Permanent beauty and becoming happy in Plato's Symposium

In J. H. Lesher, Debra Nails & Frisbee C. C. Sheffield (eds.), Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Harvard University Press. pp. 96 (2006)

Gabriel Lear
University of Chicago
Our first encounter with Socrates in the Symposium is bizarre. Aristodemus, surprised to run into Socrates fully bathed and with his sandals on, asks him where he is going “to have made himself so beautiful (kalos)” (174a4, Rowe trans.). Socrates replies that he is on his way to see the lovely Agathon, and so that “he has beautified himself in these ways in order to go, a beauty to a beauty (kalos para kalon)” (174a7–8). Why does Socrates, who in just a few moments will be lost in contemplation out on the front porch, care about being beautiful? His remark to Aristodemus is clearly in some sense ironic, but on the other hand, he really has taken unusual care with his physical appearance. Later, in his encomium to love, he will claim that beauty has this effect on lovers: the beauty of the beloved causes the lover to disdain his former way of life and “give birth” to beautiful “offspring.” Is the image of the squat and snub-nosed Socrates all freshly scrubbed and kitted out a comic foreshadowing, or a debunking, of his serious speech? Does Socrates really believe in the transformative power of beauty?
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