Symposium (Plato)  

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"[Primeval man had] … four hands and four feet, eight in all … they made an attack upon the gods … Zeus discovered a way [to punish them] … I will cut them in two … after the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half … longing to grow into one … when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them … and clung to that … so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man … each of us … is always looking for his other half. Suppose Hephaestus … [was] to come to [a] pair who are lying side by side and to say to them … 'do you desire to be wholly one … I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one … if you were a single man?' … there is not a man … who when he heard the proposal would deny … that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need … and the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love." --Plato's Symposium

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Symposium is a philosophical dialogue written by Plato sometime after 385 BC. It is a discussion on the nature of love, taking the form of a series of speeches, both satirical and serious, given by a group of men at a symposium or drinking party at the house of the tragedian Agathon at Athens.

The Symposium was presumably composed around the same time as Plato's Republic and Phaedrus; with those two texts, it is often considered one of Plato's literary high points. Plato takes great care to make the setting realistic and the historical context credible. Although this may be far from its original purpose, the dialogue has been used as a source by historians exploring Athenian social history (particularly the symposium as an institution) and sexual behaviour.


The Speeches


Phaedrus opens by citing Hesiod, Acusilaus and Parmenides for the claim that Eros is the oldest of the gods, with no parents (He ignores the alternative view, already widespread, that Eros was the child of Aphrodite. Thus, throughout, Phaedrus selects versions and interpretations of myth to suit his argument.). Hence the greatness of the benefits he confers, inspiring a lover to earn the admiration of his beloved, as by showing bravery on the battlefield, since nothing shames a man more than to be seen by his beloved committing some inglorious act (178d-179b). "A handful of such men, fighting side by side, would defeat practically the whole world." Lovers may even sacrifice their lives for the beloved: Alcestis was willing to die for her husband Admetus, and the gods rewarded her by allowing her to return from Hades. By contrast, Orpheus made no such sacrifice; he went alive to Hades to find Eurydice, and returned empty-handed. But Achilles fought bravely at the death of his lover Patroclus though he knew that the fight would bring his own death closer; Phaedrus here takes Aeschylus to task for making Achilles the "lover" (180a), claiming instead that Achilles was the beautiful, still-beardless, younger "beloved" of Patroclus and citing Homer in his support.

Phaedrus concludes his short speech in proper rhetorical fashion, reiterating his statements that love is one of the most ancient gods, the most honored, and the most powerful in helping men gain honor and blessedness.


Pausanias, the legal expert of the group, begins by taking Phaedrus up on his chosen examples (180c), asserting that the love that deserves attention is not the kind associated with Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite common to the whole city) whose object may equally be a woman or a boy, but that of Aphrodite Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), which "springs entirely from the male" and is "free from wantonness"; the object of this kind of love is not a child, but one who has begun to display intelligence and is close to growing a beard (181e).

Pausanias claims that Elis and Boeotia are inarticulate regions that have nothing to say against pedophilia (182a-b); Ionia and other regions think it is disgraceful (182b-c), but they live under despots and think no more of philosophy and sport than they do of love. Pausanias then launches into a confusing discussion of Athenian law regarding pederasty. He says that Athens' code is not easy to understand, but claims that it cheers on the lover, so long as he does not pursue the boy in secret and does not rush him into it. He says you would never know that the law explicitly approves the lover's conduct by the way fathers behave when they get wind of the fact that some older man is sniffing around his son, or by the way the boy's playmates tease him about having a lover. He adds that these contradictions are easily explained (183d).

Pausanias says that Athenian law makes a firm distinction between the lover who should be encouraged by the boy and the lover who should be discouraged. He says that when a boy surrenders to sex out of hope for money, political favors, or in a cowering fear that he will suffer abuse (a beating?) from the lover, his surrender is contemptible (184b). Only when the boy is hoping to become wise and virtuous is his surrender to the older man not offensive to human decency. Pausanias thinks that the law addresses itself to children and their "motives" for surrendering to adults. He says that a boy who is duped is no fool, but has shown himself to be one "who will do anything for the sake of virtue" (184e-185b).


Eryximachus ends up speaking instead of Aristophanes, who does not recover from his hiccups soon enough to take his place in the sequence. Eryximachus claims that love "governs" medicine, music and astronomy (187a), and states that its principle "regulates" hot and cold and wet and dry and that this results in health (188a).

His speech does not incorporate the concept of love as we view it today. Eryximachus gives a definition that is purely medicinal. Although he does not directly state it, he uses the theory of humorism. He is also seen as a very vain person throughout his speech:“a good practitioner knows how to affect the body and how to transform its desires" (186D).


Aristophanes was the greatest comic poet of Athens, a brilliant and beloved playwright who ruled the comic stage in the late fifth and early fourth century BCE. He had rivals, but none of their plays have survived. The fact that Plato places him in this group is one of the most curious things about the Symposium, since Aristophanes ridiculed Agathon, the host of the party, in his play Thesmophoriazusae, and also made fun of Socrates. The Clouds, staged c. 423 BCE, presents Socrates as a cult master and director of a ridiculous phrontisterion ("thinking-shop") wherein one learns "immoral logic". Aristophanes mentions Socrates disparagingly in at least two other plays as well; the antagonism, according to some interpretations, was not benign.

Not only did Aristophanes have nothing good to say about Socrates, Socrates has nothing good to say about Aristophanes. In Plato's Apology of Socrates he specifically blames Aristophanes for starting the slander that led to his death (Apology 18-19). In what seems to be a complex literary "tit-for-tat," Plato in the Republic depicts Socrates outlawing such people as Aristophanes who write things that cause people to injure themselves by laughing.

Before launching 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. It is, he says, because in primal times people were globular spheres who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels (190a). There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the "androgynous," who was half man, half woman. The creatures tried to scale the heights of heaven and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about just blasting them to death 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.

After chopping the people in half, Zeus turned half their faces around and pulled the skin tight and stitched it up to form the belly button. 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. He says some people think homosexuals are shameless, but he thinks they are the bravest, most manly of all (192a), and that heterosexuals are mostly adulterous men and unfaithful wives (191e).

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 with our noses split apart (193a).


Agathon complains that the previous speakers have made the mistake of congratulating mankind on the blessing of love, that they have failed 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 values within ancient Greece and Agathon's purpose here is most likely to add significance to his view on love.


Socrates begins his turn by flattering Agathon. Close text reading reveals that Socrates is not impressed with Agathon's speech, but he will not criticise his host and the guest of honor. Rather he turns politely to Agathon and with Agathon's cooperation examines the speech for deficiencies. This is done using a series of questions and answers typical of Platonic dialogues. It is employed here because it has the benefit of making sure Agathon follows and confirms that he agrees step by step after every new argument. Once this is accomplished a new avenue has opened for a better examination of what is Love (199d).

Socrates informs the guests that he had sought out Diotima of Mantinea (lit. "honored by Zeus") for her knowledge. Socrates then proceeds to relate her story of Love's genealogy, nature and purpose (201d). Diotima explains that Love is the son of "Plenty" (father) and "Need" (mother). Love has attributes from both parents. Love is beggarly, harsh and a master of artifice and deception (203d) and is delicately balanced, resourceful(204c).

Diotima states that Love has a purpose, the attainment of immortality (207a,b). All humans have the yearning to procreate, mentally and physically, this desire is the expression of humanity's desire for immortality. Diotima's explanation of Love shows how to become a Philosopher, or a Lover of wisdom, and by doing so one will give birth to intellectual children of greater immortality than any conceived though procreation.


Like Agathon and Aristophanes, Alcibiades is a real historical character from ancient Athens. By his own confession, he is as handsome as handsome gets, but according to historical records, he was once exiled from Athens as a traitor.

Finding himself seated on a couch with Socrates and Agathon, Alcibiades exclaims that Socrates, again, has managed to sit next to the most handsome man in the room, Agathon; 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, it is decided that Alcibiades will 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 is full of tiny golden statues of the gods (215a-b). He then compares Socrates to the satyr (Satyrs were often portrayed with the sexual appetite, manners, and features of wild beasts, and often with a large erection.) Marsyas; Socrates, however, needs no flute to "cast his spells" upon people as Marsyas did -- he needs only his words (215b-d).

Alcibiades states that when he hears Socrates speak, he is beside himself; the words of Socrates are the only words that have ever upset him so deeply that his soul started to protest that his own 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)- he is crazy 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 what Socrates really wanted was him, and by letting Socrates have his way with him, he would teach Alcibiades everything he knew (217a). Yet Socrates made no moves, and Alcibiades began to pursue Socrates "as if I were the lover and he my young prey!" (217c). When Socrates continually rebuffs this pursuit, Alcibiades explains to Socrates that he is the only worthy lover he has ever had; that nothing is more important to him than becoming the best man he can be, and Socrates is better fit to help him reach that aim than anyone else (219c-d). Socrates responds that if he does have this power to make Alcibiades a better man inside of him, why would he exchange his true beauty for the image of beauty that Alcibiades would provide, and furthermore, Alcibiades may be wrong, and Socrates may be of no use to him (218e-219a). He then slipped under Socrates' cloak and spent the night beside him; yet, to the deep humiliation of Alcibiades, Socrates made no sexual attempt (219b-d).

He goes on to detail the virtue of Socrates, his valor in battle being incomparable, unaffected by cold or fear, even on one occasion saving Alcibiades' life and then refusing 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.

The conclusion

Despite this speech, Agathon then lies down next to Socrates, much to the chagrin of Alcibiades. The symposium dissolves as a large drunken group shows up and comes in, with many characters leaving; Socrates, however, stays awake until dawn. As Aristodemus awakes and leaves the house Socrates is proclaiming to Agathon and Aristophanes that a skillful playwright should be able to write comedy as well as tragedy (223d). When Agathon and Aristophanes fall asleep, Socrates leaves, walks to the Lyceum to wash, and spends the rest of the day as he always did, not sleeping until that evening (223d).

See also

Plato's Symposium (full text of Jowett translation)

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