49 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 380

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Summary and Study Guide


Ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote the Symposium around 385 BCE. One of Plato’s best-known and most important works, the Symposium is a philosophical dialogue that explores the nature and virtues of Love (Eros) through seven speeches delivered at a symposium in 416 BCE. The Symposium is considered fiction, though the setting and characters are based on historical fact: For example, Socrates features in the dialogue, but Plato gives him a fictional speech. Plato is one of the most important figures in the Western philosophical tradition. He wrote over 30 dialogues and a number of allegories, or metaphorical stories. Though the Symposium’s main topic is Eros, it is also a critique of Socratic philosophy.

This text refers to the 1994 Oxford World’s Classic edition translated by Robin Waterfield.

Plot Summary

The dialogue begins mid-conversation between Apollodorus and his friends. Apollodorus offers to tell the story of a symposium that took place many years earlier that he himself heard from his friend Aristodemus, who had been present. Held in Athens, it was hosted by Agathon, who had won first prize in a tragic competition the day before. Aristodemus had not remembered all of the speeches; his account featured seven, those of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates, and Alcibiades.

The first speech is that of Phaedrus (who features in other dialogues of Plato, including an eponymous one), who lauds Love for inspiring lovers to commit courageous acts. Citing numerous mythical examples, Phaedrus argues that Lovers will not want to appear cowardly before their beloveds, and when they are in love, they are possessed by Love. Thus, his speech suggests that Love can be beneficial in the moral education of the youth of Athens.

Pausanias’s speech follows Phaedrus’s. Pausanias was known for being in a long-lasting Lover-beloved relationship with Agathon, the host and presenter of the fifth speech recounted in Symposium. Pausanias describes the two manifestations of Aphrodite, which are also evident in Love. One is the Celestial form, which is concerned with the proper, meaning moral satisfaction of desire. The second, Common form, is concerned with gratification without regard to whether it is good or bad. Pausanias associates Celestial Love with the love practiced in pederastic relationships (relationships between a dominant male [the “lover”] and a submissive male [the “beloved”]).

The third speech is Eryximachus’s, a physician who approaches Love as omnipresent. As in Pausanias’s speech, Love can be either harmful or beneficial. The work of the physician is to balance Love’s elements to ensure beneficial outcomes. Eryximachus considers this balancing not only with respect to human relationships but also in terms of the natural world.

Aristophanes, a comic playwright, delivers the next speech, which looks not so much at Love’s qualities as Love’s effects. He recounts a folkloric tale that explains the human condition as one of loss, search, and recovery. Humans are half of a whole who Zeus divided after they challenged the gods. Humans spend their lives trying to find their missing half. If they manage to find it, they will achieve “perfect love” and hence true happiness (30). Aristophanes concludes by noting the importance of moderation to prevent the gods from further dividing humans.

The tragic playwright Agathon follows with a poetic speech that catalogs Love’s many virtues. Love is young, sensitive, disciplined, courageous, wise, a skilled poet, and seeks only what is good. When Agathon completes his speech, Socrates applauds the poetic descriptions of Love but characterizes them as specious. Since he will be telling the truth, Socrates notes that he cannot possibly compete with the speeches that came before his.

He starts by questioning Agathon about the relationship between Love and beauty. Together, they agree that Love seeks beauty and goodness, which means that it cannot already possess beauty and goodness. After Agathon admits that he cannot refute this, Socrates turns to recounting a conversation between himself and his own teacher, a woman called Diotima, in the ways of Love. In dialogue with Socrates, Diotima taught him that Love is not a god but an “important spirit” that serves as an intermediary between gods and humans, who cannot meet directly (43). Love fills the space between them, creating “an interconnected whole” of the cosmos (43).

Diotima explains that Love’s parents are Plenty and Poverty, which means that Love is always hovering between these two poles. To Socrates’s question about how Love benefits humans, Diotima replies that the generic Love that is universal to all humans is that they desire good things, which in turn make people happy. Thus, Love can make people happy. Humans want to possess the goodness that makes them happy forever, which Diotima concludes means that humans desire immortality. Since humans cannot be immortal the way the gods are, humans seek immortality through procreation, whether physically (by having biological children) or mentally (by creating eternal works, whether poems, law codes, or other crafts).

Finally, Diotima turns to a discussion of process, how humans can ascend to the highest forms of Love, which is to say goodness. This process correlates with initiation into a mystery cult. A young man can begin by focusing on the physical beauty of one body and, through that, create “beautiful reasoning” that reveals the beauty of all bodies to him (53). Once he understands this universality of beauty, he learns to be attracted to mental beauty over physical beauty, which can help him appreciate human institutions, activities, and finally knowledge. This benefits his moral development. Once the young man ascends to this point, he has access to cosmic understanding of the eternal beauty that inheres in all things. Socrates concludes his speech by saying that Diotima taught him these things, and he believes them. For this reason, he praises Love and encourages others to as well.

During the guests’ applause, they hear a commotion outside: the arrival of Alcibiades, who has been drinking heavily. He spars verbally with Socrates and then agrees to give a speech in praise of him. He lauds Socrates’s satyr-like ability to charm his listeners, preparing them for initiation into Love’s mysteries. Alcibiades admits that only Socrates has the ability to make him feel ashamed of pursuing politics, fame, and adulation rather than doing what he should be, which is improving himself. He praises Socrates’s self-control: Many times, Alcibiades has tried to seduce him, and Socrates never succumbs. Finally, he commends Socrates’s bravery, giving two battle examples during which Socrates saved Alcibiades’s life and the life of a general. After his speech, the banter and drinking continue. Some of the guests depart; others stay up all night talking. The following day, Socrates follows his usual routine before returning home to sleep.

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