Sunday, January 27, 2013


Elizabeth S. Belfiore, Socrates' Daimonic Art: Love for Wisdom in Four Platonic Dialogues. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 304. ISBN 9781107007581. $99.00.

Reviewed by David M. Timmerman, Monmouth College (

Version at BMCR home site


Elizabeth Belfiore examines the manner in which the four erotic dialogues (Alcibiades I, Lysis, Phaedrus, Symposium) characterize both Socrates and his dialogic art. Socrates' erotic art is the art both of seeking wisdom and of seeking it together with others. In these dialogues Socrates refers to his practice as an erotic art and Belfiore clarifies this conception through close textual reading, cogent analysis, and a detailed explanation of the texts. In addition to explaining the characteristics of Socrates' erotic art and how the specific components of it are presented in each of the dialogues, Belfiore also pursues larger and inter-related goals. These include explaining the relationship of love (erôs) and philosophy, the role dialogic relationships with others play in the search for wisdom, and the role that recognizing one's lack of knowledge plays. Her work is part of a well-known pattern of reading Plato's dialogues as much as dramatic works as as works of philosophy.

Belfiore lays out five interrelated components of Socrates' erotic art – "erotic" here understood not in terms of sexual desire per se, but in the sense of seeking the good of wisdom and the best interests of the other person. First, the love involved here is a strong, passionate desire involving both devotion to and inspiration from the god Erôs. Second, and of great significance, is the recognition and admission of ignorance, which Belfiore takes not, as many have taken it, to be a mere ploy of Socrates. These two elements lead, thirdly, to a passionate desire for wisdom under the influence of and devotion to Erôs. Fourth is the claim Socrates makes to be greatly skilled in this pursuit, that is, in the technê of ta erôtika. Fifth, and finally, Socrates' erotic and daimonic art causes him to be committed to teaching others to recognize their ignorance and to pursue wisdom as he does. Having laid out this conceptualization of Socrates' erotic and daimonic art, Belfiore then turns to an in-depth analysis of how each of the four erotic dialogues contributes to our understanding of this art. This detailed specification of the elements of Socrates' erotic art and practice is ambitious and bold, and one surely open to critique. I for one am not convinced that the evidence in the four texts treated warrants such specification of the particular elements of Socrates' dialogic practice, but I nevertheless found Belfiore's work extremely interesting and informative. I am confident others will as well.

In Chapter 1, Belfiore takes up these themes and goals in her analysis of Alcibiades I. In the dialogue, Alcibiades says that he is interested in gaining the greatest power in the city. Socrates explains that this power is gained by learning to act well, which can only occur through gaining wisdom. Alcibiades must learn what he does not know and experience the Socratic shame that is the first step towards acquiring the desire to gain true knowledge – that is, to engage in Socrates' erotic and daimonic art. Belfiore demonstrates that in the dialogue Alcibiades gains an understanding of the erotic art through multiple stages. He ultimately comes to understand his own ignorance, Socrates' love for him, and the value of self-knowledge – that is, the sharing of love with Socrates and the practice of the erotic art. The art is here described as looking into the soul of another. And erôs becomes the power driving or spurring the quest for self-knowledge, non-physical love for another, and wisdom.

Belfiore next takes up Plato's Lysis, and her interpretation provides a clear explanation of the impasse (aporia) that the dialogue reaches as Socrates, Lysis, and Mexenenus attempt to answer the question, "What is the friend?" Because helping others in the search for self-knowledge is an integral component of his erotic art, enabling his interlocutors to reach the point of recognizing their lack of knowledge or wisdom concerning the friend is itself an inherent good. That is, "impasse leads to success" (70). Socrates' practice of his art is also dependent on another central component of it – that he is able to create friendly relations between the interlocutors. Belfiore notes that each of the erotic dialogues is set in a very intimate, private location. Socrates explains that the source of his art is the god Eros – hence the characterization of it as "daimonic" by Belfiore.

In the introduction to Part II, and in Chapter 3, Belfiore advances the fascinating interpretation that the subject of the Symposium is not erôs per se, but rather Socrates and his practice of the daimonic and erotic art (ta erôtika). In the dialogue, both he and his interlocutors describe him as skilled in this practice. In fact, he is shown to be a lover and a beloved, and to possess each of the skills and the understanding of the components Belfiore identifies as constituting the erotic art. Belfiore places particular focus on the emotional or erotic impact that Socrates' words have on his interlocutors, in terms both of their growing love of wisdom and of their growing love for him. She breaks down each of the speeches and what they reveal about each of the speakers. Through his reactions to the speeches, Socrates successfully encourages the other speakers to recognize their lack of wisdom and to commit themselves to ta erôtika. Socrates is presented as the model for practicing the erotic art and for pursuing love for true wisdom and knowledge.

In Chapter 4, Belfiore turns to an examination of Socrates' interactions with two specific interlocutors in the Symposium: Alcibiades and Agathon. Each one comes to the realization that they lack wisdom, but they do so in different manners. Agathon moves from initial pride in his own words to a realization of his deficiency. The same occurs for Alcibiades, but for him the realization includes intense shame.

Part III moves to the final of the erotic dialogues, the Phaedrus. In particular, Belfiore argues that the dialogue demonstrates erôtikê technê, the ability that Socrates shows in the third speech to combine erôs with friendship. Here, as in the Symposium, he demonstrates that he possesses all five elements of the erotic art. Belfiore differs from a common interpretation of the Phaedrus as a dialogue whose actual subject is rhetoric and rhetorical practice. Instead, the speeches "raise important substantive questions about whether or not any erotic relationship is compatible with friendship" (209). This love of the interlocutor, along with the mutual love of wisdom, is shown to be quite different from the typical lover-beloved (erastês-erômenos) relationship. The love they share is not primarily for each other, but rather for wisdom.

Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of the third speech in Phaedrus, the speech on the true lover. Here again Belfiore emphasizes that the subject is not rhetoric, but erôs. The conclusion drawn from all three speeches on erôs is that "an erotic relationship is incompatible with friendship" (215). This type of lover is concerned with his own physical pleasure, confers no good on the beloved, and worst of all denies the beloved the ability and opportunity to pursue wisdom. And so, Socrates' second speech "adapts Greek erotic-educational" models in that the lover and the beloved share "platonic" love, that is non-physical love, as well as love for wisdom and its pursuit. This is described by Belfiore as erotic madness, inspired by the god Eros, and while it sounds less than rational it is actually "the most rational of all human activities" (222).

In the final chapter, Belfiore takes up Plato's myth of the charioteer. Herein lies the final and full goal of Socrates' erotic art: to enable mortals to control both the good and unruly horses to the point that they are able to regain their wings, that is, to obtain the wisdom that they lack. Her analysis emphasizes the horse as an erotic symbol in Greek literature, the satyr-like nature of the black horse, and the significance of the choral imagery employed in the myth.

Belfiore set out in detail how the focus on Socrates and his erotic art sheds light upon and helps to answer some of the persisting questions and interpretive debates about each of the dialogues. Socrates' Daimonic Art provides a coherent and detailed interpretation of the character of Socrates and his philosophical practice in the four dialogues treated. Perhaps we finally know the true value of questions when we find ourselves asking them over and over again. What is Socrates up to in this dialogue? Toward what end(s) are his questions put? Belfiore provides rich and detailed answers to these questions. But as noted earlier, I believe Belfiore delineates a coherence in these four dialogues that perhaps even Plato would find a bit surprising.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a question, probably naive but still interesting.

    "...components of Socrates’ erotic art – “erotic” here understood not in terms of sexual desire per se, but in the sense of seeking the good of wisdom and the best interests of the other person."

    How likely is it that Plato was consciously deriving his metaphor from a folk etymology of erôtikê from erôtan "to ask", as if he were segmenting the word erôt-ikê? This is after all what morphology would suggest, and if memory serves there's an old textual variant at the end of Euthyphro where editors have to choose between erôtan and eran (in some form or another).

    Given this possibility, was Plato being sophistic in choosing his metaphor? Does Belfiore say?


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