We cannot help but notice that the events Symposium occur in the context of Socrates’ Apology. It is therefore reasonable to think about philosophy and it relation to the city in this wine-soaked atmosphere.
The first task of philosophy is to distinguish itself from arguments that either deny it usefulness, nobility, or possibility. Thus Socrates draws significant lines between his speech and the speeches of his fellow revelers. He asserts its possibility against Aristophanes, its relevance against Pausanias, its nobility against Agathon, and its limits against Eryximachus. No other study is capable of marking out the bounds and worth of philosophy other than philosophy itself.
Socrates criticizes the customs of Athens regarding love. What political significance does this have? Philosophy, in this capacity questions opinions commonly held as to what is good for human beings. Pausanias especially comes to mind. Thus, at first, it seems that the philosophy is somehow antithetical to the politics, and the philosopher is eccentric with regard to his city. He questions the good (Agathon), and thus the foundation of the city
But this does not place Socrates is opposition to Athens. Rather he seeks to correct it and protect it, and even work for its flourishing. He argues for a true belief about love that is neither impious nor unphilosophical. He connects love to procreation, either of children or ideas. Both of these are common goods, and thus he defends the possibility of a just city.
It seems clear that children are common goods. Children cannot exist except as the product of two. Furthermore, not just any two are necessary, but a man and a woman. Thus, there is not only a difference in number, but also of kind. (I realize it is a bit contentious to say a difference in kind, but we Plato allows his speakers to talk about “male nature” and “female nature”, so I think I’m allowed.) The child is a good, and not good in the same way that wine or pleasure is good. Wine must be divided into parts, and taken by each particular reveler, making each’s portion ultimately a good private to each. Similarly, since pleasure is a good particular to the body that feels it, it is also a private good. However, children do not belong to either parent particularly, because both are a cause of the child. Moreover, the child is a kind of final cause of the parents. He is the sort of final cause which is properly the pursuit of community, and not of private individuals.
Claiming that a child is a common good of the parents is not particularly problematic, though it may make us rethink certain cultural assumptions about rights and duties. To say that ideas are common is more contentious. After all, Socrates lags behind Aristodemus, and thinks by himself. Many of us think that the activity of the philosopher is to sit in a room by himself and reinvent the philosophic wheel. But the philosophy of Socrates takes place in conversation, which requires more than one. Thus, the activity of philosophy, as presented by Plato, is a sort of common good, in that it blossoms among many rather than in just one.
Wisdom is not like water. It does not fill up the soul of the learner and diminish in the soul of the teacher. Is it shared? It seems that it is. Diotima transmitted her philosophy of love to Socrates, and he transmits it to his listeners. Also, Aristophanes asks his listeners to repeat his story to others. The entire action of Symposium is given to us through fourth hand. This, I believe, reveals the axiom that truth is one. If truth is one, and many can hold true things in their soul, than truth is a common good. If truth is a common good, and philosophy is the quest for truth, a quest only possible in community, than philosophy is a good common to all. As Aristotle pointed out, all men desire to know.
Plato reveals characteristics of common goods in Symposium. Common goods may the effect of many agents. Common goods may be held by many without diminishing the good. Common goods may properly belong to many or all rather than one.
There are a couple of interesting things I’d like to pull out from all that. One is defending the possibility of the common good. All of the speeches before his own emphasized the private good over the common good, something curious in speeches about love. Generally there was the satisfaction of desire (Aristophanes), or a kind of bargaining looking to the private advantage of each(virtue for sexual passivity, or gold for bronze, as Socrates puts it.) By defending the possibility of common goods, Socrates defends the possibility of human community and further, political community. Philosophy, rather than being opposed to politics, can provide the grounds for justice and the nobility of the political life. Rather than relying on myth or the aggregation of private interests to found politics, we can turn to philosophy and a real common good.
But could we go even further? Is it possible that philosopher does not need only defend the possibility of political community, but it itself could be a common good of politics? The noisy interruption of Alcibiades is what brings this to mind – a man who could have philosophized but rather attempted to tyrannize. If statesmen philosophized, and the parts of the political community saw truth as a good rather than pleasure, could politics be perfected? I wouldn’t think all would need to be adept at dialectic – rather, all could live “philosophically”, that is, with eros directed by reason.
I think I will leave this as a suggestion for now.