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 to talk about it in an entirely new light, bringing to it fresh and penetrating insights. All the previous speakers had spoken of love in terms imposed upon them by Greek mythology. Despite their attempts to spiritualize love and raise it to lofty heights, love nonetheless seems tediously hedonistic and earthbound.
In effect, Socrates treats everything that has thus far been said about love as so much empty chatter. His own point of departure is unique. He claims to know the truth about love, a truth that was once revealed to him by a wise woman named Diotima, of Mantineia. It was she who made him realize that love was essentially an impulse that causes human beings to rise above the deceiving appearances of this world and to seek beauty in its absolute and purest form. To spend all of one’s energies in striving to attain beauty is of the utmost importance, for upon it depends nothing less than one’s true fulfillment as a human being. That is so because absolute beauty is one and the same as absolute goodness, and it is precisely goodness that all human beings seek if they are genuinely in pursuit of happiness, for goodness, and goodness alone, is capable of making them happy.
Yet if absolute beauty, a beauty that transcends all earthly experiences, is the true goal of love, does humanity reach that beauty by attempting to ignore the world around it and leaping directly into the transcendent realm? Not at all. According to Socrates, individuals reach absolute beauty, or Beauty, through the specific manifestations of beauty in the material world—the beauty of a flower, for...
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example, or of another human being. Particular beautiful things are explained only in terms of absolute beauty; they exist only because absolute beauty exists, somehow participating and sharing in that absolute beauty. When people respond with delight to the beauty of a flower, the delight indicates a deep longing on their part for absolute beauty, which alone is capable of satisfying them. Ideally, particular instances of beauty urge people on and encourage them in their pursuit of absolute beauty, which is the ultimate goal. Nothing could be more disastrous, however, than to become so enamored of specific instances of beauty that Beauty itself is never attained.
When Socrates finishes his speech, all the guests concede that he has made the most valuable contribution to their discussion on love. The Symposium ends with an episode in which a new character, Alcibiades, is introduced to the drama. Through him it is revealed that Socrates is possessed of many other virtues besides the ability to philosophize in a brilliant and profound manner. Socrates is revealed as a person who is impressively superior, not only intellectually but also morally.