The Speech of Agathon
Agathon begins by explaining how he plans to shift his speech from the previous by describing the nature of Love and celebrating him, rather than congratulating humans on the good things that come from Love. therefore, he starts by describing the qualities of the god. Disagreeing with Phaedrus, he says Love is the youngest god, backing this up by saying that Love flees old age, living among young people since like attracts like. Also, if Love was the oldest, the violent histories told by Hesiod and Parmenides would not have occurred, since Love brings peace. He is also delicate, settling in gentle characters, of fluid and supple shape to enfold souls, and attractive.
Agathon continues on to describe the “moral character,” translated from arete, of Love. Love has the four cardinal virtues of Justice, Moderation, Bravery, and Wisdom. Love is never the cause of victim of injustice, since violence never touches him. He has “the biggest share of moderation.” Moderation is power over pleasures and passions, and since no pleasure is stronger than Love, weaker pleasures are under Love’s power. Having power over pleasure, therefore, Love has the greatest moderation. Love is Brave, having a hold on Ares, the god of war, since Aphrodite has power over Ares. To prove Love’s wisdom, Agathon equates Love’s poetry, making those in love poets, the production of animals, and his effect on artisans and professionals as being wise. Love is said to be the teacher of artisans and professionals, making them successful.
Agathon ends his speech praising Love, stating all men should follow this god. Then he turns to Phaedrus, telling him this is the speech he has prepared, admitting part of it was in fun, but part of it was still moderately serious. After all present applaud for Agathon, Socrates tells Eryximachus, reminding him he had said he would have nothing to say after Agathon spoke.
He praises Agathon’s speech, saying it reminded him of Gorgias. Socrates praises all of the speakers, but says that they did not actually praise Love, although they appeared to do so. To avoid comparisons to the previous speeches, he asks if he can speak in his own way. All agree and he begins his speech by asking Agathon questions.
Socrates Questions Agathon
Socrates praises Agathon’s speech once more, saying he will also explore the questions of the qualities of Love himself. He asks if Love is the love of nothing or something, to which Agathon answers the latter, and then Socrates says that Love desires that which loves it. They establish that Love desires what it does not have, something would not desire what it already has, but rather that which it needs.
This applies to qualities that are not permanent. A person who is tall would not desire height, as they will be tall for their whole life, but someone who is strong could desire strength, since it is not necessary that they will be strong in the future. People want to preserve qualities they have now that they want to possess in the future. In other words, “Love is the love of something” and he loves what he needs in the present.
Socrates goes on to remind Agathon of having claimed there is only love of beautiful things, not ugly ones. Therefore, Love desires beautiful things, and since he only loves what he does not have, Love needs beauty and does not have it. Socrates deduces that this means that Love is not beautiful, to which Agathon agrees, taking back what he stated earlier. Socrates adds that good things are beautiful, and if Love needs beautiful things and good things are beautiful, Love needs good things too.
Agathon talks about what love is, rather than what it does. He, like Pausanias, is unconcerned with heterosexuality almost completely. In discussing the virtue of Love, he describes the characteristics it is generally divided into, which the previous speeches have described: courage (Phaedrus), justice (Pausanias), temperance (Eryximachus) and he substitutes wisdom for piety (Aristophanes). These are the four cardinal virtues making the “moral character” of love, or arete. Agathon wrongly defines them when applying them to Love. He equates Justice with nonviolence, courage and moderation with power, and wisdom with technical skill.
A shift in focus occurs in his speech again, from Aristophanes’ human conception of Love, to Agathon’s purely divine conception of goodness and focus in praising Love, the god. It is ironic, however, that while he praises Love for what he is, Agathon uses virtue, a human excellence, as the criterion in praise. A paradox arises where he tries to praise a deity, even though that deity is anthropomorphic, in terms of virtue, but to complete his argument abstracts from man. While his speech has been considered one of the worst of the group, he does set the reader up for Diotima like the others, as the first speaker to explicitly distinguish between beauty and goodness.
Plato constantly challenges the tragedy-comedy dichotomy in the Symposium, and Agathon’s speech is a major element in this challenge. A tragedian who had just the night previously celebrated his first award as a writer, gave arguably the most amusing speech of the initial six. Aristophanes, a comedic poet, gave a speech which was overall sad, but with lighthearted elements. Agathon’s speech was more clearly comedic. He pokes fun at Socrates who is older and was never described at attractive, when saying “Everyone knows that Love has extraordinary good looks, and between ugliness and Love there is unceasing war” (196 A), clearly a jab at the man sitting next to him. However, he insists that parts of the speech are meant in earnest, supported by Plato’s observation in other writings that stripping poetry of its devices leaves only speeches. This, for example, adds a layer to the portrayal of Socrates, underneath Agathon’s jabs at him.
Emphasizing the fun approach to his speech, Agathon parodies the Sophist Gorgias’ style of oratory. Passage 197D, the concluding passage of the speech, is the most prominent example of this. The use of lyric meters, internal rhymes, balanced phrases, among other poetic devices parody the teachings of Gorgias on formal speaking. As a student of Gorgias himself, this implies self-parody by Agathon. Strong critics of Agathon however have referred to his writing as being simply imitation. What is left underneath the skillful prose disguised as parody might be a complete lack of knowledge. Being quite drunk when he speaks, Agathon is trying to get laughs over all else, focusing on an unrestrained parody of Gorgianic style, adding double entendres, particularly when referring to Socrates.
Characteristically, Plato represents Socrates questioning the speaker before him before giving his own speech. However, this method of Socrates and his speech are generally attributed to be Plato’s own ideas and theories. Socrates draws on Gorgias when questioning Agathon, not as parody, but alluding to the standards of what is likely, eikos, established by him and his school of orators.
The questioning sets up Diotima’s speech, introducing the idea that love must be a lover of wisdom, to be nuanced by Diotima. They also end the conception of attributing all good qualities to Love; rather than base their idea of Eros on the beloved, they should do so on the lover. The structure of questioning foreshadows that a Platonic Form that will be discussed by Diotima (Form of Beauty). When asking “a brother, just insofar as he is a brother, is he the brother of something or not?” Socrates is asking what a brother is, asking the question what is that which a Form answers.