Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

12. Symposium

Symposium has the widest appeal of all Plato’s writings. No work of ancient Greek prose fiction can match its compulsive readability. Plato moves through a rich variety of registers, from knockabout comedy and literary parody to passages of disturbing fantasy or visionary elevation, culminating in a multiply paradoxical declaration of love for Socrates put in the mouth of a drunken Alcibiades. Love (erōs) is the theme of the succession of encōmia or eulogies delivered at the drinking party (symposion) hosted by the playwright Agathon: not sublimated ’Platonic’ love between the sexes, but the homoerotic passion of a mature man for a younger or indeed a teenager. This continues until Aristophanes (one of the guests) and Socrates broaden and transform the discussion. Socrates’ speech, which is a sort of anti-eulogy, develops a general theory of desire and its relation to beauty, and it is in this context that the idea of an eternal and changeless Form makes its first unequivocal appearance in Plato’s œuvre. Thus Plato first declares himself a metaphysician not in a work devoted to philosophical argument, but in a highly rhetorical piece of writing, albeit one in which fashionable models of rhetoric are subverted.

Love and beauty are first connected in some of the earlier encōmia, and notably in Agathon’s claim that among the gods ‘Love is the happiest of them all, for he is the most beautiful and best’ (195a). This thesis is subjected to elenchus by Socrates in the one argumentative section of the dialogue. Agathon is obliged to accept that love and desire are necessarily love and desire for something, namely, something they are in need of. Following his concession Socrates argues that beauty is not what love possesses but precisely the thing it is in need of. This argument constitutes the key move in the philosophy of the dialogue, which Plato elaborates in various ways through the medium of Diotima, the probably fictitious priestess from whom Socrates is made to claim he learned the art of love in which he has earlier (177d) claimed expertise. First she tells a myth representing Love as the offspring of poverty and resource, and so – according to her interpretation – occupying the dissatisfied intermediate position between ignorance and wisdom which characterizes philosophy: hence presumably the explanation of Socrates’ claim to be an expert in love, since the pursuit of wisdom turns out to be the truest expression of love. Then she spells out the theoretical basis for this intellectualist construction of what love is. The theory has rightly been said to combine ‘a psychology that is strictly or loosely Socratic with a metaphysics that is wholly Platonic’ (Price 1995).

This psychology holds that a person who desires something wants not so much the beautiful as the good, or more precisely happiness conceived as permanent possession of the good. Love is a particular species of desire, which occurs when perception of beauty makes us want to reproduce. (Socrates is made to express bafflement at this point: presumably an authorial device for indicating that Diotima’s line of thought is now moving beyond anything Plato considered strictly Socratic.) Diotima goes on to explain that reproduction is the way mortal animals pursue immortality, interpreted in its turn in terms of the longing for permanent possession of good with which she has just identified desire. Other animals and many humans are content with physical reproduction, but humans are capable of mental creation when inspired by a beautiful body, and still more by a beautiful soul or personality. This is how the activities of poets and legislators and the virtuous are to be understood.

Perhaps Plato thought these ideas, although no longer Socratic, provided a convincing explanation of the drive which powered Socrates’ philosophical activity in general, and made him spend so much time with beautiful young men in particular. However that may be, in what follows he has Diotima speak of greater mysteries which ‘I do not know whether you [that is, Socrates] would be able to approach’. These are the subject of a lyrical account of how a true lover moves step by step from preoccupation with the beauty of a single beloved, to appreciating that there is one and the same beauty in all bodies and so loving them all, and then to seeing and loving beauty in souls or personalities and all manner of mental creations, until he ‘turns to the great sea of beauty, and gazing upon this gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom [that is, philosophy]’ (210d). The final moment of illumination arrives when the philosopher-lover grasps the Beautiful itself, an experience described as the fulfilment of all earlier exertions. Unlike other manifestations of beauty the Form of the Beautiful is something eternal, whose beauty is not qualified in place or time or relation or respect. It is just the one sort of thing it is, all on its own, whereas other things that are subject to change and decay are beautiful by participation in the Form. Only someone who has looked upon it will be capable of giving birth not to images of virtue (presumably the ideas and theories mentioned a little earlier), but to virtue itself, and so achieving immortality so far as any human can.

It is striking that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul forms no part of Diotima’s argument. If we assume the scholarly consensus that Symposium postdates Meno, this poses something of a puzzle. One solution might be to suppose that, although Meno presents the doctrine, Plato is himself not yet wholly convinced of its truth, and so gives it no role in his account of the desire for immortality in Symposium. This solution might claim support from the fact that Phaedo takes upon itself the task of arguing the case for the immortality of the soul much more strenuously than in Meno, and in particular offers a much more careful and elaborate version of the argument from recollection. Additionally or alternatively, we may note that when Plato presents the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in the dialogues, he always treats it as something requiring explicit proof, unlike the theory of Forms, which generally figures as a hypothesis recommending itself by its explanatory power or its ability to meet the requirements of Plato’s epistemology. Since Diotima’s discourse is not constructed as argument but as the explication of an idea, it is not the sort of context which would readily accommodate the kind of demonstration Plato apparently thought imperative for discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Symposium. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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