“We really ought to start calling this a symposium, dontcha think?”

Yes, Andy, I do think so.

“Andy” in this case is Andy Hollandbeck, fellow editor, with whom I just, um, symposed at the ACES conference in Columbus, Ohio. And he was not sitting up from his spot on a couch when saying that – though he could have been; he tooted it on Mastodon in response to my observation, “A conference is a fountain of knowledge where editors gather to drink!”

Which is not an original witticism, mind you – though it’s usually said of universities. But I was saying it in response to Christian Wilkie characterizing the subjects of my conference photos as “the important stuff.” With which, given that they were largely pictures of people having animated conversations while holding drinks, I tend to concur.

That may not make sense to you if your familiarity with symposia is just with what are typically called “symposium” these days: events consisting of panel discussions or people reading scholarly papers one after another, always in some fluorescent-lit room with desks, dry as bones, fueled with bad coffee or nothing at all. If there is any lubricated conviviality, it takes place afterwards and unofficially.

Those who have some acquaintance with Plato know that his Symposium is the original literary pattern for such things: a philosophical discussion between a half-dozen – make that seven – eminent ancient Greeks, most eminent of whom being Socrates. They are making speeches, one by one, about Eros.

In the average layperson’s mind, this sounds like a literary description of a faculty dinner, all these erudite people saying such smart things. Those who know the subject – and faculty dinners – more intimately know that it was, indeed, like many a faculty dinner: all but one of them are in their cups (and a late arrival shows up having come from another party absolutely cratered), and they are talking about sex.

This is not to say that all symposia must take sex as their subject; not at all – any topic is fair game. (Editing, for instance, can be more interesting than you might think.) But the origin of the symposium is a drinking-and-talking party. To our English eyes, symposium seems formal, on the same level of dignity as symphony, with an air of posing questions perhaps (or intellectual poseurs?), and, um, all those words that end in um, from forum to opium. But it comes (via Latin) from Ancient Greek συμπόσιον sumpósion, from συν- sun- (‘together’) plus πίνω pínō (‘drink’). And no, you don’t have to drink pinot, although the Athenians did always drink wine – it was served from a large jar called a krater and drunk from shallow cups.

Symposia were common in Athenian society of about 2400 years ago. There would be dinner, and then there would be drinking and talking. Which is exactly what I go to conferences in hope of, and I am always pleased to get it. (The presentations are enjoyable, but I don’t go for formal education really; I can get that more efficiently by other means.) I have long been an advocate of conviviality: when I was heading an editorial department, I maintained “the team that lunches together has hunches together,” and I may also have said “the team that does shots together has thoughts together.” Meetings are de rigueur (mortis) but informal contexts are where the truth really comes out.

But there is one thing about a symposium in the original model that I don’t cotton to: women were not allowed.

Well, for heaven’s sake. How am I supposed to get any really valuable insight in a room full of nothing but men? Have you been in a room full of nothing but men trying to impress each other with how much they know? It’s an intellectual desiccant. Please. Let us include women, and the more the better (editors’ conferences are excellent for this), for the sake of a better balance of insight and perspective and for better conviviality.

Which is what the Romans did at their version of the symposium. Oh, I’m not talking about their famous orgies; I’m talking about the same kind of event as the Greeks had, with speeches and toasts and ample beverage. But the Romans did not exclude women from them. Also, the Romans didn’t wait until after dinner to start pouring the wine. Not that alcohol is essential; not everyone wants to drink, and if non-drinking was fine for Socrates (it was), it’s fine for anyone else. It’s not the spirits, it’s the spirit!

But the Romans also had a different name for their gatherings – one that already sounds more inviting: convivium. (Yes, by the way, its etymological origins are con- ‘with’ and vivo ‘I live’. I can live with that.) And perhaps convivium is the term we really want. Here’s to conviviality!

3 responses to “symposium

  1. James, any chance that “krater” led to the Irish/Scots term “cratur”?

    • If we’re talking about whisk(e)y, from what I can see that “cratur” (spelled variously) is the same word as the one meaning ‘creature’ that’s a direct borrowing from English “creature” – apparently the semantic development is from “creature comfort.” But I don’t know very much about it. In any event, there’s no evident trail from “krater” (which does, however, lead directly to “crater” as in ‘bowl-shaped indentation in the ground’).

      • Stephen Harvey

        Thank you. I was thinking in terms of whisk(e)y and had forgotten the other use as “creature” (“ah, the poor cratur/craythur.”) It makes sense, in regards to whisky, that it would come from “creature comforts.”

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