Plato’s famous dialogue, the Symposium, takes place the day after the tragic poet Agathon wins his first and only award at the Lenaia in 416 BC (the year before Alcibiades’s failed quest to Sicily). The dramatic setting occurs among a group of Athenians gathered at Agathon’s house in Athens to celebrate his victory. The party is a symposium, sometimes translated as a “banquet.” The word symposium literally means the activity of “drinking together,” alluding to the Greek love of mixing intellectual discourse with the drinking of wine.
The dialogue is presented to the reader at multiple levels of distance, indicating there is something to be hidden in its meaning and also alluding to the opaque nature of eros, in general. The symposium happened many years ago. Aristodemus originally leaks the story of the symposium. He openly re-tells it publicly to anyone who will listen, including a man named Apollodorus, who confirms the details with Socrates. The dialogue is entirely based on the recollection of these two individuals, principally Aristodemus, as he originally attended the party with Socrates. Unlike other dialogues, like the Republic, the Symposium is a recollection by others in attendance and is not revealed to the audience until many years later after the failed Sicilian expedition has long passed out of the public’s consciousness. Leo Strauss indicates this is because of the popular belief that Alcibiades was the profaner of the sacred Eleusian mysteries, when in fact it was actually Socrates as evidenced by his speech about Diotima. The recounting of the tale can only be told many years after this fact, when the demos is no longer manic. This context is crucial to understanding the dialogue.
Although there are many important themes to consider in the Symposium, such as Homer’s famous ‘ancient quarrel between the poets and philosophers’ or the contest between theology and philosophy for the true seat of wisdom, the surface-level question of love, the god eros, is worth considering, as well. What is love? We are given essentially seven varying speeches that try to answer this question. Each speech reveals a great deal about the particular character of each speaker. In fact, unlike other Socratic dialogues, the defining question of ‘what is…’ does not begin at the outset of the dialogue. It is only addressed explicitly later in the dialogue. Instead, the plan of ‘giving eros his due praise’ is proposed by Erixymachus, the doctor, and Phaedrus, who claims that eros has never been properly praised. Erixymachus proposes the scenario beginning with Phaedrus, and Socrates calls Phaedrus the father of the speeches.
Phaedrus, whose name literally means “radiant” or “bright” is featured prominently in the Symposium and the eponymous Phaedrus dialogue. He was a good friend of Erixymachus, because of their shared interest in physics, as well as the arts and philosophy. It was later said that Phaedrus was one of Socrates’s favorites. Like Alcibiades, Phaedrus was accused of being a profaner of the Eleusian mysteries in 415 BC, and also like Alcibiades, he fled Athens. His opening account of eros is a praise of eros as the oldest god, and therefore the greatest and most honorable (178B). As justification he cites the poets, Hesiod and Akousilaus (now lost). Without eros neither city nor man can accomplish “great and beautiful deeds”. Like the next two speakers, Phaedrus is concerned with the practical application of eros, and what it can make men do. He invokes the images of Alcestis dying for her husband, Admetus, who did not properly give praise of the gods and thus a human sacrifice was called for; of the “soft” Orpheus who was sent back from Hades as he did not die for his wife, Eurydice; and lastly of Achilles’s honorable vengeance for Patroclus’s death that assuredly cost him his life as he was made aware from his mother, Thetis. For this, the gods rewarded Achilles sending him to the Isles of the Blest. Phaedrus claims that Patroclus was in love with Achilles, as Phaedrus speaks from the perspective of the beloved, and praises their love. In his speech, we learn that love is intimately connected to the awareness and the acceptance of death, as a life-affirming need for the polis. Phaedrus presents the classically tragic viewpoint of eros.
Next, a few others speak, but Aristodemus skips over them to recount Pausanius’s story of love, from the perspective of the legal scholar and lover, rather than the beloved. He begins by identifying two versions of eros, the noble and the base. The determining factor is how one behaves, not that love is, in itself, inherently noble or base. He provides a defense of pederasty with the law, as it leads the beloved to admire his good and noble elders, and at the same time Pausanius gives a survey of Greek laws that appropriately harness a lover’s point of view. His point is to reform the laws so that a beloved may connect with a lover in order that both exercise a mutual love of virtue. Pausanius teaches us that the activity of love is not inherently noble or base, but must practiced in one way or another, and also forces us to examine the relationship between eros and nomos, love and the law. Love is not bound by customs or laws and it must, indeed, supersede the law (recall the unconventional love of Romeo and Juliet). We are also forced to consider the love of country, or the love of justice, and that it must sometimes also supersede the law (consider the actions of a tyrant versus those of a patriot in rebellion).
Next, Aristophanes was set to speak but he is suddenly overcome with a ridiculous fit of hiccups, and so Erixymachus speaks in his place. Erixymachus, the doctor, expands the scope of love to “all things that are” (185A) including men, animals, and plants. In this way, the health of the body becomes a chiefly erotic art, namely the “art of medicine”. His concern is with harmony, consonance, and balance in the body because he wants to know what eros does to affect life and health. He builds on Pausanius’s defense of pederasty and apology for the lover over the beloved by declaring that decent human beings must be gratified in a harmonious way so that less decent humans can become decent and virtuous. This is to be understood as the noble eros. However the base eros arises with greed and plague and inclement weather, for these are unhealthy. From Pausanius, we are reminded of the inclusion of harmony and consonance in love, a coming together of the disorderly noise of a cacophony to form a more perfect and orderly symphony. Ironically Aristophanes was overcome with a fit of uncontrollable bodily functions -hiccuping and sneezing during Pausanius’s very physical account of love, which causes the others to laugh.
When Aristophanes speaks, he marks a somewhat new beginning for the eulogy of eros. He claims that humans are entirely unaware of the true power of eros, because eros is the most “philanthropic of the gods”. Additionally, eros is a “physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189D). Aristophanes tells a tragic yet humorous tale of the origins of man, not unlike those we may find in the works of many works from classical antiquity, such as Hesiod or Ovid. In his tale, there were originally three races of humans -men, women, and an androgynous race. However each person had two sets of everything -faces, genitals, arms and legs and so on. Instead of walking, people merely tumbled in large circles, as globular beings like their parents, who were the sun, earth, and moon respectively. In their proudness these early humans attempted to make an ascent into the sky and overcome the gods. Instead of obliterating the human race, Zeus decides to cut them in half with the help of Apollo who helps to turn their faces forward. Additionally, prior to this change, humans gave birth in the earth like Cicadas, but Zeus puts their genitals on the front of them so that if a man and a woman come together, procreation is possible together, and if two men come together they can at least satiate one another (there is no mention of lesbianism). Eros, then, is “bringer-together of their ancient nature, who tries to make one out of two and to heal their human nature” (191D). Aristophanes provides a defense of homosexuality, and also pederasty, as it is the manliest union of two people. Unlike others before him, Aristophanes attempts to address the question of love, rather than how it can be practically applied for mankind. From Aristophanes’s appropriately amusing account, we gather that there is an ancient nature to which we long to return, a nostalgia as in the case of Odysseus, and a desire to pursue the whole, which is perhaps the only part worth clinging to from his speech. As in the case of theological accounts, humans have a fallen nature which they must try to recover from, and there is an edenic siglio oro, or golden age, to which humans must try to return. Aristophanes, the famous comedian who mocked Socrates in the The Clouds, defends the role of the poets. He also concludes that there is an end to love -a satiation that occurs once someone forms a sexual union with his or her long lost other half. As a pain-loving antiquarian, Aristophanes concludes that this must be from an ancient past to which humans long to return. Eros is a gratifying desire for sex and procreation for Aristophanes, however the most noble eidos to glean from Aristophanes is that eros is a pursuit of the whole -the concept of the whole will later be addressed by Socrates.
After Aristophanes’s conclusion, Erixymachus praises the speech and claims he is not envious of Agathon’s and Socrates’s station as they must follow what has already been said. Socrates then engages with Agathon who believes Socrates is trying to playfully threaten him because his sensibility is greater than many fools, and Socrates compels him to agree that he would show shame before the wise, but perhaps not before the many. Before Agathon can respond to this final question, Phaedrus interrupts and beckons Agathon to give his speech praising eros. Agathon begins his speech by stating, that unlike previous speeches, he will open with an attempt to address the identity of eros. First, he will address his identity, and then he will acknowledge his gifts. Agathon claims that eros is the happiest god, the most beautiful, and the best. He disagrees with Phaedrus by claiming that eros is actually the youngest god, and he is soft and supple. Eros travels to wherever a place is blooming and beautiful (196B). Recall that Agathon, known for his incredible attractiveness, was mocked by Aristophanes in his play, Thesmophoiazusae, as he was dressed in women’s clothing to spy on suspicious women. At any rate, Agathon continues by claiming that eros is not affected by violence or injustice, and eros is courageous and moderate in all things. In an attempt to honor Agathon’s “art”, in the same way that Erixymachus honored his medical art, Agathon notes that eros must be a poet and his powers can make other poets, as well. In this way, eros is a “maker”, poeitikos. One of his chief conclusions is that “there is no eros present in ugliness” (197B), a point which Socrates will later dispute. We learn from Agathon that eros is in all things soft and beautiful -we invoke the image of a budding flower in springtime. It is important to note that Agathon, the tragic poet, receives an uproar of applause from the crowd once he finishes his speech, as noted by Aristodemus. So much so, in fact, that Socrates playfully claims he cannot follow it to Erixymachus.
Socrates, in speaking after the two poets and in response primarily to their claims, begins by saying that he cannot eulogize eros in such a fashion, but if they like he can give an account on his own terms. Socrates then begins by compelling Agathon, in a dialectic, to admit that eros is a love of something (or someone) and must be a longing for something that it lacks (echoing Aristophanes), and therefore eros cannot be all good and all beautiful -it must be uglier than the beauty that it longs for. Agathon admits his own ignorance and agrees with Socrates (201B). Eros assumes a state of deprivation, and a longing for the whole. Socrates then proceeds to recount his exchange with Diotima of Mantineia, whose name literally means “honor of Zeus”. She was a “wise” person who was able to delay a plague upon Athens by ten years through her art of erotics (201D). Curiously, Socrates has introduced a “stranger” (from Arcadia) in the form of Diotima into the symposium of Athenian men, and also it is worth noting that she is a woman (earlier all the women at Agathon’s house had been dismissed). At any rate, Diotima introduces a mediation between humans and gods, and reveals that eros is one of these mediators -a daemon. Unlike others in the symposium, Diotima introduces eros’s parents as Poros (Resource) and Penia (Poverty), at the plotting of Penia while Poros was drunk on nectar they become impregnated with eros. She describes eros, not as philanthropic or giving or helping for humans, but rather as “always poor” and “far from being tender and beautiful, as the many believe” and as being “tough, squalid, shoeless, and homeless…always dwelling with neediness. But in accordance with his father he plots to trap the beautiful and the good….philosophizing all his life” (203D). To Diotima (Socrates), eros is a philosopher. She denies Aristophanes’s claim that eros can be any half of anything: “In brief, eros is the whole desire of good things and of being happy” (205D). She claims that when they are pursuing the good in eros, humans are pursuing beauty in terms of both body and soul -of trying to achieve immortality as mortals. With eros, each human is taking a part of the unchangeable things, yet they are always coming to be and also passing away (Aristotelian motion in the Physics). Procreation and generation, physically, is an attempt to continue the species (a manifestation of the “will to power” as Nietzsche termed it), and also men are always trying to achieve the immortal -she reintroduces the cases of Alcestis and Achilles that were originally mentioned by Phaedrus in his timocratic love of honor. None is a greater virtue than the ordering of the affairs of cities and households (209A) -those cities produce enduring “children” such as the laws of Lycurgus in Sparta and Solon in Athens. She then moves from the city to the individual -when one is young they must go to beautiful bodies, only to realize that bodies are all the same, and that love for the soul is more honorable. This kind of beauty always has being, is never perishing, and not beautiful in one respect nor ugly in another but is one whole form. From this Socrates is initiated into the Eleusian mysteries -the ladder of love -so that he may try to embrace the one single form of the beautiful. Diotima presents a hierarchy of love from bodies, to the form of kalon (the beautiful). Only at this place is the life of a human worth living, according to Diotima (again she implies the connection between death and love, self sacrifice, or passion). Socrates concludes by saying that there is no better “co-worker with human nature than eros” (212B). Unlike Agathon, only some attendees praise Socrates’s speech, but before Aristophanes can respond to the claims levied against him, a loud hammering is heard from the courtyard.
Alcibiades, the young, beautiful man and follower of Socrates, bombastically and ‘very drunkenly’ intrudes into the party, demanding to be taken to Agathon. He is wearing a wreath and says he shall adorn it upon the “wisest and most beautiful” person at the party (212E). Unlike others at the party, including Socrates, each of the men wishes not to be laughed at except for Alcibiades, for as Nietzsche says: there is no better way to kill something than to laugh at it. At any rate, Alcibiades leaps up noticing Socrates and claims that it is impossible to reconcile himself with Socrates as he is jealous of his love with Agathon. Alcibiades vows “vengeance” on Socrates at another time. Nevertheless he wreathes Socrates, rightfully praising the philosophers over the poets as the claimants to the throne of wisdom and beauty. Alcibiades then declares he will make a speech praising Socrates, while also telling the truth about Socrates (as vengeance). Alcibiades claims Socrates is like the Silenus, the half-human, half-ass that when caught gives vague wisdom about the preference for death rather than life. He claims that Socrates is also like the flute player Marsyas, charming those he encounters. Alcibiades says that he initially decided to take up the political affairs of the Athenians instead of growing old by the charms of Socrates, who is like the Sirens in the Odyssey. Alcibiades feels shame only before Socrates because of his decision to seek the honor of the demos (the many) instead of pursuing wisdom. Alcibiades is a political man, not a philosopher. He tells the story of when he was younger and once tried to seduce Socrates, but Socrates was not like other men, the pederasts, and in fact even when Alcibiades sent away his attendant, Socrates carried on as usual and would not give in to any licentious behavior, and this led Alcibiades to admire his courage and moderation far more than any other. He recounts Socrates’s self-control as it far surpassed others, even on their military expedition to Potidaea. Alcibiades claims that Socrates tends to lead boys, like himself, Charmides, and Euthydemus and many others, to believe Socrates is the lover, but in fact he makes them realize that he is actually the beloved. Alcibiades offers this as a warning to Agathon, and laughter erupts at the end of his speech. Alcibiades grows insanely envious at Socrates, as Agathon chooses to lie down next to him.The dialogue concludes when a large group of people come in through the front door and begin drinking. Erixymachus and Phaedrus, the light drinkers, take their leave along with some others. Eventually Aristodemus falls asleep and he is awoken when the cocks are crowing only to find that Agathon and Aristophanes and Socrates are still awake -the two poets and the philosopher. Socrates is compelling them to agree with two claims: 1) that the same man should know how to make comedy and tragedy, and 2) that he who is by art a tragic poet is also a comic poet. Socrates is, of course, speaking to a comic poet (Aristophanes) as well as a tragic poet (Agathon) and is asking them to step outside their particular arts to consider tragedy and comedy in the context of one another. As Aristodemus recalls, neither poet is able to fully follow Socrates. Aristophanes falls asleep first and then Agathon -leaving only the philosopher to endure. This is a fitting response to the charges leveled against Socrates in The Clouds, and it is also an amusing mockery of Aristophanes’s contest between poets in The Frogs. At any rate, Socrates leaves the party after putting the poets to bed and he is followed by Aristodemus. He goes to the Lyceum as he was wont to do any other day and in the evening he goes home to rest. Throughout the question of love, there is no mention of Xanthippe, Socrates’s wife, though she is mentioned elsewhere in the writings of Plato and Xenophon.
The issue of Socrates’s self-control is particularly apropos in a dialogue focused on eros. The Greeks had several different words for love, chiefly: philia or deep friendship and soldierly camaraderie, agape or selfless love for everyone including strangers, and eros meaning romantic and particularly sexual love. Eros can be dangerous for the lover, as well as for the beloved, as evidenced in the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades. Love can be life-affirming, but it must also be restrained and control, as in the case of Socrates. It is a dangerous sensation in the wrong hands, like Alcibiades, who maintains more of a tyrannical personality. A person’s self-control is tested at a symposium -a drinking party where people’s inhibitions are relaxed and truth-telling becomes more prominent, as the famous latin maxim reminds us. A symposium is a relaxing of laws, as evidenced by the discussion of pederasty among the Athenian aristocrats, such as the reformations requested by Erixymachus. In a symposium, it is crucial for the man of moderation to legislate rules for himself (note: this is not an allusion to Kant’s categorical imperative), as in the case of Socrates who is affected neither by alcohol, nor the words of the poets, nor sexual advances. As truth-telling becomes more prominent, rather than obedience to law or custom, the question of the relationship between eros and truth becomes less clear.
For this reading I used Seth Benardete’s masterful translation of Plato’s Symposium for the University of Chicago Press.