New Humanist, Summer 2001

The Thinkers' Choice of Small Press Publications

The Banquet by Plato
translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley
edited by John Lauritsen (Pagan Press)

Reviewed by Jim Herrick

The renowned freethinker and poet, Shelley, translated what is usually known as Plato's Symposium at great speed in the summer of 1818, when he was 26. His translation is pellucid and remarkably readable, but was never published in his short lifetime. It was bowdlerised and suppressed during the nineteenth and early twentieth century and it is very valuable to have this edition.

The work consists of a dinner at which the guests all discourse on the subject of love. The famous idea that men and women were once conjoined as four-legged, four-armed creatures but are now divided is mentioned, with the implication both that the two want to join together to procreate and that there is a legacy of androgyny in which the male contains the female and vice versa. The diners speak of love as the attempt to reach the beautiful and the good. There is a remarkable account by Alcibiades of his love for Socrates.

Shelley's introduction is entitled — ‘A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love’. It is remarkable as an early attempt to write about homosexuality — Shelley thought of male to male love as possible if pure and sacred, but could not countenance a sexual element. Shelley's translation and introduction are of great interest.

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