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|Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
|Apology – Charmides – Crito|
|Euthyphro – First Alcibiades|
|Hippias Major – Hippias Minor|
|Ion – Laches – Lysis|
|Transitional & middle dialogues:|
|Cratylus – Euthydemus – Gorgias|
|Menexenus – Meno – Phaedo|
|Protagoras – Symposium|
|Later middle dialogues:|
|Republic – Phaedrus|
|Parmenides – Theaetetus|
|Clitophon – Timaeus – Critias|
|Sophist – Statesman|
|Philebus – Laws|
|Of doubtful authenticity:|
|Axiochus – Demodocus|
|Epinomis – Epistles – Eryxias|
|Halcyon – Hipparchus – Minos|
|On Justice – On Virtue|
|Rival Lovers – Second Alcibiades|
|Sisyphus – Theages|
|Part of a series on|
|Early life · Works · Platonism
Epistemology · Idealism / Realism · Demiurge
Theory of Forms
Form of the Good
Third man argument
Euthyphro dilemma · Five regimes
|Allegories and metaphors|
|Ring of Gyges · The cave
The divided line · The sun
Ship of state · Myth of Er
|The Academy in Athens
Commentaries on Plato
Middle Platonism · Neoplatonism
Neoplatonism and Christianity
The Symposium (Ancient Greek: Συμπόσιον) is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–380 BC. It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and (in later day interpretations) is the origin of the concept of Platonic love.
Love is examined in a sequence of speeches by men attending a symposium, or drinking party. Each man must deliver an encomium, a speech in praise of Love (Eros). The party takes place at the house of the tragedian Agathon in Athens. Socrates in his speech asserts that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom. The dialogue has been used as a source by social historians seeking to throw light on life in ancient Athens, in particular upon sexual behavior, and the symposium as an institution.
The dialogue's seven major speeches are delivered by:
The poet Agathon hosted a symposium to celebrate victory in his first dramatic competition, the Dionysia of 416 BC. A discussion on the theme of love took place at this symposium, a discussion which has since become famous. Aristodemus, who was present, reported the conversation to Phoinix and Apollodorus. Phoinix told it to another, unnamed person; meanwhile Apollodorus checked it with Socrates, who was present. The unnamed person has told it to Glaucon (Plato's brother, an interlocutor in the Republic), but has given him an unreliable version and has left him uncertain how long ago the discussion took place. Glaucon has now obtained a better version from Apollodorus, who is thus primed to tell the story again to a friend. From this point on, he will be quoting Aristodemus (172a-174a). The dramatic date of the frame conversation, in which Apollodorus speaks to his unnamed friend, is estimated to be between 401 BC (fifteen years after Agathon won his prize) and the time when Socrates was tried and executed in 399 BC.
The opening pages of the Symposium are considered the best description in any ancient Greek source of the ramifications of an oral tradition.Plato has set up a multitude of layers between the original symposium and his written narrative: he heard it fourth-hand (if we are to identify him with Apollodorus's friend), so it comes to us fifth-hand. In addition, the story Socrates narrates was told to Socrates by Diotima, creating one more layer between the reader and the philosophic path that Socrates traces.
Phaedrus opens by citing Hesiod, Acusilaus and Parmenides for the claim that Eros is the oldest of the gods, with no parents. Hence the greatness of the benefits he confers, inspiring a lover to earn the admiration of his beloved, as by showing bravery on the battlefield, since nothing shames a man more than to be seen by his beloved committing an inglorious act (178d-179b). "A handful of such men, fighting side by side, would defeat practically the whole world." Lovers may even sacrifice their lives for the beloved: Alcestis was willing to die for her husband Admetus, and the gods rewarded her by allowing her to return from Hades.
By contrast, Orpheus made no such sacrifice; he went alive to Hades to find Eurydice, and returned empty-handed. But Achilles fought bravely at the death of his lover Patroclus though he knew that the fight would bring his own death closer; Phaedrus here takes Aeschylus to task for making Achilles the "lover" (180a), claiming instead that Achilles was the beautiful, still-beardless, younger "beloved" of Patroclus and citing Homer in his support. He also believed that there were many military advantages to the love stemmed from male-male couples, especially since both men want to impress one another and therefore fight harder. Phaedrus concludes his short speech in proper rhetorical fashion, reiterating his statements that love is one of the most ancient gods, the most honored, the most powerful in helping men gain honor and blessedness, and sacrificing one's self for love will result in rewards from the gods.
Pausanias, the legal expert of the group, begins by taking Phaedrus up on his chosen examples (180c), asserting that the love that deserves attention is not the kind associated with Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite common to the whole city) whose object may equally be a woman or a boy, but that of Aphrodite Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), which "springs entirely from the male" and is "free from wantonness"; the object of this kind of love is not a child, but one who has begun to display intelligence and is close to growing a beard (181e). Pausinias explains that the two goddesses represent two different kinds of love. The love associated with (Heavenly Aphrodite), which is the older goddess, is the intellectual, soulful kind of love that is often longlasting and committed. The love associated with the Common Aphrodite, which is the younger goddess, is more about sex and lust.
Pausanias reiterates the fact that love is a complex thing. He believes that love doesn’t just come in one type but two types, common love and heavenly love. Common love is based on sexual desires; based on the body not the soul. Heavenly love, on the other hand, is the pure form of love and is based on honoring one's partner’s intelligence and wisdom.
Pausanias claims that Elis and Boeotia are inarticulate regions that have nothing to say against homosexual customs(182a-b); Ionia and other regions think it is disgraceful (182b-c), but they live under despots and think no more of philosophy and sport than they do of love. Pausanias then launches into a confusing discussion of Athenian law regarding pederasty. He says that Athens' code is not easy to understand, but claims that it cheers on the lover, so long as he does not pursue the boy in secret and does not rush him into it. He says you would never know that the law explicitly approves the lover's conduct by the way fathers behave when they get wind of the fact that some older man is showing interest in his son, or by the way the boy's playmates tease him about having a lover. He adds that these contradictions are easily explained (183d). He claims that males are more intelligent and therefore more attractive (181c).
Pausanias says that Athenian law makes a firm distinction between the lover who should be encouraged by the boy and the lover who should be discouraged. He says that when a boy surrenders to sex out of hope for money, political favors, or in a cowering fear that he will suffer abuse (physical or verbal) from the lover, his surrender is contemptible (184b). Only when the boy is hoping to become wise and virtuous is his surrender to the older man not offensive to human decency. Pausanias thinks that the law addresses itself to young men and their "motives" for surrendering to adults. He says that a young man who is duped by an older man, believing incorrectly that the man is virtuous, is no fool, but has shown himself to be one "who will do anything for the sake of virtue" (184e-185b).
Eryximachus ends up speaking instead of Aristophanes, who does not recover from his hiccups soon enough to take his place in the sequence. First he starts out by claiming that love occurs in everything in the universe, including plants and animals, believing that once love is attained, it should be protected. He also says that the God of Love not only directs everything on the human plane, but also with the things that happen with the Gods (186b). Eryximachus also claims that two forms of love occur in the human body, one is healthy, the other is unhealthy (186bc). Eryximachus believes love might be capable of curing the diseased. Over his whole speech, Eryximachus claims that love governs medicine, music and astronomy (187a), and states that its principle regulates hot and cold and wet and dry and that this results in health (188a). Eryximachus gives a definition that is medicinal, evoking the theory of humorism. Beyond his medical expertise he concludes: "Love as a whole has ... total ... power ... and is the source of all happiness. It enables us to associate, and be friends, with each other and with the gods, our superiors" (188d Transl. Gill). He comes across as a vain person throughout his speech, someone who cannot resist the temptation to praise his own profession: “a good practitioner knows how to affect the body and how to transform its desires" (186d).
Before launching his speech, Aristophanes warns the group that his eulogy to love may be more absurd than funny. His speech is an explanation of why people in love say they feel "whole" when they have found their love partner. He begins by explaining that people must understand human nature before they can interpret the origins of love and how it affects the then present time. It is, he says, because in primal times people had doubled bodies, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. As somewhat spherical creatures who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels (190a), these original people were very powerful. There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the "androgynous," who was half male, half female. The males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. The creatures tried to scale the heights of heaven and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about blasting them to death with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half, in effect separating the two bodies.
Zeus then commanded Apollo to turn their faces around and pulled the skin tight and stitched it up to form the navel which he chose not to heal so Man would always be reminded of this event. Ever since that time, people run around saying they are looking for their other half because they are really trying to recover their primal nature. The women who were separated from women run after their own kind, thus creating lesbians. The men split from other men also run after their own kind and love being embraced by other men (191e). He says some people think homosexuals are shameless, but he thinks they are the bravest, most manly of all (192a), and that many heterosexuals are adulterous men and unfaithful wives (191e). Aristophanes then claims that when two people who were separated from each other find each other, they never again want to be separated (192c). This feeling is like a riddle, and cannot be explained. Aristophanes ends on a cautionary note. He says that men should fear the gods, and not neglect to worship them, lest they wield the axe again and we have to go about with our noses split apart (193a). If man works with the god of Love, they will escape this fate and instead find wholeness.
Agathon complains that the previous speakers have made the mistake of congratulating mankind on the blessing of love, failing to give due praise to the god himself (194e). He says that love is the youngest of gods and is an enemy of old age (195b). He says that the god of love shuns the very sight of senility and clings to youth. Agathon says love is dainty, and likes to tiptoe through the flowers and never settles where there is no "bud to bloom" (196b). It would seem that none of the characters at the party, with the possible exception of Agathon himself, would be candidates for love's companionship. Socrates, probably the oldest member of the party, seems certain to be ruled out. He also implies that love creates justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom. These are the cardinal virtues within ancient Greece.
Socrates turns politely to Agathon and with Agathon's cooperation examines his speech. This is done using a series of questions and answers typical of Plato's Socratic dialogues. Agathon answers affirmatively to Socrates' line of questioning, thus refuting many of the statements in his previous speech(199d). Socrates informs the guests that he had sought out Diotima of Mantinea (lit. "honored by Zeus") for her knowledge. Socrates then proceeds to relate her story of Love's genealogy, nature and purpose (201d).
Diotima explains that Love is the son of "Resource" (father) and "Poverty" (mother). Love has attributes from both parents. Love is beggarly, harsh and a master of artifice and deception (203d) and is delicately balanced and resourceful(204c). Diotima states that humans have the yearning to procreate, mentally and physically, this desire is the expression of humanity's desire for immortality (207a-b). Diotima's explanation of Love entails how to become a Philosopher, or a Lover of wisdom, and by doing so one will give birth to intellectual children of greater immortality than any conceived through procreation.
Like Agathon and Aristophanes, Alcibiades is a historical person from ancient Athens. A year after the events of the Symposium, his political enemies would drive him to flee Athens under fear of being sentenced to death for sacrilege and turn traitor to the Spartans. By his own admission, he is very handsome.
Finding himself seated on a couch with Socrates and Agathon, Alcibiades exclaims that Socrates, again, has managed to sit next to the handsomest man in the room, Agathon, and that he is always doing such things (213c). Socrates asks Agathon to protect him from the jealous rage of Alcibiades, asking Alcibiades to forgive him (213d). Alcibiades says he will never do such a thing (213e). Wondering why everyone seems sober, Alcibiades is informed of the night's agreement (213e, c); after saying his drunken ramblings should not be placed next to the sober orations of the rest, and that he hopes no one believed a word Socrates said, Alcibiades proposes to offer an encomium to Socrates (214c-e).
Alcibiades begins by comparing Socrates to a statue of Silenus; the statue is ugly and hollow, and inside it is full of tiny golden statues of the gods (215a-b). He then compares Socrates to the satyr Marsyas; Socrates, however, needs no flute to "cast his spells" upon people as Marsyas did -- he needs only his words (215b-d).
Alcibiades states that when he hears Socrates speak, he is beside himself; the words of Socrates are the only words that have ever upset him so deeply that his soul started to protest that his own aristocratic life was no better than a slave's (215e). Socrates is the only man who has ever made Alcibiades feel shame (216b). Yet all this is the least of it (216c)- he is crazy about beautiful boys, following them around in a daze (216d). Most people, he continues, don't know what Socrates is like on the inside:
Alcibiades thought at the time that what Socrates really wanted was him, and by letting Socrates have his way with him, he would entice Socrates to teach him everything he knew (217a). Yet Socrates made no moves, and Alcibiades began to pursue Socrates "as if I were the lover and he my young prey!" (217c). When Socrates continually rebuffed this pursuit, Alcibiades began to view Socrates as the only worthy lover he has ever had. He told Socrates that it seemed to him now that nothing could be more important than becoming the best man he could be, and Socrates was better fit to help him reach that aim than anyone else (219c-d). Socrates responded that if he did have this power to make Alcibiades a better man, why would he exchange his true (inner) beauty for the image of beauty that Alcibiades would provide; and furthermore, Alcibiades might be wrong, and Socrates may be of no use to him (218e-219a). He then slipped under Socrates' cloak and spent the night beside him; yet, to the deep humiliation of Alcibiades, Socrates made no sexual attempt (219b-d).
In his speech, Alcibiades goes on to detail the virtue of Socrates, his incomparable valor in battle, his immunity to cold or fear. On one occasion he even saved Alcibiades' life and then refused to accept honors for it (219e-221c). Socrates, he concludes, is unique in his ideas and accomplishments, unrivaled by any man from the past or present (221c); but be warned: Socrates may present himself as your lover, but before you know it you will have fallen in love with him.
Despite this speech, Agathon then lies down next to Socrates, much to the chagrin of Alcibiades. The symposium comes to an end when a large drunken group shows up. Many of the main characters take the opportunity to depart and go to bed; Socrates, however, stays awake until dawn. As Aristodemus awakes and leaves the house, Socrates is proclaiming to Agathon and Aristophanes that a skillful playwright should be able to write comedy as well as tragedy (223d). When Agathon and Aristophanes fall asleep, Socrates leaves, walks to the Lyceum to wash, and spends the rest of the day as he always did, not sleeping until that evening (223d).
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