Symposium by Plato

Symposium by Plato Summary and Analysis of Diotima Questions Socrates and The Speech of Diotima

Diotima Questions Socrates

Socrates retells a speech he heard from Diotima, a woman he describes as wise, but who was apparently a fictitious character. Once again, the structure of the speech begins with telling of the qualities of Love before talking of his works. Diotima also questions Socrates, who used to think that Love was beautiful and good. Socrates retells this questioning. When Diotima stated this, Socrates inferred that Love was ugly and bad.

Diotima scolds him, and they establish that just because something is not beautiful, does not automatically make it ugly. Someone can be not wise and not ignorant, understanding things (so he’s not ignorant), but not understanding the reasons behind such things (so he’s not wise). Correct judgment places a person between wisdom and ignorance. Similarly, a person, and Love, can be neither beautiful nor ugly, but in between.

Love is also not a god, Diotima and Socrates agree. Gods are beautiful and happy, Socrates would not deny. Diotima defines happiness as possessing good and beautiful things. If Love desires these things, he needs them and does not have them. Therefore, he cannot be a god since he does not have good and beautiful things. Socrates asks what he is then, to which she responds he is in between mortal and immortal; a spirit. Love is a messenger between mean and gods. Gods and men interact through spirits, and one of them is Love. Socrates ends by asking about Love’s mother and father, ending the questioning and introducing Diotima’s speech.

The Speech of Diotima

Diotima’s speech begins with descriptions of Love himself. Love was conceived on the day of Aphrodite’s birth to Poros (a word for resource) and Penia (poverty). This is why Love follows Aphrodite and why he loves beauty. Being the son of Poros and Penia, Love is always poor, far from delicate and beautiful, but rather tough and always living with Need. He is also a schemer after the good and beautiful, resourceful, and in pursuit of intelligence.

He is neither mortal nor immortal, poor but never completely without resources, and in between wisdom and ignorance. Being in pursuit of wisdom, he cannot be ignorant, to be able to know he needs wisdom. Therefore, he is a lover of wisdom. This is the “nature of Spirit called Love” (49). Love, therefore, is not being loved, but rather, being a lover.

Before discussing the use of Love for humans, Diotima asks what a lover of beautiful things desires. Socrates responds that the lover desires to possess the beautiful things. The word good is then exchanged with beautiful; they discuss what a lover of good things desires. When a lover has the good things he desires, he will have happiness. The desire for happiness is established to be common for all people, but then, why are some said to be in love and others not? Diotima states this is because a special kind of love is separated from other loves to be referred to as such. For other loves we use other words such as poetry.

Diotima also refutes Aristophanes' story, saying a person will not pursue their other half, unless the other half is good. People only love what is good. The object of Love is wanting to possess good forever. The following question becomes, what is the purpose of love? Diotima says it is giving birth in beauty, in body or in soul. She explains that everyone is pregnant; reproduction only occurs in harmony. Reproduction is only beautiful, being a godly (immortal) process, and Beauty is in harmony with the divine. Love wants “reproduction and birth in beauty” (53). Reproduction is what mortals have as access to immortality, as it occurs for ever. If Love wants to possess good forever, it must want immortality.

The question broached next is what causes love and desire in animals. Animals also seek immortality, which only comes about through reproduction. Reproduction occurs constantly, defining the term as replacing the new for the old. A person changes in their life and is said to be the same person, even though he is always being renewed, in manners and body. Similarly, studying is a way to preserve a piece of knowledge, replacing an old memory with a new one. For the sake of immortality everything shows zeal for its offspring, which is Love. Socrates asks if this is really true, and Diotima answers it is, using the example of honor. Humans pursue honor, wanting to become famous and immortal. They expect the memory of their virtue and brave acts to live on forever.

Some men are pregnant in body, which is why they pursue women--to achieve immortality through childbirth. Others are pregnant in soul. These are people like poets and craftsmen who give birth to wisdom and virtue. The most beautiful wisdom to come out of this is the art of politics, claims Diotima. A man who stays virtuous and becomes pregnant with wisdom will search for beauty. If he is lucky enough to find someone beautiful in soul, he will make him teem with ideas about virtue. Making contact and company with someone beautiful allows him to conceive and give birth to what he is carrying inside him. The best immortality is giving birth in the soul, particularly poetry, as they are remembered forever. This is evident by the honor they are given through shrines; this also happens for politicians, but never for people solely pregnant in the body.

Diotima ends her speech outlining what she refers to as the rites of love, otherwise referred to ask the ladder of love. First, Love leads a person to love one body and beget beautiful ideas. From these ideas, this person realizes that the beauty of one body is found in all bodies and if he is seeking beauty in form, he must see beauty in all bodies and become lover to all beautiful bodies. After that, the person moves on to thinking the beauty of souls is greater than the beauty of bodies. Here, Diotima specifically refers to giving birth through the soul to make young men better. This results in the lover seeing love in activities and laws, over the beauty of bodies. She also refers to these as beautiful customs, from which the lover loves beautiful things, or other kinds of knowledge. The lover will lastly fall on giving birth to many beautiful ideas and theories, finding love of wisdom. This love never passes away and is always beautiful. The end lesson is learning of this very Beauty (wisdom), coming to know what is beautiful. Only at this point will a lover be able to give birth to true virtue. This person will be loved by the gods and is one of the few who could become immortal.

With this, Socrates addresses the group speaking as himself, having finished telling Diotima’s speech. This is why Socrates honors Love, the rights of Love, and practices them, urging others to do so as well.


Quoting Diotima questioning Socrates, Plato adds another layer of distance from the reader. This conversation occurred at an unspecified time previous to the dinner and may actually be a fictitious conversation--Diotima is generally regarded a fictional creation of Socrates within the dialogues. The instability of the narration deepens when approaching the most serious speech to further undermine the authority of the words.

Diotima’s speech is the most serious speech of the night, completely changing the atmosphere of the room by its end. It has some light touches, but rises to a remarkable crescendo in tone in lines 208c-209e. The end of this speech is radically different than anything else. However, Diotima engages with the previous speeches, and their parts contribute to her whole speech. There are clear instances that suggest this engagement: Diotima coming from Manitea, a town Aristophanes used as an example, she’s a fighter of disease like Eryximachus, she’s a teacher like Pausanias. Paralleling Socrates’ deconstruction of Agathon’s speech through questioning, not to put him down, but to create a stronger argument, Diotima does this throughout her speech. She takes the elements of truth in each speech and separates them from their false interpretation (such as when she directly criticizes Aristophanes’ conclusion that all lovers look for their other half (205e)).

An example of this deconstruction is building form Phaedrus’ interpretations of the stories of Achilles and Alcestis. Phaedrus concludes their actions were self-sacrificial, brave, and for the good of their lover and beloved, respectively. Diotima uses these examples as well. She interprets the stories as Achilles and Alcestis dying for immortal glory, not for the lover or beloved. Ultimately, it was also for love, since the ultimate object of love is immortality, according to Diotima. The same stories are used as are the bravery and love Phaedrus described, but the interpretation changes, fitting the argument she builds.

The “Rites of Love,” otherwise referred to as the “Ladder of Love,” is the ultimate conclusion in Diotima’s speech. The last rung of the ladder makes one a “lover of wisdom,” or a philosopher, which in one respect is not surprising, since Plato is a philosopher. Philosophy is love’s highest expression, which allows a person to see Beauty. However, the relationship between Beauty and the beautiful things it is responsible for is not explained.

Prior to explaining the ladder, Diotima claims reproduction is the purpose of love. However, pregnancy is placed outside the ladder. The end makes it possible for the lover to give birth to true virtue, but that is a result of seeing Beauty, not part of the ladder itself. The idea of reproduction is interesting, however. Two role reversals occur: male pregnancy is plausible and pregnancy precedes intercourse. Plato uses sexual imagery for mental creativity, but never raises the question of whether metaphorical intercourse with the mind is needed to be pregnant with virtuous acts and ideas, or how the pregnancy occurs at all.

Diotima is generally accepted to be a fictional creation of Socrates (or Plato). This device (creating a character and conversation) is unprecedented in rhetoric. In terms of frame narrative, it creates another layer of distance from the original teller of the story to the reader, at a point where the most serious speech occurs. It may be Plato implying that these are his views on Love, not Socrates’, particularly as Socrates admits he cannot understand Diotima and she warms him he may not be able to be initiated into “the final and highest mystery” (210a) of love.