Role Reversal and Midwifery in Plato's Symposium

In a society that valued physical beauty, he was an ugly man. In a culture that idealized youth, he was an old man. Snub-nosed, with protruding eyes, he looked like one of the ridiculous satyrs on the painted vases. "I say that he is like the satyr Marsyas. That you are like them, at least in form, Socrates, you yourself would not deny." Thus Alcibiades the beautiful taunts him in the Symposium, as he begins his speech in praise of Socrates. Yet Alcibiades tells in his speech how he is captivated by this man, an individual like no one else he has ever known or heard of. Although the symposiasts laugh at him because he seems still to be in love with Socrates, Alcibiades accuses Socrates of having played an outrageous trick on him, of having pretended to be in love with him, yet of somehow ending up as the pursued and not the pursuer in their relationship. Beware, he warns Agathon, he could do the same to you.

In the Symposium, there are several pairs whose roles as lover and beloved are reversed or confused: Socrates and Alcibiades, Socrates and Agathon, Socrates and Aristodemus, Socrates and Diotima, and, in Diotima's myth, Poros and Penia. In each case, confusion arises as to who is the active, educating, dominant lover and who the passive, educated, subordinate beloved. The significance of these reversals may be seen if we examine Socrates as both lover and beloved in terms of Diotima's erotic theory and its confusing imagery of spiritual pregnancy. On the one hand, Socrates is identified with the erastes, the needy, barefooted philosopher who is eternally seeking. He seeks out beautiful youths and engages them in conversation about the good life and virtue. But Socrates is also Socrates the beautiful, the most desirable eromenos, whose outward ugliness hides supreme beauty, which Alcibiades compares to little golden images of the gods. This beauty serves as midwife to the thoughts of all the young men with whom Socrates consorts - Charmides, Euthydemus, Agathon, Aristodemus, and Alcibiades - relieving them of the pains of their spiritual pregnancy. As Diotima says, "Beauty is the Fate and Goddess of Childbirth at the birth." Socrates plays both roles in these relationships and compels his partners to do the same, breaking down the hierarchical relation and replacing it with a kind of philosophic reciprocity.

While previous scholars have noted instances of this role reversal in the Symposium, no scholar has traced a pattern of such reversals throughout the dialogue or explored the significance of such a pattern for the understanding of Plato's ideas of philosophy. In this essay, I first examine the most explicit case of role reversal, Alcibiades' speech about Socrates. Alcibiades' failure to understand the Socratic reversals he narrates illustrates the crucial importance of these reversals for Plato's philosophy. Plato, however, does not have Socrates confine this kind of role reversal to Alcibiades, but rather it forms a persistent theme throughout the dialogue and even appears in other dialogues. I then show how this theme can be used to understand the baffling imagery of pregnancy and midwifery in the Symposium. In my analysis of Socrates as a midwife in the Symposium, I argue against the current consensus in scholarship that the imagery of midwifery in the Symposium is inconsistent with the more developed imagery of the midwife in the Theaetetus. Plato combines the role reversals of Socratic eros with the image of the midwife to provide a model of the philosophic process as a reciprocal relation in which both partners interact to bring forth each other's ideas.