Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Plato's Symposium as High Camp

Plato never condemned the physical aspects of homosexual love outright until he was past the age of eighty and wrote the Laws, when his own desire was understandably on the wane. Too often we read only extracts and summaries of Plato's works without realizing that these have been extracted and suimmarized by anti-homosexual philosophers and teachers who, until relatively recently, could not tolerate anything that would undermine their own heterosexual ideals. But if we read the originals, we will discover what is seldom talked about in the schools.

Even within the Symposium, the definitionn of the ideal love between males excludes only genital contact leading to orgasm. Plato includes sleeping together naked, embracing, hugging, caressing, and kissing of all parts of the body as justifiable expressions of true "Platonic love". He considers heterosexual love to be but a pallid reflection of the ideal, and places great emphasis upon the attractiveness and youthfulness of the boyfriend. But even while he mildly discourages sexual intercourse between men, and praises nobility and high-minded virtue, he is using the tongue-in-cheek humor of classic High Camp.

Plato's Symposium

Socrates, for example, fresh from the bath and sporting a new pair of sandals, is a beau on his way to the house of the poet Agathon, who we know from other sources is a drag-queen. Aristophanes in his play Thesmophoriazusae (411 BC) describes Agathon's "soft womanly voice and pretty, effeminate gestures," "dressed up in women's clothing," equipped with yellow silks, silver slippers, lyre, hair-net, and even a girdle, his hair singed off from all parts o the body including his anus. Socrates sits down on the couch beside Agathon, who is obviously his lover.

After the discussion of masculine love is well under way, in rushes drunken Alcibiades, reputed to be the most handsome young man in Athens, with ribbons and violets in his hair. The party had been slowing down, but everyone perks up at his entrance, for Alcibiades is known to have been the lover of numerous athletes and soldiers throughout Greece. There was a famous proverb to the effect that Alcibiades was the captain of his soldiers during battle, and their wife during peace-time. He squeeezes onto the couch between Agathon and Socrates, embraces and crowns the former with a wreath of ivy, and says to the latter: "By Heracles, here is Socrates always lying in wait for me, and always, as his way is, coming out at all sorts of unsuspected places." Socrates pleads to Agathon to protect him from the passionate advances of Alcibiades, and they engage in a mild bitch fight: "I swear," says Alcibiades, "that if I praise anyone but Socrates in his presence, whether God or man, he will hardly keep his hands off me." "For shame," says Socrates. "Hold your tongue," says Alcibiades, "for by Poseidon, there is no one else whom I will praise when you are of the company." "What are you about?" says Socrates, "are you going to raise a laugh at my expense?" "I am going to speak the truth," says Alcibiades, "but the fluent and orderly enumeration of all your singularities is not a task which is easy to a man in my drunken condition."

Alcibiades then tells the story of how he had attempted to seduce Socrates while sleeping naked with him, and how the temperate Socrates pretended to sleep and thus rejected his advances: "throwing my coat about him, I crept under his threadbare cloak and there I law during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms." Modern sage philosophers and moralists cite this story to prove Socrates' chaste virtue, not understanding its bawdy camp nature within the context of a drinking party. They further disregard Socrates' own statement that the whole story was untrue, and was intended "to get up a quarrel between me and Agathon." Agathon sees through Alcibiades' plot, and moves to lie on the couch right next to Socrates, who says "Yes, yes, by all means come here and lie on the couch below me." "Alas," says Alcibiades, "he is determined to get the better of me at every turn. I do beseech you, allow Agathon to lie between us." "Certianly not," says Socrates, and the banquet ends shortly thereafter.

The other persons who participate in the Symposium include Phaedrus, lover of the rhetorician Lysias; Arstophanes, lover of Dositheus; and Pausanius, an uninhibited homosexual whose praise of "spiritual friendship" is a tongue-in-cheek rhapsody on his impassioned love for Arilus. Pausanius has the most common-sense philosophy: "such practices are honorable to him who follows them honorably, dishonorable to him who follows them dishonorably." The only significant person absent from this gay gathering is Phaedo, the young hustler whom Socrates rescued from a boy-brothel and took him home and "redeemed" him. Socrates' last act before drinking the poison hemlock under order of the state was to caress this youth's long beautiful hair.

For Socrates' typical reaction to handsome young men, we need only cite this passage from the Charmides: "I was just going to ask a question of Charmides, when at that moment all the people in the palaestra crowded about us, and, O rare!, I caught a sight of the inwards of his garment, and took the flame. Then I could no longer contain myself, for I felt that I had been overcome by a sort of wild-beast appetite." Socrates was often called "Alcibiadis Paedogogus", with an intended pun upon "pedagogue" and "pederast". He was known to have loved Critias, Cebes, and Lysis as well as Agathon, Alcibiades, Charmides, and Phaedo.

A symposium

An even more ralistic account of Socrates' personality can be found in the other Symposium written by Xenophon, in which Socrates is jokingly described as a pimp and a bantering coquette who engages in beauty contests and kissing contests with boys. At the end of this drinking party, the members watch a short ballet portraying Dionysus pursuing the nymph Ariadne, and the party ends with the parallel of Socrates pursuing the beautiful youth Aytolycus to his home while the others retire home to their wives.

Although Plato once had a concubine named Archeanassa, he is also known to have been the lover of at least three young men, as evidenced in three extant fragments of his love-poetry: Dion, "who filled my heart with the madness of love"; Aster, whose name means "star," described in two epigrams about how Plato envies the sky which gazes upon his favorite "star" with many starry eyes; and none other than the very same Agathon of the Symposium: "When I kissed you, Agathon, I felt your soul on my lips: as if it would penetrate into my heart with quivering longing."

Almost all scholars have regularly ignored the Phaedrus, in which Socrates explicitly justifies the validity of physical homosexual love. This is a passage from his famous myth of the charioteer, which Mary Renault would later use for her novel by that name: "When the lover and his beloved are lying side by side, the lover's unbridled horse [that is, the white horse of rational intellect] has much to say to its driver, and claims as the recompense of many labours a short enjoyment; but the vicious horse [that is, the black horse of irrational emotions] of the other has nothing to say, but burning and restless clasps the lover and kisses him as he would kiss a dear friend, and when they are folded in each other's embrace, is just of such a temper as not for his part to refuse indulging the lover in any pleasure he might request to enjoy." The two horses of reason and desire struggle with each other, and if reason wins out, the charioteer can live a full life while still remaining chaste. but, and this is the important point, some charioteers temporarily "lose their wings" by indulging in physical homosexual love, "and once consummated will for the future indulge in it. And in the end, without their wings it is truie, but not without having started feathers, they carry off no paltry prize for their impassioned madness, but walking hand in hand they shall love a bright and blessed life, and when they recover their wings, recover them together for their love's sake."

Copyright © 2018, 1974 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Plato's Symposium as High Camp", Gay History and Literature, 7 March 2018 <>.

Return to The Queer Canon

Return to Gay History and Literature