The Symposium (Ancient Greek: Συμπόσιον) is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and (in latter-day interpretations) is the origin of the concept of Platonic love.
Love is examined in a sequence of speeches by men attending a symposium, or drinking party. Each man must deliver an encomium, a speech in praise of Love (Eros). The party takes place at the house of the tragedian Agathon in Athens. Socrates in his speech asserts that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom. Commonly regarded as one of Plato’s major works, the dialogue has been used as a source by social historians seeking to throw light on life in ancient Athens – in particular, upon human sexuality and the symposium as an institution.
The Symposium was written as a dramatic dialogue – a form used by Plato in more than thirty works – and is regarded as one of his best. Set in Athenian social life, it develops the themes of love and also of Socrates’ character. There is little doubt that the content of the dialogue is fictitious, although Plato has built a very realistic atmosphere.
Andrew Dalby considers the opening pages of the Symposium the best description in any ancient Greek source of the ramifications of an oral tradition. Plato has set up a multitude of layers between the original symposium and his written narrative: he heard it fourth-hand (if we are to identify him with Apollodorus’s friend), so it comes to the written text fifth-hand. In addition, the story Socrates narrates was told to Socrates by Diotima, creating one more layer between the reader and the philosophic path that Socrates traces. Nevertheless, Dalby is eager to add that he does not think the rendering of the discussion by Plato is historically accurate, and considers that the content is in great part his invention. Other scholars, like Walter Hamilton, agree with this view.
It is considered that the work was written no earlier than 385 BCE, and the party to which it makes reference has been fixed in 416 BCE, the year in which the host Agathon had the dramatic triumph mentioned in the text. The disastrous expedition to Syracuse, of which Alcibiades was a commander, took place the following year, after which Alcibiades deserted to Sparta, Athens’ archenemy.
Hamilton remarks that Plato takes care to portray Alcibiades and Socrates and their relationship in a way that makes it clear that Socrates had not been a bad influence on Alcibiades. Plato does this to free his teacher from the guilt of corrupting the minds of prominent youths, which had in fact earned Socrates the death sentence in 399 BC.
Plato sets the action at a party hosted by the poet Agathon to celebrate his first victory in a dramatic competition, the Dionysia of 416 BCE. There a discussion develops between the guests on the theme of love. Aristodemus, who was present, reported the conversation to Phoinix and Apollodorus. Phoinix told it to another, unnamed person; meanwhile Apollodorus checked it with Socrates, who was present. The unnamed person has told it to Glaucon (Plato’s brother, an interlocutor in the Republic), but has given him an unreliable version and has left him uncertain how long ago the discussion took place. Glaucon has now obtained a better version from Apollodorus, who is thus primed to tell the story again to a friend. From this point on, he will be quoting Aristodemus (172a–174a). The dramatic date of the frame conversation, in which Apollodorus speaks to his unnamed friend, is estimated to be between 401 BCE (fifteen years after Agathon won his prize) and the time when Socrates was tried and executed in 399 BCE.
Plato uses the dialogue to expound various theories of love. Each participant by means of very personal contributions, which in some instances are thought to be parodies of the speaker, adds something towards an exposition of love that at the end receives its conclusion from Socrates. The love to which the participants refer is mostly homosexual love between men, reflecting a social reality in classical Greece.
In order to understand Plato more clearly, it is useful to bear in mind his theory of Forms, according to which all the phenomena perceived by the senses are imitations of eternal and perfect Forms that alone have reality. Beauty belongs to this category of Forms.
The dialogue’s seven major speeches are delivered by:
- Phaedrus (speech begins 178a): was an Athenian aristocrat associated with the inner-circle of the philosopher Socrates, familiar from Phaedrus and other dialogues.
- Pausanias (speech begins 180c): the legal expert.
- Eryximachus (speech begins 186a): a physician.
- Aristophanes (speech begins 189c): the eminent comic playwright.
- Agathon (speech begins 195a): a tragic poet, host of the banquet, that celebrates the triumph of his first tragedy.
- Socrates (speech begins 201d): the eminent philosopher and Plato’s teacher.
- Alcibiades (speech begins 214e): a prominent Athenian statesman, orator and general.
Phaedrus opens by citing Hesiod, Acusilaus and Parmenides for the claim that Eros is the oldest of the gods. He confers great benefits, inspiring a lover to earn the admiration of his beloved, for example by showing bravery on the battlefield, since nothing shames a man more than to be seen by his beloved committing an inglorious act (178d-179b). “A handful of such men, fighting side by side, would defeat practically the whole world.” Lovers sometimes sacrifice their lives for their beloved. As evidence for this he mentions some mythological heroes and lovers. Even Achilles, who was the beloved of Patroclus, sacrificed himself to avenge his lover, and Alcestis was willing to die for her husband Admetus.
Phaedrus concludes his short speech in proper rhetorical fashion, reiterating his statements that love is one of the most ancient gods, the most honoured, the most powerful in helping men gain honor and blessedness – and sacrificing one’s self for love will result in rewards from the gods.
Pausanias, the legal expert of the group, introduces a distinction between a nobler and a baser kind of love, which anticipates Socrates’ discourse. The base lover is in search of sexual gratification, and his objects are women and boys. He is inspired by Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite common to the whole city). The noble lover directs his affection towards young men, establishing lifelong relationships, productive of the benefits described by Phaedrus. This love is related to Aphrodite Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), and is based on honoring one’s partner’s intelligence and wisdom.
He then analyses the attitudes of different citystates relative to homosexuality. The first distinction he makes is between the cities that clearly establish what is and what is not admitted, and those that are not so explicitly clear, like Athens. In the first group there are cities favorable to homosexuality, like Elis, Boeotia and Sparta, or unfavorable to it like Ionia and Persia. The case of Athens is analyzed with many examples of what would be acceptable and what would not, and at the end he makes the assertion that Athens’ code of behaviour favors the nobler type of love and discourages the baser.
Eryximachus speaks next, though it is Aristophanes’ turn, as the latter has not recovered from his hiccups enough to take his place in the sequence. First Eryximachus starts out by claiming that love affects everything in the universe, including plants and animals, believing that once love is attained it should be protected. The god of Love not only directs everything on the human plane, but also on the divine (186b). Two forms of love occur in the human body – one is healthy, the other unhealthy (186bc). Love might be capable of curing the diseased. Love governs medicine, music and astronomy (187a), and regulates hot and cold and wet and dry, which when in balance result in health (188a). Eryximachus here evokes the theory of the humors. He concludes: “Love as a whole has … total … power … and is the source of all happiness. It enables us to associate, and be friends, with each other and with the gods” (188d Transl. Gill). He comes across as someone who cannot resist the temptation to praise his own profession: “a good practitioner knows how to treat the body and how to transform its desires” (186d).
W. Hamilton considers that Aristophanes’ speech, which comes next, is one of Plato’s most brilliant literary achievements . The speech has become a focus of subsequent scholarly debate, as it has been seen as mere comic relief, and sometimes as satire: the creation myth Aristophanes puts forward to account for sexuality may be read as poking fun at the myths concerning the origins of humanity, numerous in classical Greek mythology.
Before starting his speech, Aristophanes warns the group that his eulogy to love may be more absurd than funny. His speech is an explanation of why people in love say they feel “whole” when they have found their love partner. He begins by explaining that people must understand human nature before they can interpret the origins of love and how it affects their own times. This is, he says, because in primal times people had double bodies, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. As spherical creatures who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels (190a), these original people were very powerful. There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the “androgynous,” who was half male, half female. The males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. These creatures tried to scale the heights of Olympus and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about blasting them with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half, in effect separating the two bodies.
Ever since that time, people run around saying they are looking for their other half because they are really trying to recover their primal nature. The women who were separated from women run after their own kind, thus creating lesbians. The men split from other men also run after their own kind and love being embraced by other men (191e). Those that come from original androgynous beings are the men and women that engage in heterosexual love. He says some people think homosexuals are shameless, but he thinks they are the bravest, most manly of all, as evidenced by the fact that only they grow up to be politicians (192a), and that many heterosexuals are adulterous and unfaithful (191e). Aristophanes then claims that when two people who were separated from each other find each other, they never again want to be separated (192c). This feeling is like a riddle, and cannot be explained. Aristophanes ends on a cautionary note. He says that men should fear the gods, and not neglect to worship them, lest they wield the axe again and we have to go about hopping on one leg, split apart again(193a). If man works with the god of Love, they will escape this fate and instead find wholeness.
His speech may be regarded as self-consciously poetic and rhetorical, composed in the way of the sophists, gently mocked by Socrates. Agathon complains that the previous speakers have made the mistake of congratulating mankind on the blessings of love, failing to give due praise to the god himself (194e). He says that love is the youngest of gods and is an enemy of old age (195b). He says that the god of love shuns the very sight of senility and clings to youth. Agathon says love is dainty, and likes to tiptoe through the flowers and never settles where there is no “bud to bloom” (196b). It would seem that none of the characters at the party, with the possible exception of Agathon himself, would be candidates for love’s companionship. Socrates, probably the oldest member of the party, seems certain to be ruled out. He also implies that love creates justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom. These are the cardinal virtues in ancient Greece. Although devoid of philosophical content, the speech Plato puts in the mouth of Agathon is a beautifully formal one, and Agathon contributes to the Platonic love theory with the idea that the object of love is beauty.
Socrates turns politely to Agathon and with Agathon’s cooperation examines his speech. This is done using a series of questions and answers typical of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Agathon answers affirmatively to Socrates’ line of questioning, thus refuting many of the statements in his previous speech (199d). The conclusion is that love consists in being conscious of a need for a good that is not yet possessed. After this dialogue with Agathon that establishes the foundation for Plato’s theory of love, Socrates repeats a new dialogue in which a woman of Mantinea, called Diotima, plays the same inquiring/instructing role Socrates has played with Agathon.
Diotima first explains that Love is a spirit halfway between gods and men and traces his mythological descent as son of “Contrivance” (father) and “Poverty” (mother). Love has attributes from both parents, he is beggarly, harsh and a master of artifice and deception (203d) and is delicately balanced and resourceful (204c). Having been born at Aphrodite’s birthday party he became her follower and servant, and consequently is a lover of beauty, but since wisdom is one of the most beautiful things, he is a lover of wisdom too.
Then Diotima moves to the definition of the aim of love as “the perpetual possession of what is good”. Lovers are pregnant with what is good and attain immortality through procreation, either intellectual or physical.
In the conclusion of her exposition Diotima explains that men should make an ascent to arrive at the discovery of the Ideal Form of Beauty. Men should start with the love of a particular beautiful person. The next step is to pass from this particular instance to beauty in general, and from physical to moral beauty. The fourth step is to attain the love of wisdom, and then from this to the appreciation of the absolute and divine beauty (the Form of Beauty).
This speech, in the interpretation of Marsilio Ficino in De amore (1484), is the origin of the concept of Platonic love.
Entering upon the scene late and inebriated, he pays tribute to Socrates. Like Agathon and Aristophanes, Alcibiades is a historical person from ancient Athens. A year after the events of the Symposium, his political enemies would drive him to flee Athens under fear of being sentenced to death for sacrilege and turn traitor to the Spartans. By his own admission, he is very handsome.
Finding himself seated on a couch with Socrates and Agathon, Alcibiades exclaims that Socrates, again, has managed to sit next to the handsomest man in the room, Agathon, and that he is always doing such things (213c). Socrates asks Agathon to protect him from the jealous rage of Alcibiades, asking Alcibiades to forgive him (213d). Alcibiades says he will never do such a thing (213e). Wondering why everyone seems sober, Alcibiades is informed of the night’s agreement (213e, c); after saying his drunken ramblings should not be placed next to the sober orations of the rest, and that he hopes no one believed a word Socrates said, Alcibiades proposes to offer an encomium to Socrates (214c-e).
Alcibiades begins by comparing Socrates to a statue of Silenus; the statue is ugly and hollow, and inside it is full of tiny golden statues of the gods (215a-b). He then compares Socrates to a satyr Marsyas; Socrates, however, needs no flute to “cast his spell” on people as Marsyas did — he needs only his words (215b-d).
Alcibiades states that when he hears Socrates speak, he feels overwhelmed. The words of Socrates are the only ones to have ever upset him so deeply that his soul started to realize that his aristocratic life was no better than a slave’s (215e). Socrates is the only man who has ever made Alcibiades feel shame (216b). Yet all this is the least of it (216c)- Socrates is mad about beautiful boys, following them around in a daze (216d). Most people, he continues, don’t know what Socrates is like on the inside:
- But once I caught him when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike – so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing – that I no longer had a choice. I just had to do whatever he told me.
- Symposium 216e-217a.
Alcibiades thought at the time that Socrates really only wanted him sexually, and by letting Socrates have his way with him he would entice Socrates to teach him everything he knew (217a). Yet Socrates made no move, and Alcibiades began to pursue Socrates “as if I were the lover and he my young prey!” (217c). When Socrates continually rebuffed him, Alcibiades began to view Socrates as the only true and worthy lover he had ever had. So he told Socrates that it seemed to him now that nothing could be more important than becoming the best man he could be, and Socrates was best fit to help him reach that aim (218c-d). Socrates responded that if he did have this power, why would he exchange his true (inner) beauty for the image of beauty that Alcibiades would provide. Furthermore, Alcibiades might be wrong and Socrates may be of no use to him (218e-219a). Alcibiades spent the night sleeping beside Socrates yet, to the deep humiliation of Alcibiades, Socrates made no sexual attempt (219b-d).
In his speech, Alcibiades goes on to describe Socrates’ virtues, his incomparable valor in battle, his immunity to cold or fear. On one occasion he even saved Alcibiades’ life and then refused to accept honors for it (219e-221c). Socrates, he concludes, is unique in his ideas and accomplishments, unrivaled by any man from the past or present (221c). But be warned: Socrates may present himself as your lover, but before you know it you will have fallen in love with him.
Despite this speech, Agathon then lies down next to Socrates, much to the chagrin of Alcibiades. The symposium comes to an end when a large drunken group shows up. Many of the main characters take the opportunity to depart and return home; Socrates, however, stays awake until dawn. As Aristodemus wakes up and leaves the house, Socrates is proclaiming to Agathon and Aristophanes that a skilful playwright should be able to write comedy as well as tragedy (223d). When Agathon and Aristophanes at last fall asleep, Socrates leaves, walks to the Lyceum to wash, and spends the rest of the day as he usually did, not going home to sleep until that evening (223d).