Symposium Summary



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Symposium Summary

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Plato’s Symposium dates circa 385-370 BC. It depicts a competition among a group of notable figures at a banquet that takes the form of a series of impromptu speeches. Among the participants are the philosopher Socrates, the politician and military leader Alcibiades, and the playwright Aristophanes. These men compete to give the best speech  in honor of the Greek god of love, Eros, who is the son of Aphrodite. In Plato’s text, Eros represents erotic love and is considered able to inspire men to unimaginable heights of courage, righteous acts and nobility in the face of death. Such love is viewed as rising above the earthly to the realm of the spiritual. To some, viewing love in such an elevated manner suggest that the Symposium is intended to be farcical in nature. Regardless, it is viewed as one of Plato’s major works, both for the philosophy it expounds and its literary merit.

In ancient Greece, a banquet such as the one the text depicts included a period, after the meal, known as a symposium. This was a time that allowed for speeches, music, dancing, and recitations. The free flowing libations make it likely that the attendees will say things that they might not share when sober. This is not always a negative thing. At times, guests’ speeches might offer praise that otherwise would have gone unstated. The symposium described by Plato takes place at a party in the home of the poet Agathon, in Athens. The host challenges those in attendance to present an encomium, or speech, in praise of Eros.

Although the Symposium is essentially a collection of essays from different perspectives, it is widely considered to be a dialogue of the kind that is used in more than two dozen of Plato’s works. The difference is that dialogue plays less of a role here than in his other writings. Rather than relying on dialectic, in which questions are asked to inspire others to introspection, in the Symposium the various speeches are considered as a whole. Further, the analysis takes the form of resolving the differences between the speeches and discovering the overarching philosophy that develops from them. While based on historical settings and people, the Symposium is to be approached as a work of fiction, as are the rest of Plato’s dialogues.

The Symposium opens with Apollodorus telling an unidentified friend the story of a banquet that it is said has been told many times before. Agathon is giving a banquet in celebration of his victory in the Dionysia of 416 BC, a dramatic competition. Apollodorus explains that he was not personally in attendance at the banquet, but that the story of the event which took place when he was still young was relayed to him by Aristodemus, who was in attendance. Apollodorus confirmed his details with Socrates who also participated. It becomes clear that Apollodorus is an enthusiastic disciple of Socrates and spends much time either listening to him or speaking about him. The text then moves to a direct depiction of Agathon’s banquet.

Socrates is a late arrival to the banquet, having lost track of the time while deep in thought. After dinner, the decision is made that a competition will take place, although it is expected that the final speaker, Socrates, will be the winner. Phaedrus begins and explains that Eros inspires virtue among men. He is followed by Pausanias, who talks of the difference between ordinary desire and a heavenly form of love. He speaks of pederasty which is the union of a man and a boy, in which the boy gives pleasure in return for knowledge and virtue. Following Pausanias is Eryximachus, who says that Eros inspires soundness of mind and character, a trait referred to as sophrosyne. He adds that this not only applies to the behavior of men but relates to other areas of life, such as medicine and music.

Aristophanes is the next to speak and tells a story in the form of a myth. He speaks of humans once being twice what they are but, when the gods felt threatened by them, Zeus cut everyone in half. Since that time, he explains, humans have been in search of their other halves in order to once again feel whole. The host of the banquet, Agathon, is the next to deliver his speech. Agathon describes Eros as beautiful and filled with wisdom and thus the source of all virtues. Socrates follows Agathon and tells a story that he heard from a woman named Diotima. She told Socrates that Eros, rather than being a god, is a spirit. As a spirit, Eros serves as a bridge between humans and their desires. Love is the desire for beauty and wisdom and is expressed through reproduction that can be either physical or the reproduction of ideas. According to Diotima, via Socrates, humans must try to achieve knowledge of the “form of beauty”.

As Socrates nears his conclusion, a drunken Alcibiades arrives. He asks to speak and at Eryximachus’s request talks not of love, but in praise of Socrates. He ends up comparing Socrates to Eros and in so doing supports the points of Diotima. The guests begin to depart and Arsitodemus falls asleep. When he awakens, as dawn is breaking, he finds Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates still in conversation, with Socrates explaining that a writer must be able to present both comedy and tragedy.