David Elmer: It's Not Me, It's You Socrates — The Problem of the Charismatic Teacher in Plato's Symposium

On Nov. 10, 2010, Professor David Elmer of the Classics Department at Harvard University gave a lecture entitled, “It's Not Me, It's You Socrates: The Problem of the Charismatic Teacher in Plato's Symposium." His riveting lecture explored the impact Socrates had on his students and commented on the nature of the Socratic teacher-pupil relationship. Professor Elmer argued that Socrates posed unsolvable problems so as to draw his students into philosophy. In order for his students actually to pursue philosophy for their own purposes, however, they had to move past Socrates and overcome their dependence on him. Thus, Professor Elmer concluded that when it came to Socrates, “You couldn’t live with him, and you couldn’t live without him.”

As illustrated in Professor Elmer’s lecture, Socrates served as a source of inspiration for his students; but if his students refused to challenge and separate from their teacher’s studies, they found Socrates to be as much of a hindrance as a help to the pursuit of beauty, knowledge, and philosophy. Professor Elmer specifically explored the dialogue conveyed in Plato’s Symposium concerning eros, love. Through the crescendo of perspectives on eros, which eventually climax at Socrates’ opinion, the setting and dialogue in the Symposium revealed tensions between erastes, lover, and eromenos, beloved, as well as between teacher and student.

Professor Elmer analyzed each student’s voice in the Symposium, focusing particularly on the interaction between Socrates and Alcibiades. This relationship embodied Socrates’ potential to be a hindrance, which Professor Elmer sought to highlight in his talk. After experiencing a rejection of eros from Socrates, Alcibiades cut himself off from his teacher due to his frustrated passion. This rupture founded in anger and resentment rejected the teaching Socrates conveyed in his recounting of Diotima’s Ladder of Love. Alcibiades moved down the Ladder of Love as he experienced political and philosophical failure.

According to Professor Elmer, the purpose of Plato’s inclusion of Alcibiades’ downfall in the dialogue sprang from the desire to advise against unproductive teacher-pupil relationships. The problem with Socrates was that the student could not become completely engulfed in his passion for him. Socrates was always at arm’s length from his students, even though they felt intimately connected to him. Unconcerned with earthly passion, Socrates wanted his arguments to achieve what he believed eros existed for: immortality. Consequently, a student needed to recognize the value of this immortality and move past Socrates himself to pursue the philosophical discussion on his own. Alcibiades was unable to recognize the immortality of the argument and ultimately gave up on it completely. Plato, on the other hand, continued the dialogue, making it immortal through his Symposium. Thus, though he was fascinated with Socrates, Plato did not give into his passion, so as to free himself from his teacher for the purpose of furthering the philosophical discussion. This response serves as the ultimate goal of a student of Socrates.

Professor Elmer concluded that this teacher-pupil struggle with Socrates served as the continuous problem faced by Plato in his writings. Just like all truly worthwhile things in life, Socrates was able to inspire both beauty and destruction. The end result of the Socratic teaching, however, depends on the ability of the student to see beyond himself to the pursuit of immortal knowledge.

Professor Elmer is an assistant professor of Classics at Harvard. He has studied Greek, Latin, and Croatian Serbian. His main focuses of study are currently Homeric poetry, ancient novel, and South Slavic epic. He is also in the process of writing a book on collective decision-making in the Iliad and a book on South Slavic epic song.

—Alissa Thomas ’11 (graduated December 2010)