Symposium by Plato

Symposium by Plato Study Guide

Plato began his career as a writer of tragedies, but, influenced by Socrates, left that behind and began writing philosophical dialogues. Other writers also wrote about Socrates and his speeches. Plato’s use of him as a main character may not have dealt with the historical figure, but rather presented Plato’s ideas on philosophical topics, particularly in his later works. Symposium, a work from the middle of Plato's writings, presumably implements Socrates as a character to voice Plato’s theories on love. The dramatic dialogue concerns itself with the origin, purpose, and nature of love, or eros, through a series of speeches by men at a symposion.

A symposium (symposion) was an occasion for drinking together following the meal in an ancient Greek banquet, when the focus was on wine rather than food. Scholars have defined the symposium as a nighttime gathering of aristocratic men who dined on couches, drinking wine and enjoying entertainment--poetry, conversation, and various erotic pursuits with men and women. The wine god Dionysus presided at the event and Aphrodite’s presence was felt as well. All symposiasts were equal in the room, drinking the same amount of wine from a communal krater. As a custom emphasizing bonds among men, female presence in a symposium only occurred as servants, entertainers, and courtesans. The proceedings allowed for the practice of paidersasia, institutionalized love between older and younger men common in ancient Greece. This custom was widely followed in Athens between lovers and beloveds, older men and young boys, respectively, for the education of the latter in exchange for sexual gratification of the former.

Agathon hosted the symposium described by Plato, the night after winning his first award for playwriting. It took place during the Lenaian Festival in Athens in 416 B.C. and the account given by Apollodorus occurred sometime between 406 and 400 B.C., gathering from his statement of Agathon’s absence from Athens for a long time. Due to historical allusions in the text, Plato might have written it after 385 B.C., probably completed before 378 B.C., when the “Sacred Band” was established in Thebes, a regiment composed by lovers like the one Phaedrus describes as never having existed. There exists no evidence that the night actually took place. Nothing makes it implausible, but Plato’s indirect approach in the narration suggests at least the details are Plato’s invention, a speculation made stronger with Socrates’ account of Diotima, a fictional priestess form Manitea.