With the early Greek poets, it was mentioned that Greek men would gather together at parties, known as symposia (symposium in the singular, literally “drinking-together”) to drink, hear music and discuss politics, philosophy, and the shortcomings of those not present. Much of Attic pottery displays images of symposia, likely because much of Attic pottery was used at symposia. Men would gather separately, as it was considered obscene for men and women to eat or drink in mixed company. Reclining on Egyptian styled cushioned couches in the men’s quarters of rich households, philosophers such as Socrates and Plato would discuss ideas with their fellow aristocrats. Today, many an academic conference is also called a symposium. It is still a discordant gathering of disagreements and rambling, but there is slightly less drinking involved.
Plato’s Symposium is a dialogue between Socrates and others about the nature of love at a party hosted by the poet Agathon in 416 BCE after he won a theatrical contest. It is largely a series of speeches of each of the party attendees praising passionate love, identified with the god Eros, the root of our word ‘erotic’. The love felt between family and friends was known as philia, half of the word philosophy, philanthropy, Philadelphia, as well as various ‘philias’ and ‘philes’ such as anglophile, bibliophile, and, important for our text, pedophile. Often, for entertainment, guests would take turns talking about a subject of interest.
The guests of Agathon’s party are hungover from the night before, and decide they will go light on the wine and send the flute-girl away so they can discuss the topic of passion. In ancient Greece, “flute-girls” who entertained at symposia were often also “prostitutes”, and playing the flute was seen as an erotic act for reasons I will not explain here. Thus begin six speeches, Socrates giving the last and most popular, which I gave you in your reader.
Phaedrus (who also appears in Plato’s dialogue of the same name) begins by praising the god Eros, who inspires us to care for others, be courageous and virtuous, and even sacrifice ourselves for those we love. While many are familiar with the root ‘Eros’ found in erotic, we are also more familiar with the Roman name for Eros, Cupid, who strikes those who fall in love with arrows from his bow.
Pausanias, a legal expert, argues that sexual lust is different from genuine passion, which cares about the long term well-being of the beloved. Strangely, after using the goddess Aphrodite’s two common and cosmic forms as a metaphor for the difference between lust and genuine love, Pausanias states that it is only men who are capable of genuine love that is beyond lust, and that it can only truly be shared between males. Apparently Sappho didn’t know what she was talking about. Pausanias says that homosexual relations between younger and older men are considered disgraceful in Ionia, but this is likely because they are ruled by tyrants and so do not know much of love, sports, or philosophy. This is odd, given that Anaxagoras fled back to Ionia after being charged with impiety in Athens, and that Socrates, who gives the best and final speech, will be killed for practicing philosophy as the audience of this play would certainly have known.
Eryximachus next identifies love with harmony, crucial to music, medicine and science. Taking up Pausanias’ distinction between lust (lower desire) and love (genuine concern), he speaks of love as a cosmic force, similar to Pythagoras’ harmony of the spheres and in accord with the ancient teleological conception of the cosmos. Eryximachus continuously reminds everyone that, as a doctor, he knows how crucial harmony is for the proper functioning of a healthy body and a balanced universe.
Aristophanes, the aforementioned playwright, had to skip his turn and let Eryximachus speak first due to hiccups. He now tells a myth that, as mentioned a few weeks ago, is quite in line with Empedocles’ cosmological speculation that originally proto-humans lived as pairs, and so genuine love is a longing for return to completion. Aristophanes says that when these dual beings wanted to move quickly, they could stick out all their arms and legs and turn cartwheels like a gymnast. They were circular, like the sun, moon and earth, and the male pairs were born of the sun, female pairs born of the earth, and androgynous male/female pairs born of the moon, which is part sun and part earth.
When these beings tried to cartwheel up into the heavens to threaten the gods, Zeus had the wisdom to split them in two rather than obliterate them with thunderbolts, and from these pairs comes homosexual and heterosexual people. Homosexual men are the bravest and most virtuous people (our solar betters), and heterosexual people are notoriously unfaithful to each other. Finally, Aristophanes warns that we must love each other and fear the gods, or the gods may decide to split us in half again. It is not clear how serious or drunk Aristophanes is, whether he is mocking earlier mythology or putting forward his own Empedoclesian views. As a playwright, he is comfortable with the medium of fiction.
Agathon, the poet who is putting on the party, says that the previous speeches do not honor the god Eros enough. He says that Eros is the most youthful, beautiful and virtuous of the gods, which is why he inspires the best in people. It sounds as if Agathon wants to physically love Love itself. At several points he mocks Socrates, who will speak next, as the opposite of Eros, the oldest and ugliest guest at his party.
Socrates, the sixth and final speaker, begins by praising but then questioning Agathon, getting him to contradict much of his earlier speech. Because love is the desire for beauty, and because one does not desire what one already has, love cannot be beautiful. Because good things are themselves beautiful, and love is not beautiful, love cannot be good. Socrates says that he used to believe that love was beautiful and good, but then Diotima, the shaman priestess, taught him that love is neither good nor bad, between the two, born out of both abundance and poverty together. Love is both lacking and capable, and can spin lies as well as reveal the truth. As Love loves the beautiful, and wisdom is extremely beautiful, Love is a philosopher, like Socrates, both wise and ignorant. Note that Socrates knows that he does not know, knows that he is ignorant, and that the philosopher, like Socrates, can only desire additional wisdom if he is somewhat ignorant and not entirely wise.
Socrates explains that before he heard Diotima, he saw love as the previous speakers did, as the loved rather than the lover. In ancient Greece, the beloved younger male was desired for beauty, and the older male was not desired for beauty but taught wisdom and experience. Some believed the transfer of wisdom to be physical, and again I will not explain this here. Notice, however, that Socrates, as a philosopher, is like love itself, older and unattractive but desired for his wisdom. Both Plato and Socrates value the mental over the physical, valuing wisdom over sex, similar to Pausanias who placed genuine love above lust. Wisdom is the highest form of love, a love of and union with the cosmos itself.
Diotima taught Socrates that human beings are all pregnant (surprise!) with the desire to procreate both mentally and physically. Mortal humans want to be immortal, and they attempt to do this by creating offspring with their bodies as well as ideas with their minds which live beyond them. Diotima taught that love is a mystery, something we rise into beyond what we know in its lower forms. At first we love physical beauty, and because we desire people and things we find beautiful we are inspired to create beautiful ideas. If the lover, which increasingly becomes the philosopher, comes to value wisdom, beauty and virtue above particular attractive people and things. The genuine philosopher is inspired by love to improve all people, not have sex with the young men they find attractive. This is similar to Confucius, who says that people are far too preoccupied with sex and that wise, great people give to others what they desire for themselves and improve others in order to improve themselves.
This is the origin of the term platonic love (as well as platonic friendship) which the Neoplatonic philosopher Ficino coined after studying Plato’s Symposium in Florence during the Renaissance. While Plato was using the term to refer to nonsexual relationships between older and younger men, today the term is used for nonsexual friendships between men and women, known by some men on the internet as being “friend-zoned”. According to Plato, according to Socrates, according to Diotima, the philosopher seeks the eternal unchanging nature of things, the source of all that is beautiful and good. The philosopher is something between immortal god and mortal human, something like a spirit, such as Socrates’ daimon.
Socrates explains the nature of love, but love is ambiguous, mysterious and on both sides of various oppositions, evading our judgements of it. Socrates does not put forward a positive position as much as relativise the praise of all the earlier speakers, showing that something of what they say is true, but only to a certain extent. This fits with the presentation of Socrates in the Apology, as a talented debater who can show others that they do not know what they presume to know. Each speaker presumed that love was an excellent and praiseworthy thing, all presenting very similar views, and Socrates contradicts them all while gaining their admiration.
Suddenly, there is a crash at the door, and in drunkenly stumbles the perfect proof that love is not always a good thing. Alcibiades, drunk and nearly naked, literally crashes the party after attending another symposium elsewhere. He stumbles to Agathon’s couch to crown him with a wreath in honor of his victory, but is horrified to find Socrates sitting next to Agathon. Alcibiades says that Socrates is, as always, sitting next to the most handsome man in the room, and Socrates asks Agathon to protect him from Alcibiades. Socrates and Alcibiades accuse each other of being foolish and jealous. When asked if he wishes to offer a speech honoring love, Alcibiades says that Socrates would be jealous if he praised anyone other than Socrates himself, which he then offers mockingly to do.
Alcibiades says that Socrates is like an ugly statue full of gold, and like a satyr who charms and casts spells on people with his flute. Socrates, unlike the satyr, does not charm with his flute, but with his ideas and words, which have shown Alcibiades that his rich lifestyle was no different than slavery. He wanted Socrates to want him alone, but Socrates made no sexual advances. Alcibiades, the most attractive young man of Athens, found himself pursuing Socrates as if Socrates was the attractive youth, and Socrates’ continuing rejection made him even more attractive, the only one in Athens worthy of Alcibiades’ affections. He goes on to praise Socrates as the most courageous, unique and wise man who has ever existed, and warns everyone not to fall in love with Socrates, for he will never be yours alone.
Alcibiades has, of course, in what many consider to be the most brilliant scene of Plato’s dramatic career, proven Socrates to be correct about love. At first, Alcibiades says that Socrates is jealous, but in the end he has revealed that it is he who desires Socrates, not Socrates who desires him, just as it is wisdom of the mind that should be truly prized over the beauty of the body. It turns out that the most attractive thing in all of Athens is not the body of Alcibiades, but the mind of Socrates. Even Alcibiades, who is clearly ignorant of his own desires as well as those of others, sees Socrates’ true worth in spite of this. Just as Socrates is not completely wise, and is wise enough to know this, Alcibiades is not completely ignorant, even though he is quite ignorant of his own condition. This is similar to the Meno, where Socrates argues that we do know what we are ignorant of, such that we do recognize it when we see it no matter how ignorant we are.