Love is the central theme of the dialogues of the Symposium. Proposed by Eryximachus as a topic of conversation, every guest ventures to praise to the god Eros. The speeches embark on describing the qualities of Love, the god, and on the behaviors he inspires in humans. Love is initially described as possessing beauty, wisdom, and good things, but Socrates challenges this notion, arguing that Love is in between beauty and ugliness, in between wisdom and ignorance, and desires good things that he does not posses. Furthermore, Love is not a deity, but a spirit, in between mortal and immortal.
Interpersonal relationships are central to many of the speeches, although Eryximachus extends love to harmony in nature and Diotima equates it to philosophy and Beauty. The ultimate object of love is a pursuit of wisdom and immortality, or the pursuit of Beauty. Alcibiades, having a personal relationship to Socrates, likens Socrates to Eros in his speech.
Common and Heavenly Love
The theme of loving a soul versus loving a body appears throughout the dialogues, with the former as an object of much higher praise than the latter. This division originally occurs in Pausanias’ speech, who builds a dichotomy between Common Love and Heavenly Love. Common Love is vulgar, often found in heterosexual relationships, and Heavenly Love is more worthy of praise, solely found in male, homosexual relationships. This dichotomy is implied in many of the speeches, even though only Pausanias condemns heterosexual love so harshly. In Diotima’s speech, she says the purpose of love is reproduction in beauty. All people are pregnant in body or soul, and while all try to achieve the same goal of immortality, the latter is more lasting. Physical relationships are a necessary step in the “ascent to Love,” but loving souls is a higher rung than loving bodies.
Lover-and-beloved relationships are not only discussed in the speeches, but also play a role in the dynamics of the symposium itself, particularly among Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Mentor-student relationships were institutionalized affairs between old and young men, for the education of the latter in exchange for sexual gratification of the former. The older man was the lover and the young the beloved who is pursued by the lover. The speeches seem to agree that male relationships, particularly these, were of the highest praise, a practice in Heavenly Love. They result in becoming pregnant in the soul. Being the first work of philosophy in western literature on the subject of Love, it is significant that the love most highly praise is homosexual, male love.
Portrayal of Socrates
The characterization of Socrates in the Symposium is one of the most detailed by Plato, and a common reason why people read this work. Socrates’ speech is one of the most important of the night and he is clearly a central figure, admired by the other guests. He participates in the dialogue between characters in between speeches, and the structure of his speech is the least conventional, beginning with questioning a previous speaker, as is custom in Plato’s writings on him; he then shares an account of a fictional conversation which he present as factual.
Socrates is described as old and unattractive. He is depicted as the embodiment of the Love described by Diotima--not beautiful but appreciating beauty, not wise but not ignorant, and a spirit in between mortal and immortal. The ladder of love must be achieved to love Socrates, meaning a person must be philosopher to love Socrates. Alcibiades’ encomia to him describes these qualities, along with his strength of mind, and he likens Socrates to Eros. His descriptions of their relationship, however, portray Socrates as both the lover and beloved by the end of his speech.
The virtue of Love is another theme central to the dialogues. Phaedrus introduces the centrality of virtue to love in human relationships from the first speech. Agathon refers to the “moral character” of Love as encompassing the four cardinal virtues: Justice, Moderation, Bravery, and Wisdom. While Agathon speaks of them all, each previous to his had focused on one of the virtues in love: Pausanias on Justice, Eryximachus on Moderation, Phaedrus on Bravery, and Aristophanes replaces Wisdom with Piety. Only by seeing pure Beauty, by completing Diotima’s ladder of love, will a person give birth to true virtue, becoming immortal.
Ladder of Love
The “rites of love” bring together Diotima’s speech, which has drawn on all previous speeches, and after describing what Love is, she provides a series of steps to understand the final mystery: the purpose of love. The ladder begins with loving one beautiful body, then loving all beautiful bodies. This leads to this person appreciating the beauty of souls more than bodies. From there, he moves on to loving activities and laws and customs, from which he moves on to various kinds of knowledge. The person will then see the beauty of knowledge and become of lover of wisdom, or a philosopher, to learn and love the ultimate object of love, Beauty, upon which they will give birth to virtue.
Form of Beauty
The Form of Beauty is described in the dialogues, particularly in Diotima’s. The Platonic Forms aim to account for the ultimate reality from which all else is derived, and this is one such Form. The Form of Beauty is the object of Love, the ultimate goal Diotima’s ladder. It is pure, unchanging, and cannot be seen with the eyes or until one has completed the “rites of love.” Despite the many kinds of love, they are all directed at Beauty, which once reached, allows a person to give birth to “true virtue,” leading to immortality.
Symposium by Plato Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Symposium by Plato is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.