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Symposium is perhaps Plato’s masterpiece as a work of art, though other dialogues are of greater philosophical import. Its great range, from discussions of physical love to an almost mystical vision of eternal, absolute beauty, makes it both art and philosophy. The range of subject and level of discussion are reflected in the original Greek and in some translations by differences in the language and style of individual speakers, and the contrasts thus afforded contribute to the dramatic excellence of the work. The dramatic effect is also enhanced by the order and structure of the dialogue, which is an account by Apollodorous of a banquet described to him by Aristodemus. At the banquet, a number of speeches are made, leading to a final speech by Plato’s beloved teacher and paragon of philosophy, Socrates.

Many Views of Love

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The dramatic poet Agathon has just won the prize for his first tragedy and is celebrating at home with his guests. Because of the aftereffects of yesterday’s drinking, it is agreed that the entertainment will consist chiefly of conversation. Eryximachus recalls Phaedrus’s frequent observation that while other gods and heroes have had ample praises and honors, Love has been singularly neglected, so he proposes that each man deliver a speech praising this god. All agree to this proposal, Socrates remarking that he claims understanding of nothing other than this subject. Readers familiar with Socrates will see in this statement a hint that the symposium on Love will remain on no ordinary level, for Socrates, above all his contemporaries, is able to transcend the sensual.

Because the topic originated with Phaedrus, Plato’s friend, he is invited to speak first. Phaedrus’s speech is a rather commonplace encomium setting the stage for later speeches. He describes Love as the oldest of the gods, full of power and the author of the greatest blessings. Phaedrus conceives love of the highest type to be that between virtuous men and youths and believes that the desire for honor and the fear of dishonor and shame are the chief motives for leading a noble life. The love between men is above all else the source of this motive, for the lover and the beloved hate nothing more than disgrace in each other’s eyes; hence, they are courageous and self-sacrificing, even to the point of death. A nation or army made up of such lovers would be almost invincible. Thus, Love not only serves as the chief source of virtue but also, as seen in the stories of Alcestis and Achilles, gives happiness after death.

Pausanias thinks the foregoing is indiscriminate. Love is not one but twofold; one part is noble and one part is not. There is an elder, heavenly Aphrodite, daughter of Uranus and having no mother, and also a younger, common Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and Dione. Therefore, there are two Loves, the offspring of each. The common Love, whose mother was of both male and female parentage, desires either women or youths and is merely of the body, without regard for good or evil, the noble or the base, and being of the body in its craving, is also like the body in temporality. The heavenly Love, however, whose mother was born from the male alone, seeks the male as the more valiant and intelligent. Lovers of this sort seek out youths of promising virtue and intellect with the intent of educating and developing them. Lovers of the body have brought only disgrace on Love, and some societies disapprove of attachments between men and youths; the question of their propriety is not simple, depending on whether the attitudes and...

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manners involved are honorable or not. Pausanias thinks that when love of youths and the practice of philosophy and virtue coalesce, this love is noble and mutually profitable.

The next speech affords a transition to a higher plane when the physician Eryximachus declares his discovery from medicine that love is indeed twofold, but not just in humanity; this duality is a universal principle. His position, reminiscent of the teachings of Heraclitus and Empedocles, is illustrated by the fact that in the body there are hostile loves and desires both healthy and diseased; medicine is the art of satisfying the one type, eliminating or converting the other. Hostile elements in the body must be reconciled if there is to be health, just as a proper arrangement of high and low notes is needed to produce musical harmony, and an orderly combination of short and long beats to produce rhythm. Hot and cold, moist and dry must be blended by harmonius love in order to secure the well-being of men, animals, and plants; whereas if wanton love causes an excessive degree of one element, injury follows. Even divination or communion between humanity and the gods is concerned with enhancing the good and curing the evil love. The former originates happiness and harmony with gods and humanity.

Eryximachus’s speech is serious and apparently intended to be scientific, but it is followed by that of the great comic dramatist Aristophanes, who satirizes current physiological theories. In order to explain the power of love properly, Aristophanes first gives the background of human nature: Originally there were three sexes—male, female, and the male-female. The body was round, having four arms, four feet, two sexual organs, and one head with two faces. This race became so powerful it attacked the gods in heaven. Zeus, in order to punish people without destroying them—because the gods would not wish to forgo the sacrifices and worship people provided—reduced their power and doubled their number by splitting them in two. The two halves, however, sought each other avidly, and when reunited would not separate long enough to tend to the usual affairs of life; hence, they began to perish.

While in the original division, the face had been turned around to the sectioned side, the sexual organs had not; now Zeus contrived to move them around so that when the two halves of the man-woman came together, conception and reproduction would occur, or if two halves of males or females embraced, sexual gratification would prepare them to return to their daily tasks. Consequently, sections of the double nature lust after members of the opposite sex, but halves of the other two sexes seek their own kind. Males who seek the male, therefore, are not shameless but rather desirous of the manly and best, as is evinced by the number of statesmen so inclined. The association is not merely sexual, however; it stems from a most fundamental desire for fusion into one being. Perfect satisfaction and happiness would lie in reunion with the original other halves of one’s nature, but failing this, the next best is to find congenial loves. Thus Love leads one back to one’s own nature in this life and the next, and hence it deserves highest praise. So ends Aristophanes’ speech, in the main highly fantastic but with a germ of truth in its description of the desire for unity.

Agathon’s turn is next. As might be expected of a dramatic poet, his remarks are rhetorically brilliant rather than philosophically cogent. He argues that Love is the most beautiful of the gods because he is the youngest, and the youngest because he is swift enough to outrun old age. Love is tender and soft because he goes about and dwells in the softest places, the hearts and souls of gods and people. He is just, neither suffering nor exerting force—all people serve him of their own wills. He is temperate, because temperance rules pleasure and no pleasure is greater than that of love. That he is courageous is evident in that Ares yielded to Aphrodite. He must be wise, for he is a poet and at his touch teaches everyone to become a poet. He is the creator of all animals, inspirer of all arts, peacemaker among the gods. His is the love of beauty rather than of deformity, and as the author of love of the beautiful he has originated every heavenly and earthly good. Agathon’s praise ends in a grand flourish of words that win the acclaim of all present and that Socrates uses as occasion for pretended dismay as Agathon’s successor.

Socrates Looks at Love

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Plato exploits Agathon’s florid but somewhat vacuous panegyric as a stage setting for the more substantial and more enduring lustrous speech of Socrates. He did not realize, Socrates says, that the intent was to praise Love by giving him every good quality without regard for the facts. Socrates knows only how to speak the truth, and he will proceed only if that is what the other wishes to hear. Upon reassurances, Socrates begins by asking questions, as is his wont, to which the answers given by Agathon lead up to the desired conclusions. By this dialectical method, he shows that because love is love of or desire for something, love cannot presently possess the object of its affection. Even when one is said to desire that which he has, what is really meant is that one desires its continued or future possession. Now it was stated that love is one of the beautiful rather than of the deformed; if so, it follows that love cannot itself be beautiful. Because there is a basic identity between the good and the beautiful, it follows also that love wants, rather than has, the good.

Socrates now proceeds to an account of Love allegedly taught him by a woman of wisdom, Diotima of Mantineia. Love is neither fair (handsome or beautiful) nor good, but this does not imply that he is ugly or evil. Just as there is a mean between wisdom and ignorance—right opinion, which is not wisdom because it cannot give adequate reason for its belief, and which is not ignorance because it is true—so there is a mean between beauty and ugliness, good and evil. Furthermore, Love is not a god, for the gods are admittedly happy, beautiful, and in possession of all goods. Love is neither mortal nor immortal, but an intermediate spirit who interprets between gods and people by forwarding prayers and sacrifices to the gods and commands and answers to people. The understanding of this function of Love is spiritual wisdom, whereas knowledge of skills and arts is of a much lower order.

As to Love’s ancestry, Diotima told this tale: On Aphrodite’s birthday, the gods held a feast at which Poros (Plenty), son of Metis (Discretion), became tipsy on nectar and lay down to sleep. Penia (Poverty), having come to the door to beg as usual, saw an opportunity to better herself and lay down by Poros; thus Love was conceived. Both because Aphrodite is beautiful and Love was born on her birthday, he is now her devotee. However, in accordance with his mixed parentage are his character and fortune; because of his mother, he is poor, rough, squalid, without a roof over his head, but like his father he is scheming, bold, aggressive, clever, strong, a great enchanter. Neither mortal nor immortal, he flourishes at one moment, perishes the next. His intermediate nature also makes him a philosopher; gods and wise men already possess wisdom, and the ignorant are self-satisfied—this is the evil of ignorance—but Love as a mean between the ignorant and the wise is a lover of wisdom, since “wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful.” Socrates’ and his companions’ previous error in attributing qualities such as beauty and wisdom to Love lay in confusion between love and the beloved.

“Of what use is love to man?” Socrates asked Diotima. Her reply was that this amounted to asking what people desire in loving the beautiful; it turns out that what they really desire is possession of the good, which is what people mean by “happiness.” However, one cannot ask again why one desires happiness because happiness is an ultimate end. All people seek happiness rather than something like the other half of themselves; love, then, is really “of the everlasting possession of the good.” A further question concerned the manner of the pursuit of love’s object. All people, Diotima continued, desire to procreate the beautiful, whether in body or in soul. Love is not, therefore, of the beautiful alone but of “generation” in beauty (creativity). This is true because only through generation or reproduction can that which is mortal gain a kind of immortality. Not only people but also other animals love and desire immortality, and because all physical things undergo constant change and succession, the only means of attaining permanence is by generating offspring to take the parents’ places. This is why procreation is desired so passionately and offspring are given such anxious care, even to the point that parents sacrifice their lives if necessary. The desire for immortality accounts also for the otherwise senseless ambition that drives so many people. In fact, Diotima said, this desire motivates all things that people do, even the practice of great virtues that people hope will keep them in memory.

Thus, some procreation is not of the body; some men are “pregnant” in body only, but some are creative in soul: They write poems or paint pictures, they conceive wisdom and virtue, best of all wisdom about the organization of states and families. Such creations of statesmen, lawmakers, and artists are preferable to human children, being more beautiful and more immortal, and the friendships out of which they are born are actually closer than those that bring forth children in the flesh.

Although this account of love transcends the earlier ones, it is still only regarding what Diotima described as the “lesser mysteries of love.” Yet if practiced in the right way, these point to the higher. Diotima’s description of beauty is recalled by Socrates in a passage that is considered to be among Plato’s most significant because its description of the dialectical ascent to vision of absolute beauty applies to knowledge of the other ideas or forms as well.

The proper procedure in the apprehension of beauty is to begin in youth to appreciate physical or external beauty of one object, letting this inspire fair thoughts. From this, one should grow into the realization that the beauties of all physical things are related and thus transcend narrow devotion to one. The next level is the insight that beauty of mind is preferable to that of outward appearance; at this stage, the lover is moved to nurture the character and intellect of promising youths. Then he is prepared to ascend to the next (each step is progressively more abstract)—that in which the beauty of institutions and laws becomes evident. The beauty of the sciences is even higher, and he who perceives this will then proceed to a vision of a unique science, that of beauty per se. The final reward and the goal of this laborious ascent is apprehension of the nature (which Plato in other contexts calls the form or idea) of beauty:A nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another . . . foul, as if fair to some and foul to others, or in the likeness of . . . any . . . part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as, for example, in an animal, or in heaven, or in earth, or in any other place but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going . . . to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This . . . is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute.

Socrates maintains that anyone living a life of communion with the ultimately real beauty—as Diotima has described it—will share Love’s divinity and reality and goodness, becoming a friend of the gods and achieving immortality as far as is possible for man. There is no better aid to this end than that of Love, and this is why and how Love ought to be praised.

In Praise of Socrates

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As Socrates thus ends his speech, a sudden change of tone is introduced by the entrance of the drunken Alcibiades, who adequately reinforces the Socratic teaching by recalling ways in which the master practices it. Willing to participate only if the others will drink, Alcibiades empties a half-gallon wine vessel and has it filled for Socrates, calling attention to the fact, however, that Socrates can drink any amount without becoming drunk. When asked to speak, Alcibiades admits that he is in no condition to vie with others in praise of Love, and he chooses to praise Socrates instead.

Socrates, he begins, looks like a satyr; indeed, he is like the busts of Silenus that open up to reveal images of gods inside them. He is like the satyr Marsyas, too, the marvelous flute player whose melodies charm all hearers, except that Socrates pipes with words even more powerful than those of Pericles. He is the only man who is able to shame Alcibiades for neglecting his own soul to attend public affairs, and only the love of popularity tears him away from Socrates’ spell. In spite of the latter’s rough exterior and pretension of ignorance, he is full of temperance and true beauty, despising the popular versions of beauty, wealth, and honor. While still a youth, Alcibiades became enamored of Socrates because of the master’s shining virtues and sought to become his beloved. But this association, had it been consummated—as it was not—would have been motivated solely by Alcibiades’ desire to render service to a master admired for his wisdom and goodness and ability to impart these, for Socrates was certainly unattractive physically. However, Alcibiades recounts how his advances became more and more overt with absolutely no effect on Socrates, which made the handsome youth realize fully how genuine was the philosopher’s self-control. This was only one of many occasions in which the almost superhuman virtues of Socrates were exhibited, Alcibiades continues. While at war, Socrates was able to go without food and rest with incomparable stamina; he marched better barefoot on the ice than did other soldiers whose feet were shod. Once, while engrossed in a difficult problem, Socrates stood in one spot from one dawn to the next, to the amazement of fellow soldiers who slept out in the open to keep watch on his endurance. However, Socrates was not just a dreamer; he rescued Alcibiades in battle and should have had the prize for valor that was awarded to the latter. Although he seems a satyr in appearance, also like the statues with gods inside are Socrates’ words, ridiculous at first but, when examined, found to have unparalleled significance, to be “of the most divine, abounding in fair images of virtue, and of the widest comprehension, or rather extending to the whole duty of a good and honourable man.”

Shortly after Alcibiades’ lauding of Socrates, the banquet breaks up; some men leave, some drink themselves to sleep. When Aristodemus awakes at dawn, there is Socrates still holding forth in argument to an audience of only Agathon and Aristophanes. When they doze off, Socrates arises and departs.

So ends a dialogue remarkable for its picture of Socrates’ outward appearance, moral character, and ability to take—or leave—the earthly point of departure for the realm of reason and intellect. Especially valuable for the student of Plato is its account of the dialectical approach to the vision of forms. Careful examination of the long quoted passage will reveal also that many other essential features of the theory of forms are suggested there—the forms are simple, unique, immaterial, immutable, eternal, ultimately real natures that give particular objects their being. The form of absolute beauty described here is obviously—on both internal and external evidence—that which Plato elsewhere calls the good. The reader might well compare the account in Symposium with those in other dialogues, especially with the Myth of the Cave in Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701). However, Symposium glows with beauties of its own, mixing philosophical discourse on love and lovely discourse on philosophy.


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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.