A Brief Overview of The Symposium by Plato

by WiseFool

What is Plato's The Symposium? And what was discussed during this good old fashioned drinking party?

The Classical Greek polymath Plato wrote The Symposium between 385 and 380 B.C. It's a philosophical dialogue, which examines the many-faceted nature of love.

In Ancient Greece, a symposium was literally a drinking party that included philosophical discussion (don't all good drinking parties?)

At this particular party, which takes place in the home of Agathon, the notion of love is discussed by seven men: Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades.

In turn, each participant must offer a encomium (a speech of praise) to Eros or love. It is understood that the actual symposium took place in 416 B.C., in celebration of Agathon’s victory in the Dionysia (a dramatic competition). Plato, who apparently heard about the dialogue fourth-hand, combines his own written narrative with the speeches made at the symposium.

What Did Phaedrus Say in The Symposium?

Phaedrus' Speech About Love

PhaedrusThis first speech is relatively short. Phaedrus begins his encomium by stating that Eros is the oldest of the gods.

He goes on to claim that love evokes bravery and honour in both men and women, because no one wants to be dishonoured or shamed in the sight of their loved one.

Phaedrus then speaks of those who are willing to die for their lovers, such as Alcestis who died for her husband Admetus.

Who Was Pausanias?

And What Were His Thoughts on Love?

Pausanias was a legal expert and he immediately takes Phaedrus to task on his interpretation of love.

Pausanias states that Phaedrus speaks of ‘Aphrodite Pandemos’, the object of this love could be a woman or a boy.

He believes that they should be focusing on ‘Aphrodite Urania’ (a heavenly love) the object of which can, according to Pausanias, only be a man.

He then delves into a discussion of the legality and morality of homosexuality, specifically discussing the pursuit of boys by older men.

Ultimately, he claims that the act of a young man giving himself to an older man in the quest for knowledge and wisdom is not in the least bit offensive to human decency.

Read the Whole of The Symposium
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Self-Loving Eryximachus’ Speech in The Symposium

Love is the Source of All Happiness

Eryixmachus from Plato's The SymposiumAt this point in the proceedings, Aristophanes is scheduled to speak, but has an attack of the hiccups and is replaced by Eryximachus, a physician.

He opens his encomium by citing that Eros (love) dominates music, astronomy and his own sphere of expertise, medicine.

Throughout his speech he makes references to the importance of his profession and has, therefore, been interpreted as something of a narcissist.

However, he goes on to profess the power of love and states that it is “…the source of all happiness.”(188d)

What Did Plato Himself Think About Love?

"Love is a Serious Mental Disease"
Plato Quote - Love is a serious mental disease - ThinkerShirtsTM Bo...

What Does Aristophanes Say About Love?

Now That He's Over His Hiccups...

What did Comic Playwright Aristophanes Think About Love?Newly recovered from his hiccups, Aristophanes, the most popular comic playwright of his time, begins, what he claims will be, an absurd speech.

He states that in primal times, all humans were double-bodied, but in an attempt to scale the heavens these primal beings angered Zeus, who punished them by splitting them in two.

According to Aristophanes, since that time, humans have always searched for the ‘other half’ of themselves.

Recent criticism, has suggested that Aristophanes’ eulogy is simply comic relief and that his creation myth is a satirical swipe at the many creation narratives of Greek Mythology.

Agathon’s Speech in The Symposium

What Does the Host of the Party Have to Say?

The symposium’s host, Agathon, criticizes his fellow speakers for not paying enough respect to the god of love, Eros. Unlike Phaedrus, Agathon believes that love is the youngest of the gods and surrounds himself with youth and beauty.

In fact, he goes as far as to say that love is the enemy of old age.

What Does Socrates Say in The Symposium?

In Praise of Love for Knowledge

SocratesSocrates, the oldest member of the group, naturally takes issue with Agathon’s eulogy and proceeds to refute his suggestions with a clever line of questioning.

Socrates goes on to discuss the purpose and genealogy of love with the help of quotes from Diotima of Mantinea.

As well as the love between two people, Socrates speaks of a love of wisdom, yearning for knowledge and philosophy, which, he believes, leads us to procreate in the never-ending quest for immortality.

Alcibiades’ View of Love

Someone's got a Crush on Socrates

Alcibiades Being Taught by SocratesAlcibiades begins his encomium by teasing the previous speaker. He compares Socrates to a statue of Silenus and Marsyas the satyr.

Then, Alcibiades speaks of his infatuation with the older man, claiming that Socrates did not wish to pursue him, so he turned the tables “…as if I were the lover and he my young prey!”(217c)

During his speech, Alcibiades also pays great honours to Socrates, citing his bravery in battle, fearlessness and virtue. He concludes by warning that it is all too easy to fall in love with Socrates.

How Does The Symposium Close?

And What Relevance Does it Hold Today?

The symposium is brought to an end when a large group of drunken men arrives. At this point, many of the men retire, but Socrates remains. Eventually, he leaves and goes to the Lyceum. Apparently, Socrates remained awake all night and all day not sleeping until the following evening.

Today, The Symposium is often used as a historical tool, as it contains invaluable documentation of the social constructs of Ancient Greece, including attitudes towards love and sex.

In addition, it offers a fascinating insight into the nature of symposiums themselves.

Updated: 07/01/2014, WiseFool
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WiseFool on 07/08/2014

Hello, Kari. Thanks for stopping by. I think love and relationships (and the nature of them), will always be relevant, because like many of the issues covered in philosophy and great literature, it's universal and timeless. The Symposium is interesting for many reasons, and, of course, history and culture are big ones. You're right, it's a shame they're not covered more in classes on the text.

Kari on 07/07/2014

I first heard of The Symposium when someone told me that Aristophanes's speech was the basis for the song The Origin of Love in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When I had a chance to do so, I read The Symposium and did a report on it in Philosophy 101. I agree with you as to its uses, and I wish that the social constructs and historical ideals in it were covered in more classes, seeing as they are still somewhat relevant in modern society.

Guest on 07/01/2014

Oh, he's probably rehashing the Symposium with Aristotle and Alcibiades, without a doubt. I had some real characters as lecturers, genuinely polite men with endless patience for us students. Not all of today's lecturers are so good, although I've worked with those from both sides. Oddly enough, the engineers and medics so far seem to be better than the fine arts staff. Strange, given my own degree is in Classics.

WiseFool on 07/01/2014

Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a great chap! Such a shame he didn't get to enjoy a much deserved (and what I'm sure would have been very productive) retirement. Wonder what kind of discussions he's been having with Plato...

Guest on 07/01/2014

Philosophy lectures as they should be, small intimate gatherings based on the Symposium, WiseFool. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-ent... is the obit of my lecturer, Professor Saunders. Wonderful fellow, left us far too early and should have by rights enjoyed a long and relaxing retirement with his films and steam trains.

WiseFool on 07/01/2014

Thanks, Kathleen. Very glad you enjoyed it.

Oh, WordChazer, good memories indeed! Sounds wonderful. If we get our own personalised versions of heaven, mine will be very close to your philosophy 'lectures'.

Guest on 07/01/2014

Plato. Happy memories of university Philosophy seminars. Can't call them 'lectures' because they were cosy gatherings held in the Head of Department's amazing office, a place lined with books and holding surprises such as hidden drawers from which he would produce all manner of goodies to offer his students.

KathleenDuffy on 07/01/2014

Love this article! Profound ideas presented in a way I could understand, and with humour.

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