(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Symposium cover image

In ancient Greece, a symposium was an after-dinner drinking party that commonly included such amusements as music, dancing, and conversation. The symposium that this dialogue, the Symposium, describes was held in the house of Agathon, and its purpose was to celebrate the fact that the host had recently won a prize for a drama that he had written. Because much celebrating already occurred on the previous day, the guests at this gathering decide that they will go easy on the drinking and devote their energies chiefly to conversation. They agree that the topic of their conversation will be love, and that each guest will be required to address the subject. For the ancient Greeks, love was considered to be a god. There was no consensus, however, concerning the precise nature of love’s divinity, as is shown by the diverse views found in the speeches recorded in the Symposium.

Socrates is among the guests at Agathon’s house, and he is the last to give his speech. The first speeches are given by Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and the host, Agathon. The speakers agree that love is somehow a divine being, but opinions differ as to his origin and his exact relationship to the other gods. The speakers agree that love plays an important role in the lives of human beings, but they do not agree on the quality of love’s influence. Is it good or bad? Much is revealed in these speeches about prevailing attitudes toward human sexuality. When it comes to his turn, Agathon offers a scintillating display of his poetic ability, and his speech receives an enthusiastic response. Next comes Socrates, and it is apparent that he has a difficult act to follow.

He is, however, equal to the task. In addressing the subject of love, Socrates takes an approach that was typical of the way that he handled many other subjects. He begins by setting aside the conventional notions of love and then proceeds...

(The entire section is 790 words.)