The Symposium is a dialogue on the subject of love. It was composed by Plato during his middle (or mature) period.

Dramatic form

The Symposium is a mixed dialogue (Diogenes Laërtius III.50). This means that it consists of two conversations (and by implication it unfolds in two levels of dramatic time): (i) a direct dramatic discussion, or frame dialogue, supposedly taking place by the end of the 5th c. (circa 400 B.C.), between Apollodorus and an anonymous friend of his in front of a few mute bystanders; and (ii) an indirect report on the encomia about love (erōs) that various speakers made in a dinner party, which took place at 416 B.C., in the house of the tragic poet Agathon. A third level of dramatic time is ushered by Socrates, when in his own discourse he encapsulates an earlier discussion he had with priestess Diotima (circa 440-430 B.C.).

Dramatis personae, structure, and content

Two persons engage in the introductory, direct exchange of the work: Apollodorus, who is an ardent admirer of Socrates (also making an appearance in the Phaedo, and being mentioned in the Apology), and an anonymous friend of Apollodorus. The discussion sets out abruptly with Apollodorus claiming to be well prepared to answer his partners’ question. In the course of their discussion, we find out that his friends wanted to know what came to pass in a famous symposium that took place quite a few years ago. Apollodorus’ readiness to answer is due to his recent recounting of the story to Glaukon (Plato’s older brother who shows up as a speaker in the Republic). Apollodorus has drawn his information from Aristodemus, who was present on the occasion, and claims to have double-checked the basic points of his narrative with Socrates himself. Thus, Plato elicits a strong feeling of realism.

The occasion for the dinner party at Agathon’s house, at 416 B.C., is provided by the tragic poet’s first victory in a theatrical competition. The banqueters decide to yield into moderate drinking, because they are still suffering the hangover from last night’s heavy drinking at the public celebration of Agathon’s victory. Instead of a drunken debauch, they are intent on praising the neglected god of Love. Their speeches are interlarded with short dramatic episodes that give an outline of the speakers, while at the same time they break the continuous flow of the monologic encomia.

Phaedrus (after whom the dialogue Phaedrus is entitled) is the first speaker, and the president of the discussion (πατὴρ λόγου, 177d). He starts by alluding to the authority of the poets and the philosophers in an attempt to illustrate the antiqueness -and therefore the great power- of Love. Additionally, he stresses out the connection between love and courage by adducing examples from traditional mythology.

In what follows, Pausanias distinguishes between two kinds of Love: the Heavenly and the Common. He goes on to relate the first to the more sublimated (aesthetic, intellectual and/or spiritual) version of love, and the second to the more carnal version of erotic passion. His speech can be described as a quasi-sociology of the so-called “Greek love” (cf. Platonic love), in which emphasis is placed on the antithetical expectations Athenian society has from the erastes (= lover) and his erômenos (= beloved one). These expectations regulate the erotic passion, and single out the genuine kind of love from the more frivolous type of desire.

Εryximachus’ speech follows suite. Being himself a doctor, and a representative of the scientific world-view, he expands the effect of love from human society onto the world at large. Love is a power that permeates the universe; in its positive aspect it reconciles the opposite elements present in the world, while in its negative aspectit induces conflicts and quarrels.

The speech of Aristophanes, which follows, is an ostensibly whimsical myth about the origin of love. However, it harbors a significant idea: love is, in essence, a fierce longing for completeness, and an insisting desire to find the lost unity of the beginnings (191d, 192e).

The host, Agathon, is the next speaker. His lecture is a structurally impeccable and elaborate encomium of the god of Love. The influence of the very sophisticated and novel rhetoric style of the sophist Gorgias is detectible in it. The banqueters applaud with enthusiasm this prosaic hymn on love.

The upcoming elenchus that Socrates deploys against Agathon, compels the young poet to admit that he mixed things up: he mistook the object of love for love per se and thus ended up eulogizing neither the god nor the corresponding human affection, as he thought he did, but the truly beautiful and good object of erotic desire.

Socrates uses the dialectical discussion with Agathon as a vehicle that moves him gradually towards his own encomiastic monologue (which includes extent dialogical parts). Instead of spelling out his own theory of love, Socrates recounts the doctrines of Diotima, a wise woman from Mantinea of Arcadia, the historicity of whom is not confirmed by any ancient source.

Diotima claims that Love is neither a god nor a mortal, but a “great spirit” (μέγας δαίμων) “in between” (μεταξύ) mortals and immortals, which partakes of both (202b-e). To suite her case, Diotima narrates a myth about the birth of Love from the immortal Poros (= Resourcefulness), son of Metis (= Cunning Intelligence) , and the mortal Penia (= Poverty). The contradictory properties of the parents explain the inherent tension that dwells in the erotic passion: on the one hand, love signifies a state of need, and, on the other, a power to overcome the powerful need. Diotima maintains that love is not simply a desire for wholeness and completeness, as Aristophanes had it, but a concrete desire for the good (205e). This fierce desire is accompanied by a productive tendency; for all humans are willing to give birth to something new when they reach the age of maturity. Most of the people, basically immersed into their bodily desires, turn unto the reproduction of their species by giving birth to biological offspring; only a few, the worthiest ones, accomplish great deeds or produce remarkable intellectual works, which grant them posthumous fame. In any case, love is the desire to “give birth in beauty” (τόκος ἐν καλῷ), and at the same time a desire for immortality (206b-209e).

At the onset of the second part of her speech, Diotima makes it clear that she moves from the preliminary stages of initiation in love unto the final revelation of love’s end (209e-210a). She lays out an ascending course in a stepped process: the lover who is suitably edified into these matters, she claims, will pass from the most physical to the most intellectual aspects of beauty until he catches sight of the ultimate object of love. This object, the only one that can fulfill the incessant impetus of every man in love, is no other than the Beautiful per se (τὴν φύσιν καλόν), i.e. the Platonic Form of Beauty. As opposed to every other object of love that is characterized by partiality and relativity, the Beautiful in itself is eternal, absolute, and immutable (210e-211b). The speech of Socrates concludes in an enthusiastic description of the pure Form of the Beautiful; but the dialogue does not end here.

All of a sudden, the banqueters hear someone shouting at the courtyard door, and witness Alcibiades coming drunk to the dinner party with the purpose of crowning Agathon for his victory. As soon as he takes notice of Socrates, Alcibiades decides to make a speech. His own encomium will not address love in general: it will be a specific praise of Socrates.

Alcibiades, whose reputation in Athens at the dramatic date of the dialogue must have reached its apogee , weaves a eulogy (abundant in biographical information) of his out-of-place or bizarre (ἄτοπος) teacher in a manner that betrays his ambivalence. He underlines the distance between his teacher’s exemplary ugliness and his admirable moral stance both at times of peace and in war. Socrates, despite his older age, always manages to reverse the roles of the loving relation to the effect of becoming the erômenos instead of the erastês (222b).

The work comes to a closure with a reference to the discussion Socrates supposedly held with the two poets that were present in the dinner party, i.e. the host Agathon and the guest Aristophanes, who were the only ones to stay up till the end of the night. The topic of their discussion was the relation between comedy and tragedy. Socrates was trying to convince them, counterintuitively, that poetry in both dramatic genres should be composed by the same playwright. Finally, we learn that the tireless Socrates, after going about his day without taking any rest, went back home the next night.

Date of composition

The employment of stylometric and content analysis has led scholars to concede that the Symposium was penned at some point between 385-370 B.C. However, the hypothesis, formed by Phaedrus, about an unbeatable military body manned by lovers alone (178e-179a), suggests that, during the composition of the dialogue, Plato was aware (in the face of the arguments to the opposite ) of the Sacred Band of Thebes – which was shaped around 378 B.C., and appeared for the first time on the foreground of history in the Battle of Leuktra (371 B.C.). Therefore, the dating of the Symposium within the period 378-370 B.C. is much more plausible.

Interpretation

The Symposium is one of the most celebrated and widely-read dialogues of all times. Its success is based on three reasons: (i) its pet subject, (ii) its attractive dramatic form, and (iii) the ideal image of the philosopher, which is conveyed in the portrait of Socrates that Alcibiades crafts.

Diogenes Laërtius (ΙΙΙ.50) classifies the Symposium in the category of the ethical dialogues. Plotinus, for his own part, traced in it the method for the mystical unification with the first principle of everything (Porphyry Life of Plotinus 23). The dialogue makes the most palpable introduction to the Platonic Theory of Forms.

Plato manages to adapt his style to the personality of every speaker, thus affording a true variety of opinions on the subject of love. However, the philosophical pick of the dialogue is, no doubt, to be found in Diotima’s speech. Diotima must have been a fictional invention of Plato for the purpose of conveying the author’s own metaphysical standpoint on love. Two reasons support this assumption: (i) the name, sex, and place of origin of this unattested woman, and (ii) the reference that she managed to put off for ten years the great pestilence that finally struck Athens after the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.).

At any rate, it would not be particularly wise to understand the difference between the earlier speakers and the speech of Socrates/Diotima simply as an antithetical opposition between falsity and truth. Going methodically through the various speeches, the reader progresses in his/her knowledge of love in a way similar to the method described by Diotima as the very culmination of her revelation about love. The accounts preceding the one adduced by Socrates are the necessary preliminary steps for the gradual initiation of the reader into the specifically Platonic doctrine on beauty, love, and the metaphysics of Forms.

Plato wants to demonstrate the common origin of all things beautiful, and to convince his audience about the ultimate source of all love: even in its most carnal instances love consists in the unknown desire of humans to catch sight of absolute Beauty, and to produce something new and beautiful from their (direct or indirect) relation to it. Erotic love, as conceived by Plato, is nothing less than a special manifestation of a more general, and widespread, desire for universal knowledge. Contrary to the disparagement of the body and its desires that we find in other dialogues, the Symposium approaches erotic passion as the first introductory step to the philosophical life, i.e. to a life almost exclusively devoted to the pursuit of wisdom.

Nevertheless, the dialogue does not conclude with Diotima’s speech. It seems that Plato was intent on illustrating the interrelation of love and philosophy theoretically as well as practically by conjuring up the exemplary conduct of his teacher. To that end, he uses Alcibiades whose speech is the second longest in the work. Here, Socrates is extolled as the model par excellence of the philosopher-cum-pedagogue who puts the erotic admiration of his followers and disciples to their own moral and spiritual benefit.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Dover, K. Plato: Symposium. Cambridge, 1980.
  • Hunter, R. Plato’s Symposium. Oxford, 2004.
  • Nussbaum, M. C. The fragility of goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,. Cambridge, 1986.
  • Nehamas, A., Woodruff, P. Plato: Symposium. Indianapolis - Cambridge, 1989.
  • Rowe, C. Plato: Symposium. Warminster, 1998.
  • Sheffield, F.C.C. Plato’s Symposium: The Ethics of Desire. Oxford, 2006.
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