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Plato’s Symposium: Comprehensive Summary

Plato’s Symposium, written around 385-370 BCE, explores the nature of love through a series of speeches delivered by a group of prominent Athenian men at a celebration held in Agathon’s honor.

The topic of love, however, or Eros to be more precise, needs to be distinguished from our modern conception of romantic love. In The Symposium, love is explored in relation to nobleness, selflessness, virtue, order, harmony, health, beauty, wisdom and, as Plato would have it, philosophy – the love of wisdom, that is.

An uncharacteristic Platonic dialogue, The Symposium is conventionally sub-divided into the various speeches as they are given, each of which presents a certain perspective on love, building upon or refuting elements of the previous ones. The dialectic exchange, characteristic of Plato’s writings, is present in this regard.

Naturally, Socrates is set to speak last, thereby allowing a cross-examination and refutation of all the previous perspectives, and, it being a middle Platonic dialogue, the elucidation and affirmation of Plato’s own conception of love.

Among the attendees are Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes and Socrates, as well as the host of the event, Agathon. The narrator, however, Apollodorus, was not present but heard the story from Aristodemus, a guest of Socrates’.


Apollodorus is asked, by an unnamed friend, about the events that transpired at Agathon’s house many years ago, when several prominent and highly respected Athenian citizens had gathered and given speeches in praise of Eros, the god of love.

Apollodorus explains that he was not present at the symposium, having only become a student of Socrates recently, but heard the story from Aristodemus, who was present. He regrets that he might not be able to give an exact account, but will answer as best he can.

Agathon won a prize for his tragic comedy, and hosted a banquet to celebrate this honor. The day after the banquet, Agathon and his guests decided to turn away drink in favor of conversation.

Eryximachus, who had been discussing love with Phaedrus, suggest that they each give a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love.

Phaedrus: Love Inspires Virtue

Phaedrus opens the discussion by asserting that Love (Eros) is the oldest and therefore greatest of all the gods, and that the benefits conferred by Eros are the most meaningful.

Love, according to Phaedrus, guides individuals through pride and shame, inspiringselfless acts of nobleness; for people are most proud or most ashamed when beheld by their beloved. To emphasize his argument, he states that a city made up entirely of lovers would be noblest of all, as the fear of condemnation would encourage nothing but virtue in its citizens.

To support his argument, he draws from mythology. He tells the story of Alcestis, who willingly sacrificed her life for her husband, and the story of Achilles, who died avenging his beloved. For their respective sacrifices, Alcestis was returned to life by the gods themselves, while Achilles was sent to the Isle of the Blessed. In contrast, Orpheus, who ventured into Hades to bring back his wife but was unwilling to surrender his life, was given an image of his wife instead and no honor in death.

Love, Phaedrus contends, through pride and shame, is a force for good, and the gods themselves praise Eros, for they honor and reward those who sacrifice themselves for love.

Pausanias: Vulgar and Heavenly Love

Pausanias begins his speech by reminding everyone that love cannot be considered independently from Aphrodite, and that Aphrodite has in fact two forms and two names: Aphrodite Pandemos, pertaining to sensual pleasures, and Aphrodite Urania, associated with a mental and spiritual connection.

Common Love, Pausanias continues, is governed by physical attraction and can be selfish and exploitative. In contrast, Heavenly Love is characterized by an intellectual and spiritual connection, mutual respect, and foments growth in all parties involved.

Pausanias argues that society should encourage and celebrate Heavenly Love, which fosters mutual growth and virtue, while discouraging the baser forms of love that lack any such nobility. He states that the customs in Athens involve both pride and shame, so that its citizens may distinguish between Aphordite Pandemos and Aphrodite Urania, and only give in to Heavenly Love.

True heavenly love results when both parties are eager for self-improvement through their love, and such pursuits are considered honorable; vulgar love, on the other hand, which seeks only the pleasures of the body and disregards the soul, is always disgraceful.

Pausanias concludes by saying that toaccept love for the sake of gaining wisdom and virtue, regardless of the outcome, is always an honorable act, for the pursuit of virtue is itself honorable.

Eryximachus: Love is Harmony

Eryximachus explains that love is the fundamental principle of order, balance andharmony in all of existence. He states that love is not solely a human phenomena, but occurs everywhere in the universe – love governs everything, and that includes the divine realm.

Eryximachus, a physician, defines medicine as the science of love on repletion and depletion of the body, and likens the physicians task to ensuring harmony in music. The physician must promote love between bodily elements, that is, a harmonious relationship; for love regulates hot and cold and wet and dry, which, when in balance, result in health.

Eryximachus also distinguishes between two types of love: noble love, which promotes health, and disgraceful love, which engenders disease. He coincides with Pausanias in that noble love ought to be encouraged, but differs from him in the belief that common love is elicited by Polyhymnia, “the one of many hymns”.

He concludes his speech by stating that love is absolute, and that noble love is harmony.

Aristophanes: Wholeness and Fulfillment

Aristophanes’ speech is a humorous mythological account of the origin of love, by means of which he explains the yearning for one’s soulmate.

Aristophanes recounts who humans once had a unique and curious form: two heads, four arms and four legs, and moved about rolling on their eight limbs. These early humans, being incredibly strong and agile, posed a threat to the gods. When they ascended mount Olympus to attack the gods, Zeus decided to divide them in half so that their strength may be reduced but the gods’ worship multiplied. Ever since, humans yearn to be reunited with their missing half.

Among these early humans, there were three distinct genders: male-male, descended from the Sun, female-female, descended from the Earth, and male-female, descended from the Moon. Naturally, those whose original form was a same-sex pair prefer homosexual encounters, whereas the androgynous early humans favor heterosexual partners.

Aristophanes then states that some consider homosexuals shameless, but he believes they are the most courageous and masculine, for only homosexuals grow up to be politicians while heterosexuals are unfaithful adulterers.

According to Aristophanes, love is a profound yearning for completeness and the desire for unity; an expression of longing to reunite with one’s missing half and become whole once more. This desire is so pronounced, he states, that if given the choice humans would ask Hephaestus, the craftsman god, to be permanently reunited as a single body and soul.

He concludes his speech by saying that, if the natural order is not upkept, the gods may split humanity in half yet again, and that only by allowing love to guide us will humanity be whole and flourish.

Agathon: Love Embodies the Cardinal Virtues

Agathon begins his speech by stating that, unlike those that came before him, his speech shall praise Love itself, as opposed to humans in love, and he shall therefore speak of the god of love himself.

Love is in fact the youngest god, Agathon asserts, and favors youth and beauty. If he were the oldest, the stories told by Hesiod and Parmenides would not have occurred, for Love is delicate and brings about peace.

Agathon continues to describe the god of love, more specifically its moral character, affirming that he possesses the four cardinal virtues of justice, moderation, courage and wisdom.

Love is neither the cause nor the victim of injustice, since violence does not affect him. Love possesses the greatest moderation, because no pleasure is more potent than love. Love is brave, as Aphrodite has power over Ares, the god of war. And Love is wise, for it inspires the works of poets, artisans and professionals.

Agathon concludes his speech by stating that all should revere the god of love.

Socrates, whose turn to speak is next, praises all the men for their speeches but informs them that they have actually not praised Love.

Having expressed apprehension at his unfortunate seating position earlier, fearing he’d have nothing left to add, having to speak last and after Agathon, Socrates asks if he may speak as he does.

Socrates: A Messenger for the Gods

Socrates says that he, too, shall praise the god of love.

He begins by questioning Agathon, cross-examining him through elenchus. He questions whether one desires that which one possesses, Agathon agrees that that is irrational, and is quickly reminded of his own assertion of love’s desires: youth and beauty. It follows, then, that love is old and ugly. Agathon, having agreed to the premise, is forced to concede.

Socrates then states that love desires good things, and good things are beautiful, therefore love desires beauty.

Having concluded his examination of Agathon, Socrates proceeds to recount an encounter and an illuminating conversation he once had with Diotima on the subject of love, who questioned Socrates as he is doing now – in fact, precisely in the same manner. Socrates had stated that love is beautiful and good, and Diotima posed the same question to him as he posed to Agathon. Socrates, as Agathon, was lead to the conclusion that love is old and ugly. Diotima, however, would object to said conclusion.

Diotima explains that someone may not be beautiful and that does not make him ugly, just as someone can be unwise and that does not make him ignorant – understanding things but not the cause of things, that is, makes a person not ignorant and not wise either. Love, also, may be neither beautiful nor ugly but something in between.

Love is not a god, however, Socrates and Diotima agree. For the gods are beautiful and happy, and, since love desires these things, he does not possess them; therefore, love cannot be a god. Socrates asks Diotima what love is, then.

Diotima states that love is neither god nor mortal, but something in between, a daemon. The gods and mortals commune through spirits, and love is one such spirit, a messenger of the gods.

Socrates then asks Diotima about the birth of love.

Diotima: Love’s Purpose is Birth in Beauty

Diotima relates to Socrates that Love was conceived and born on the day of Aphrodite’s birth, during a banquet thrown by the gods to honor her.

Penia, the personification of poverty and need, had come to the banquet to beg and found Porus, the god of plenty, passed out from drinking too much nectar. Penia seized the opportunity to lay with Porus and conceived a child in the process: Love.

Love, being the son of Penia and Porus – that is, of poverty and plenty – is characterized by an antagonistic nature. He is neither god nor mortal, poor but never helpless, ugly but appreciative of beauty, and neither ignorant nor wise. Love knows of his ignorance, and desires wisdom – for wisdom is beautiful, and love desires beauty. Love, therefore, is a lover of wisdom.

They then establish that lovers love that which is good and beautiful, and desire to possess the good indefinitely for the sake of happiness.

Diotima, however, has another view, and explains that love’s function is to “give birth in beauty both in mind and in body”, and that all human beings are pregnant in body and in mind. Some are pregnant solely in body, and seek children to carry on their existence, while others are pregnant in mind, and seek to give birth in beauty to wisdom and virtue.

Diotima then states that the purpose of love isn’t beauty nor happiness, these being a means to an end, but “reproduction in birth and beauty”. Since love’s desire is to possess the good for the sake of happiness, forever, and only through reproduction can mortals hope to extend their existence, then love must also desire reproduction and, through reproduction, immortality. This is why all living beings, including animals, are eager to procreate and to safeguard their offspring.

The purpose of love, according to Diotima, is reproduction in birth and beauty.

Diotima continues her speech by outlining what she terms the rights of love, and would later become known as the ladder of love, telling Socrates that its purpose is to reach the “final vision of the mysteries”. These rights, she explains, are a guide.

First, a young man is drawn to beautiful bodies and one body in particular. Next, the man realizes that all bodies are similar and therefore equally beautiful, thus becoming a lover to all beautiful bodies. Next one beholds the beauty of the mind, abstract beauty in practices and laws, and beauty in knowledge, becoming a lover of knowledge. Finally, one may appreciate beauty itself – that from which all instances of beauty derive their nature, which is one and the same; in Platonic terms, the Form of Beauty. The final vision of the mysteries, then, having ascended through the ladder of love, is the Form of Beauty itself.

Diotima tells Socrates that life ought to be lived “gazing at beauty”, and that only by surpassing the engrossing desire to unite with one’s partner and seeing beyond physical beauty, can lovers gaze at beauty itself.

Diotima concludes her speech by stating that witnessing beauty itself, as opposed to mere instances of beauty, one is able to give birth to and raise true virtue, as opposed to mere images of virtue; and that having beheld beauty itself and given birth to true virtue, one may earn the gods’ love and, by their favor, achieve immortality.

Socrates concludes his speech by affirming that his beliefs coincide with Diotima’s teachings, that he both honors Love and the rights of love, for there is no better guide for humanity than Love.

Alcibiades: Socrates as the God of Love

Alcibiades enters the scene, thoroughly drunk, and ask if he may join the symposium. The men explain their undertaking that night, giving praise to Eros, and Alcibiades chooses to praise Socrates instead.

Alcibiades commences his speech by drawing an analogy between Socrates and the satyr Marsyas. Like Marsyas with his flute music, Socrates can bewitch people with his words. Acibiades confesses that he is the only man to have ever inspired shame in him, for having pursued a political career and dedicated himself to winning the admiration of the crowd, instead of a life devoted to philosophical pursuits.

Alcibiades then states that both Socrates and Marsyas are insulting and abusing. Notably, the word he uses for “abusive” (hubristes) has connotations of rape, perhaps in reference to Diotima’s notion of being pregnant in the mind and giving-birth to wisdom and virtue.

Socrates, according to Alcibiades, has no interest in bodily pleasures, even though he appears to be, on account of his moderation. He recalls an instance when, charmed by a speech, Alcibiades invited Socrates to his home, hoping to seduce him and learn everything he had to teach, but was unsuccessful.

Alcibiades further recalls observing Socrates both on and off the battlefield during the Peloponnesian War, and remarks that he possess a noteworthy endurance to the physical hardships of cold and hunger, and even drink, but is thoroughly able to enjoy a feast nonetheless and to drink without becoming drunk. He also recalls an instance when Socrates spent a whole day, from one dawn till the next, standing in the battlefield contemplating a philosophical problem until it was resolved.

Alcibiades concludes his speech saying that Socrates is unlike any other to ever have lived, and his wisdom, if one takes the time to consider his words, is the most divine and virtuous.


A large group of drunken folk barged in, and the men are forced to abandon their praise of Eros.

Aristodemus, who has recounted the events of Agathon’s celebration to Apollodorus, recalls that he fell asleep and awoke to find Socrates, Agathon and Aristophanes, still conversing. Socrates was arguing that a good playwright should be able to write tragedy as well as comedy. Eventually, Agathon and Aristophanes fell asleep also.

Socrates then left for the Lyceum and spent the day as he normally would, only going to bed that evening.

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