Symposium (Plato)

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The Symposium (Ancient Greek: Συμπόσιον) is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC.[1][2] It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and (in latter-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.

Literary form[edit]

The Symposium is written as a dramatic dialogue, a form used by Plato in more than thirty works and, according to Walter Hamilton, it is his most perfect one. It is set in the Athenian social life, in which develops its content about the subject of love and Socrates' character. There is little doubt that the content of the dialogue is fictitious, although Plato has built a very realistic atmosphere.[3]

Andrew Dalby considers the opening pages of the Symposium the best description in any ancient Greek source of the ramifications of an oral tradition.[4] 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 the written text 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. Nevertheless, Dalby is eager to add that he does not think the rendering of the discussion by Plato is historically accurate, and considers that the content is in great part his invention. Other scholars, like Walter Hamilton, agree with this view.[3]

Historical context[edit]

It is considered that the work was written not earlier than 385 BCE, and the party to which it makes reference has been fixed in 416 BCE, the year in which the host Agathon had the dramatic triumph to which the text makes reference. The disastrous expedition to Syracuse, of which Alcibiades was a leading commander, took place the next year, after which, he deserted to Sparta, Athens' archenemy. Hamilton remarks that Plato takes care to portray Alcibiades and Socrates and their relationship in a way that makes it clear that Socrates had not been a bad influence for Alcibiades, which he does to free his teacher from the accusation of being a cause of corruption in the minds of prominent youths, which eventually earned Socrates the death sentence.[3]

Opening narrative[edit]

Plato sets the action in a symposium hosted by the poet Agathon to celebrate his first victory in a dramatic competition, the Dionysia of 416 BCE. There he develops a discussion between the guests on the theme of love. 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 BCE (fifteen years after Agathon won his prize) and the time when Socrates was tried and executed in 399 BCE.


Plato uses the dialogue to expose his theory of love. Each participant, by means of very personal expositions, that in some instances are thought to be parodies of the speaker style, adds something to a body that at the end is developed by Socrates. The love to which the participants make reference is mostly a homosexual love between men. It is to be noted that this reflects a social reality in classical Greece.[3]

In order to understand more clearly Plato, it is useful to have in mind his theory of Forms. According to it, all the phenomena perceived by the senses are imitations of eternal and perfect forms that alone have reality. Beauty belongs to this category of Forms.[3]


The dialogue's seven major speeches are delivered by:

  • Phaedrus (speech begins 178a):[5] was an Athenian aristocrat associated with the inner-circle of the philosopher Socrates, familiar from Phaedrus and other dialogues.
  • Pausanias (speech begins 180c): the legal expert.
  • Eryximachus (speech begins 186a): a physician.
  • Aristophanes (speech begins 189c): the eminent comic playwright.
  • Agathon (speech begins 195a): a tragic poet, host of the banquet, that celebrates the triumph of his first tragedy.
  • Socrates (speech begins 201d): the eminent philosopher and Plato's teacher.
  • Alcibiades (speech begins 214e): a prominent Athenian statesman, orator and general.

The speeches[edit]


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."[6] Lovers may even sacrifice their lives for the beloved. As evidence for this he mentions some mythological prominent heroes and lovers like Achilles sacrificing to avenge Patroclus and Alcestis willing to die for her husband Admetus.

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.


A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver (from Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BC): a symposium scene

Pausanias, the legal expert of the group, introduces a distinction between a nobler and a baser kind of love, which prepares Socrates discourse. The baser is in search of sexual gratification, and its objects are women and boys. It is inspired by Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite common to the whole city). The nobler is directed toward young men, establishing life long associations, productive of the benefits described by Phaedrus. This love is related to Aphrodite Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), and is based on honoring one's partner’s intelligence and wisdom.

He then analyses the attitudes of different estates relative to homosexuality. The first distinction he makes is between the estates that clearly establish in "black and white" what is admitted and what is not, and those that are not so explicitly clear, like Athens. In the first group there are estates favorable to homosexuality, like Elis, Boeotia and Sparta, or unfavorable to it like Ionia and Persia. The case of Athens is analyzed with many examples of what could be acceptable and what not, and at the end he makes the assertion that Athens code of behavior favors the nobler type of love and discourages the baser.[6]


Eryximachus ends up speaking in the Aristophanes' turn, 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).


W. Hamilton considers that the Aristophanes speech is one of the most brilliant literary achievements of Plato.[6] He at first skips his turn because of a bout of hiccups. His speech has become a focus of subsequent scholarly debate, as his contribution has been seen as mere comic relief, and sometimes as satire: the creation myth he puts forward to account for heterosexuals and homosexuals may be read as poking fun at the myths of man origin numerous in classical Greek mythology.

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). Those that come from original androgynous beings are the men and women that engage in mutual love. He says some people think homosexuals are shameless, but he thinks they are the bravest, most manly of all, as evidenced by the fact that only they grow up to be politicians (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.


His speech may be regarded as self-consciously poetic and rhetoric, composed in the way of the sophists,[6] gently mocked by Socrates.[7] 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. Although devoid of philosophical content, the speech Plato puts in the mouth of Agathon is a beautifully formal one, and Agathon contributes to the Platonic love theory with the idea that the object of love is beauty.[6]


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). The conclusion is that love consists in being conscious of a need for a good that is not yet possessed. After this dialogue that puts the foundation for Plato's theory of love, Socrates enters into a new dialogue in which a woman of Mantinea, called Diotima, plays the same inquiring role Socrates has played with Agathon.[6]

Diotima first explains that Love is a spirit (half-god and half-man) and traces his mythological descend, son of "Contrivance" (father) and "Poverty" (mother). Love has attributes from both parents, he is beggarly, harsh and a master of artifice and deception (203d) and is delicately balanced and resourceful (204c). Having been conceived at Aphrodite’s birthday he became her follower and servant, and consequently is a lover of beauty, but since wisdom is one of the most beautiful things, he is a lover of wisdom.[6]

Then Diotima conducts the dialogue to arrive to the definition of the aim of men’s love, that finally estates as “the perpetual possession of what is good”, in order to be happy. One way to attain an approximation to perpetuity is through procreation, either intellectual or physical, and in this way introduces what she defines as the “function of love”.[6]

In the conclusion of her exposition Diotima explains that men should make an ascent to arrive at the discovery of the Form of Beauty. Men should start with the love of a particular beautiful person. The next step is to pass from this particular instance to beauty in general, and from physical to moral beauty. The fourth step is to attain the love of wisdom, and then from this to the appreciation of the absolute and divine beauty (the Form of Beauty).[6]

This speech, in the interpretation of Marsilio Ficino in De amore (1484), is the origin of the concept of Platonic love.



Entering upon the scene late, he pays tribute to Socrates. 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.[8] 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[9] 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:

But once I caught him when he was open like Silenus' statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike -- so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing -- that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me.
Symposium 216e-217a.

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 (218c-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.

The conclusion[edit]

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).

Authors and works cited in the Symposium[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cobb, p. 11.
  2. ^ Leitao, p. 183.
  3. ^ a b c d e Plato, The Symposium. Translation and introduction by Walter Hamilton. Penguin Classics. 1951. ISBN 9780140440249
  4. ^ (Dalby 2006, p. 19–24).
  5. ^ References to the text of the Symposium are given in Stephanus pagination, the standard reference system for Plato. This numbering system will be found in the margin of nearly all editions and translations.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Translation by W. Hamilton.
  7. ^ Rebecca Stanton notes a deliberate blurring of genre boundaries here ("Aristophanes gives a tragic speech, Agathon a comic/parodic one") and that Socrates later urges a similar coalescence:[1].
  8. ^ Thucydides, 6.74
  9. ^ Satyrs were often portrayed with the sexual appetite, manners, and features of wild beasts, and often with a large erection.
  10. ^ Cited by Pausanias for the assertion that Achilles was Patroclus's older lover.
  11. ^ Symposium 221b
  12. ^ Perhaps (see note above).


  • Cobb, William S., "The Symposium" in The Symposium and the Phaedrus: Plato's Erotic Dialogues, State Univ of New York Pr (July 1993). ISBN 978-0-7914-1617-4.
  • Leitao, David D., The Pregnant Male as Myth and Metaphor in Classical Greek Literature, Cambridge Univ Pr (2012). ISBN 978-1-107-01728-3


Current texts, translations, commentaries[edit]

Online translations[edit]

General bibliography[edit]

  • Blondell, Ruby and Luc Brisson and others, Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2007. ISBN 0-674-02375-7.
  • Dalby, Andrew (2006), Rediscovering Homer, New York, London: Norton, ISBN 0-393-05788-7 
  • Hunter, Richard, Plato's Symposium (Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-516080-0.
  • Plato, The Symposium, trans. by W. Hamilton. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951.
  • Lilar, Suzanne, Le Couple (1963), Paris, Grasset; Translated as Aspects of Love in Western Society in 1965, with a foreword by Jonathan Griffin, New York, McGraw-Hill, LC 65-19851.
  • Lilar, Suzanne (1967), A propos de Sartre et de l'amour Paris: Grasset.
  • Strauss, Leo, Leo Strauss on Plato's Symposium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-77685-9
  • Worthen, Thomas D., "Sokrates and Aristodemos, the automatoi agathoi of the Symposium: Gentlemen go to parties on their own say-so," New England Classical Journal 26.5 (1999), 15–21.
  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. Penguin, 1954.
  • Sheffield, Frisbee (2009), Plato's Symposium: The Ethics of Desire (Oxford Classical Monograph)

External links[edit]