[Summary] Xenophon’s Symposium

Xenophon’s Symposium is a lighthearted conversation among friends at a banquet, featuring Socrates. It is one of a few, three to be precise, extant writings by Xenophon dedicated to preserving the memory of Socrates, along with the Memorabilia and Apology.

The intent of The Symposium, according to Xenophon himself, is to record not only the serious actions of good and noble men, referring to Socrates, but also their lighter moments. The guests, while enjoying the entertainment, drink moderately and discuss numerous topics of interest – namely, virtue, knowledge, love and beauty. Through their humorous conversations, which often entail mocking each other or themselves, however, the character of Socrates shines through.

Xenophon’s Symposium, in comparison to Plato’s dialogue by the same name, stands out as remarkably realistic, although no unassailable claim of historical accuracy can be made.

For the sake of completeness, clarity, veracity, and to facilitate meaningful comprehension, you may also appreciate the original translation of Xenophon’s Symposium.

CHAPTER 1: Introducing the Characters

Xenophon, in the opening address, expresses that not only the serious actions of “good and noble men” are worth remembering but also their lighter moments and words, believing that all aspects of the person’s character should be recorded.

He then proceeds to recount the events of the symposium held in Autolycus’ honor.

Callias, after a horse race, invites Socrates and other friends to his house for a dinner party. Socrates and the others are initially hesitant to join, but they eventually accept the invitation on Callias’ insistence.

After arriving and bathing, the guests are introduced to the other invitees, among whom are Lycon and his son, Autolycus; the latter, being exceptionally dignified and beautiful, captures the attention of the onlookers. Callias seems to be especially taken with Autolycus, and his demeanor changes as a result of his presence. Love has transformed him, and he becomes the center of attention among those who understand this divine emotion.

During the dinner, Philippus, a professional jester, arrives uninvited, hoping to entertain the guests. However, his attempts at humor fall flat, and he becomes despondent. Philippus laments the decline of humor, explaining that nobody invites him to dinner anymore for amusement, and expresses his sadness over the changing times. His melancholic performance evokes laughter from the guests, lifting his spirits and allowing them to enjoy their meal.

CHAPTER 2: Introducing the Entertainment

After the dining tables are cleared, a libation is poured and a hymn is sung as part of the festivity.

A Syracusan entertainer arrives with a troupe of performers, including a skilled flute-girl, a talented dancing-girl, and a boy who can play the harp and dance gracefully. Their performance delights the guests. Socrates praises Callias, the host, not only for providing a great dinner but also entertainment for the eyes and ears.

The discussion turns to the topic of perfumes, with Socrates asserting that scents are more suited for women than men, and that simple olive oil is sweet to women. Lycon, whose gymnastic days are over, asks Socrates where men like him can find a “chrism”, or fragrance. Socrates affirms that true nobility is the best fragrance and that it can’t be obtained from perfumes, but from moral character and good company.

The guests praise Lycon’s son, Autolycus, for his desire to excel in the pankration and his choice of wise companions. On that note, the question of whether wisdom can be taught or learned is briefly discussed, but Socrates suggests deferring it for later.

The dancing-girl’s performance with hoops is noted as an example of the capability of women, and Socrates states that they only need strength and judgment. Antisthenes humorously questions Socrates about tutoring his shrewish wife, Xanthippe, and Socrates explains that he chose her for her strong spirit, believing that if he can tolerate her, he can easily deal with anyone.

The female dancer performs a daring act by somersaulting within a hoop studded with upright swords. The feat amazes the spectators, who comment on her courage. Socrates suggests that the Syracusan entertainer should showcase her to the Athenian authorities to instill courage in the people, and the jester jokes about politicians and their lack of courage.

Then the young boy performs a dance, and Socrates praises not only the beauty of the child but also the full-body exercise involved in dancing. Charmides jokingly questions Socrates’s interest in improving his health through dancing, leading to light-hearted banter. The jester humorously mimics the boy’s and girl’s dances, creating a comical interpretation of their movements.

Socrates says that wine is a source of merriment and that moderation in drinking allows for a more enjoyable social interaction, and proposes that small glasses of wine should be served gradually to maintain a balance between enjoyment and drunkenness. The proposition is agreed upon by the company, albeit with a suggestion to increase the pace of serving wine.

CHAPTER 3: Pride in Virtue and Wisdom

The Syracusan boy plays the lyre and sings, earning applause from the company, and Charmides praises the boy’s performance.

Socrates, for his part, encourages the guests to converse to heighten the festivity, by calling on them to declare the virtue or knowledge they pride themselves on the most.

Callias claims that he can make people better through his wisdom, specifically by teaching them justice. Niceratus boasts of his knowledge of Homer’s epics, even though other rhapsodists know them as well. Critobulus takes pride in his beauty and suggests that it can make people better. Antisthenes claims to pride himself on his wealth, even though he possesses none. Charmides surprisingly claims to pride himself on poverty, which he describes as safe and unenvious.

Socrates humorously claims to pride himself on pandering and suggests he could make a fortune in that profession. Philippus takes pride in setting people laughing and compares it to an actor who can make the crowd weep. Lycon expresses pride in his son, Autolycus, and Autolycus, in turn, expresses pride in his father. Hermogenes takes pride in the virtue and power of his friends and agrees to introduce them to the company.

CHAPTER 4: The Speeches on Virtue and Wisdom

Following the brief mention of what virtue or knowledge each guest prides themselves on the most, they proceed, one at a time, to elaborate on their assertion.

Antisthenes sheds doubt on Callias’ claim that he makes people more just and upright by giving them money, pointing out that people harbor justice in their souls and not their purse. Callias responds that, having the means to buy the necessary goods, people won’t resort to wrong-doing. Antisthenes then questions whether the people he helps are better disposed towards him, which Callias denies, and Antisthenes remarks on the irony of him creating justice for everyone but himself. Socrates humorously compares Callias to carpenters who build houses for others, but live in lodgings themselves.

Niceratus, the next speaker, asserts that he has extensive knowledge of Homer’s epics and can teach various subjects, such as economics, oratory and strategy. Antisthenes playfully inquires if Niceratus knows how to become a king, noting the praise of Agamemnon in Homer’s epics. Niceratus mentions that he knows the role of a charioteer, and humorously adds that consuming an onion with wine can sweeten the drink.

Critobulus speaks next, stating that he prides himself on his beauty, and he playfully teases the group for repeatedly acknowledging his beauty in their conversations. He expresses his affection for Cleinias, noting how much he values the beauty of his beloved. Critobulus continues by arguing that beautiful people have a just claim to boast about their beauty, for beauty can influence many aspects of life, making it a valuable trait; as beauty inspires actions and emotions, like love and joy, in others. He claims that even though beauty may fade with time, it remains a part of one’s character throughout different stages of life.

Socrates interjects, jokingly undermining Critobulus’s claim of being beautiful. The two engage in a humorous exchange regarding their appeal, and Socrates suggests that they should seek a verdict on the matter, allowing Critobulus to continue.

Critobulus expresses his strong affection for Cleinias, commenting on the vivid image of Cleinias in his mind, and Socrates humorously remarks on Critobulus’s passionate longing for Cleinias. When Hermogenes expresses concerns about Socrates’s treatment of Critobulus, Socrates explains that Critobulus’s infatuation with Cleinias started in their school days. He contends that, in those days, Critobulus must have kissed Cleinias.

“So insatiable a thing it is and so suggestive of mad fantasy. And for this reason held perhaps in higher honor, because of all external acts the close of lip with lip bears the same name as that of soul with soul in love. Wherefore, say I, let everyone who wishes to be a master of himself and sound of soul abstain from kisses imprinted on the lips.”


Socrates warns against kissing on the mouth as it can effect the soul, and Charmides teases Socrates about an incident from their youth, when Socrates’ and Critobulus’ faces were in close proximity while searching for something in a book. Socrates, recalling the discomfort he endured, demands that Critobulus keep his distance until he has grown a thick beard.

Callias then calls upon Charmides to share why he prides himself on poverty. Charmides describes how he lived with anxiety when he was wealthy, fearful of burglary and dreading the demands of the state, but appreciates his current state of poverty, being able to enjoy greater liberty and respect. This, he jokingly suggest, as the wealthy avoid him on the streets and the state supports him through taxation. Charmides further notes that his relationship with Socrates was criticized when he was wealthy, but now it is now of no concern.

Socrates then calls on Antisthenes to explain why, with so little to his name, he boasts of wealth. Antisthenes explains that wealth and poverty are not beheld in one’s possessions but in one’s soul instead. He notes how some wealthy individuals nonetheless feel poor and are willing to subject themselves to toil and danger to increase their material possessions, while others who live in poverty are content. Antisthenes condemns the behavior of rulers who are obsessed with wealth and commit atrocities in its pursuit, expressing the belief that their crimes stem from a deep sense of want. Antisthenes remarks on his modest lifestyle, explaining that he can satisfy his basic needs and live comfortably, and that he takes pride in his ability to find pleasure in simple things, having no desire for the excesses of wealth. He contends that his frugality makes him an upright person, as he doesn’t covet what belongs to others.

Antisthenes attributes the source of his wealth, which he describes as wealth of the soul, to Socrates. He explains that his lifestyle allows him to contemplate important matters and spend his time conversing intelligently with Socrates. He mentions that Socrates, who values the meaningfulness of the interaction above all, chooses his companions based on their character.

Callias interjects, expressing envy for Antisthenes’ independence and freedom from financial burdens imposed by the state, and Niceratus humorously suggests that he will borrow the “key to independence” from Antisthenes, mocking his own desire for wealth and riches.

Someone in the group prompts Hermogenes to reveal the identity of his friends. Hermogenes responds by clarifying that his friends are the gods and boast about their friendship, stating that they care for him and protect him by sending omens to guide his actions. He explains that he does not need to perform extravagant rituals or costly services for the gods; gratitude, respect and truthful use of their names suffices. Socrates acknowledges Hermogenes’ relationship with the gods, and, if it be such, the nobleness of his soul.

The guests now turn to the jester, who humorously states that he prides himself in making people laugh. When people are happy, they invite him to join in their joy, but regrets that when they face misfortune, they avoid him, fearing he might make them laugh against their will.

Charmenides asks the Syracusan what he prides himself on and he responds that he is proud of the foolish people who come to see his puppet show, as he makes a living off them; he thus prays to the gods for corn, wine and dim-wits.

Callias then asks Socrates what he is most proud of, mockingly calling for Socrates to justify his chosen profession, which is discredited. Socrates explains that a good go-between’s duties include making people more agreeable. He notes the importance of appearance, speech, and actions in making people more pleasing to others. Socrates suggests that Antisthenes is a skilled go-between who can make people completely pleasing to others, a true master of the art of the procurer. Antisthenes, at first, expresses annoyance, but Socrates points out that he has matched Callias with various wise men and facilitated their relationships, and refers to him as a first-rate matchmaker, praising his skill in bringing people together. Following this exchange, Antisthenes acknowledges the power of matchmaking, suggesting that it could lead to spiritual riches.

“In this fashion, the cycle of speeches was completed.”


CHAPTER 5: The Beauty Contest

Callias challenges Critobulus to enter a competition against Socrates, who claims to be the champion of beauty. Critobulus accepts the challenge and tells Socrates to prove that he is more handsome. Socrates, in his typical fashion, suggests that Critobulus should undergo a preliminary examination and answer his questions. Critobulus agrees.

Socrates questions whether beauty applies to human being or other objects as well, and Critobulus responds that well-constructed and functional objects are beautiful. Socrates asserts that his eyes are more beautiful than Critobulus’s because of their protruding shape, which allows for greater peripheral vision. Critobulus challenges Socrates on the noses, and Socrates says that his broad nose allows for better scent reception. They discuss the mouth’s role in biting and kissing, with Socrates claiming an advantage in kissing because of his thick lips. Socrates mentions the Sileni, mythical creatures more like him, as evidence of his beauty. Critobulus concedes defeat, and Socrates playfully attributes his loss to bribery.

The votes are then counted secretly, and Critobulus wins unanimously, to Socrates’ mock surprise.

CHAPTER 6: The Syracusan Confronts Socrates

The party members urge Critobulus to accept kisses as his prize for winning the beauty contest, as they jest about bribing their host.

Hermogenes remains silent while the others engage in conversation. Socrates engages Hermogenes by asking him to explain what a drunken brawl is, and he defines a drunken brawl as annoyance caused to people over wine. Socrates playfully says that Hermogenes is annoying them with his silence, and Callias joins the discussion saying that they are quiet when the flute is playing. Hermogenes sarcastically asks if he should talk to them accompanied by a flute. Socrates mockingly encourages Hermogenes to speak with the accompaniment of a flute and the appropriate gesticulation. Antisthenes says that if he were to cross-examine someone, the theme should be like a hissing serpent.

The Syracusan, feeling neglected, confronts Socrates, questioning his reputation as a thinker – stating that he splits his brain on matters above us, devoid of value and use. Socrates responds by clarifying and defending his interest in the gods, who are above and responsible for the happenings of the world. The Syracusan then teases Socrates about measuring distances by geometric scale, specifically in flea feet, and Antisthenes interceeds in Socrates’ defense, accusing the Syracusan entertainer of being a “man full of comparisons” and a bully looking to pick a fight.

Socrates warns them not draw comparisons at the Syracusan expense, least they should find themselves in the image of a brawler. After some banter at the Syracusan expense, against Socrates’ warning, Socrates concludes they ought to say nothing and let him remain as he is, simple.

CHAPTER 7: Interlude

The jester continued his mocking comparisons, against Socrates’ warning and advice, about the Syracusan. The guests who were unaware of the previous conversation urged the jester to continue, while the others attempted to dissuade him.

Socrates intervenes, recognizing the chaotic atmosphere, and suggests that, since everyone is eager to be heard at once, it would be a suitable time for them to sing a song together.

After the song, a potter’s wheel is brought in for the unnamed dancing girl to perform more wonders, but Socrates addresses the Syracusan entertainer expressing his concern about the potentially dangerous displays during the banquet. Instead of dangerous acts, he suggests, they could entertain the guests by dancing to flute music accompanied by pantomine, as the Graces, Hours and Nymphs are seen to do in artwork.

The Syracusan enthusiastically embraces the idea and promises to provide a performance that will delight everyone.

CHAPTER 8: Socrates Speaks on Love, Beauty and Virtue

The Syracusan leaves to organize his next performance, and Socrates takes the opportunity to address the remaining guests. He introduces the topic of love, which he calls a “mighty power” and compares to a divinity.

Socrates notes that everyone present is a devotee of love. He mentions Charmides, who has captured the hearts of many admirers, as well as Critobulus, who transitions from being the beloved to the lover. Niceratus is said to adore his wife, and Hermogenes is portrayed as the lover of an ideal, blending nobility and beauty. Antisthenes, known for his asocial nature, playfully declares his love for Socrates, which Socrates jokingly dismisses – “it is clearly an attachment not to my soul, but to my lovely person.”

Socrates goes on to discuss the love between Callias and Autolycus, pointing out the qualities of Autolycus that Callias admires, and praising Callias in kind. He distinguishes between the earthly and heavenly goddess Aphrodite, suggesting that Callias is under the influence of the heavenly, purer form of love that values the soul and noble deeds. Hermogenes praises Socrates for teaching Callias about the importance of love based on inner disposition, which leads to true excellence and friendship.

Socrates then accentuates the distinction between the love of the body, which may wane with time, and love of the soul, which can deepen and grow. According to him, the soul’s attachment is pure, knows no satiety, and gains loveliness as it progresses toward wisdom. He then presents a prayer to Love Divine, acknowledging its sweetness and its role in influencing human words and deeds. He discusses the mutual affection between a lover and their beloved, and how when one’s soul and character are in harmony with another’s, genuine love and attachment are formed. Genuine love, based on admiration for the beloved’s inner qualities, makes it impossible for one person to hate the other, he contends; mutual trust, selfless devotion, and unwavering affection are its characteristics. He observes that such love deepens and thrives over time and through life’s ups and downs.

Socrates affirms that true love leads to a holy friendship, where both parties delight in each other’s company, converse meaningfully and support one another. This relationship continues from youth to old age, with love growing stronger as health deteriorates. He criticizes love that depends solely on physical attraction, questioning why a person would love another who only fulfills their physical desires, and states that such love does not deserve love in return.

He then distinguishes between the lover who uses persuasion and the one who employs violence, affirming that the persuader is more corrupting because their influence on the beloved’s soul is more insidious; as the victim of persuasion yields to temptation, they may grow to resent the lover. He further notes that a lover who values physical beauty over the soul may generate contempt and scorn from their beloved, and criticizes relationships where one partner seeks pleasure while the other remains unimpassioned, by contrasting it with heterosexual relationships, in which both partners share in the joys of their union.

Love based on physical attraction, according to Socrates, is illiberal and selfish. He likens it to a beggar who seeks physical gratification, contrasting this with an educator who aims to improve the soul. Finally, he notes that love based on character enriches both parties, whereas body-centered love diminishes one’s character. He uses a farming metaphor to illustrate his point: the difference between love based on physical attraction (short lease) and love founded on character (a farmstead of one’s own). He suggests that the former is concerned with taking immediate pleasure, while the latter seeks to cultivate and enhance the beloved’s soul.

Socrates then discusses the transformative power of love on both the lover and the beloved, further accentuating the superiority of love based on the soul over physical attraction.

He contends that when someone knows their beauty is sufficient to captivate their lover, they might become careless and indulgent. However, if they understand that retaining their beloved’s affection depends on being genuinely good and beautiful in character, they will be more committed to virtue. He points out that a person who desires to shape their beloved into a good and true friend must also practice virtue, for it is illogical to expect someone to become virtuous through the influence of a lover who behaves wickedly.

Through myths, the stories of gods and heroes, Socrates supports his argument that love of the soul is more significant and beneficial than physical gratification. He cites the examples of Ganymede, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, and Theseus and Peirithous, to illustrate the power of soul-based love and mutual admiration. He observes that great and noble deeds are often accomplished by individuals who admire and respect one another’s character, not just their physical beauty, and provides examples of hero pairs who achieved fame through shared deeds.

Socrates criticizes Pausanias’ claim that an army of lovers and their beloved would be invincible due to their fear of one another’s judgment. He argues that such a view ignores the fact that lovers often engage in shameful behavior without feeling shame. He mentions that Thebans and Eleians allowed lovers and their beloved to stand side by side in battle formations, but he is weary of this practice, believing that it might indicate fear that lovers would not fight as bravely if separated from their beloved. Socrates contrasts this with the practices and beliefs of the Spartans, who value virtue and self-respect. The Spartans shape their beloved ones into virtuous individuals, ensuring that even if they fight alongside foreigners, they will not desert their friends. The goddess they worship is “Reverence”, he clarifies, not “Shamelessness”.

Socrates considers that true worth lies in inner qualities and virtues, rather than external beauty. He argues that when deciding to entrust someone with responsibilities, such as a sum of money, the care of one’s children, or the safekeeping of a favor, the qualities of the individual matter more than their external appearance, and that all would prefer someone with inner beauty to handle such important matters.

On that note, Socrates compliments Callias for his love of Autolycus, who has dedicated himself to physical excellence in the “pankration”, a strenuous sport, and comments on the honor Autolycus brings to himself and his father. He inquires if Autolycus might have a more profound motive for his pursuits, questioning whether Autolycus seeks not only to bring glory to himself and his father but also to benefit his friends and highten his homeland’s reputation. Socrates then turns to Callias, encouraging him to seek knowledge and wisdom, for embracing wisdom and virtue will make Callias more appealing not only to Autolycus but also to the city of Athens. He mentions Callias’ noble heritage and appearance, as well as his role as a priest, as qualities that could earn him favor with the state. Callias responds enthusiastically, and asks Socrates to be the go-between him and the state of Athens.

Apologetically, for speaking in such a serious tone, Socrates confesses his affection for individuals who are dedicated to virtue and nobility, who are cognizant of the importance of character development and demonstrate a true commitment to the pursuit of excellence.

“But if I seem to any of you to indulge a vein more serious than befits the wine-cup, marvel not. It has long been my wont to share our city’s passion for noble-natured souls, alert and emulous in the pursuit of virtue.”


CHAPTER 9: The Guests Retire

Socrates thus concluded his discourse on the importance of nobility and virtue over external beauty. Autolycus and his father, Lycon, prepare to leave the gathering, but before departing Lycon praises Socrates as a person deserving of the title “beautiful and good”.

A throne is set up in the inner room, and the Syracusan announces that a play is about to take place, featuring Ariadne and Dionysus, who shall enter the bridal chamber. Ariadne, dressed as a bride, takes her seat on the throne, and Dionysus, accompanied by music, makes his appearance. The audience admires the ballet-master for the vivid pleasure he has instilled in Ariadne’s performance. Dionysus and Ariadne share a passionate yet tender scene. The audience, captivated by their emotional display, says that the actors seem more like true lovers than actors playing a role. As Dionysus and Ariadne retire to the nuptial couch, the guests decide to leave as well. The unmarried ones express their intention to marry, while the married guests leave to join their spouses.

Socrates set off with Callias, Lycon and his son Autolycus for a walk, marking the end of the symposium in honor of Autolycus.

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