The dialogues at a party at Agathon’s house, which occurred years previous to this telling in Athens, are retold in this piece by Apollodorus to a friend, who is only described as a rich businessman. As Apollodorus explains to his friend, he had recently retold it to Glaucon, having heard it from Aristodemus, one of the fellows at the dinner. The dinner was held the day following a victory celebration for Agathon’s prize for his first tragedy.
Apollodorus expresses to his friend he will be glad to tell the story, since he gains pleasure from engaging in philosophical conversation, being bored by all other talk, particularly that of rich businessmen, who he describes as failures. His friend accuses Apollodorus of thinking everyone, even himself, are worthless, except for Socrates, an accusation Apollodorus does not refute. Socrates was known by Glaucon and Apollodorus’ friend to have been a part of the dialogues at Agathon’s.
Apollodorus decides to begin the story from the very beginning, before the dialogues began, as Aristodemus told him. Aristodemus ran into Socrates, who invited the former to the dinner he was heading to at Agathon’s. Aristodemus felt he was an inferior arriving uninvited, but proceeded to follow Socrates.
During their walk, Socrates lagged behind as he would stop to think about something. Aristodemus waited, until Socrates urged him to continue, causing him to arrive at Agathon’s alone. Agathon sends one of his slaves to fetch Socrates, found standing in a neighbor’s porch. However, Socrates did not join the gathering until about halfway through dinner, sitting next to Agathon.
Upon the meal’s end, as they were about to turn their attention to drinking, Pausanias addressed the group, asking if they could drink less, as he still had a hangover from the previous night’s celebration. Agathon and others agreed they lacked the strength for another night of heavy drinking. Eryximachus, a doctor, agreed, and sent away the flute girl, proposing instead they pass the night in conversation.
He continues on to quote Phaedrus, present at the gathering, who had noted the lack of hymns and works by intellectuals dedicated to the ‘god of love.’ Eryximachus therefore proposes the night be spent giving speeches in praise of Love, from left to right, beginning with Phaedrus. All agree, with the slight complaint of Socrates that he would go last, fearing he’d have nothing to add. Despite this, they continued, pressing Phaedrus to begin. Apollodorus here says that Aristodemus did not remember all the speeches exactly, but the most important point would be conveyed.
The Speech of Phaedrus
Phaedrus begins his speech reiterating that Love is a god, and is actually one of the most ancient gods. According to Hesiod, he was born to Chaos and Earth. Love gives us the greatest goods and guidance. Guidance is given through shame when acting shamefully and pride when acting well. Phaedrus explains this further by describing that when in front of a boy he loves, a man will be most ashamed or most proud. A city or an army made up of lovers would be the best possible system of society, since they would hold each other back from shameful acts, he claims.
Phaedrus then tells two stories to exemplify why only a lover, even a woman, will die for their beloved: that of Alcestis and Achilles. Alcestis was the only person willing to die in place of her husband, making even his parents look like outsiders. Her deed struck all as noble, so the gods sent her back from the dead, an honor granted to few. He also tells the story of Orpheus, who charmed his way into Hades for his wife, but unwilling to give up his life, was only given an image of her and was not praised.
Achilles had been sent to the Isles of the Blest having decided to avenge Patroclus, his lover, even though he knew he would be killed if he did. He chose to die for Patroclus, a person whose life was already over. The gods gave him special honor. Phaedrus claims that Achilles received higher honor than Alcestis because the former was the beloved, or the pursued, by Patroclus while Alcestis was the lover, or the pursuer of her husband. The gods are more generous with a loved one who cherishes his lover than vice versa.
From the introductory dialogue, the reader is immediately drawn into a complex and indirect narration structure. The story is told to the reader, or Plato, by Apollodorus, who relies on his recent telling of the story to Glaucon on the road to Athens, having heard it from Aristodemus. Although Apollodorus is a historian and checked some facts with Socrates, the report to the reader is very indirect, not inspiring complete confidence.
This indirectness continues throughout the book. Speeches are given in direct discourse, but conversation among members of Agathon’s party are retold in Aristodemus’ words, reminding the reader of the layers of narration. The elaborate structure distances the reader from the philosophical ideas in Plato’s work. They create temporal distance and suggest the fictional nature of the dialogues. The complex frame’s distancing also warns against considering Socrates’ or any of the speeches with absolute authority.
The descriptions of Socrates as he walks to the dinner with Aristodemus both begin to shape the image of his character, which will become important particularly in the last speeches, and set the lighthearted tone of the dialogues. This tone is further emphasized when Agathon’s guests are deciding what to do for the night.
Phaedrus’ speech focuses on self-sacrifice and the beautiful acts that love begets. He indiscriminately praises love and exemplifies the self-sacrificial acts through three stories. The speech introduces the idea that love leads to virtuous action, a central theme in Diotima’s account of love, even though they define love differently. This sense of introduction and exemplification is emphasized in the clear, balanced, and concise style of Phaedrus’ speech.
The stories of Alcestis and Achilles exemplify the acts of self-sacrifice that arise out of love, the acts originating from a love theorized in Diotima’s speech. Phaedrus makes the guests understand that goodness is “beautiful deeds.” The stories of Alcestis and Achilles show that it is beautiful to give one’s life for another, and this is more beautiful than doing the same while simultaneously trying to preserve one’s own life. Retreat might be better, but not more beautiful, Phaedrus argues by comparing Alcestis and Achilles to Orpheus, who still preserved his own life in his actions for his beloved.