Plato’s Symposium is a philosophical tome written by him. The book details the various intricacies of love including its nature and its place in society, its very purpose. They speak of love through details given of the God known as Eros. Eros or Aros in Greek mythology was considered the God of lust, beauty, love and intercourse. On another level it also speaks of knowledge and the how it fits into the realm of human existence. The book is written in the form of a dinner party, more specifically Agathon’s symposium. It was held to celebrate his victory in his first dramatic competition, the Dionysia.
The details of this symposium were heard by Plato through various intermediaries. He writes the book from the perspective of being told the story through a man known as Aristodemus. It was not unusual for such dinner parties to have entertainment during the meal in the form of women and pipe players. However in this one instance it was decided that during the meal each person should give their thoughts on what they believed love is. There were seven participants in all starting from Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates and finally Alcibiades.
Phaedrus opens the debate speaking of how Eros is the oldest of the Gods and because of that necessitates that a lover show his beloved his courage in battle since nothing causes him more embarrassment then when the one who loves him see him doing something disreputable. He also speaks of how lovers can sacrifice their own lives in pursuit of the ones they cherish. He cites examples of the sacrifice that Alcestis made for her husband Admetus and how she was allowed to return from Hades as a reward. He also speaks of Orpheus and his non-sacrificial ways as well as how Archilles fought in the face of certain death.
He ends by reiterating his first statement of how Eros is the oldest of the Gods and is the most honored and men gain the most honors by following her wisdom. The second man who speaks is Pausanias about the two aspects of love. One of which is the common type which exist only for the sexual gratification of men, for loving the physically of love sensual nature. And the other speaks of homosexuality as the pursuit of honor and wisdom. He speaks of pedophilia in terms of love and Athenian law. He begins by saying that the object of affection may be a woman or a man.
However he says that the person who is loved must not be a boy but a person who has reached maturity. He goes into a discussion of Athenian law saying that it supports the cause of love however it does not support a love which is forced upon someone. He says that a boy should not surrender because of fear, abuse, and contempt or for any political or monetary gains since such a sacrifice is a disgrace. Rather the sacrifice should be one of virtue and with a heart that would do anything for love. Eryximachus is the third man who speaks.
At first it is seen that it is Aristophanes turn however he is not able to recover from his hiccups necessitating the substitution. Eryximachus instead of speaking about love in a philosophical sense decides to speak of it in a purely medicinal sense. How the aspects of love govern various parts of society. And how its principles govern the health of an individual, he also says that a knowledgeable person knows how to transform these desires by affecting the body. This is followed by Aristophanes who is considered the comic relief of the symposium and was also the greatest comic poet of Athens.
He speaks of the story of live as he sees it. He says that once people were globular spheres of three sexes. Man, woman and an androgynous mixture of the two. They decided to climb the heavens and defy Zeus, who not wanting to lose their offerings and worship decided to divide them in half. Thereafter he molded them into the men and women of today. According to Aristophanes the reason why people always say they are looking for their other half is exactly for this reason, it is because they have lost a part of themselves.
He also saw homosexuals as the most courageous individuals in society, as heterosexual males and females usually have adulterous and lecherous characteristics. He ends with a warning that men should fear the Gods and should continue worshipping them or they might find themselves chopped in half again. Agathon is next and he complains that the speakers before him have not given enough credit to the blessings of the God of love himself. He says that this God is responsible for keeping men young and shuns old age.
That it is light and never settles where there is no bud to bloom. He also implies that many of the best characteristics of man such as bravery, knowledge and justice, his explanation however his superficial and emotionless He is followed by Socrates who begins by complimenting Agathon which is more of a customary practice and then courteously asks his host and asks if he may point out the insufficiencies in his speech. He says that Agathons speech is only applicable to love when we consider what we wish it to be rather than what it actually is.
He then speaks of the Diotoma of Mantinea and speaks of her story of love. According to Socrates she says that Love is the son of “Plenty” and the mother of “Need”. It has characteristics of both but is carefully balanced. It is not only difficult, needy, deceptive but also resourceful. Its purpose she says is the fulfillment of immortality in men. He says that the pursuit of immortality is the true goal of all men and the gift of love is gift of immortality by making these men philosophers. He is followed by Alcibiades who at first does not know why everyone is not drinking.
When he is told of the night’s agreement he at first does not agree to speak but eventually does to praise Socrates. He begins by comparing him to the statue of Silenus, which though disfigured on the outside hides many treasures within. He also compares him to Marsyas saying that instead of music all Socrates needs to captivate people are his words. He states that the words of Socrates are the only words which disturbed him so much that he felt his life was no better than that of a slave. He at first believed that Socrates wanted to pass on his teachings to Alcibiades by bedding him.
He pursued him with great intensity but was shunned by Socrates who said that he should not give up his true beauty for a false image that he himself is providing. He not only goes on to detail a failed sexual attempt, but also his virtues in battle and how he saved him without accepting praise. He also says that Socrates is a man of great intelligence and ideas, unrivalled by anyone throughout history. Finally he says that one should be careful not to fall in love with him as such an outcome is very possible. The speeches end there and the rest of the book details how various characters leave in turn.
All these men eventually lose their integrity due to their drunkenness. However the book ends with Socrates walking to the Lyceum and eventually sleeping as well as leaving his integrity intact. Each speaker in this story showed their incredible speaking abilities to not only show what love is but expertly interweave multiple stories in its explanation. It is also incredible to see the aspects of the relationships of love as they existed in the time of Athenian culture. It is interesting to see not only how much homosexuality persisted in Athenian times but also how it was looked upon as a brave act by these men.
Women in these speeches are not generally mentioned and Pausanias actually speaks of male love as one with higher aspirations. However the truly remarkable speeches given in the symposium are of course by Aristophanes and Socrates. Though Plato perhaps intentionally distances Aristophanes credibility in this subject matter while building up Socrates, Aristophanes explanation of how love is merely a response of two individuals who simply wish to complete each other is both beautiful and insightful.
However the true face of this night is of course Socrates who not only shows how the true face of love is the ultimate attainment of equality and wisdom. But also does so in the voice of a woman. Women at the time were considered to be below men in terms of status. In terms of how Plato has written the book it is truly remarkable how much he has endeavored to ensure that the book is both historically accurate and realistic. Not only that but he has presented what is essentially a story contained within a story. This creates a space for the author to disperse his foundry of knowledge and to build his philosophies.
It is an incredible book which gives a peek into the minds of the greatest philosophers of that time without being entangled in the intricacies of scholarly ideas. He succeeds in communicating the true form of love is not easily separated from the sensual form that is so pervasive in society. That it may even possibly be considered the spiritual essence. He points to the highest good which freeing ourselves from the physicality of this world and choosing our partners with a sense of inner freedom that only comes from accepting the goodness and virtue of love and attain happiness in the process.