Wine and wisdom

The modern dinner party guest would do well to read Plato

Very few great works of philosophy are also great works of art. However, Plato's Symposium is both. It is a vivid invocation of the Athenian polis and its leading characters, including Alcibiades, Aristophanes and Socrates. And it is without compare as a philosophical treatment of sexual desire - a topic that philosophers down the ages have largely avoided, with only Schopenhauer and Sartre venturing the kind of comprehensive account of it that we find in Plato. Ostensibly, the work is merely a report of a drinking party, in which the characters stumble, in their cups, over ideas and emotions that lie hidden in their daily lives.

In that lies its artfulness. There are ideas which appear ridiculous in ordinary conversation, which are nevertheless obvious when drunk. And, by retrieving from the conversation of drunks the truths that wine has revealed to them, Plato is able to prepare his reader to accept what would otherwise appear so fanciful and remote from ordinary human dealings as to be dismissed as a fairy tale. He was able to say something about sexual desire that is as shocking to his contemporaries as it is to modern people - namely, that desire is directed towards another person, but with a hidden goal. This goal is not pleasure, or orgasm, or any of those sensual and commonplace things, but the knowledge of beauty and truth. Sexual desire is therefore more prone to corruption than any other human feeling, and the physical part of it is precisely what is most dangerous to the soul.

Try publishing that in Cosmopolitan or Tatler, and see what laughs you'll get. But, as Plato brilliantly shows, it is a view of the matter to which we all of us tend in our cups, and it is one of the virtues of wine that it turns our thoughts towards a truth that looks ridiculous in our sober routines, and therefore condemns those routines as ridiculous.

We should recognise, however, that wine leads us to such surprising conclusions only when swallowed in the right way, and it is another great virtue of Plato's masterpiece that it tells us how to do it. The symposium was the very opposite of the modern dinner party, in which conversation breaks into loud-mouthed fragments, with nobody pausing to address the table as a whole, and no guest prepared to yield space to a neighbour.

In a symposium the wine circulates slowly, is drunk gradually, and with due libations to the gods. The conversation is general and speakers take it in turns to contribute. Gradually, as shyness is dissolved and the imagination freed, the hidden truths that ordinary life forbids begin to congregate on the horizon, beckoning to the company for wine, as the ghosts in Homer beckon for sacrificial blood.

Try it some day, and you will be surprised to discover what you really think.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party