I don’t wear a mauve toga very often. But it was my fashion item of choice at this year’s Latitude Festival, the annual extravaganza of music, theatre, comedy and literature held deep in the Suffolk countryside. On behalf of The School of Life, I hosted one of the more unusual events on the programme – a recreation of Plato’s Symposium, the first great conversation in the history of the art of living.
In the fourth century BC, Plato wrote a dialogue recording the conversation that was alleged to have taken place at a famous banquet attended by the philosopher Socrates and a smattering of ancient Greek playwrights, playboys and aristocrats. The subject of their discussion was nothing less than love, but it also strayed into ambition, truth, friendship and other potential ingredients of what the Greeks called ‘the good life’. There was plenty of booze to accompany the fine words – ‘symposium’ was their term for a drinking party – and Socrates managed to out-drink and out-talk the lot of them.
The forty honoured guests at our re-enactment of Plato’s Symposium were naturally greeted by slave attendants wearing white togas who, in typical ancient Greek style, helped them remove their shoes, anointed their hands with perfumed oils, and placed garlands of ivy on their heads. They were seated at long tables in a beautiful wood, surrounded by towering trees and enclosed by a forest of ferns, far away from the blaring speakers of the main festival arena. Ancient Greek flute music wafted around them.
My official title was ‘symposiarchos’, the King of the Feast, which gave me the right to determine the mixture of wine and water in the ‘krate’, the communal bowl. It also permitted me to impose forfeits on anybody who didn’t obey my instructions, although I refrained from inflicting the favourite penalty at ancient Greek banquets, which was to make the person strip naked and run around the other guests three times. Following ceremonial rules, everyone was asked to stand, sprinkle a libation of wine on the ground, and then chant a hymn to Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. And at that moment, the feasting began.
As well as a feast of food, there was a feast of conversation. The guests were seated with strangers, and between them lay a conversational menu to simulate their discussions. There were quotes from the Symposium to chew over, like this comment from the playwright Aristophanes:
‘Each of us is a mere fragment of a man; we’ve been split in two, like filleted plaice. We’re all looking for our other halves.’
The guests were also offered other conversational questions that helped them delve into the dilemmas of the art of living, such as: Do you live more in the past or in the future? Has money expanded or diminished your sense of personal freedom? What do you think is the best approach to growing old?
What was the point of all this conversational adventuring? It was more than an excuse to wear a bunch of leaves in your hair and be served wine by slaves. Modern society is suffering from a plague of superficial talk. Not only do we trot out the same old clichéd questions – How was your weekend? What was the weather like? – but new technologies are failing the improve the quality of our conversations. How many of the 100 billion text messages sent last year involved profound discussions? And what about all those one-line emails?
We need to find ways of creating conversations that allow us to take off our masks and talk openly about the issues that really matter in life. We also need to break out of the straitjacket of our own worldviews, and enter the minds of people who have different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs than our own. It is time we all learned from the ancient Greeks, and made the conversational symposium a part of everyday life.