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On the Symposium

ON THE SYMPOSIUM, OR PREFACE TO THE BANQUET OF PLATO

A FRAGMENT

The dialogue entitled The Banquet was selected by the translator
as the most beautiful and perfect among all the works of Plato.
[Footnote: The Republic, though replete with considerable errors
of speculation, is, indeed, the greatest repository of important
truths of all the works of Plato. This, perhaps, is because it is
the longest. He first, and perhaps last, maintained that a state
ought to be governed, not by the wealthiest, or the most ambitious,
or the most cunning, but by the wisest; the method of selecting
such rulers, and the laws by which such a selection is made, must
correspond with and arise out of the moral freedom and refinement
of the people.] He despairs of having communicated to the English
language any portion of the surpassing graces of the composition,
or having done more than present an imperfect shadow of the language
and the sentiment of this astonishing production.

Plato is eminently the greatest among the Greek philosophers, and
from, or, rather, perhaps through him, his master Socrates, have
proceeded those emanations of moral and metaphysical knowledge,
on which a long series and an incalculable variety of popular
superstitions have sheltered their absurdities from the slow contempt
of mankind. Plato exhibits the rare union of close and subtle logic
with the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendour
and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical
impressions, which hurry the persuasions onward, as in a breathless
career. His language is that of an immortal spirit, rather than
a man. Lord Bacon is, perhaps, the only writer, who, in these
particulars, can be compared with him: his imitator, Cicero, sinks
in the comparison into an ape mocking the gestures of a man. His
views into the nature of mind and existence are often obscure, only
because they are profound; and though his theories respecting the
government of the world, and the elementary laws of moral action,
are not always correct, yet there is scarcely any of his treatises
which do not, however stained by puerile sophisms, contain the
most remarkable intuitions into all that can be the subject of the
human mind. His excellence consists especially in intuition, and
it is this faculty which raises him far above Aristotle, whose
genius, though vivid and various, is obscure in comparison with
that of Plato.

The dialogue entitled the Banquet, is called [word in Greek], or
a Discussion upon Love, and is supposed to have taken place at the
house of Agathon, at one of a series of festivals given by that
poet, on the occasion of his gaining the prize of tragedy at the
Dionysiaca. The account of the debate on this occasion is supposed
to have been given by Apollodorus, a pupil of Socrates, many
years after it had taken place, to a companion who was curious to
hear it. This Apollodorus appears, both from the style in which
he is represented in this piece, as well as from a passage in the
Phaedon, to have been a person of an impassioned and enthusiastic
disposition; to borrow an image from the Italian painters, he seems
to have been the St. John of the Socratic group. The drama (for so
the lively distinction of character and the various and well-wrought
circumstances of the story almost entitle it to be called) begins
by Socrates persuading Aristodemus to sup at Agathon's, uninvited.
The whole of this introduction affords the most lively conception
of refined Athenian manners.

[written c.1818; pub. 1840] [UNFINISHED]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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