Plato’s Symposium is a series of speeches on Love given at a party in ancient Greece. They deal with questions of: what Love is; interpersonal relationships through love; what types of love are worthy of praise; the purpose of love; and others. It is the first major philosophical text on love in Western literature. It can be classified as a tragicomedy, using elements of both genres.
The Introductory Dialogue introduces the complex layers to the narration, as the reader is far removed from the original teller of the story, Aristodemus, and the times Apollodorus has retold the account. The story itself is told from Aristodemus’ point of view, who ran into Socrates on his way to Agathon’s symposion. He invites Aristodemus, and they have food and drink at Agathon’s, along with Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, and Aristophanes, among others. Having celebrated the night before, some of the attendees are still hungover, and they propose focusing on conversation instead of drinking. Eryximachus proposes giving encomiums to Love, to which all agree.
Phaedrus begins giving a speech focused on the virtue of bravery in love. He tells the origin of love as the youngest god, son of Chaos and Earth. His stories of Achilles’ and Alcestis’ acts of self-sacrifice for the lover and beloved exemplify the bravery of love. Pausanias follows this speech, with a rather self-righteous tone. He splits Love into Common and Heavenly Love, attributing the latter solely to homosexual, male relationships. He praises Heavenly Love and discusses the role of law, justice, and customs in leading beloveds to make a virtuous choice regarding taking lovers. Aristophanes had the hiccups during Pausanias speech, suggesting that he was possibly mocking Pausanias; because of the hiccups, he skips a turn. The third speech is given by a doctor, Eryximachus, who extends the idea of love beyond interpersonal relationships, claiming love is found in the coexistence of opposites, the harmony of nature. Almost everything can have love and it is of vital importance in his field of medicine.
Having been cured of his hiccups, Aristophanes gives the most original speech on love. He tells an origin story, where Zeus cut humans in half. Humans used to have a different shape, somewhat like two human beings stuck together and there were three sexes: male, female, and androgynous (male and female). Due to their disinterest in revering the gods, they were split, and now humans search for their other half, on a pursuit of wholeness. He warns that we may be split again, if not pious and revering of the gods.
Agathon, the host of the gathering, gives the fifth speech. His is one of the most comedic, even though he is a tragedian. He praises love with beautiful prose, but offers little new content. He reiterates all the virtues each of the past speakers focused on separately when defining the moral character of love: Courage, Justice, Moderation, and Wisdom (which replaces Piety). He describes Love as possessing beauty and good things. His speech is a parody of the style of oratory of Gorgias, his teacher.
Following Agathon’s speech, Socrates, with Agathon's permission and cooperation, deconstructs his speech. They agree that Love pursues beauty and good things and that one does not desire what one has. Therefore, Love does not possess these qualities. This description of Love is further explained when Socrates tells them a dialogue he had with Diotima on Love long ago. He and Diotima establish that Love is between beauty and ugliness, between mortal and immortal (a spirit), and between wisdom and ignorance.
Socrates retells Diotima’s speech, the longest and most serious one of the night, where she describes the “Ladder of Love,” one of the most famous ideas of the novel. Love is son of Poros (Resource) and Penia (Poverty), desiring beauty, which are good things, which lead to happiness. Love, however, means more than just the love between two people. The end goal of Love is not simply to find one’s other half. Rather, the purpose of love is to give birth in beauty. All people are pregnant, whether in body or in soul. Reproduction is the mortal’s way of reaching immortality and will only happen in the presence of beauty. Love is inextricably linked to the desire for immortality. Giving birth from the soul is a purer form of love and stronger form of immortality, such as that of poets and politicians, and only males can be pregnant of the soul.
She then describes the rites of love, also referred to as the “Ladder of Love.” First, a person loves one body, and then he finds beauty in all bodies. After this, he must appreciate the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of activities and laws, or customs, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom, which is philosophy. Upon reaching this, the lover will see Beauty in its pure Form, and give birth not to an image of virtue, but true virtue.
The atmosphere in the room changed following Socrates’ speech, but was immediately ruptured by the loud, drunk entrance of Alcibiades. He asked to participate, but changed the subject upon Eryximachus’ suggestion to praising Socrates instead of Love. Through his description of Socrates and his relationship as the beloved of Socrates, he likens him to Eros, illustrating the arguments made in Diotima’s speech.
Alcibiades’ speech was met with laughter, even though it made important points through the exemplar of Socrates. The guests begin to excuse themselves, at which point Aristodemus falls asleep. He wakes up shortly before dawn, when Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates were still conversing. Socrates was trying to convince them that a writer must master both comedy and tragedy. As he was about to end his argument, Aristophanes fell asleep, shortly before Agathon. Socrates then left, followed by Aristophanes.