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416 BC / Athens

Crashing the Party


Socrates’ speech finished to loud applause. Meanwhile, Aristophanes was trying to make himself heard over their cheers in order to make a response to something Socrates had said about his own speech. Then, all of a sudden, there was even more noise. A large drunken party had arrived at the courtyard door and they were rattling it loudly, accompanied by the shrieks of some flute girl they had brought along. Agathon at that point called to his slaves, “Go see who it is. If it’s people we know, invite them in. If not, tell them the party’s over, and we’re about to turn in.”

A moment later they heard Alcibiades shouting in the courtyard, very drunk and very loud. He wanted to know where Agathon was; he demanded to see Agathon at once. Actually, he was half carried into the house by the flute girl and by some other companions of his, but at the door he managed to stand by himself, crowned with a beautiful wreath of violets and ivy and ribbons in his hair.

“Good evening, gentlemen. I’m plastered,” he announced. “May I join your party? Or should I crown Agathon with this wreath—which is all I came to do, anyway—and make myself scarce? I really couldn’t make it yesterday,” he continued, “but nothing could stop me tonight! See, I’m wearing the garland myself. I want this crown to come directly from my head to the head that belongs, I don’t mind saying, to the cleverest and best-looking man in town. Ah, you laugh; you think I’m drunk! Fine, go ahead—I know I’m right anyway. Well, what do you say? May I join you on these terms? Will you have a drink with me or not?”

Naturally they all made a big fuss. They implored him to join them, they begged him to take a seat, and Agathon called him to his side. So Alcibiades, again with the help of his friends, approached Agathon. At the same time, he kept trying to take his ribbons off so that he could crown Agathon with them, but all he succeeded in doing was to push them farther down his head until they finally slipped over his eyes. What with the ivy and all, he didn’t see Socrates, who had made room for him on the couch as soon as he saw him. So Alcibiades sat down between Socrates and Agathon, and as soon as he did so, he put his arms around Agathon, kissed him, and placed the ribbons on his head.

Agathon asked his slaves to take Alcibiades’ sandals off. “We can all three fit on my couch,” he said.

“What a good idea!” Alcibiades replied. “But wait a moment! Who’s the third?”

As he said this, he turned around, and it was only then that he saw Socrates. No sooner had he seen him than he leaped up and cried, “Good god, what’s going on here? It’s Socrates! You’ve trapped me again! You always do this to me—all of a sudden you’ll turn up out of nowhere where I least expect you! Well, what do you want now? Why did you choose this particular couch? Why aren’t you with Aristophanes or anyone else we could tease you about? But no, you figured out a way to find a place next to the most handsome man in the room.”

“I beg you, Agathon,” Socrates said, “protect me from this man! You can’t imagine what it’s like to be in love with him: from the very first moment he realized how I felt about him, he hasn’t allowed me to say two words to anybody else—what am I saying, I can’t so much as look at an attractive man but he flies into a fit of jealous rage. He yells, he threatens, he can hardly keep from slapping me around! Please, try to keep him under control. Could you perhaps make him forgive me? And if you can’t, if he gets violent, will you defend me? The fierceness of his passion terrifies me!"

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Plato, from “The Symposium.” Plato composed this long dialog about a drinking party some time after 386 BC, but the dramatic date is one year before Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition, a large-scale naval offensive against Syracuse that Alcibiades had proposed. On the eve of setting sail, he was accused of drunkenly defacing a number of the stone statues called herms, was then tried in absentia, and sentenced to death. He defected to Sparta, which defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. Socrates was put to death five years later.

That which the sober man keeps in his breast, the drunken man lets out at the lips. Astute people, when they want to ascertain a man’s true character, make him drunk.
Martin Luther, 1569
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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