Plato’s “Symposium,” composed around 385 BCE, is a captivating exploration of the nature of Love (Eros) through a series of speeches at an Athenian banquet.
This philosophical dialogue, although fictional, is grounded in historical elements and features Socrates in a pivotal role. Plato, a towering figure in Western philosophy, has crafted in the “Symposium” not only a discussion about Eros but also a subtle critique of Socratic philosophy.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Apollodorus, a dedicated follower of Socrates. As he walks with a friend, Apollodorus recounts a conversation about a dinner party that occurred over a decade earlier. He wasn’t present at the party himself, but hears about it from Aristodemus, another disciple of Socrates, who was an eyewitness.
An Invitation to Wisdom: The Symposium Begins
Aristodemus recalls meeting Socrates and being invited to a symposium at the house of Agathon, a noted tragic poet.
The symposium, a traditional Greek ritual banquet, includes not only food and wine but also hymns and libations to the gods. Eryximachus, a physician attending the event, suggests a novel idea: each guest should deliver a speech in praise of the god of Love, Eros.
Diverse Perspectives on Love
Pausanias, Agathon’s older lover, draws a distinction between Common and Heavenly love, emphasizing the latter’s focus on intelligence and virtue in relationships between older and younger men.
Eryximachus then shares his insights on love, drawing from his medical practice. He discusses the role of love in balancing bodily humors, harmonizing music, affecting weather patterns, and influencing the divine-human relationship.
Aristophanes, a comic playwright, presents a captivating myth. He speaks of original humans as dual beings, split by Zeus, who then long for their other halves. This longing, he argues, is the essence of love – a search for what resembles oneself.
Agathon delivers a rhetorically ornate speech, praising Love as a god of beauty and goodness, although his argument lacks substantive depth.
Socrates and the Philosophy of Love
The dialogue takes a profound turn with Socrates, who challenges Agathon’s views with incisive questions, leading to the idea that Love desires what it lacks. Socrates then recounts a discussion with Diotima of Mantinea, a wise woman who portrays Love not as a god, but as a daimon, an intermediary entity.
She argues that love is the eternal pursuit of the good and beautiful.
Diotima introduces the concept of immortality through love, suggesting that true immortality is achieved not just through biological offspring but through the creation of virtues and philosophical ideas.
She describes a “ladder of ascent,” a path for the soul to progress from physical attraction to an appreciation of universal beauty, culminating in the philosopher’s understanding of the eternal Good.
Alcibiades’s Unexpected Arrival
The narrative takes an unexpected turn with the drunken entrance of Alcibiades, a handsome politician and lover of Socrates.
Contrary to the evening’s theme, Alcibiades chooses to praise Socrates, highlighting his moderation, sexual restraint, and philosophical depth. Despite being attracted to Socrates, Alcibiades admits his inability to emulate Socrates’s enigmatic lifestyle.
The Symposium’s Conclusion
The symposium eventually descends into disarray. Socrates continues his discussions with Agathon and Aristophanes before departing alone the next morning, marking the end of an evening filled with diverse and profound contemplations on the nature of love and philosophy.
1. The Multifaceted Nature of Love (Eros)
Plato’s “Symposium” delves deeply into the concept of love, unveiling its complexity and multifaceted nature.
The dialogue traverses various interpretations of Eros, ranging from Phaedrus’s view of love as a courageous and virtuous force in relationships, especially those between men, to Pausanias’s distinction between Common and Heavenly love, emphasizing a more intellectual and virtuous love in relationships.
Eryximachus extends the concept of love to the realms of medicine and nature, suggesting its presence in the balance of bodily humors and the harmony of the universe.
Aristophanes offers a mythical perspective, portraying love as a quest for wholeness and unity, a fundamental human longing for our other half.
This diversity of viewpoints highlights love’s multifarious roles in human life, from a force of virtue and courage to a fundamental, unifying principle of human existence.
2. The Pursuit of Beauty and Wisdom
Central to the dialogue is the philosophical examination of love’s role in the pursuit of beauty and wisdom.
Socrates, through his recounting of Diotima’s teachings, elevates the conversation to a metaphysical level. Love is depicted not as an end in itself but as a means to ascend a “ladder of ascent,” leading from the physical attraction to a deeper appreciation of the beauty and goodness in all things.
This philosophical journey culminates in the recognition of the eternal form of Beauty, transcending the transient and particular.
In this context, love becomes a driving force in the soul’s quest for truth and wisdom, guiding one from the love of a single beautiful body to the love of all beauty, and eventually to the love of wisdom itself.
3. The Role of Eros in Human Creativity and Immortality
The Symposium also explores the idea of love as a creative and generative force, central to the human quest for immortality.
Diotima introduces the concept of immortality through not just biological procreation but also through the birth of virtues, ideas, and philosophical discourse.
This perspective elevates the role of love from mere physical or emotional attraction to a crucial element in the human desire to create and leave a lasting legacy.
The dialogue suggests that through love, individuals strive for a form of immortality, be it through offspring or through lasting intellectual and moral contributions to society.
This theme underscores the idea that love is intrinsically connected to the human aspiration for meaning, continuity, and legacy beyond one’s physical existence.
Plato’s “Symposium” is not just a discourse on the many facets of love but also a profound exploration of human desire, ethics, and the pursuit of knowledge and beauty.
The multi-dimensional dialogue, traversing from the physical to the metaphysical, offers insights into the nature of human relationships and the philosophical quest for understanding the good and the beautiful.
It stands as a testament to Plato’s skill in weaving complex ideas into engaging narratives, making it a cornerstone in the study of Western philosophy and literature.