Sociability and Society
Literature and the Symposium
K. Ludwig Pfeiffer



ON JUNE 12, 1823, Thomas Jefferson sent, among many other words, the following message to William Johnson:

The doctrines of Europe were that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limit of order and justice, except by forces physical and moral wielded over them by authorities independent of their will. . . . We (the founders of the new American democracy) believe that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice, and that he could be restrained from wrong, and protected in right, by moderate powers.

Aldous Huxley quoted these lines in his Brave New World Revisited (1958). And he expanded on them, admitting that Jefferson was partly right but also asserting that he was partly wrong. Huxley maintained that democratic institutions are “devices for reconciling social order with individual freedom,” that these devices, given “a fair chance” as “an indispensable prerequisite,” might enable human beings to govern themselves. In modern times, the biggest threat against this human self-empowerment must be ascribed to the press and the mass media. It must be ascribed to the trajectory (as Huxley probably would have said were he still alive) from propaganda to fake news or, as he did in fact say, in their being “in the main [concerned] neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.”1

Today the situation is much more complex and unstable. Modern societies, many thinkers hold, absolutely need the mass media; after only one month without the media great nations would dissolve into tribal societies, into tiny heaps of clans and village economies.2 Correct as that assumption may be, I doubt that many people are worrying about it. In 2020/21, the Covid pandemic, by contrast, appears to have tested and challenged the cohesive stamina, the “resilience,” of modern societies in much more threatening and visible ways. It has accelerated my enterprise in this book, although it has not supplied its deeper motivation.

Huxley’s Brave New World came out in 1931. In this book, we are introduced to a “world state,” with the world controller Mustapha Mond at the top and the motto “community, identity, stability.” In a new preface in 1946, Huxley claimed that the speed with which the world was approaching the utopian (or rather dystopian) conditions featured in his book was much more rapid than he had assumed back in 1931. In the 1958 book, owing to the combined impact of overpopulation, inflated organization, propaganda, and the arts of selling, brainwashing, and chemical and subconscious persuasion, as well as hypnopedia, modern societies had taken another giant step toward dystopia.

I’ve written the present volume to demonstrate that it is rather the contrary that is the case. True enough: the kind of chemically produced and maintained individual and social stability depicted in Brave New World must appear like a nightmare to us. But this is not our situation; instead we are suffering from other forms of instability, from what Anthony Giddens has called “the consequences of modernity.” This means that an ever-radicalized “disembedding” or in fact disappearance of most of the institutions of yore has been taking place. Institutions have gone that “in the world we have lost” (Peter Laslett) seemed to guarantee a more or less stable or at least standardized life in which risks (natural disasters, war, illness) were well known. While ruling dynasties might change, there was no talk then of failing states such as we have been used to since the beginning of the 1990s. In general, according to Giddens, “the world in which we live today is a fraught and dangerous one.”3

The present volume, however, does not aim at a mere illustration of Giddens’s thesis. From the vantage point of today, it is not too difficult to see that Jefferson and Huxley are right and wrong in their own ways. We are less troubled by the nightmare of an artificial social stability; rather, we have come to fear forces of disruption and disintegration from all kinds of “associations” (as Jefferson says, incidentally using the currently correct sociological term), small or big; local, regional, national, or international. In this respect, race and racism, for instance, as well as fanaticisms and violence, have become burning issues all over the world. In the Fortieth Anniversary Edition of C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination (2000), Todd Gitlin castigated Mills for not having seen that “race has become so salient in American social structure as, at times, to drown out other contending forces.”4

Our present situation, threatening as it may appear, is sometimes not without its comic aspects: in Germany, serious authors have expressed concerns about the decline of the national soccer team, which was seen as the last bulwark against social agony and anomie, after all the traditional guarantees of cohesion (the church, political parties, trade unions, regional grounding, etc.) had failed to provide even a minimum of social solidarity.

Again, this book is not a sociological treatise, which, to put it mildly, I would be ill qualified to write. Rather, I am using materials and evidence from literary, cultural, and social history for the sake of what at first glance looks like an improbable confrontation: a confrontation of that evidence of failure with the cohesive power that an ancient (Athenian) drinking party—the symposium—has exercised. I do not mean Plato’s dialogue of that name but a gathering of fairly high-class Athenian males regularly engaging in drinking rituals embedded in and adorned by a rich array of other exercises in cultural and personal pleasure. The book tries to explore the question of whether there have been, throughout cultural history, institutions capable of deploying similar achievements to those accomplished by the Athenian symposium. Without falling victim to apocalyptic thought, we might assume that an answer of no to that question would not bode well for modern societies. Certainly, to say this right at the beginning, no institution of what is called, by Georg Simmel and others, sociability can function as a totally successful antidote or panacea against social division. But the structure and spirit of sociable interaction can do a lot.

Methodologically, I have been inspired, in spite of disowning any sociological responsibility and in the face of Gitlin’s criticisms above, by C. Wright Mills. His plea for a sociological imagination is less indebted to and “not at all expressed by sociologists.” Rather, he thought, in England for instance, the sociological imagination is well developed in journalism, fiction, drama, poetry, and “above all history.” Perhaps, he suggested, the term “human disciplines” would do in order to suggest that “fluidity of boundaries” in which the tensions between private-personal and public-social dimensions are acted out.5

In various ways, sociologists have certainly conceptualized relations between these dimensions. Taking George Herbert Mead as an American pioneer in that field, one can only admire the sophistication he brings to bear on the ways in which an individual person grows into a part of the social domain. One might be struck even more, however, when one becomes aware of a sensibility in, let us say, his unofficial writings (collected in the Mead Project’s Foundational Documents in Sociological Social Psychology) that goes beyond the conceptual makeup of his official work. Thus, in a speech on the death of a colleague, the labor historian Robert F. Hoxie, in 1916, Mead has the following to say:

It was because he [Hoxie] felt the forces, the impulses, and the subconscious valuations that lay back of the outer conduct and speech of those in the struggle, that he could comprehend them. He had an emotional realization of the issues that were at stake. And as long as these are essential elements of the social problem, no man for whom these elements do not exist can scientifically state the problem, and they cannot exist for the man who does not feel them. That is, the man who does not bring an equipment of emotional response to the study of a social problem cannot get all that goes to make up that problem. Mr. Hoxie had that rare combination of intellectual acumen, scientific conscience, and emotional response which made him able to make his own, the problem of labor, that central problem of our industrial age.6

It does not matter much whether my assertion that Mead’s official theory and a more intimate discourse are drifting apart is correct or not. The mere suspicion made me look for a theoretical and indeed sociological framework and a cultural historian of the symposium in whom such a sensibility is quite openly there. The theoretical framework embodying and displaying that sensibility was provided by Georg Simmel. In his opening speech for the first German meeting of professional sociologists and elsewhere, he introduced the crucial distinction between social and society on the one hand, sociable and sociability on the other. The nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt in his turn was the one who dared to assert that the symposium made for the “happiness of life” (Lebensglück) of ancient Athenian society. For similar reasons of conceptual range and emotional transparency, I have placed quite some emphasis on German philosophical anthropology, in which the full range from the biological to the spiritual and social existence of human beings is examined. More on that later.

In any case, the happiness of a relatively exclusive elite of ancient Athenians does not seem to be of great import for us and our woes. Its importance seems to shrink further once we consider the trivialization the word symposium has undergone in the course of its history. The joys of drinking, to say nothing of its accompanying pleasures, have mostly given way to somewhat dubious conferences—dubious because of the perks with which, very often, specific groups of people are baited, coupled with the expectation of some reciprocity for the donors. And yet the assumption that an Athens-style symposium has become irrelevant is wrong. It is true that the Oxford English Dictionary does not seem to see more than a “transferred sense” at work in this history, but this sober judgment hides a sociocultural dynamics of considerable importance.

The importance is concealed in the seemingly harmless distinction between “social” and “sociable” mentioned above. The Athenian symposium is a sociable ritual; its communicative modes are bathed in an intense corporeality, both literal and metaphorical. It depends on and produces “presence” in the sense developed by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.7 In such contexts, sociability leads to social (and political) repercussions that have turned it into a very important—some would think the most important—event in the ordering of the affairs of the ruling elite and the recruitment of new members in ancient Athens. It is the task of this book to find out whether later history has any analogies to offer in this respect.

The task seems hopeless, the number of possible candidates either well-nigh infinite or zero. Difficulties seem to begin with the fact that the symposium in classical and later Athens was a drinking event. Yet it is impossible to accept that restriction; eating, in most cases, cannot be excluded. Objections on that count are pointless anyway, even in the case of Athens: the Athenians, to be sure, were able to concentrate on drinking because they had eaten before. The symposium can therefore be taken as the “classical” example of a ritualized event for a relatively small group for whom it provided crucial functions of psychosocial bonding. By ritualization I mean a cultural “program” (recitals, games, etc.) in which bonding is strengthened. Here I am not concerned with its history but with its potential transformations over the course of history. The range of plausible transformations depends on sociopolitical frameworks that encourage or impede their emergence, a list of possibilities that could not be drawn up beforehand. Oswyn Murray, the great historian of antiquity, has stated the problem and its opportunities very clearly:

We should not doubt that the rituals of the bourgeois dinner party, the formal western public or fraternity banquet, the Sunday family lunch, the English pub or the continental café, the Japanese tea-drinking ceremony, even the negative pole of the Temperance League, have complex relations to the societies that practice them.8

In many cases, it will be impossible to decide whether the connection between a sociable event and its social relevance can be established or not. Thus, today the regulations of the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University make the following demands with respect to fellowships: “The nature of this fellowship year is social and communal—Fellows forge connections outside the classroom and the lecture hall by sharing meals following weekly seminars and attending post-lecture receptions and other casual events throughout the year.” Here, “communal” is the crucial term, with its implications being that the social relevance and reach of sociability are blurred.

People today may not (and I certainly do not) have sufficient experience to assess the relationship, absent or present, of social and sociable elements in modern digital social media such as Snapchat (where “presence” definitely seems absent but might be recuperated later on) or in festivals such as Burning Man. The latter, lasting up to ten days, has been organized since 1986 with enormous success, as indicated by a tremendously increasing number of participants (from twenty to seventy thousand, thus dwarfing Woodstock). Burning Man aims at nothing less than the squaring of a social-psychological circle: the reconciliation of radical individualism and the strong bonding of communitarianism. For that purpose, a plethora of ritualized and aestheticized events are staged, in which both individual desires and a strengthening of interpersonal ties are supposedly getting their due. Relatedly, one might find modern clubs (in Berlin or Cologne) in which the organized virtuosity of presence and pleasure (dancing and more) has been pushed to new frontiers. Here, however, the social dimension appears to have evaporated in the self-referentiality of pleasure. We will see, however, that there are characteristic “middle-range” examples, such as the French salon, the (traditional) British clubs, or the modern party, in which the rewards of investigation should not be in doubt.

I have tried to minimize the dangers of constituting and selecting a body of evidence by using literature, both cautiously and resolutely, as a source of relevant knowledge. This is evidently risky because it is difficult to determine the literary form(s) of knowledge: “literature,” as the motto in Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers has it, “a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to ‘litter’ or ‘waste.’9 Quite a few professors of English literature have argued that eighteenth-century British literature is very interesting in a purely literary sense but appears to be stuck in a position of strange social aloofness, missing out on the crucial realities of the time. Earlier and later, even Shakespeare and Dickens have come under similar fire.

But, on the other hand, the same Dickens has been nominated, by fellow writer (and painter) Wolfgang Hildesheimer, somewhat in the vein of C.≈Wright Mills, for the title of best nineteenth-century sociologist. The German philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist Arnold Gehlen, who will play an important part in this book, has credited top modern novelists such as Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, and others with an acumen and acuity of thought that one would like to see in more professional philosophers. Caught in the midst of such conflicting arguments, I prefer to raise the stakes and propose an even riskier assumption located between the notion of literature as a mirror and the assertion of its autonomy. Literature certainly is not catching, representing, or dealing with something like raw realities. That is why literary theorists have talked about a “vocabulary of reality” (Hermann Broch), a “repertoire” and its referential system” (Wolfgang Iser) or “presupposed situations” (Siegfried J. Schmidt) not depicted but exploited for cognitive purposes of some kind.10 I claim that the sympotic tension between the social and the sociable has accumulated, throughout history, a particularly rich mine of such literary “presuppositions.” Literature can interfere with, handle, and transform them. Hidden in such procedures, the problem, hardly dealt with in literary theory, of the representational dignity of the presuppositions looms large. By and large, literature stands in dire need of presuppositions both precise and complex, stable and dynamic, concrete and abstract; only then do we get models of rational and emotional intensity as minimal but open guarantees of reality. Without them literature degenerates into l’art pour l’art—the sophisticated croaking of frogs despairing in their swamps (Nietzsche)—or into ideology. Such problems come to a head in the detective novel, which will therefore play a conclusive role in this book: for some, it is the patron saint of triviality; for others, such as Umberto Eco (but indirectly also for Luc Boltanski), it is the last haven of metaphysics.

The makeup of this book is fairly straightforward. After some more remarks in the theoretical and historical vein, a sweeping picture of the Middle Ages will present a first test. Because of the famous otherness of that period, the test is not an easy one. I have therefore used an opportunity in the writings of Jacques Le Goff for a comparison subsequently expanded into the role of the humanities in more general terms, including a longer evaluation of philosophical anthropology. The analysis moves on into the (mainly English and French) eighteenth century with a significant bifurcation into solitary reading and sociable forms of performance. Then the development of the French salon, emphasizing the central importance of the picture drawn by Marcel Proust, shows plenty of evidence that the bells have begun to toll for sympotic forms still deserving that name. In the traditional British club and the international role of the party, the tolling of the bells comes full circle. Processes of sociopolitical modernization cause the scene to change drastically. Sympotic evidence must be laboriously gleaned from psychological pressures such as confession and secrecy. It appears to be drowned in secret societies and socially overbearing forms of (political and other) crime. Ultimately, the detective novel takes over. In conjunction with a final sketch of philosophical anthropology, the detective novel signals the end of socially relevant forms of sociability—and, at the same time, opens up intimations of its renewal under totally different auspices.


1. Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, 33 (Jefferson), 40 (mass media).

Before I go on, a somewhat tricky terminological matter must be clarified. In principle, the correct term for the ancient Athens drinking custom responsible for the writing of this book is symposion. This term is indeed still used in quite a few modern and contemporary works on the institution, especially but not exclusively in German classical philology. The prime example in the English-speaking world is Oswyn Murray, the greatest living authority on the topic, with whom I have had extremely valuable contacts (see his 2018 book The Symposion: Drinking Greek Style). But Murray has also written standard articles on the problem in which he uses symposium without further ado, saying for instance that Plato invented the prose genre of the symposium. In any case, and for whichever reasons, symposium has become the standard term for most of the English-speaking world, especially in the United States of America, denoting both the ancient Athens drinking ritual and its modern transformations. It appears that even Dr. Johnson in eighteenth-century England had already switched to that form of the word. (This did not prevent Sir Walter Scott from reverting to symposion a bit later.) Since my book is not primarily a study of the original symposion but uses it for further investigations, this word history and its present-day situation with its digital aspects must be taken into account. Except where absolutely necessary, as in the titles of books, I therefore use symposium throughout my text. Unfortunately, for reasons of linguistic competence or rather the lack thereof, I can only mention but not discuss an interesting article in Russian by Oleg Zerapin and Olga Shapiro, “Symposion and Symposium as the Modes of the Text Culture,” Epistemology & the Philosophy of Science 52, no. 2 (2017): 168–183. As far as I can tell, the article, although discussing for instance the sixteenth-century French salon, does not really move into my fields of investigation.

In this context of language problems, I should add that all translations in this book from languages other than English are my own.

2. See Sloterdijk, Selbstversuch, 134. For a compromise position, see Borgmann, Holding On to Reality.

3. Giddens, Consequences of Modernity, 10.

4. Mills, Sociological Imagination, 239.

5. Mills, 18–19, 139.


7. Gumbrecht, Production of Presence.

8. Murray, Symposion, 33.

9. See Ackroyd, Plato Papers, 25.

10. See Broch, “Das Weltbild des Romans,” 105; Iser, Act of Reading, 68–85; Rusch and Schmidt, Das Voraussetzungssystem Georg Trakls, 323–326.