Symposium (Plato)

Symposium (Plato)

The "Symposium" is a philosophical dialogue written by Plato sometime after 385 BC. It is a discussion on the nature of love, taking the form of a group of speeches, both satirical and serious, given by a group of men at a "symposium" or a wine drinking gathering at the house of the tragedian Agathon at Athens.

The Symposium was presumably written around the same time as Plato's "Republic" and "Phaedrus"; with those two texts, it is often considered one of Plato's literary high points. Plato takes great care to make the setting realistic and the historical context credible. Although this may be far from its original purpose, the dialogue has been used as a source by historians exploring Athenian social history (particularly the symposium as an institution) and sexual behaviour.

The seven participants are:
*Phaedrus (speech begins 178a): [References to the text of the "Symposium" are given in Stephanus pagination, the standard reference system for Plato. This numbering system will be found in the margin of nearly all editions and translations.] also familiar from "Phaedrus" and other dialogues, his approach here is literary
*Pausanias (speech begins 180c): the legal expert
*Eryximachus (speech begins 186a): a typical physician
*Aristophanes (speech begins 189c): the famous comic poet seems at first to be played for laughs, but his creation myth for the three genders (gay male, lesbian, and heterosexual) is both wonderful and serious
*Agathon (speech begins 195a): a self-consciously poetic approach, which is gently mocked [Rebecca Stanton notes a deliberate blurring of genre boundaries here ("Aristophanes gives a tragic speech, Agathon a comic/parodic one") and that Socrates later urges a similar coalescence: [ ] .] by Socrates
*Socrates (speech begins 201d): familiar to us as Plato's teacher, in this dialogue he retells religious teachings which he attributes to the priestess or wise woman Diotima of Mantinea
*Alcibiades (speech begins 214e): reminiscences of his own encounters, amorous or not, with Socrates

The frame narrative

Fifteen years ago the poet Agathon hosted a symposium to celebrate victory in his first dramatic competition, the Dionysia of 416 BCE. A discussion on the theme of love took place at this symposium, a discussion which has since become famous. Aristodemus, who was present, reported the conversation to Phoenix and Apollodorus. Phoenix told it to another, unnamed person; meanwhile Apollodorus checked it with Socrates, who was present. The unnamed person has told it to Glaucon (Plato's brother, an interlocutor in the "Republic"), but has given him an unreliable version and has left him uncertain how long ago the discussion took place. Glaucon has now obtained a better version from Apollodorus, who is thus primed to tell the story again to a friend. From this point on, he will be quoting Aristodemus (172a-174a). The dramatic date of the frame conversation, in which Apollodorus speaks to his unnamed friend, must be between 401 BCE (fifteen years after Agathon won his prize) and the time when Socrates was tried and executed in 399 BCE.

At one level, since this is among the earliest written examples of the genre of philosophical dialogue, Plato appears to use the frame narrative to persuade the reader of the authenticity of what follows. He tries hard to achieve verisimilitude -- and it hardly works unless people in Athens really did transmit such discussions and took the trouble to search out alternative versions. These opening pages of the "Symposium" are the best description in any ancient Greek source of the ramifications of an oral tradition. [Harv|Dalby|2006|page=19-24.]

At another level, authenticity seems to be the last thing Plato wants. He has set up a multitude of layers between the original symposium and his written narrative: he heard it fourth-hand (if he is Apollodorus's friend), so it comes to us fifth-hand. In addition, the story Socrates narrates was told to Socrates by Diotima, creating one more layer between the reader and the philosophic path that Socrates traces. No reader can easily judge how much of the text to attribute to Plato, how much to the oral tradition of the symposium, how much to Socrates and his fellow-celebrants, how much to Diotima.

What happens at the symposium

According to Apollodorus, Aristodemus bumps into Socrates one day and is surprised to see him freshly bathed and wearing sandals. Socrates missed the first day of partying at Agathon's house, but is on his way there now and persuades Aristodemus to join him, though uninvited. On the way, however, Socrates falls into some kind of trance, and Aristodemus finds himself entering alone. Socrates finally appears when dinner is half over. His irony is directed at Agathon from the beginning, with a remark about how the poet's wisdom shone out as he gained his poetry prize in front of an audience of 30,000 Greeks (175e). Dinner being finished, the symposium proper begins with libations, a hymn and other religious ritual. Pausanias raises the question of how the drinking and entertainment are to be conducted. [It seems that this was not for the host to decide; Agathon does not even contribute to the conversation at this point.] Eryximachus the doctor (already showing skill at stating the obvious) advises that drunkenness is bad for people, especially those suffering a hangover from the previous night (176d). He recalls reading "a book by a learned man" that sang the praises of salt; since he has read no such praise of Eros (the word means both "love" and "the god of love"), he recommends that they send away the aulos player and entertain themselves by speaking in turn on this set topic (176a-177c). Socrates supports him, and invites Phaedrus to speak first.

Six relatively formal speeches follow (each representing an intellectual discipline) interspersed by discussion; then a seventh unplanned speech by Alcibiades. Thus the "Symposium" becomes a dramatized example of a time-honoured motif, seven wise men at dinner.


Phaedrus opens by citing Hesiod, Acusilaus and Parmenides for the claim that Eros is the oldest of the gods, with no parents. [He ignores the alternative view, already widespread, that Eros was the child of Aphrodite. Thus, throughout, Phaedrus selects versions and interpretations of myth to suit his argument.] Hence the greatness of the benefits he confers, inspiring a lover to earn the admiration of his beloved, as by showing bravery on the battlefield, since nothing shames a man more than to be seen by his beloved committing some inglorious act (178d-179b). "A handful of such men, fighting side by side, would defeat practically the whole world." [Translation by W. Hamilton.] Lovers may even sacrifice their lives for the beloved: Alcestis was willing to die for her husband Admetus, and the gods rewarded her by allowing her to return from Hades. By contrast, Orpheus made no such sacrifice; he went alive to Hades to find Eurydice, and returned empty-handed. But Achilles fought bravely at the death of his lover Patroclus though he knew that the fight would bring his own death closer; Phaedrus here takes Aeschylus to task for making Achilles the "lover" (180a), claiming instead that Achilles was the beautiful, still-beardless, younger "beloved" of Patroclus and citing Homer in his support. [Yet the "Iliad" says that they were about the same age ("Iliad" 23.102) and it is evident that both had been fighting at Troy for ten years by this time. No one objects to Phaedrus's wild claim.]

Phaedrus concludes his short speech in proper rhetorical fashion, reiterating his statements that love is one of the most ancient gods, the most honored, and the most powerful in helping men gain honor and blessedness.


Pausanias, the legal expert of the group, begins by taking Phaedrus up on his chosen examples (180c), asserting that the love that deserves attention is not the kind associated with "Aphrodite Pandemos" (Aphrodite common to the whole city) whose object may equally be a woman or a boy, but that of "Aphrodite Urania" (Heavenly Aphrodite), which "springs entirely from the male" and is "free from wantonness"; [Translation by W. Hamilton.] the object of this kind of love is not a child, but one who has begun to display intelligence and is close to growing a beard (181e). Pausanias claims that Elis and Boeotia are inarticulate regions that have nothing to say against pedophilia (182a-b); Ionia and other regions think it is disgraceful (182b-c), but they live under despots and think no more of philosophy and sport than they do of love. Pausanias then launches into a confusing discussion of Athenian law regarding pederasty. He says that Athens' code is not easy to understand, but claims that it cheers on the lover, so long as he does not pursue the boy in secret and does not rush him into it. He says you would never know that the law explicitly approves the lover's conduct by the way fathers behave when they get wind of the fact that some older man is sniffing around his son, or by the way the boy's playmates tease him about having a lover. He adds that these contradictions are easily explained (183d).

Pausanias says that Athenian law makes a firm distinction between the lover who should be encouraged by the boy and the lover who should be discouraged. He says that when a boy surrenders to sex out of hope for money, political favors, or in a cowering fear that he will suffer abuse (a beating?) from the lover, his surrender is contemptible (184b). Only when the boy is hoping to become wise and virtuous is his surrender to the older man not offensive to human decency. Pausanias thinks that the law addresses itself to children and their "motives" for surrendering to adults. He says that a boy who is duped is no fool, but has shown himself to be one "who will do anything for the sake of virtue" (184e-185b).


Eryximachus ends up speaking instead of Aristophanes, who does not recover from his hiccups soon enough to take his place in the sequence. Eryximachus claims that love "governs" medicine, gymnastics and astronomy (187a), and states that its principle "regulates" hot and cold and wet and dry and that this results in health (188a).


Aristophanes was the greatest comic poet of Athens, a brilliant and beloved playwright who ruled the comic stage in the late fifth and early fourth century BCE. He had rivals, but none of their plays have survived. The fact that Plato places him in this group is one of the most curious things about the "Symposium", since Aristophanes ridiculed Agathon, the host of the party, in his play "Thesmophoriazusae", and also made fun of Socrates. "The Clouds", staged c. 423 BCE, presents Socrates as a cult master and director of a ridiculous "phrontisterion" ("thinking-shop") wherein one learns "immoral logic". Aristophanes mentions Socrates disparagingly in at least two other plays as well; the antagonism, according to some interpretations, was not benign.

Not only did Aristophanes have nothing good to say about Socrates, Socrates has nothing good to say about Aristophanes. In Plato's "Apology of Socrates" he specifically blames Aristophanes for starting the slander that led to his death ("Apology" 18-19). In what seems to be a complex literary "tit-for-tat," Plato in the "Republic" depicts Socrates outlawing such people as Aristophanes who write things that cause people to injure themselves by laughing. ["Republic" 3.388e. Socrates would also forbid actors to imitate drunks who revile and lampoon each other ("Republic" 3.396).]

Before launching his speech, Aristophanes warns the group that his eulogy to love may be more absurd than funny. His speech is an explanation of why people in love say they feel "whole" when they have found their love partner. It is, he says, because in primal times people were globular spheres who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels (190a). There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the "androgynous," who was half man, half woman. The creatures tried to scale the heights of heaven and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about just blasting them to death with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half.

After chopping the people in half, Zeus turned half their faces around and pulled the skin tight and stitched it up to form the belly button. Ever since that time, people run around saying they are looking for their other half because they are really trying to recover their primal nature. He says some people think homosexuals are shameless, but he thinks they are the bravest, most manly of all (192a), and that heterosexuals are mostly adulterous men and unfaithful wives (191e).

Aristophanes ends on a cautionary note. He says that men should fear the gods, and not neglect to worship them, lest they wield the axe again and we have to go about with our noses split apart (193a).


Agathon complains that the previous speakers have made the mistake of congratulating mankind on the blessing of love, that they have failed to give due praise to the god himself (194e). He says that love is the youngest of gods and is an enemy of old age (195b). He says that the god of love shuns the very sight of senility and clings to youth. Agathon says love is dainty, and likes to tiptoe through the flowers and never settles where there is no "bud to bloom" (196b). It would seem that none of the characters at the party, with the possible exception of Agathon himself, would be candidates for love's companionship. Socrates, probably the oldest member of the party, seems certain to be ruled out. He also implies that love creates justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom. These are the cardinal values within ancient Greece and Agathon's purpose here is most likely to add significance to his view on love.


Socrates begins his speech by complaining that Agathon's speech was at first nothing special, but that he soon launched into a poetic flight that caught him spellbound. Before beginning his own talk, Socrates grills Agathon with a bit of his dialectic. He asks him such penetrating questions as "Is love of somebody or nobody?" (199d).

Socrates says that he learned his love-lessons from the oracle Diotima (lit. "honored by god") from Mantinea, who was deeply versed in the deep truths about love, and besides this, through her magic, brought about a postponement of the plague in Athens for ten years (201d). She gives Socrates a genealogy of love, that he is the son of "resource and need." In her view, love is not delicate and lovely, as Agathon just averred, but beggarly and harsh. He sleeps in doorways, and is a master of artifice and deception (203d). The beloved boy is delicate, she says, but the old lover looking for the boy is poor but resourceful and manipulative (204c).

Diotima's most important thesis about love is that it is really a longing for immortality (207a,b). The instinct to breed that you observe in animals and men who are attracted to women is an expression of this. In full professorial style (208c) she said that every one of us longs for endless fame, but that wise people know the difference between bodily and spiritual procreancy (209a). Socrates learns from a woman, then, that it is far better for men and boys to give birth to ideas than for men and women to give birth to children. Physical love is second to non-physical love, because the goal of non-physical love is to give birth to ideas.

Socrates uses a ladder metaphor to express the steps taken in the pursuit for real love. First, one has a physical attraction to one body and then multiple bodies, but then he comes to realize that the real love is in the intellectual realm because while the body decays over time, the mind never perishes. Ultimate love is true virtue says Socrates.

Socrates takes his seat amid applause from everyone except Aristophanes, who wants to comment on a critical statement made by Socrates, but is interrupted by Alcibiades' startling arrival, together with his "komastic" crowd.


Like Agathon and Aristophanes, Alcibiades is a real historical character from ancient Athens. By his own confession, he is as handsome as handsome gets, but according to historical records, he was once exiled from Athens as a traitor.

Finding himself seated on a couch with Socrates and Agathon, Alcibiades exclaims that Socrates, again, has managed to sit next to the most handsome man in the room, Agathon; that he is always doing such things (213c). Socrates asks Agathon to protect him from the jealous rage of Alcibiades, asking Alcibiades to forgive him (213d). Alcibiades says he will never do such a thing (213e). Wondering why everyone seems sober, Alcibiades is informed of the night's agreement (213e, c); after saying his drunken ramblings should not be placed next to the sober orations of the rest, and that he hopes no one believed a word Socrates said, it is decided that Alcibiades will offer an encomium to Socrates (214c-e).

Alcibiades begins by comparing Socrates to a statue of Silenus; the statue is ugly and hollow, and inside is full of tiny golden statues of the gods (215a-b). He then compares Socrates to the satyr [Satyrs were often portrayed with the sexual appetite, manners, and features of wild beasts, and often with a large erection.] Marsyas; Socrates, however, needs no flute to "cast his spells" upon people as Marsyas did -- he needs only his words (215b-d).

Alcibiades states that when he hears Socrates speak, he is beside himself; the words of Socrates are the only words that have ever upset him so deeply that his soul started to protest that his own aristocratic life was no better than a slave's (215e). Socrates is the only man who has ever made Alcibiades feel shame (216b). Yet all this is the least of it (216c)- he is crazy about beautiful boys, following them around in a daze (216d). Most people, he continues, don't know what Socrates is like on the inside:

:"But once I caught him when he was open like Silenus' statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike -- so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing -- that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me."::"Symposium" 216e-217a.

Alcibiades thought at the time that what Socrates really wanted was "him", and by letting Socrates have his way with him, he would teach Alcibiades everything he knew (217a). Yet Socrates made no moves, and Alcibiades began to pursue Socrates "as if "I" were the lover and he my young prey!" (217c). When Socrates continually rebuffs this pursuit, Alcibiades explains to Socrates that he is the only worthy lover he has ever had; that nothing is more important to him than becoming the best man he can be, and Socrates is better fit to help him reach that aim than anyone else (219c-d). Socrates responds that if he does have this power to make Alcibiades a better man inside of him, why would he exchange his true beauty for the image of beauty that Alcibiades would provide, and furthermore, Alcibiades may be wrong, and Socrates may be of no use to him (218e-219a). He then slipped under Socrates' cloak and spent the night beside him; yet, to the deep humiliation of Alcibiades, Socrates made no sexual attempt (219b-d).

He goes on to detail the virtue of Socrates, his valor in battle being incomparable, unaffected by cold or fear, even on one occasion saving Alcibiades' life and then refusing to accept honors for it (219e-221c). Socrates, he concludes, is unique in his ideas and accomplishments, unrivaled by any man from the past or present (221c); but be warned: Socrates may present himself as your lover, but before you know it you will have fallen in love with him.

The conclusion

Despite this speech, Agathon then lies down next to Socrates, much to the chagrin of Alcibiades. The symposium dissolves as a large drunken group shows up and comes in, with many characters leaving; Socrates, however, stays awake till dawn. As Aristodemus awakes and leaves the house Socrates is proclaiming to Agathon and Aristophanes that a skillful playwright should be able to write comedy as well as tragedy (223d). When Agathon and Aristophanes fall asleep, Socrates leaves, walks to the Lyceum to wash, and spends the rest of the day as he always did, not sleeping until that evening (223d).


In the constant interplay between lover and beloved, and especially in the role reversal executed by Alcibiades in his pursuit of Socrates, the relation of lover to beloved is not altogether clear. The numerous convoluted relationships of the characters also must be examined. Phaedrus and Eryximachus are lovers, as are Agathon and Pausanias; the relationship of Alcibiades and Socrates is examined in detail, and they both seem to be pursuing Agathon. [Cooper, p. 457.] It does seem, however, that Plato regards love as the essential ingredient of the philosophic path and the search for wisdom; that despite the importance of loving and helping those younger than you, it is in coming to the form of beauty that one finds wisdom, and no one, not even Socrates, can give you wisdom.

Authors and works cited in the "Symposium"

*Aeschylus [Cited by Pausanias for the assertion that Achilles was Patroclus's older lover.]
*Euripides, "Melanippe"
*Hesiod, "Theogony"
*Homer, "Cypria", [Perhaps (see note above).] "Iliad"
*Prodicus of Ceos, "Praise of Heracles"

ee also

* Platonic love
* Xenophon's "Symposium"
* Erik Satie's "Socrate"
* "The Origin of Love", a song from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
* Symposium
* Greek love
* Bernstein's Serenade after "Symposium"

External links

* English translation of Plato's "Symposium" by Benjamin Jowett: copy at [ Internet Classics Archive] and another at [ University of Adelaide] with Jowett's introduction
* [ Longer summary] of the "Symposium" by Glyn Hughes
* English translation by Harold N. Fowler linked to commentary by R. G. Bury and others
*Angela Hobbs' podcast interview on Erotic Love in the "Symposium" []



Current texts, translations, commentaries

*Plato, "The Symposium", Greek text with commentary by Kenneth W. Dover. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. ISBN 0521295238.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. with commentary by R. E. Allen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. ISBN 0300056990.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by Christopher Gill. London: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0140449272.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (from "Plato: Complete Works", ed. by John M. Cooper, pp. 457-506. ISBN 0-87220-349-2); available separately: ISBN 0872200760.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0192834274.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by Avi Sharon. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0941051560.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by Allan Bloom and Seth Benardete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0226042758.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Provincetown, Pagan Press, 2001, ISBN 0-943742-12-0.
*Plato, "The Symposium", Greek text with trans. by Tom Griffith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. ISBN 0-520-06695-2.

General bibliography

*Blondell, Ruby and Luc Brisson and others, "Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception". Center for Hellenic Studies, 2007. ISBN 0674023757.
*Harvard reference | Surname=Dalby | Given=Andrew | Authorlink=Andrew Dalby | Title=Rediscovering Homer | Publisher=Norton | Place=New York, London | Year=2006 | ISBN=0393057887
*Hunter, Richard, "Plato's Symposium" (Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195160800.
*Plato, "The Symposium", trans. by W. Hamilton. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951.
*Lilar, Suzanne, "Le Couple" (1963), Paris, Grasset; Translated as "Aspects of Love in Western Society" in 1965, with a foreword by Jonathan Griffin, New York, McGraw-Hill, LC 65-19851.
*Lilar, Suzanne, (1967) "A propos de Sartre et de l'amour" Paris: Grasset.
*Strauss, Leo, "Leo Strauss on Plato's Symposium." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0226776859

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