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What is Love? A Deep Look into The Dinner Party

Updated on September 25, 2012

In The Dinner Party, written by Xenophon, Callias holds a small gathering with food and wine at his home after Autolycus, a young Athenian boy, is crowned winner of the Pancration, one of the most coveted titles in Athens. Callias is very well connected and wealthy, as he is a successful merchant trader who lives right on the Piraeus, which was the port area. Callias seems to hold these occasional dinner parties to surround himself with the powerful and rich people of Athens; he is constantly making connections and furthering his involvement with the leaders of the State, as well as representing Sparta, whom the Athenians have been fighting for many years. At this point in time, there is a sort of lull in the war, and tension is at a low point. For this particular dinner, Callias seems to be inviting people for a specific reason: to make himself look better in the eyes of Lycon, the father of Autolycus. Socrates seems to be his most craved guest to persuade Lycon that Callias is a positive and worthy influence on Autolycus, although it is rumored that Callias has other intentions with Autolycus. After all, this young boy just won the Pancration, and is probably the most sought-after boy in Athens.

Socrates is in attendance at this get-together after some coaxing by Callias. He is regarded as a deep, philosophical thinker in Athens. Most of his followers are young men who greatly admire him. Socrates spends many days a week at the Academy, or gymnasium, where he watches the young men train. This could be foreshadowing of his true intentions of attending the party, or an indication of possible hypocrisy when he dictates what he believes is moral and correct. At this Dinner Party, Callias’ ultimate desire is to have Autolycus for himself, to use him as a kind of trophy; although I believe not in the negative connotation it could be perceived as. Socrates is at the party to spread his philosophical viewpoints, help the other guests think about their ultimate ideals and fundamental principles, but most importantly, to help Callias come to a realization that celestial love is greater than any physical love.

The first important question to consider is why does Callias want Socrates at his dinner party? Callias is known for inviting only generals, cavalry-commanders and ambitious politicians to these types of events (227). So why does Callias all of a sudden want to invite a man with little pull in the State’s government, who spends his days speaking openly about his morals and ethics while convincing others to question their own beliefs? At this party, Callias wants one main outcome; he wants to prove to Lycon that he should readily give up his son to anything Callias desires. Callias plans on surrounding himself with people who make him look better; he may have invited Phillipus to make himself look more humorous, or just kinder for letting someone uninvited in to the party, when he says, “Sit down, then. The company are full of serious-ness, as you see, but perhaps a little short of humor” (229).

Callias especially wants Socrates to come to the party because he wants him to approve his relationship with Autolycus, and once Socrates approves, once the most thoughtful, moral man in Athens endorses this relationship, Lycon is bound to accept. Callias says that he believes he can make people better when Socrates asks him what his unsurpassed skill is.He says that he spends all of his time making people morally better by giving them money. His point is that, when people know they’ve got something with which to buy what they need, they don’t want to risk committing crimes (239). I don’t believe money makes people morally better, in fact there is a lot of evidence today that points against that. The idea that Callias expects nothing in return (people may even become more hostile towards him) says something about his character. He may believe that he’s instilling a peace of mind in people, but I think he ultimately gives money away to feel better about himself. Socrates seems to disagree, or at least question (naturally), this point of money making people better. Socrates believes that the morals and ethics you practice and contemplate before every daily decision are what truly make you good; that what’s in your mind is responsible for your goodness, not how much is in your pocket, as Antisthenes points out (239).

In class we touched on the fact that during this time, fathers were very nervous for their sons because the older, attractive men would corrupt them. The Syracusan makes this very clear when he says “I am racked by fear for him; you see, I find that some people are plotting his destruction!” concerning the situation with his own son (249). The Syracusan pointing out so directly that older men are “corrupting” youth perfectly mirrors the situation that is blatantly sitting in the room. When Socrates exclaims “Good heavens! What fearful wrong do they think your boy has done them that they want to kill him?” I think Socrates knows exactly what the Syracusan meant initially, and is just making an even bigger spectacle of how immoral this predicament is in Athens (249). Callias sits there, most likely squirming and wishing they’d change the subject, or at least hoping that Socrates is going to come out with a point that puts Lycon at ease. Callias is more social than philosophical. I think he is racked by his physical desires and his need to be a controlling figure in the State.

An even more pressing question is why does Socrates want to be at this party? Wouldn’t he be offended if Callias unashamedly points out that he normally invites all these important State figures, but he’ll slum it and invite Socrates tonight? Does Socrates know Callias’ hidden agenda? Or does Socrates covertly have a similar agenda? There is speculation concerning Socrates’ insincerity concerning his own values and morals.

First, Antisthenes points out that Socrates married a woman in Athens who was “the most difficult to get on with” (232). Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe, is not the typical Athenian homemaker. She’s apparently difficult to live with, and is known for having no censor when it comes to her thoughts. My initial thought, of course, was she’s perfect for Socrates! But many then believed she was more of a hassle than a pleasure. To Antisthenes comment, Socrates explains, “In the same way, since I wish to deal and associate with people, I have provided myself with this wife, because I’m quite sure that, if I can put up with her, I shall find it easy to get on with any other human being” (232). I see a very good point to Socrates comment. If you can be the bigger person and keep your head, in every situation, even with the most infuriating, annoying or mean human being, than you will be able to interact well with anyone on this planet. It’s all about keeping your expectations low, accepting people with all of their faults, and working hard to be civil and nice to them. This is a point on behalf of Socrates wanting to be there for moral reasons, since he’s explaining that he does not just disregard his wife like many of the other men probably do. He picked Xanthippe for a reason.

Socrates says that his skill as a pimp is what he believes is his best trait (238). What could he mean exactly? Surely, in today’s standards, pimping is looked at as immoral, so where could Socrates be going with this? I believe Socrates is looking at pimping as making people look attractive and appealing to others. Might he be pimping for Callias in order for Callias to get with Autolycus, not in the physical sense, but pimping/transforming Callias’ lust to celestial love? He may be “pimping” people to the State.His subjects at the dinner party would be his “clients” as he teaches them philosophy and displays them in the best light possible. The current political state is one of turmoil, although it is as a low point. The Peloponnesian war continues for 28 years. Since Callias is a known representative of Sparta for Athens, could Socrates be pimping Callias for the State? Socrates is recognized to have respected the Spartans, because he believed they didn’t have sexual relationships between men, only celestial. Athens may have been looked at negatively if the State was “hosting” the enemy; people may look at Callias and think he’s a Spartan sympathizer from the upper class. He’s sitting in riches at the Piraeus while people are losing their entire livelihoods. It’s possible that Socrates wants to make Callias look absolutely necessary and helpful to the State because his own desire is to help end the war, and influence politically powerful people with his philosophical ideas. Maybe Socrates is willing to pimp Callias to Autolycus, celestially of course, because it may advance peace, or Spartan interest as Autolycus has just been deemed one of the strongest, bravest and feared men in Athens.

Socrates’ opinion on democracy is one of a positive nature. He enjoys sharing ideas and having people question what has been held as correct. Democracy promotes an open forum on laws and judgment. Socrates thrives on connecting people philosophically, having people question their ideals, thoughts and most well assumed traits of themselves. He wants Callias to question his love for Autolycus and see how deep it goes. Lycon appreciates this when he says at the end of the story, “I swear, Socrates, it does seem to me that you are a truly good man” (265). He may be the only one who truly understands the reason for Socrates attendance. I think Socrates has a master plan. Everything he says, he envisions and prepares for the ten different ways in which people may respond. I think he is more human than people believe; he could have possibly have weak moments when he goes on a power trip, thinking he is smarter, or more moral than other people. He is seen stroking Critobulus’ arm in the past, certainly not a celestial act. He is not a saint. He recognizes this, however. Which I believe makes him more admirable.

Philosophy is cynicism. Socrates said you shouldn’t be seeking out pleasure, you should be pursuing virtue, and pain is better than pleasure. I don’t think Socrates is a “corrupter of youth”. Anyone who had radical ideas then was looked down upon, but I feel that Socrates was looking out for other people’s self-discovery, and helping them find their own questions when it came to the government’s authority.

Why then, does Socrates go to Autolycus’ house after dinner with Callias? There is a raunchy show put on at the end of the dinner; one that leaves all the men running home to their wives, and Callias running over to Autolycus’ house. Why even does Socrates stay to watch the erotic show? I believe Socrates stays to see how his work throughout the night has payed off. Will they go home to their wives instead of the young boys they may be infatuated with? When Socrates is giving his speech about love, I think the line that most heavily affected the guests was, “As for the lover whose attachment is physical, why should the boy return his affection? Because he assigns to himself the gratification of his desires, leaving the boy to the extremity of shame? Or because the favor that he is eager to exact cuts the favorite off completely from his family and friends? Then again, the fact that he uses not force but persuasion makes him more detestable, because a lover who uses force proves himself a villain, but one who uses persuasion ruins the character of the one who consents”(260). Watching this final show may have had everyone all hot and bothered, but they seemed to have made the right decision in going home. If Socrates hadn’t been there, maybe they wouldn’t have come to this conclusion for themselves. The reason Socrates accompanies Callias to Autolycus’ house is because Callias was the biggest hurdle of the night, and clearly needed the most attention and training, up to the very last moment. We don’t know what goes on at Lycon’s house this late in the evening, but I think it’s expected that with Socrates tagging along, nothing morally wrong can take place.

Socrates reasons for attending the dinner party were purely moral, his main objective being to help Callias realize that celestial love is greater than any physical, surface love. It’s ironic that the two main goals, Callias’ being to get together with Autolycus, and Socrates being to stop that relationship from occurring, are so conflicting. Callias’ ambition of having Autolycus as a trophy failed. Socrates wins in his goal of preventing the relationship, at least for the evening, but hopefully for an extended period of time after this dinner. Callias, I believe, ultimately comes to the realization that celestial love is greater than any physical love. We see hints of this at the actual dinner party, but he may be going over to Lycon’s house at the end of the night to apologize, or to see for himself one last time that his relationship with Autolycus need be purely celestial. Socrates goes with him to insure this of happening. In this condition, Socrates was ultimately successful, and although Callias’ first goal was to build a relationship with Autolycus, he eventually is successful too in realizing what morally and ethically betters Lycon, Autolycus, his future dinner party guests, and himself.


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