacement represents the greatest act of discipleship. Plato completely obscures himself for the sake of the master. However, another motivation seems more likely. Plato recognizes that Socrates transformed philosophy into a narrative practice. He becomes a new hero to replace the old Homeric model. Socrates’ followers no longer idolize the Homeric gods and heroes. Instead, they idolize Socrates. Plato wanted to prevent this phenomenon. As a result, he appropriates what he sees as useful and valuable in Socrates’ pedagogical approach, but he changes the aspects of Socrates’ pedagogy that seem to cultivate philosophical discipleship. Since Plato himself does not appear as a narrator who tells narrations about himself, a reader of his dialogues cannot love Plato. A reader has no choice but to love philosophy.

Philosophy should triumph over discipleship because Plato's narrative absence distances him from the reader. Helen Bacon believes that "the distance...serves to engage the reader" in that we become participants instead of "mere spectators" (419). Roger Hornsby senses Plato's intention even more accurately. He notes the feeling of "aesthetic distance" that arises out of the Symposium's complex narrative frame. He suggests that this aesthetic distance creates a "dichotomy between our intellectual awareness and our emotional involvement" (37). Plato's absence fosters this dichotomy of distance. It severs emotional self-involvement from philosophical awareness. Plato's absence turns the student away from the erotic attraction to the philosopher. Plato's refusal to represent himself is a pharmakon, an antidote to Socrates’ overwhelming presence.

But wait! The historical Socrates was not a complete failure. If nothing else, he produced Plato. Surely Plato recognized this irony as he dramatized Socrates’ pedagogical failures. Why, then, would Plato portray his teacher in this light? Perhaps Plato wants to call our attention to the problems of erotic discipleship. Perhaps Plato wants to increase the likelihood of producing philosophers and not disciples. To achieve this laudable end, Plato writes his dialogues and establishes his Academy. If one considers Aristotle, Plato’s success matches Socrates and perhaps exceeds it. Though Aristotle spent twenty years in Plato’s Academy, his written legacy bears little that would indicate that he knew "Plato the man" at all (Ryle 5).(12) Hopefully, discipleship will not occur. Unfortunately, it pervades contemporary academia. Notice the flagrant displays of discipleship at philosophy conference halls. Observe the favoritism shown to the students of famous philosophers. Remember the adoring gazes of students in philosophy classrooms. Clearly, we have not learned what Plato tried to teach. Perhaps it is an unavoidable problem, one inherent in any pedagogical relationship. Perhaps, though, it is just a very difficult problem and one that it is never too late to solve. Plato created the dialogues to teach philosophy. That possibility always remains within them.


(1) Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

(2) On this point Halperin remarks, "If Aristodemus did deliver a speech about eros at Agathon’s party, he [or Apollodorus] seems to have forgotten it—a fact that is neatly obscured, in one of Plato’s most inspired bits of dramaturgy Aristophanes’ critically timed disruption of the original order of the speakers at the symposium" (114).

(3) In fact, he falls asleep.

(4) Rosen explains that Aristodemus' unwillingness to praise Eros arose from the fact that he is an "unbeliever" as Xenophon's Memorabilia tells us (Symposium 18). See Xenophon Memorabilia, I,4,2.

(5) On the unreliable narrator, see Wayne Booth. However, it is important to note as David Halperin does, that in Plato’s historical context, it was common practice to compare eyewitness accounts. Apollodorus may simply be establishing his narrative credentials at this point (111). Halperin refers us to Thucydides on this point (I.22).

(6) Remarking on the similarity between Glaucon stopping Apollodorus from behind and Polemarchus' stopping Socrates in the Republic, Rosen notes that "we see in the opening of the Symposium a Platonic joke on the way in which disciples imitate their masters." (Symposium 12).

(7) When Hegel summarizes the events of the Symposium in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, he does not mentioned Apollodorus at all and does not mention Aristodemus by name. He merely notes, "Plato then makes the individual who tells what happened at the banquet" (395).

(8) Lidell and Scott define etairos as a "comrade companion or mate. Pupils or disciples were the etairoi of their masters, as those of Socrates" (320).

(9) (59a10-b5). (117d2-6) (Phaedo, 117d7-8).

(10) In his Second Letter, Plato disclaims ownership of the dialogues "the ones now spoken about are of a Socrates having become beautiful and new" (Letter II, 314c3-4). If we at least take the spirit of the letters to be genuine, the anonymous distancing appears to be an intentional decision on Plato’s part.

(11) See Bowery for a further elaboration on this point.

(12) Ryle’s conclusion on this point is based only on the writings of Aristotle that have survived antiquity. In addition to the lecture notes that constitute the Aristotelian corpus, Aristotle did write dialogues. However, the ancient description of Aristotle’s dialogues show a curious middle way between Plato’s absence and Socrates’ overwhelming presence. George Kennedy writes, that "The elegance of the style of Aristotle’s dialogues is praised by later Greek and Roman writers who knew them, but none of the dialogues has survived. According to Cicero, (Letters to Atticus 13,19.4), Aristotle described himself as present at his dialogues, but perhaps he took no leading part in the discussion." (52).