Symposium, Plato
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The Symposium (Ancient Greek: Συμπόσιον, Sympósion [sympósi̯on]) is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It depicts a friendly contest of extemporaneous speeches given by a group of notable men attending a banquet. The men include the philosopher Socrates, the general and political figure Alcibiades, and the comic playwright Aristophanes. The speeches are to be given in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire.



Translated by Benjamin Jowett


Of all the works of Plato the Symposium is the most perfect in form, andmay be truly thought to contain more than any commentator has ever dreamedof; or, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more than the authorhimself knew. For in philosophy as in prophecy glimpses of the future mayoften be conveyed in words which could hardly have been understood orinterpreted at the time when they were uttered (compare Symp.) — whichwere wiser than the writer of them meant, and could not have beenexpressed by him if he had been interrogated about them. Yet Plato was nota mystic, nor in any degree affected by the Eastern influences whichafterwards overspread the Alexandrian world. He was not an enthusiast or asentimentalist, but one who aspired only to see reasoned truth, and whosethoughts are clearly explained in his language. There is no foreignelement either of Egypt or of Asia to be found in his writings. And morethan any other Platonic work the Symposium is Greek both in style andsubject, having a beauty ‘as of a statue,’ while the companion Dialogue ofthe Phaedrus is marked by a sort of Gothic irregularity. More too than inany other of his Dialogues, Plato is emancipated from former philosophies.The genius of Greek art seems to triumph over the traditions ofPythagorean, Eleatic, or Megarian systems, and ‘the old quarrel of poetryand philosophy’ has at least a superficial reconcilement. (Rep.)

An unknown person who had heard of the discourses in praise of love spokenby Socrates and others at the banquet of Agathon is desirous of having anauthentic account of them, which he thinks that he can obtain fromApollodorus, the same excitable, or rather ‘mad’ friend of Socrates, whois afterwards introduced in the Phaedo. He had imagined that thediscourses were recent. There he is mistaken: but they are still fresh inthe memory of his informant, who had just been repeating them to Glaucon,and is quite prepared to have another rehearsal of them in a walk from thePiraeus to Athens. Although he had not been present himself, he had heardthem from the best authority. Aristodemus, who is described as having beenin past times a humble but inseparable attendant of Socrates, had reportedthem to him (compare Xen. Mem.).

The narrative which he had heard was as follows: —

Aristodemus meeting Socrates in holiday attire, is invited by him to abanquet at the house of Agathon, who had been sacrificing in thanksgivingfor his tragic victory on the day previous. But no sooner has he enteredthe house than he finds that he is alone; Socrates has stayed behind in afit of abstraction, and does not appear until the banquet is half over. Onhis appearing he and the host jest a little; the question is then asked byPausanias, one of the guests, ‘What shall they do about drinking? as theyhad been all well drunk on the day before, and drinking on two successivedays is such a bad thing.’ This is confirmed by the authority ofEryximachus the physician, who further proposes that instead of listeningto the flute-girl and her ‘noise’ they shall make speeches in honour oflove, one after another, going from left to right in the order in whichthey are reclining at the table. All of them agree to this proposal, andPhaedrus, who is the ‘father’ of the idea, which he has previouslycommunicated to Eryximachus, begins as follows: —

He descants first of all upon the antiquity of love, which is proved bythe authority of the poets; secondly upon the benefits which love gives toman. The greatest of these is the sense of honour and dishonour. The loveris ashamed to be seen by the beloved doing or suffering any cowardly ormean act. And a state or army which was made up only of lovers and theirloves would be invincible. For love will convert the veriest coward intoan inspired hero.

And there have been true loves not only of men but of women also. Such wasthe love of Alcestis, who dared to die for her husband, and in recompenseof her virtue was allowed to come again from the dead. But Orpheus, themiserable harper, who went down to Hades alive, that he might bring backhis wife, was mocked with an apparition only, and the gods afterwardscontrived his death as the punishment of his cowardliness. The love ofAchilles, like that of Alcestis, was courageous and true; for he waswilling to avenge his lover Patroclus, although he knew that his own deathwould immediately follow: and the gods, who honour the love of the belovedabove that of the lover, rewarded him, and sent him to the islands of theblest.

Pausanias, who was sitting next, then takes up the tale: — He saysthat Phaedrus should have distinguished the heavenly love from theearthly, before he praised either. For there are two loves, as there aretwo Aphrodites — one the daughter of Uranus, who has no mother and isthe elder and wiser goddess, and the other, the daughter of Zeus andDione, who is popular and common. The first of the two loves has a noblepurpose, and delights only in the intelligent nature of man, and isfaithful to the end, and has no shadow of wantonness or lust. The secondis the coarser kind of love, which is a love of the body rather than ofthe soul, and is of women and boys as well as of men. Now the actions oflovers vary, like every other sort of action, according to the manner oftheir performance. And in different countries there is a difference ofopinion about male loves. Some, like the Boeotians, approve of them;others, like the Ionians, and most of the barbarians, disapprove of them;partly because they are aware of the political dangers which ensue fromthem, as may be seen in the instance of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. AtAthens and Sparta there is an apparent contradiction about them. For attimes they are encouraged, and then the lover is allowed to play all sortsof fantastic tricks; he may swear and forswear himself (and ‘at lovers’perjuries they say Jove laughs’); he may be a servant, and lie on a mat atthe door of his love, without any loss of character; but there are alsotimes when elders look grave and guard their young relations, and personalremarks are made. The truth is that some of these loves are disgracefuland others honourable. The vulgar love of the body which takes wing andflies away when the bloom of youth is over, is disgraceful, and so is theinterested love of power or wealth; but the love of the noble mind islasting. The lover should be tested, and the beloved should not be tooready to yield. The rule in our country is that the beloved may do thesame service to the lover in the way of virtue which the lover may do tohim.

A voluntary service to be rendered for the sake of virtue and wisdom ispermitted among us; and when these two customs — one the love ofyouth, the other the practice of virtue and philosophy — meet in one,then the lovers may lawfully unite. Nor is there any disgrace to adisinterested lover in being deceived: but the interested lover is doublydisgraced, for if he loses his love he loses his character; whereas thenoble love of the other remains the same, although the object of his loveis unworthy: for nothing can be nobler than love for the sake of virtue.This is that love of the heavenly goddess which is of great price toindividuals and cities, making them work together for their improvement.

The turn of Aristophanes comes next; but he has the hiccough, andtherefore proposes that Eryximachus the physician shall cure him or speakin his turn. Eryximachus is ready to do both, and after prescribing forthe hiccough, speaks as follows: —

He agrees with Pausanias in maintaining that there are two kinds of love;but his art has led him to the further conclusion that the empire of thisdouble love extends over all things, and is to be found in animals andplants as well as in man. In the human body also there are two loves; andthe art of medicine shows which is the good and which is the bad love, andpersuades the body to accept the good and reject the bad, and reconcilesconflicting elements and makes them friends. Every art, gymnastic andhusbandry as well as medicine, is the reconciliation of opposites; andthis is what Heracleitus meant, when he spoke of a harmony of opposites:but in strictness he should rather have spoken of a harmony which succeedsopposites, for an agreement of disagreements there cannot be. Music too isconcerned with the principles of love in their application to harmony andrhythm. In the abstract, all is simple, and we are not troubled with thetwofold love; but when they are applied in education with theiraccompaniments of song and metre, then the discord begins. Then the oldtale has to be repeated of fair Urania and the coarse Polyhymnia, who mustbe indulged sparingly, just as in my own art of medicine care must betaken that the taste of the epicure be gratified without inflicting uponhim the attendant penalty of disease.

There is a similar harmony or disagreement in the course of the seasonsand in the relations of moist and dry, hot and cold, hoar frost andblight; and diseases of all sorts spring from the excesses or disorders ofthe element of love. The knowledge of these elements of love and discordin the heavenly bodies is termed astronomy, in the relations of mentowards gods and parents is called divination. For divination is thepeacemaker of gods and men, and works by a knowledge of the tendencies ofmerely human loves to piety and impiety. Such is the power of love; andthat love which is just and temperate has the greatest power, and is thesource of all our happiness and friendship with the gods and with oneanother. I dare say that I have omitted to mention many things which you,Aristophanes, may supply, as I perceive that you are cured of thehiccough.

Aristophanes is the next speaker: —

He professes to open a new vein of discourse, in which he begins bytreating of the origin of human nature. The sexes were originally three,men, women, and the union of the two; and they were made round — havingfour hands, four feet, two faces on a round neck, and the rest tocorrespond. Terrible was their strength and swiftness; and they wereessaying to scale heaven and attack the gods. Doubt reigned in thecelestial councils; the gods were divided between the desire of quellingthe pride of man and the fear of losing the sacrifices. At last Zeus hitupon an expedient. Let us cut them in two, he said; then they will onlyhave half their strength, and we shall have twice as many sacrifices. Hespake, and split them as you might split an egg with an hair; and whenthis was done, he told Apollo to give their faces a twist and re-arrangetheir persons, taking out the wrinkles and tying the skin in a knot aboutthe navel. The two halves went about looking for one another, and wereready to die of hunger in one another’s arms. Then Zeus invented anadjustment of the sexes, which enabled them to marry and go their way tothe business of life. Now the characters of men differ accordingly as theyare derived from the original man or the original woman, or the originalman-woman. Those who come from the man-woman are lascivious andadulterous; those who come from the woman form female attachments; thosewho are a section of the male follow the male and embrace him, and in himall their desires centre. The pair are inseparable and live together inpure and manly affection; yet they cannot tell what they want of oneanother. But if Hephaestus were to come to them with his instruments andpropose that they should be melted into one and remain one here andhereafter, they would acknowledge that this was the very expression oftheir want. For love is the desire of the whole, and the pursuit of thewhole is called love. There was a time when the two sexes were only one,but now God has halved them, — much as the Lacedaemonians have cut upthe Arcadians, — and if they do not behave themselves he will dividethem again, and they will hop about with half a nose and face in bassorelievo. Wherefore let us exhort all men to piety, that we may obtain thegoods of which love is the author, and be reconciled to God, and find ourown true loves, which rarely happens in this world. And now I must beg younot to suppose that I am alluding to Pausanias and Agathon (compareProtag.), for my words refer to all mankind everywhere.

Some raillery ensues first between Aristophanes and Eryximachus, and thenbetween Agathon, who fears a few select friends more than any number ofspectators at the theatre, and Socrates, who is disposed to begin anargument. This is speedily repressed by Phaedrus, who reminds thedisputants of their tribute to the god. Agathon’s speech follows: —

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