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.
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 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...
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...
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...