Pins and needles

Sometimes when reading the classics one gets beset by niggling and trivial questions. For example I just can’t understand how people can eat leaning on their elbow as they did in ancient dinner parties reclining on their couches. If I lean on my elbow even for a short time I get pins and needles and my arm would go to sleep if I spent the whole of a dinner in that position. I wouldn’t last until the flute girls and I’d be in no condition to play Kottabos at the end.


Yet I am aware in many parts of the world people do not use chairs but sit on the floor both when relaxing and when eating. Had I been accustomed to this from a young age I realise I also would find this natural. And the Greek men would have arms especially suited leaning on as David Wiles says in “A short history of Western Performance Space”

“To recline for long periods supported by the left arm appears an act of decadence, but in fact requires the musculature required in carrying a shield; for the modern body it proves an acutely uncomfortable position”

So maybe it’s not that unnatural.

Here Agathon asks Socrates to recline in this uncomfortable position next to him.

μετὰ ταῦτα ἔφη σφᾶς μὲν δειπνεῖν, τὸν δὲ Σωκράτη οὐκ εἰσιέναι. τὸν οὖν Ἀγάθωνα πολλάκις κελεύειν μεταπέμψασθαι τὸν Σωκράτη, ἓ δὲ οὐκ ἐᾶν. ἥκειν οὖν αὐτὸν οὐ πολὺν χρόνον ὡς εἰώθει διατρίψαντα, ἀλλὰ μάλιστα σφᾶς μεσοῦν δειπνοῦντας. τὸν οὖν Ἀγάθωνα—τυγχάνειν γὰρ ἔσχατον κατακείμενον μόνον—δεῦρ᾽, ἔφη φάναι, Σώκρατες, παρ᾽ ἐμὲ κατάκεισο, ἵνα καὶ τοῦ σοφοῦ ἁπτόμενός σου ἀπολαύσω, ὅ σοι προσέστη ἐν τοῖς προθύροις. δῆλον γὰρ ὅτι ηὗρες αὐτὸ καὶ ἔχεις: οὐ γὰρ ἂν προαπέστης.

After this, he said, they began to dine but Socrates did not come in. Agathon kept giving orders to fetch Socrates but he would have none of it. He came in after not as spending as much time as usual in contemplation when they were in the middle of dinner. Agathon – who happened to be reclining by himself at the far end – said “Socrates, recline next to me so that by touching you I can benefit from the piece of wisdom which came to you in the door way. It is clear that you have got to the bottom of it and you are keeping it otherwise you wouldn’t have moved away”

Plato Symposium 175c

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5 Responses to Pins and needles

  1. Haha…I never noticed that those couches DO look incredibly uncomfortable. I’m with you—sitting on the floor would be much easier. But hey, I’m Asian so…

    I’m sure Agathon wanted more than wisdom osmosis from Socrates. Even the gorgeous Alcibiades couldn’t resist his charms, despite Socrates’ less-than-glorious physical appearance.

    Funny, I never caught that detail about Agathon before. Same thing with the scroll hidden away in the cloak in the Phaedrus. Someone had to point that out to me.


  2. Quite the interesting connection between the leaning left arm and the musculature required for a shield.


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