Up ]

Plato's Symposium (Banquet)

Here is an outline of the dialogue, followed by a summary of Nygren's critique and some questions for writing and discussing..

Social-Practical Frame: Glaucon asks Apollorodus, a misanthropic fan of Socrates, who remembers what Aristodemus remembers about the banquet to celebrate Agathon’s winning the prize for tragedy.  Socrates invites Aristodemus to come with him, but arrives late due to falling into philosophic concentration.  S’s leadership is contrasted with Agathon’s abdication.  Those gathered agree to drink moderately and to give speeches in praise of eros (love).

The Speech of Phaedrus.  Eros is the oldest god, the source of the highest good.  Love is a feeling of shame over shameful deeds and a desire to emulate noble ones.  The love is ethical, being moved by concern for his reputation with the beloved.  The lover’s passion brings courage, e.g., in battle, which benefits the state greatly and is respected by heaven.  The lover is more god-like than the beloved youth.

For Pausanias, eros is not one, but two: heavenly eros (constant, patient, mutual devotion) is separate from shameful, crude, earthly eros (love him and leave him; going after boys who are too young; going too fast; motivated by the desire for money or power).  The act in itself is neither good nor bad; the intended consequences make the difference—if the beloved submits in order to acquire wisdom and virtue, then it’s ok.  P gives a critical review of legislation pertaining to love in various city-states.

Eriximachus (a physician) presents an encyclopedic and cosmic concept of eros as effective throughout the universe.  Eros is a harmony of opposites, e.g., in music or climate.  There is a science of eros, discerning what desires are healthy and ought to be satisfied.  One must be moderate in all things.  Good eros is the mightiest power, from which comes joy and friendship with the gods.

For Aristophanes, a writer of comedies, love is unknown; otherwise his friendship and power would be more celebrated.  Originally there were three types of human beings: male, female, and androgynous.  Each human being had two heads (oriented in opposite directions) and two sets of sex organs.  Human power led to human pride, which led to rebellion against the gods, who responded by limited punishment (to conserve the honors of mortal worship).  Human beings were split up.  Their genitals were put in the front for gratification and procreation.  Now (though we do not realize it) eros is a yearning to recover lost wholeness through fusion with one’s complement.  Homosexual men are the most courageous, cherishing what is like themselves. More disobedience to the gods will lead to more fragmentation, so the leadership of eros must never be opposed; happiness for all men and women comes from finding one’s mate, a kindred mind.  We should sing the praises of the god, Eros.

Agathon (young and beautiful writer of a tragedy) undertakes to celebrate the nature of the god Eros: young, most joyful, tender, dwelling in soft souls, graceful, free of suffering, non-violent, best, just, temperate, courageous, wise, artistically inspiring, incentive to procreation, patron of the arts, transcending cruel necessity by opening the love of beauty and the creation of all good things for gods and men, healing alienation, providing leadership in rituals, comrade in misery, singer of songs that enchant gods and men.

Socrates will speak the truth, not blind flattery.  He begins by refuting the very notion that eros is a god.  S interrogates Agathon and wins his agreement that love is love of something, namely, of the beautiful, which eros lacks (to an intermediate degree).  Hence the superlative attributes of divinity belong to the beloved—beauty—not to eros. 

            S. tells that he had previously received instruction in eros from the seer, Diotima, the woman who initiated him, in dialogue, into the mysteries of love.  Eros is the child of Resourcefulness and Poverty, the spirit (daimon) intermediate in the communication between the gods and mortals.  We misunderstand eros because we tend to think not of the whole of eros, but only of its parts.  Eros is the desire to possess the beautiful . . . or, rather, to possess the beautiful forever . . . or, rather, to be creative in the beautiful.  Eros thus inspires physical and intellectual creativity, in quest of immortality, preserving itself through leaving something similar behind.  We love what is beautiful, assuming it to be good.  The quest for beauty thus leads to goodness, whose permanent possession fulfills the human quest for happiness.

            There are ascending rungs of the "ladder," or recommended steps toward the culminating realization of beauty itself.  One begins by falling in love with, or learning to appreciate the beauty of, particular bodies, souls, and so on.

Diotima concludes by evoking a vision of a living continuously illumined by beauty, a divinely blessed life.

The most crucial distinction is between that has beauty and what is beauty.  What has beauty are individual beautiful things; they may come and go, but beauty itself remains what it is.  What is beauty is beauty itself, the "form."

Alcibiades [the brilliant military leader who later would prove a traitor to Athens, a fact known to those who are remembering this banquet] bursts in, drunken.  His speech is in praise of Socrates, whose inner, divine beauty he has glimpsed.  S’ conversation is more inflaming than fine rhetoric.  S’ presence makes Alcibiades ashamed.  S refused Alcibiades’ sexual invitations (as an exchange of genuine beauty for glitter).  Alcibiades describes S as being extraordinarily tough, full of self-mastery, persistent in contemplation, courageous, loyal, unique, superb in discourse (despite appearances), tricking outwardly beautiful men into making him their beloved.


Return to the Social-Practical Frame: Socrates and Alcibiades are competing for Agathon’s attentions.  Revelers burst in.  Agathon, Aristophanes, and S stay up, drinking, as S argues that the same person must be able to write tragedy and comedy.  The others go to sleep, as S takes up another, normal day.


Exercise on beauty--what has beauty and what is beauty

1.  As Socrates recounts his own early instruction in the surprising range and function of eros as leading up to the grasp of beauty itself, he recalls the teaching of Diotima, whose educational “ladder” begins with erotic attraction to an individual human body.  A reading of Plato’s dialogues, however, shows that Plato is aware of more things that participate in beauty than the types of participant things that show up on this list.  Let’s begin with the beauties of nature in a broader sort: a favorite scene or spectacle, a favorite place in nature.  Describe the features that make this place or scene beautiful to you.

2.  Diotima’s ladder also omits the fine arts (mentioned in other dialogues; note that the host of the party, Agathon, is the writer of a prize-winning tragic theater play).  Please select a work of fine art (poetry, fiction, drama, painting, sculpture, music, ballet) and explain what it is in the work that enables you to find beauty or charm in it.

3.  Do you agree with Diotima that a fine character or person or psyche shows beauty in a higher sense than an outwardly attractive body?  Give your reasons why.

4.  Are you able to find beauty in any laws or customs or practices or activities?  Explain, giving an example (even the best example that you think some could produce, even though you have your reasons for denying that this example manifests beauty).

5.  Have you ever had an intellectual insight or enjoyed an intellectual experience in your studies that you might call beautiful?  Recall an experience that one might consider beautiful and say why you would consider it beautiful—or why not.

6.  Have you ever had an insight into beauty (beauty itself—what is beauty, not merely what has beauty)—perhaps a spiritual experience—beyond any of the particular kinds of experience mentioned thus far?  Please describe it and compare and contrast it with Plato’s account.


A few notes

 1.  The topic of leadership is one of those raised implicitly by the social interaction preceding the speeches in Plato’s Symposium.  We see Socrates as a leader, in sharpest contrast to Alcibiades, the leader who (after the dramatic date of the dialogue) will bring down thorough disgrace upon himself as the military commander who betrayed Athens in its protracted war with Sparta.

 2.  Socrates is sometimes reputed to have gone into a catatonic trance, in order to explain how he was unaffected by some of the extraordinary physical performances attributed to him, such as standing outside barefoot in the snow all night.  We see him following the mind-gravity of philosophic meditation as he stops to think and bids his partner go on ahead to the party.  Notice Socrates’ lucidity and responsible, intelligent effectiveness as he conducts the situation in the midst of his contemplative plunge.  This performance shows not trance but integrated living at its height.

 3.  How would Plato respond to Phaedrus’ speech?  Of course the answers to such questions are partly speculative, but the more we know of Plato’s writing elsewhere the more plausible will be our estimate.  The most general observation that can be made is that Socrates’ refutation of Agathon’s assertion that eros is a god refutes all the previous speakers as well.  Eros is not a god, since eros pursues beauty, which it therefore lacks, and thus lacks an essential feature of divinity.

            Observe, next, that Phaedrus, like other speakers, portrays the “god” on the model of his own characteristics.  In this speech, for example, eros is said to be the oldest of the gods.  We should note the irony and understand Plato’s tacit observation that we tend to project our conception of God in our own image instead of taking up the radical adventure of the philosophic quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and that which is truly divine.

            Finally, note the role ascribed to reputation by Phaedrus.  Lovers will be valiant in defense of the city because they are, as it were, showing off for their partners.  Plato, from the Crito onwards, repeatedly makes it clear that concern for how others see oneself, concern for one’s reputation, is based not in the highest part of the soul but in the second highest—the emotional part, whose leading virtue is courage.  For Plato, on the other hand, true courage is rooted in a wisdom that is centered on knowledge of truth.


 4.  Plato’s response to the speech of Pausanias would include, above all, his “argument” showing how eros can properly be understood as one, not two.  The ascending path of eros portrayed by “Diotima” begins at the physical level, which, if pursued in isolation from the true quest for beauty, becomes the promiscuous and shameful vice that Pausanias calls “common eros.”  What makes eros one, for Plato, is its steadfast pursuit of true beauty.  Appreciating and celebrating what is beautiful on every level, eros stays true to its quest.


 5.  Eriximachus, arguably, presents the figure of rootless knowledge, the appearance of science without the reality of knowledge.  His opinions are attractive and give the impression of wide learning, but he lacks the deeper foundation he needs.  Plato’s Timaeus shows how a philosopher undertakes cosmology and medicine, by clarifying first and foremost, as best one can, the eternal patterns which are replicated in an evolutionary way in the realm of space and time.  (a physician) presents an encyclopedic and cosmic concept of eros as effective throughout the universe.  Eros is a harmony of opposites, e.g., in music or climate.  There is a science of eros, discerning what desires are healthy and ought to be satisfied.  One must be moderate in all things.  Good eros is the mightiest power, from which comes joy and friendship with the gods.


 6.  We know that Plato was reputed to have kept a copy of writings of Aristophanes beside his bed.  To sense the kinship between them, recall Plato’s delight in portraying philosophic insights through artistically woven myths not intended to be taken with literal seriousness.  Plato does appreciate how rare and beautiful is true friendship with a kindred mind.  He also celebrates same-sex love in men above heterosexual love.  Could Plato agree that eros is a yearning to recover lost wholeness through fusion with one’s complement?  Plato would probably regard that notion as a confused approximation to his own concept.  However, since Aristophanes cannot be said to take his own myth with literal seriousness either, his actual view (if he has a settled position) is finally concealed as much as Plato often conceals his own settled position (to whatever extent he may be rightfully said to have one).


 7.  The remarks just made about Phaedrus and Eriximachus can be adapted to Agathon.  He projects a falsely divine eros in his own image and he celebrates a host of virtues without giving any evidence of the philosophic foundation they require.  His fumbling hospitality is a foil for the demonstration of Socrates’ true leadership, and his vanity  (despite his having won the Athenian equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture of the year) makes him an easy mark for an insightful critic.


 8.  The speech of Alcibiades is the saddest of all.  Here we see a beautiful and gifted man, desperately in love with Socrates, who is even granted insight into the beauty of the eternal “forms” in the knowing soul of Socrates.  By remaining on the level of passion for an individual human being, he fails to ascend to the heights that alone could ennoble him to become a fitting lover and a trustworthy military leader.


 9.  A few remarks about Socrates’ speech. 

            Note first the dialectical movement as one definition of eros after another is superseded.  As the reader/listener follows the sequence of teaching, the passion for insight leads to the transformation of the initial concept.  First, the most basic logic of the concept is clarified.  Love is love of something.  Next step: It is love of the beautiful.  Next: we seek (love, in this ancient Greek concept of eros) what we do not possess.  Therefore love is not beautiful.  Therefore love is not a god (since divinity must be beautiful).  This is a revolutionary conclusion, though the conviviality of the evening appears to take no note of the fact.

            Love desires . . . to possess beauty.  Correction: to possess beauty forever.  Correction: to be creative in beauty.  Distinction: intellectual/cultural/spiritual creativity is higher than mere physical creativity.  [Question: can the higher kind of creativity be neglected in child-rearing?]  Note what a radically different quality of desire we have by the end of this series of dialectical corrections.

            In another dialectical shift of major importance the focus moves between beauty and goodness.  We only pursue the beautiful because we assume that it is good.  Our deepest desire is for enduring happiness, and that is understood to involving living in goodness.  So the pursuit of beauty is part of a life governed by goodness.

10.  There are three Greek words translated by "love": eros (the topic of this dialogue); philia (friendship or loving relationship generally); and agape (spiritual love).  

11.  Plato's teaching contrasts sharply with that of Pauanias, for whom eros is not one, but two: a vulgar, hasty, selfish eros and a noble, patient, beneficial eros.  

12.  Dogmatism does not offer a ladder to enable skeptics and others to share in discovery. 

13.  There is no reason to think that the list of steps presented here is complete.  Plato shows sensitivity to the beauties of nature and the charm of the arts.  

14.  The key to progress is whether the lover is motivated to seek the eidos or form of beauty, universal beauty.

15.  Pay special attention to the kinds of discourse that express the response to beauty on the different rungs of the ladder.  In particular, think of the shift from the physical level to the level of the appreciation of the quality of character or soul.

16.  Regarding laws or customs, you might think of the nobility of a constitution that makes provision for the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government.  Think also of beauty as a way of acting, how we do what we do.

17.  Realize the asymmetry of truth, beauty, and goodness for Plato.  Beauty we initially respond to on a physical level.  Truth conveys what the intellect can understand and comprehend.  Beauty and goodness seem to be on a higher level.  (One might say a spiritual level, except that Plato does not sustain the Socratic realization of the indwelling divine spirit (daimon) and continues to talk of reason (nous, intellect) as the function of mind operating on both the level of mathematical and philosophical science and on the level of insight into that which is beyond being or essence (as the Republic says of the good).  The Republic and the Symposium both represent their highest "forms," goodness and beauty, as on a level beyond everything else philosophy can strive to grasp (e.g., justice, courage, and so on). 


Platonic eros and Christian agape

            The term "love" in English is used to translate three words in Greek: eros (the topic of this dialogue), agape (spiritual love) , and philia (friendship or loving relationship generally).  It's not clear that eros and agape are properly interpreted as competitors, as though they were answers to the same question.  Nevertheless, Plato's (Socrates’ [Diotima’s]) teaching on “erotic” love in the Symposium has been criticized by Lutheran (Protestant Christian) theologian Anders Nygren as being diametrically opposed to the quality of love (agape–the New Testament word) that Jesus taught.  I have constructed, from part of Nygren’s famous book, Agape and Eros, the following table of contrasts.  




Acquisitive desire and longing

Sacrificial giving

An upward movement

Comes down from fullness to need

Man’s way to God

God’s way to man

Man’s effort; it assumes that man’s salvation is his own work

God’s grace; salvation is the work of divine love

Egocentric love, a form of self-assertion of the highest, noblest, most sublime kind

Unselfish love; it “seeketh not its own”; it gives itself away

Seeks to gain its life, a life divine, immortalized

Lives the life of God, and thus dares to lose one’s life

The will to get and possess, which depends on want and need

Freedom in giving, which depends on wealth and plenty

Primarily man’s love; God is the object of Eros.  Even when it is attributed to God, Eros is patterned on human love.

Primarily God’s love; God is agape.  Even when it is attributed to man, agape is patterned on divine love.

Determined by the quality, the beauty and worth of its object; it is not spontaneous, but “evoked,” “motivated”

Sovereign in relation to its object, directed to both “the evil and the good”; spontaneous, overflowing, unmotivated

Recognizes value in its object—and loves it

Loves—and creates value in its object


Nikolai Berdaiev teaches that we need both types of love (see the packet, especially Slavery and Freedom Chapter 1, Personality, pp. 55-56).  Here are questions for you to answer. 

1.  Is it really possible to combine both types of love?  If you do not identify with the religious dimension of Nygren’s concept of agape, substitute your own, non-religious or differently religious concept.

2.  Is there any evidence in Socrates of the type of love Nygren calls agape? 

3.  Berdiaev has a dramatic sense of the higher and lower in man.  Berdiaev’s position bears a remote similarity to Pausianias’ speech in the Symposium (Rouse pp. 78-82) distinguishing a higher, noble kind of eros from a lower, vulgar kind of eros.  Socrates, however, seems implicitly to respond that those who seek beauty in the full sense (the eidos or form, “the beautiful itself”) show, by their integrative experience, that eros is one.  Is love one or two?

4.  How does philosophy as “the love of wisdom” fit—if at all—into these types?