Socrates is a main character in the text, whose speech is one of the most important. Had Alcibiades not appeared, he would have spoken last, giving his fictional account of a dialogue he held with Diotima, a priestess from Manitea. His speech differs from all the rest not only in this respect, but also by its structure. He begins by questioning Agathon, the speaker previous to him, on the qualities of love. The use of Socratic method, questioning in the way he engages Agathon, is characteristic of Plato's socratic dialogues.
Throughout the text he praises the others’ words highly (albeit sarcastically in many cases), and is described as ugly and old (the oldest member of the group). The image of Socrates as a person, rather than his philosophical ideas, is an important theme of the book, occurring more clearly here than in other works. Alcibiades’ encomium, speech to praise something, is to Socrates, and while parts of it must be taken in jest, most of it illustrates serious points. Socrates is Alcibiades’ lover and beloved, but has been loved and taught many youth.
A fictional character created by Socrates, Diotima is described by him to be a woman who was wise about many things. Rather than tell a speech like the others, Socrates tells Agathon’s guests a dialogue he had with this woman of Manitea many years ago. The dialogue began primarily with her questioning him, then turning into her giving a speech on Love. She defines who Love is and explains that the object of love was giving birth in Beauty to true virtue, the ultimate act of Love, which is fulfilled upon completing the “Ladder of Love” she describes. In the most serious speech of the book, the reader is distanced from the content with an added layer of indirect narration.
Alcibiades was a beloved of Socrates, who showed up at Agathon’s dinner late, after Diotima’s speech, interrupting the serious mood. He was a wealthy aristocrat of Athens, known for his good looks, and a politician. He was the most celebrated of the young men who studied with Socrates. The use of his character is comedic, from his drunken entrance to his praise for Socrates in his speech, but illustrates important facets of past speeches, particularly Diotima’s ladder of love.
Agathon is the host of the party and a tragedian who received his first award the night before the symposium takes place. He was famous for his attractiveness and the originality of his plays. A student of Gorgias, Agathon was also known for his writings on Sophistic rhetoric. He was loved by Pausanias, a well known fact in Athens. His speech is the most comedic of the night, parodying Gorgias’ style of formal speaking. While beautiful prose is constant, some of its elements are used for parody, and the speech tells little about Love.
A comedic poet, Aristophanes gave the fourth speech of the night, out of turn, due to hiccups he may have exaggerated during Pausanias’ speech. This account of love has lighthearted moments, but is generally serious, differing from his comedic writing. He tells an origin story of humans and love with an inventive speech. The theme of piety as virtue runs throughout his account, which somewhat parallels Genesis as an origin story.
Pausanias is a student of Prodicus and famously loves Agathon. The second speaker of the night, he creates a dichotomy between good and bad love -- Heavenly and Common Aphrodite, respectively. He also focuses on ideas of justice as virtue in love. He passionately defends homosexual male love, dismissing all other relationships. His self-righteous manner throughout the speech is laughed at by Aristophanes, who develops hiccups during this speech.
Eryximachus practices medicine, as he reminds everyone frequently throughout the text. His speech, the third of the night, extends the idea of love beyond the interpersonal to include almost all things on Earth, drawing on the idea of harmony in medicine as striving for love through acts of moderation. His pedantic manner is a parody. He proposed the topic for the night and, along with Phaedrus, keeps guests on the conversation on the topic of praising Love.
The first speaker at the party, Phaedrus praises Love and the behaviors it induces in humans. He aids his friend Eryximachus in continuing the flow of the conversation, and is one of the guests the speakers address when beginning and concluding their speeches.
Companion of Socrates to Agathon’s party, Aristodemus told Apollodorus and Phoenix the story of that night. The reader is hearing his point of view and memories from that night. Socrates ran into him immediately prior to the party and invited him to come along, and Aristodemus left right before dawn alongside Socrates.
Apollodorus is the narrator, recounting the speeches of the symposium to an unnamed friend. He was not present at Agathon’s dinner, but heard the story from Aristodemus and checked a few facts with Socrates.
The recent telling of the story to Glaucon is what Apollodorus is recounting in telling the story to his friend. He had heard the account from Phoenix who had heard it from Aristodemus, but Phoenix’s telling had faulty information, which is why Glaucon asked Apollodorus to give him an account.
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.