Piers Plowman: sober, common labor over symposia of Plato & Xenophon

In Athens nearly 2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato represented a Socratic symposium. In Plato’s Symposium, elite men drink wine and compete in giving speeches in praise of erotic love. Writing about two decades after Plato, the eminent Greek military leader Xenophon also represented a Socratic symposium. Xenophon’s Symposium includes music, dancing, and physical acrobatics, as well as elite men drinking wine and discussing love, pride, wisdom, and other abstractions. Piers Plowman in fourteenth-century England dreamed the symposia of Plato and Xenophon into a new, expansive symposium of a whole society interacting with personified concepts such as truth, do-well, and wit. In this new symposium, sober, common labor, rather than pleasing speech or reasoned discussion, best serves love and truth.

Plato’s Symposium consists primarily of speeches in praise of erotic love. The seven elite men participants laud a male’s sexual desire for another male. In classical Athens, such sexual desire was typically directed toward a male shortly before his first beard began to grow. But in the final speech, a drunk Alcibiades, who was an eminent Athenian statesman and general, speaks of his love for Socrates, an eminent Athenian philosopher. Both are well beyond the ages of their first beards. Participants in Plato’s Symposium speak abstractly about different aspects of love and its consequences. Their speeches aren’t narrowly focused on sex.

ancient Geek symposium

Unlike Plato’s Symposium, Xenophon’s Symposium moves discursively from topic to topic. Xenophon, however, begins with a central concern of Plato’s Symposium. Xenophon begins with silent appreciation for the beauty of the young man Autolycus:

A person who took note of what happened would have come at once to the conclusion that beauty is something naturally regal, especially when, as in the present case of Autolycus, its possessor joins with it modesty and self-control. For in the first place, just as the sudden glow of a light at night draws all eyes to itself, so now the beauty of Autolycus compelled everyone to look at him. And second, there was not one of the onlookers who did not feel his soul stirred by the boy. Some of them grew quieter than before, others even assumed some kind of a pose.

{ Εὐθὺς μὲν οὖν ἐννοήσας τις τὰ γιγνόμενα ἡγήσατ᾿ ἂν φύσει βασιλικόν τι τὸ κάλλος εἶναι, ἄλλως τε καὶ ἢν μετ᾿ αἰδοῦς καὶ σωφροσύνης καθάπερ Αὐτόλυκος τότε κεκτῆταί τις αὐτό. πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ ὥσπερ ὅταν φέγγος τι ἐν νυκτὶ φανῇ, πάντων προσάγεται τὰ ὄμματα, οὕτω καὶ τότε τοῦ Αὐτολύκου τὸ κάλλος πάντων εἷλκε τὰς ὄψεις πρὸς αὐτόν. ἔπειτα τῶν ὁρώντων οὐδεὶς οὐκ ἔπασχέ τι τὴν ψυχὴν ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου· οἱ μέν γε σιωπηρότεροι ἐγίγνοντο, οἱ δὲ καὶ ἐσχηματίζοντό πως. }[1]

Xenophon indicates that some of the men felt erotic desire for Autolycus. Interrupting the general awe, the childish jester Philip enters. He seeks food as an uninvited guest. To earn his meal he attempts to provoke laughter. He fails, and then he weeps for his failure. The elite men in relation to Autolycus presaged the jester Philip. Without any coquettish invitation from Autolycus, they ridiculously feasted on him.

Like Socrates, Piers Plowman identifies love, which it closely associates with truth, as the most important human concern. Characters in Piers Plowman critically discuss erotic love, with explicit reference to Plato, and perhaps implicit reference to Xenophon. The narrator Will recounted:

A most marvelous dream came to me then
that I was fetched away forcibly — Fortune seized me
and into the land of longing and love she brought me,
and made me look into a mirror called Middle Earth.
Afterwards she said to me, “In this you might see wonders,
and recognize what you really want and reach it, perhaps.”
Then Fortune had following her two fair damsels.
Concupiscentia-Carnis men called the elder maid,
and Covetousness-of-Eyes the other was called.
Pride-of-Perfect-Living pursued them both
and said that for appearance’s sake I should pay small heed to Clergy.
Concupiscentia-Carnis clasped me about the neck
and said, “You are young and yeasty and have years enough ahead
to live a long life and make love to ladies,
and in this mirror you might see mirths by the score
that will lead you to delight all your lifetime.”
The second said the same: “I shall serve your pleasure;
till you’re a lord and have land, I’ll not leave you ever,
but will follow in your fellowship if Fortune pleases.”
“He shall find me his friend,” said Fortune then.
“The fellow that followed my will never failed to have bliss.”

{ A merveillous metels mette me thanne.
For I was ravysshed right there — for Fortune me fette
And into the lond of longynge and love she me broughte,
And in a mirour that highte Middelerthe she made me to biholde.
Sithen she seide to me, “Here myghtow se wondres,
And knowe that thow coveitest, and come therto, peraunter.”
Thanne hadde Fortune folwynge hire two faire damyseles:
Concupiscencia Carnis men called the elder mayde,
And Coveitise of Eighes ycalled was that oother.
Pride of Parfit Lyvynge pursued hem bothe,
And bad me for my contenaunce acounten Clergie lighte.
Concupiscencia Carnis colled me aboute the nekke
And seide, “Thow art yong and yeep and hast yeres ynowe
For to lyve longe and ladies to lovye;
And in this mirour thow might se myrthes ful manye
That leden thee wole to likynge al thi lif tyme.”
The secounde seide the same: “I shal sewe thi wille;
Til thow be a lord and have lond, leten thee I nelle
That I ne shal folwe thi felawship, if Fortune it like.”
“He shal fynde me his frend,” quod Fortune therafter;
“The freke that folwede my wille failled nevere blisse.” }[2]

Providing a vision of what one truly wants is Socratic. Yet Fortune “fetched away forcibly {ravysshed}” Will. That medieval term for rape hints at Fortune’s duplicity. Old Age countered Fortune:

Then was there one called Old Age that was unhappy of countenance.
“Man,” said he, “if I meet you, by Mary of Heaven,
you’ll find Fortune failing you at your greatest need,
and Concupiscentia-Carnis will clean forsake you.
Your curses will be bitter, both day and night,
for Covetousness-of-Eyes, that ever you knew her.
And Pride-of-Perfect-Living will put you in great danger.”

{ Thanne was ther oon that highte Elde, that hevy was of chere,
“Man,” quod he, “if I mete with thee, by Marie of hevene
Thow shalt fynde Fortune thee faille at thi mooste nede,
And Concupiscencia Carnis clene thee forsake.
Bittrely shaltow banne thanne, bothe dayes and nyghtes,
Coveitise of Eighe, that evere thow hir knewe;
And Pride of Parfit Lyvynge to muche peril thee brynge.” }

Recklessness and Childishness, however, urged Will to entertain the lovely maidens:

“Really? Don’t take him seriously,” said Recklessness, standing forth in ragged clothes.
“Follow whatever Fortune wills. You’ve far to go till Age.
It’s time enough for a man to stoop when he starts going bald.
‘Man proposes,’ said a poet then, and Plato was his name,
and ‘the Deity disposes,’ said he. Let God do his will.
If Truth will witness, it’s well done to follow Fortune.
Concupiscentia-Carnis and Covetousness-of-Eyes
will not grieve you greatly, nor unless you wish, beguile you.”
“Yes, farewell, Phippe,” said Childishness, and drew me forth with him
till Concupiscentia-Carnis accorded to all my deeds.

{ “Ye? Recche thee nevere!” quod Rechelesnesse, stood forth in raggede clothes
“Folwe forth that Fortune wole — thow has wel fer til Elde.
A man may stoupe tyme ynogh whan he shal tyne the crowne.
‘Homo proponit,’ quod a poete, and Plato he highte,
And ‘Deus disponit’ quod he, lat God doon his wille.
If Truthe wol witnesse it be wel do, Fortune to folwe,
Concupiscencia Carnis ne Coveitise of Eighes
Ne shal noght greve thee graithly, ne biglie thee but thow wolt.”
“Ye, farewel Phippe!” quod Faunteltee, and forth gan me drawe,
Til Concupiscencia Carnis acorded til alle my werkes. }

Childishness sarcastically called Old Age “Phippe,” a childish form of Philip. That would have been an appropriate nickname for the jester Philip in Xenophon’s Symposium. Plato never wrote, “Man proposes, the deity disposes {homo proponit, deus disponit},” particularly not in Latin. But the god of erotic love led Will to life in the flesh:

Covetousness-of-Eyes comforted me straightway
and followed me forty winters and a fifth more,
so that I didn’t give a damn for Do-Well and Do-Better.
I had no liking, believe me, to learn the least thing about them.
Covetousness-of-Eyes came more often to my mind
than Do-Well or Do-Better did among all my doings.
Covetousness-of-Eyes often comforted me.

So sweet were this wench’s words I did what she said
till my young days were done and I’d drifted into age.
And then Fortune was my foe for all her fair promises,
and poverty pursued me and put me low.

{ Coveitise of Eighes conforted me anoon after
And folwed me fourty wynter and a fifte moore,
That of Dowel ne Dobet no deyntee me thoughte.
I hadde no likyng, leve me, [o]f the leste of hem ought to knowe.
Coveitise of Eighes com ofter in mynde
Than Dowel or Dobet among my dedes alle.
Coveitise of Eighes conforted me ofte.

By wissynge of this wenche I dide, hir wordes were so swete,
Til I foryat youthe and yarn into elde.
And thanne was Fortune my foo, for al hir faire biheste,
And poverte pursued me and putte me lowe. }

Concern to live rightly (“Do-Well”) animates Socratic discussion. Will wasn’t interested in such learning. Xenophon’s exemplary men — “the morally autonomous elite / the beautiful and good {καλοκάγαθος}” — don’t age and fall into poverty. In ordinary life, men and women do.

figure of Reason in Piers Plowman

Love in Piers Plowman is far from the drinking and high-status intellectual practices of symposia. Dame Study claims to have taught Plato and Aristotle their learning, as well as ordinary folk all the practical arts classically attributed to Prometheus. She directs Will to Clergy to learn about living rightly (“Do-Well”):

I shall acquaint you with my cousin — Clergy is his name.
He has wedded a wife within these six weeks
who is sib to the seven arts. She is called Scripture.
These two, as I hope, after my request
will direct you to Do-Well. I dare so warrant it.

{ I shal kenne thee to my cosyn that Clergie is hoten.
He hath wedded a wif withinne thise sixe monthes,
Is sib to the sevene arts–Scripture is hir name.
They two, as I hope, after my techyng,
Shullen wissen thee to Dowel, I dar wel undertake. }

According to Dame Study, the way to Clergy and Scripture isn’t sympotic. It’s a high way of sober, modest living:

“Ask for the highway,” said she, “from here to Suffer-
Both-Welfare-And-Woe, if you wish to learn.
And ride on past Riches — don’t rest there,
for if you keep company with him, you’ll never come to Clergy.
And also the long pastureland, Lechery by name,
leave it on your left hand a long mile or more
till you come to a castle, Keep-Well-Your-Tongue-
Then you shall see Sobriety and Sincerity-Of-Speech,
so that every one will be willing to share his wits with you.
Then you will come to Clergy, who knows many kinds of things.

{ “Aske the heighe wey,” quod she, “hennes to Suffre-
Bothe-wele-and-wo, if that thow wolt lerne;
And ryd forth by richesse, ac rest thow noght therinne,
For if thow couplest thee therwith to Clergie comestow nevere.
“And also the likerouse launde that Lecherie hatte–
Leve hym on thi left half a large myle or moore,
Til thow come to a court, Kepe-wel-thi-tunge-
Thanne shaltow se Sobretee and Sympletee-of-speche,
That ech wight be in wille his wit thee to shewe;
And thus shaltow come to Clergie, that kan manye thynges.” }

What Will must learn from Clergy and Scripture, one cannot learn through study. It’s a matter of theology beyond Dame Study, as she herself confessed:

But Theology has troubled me ten score times.
The more I muse on it, the mistier it seems,
and the deeper I divined, the darker I thought it.
It’s surely no science to argue subtly in.
If it weren’t for the love that lies in it, it would be a lame study.
But since it allows so much to Love, I love it the better,
for wherever Love is leader, there’s no lack of grace.
Be sure to love loyally if you’d like to Do-Well,
for Do-Better and Do-Best are drawn from Love’s school.

{ Ac Theologie hath tened me ten score tymes:
The moore I muse therinne, the myst[lok]er it semeth,
And the depper I devyne, the derker me it thynketh.
lt is no science, forsothe, for to sotile inne.
[If that love nere, that lith therinne, a ful lethi thyng it were];
Ac for it let best by love, I love it the bettre,
For there that love is ledere, ne lakked nevere grace.
Loke thow love lelly, if thee liketh Dowel,
For Dobet and Dobest ben of loves k[e]nn[yng]. }[3]

In Piers Plowman, Light, a figure of Jesus, declares:

For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink,
and for that drink today I died upon earth.
I struggled so I’m thirsty still for man’s soul’s sake.

{ For I that am lord of lif, love is my drynke,
And for that drynke today, I deide upon erthe.
I faught so, me thursteth yet, for mannes soule sake. }

Plato’s Symposium involves drinking and talk of erotic love. In Piers Plowman, desire for drink links to love through a figure of Jesus. Socrates taught the immortality of the human soul. Piers Plowman has Jesus make souls immortal through his life and death. Piers Plowman completely reconfigures Socratic discourse.[4]

friar in Piers Plowman

Ancient Greek symposia often included entertainers. In Xenophon’s Symposium, a Syracusan impresario brings in a flute girl, a dancing girl skilled in acrobatic tricks, and a boy who plays the kithara and dances. After the girl danced while juggling twelve hoops, Socrates marveled at women’s ability to learn. When she turned somersaults about a hoop set with upright swords, Socrates praised her “courage / manliness {ἀνδρεία}.” Antisthenes then proposed that the girl’s stunt could promote the city’s use of men in violence against men:

“Well then,” asked Antisthenes, “wouldn’t it be best for this Syracusan to exhibit his dancer to the city and announce that if the Athenians pay him money, he’ll give all the men of Athens the courage to charge the spear points?”

{ Καὶ ὁ Ἀντισθένης εἶπεν· Ἆρ᾿ οὖν καὶ τῷδε τῷ Συρακοσίῳ κράτιστον ἐπιδείξαντι τῇ πόλει τὴν ὀρχηστρίδα εἰπεῖν, ἐὰν διδῶσιν αὐτῷ Ἀθηναῖοι χρήματα, ποιήσειν πάντας Ἀθηναίους τολμᾶν ὁμόσε ταῖς λόγχαις ἰέναι }

The jester Philip, like many journalists today, favored such a scheme for promoting violence against men:

“Well said!” interjected Philip, “I’d certainly like to watch Peisander the popular leader learning to turn somersaults into the knives. As it is, his inability to look spears in the face makes him shrink even from going on campaign!”

{ Καὶ ὁ Φίλιππος, Νὴ Δί᾿, ἔφη, καὶ μὴν ἔγωγε ἡδέως ἂν θεῴμην Πείσανδρον τὸν δημηγόρον μανθάνοντα κυβιστᾶν εἰς τὰς μαχαίρας, ὃς νῦν διὰ τὸ μὴ δύνασθαι λόγχαις ἀντιβλέπειν οὐδὲ συστρατεύεσθαι ἐθέλει. }

That’s conventional, gender-obtuse elite political banter. It favors praising women and devaluing men’s lives.

figure of Pride in Piers Plowman

Elite discourse, whether or not it includes women participants, typically fails men as a gender in fundamental ways. In Xenophon’s Symposium, a low-status entertainer provides implicitly the only critical perspective on violence against men:

At this point the boy performed a dance. He elicited from Socrates the remark, “Did you notice that, as beautiful as the boy is, he looks even more beautiful in the poses of the dance than when he’s at rest?”

{ Ἐκ τούτου ὁ παῖς ὠρχήσατο. καὶ ὁ Σωκράτης εἶπεν, Εἴδετ᾿, ἔφη, ὡς καλὸς ὁ παῖς ὢν ὅμως σὺν τοῖς σχήμασιν ἔτι καλλίων φαίνεται ἢ ὅταν ἡσυχίαν ἔχῃ }

Socrates jokingly declares that he would like to learn to dance to develop his body’s suppleness. He gives good reasons why dance is good exercise. Charmides, underscoring lack of concern about violence against men, says that he doesn’t know how to dance, but he shadowboxes. Shadowboxing is formally similar to dancing, but it’s completely opposite in instrumentalizing a man’s body. Philip the jester then estimates the weight of Socrates’s body parts as one would estimate the weight of meat. Philip accentuates with dance the triviality of their sympotic talk:

He got up and mimicked in detail the dancing of both the boy and the girl. To begin with, since the company had applauded the way the boy’s natural beauty was increased by the grace of the dancing postures, Philip made a burlesque out of the performance by rendering every part of his body that was in motion more grotesque than it naturally was. Whereas the girl had bent backward until she resembled a hoop, he tried to do the same by bending forward. Finally, since they had given the boy applause for putting every part of his body into play in the dance, he told the flute girl to quicken the tempo and he danced away, flinging out legs, hands, and head all at the same time. When he was quite exhausted, he exclaimed as he took to his couch, “Here’s proof, gentlemen, that my style of dancing also affords excellent exercise. It has certainly made me thirsty. Let the slave fill up for me the big drinking vessel!”

{ Ἐπειδὴ δ᾿ ἀνέστη, διῆλθε μιμούμενος τήν τε τοῦ παιδὸς καὶ τὴν τῆς παιδὸς ὄρχησιν. καὶ πρῶτον μὲν ὅτι ἐπῄνεσαν ὡς ὁ παῖς σὺν τοῖς σχήμασιν ἔτι καλλίων ἐφαίνετο, ἀνταπέδειξεν ὅ τι κινοίη τοῦ σώματος ἅπαν τῆς φύσεως γελοιότερον· ὅτι δ᾿ ἡ παῖς εἰς τοὔπισθεν καμπτομένη τροχοὺς ἐμιμεῖτο, ἐκεῖνος ταῦτα εἰς τὸ ἔμπροσθεν ἐπικύπτων μιμεῖσθαι τροχοὺς ἐπειρᾶτο. τέλος δ᾿ ὅτι τὸν παῖδ᾿ ἐπῄνουν ὡς ἐν τῇ ὀρχήσει ἅπαν τὸ σῶμα γυμνάζοι, κελεύσας τὴν αὐλητρίδα θάττονα ῥυθμὸν ἐπάγειν ἵει ἅμα πάντα καὶ σκέλη καὶ χεῖρας καὶ κεφαλήν. ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἀπειρήκει, κατακλινόμενος εἶπε· Τεκμήριον, ὦ ἄνδρες, ὅτι καλῶς γυμνάζει καὶ τὰ ἐμὰ ὀρχήματα. ἐγὼ γοῦν διψῶ· καὶ ὁ παῖς ἐγχεάτω μοι τὴν μεγάλην φιάλην. }

Socrates, in what could be taken as a parody of profundity, suggested in response that they all don’t drink too much. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates sets the stage for the men’s speeches by dismissing the flute girl, the only entertainer at that symposium. That doesn’t mean that the men’s speeches are worth more than entertainment.[5]

In Piers Plowman, Dame Study condemns speaking as entertainment. She favors sober, common labor:

He does best who desists, day and night,
from squandering any speech or any space of time.
“Who offends in one point is guilty of all.”
And Truth knows what’s true: time that is wasted
on earth is most hated by those who are in Heaven,
and then the squandering of speech, which is the sprout of grace
and God’s music-maker, and a merriment of Heaven.
The faithful father would never wish that his fiddle were untuned,
nor his gleeman a gadabout, a goer to taverns.
All sincere and steady men who desire to work,
our Lord loves them and allows, great or small,
grace to go with them and let them gain their livelihoods.

{ He dooth best that withdraweth hym by daye and by nyghte
To spille any speche or any space of tyme:
Qui offendit in uno, in omnibus est reus.
[Tyn]ynge of tyme, Truthe woot the sothe,
Is moost yhated upon erthe of hem that ben in hevene;
And siththe to spille speche, that spire is of grace,
And Goddes gleman and a game of hevene.
Wolde nevere the feithful fader his fithele were untempred,
Ne his gleman a gedelyng, a goere to tavernes.
To alle trewe tidy men that travaille desiren,
Oure Lord loveth hem and lent, loude outher stille,
Grace to go to hem and of gon hir liflode }[6]

After dismissing “ribalds for their ribaldry {harlotes for hir harlotrie}” and “jesters and jugglers and jabberers of tales {japeris and jogelours and jangleris of gestes},” Dame Study describes clerics as acting no better than minstrels:

But minstrelsy and mirth among men nowadays
are filthiness, flatteries, and foolish tales.
Gluttony and great oaths — these are games nowadays,
but if they discourse of Christ, these clerks and laymen,
at meals in their mirth when minstrels are still,
then they tell of the Trinity how two slew the third,
and bring a threadbare argument to bear, take Bernard to witness,
and proffer an assumed probability as proof of a truth.
Thus they drivel on the dais a definition of Godhead,
and set their teeth in God’s gorge when their guts are full.

{ Ac murthe and mynstralcie amonges men is nouthe
Lecherie, losengerye and losels tales–
Glotonye and grete othes, this [game] they lovyeth.
“Ac if thei carpen of Crist, thise clerkes and thise lewed,
At mete in hir murthe whan mynstrals beth stille,
Thanne telleth thei of the Trinite [how two slowe the thridde],
And bryngen forth a balled reson, and taken Bernard to witnesse,
And puten forth a presumpcion to preve the sothe.
Thus thei dryvele at hir deys the deitee to knowe,
And gnawen God with the gorge whanne hir guttes fullen. }

Piers Plowman is vernacular verse in a lively alliterative scheme. It’s probably similar to the work of sophisticated minstrels.[7] Just as Piers Plowman relates to common entertainers, it also relates to clerics. It’s a symposium against symposia.

lawyer in Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman includes Socratic irony. “Mental Vision {Ymaginatif}” tells the clerical Will to change his ways from writing books like Piers Plowman:

And you meddle with making verse and might go say your Psalter,
and pray for them that provide your bread, for there are plenty of books
to tell men what Do-Well is, Do-Better and Do-Best both,
and preachers to explain it all, with many a pair of friars.

{ And thow medlest thee with makynges–and myghtest go seye thi Sauter,
And bidde for hem that yyveth thee breed; for ther are bokes ynowe
To telle men what Dowel is, Dobet and Dobest bothe,
And prechours to preve what it is, of many a peire freres. }

Will, however, rationalizes his mental activity:

I saw well he spoke the truth, and somewhat to excuse myself
said, “Cato comforted his son, clerk though he was,
to solace himself sometimes. So I do when I write.
‘Interpose some pleasures at times among your cares.’
And I’ve heard it said of holy men, how they now and then
played to be more perfect in their prayers afterward.
But if there were anyone who would tell me
what Do-Well and Do-Better were, and Do-Best at the last,
I would never do any work but wend to Holy Church
and stay there saying prayers, save when I ate or slept.”

{ I seigh wel he seide me sooth and, somwhat me to excuse,
Seide, “Caton conforted his sone that, clerk though he were,
To solacen hym som tyme — a[lso] I do whan I make:
Interpone tuis interdum gaudia curis.
“And of holy men I herde,” quod I, “how thei outherwhile
Pleyden, the parfiter to ben, in [places manye].
Ac if ther were any wight that wolde me telle
What were Dowel and Dobet and Dobest at the laste,
Wolde I nevere do werk, but wende to holi chirche
And there bidde my bedes but whan ich ete or slepe.” }

We humans are rationalizing animals. We should feel free to play without reason.

Plato’s Symposium and Xenophon’s Symposium for millennia have been influential exemplars of elite drinking and talking. A feast of words about doing good isn’t the same as doing good. What you know is sufficient for you to do good. Life cannot be lived in examining it. The many artful words of Piers Plowman indicate that sober, common labor, like bringing together good earth and a well-functioning plow, does more good than symposia.

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[1] Xenophon of Athens, Symposium 1.8-10, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Marchant, Todd & Henderson (2013). Subsequent quotes from Xenophon’s Symposium are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

Xenophon’s Symposium explicitly presents as examples the relatively insignificant acts of “the morally autonomous elite / the beautiful and good {καλοκάγαθος}”:

To my mind it is worthwhile to relate not only the serious acts of the morally autonomous elite, but also what they do in their playful moments.

{ Ἀλλ᾿ ἐμοὶ δοκεῖ τῶν καλῶν κἀγαθῶν ἀνδρῶν ἔργα οὐ μόνον τὰ μετὰ σπουδῆς πραττόμενα ἀξιομνημόνευτα εἶναι ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ ἐν ταῖς παιδιαῖς }

Xenophon, Symposium 1.1, with my changes to the translation of the key terms καλοκάγαθος and παιδία. Neither “gentleman” nor “philosopher” seems to me an adequate translation of καλοκάγαθος. Cf. Reid (2022).

The symposia of Plato and Xenophon are the only surviving ancient Socratic symposia. Compared to Plato’s Symposium, Xenophon’s Symposium is closer to symposia depicted in other sources. Hobden (2004) p. 122. The entertainers in Xenophon’s Symposium significantly shape the conversation. Id.

A considerable corpus of ancient literature concerns symposia. Lengthy ancient representations of symposia include Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Learned Banqueters {Deipnosophistae / Δειπνοσοφισταί}; Macrobius, Seven Books of the Saturnalia {Saturnaliorum Libri Septem}; Plutarch, Banquet of the Seven Sages {Septem Sapientium Convivium / Ἑπτά σοφῶν συμπόσιον}; and Methodius of Olympus, Symposium or Banquet {Συμπόσιον ἢ περὶ ἁγνείας} / Banquet of Ten Virgins {Convivium decem virginum}. The classical Arabic literature of al-Jahiz is similar to sympotic literature. On symposia in ancient Greek poetry, Cazzato, Obbink & Proi (2016). On ancient symposia more generally, König (2012).

Subsequent quotes above are from Xenophon’s Symposium 2.13 (“Well then,” asked Antisthenes…), 2.14 (Well said!” interjected Philip…), 2.15 (At this point the boy performed a dance…), 2.21-2 (He got up and mimicked in detail the dancing…).

[2] William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 11.6-26, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, English modernization (modified slightly) from Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990). Subsequent quotes from Piers Plowman are similarly sourced and cited by (passus.verses) in Schmidt’s edition. The leading scholarly edition (Bx) is online at the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive. I’ve used Schmidt’s edition because it’s easier for non-specialists to read.

Subsequent quotes above from Piers Plowman are vv. 11.27-33 (Then was there one called Old Age…), 11.34-43 (“Really? Don’t take him seriously,”…), 11.46-52, 59-62 (Covetousness-of-Eyes comforted me straightway…), 10.150-4 (I shall acquaint you with my cousin…), 10.159-69 (“Ask for the highway,” said she…), 10.182-90 (But Theology has troubled me ten score times…), 18.365-7 (For I who am Lord of Life…), 9.97-106 (He does best who desists…), 10.30 (ribalds for their ribaldry), 10.31 (jesters and jugglers and jabberers of tales), 10.48-57 (But minstrelsy and mirth among men nowadays…), 12.16-9 (And you meddle with making verse…), 12.20-8 (I saw well he spoke the truth…).

[3] Consider an academic-sympotic display of Study:

Langland’s poem negotiates the discourses of reading, recognizing the competition between the accepted female discursive mode and the call to social activism: Piers Plowman embodies that competition in the figure of Study.

Bishop (1998) p. 112.

[4] Plato’s Symposium is known to have been translated into Latin no earlier than the fifteenth century in Italy. Clay (2007), Hankins (2009) pp. 337-8. On the reception of Plato’s Symposium more generally, Lesher (2004). Xenophon’s Symposium is known in Latin only beginning with the translation of the Frankfurt Humanist Johann Haynpul {Janus Cornarius} in 1546. Hankins (2009) p. 338. Nonetheless, “Latin readers in the medieval West had a reasonably good sense of who Socrates was” through classical Latin authors discussing him. Id. p. 337.

The twelfth-century School of Chartres was a leading center of Platonism. John of Salisbury served as Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury and then became Bishop of Chartres in 1176. John’s work shows significant Platonic influence. So too does the twelfth-century Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. Piers Plowman explicitly mentions Plato three times, and Aristotle, four times.

Writing in England late in the fourteenth century, the author of Piers Plowman / William Langland had no known access to either Plato’s Symposium or Xenophon’s Symposium. How William Langland managed to write such an interesting intertext to those symposia matters much less than that he did. Scholars have not recognized even the latter, despite the evidence readily available today.

[5] Socrates dismisses the flute girl in Plato, Symposium 176e. In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates condemns elite men enjoying low, hired entertainment. Protagoras 347c5-e1.

While Xenophon is generally regarded as an earnest writer, careful reading suggests that he appreciated silliness and irony. In his Symposium, Xenophon mixes “playfulness {παιδία}” and “seriousness {σπουδή}.” For example, Xenophon evidently was joking about Socrates dancing. Readers from the ancient world to the present have failed to recognizes this humor. Huss (1999). Recent scholarship also suggests that Xenophon in his Symposium encoded doubts about Socrates limiting love between men and boys to spiritual love. Konstan (2023). As a military leader, Xenophon used men as tools in violence against men. But he may also have had a sense of men’s beauty. Men’s beauty emphasizes the folly of measuring men only through violence against men.

Socrates in Xenophon explicitly compares the symposium participants to entertainers in providing pleasure:

Then Socrates resumed the conversation. “Gentlemen,” he said, “these people show their competence to give us pleasure, and yet I’m sure we consider ourselves far superior to them. Won’t it be shameful, then, if we don’t even try, while we’re here together, to give one another some benefit or pleasure?”

{Ἐκ τούτου δὲ πάλιν εἶπεν ὁ Σωκράτης· Οὗτοι μὲν δή, ὦ ἄνδρες, ἱκανοὶ τέρπειν ἡμᾶς φαίνονται· ἡμεῖς δὲ τούτων οἶδ᾿ ὅτι πολὺ βελτίονες οἰόμεθα εἶναι· οὐκ αἰσχρὸν οὖν εἰ μηδ᾿ ἐπιχειρήσομεν συνόντες ὠφελεῖν τι ἢ εὐφραίνειν ἀλλήλους }

Xenophon, Symposium 3.2. Socrates states that Hermogenes’s discourse would be more agreeable accompanied by pipe music and physical posing. Id. 6.4. Socrates also sings to overcome the symposiasts’ clamor. Id. 7.1.

[6] Dame Study, who dominates her husband like Xanthippe did Socrates, paraphrases James 2:10 in Latin in Piers Plowman 9.99. She appears in a “disarmingly comic” interlude. She, however, is a complex, significant character:

The tirade that the gaunt, earthy wife vents upon her husband Wit may divert us from several evident inconsistencies about her. … If Study communicates with her students orally, she is nevertheless reading as she does so, and reading from the same trivial and quadrivial texts that had re-established literate science in the late eleventh and the twelfth centuries. The immediacy of preliterate communication is recovered as the integrity of reader and text within the idea that the tropological level of Scripture becomes fully realized only when the reader internalizes it as a change of life. The orality to which the “lewed” are condemned becomes, in the Study episode, not a cause for anxiety, but the oral reading of a text, the first stage of lectio divina, and a necessary condition for textual understanding.

Harwood (1990) pp. 7, 13. Dame Study is also significant in relation to pathologies of orality in symposia.

“Hawkin the Active Man {Haukyn the Actif Man},” who’s called a minstrel, leads an active life of lechery. It leads merely to merry tales in old age:

For every maid that he met he made her a gesture
suggesting sin
, and some he would savor
about the mouth, or beneath begin to grope,
till their wills grow keen together and they get to work,
as well on fasting days as Fridays and forbidden nights
and as lief in Lent as out of Lent, all times alike.
Such works with them were never out of season
till they might do no more, and then told merry tales
and of how lechers make love laugh and joke,
and in their old age told of their whoring and wenching.

{ For ech a maide that he mette, he made hire a signe
Semynge to synneward, and somtyme he gan taste
Aboute the mouth or bynethe bigynneth to grope,
Til eitheres wille wexeth kene, and to the werke yeden,
As wel fastyng dayes as Fridaies and forboden nyghtes,
And as lef in Lente as out of Lente, alle tymes yliche:
Swiche werkes with hem were nevere out of seson,
Til thei myghte na moore–and thanne hadde murye tales,
And how that lecchours lovye laughen and japen,
And of hir harlotrye and horedom in hir elde tellen. }

Piers Plowman, 13.344-53. Will regarded such work not only as sinful, but also as fruitless. Marital sex was a different activity. Wit declared, “Do-Well in this world is wedded people who live truly {in this world is Dowel trewe wedded libbynge folk}.” Piers Plowman 9.108.

[7] Pettitt insightfully stated:

Piers Plowman is not in Latin prose, nor designed exclusively for an audience of learned clerks. It is a skilled exercise in English word-craft which is in various ways (in varying degrees) vernacular, some of which ways may take it disturbingly close to the verbal production of those men of words from whom Langland seems anxious to distance himself. Or in a formulation he would have found more vexing: how clearly and how confidently, as belonging to different orders of cultural production, can we distinguish between Piers Plowman and “a dido … a dysoures tale {a Dido … a minstrel’s tale}”, or even “rhymes of Robyn hood”?

Pettitt (2021) pp. 18-9, quoting Piers Plowman 13.172, with my added gloss in brackets. Other scholars have similarly perceived Langland’s association with minstrelsy:

It is possible that Langland was, at least in his youth, a minstrel of sorts. Our knowledge of fourteenth-century minstrelsy is far from complete and our ideas of the profession are, I believe, unduly influenced by a romantic, Sir-Walter-Scott picture which probably makes the suggestion in the last sentence offensive to certain readers. But we have it on Cobham’s and Langland’s word that there were a few pious minstrels who wrote and spoke on religious subjects and we certainly have sufficient examples of the works they might have read aloud or recited. … It is interesting that when one works through the poem in an attempt to discover what sort of minstrel the poet could have been, one encounters a number of things reminiscent of the goliardic tradition — and this, despite the fact that the tradition itself and Piers Plowman are worlds apart.

Donaldson (1949) p. 153. On Langland’s sense of himself as a vernacular verse-maker in relation to minstrels, Schmidt (1987) Chapter 1.

[images] (1) Fresco of ancient Greek symposium in the Tomb of the diver in Paestum, Italy. Painted 480-470 BGC. Source image thanks to Velvet and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Figure of Reason in manuscript instance of Piers Plowman. Illustration on the margin of folio 19r of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 104. This manuscript was made 1427-8. (3) Friar in Piers Plowman. Illustration similarly from folio 67r of MS Douce 104. (4) Figure of Pride in Piers Plowman. Illustration similarly from folio 24r of MS Douce 104. (5) Lawyer in Piers Plowman. Illustration similarly from folio 41r of MS Douce 104. On the illustrations in MS Douce 104, Scott (1990).


Bishop, Louise. 1998. “Dame Study and Women’s Literacy.” Yearbook of Langland Studies. 12: 97-115.

Cazzato, Vanessa, Dirk Obbink, and Enrico Emanuele Prodi, eds. 2016. Cup of Song: Studies on Poetry and the Symposion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Max Leventhal.

Clay, Diskin. 2007 “The Hangover of Plato’s Symposium in the Italian Renaissance from Bruni (1435) to Castiglione (1528).” Chapter 15 in Lesher, James, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield, eds. Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 22. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Donaldson E. Talbot. 1949. Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans., Elisabeth D. Kirk, and Judith H. Anderson, eds. 1990. William Langland. Will’s vision of Piers Plowman. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hankins, James. 2009. “Socrates in the Italian Renaissance”. Chapter 21 (pp. 337–352) in Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar, eds. A Companion to Socrates. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Harwood, Britton J. 1990. “Dame Study and the Place of Orality in Piers Plowman.” ELH. 57(1): 1–17.

Hobden, Fiona. 2004. “How to Be a Good Symposiast and Other Lessons from Xenophon’s Symposium.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. 50: 121–40.

Huss, Bernhard. 1999. “The Dancing Sokrates and the Laughing Xenophon, or the Other Symposium.” The American Journal of Philology. 120(3): 381–409.

König, Jason. 2012. Saints and Symposiasts: The Literature of Food and the Symposium in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Konstan, David. 2023. “Sexual Transition in Xenophon’s Symposium.” Draft presented to Italian-US Online Study Group on Scholarly Entertainment.

Lesher, James. 2004. “The Afterlife of PLato’s Symposium.” Ordia Prima. 3: 89-105.

Marchant, E. C., and O. J. Todd, ed. and trans. Revised by Jeffrey Henderson. 2013. Xenophon. Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apology. Loeb Classical Library 168. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Original 1923 edition online.

Pettitt, Tom. 2021. “The Man of Letters and the Men of Words: Langland, Piers Plowman, and Vernacular Culture.” Internet Paper.

Reid, L. Heather. 2022. “A Gentleman or a Philosopher? Xenophon vs. Aristotle on Kalokagathia.” Pp. 121-134 in David Konstan and David Sider, eds. Philodorema: Essays in Greek and Roman Philosophy in Honor of Phillip Mitsis. Siracusa: Parnassos Press.

Scott, Kathleen L. 1990. “The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library Ms. Douce 104.” The Yearbook of Langland Studies. 4: 1–86.

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1978. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text. London: J.M. Dent.

Schmidt, A. V. C. 1987. The Clerkly Maker: Langland’s Poetic Art. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

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