Socrates’ The Symposium and Its Serious Purpose Essay

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Socrates’ The Symposium and Its Serious Purpose

Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)was a Greek philosopher.  Plato (ca. 429-347 B.C.E.)was the student of Socrates.  According to David H. Richter, because “Plato mistrusted writing, he did not set down his philosophy in the usual form of a set of treatises but rather in dialogues” (18).  The Symposium comes from a dialogue of Socrates’ ideas transcribed by Plato, because Socrates never wrote anything himself.

Whether or not Plato kept his own ideas out of Socrates’ is the subject of debate:  ” . . . at times we may wonder whether Socrates is being serious or ironic, at other times whether he always speaks directly for Plato” (Richter 18).  Be that as it may, The Symposium discusses the nature of love, and although it is written in a comic tone, nonetheless it also strives to explore love in a serious manner as bound in morality in the structured forms of drama, rhetoric and dialect.

     The Symposium takes the form of several speeches by guests at a symposium, or drinking party, at the house of Agathon.  Each of the seven party guests, and their respective speeches, represent a different aspect of love.  Phaedrus takes a literary approach to the topic of love, while Pausanias a legal perspective.  Eryximachus brings a doctor’s view to the topic, and Aristophanes, as a comic poet, sticks with a humorous take on the subject.  Agathon uses a self-conscious poetic outlook, whereas Socrates puts a religious spin on love.  Finally, Alcibiades talks about his relationship, whether erotic or not, to Socrates.  If love is a part of or even the basis of morality, then it is not surprising that Socrates and Plato were

interested in coming up with a clear idea of what love was, because according to D. Brendan Nagle, “Socrates and Plato, came to the defense of the beleaguered city-state and tried to find a new and irrefutable moral basis for it” (162).  Socrates was looking for a basis for morality, and certainly he thought at least a part of it was bound up in the idea of love.  C. M. Bowra, in Classical Greece, says that “Socrates was the first exponent in Greece of a morality based on the demands of individual conscience rather than the demands of the state” (137).

This work explores this idea of love bound in morality.  Socrates, at a time before the drinking party, speaks to Diotima, who tells him a story about love.  She brings together the ideas of love and eternality, or what we might today call a true and undying love.  She relates how some men were willing to die for the sake of their name being bound to a good reputation even after their death.  She gives the example that Achilles would not have avenged Patroclus was it not for “the memory of their virtues, which still survives among us, would be immortal?” (The Symposium).

     Plato uses the dramatic form as one type of structure for The Symposium (Plato’s Symposium).  There is an introduction, the body of the play, and an afterward.  The drama is built around the verbal antics of three pairs of speakers with differing points of view.  Phaedrus is a social climber and wants to get in good with the poets.  He is a rival to Pausanias for Agathon’s attention.  Pausanias, however, is Agathon’s current lover, so the plot thickens comedically in this first episode.

The next scene takes place between Eryximachus, the physician who is bombastic and Aristophanes, the comic dramatist who was known for bringing down people with big egos.  The final portion is a debate between Agathon and Socrates.  Plato draws a verbal picture of Agathon as a flamboyant self-centered character, whereas Socrates comes across as simple and unfashionable.  These pairings help produce the comedy and satire of the piece.

     The rhetoric of this piece can also be used as a form for the discussion of love in which these characters partake.  Some of the characters deliver their speeches in an exaggerated manner, such as Eryximachus and Agathon.  Others, like Socrates and Aristophanes, use a plain style.  By the end of the piece Alcibiades, the last speaker, explains in summary that inner beauty is more attractive than outer charm.

     Another way to understand The Symposium is as an example of the Socratic method itself.  It starts with basic ideas about love, and gradually it grows to deeper understanding based on a question and answer format made famous by Socrates.  Phaedrus begins with the idea that love elevates the lover, but Pausanias counters that love can have a religious context or a secular one.

The doctor gives a medical explanation for love, claiming that love will bring peace to the mind, whereas Aristophanes thinks that love is more self-centered, because the lover is looking for self-actualization through the means of love. Socrates has the final summary through expressing the ideas of Diotima to the other party guests that love in its purest form wants eternally to be immortal and also wants the good and the beautiful to be the focus of its immortality.

     Socrates used humor as well as structure provided by drama, rhetoric, and the Socratic method of question and answer to get his message concerning love across not only to the guests at the party, but eventually to the world.  This piece has been the foundation upon which Western culture’s idea of love was based.  Although Socrates’ students loved him, the state, not surprisingly, did not for several reasons.  The city-state leaders did not like the idea that Socrates questioned the popular religions of the day.

He believed his search for self-individualism was greater than the needs of the state.  The state of Athens thought Socrates, in his role as an educator, to be a corrupting force on the youth of the city, and they condemned him to death.  He died surrounded by his friends and talking to them, after he had drunk hemlock, the poison that would take his life.  Plato called Socrates,”‘the wisest and most just and best man’ who ever lived, a saint and a martyr” (Bowra 138).  Even after Socrates’ death, Plato wrote down the words that Socrates said, and this is why we can begin to understand his thoughts in The Symposium.

Works Cited

Bowra, C. M. et al.  Classical Greece.  Alexandria, VA:  Time-

     Life Books, 1977.

Nagle, D. Brendan.  The Ancient World:  A Social and Cultural

     History.  2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall,


Plato.  Symposium.  <


“Plato’s Symposium.”  <


Richter, David H.  The Critical Tradition:  Classic Texts and

     Contemporary Trends.  2nd ed.  Boston:  Bedford Books, 1998.

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