The Portrait of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date

Winter 2006


Oxford University Press


Plato’s dialogues offer us numerous portraits of Socrates. Some of these are dramatic depictions that show us Socrates in conversation with various interlocutors. Others are descriptions of Socrates, sometimes presented by others, sometimes by Socrates himself. One of these descriptive portraits occurs in Plato’s Symposium. The portrait is complex, being made up of several contributions from several different characters. The relation among these various portraits is complicated. I believe that, taken together, they constitute a coherent description, when certain perspectival differences and other internal features of the individual portraits are taken into account. Thus, I shall speak in this paper of “the portrait” of Socrates in the Symposium, rather than of multiple portraits. I cannot prove, beyond what I say here, that the various portraits amount to a coherent whole. Nor can I establish that the portrait is coherent in every detail. Still, I think it is consistent in its main elements.

I am interested in this portrait for two reasons. First, I find it interesting in its own right. It is a central element in one of the most important Platonic dialogues, and on those grounds alone worthy of serious study. Second, I think it has a serious claim to be an accurate representation of the historical Socrates. I do not believe that this claim can be ultimately established beyond doubt; Plato gives us several rival portraits of Socrates in the dialogues, not all of which are consistent with each other, and we do not have the basis for choice among them.1 Still, the portrait of Socrates in the Symposium makes as strong a claim as any Platonic portrait to be historical.


David Sedley

This document is currently not available here.