Tragic Love Dialogue Assignment

Plato's Symposium


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Does Plato's Symposium seem to validate or to undercut Foucault and/or Halperin in the matter of whether people generally have, most places and most times, understood sexuality more or less the same way? Do such modern concepts of "homosexual" or "heterosexual" apply here? How so or how not?


This work, entitled Symposium (Greek sumposion, "drinking party"), was written ca. 380-370 BCE — that's not much better than a guess.

The dramatic situation is that the tragic poet Agathon (a character in Aristophanes' Ladies' Day, which we'll be reading soon) has won the prize for tragedy; he is throwing yet another party to celebrate. (The previous night, he, his troupe, and many of the same friends went on a real bender.) Here, the main thread is a kind of party game: guests at Agathon's party have to give speeches in praise of love.

Socrates' love speech is saved for last, but there is much of interest in what precedes. Plus, there is a fascinating epilogue as the drunken Alcibiades bursts in.

Drinking parties (sumposia) were elaborate affairs and highly ritualized: pre-party bath; arrival and foot/hand washing; dinner; mixing of wine and water; drink offerings to Dionysus, Aphrodite, and Zeus the Savior; drinking. The ethos of the symposium was one of sharing and sociality. But they could, and, evidently, often did, turn into riotous occasions. Entertainment could include singing and recitation, but often would involve bringing in professional performers, including prostitutes. At Agathon's party, the assembled company decides against heavy drinking. Later, though, that begins to fall apart when Alcibiades walks in the door . . . .


Plato, son of Ariston, ca. 429-347 BCE. Athenian aristocrat, philosopher. Student of Socrates (a speaker in this dialogue), Plato taught Aristotle and many others at the school he founded, the Academy, named after the park it was located in.

Literary Form

Strictly speaking, dialogue within a dialogue. The work purports to be the words of Apollodorus telling a friend what he had told Glaucon (probably the Glaucon who was Plato's brother) about a party he had heard about from Aristodemus, who was there. So what we have presents a complex framing, with speakers quoting or paraphrasing other speakers.

Aristodemus, as quoted-paraphrased by Apollodorus, thus summarizes goings-on that he was witness to. Most important are the love speeches guests were required to deliver. But Socrates, one of the guests, declines to supply his own; rather, he quotes his own teacher in love, one Diotima. Given that Diotima's is the central speech in the dialogue, it is striking that it reaches its final audience — us — as indirectly as it does (Diotima > Socrates > Aristodemus > Apollodorus regaling his friends > Plato, the author > us.)

That indirection needs to be understood in relation to the dialogue's transparently inauthentic authenticity. Its realistic tone, like a tape-recorded conversation, collapses in the face of the indirect and reconstructive-fictive character of the whole thing. So, for instance, Apollodorus describes how one Glaucon, very curious about this famous party, got its date all wrong. This Glaucon, probably the Glaucon who was Plato's real-life brother, thus seems to suggest the author's disconnection from the "reality" his dialogue claims to represent.

Dramatic Date

Of Agathon's drinking party: exactly 416 BCE. Of Apollodorus' recollection of it, sometime around 405.


Our translation uses one word, "love," for various terms in the Greek. So here's some of that vocabulary:

  • eros. Lust, desire, potentially, for anything. By default, though, eros stands for desire of a sexual nature. Pederasty was conventionally supposed to involve only the man's eros for the boy. Contrast philia, though eros is sometimes presented as a broadly defined concept including philia within its scope. Eros (same word) the god personifies love
    • Pausanias talks about two kinds of eros:
      • "common" or "pandemian," i.e., carnal lust, plain and simple — a "vulgar" form of eros
      • "heavenly" or "uranian," i.e., sublimated attraction to a boy's (not a woman's) inner beauty — a more noble type of eros
  • himeros. Effectively identical to eros
  • pothos. Desire in the sense of feeling the lack or absence of something/someone — the pangs of yearning
  • epithumia. Generic desire
  • eunoia. The benevolence and kindness a good lover (erastes) is supposed to show his beloved (eromenos)
  • philia.Affection, friendly feeling, friendship, love. Honorable pederasty was supposed to involve two-way philia: man's for boy and boy's for man
  • "darling." translates Greek paidika, a term of quasi-endearment refering to the eromenos, the younger "beloved"

Speakers and Summary

What follows sketches the overall shape of the dialogue. Be warned: reading the following cannot substitute for reading the dialogue itself.

Outer frame. Accosted by friends wanting to know about Agathon's famous party, Apollodorus proceeds to tell them what he has heard from Aristodemus, one of Socrates' "groupies" and an eyewitness to the goings-on.

Party and Speeches. Phaedrus' speech. Phaedrus proposes that each guest at Agathon's party deliver a speech on the subject of eros, "love." In his speech (the first), Phaedrus relates the love god's power to his antiquity: he was among the first generation of deities. He is thus a cosmic force. Phaedrus further proposes that armies and states be composed of pederastic pairings, one might say, à la Harmodius and Aristogeiton. (Though Phaedrus makes no mention of them, Pausanias does.)

Pausanias' speech. Recognizing eros as a problematic, Pausanias tries to sort things out by dividing eros in two: chaste love (uranian or "heavenly" love), which he privileges; carnal passion (pandemian or "vulgar" love), which he does not. The former, spiritual in essence, is confined to the love of younger men by older. The latter can represent any passion, homo- or heteroerotic, concerned exclusively with bodily pleasure. When Pausanias comments on various legal systems that either do or don't allow the "lover to have his way," he means "permit the (male) lover (erastes) to have sex with his (male) beloved (eromenos)."

Note that Pausanias is Agathon's homoerotic lover.

Eryximachus's speech. Eryximachus, a physician, sees everything through a doctor's eyes. Still, Eryximachus has more to say on love in relation to music than to medicine. Eryximachus builds on Pausanias' chaste-vulgar dichotomy to suggest that "heavenly" eros conduces to harmony and health in all things, "vulgar/earthly" eros to discord and illness.

Aristophanes' speech. This is the Aristophanes, author of the famous comedies. No surprise, Aristophanes concocts a perfectly ludicrous, yet very important and, perhaps, revealing, myth of a race of composite sphere-people: balls originally consisting of two individuals united in unending union. But then Zeus split them in two, with the two halves (and the offspring of the two halves) eternally seeking to reunite with the gender of the original union. Hence the halves of orginally same-sex unions give rise to individuals who naturally feel homoerotic desire, while the offspring of halves split off from different-sex unions naturally feel heteroerotic desire.

Agathon's speech. Agathon, renowned tragic playwright and Pausanias' post-adolescent eromenos, we'll soon meet in Aristophanes Ladies' Day. Agathon takes issue with Phaedrus on the antiquity of Eros. According to Agathon, Eros is the youngest, not oldest, of the gods, delicate and soft — almost effeminate. Yet Eros wields great power through his beauty.

Socrates' speech. Socrates starts out by demolishing Agathon's theory of love: since desire is all about lack, the god of desire must lack the beauty Agathon attributes to him.

Socrates then proceeds to quote his own teacher on love, one. . .

Diotima, evidently a priestess, and probably to be regarded as possessing prophetic powers. (We seem to have a pun on Mantinea, Diotima's home city and a word suggesting the "mantic," or prophetic, art.) But whether she was a real person or not we can't say.

It is striking, and probably key to understanding the dialogue, to keep in mind that Diotima's is the only female voice we hear. At the same time, her voice is the most distant of all due to the boxes-in-boxes framing — more in David Halperin's essay, "Why Is Diotima a Woman?" (One Hundred Years of Homosexuality And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. 113-54. Print).

At the same time, Diotima's are the most important speeches in the dialogue. According to Diotima, Eros is neither god nor mortal, but something in between, a quasi-divine "spirit" (daimon). Child of Poros ("Resourcefulness") and Penia ("Lack"), Eros isn't beauty but the desire for beauty. Proximity to beautiful bodies creates desire to beget children; proximity to wise persons possessing spiritual beauty creates desire to spawn wise thoughts. All desire ultimately reduces to love not of individual beautiful things/persons, but of Beauty itself (i.e., god, truth, etc.).

Alcibiades' entry and speech. In his youth and continuing into adulthood, Alcibiades (a real person) was one of the most sought-after beauties in the city. Socrates was said to be a lover of his, the only one Alcibiades ever respected. Very rich and hugely gifted as statesman, orator, military commander, and self-promoter, Alcibiades was an unpredictable schemer — ambitious, violent, and self-centered. His shield was said to show the god Eros wielding Zeus' thunderbolts.

Rather than speak in praise of Eros, Alcibiades, who bursts in drunk mid-party, praises Socrates. According to Alcibiades, Socrates, whose somewhat grotesque appearance suggests the features of a satyr or silen, is just like one of those satyr/silen toys in sculpture shops. Open up the statuettes and you'll find little gods inside; go beneath Socrates' grotesque exterior and you find god-like temperance and wisdom. Still, Socrates' talk, like the flute music of the satyr Marsyas, exerts an irresistible, hubristic charm. So watch out! He'll try to seduce you to a life of uncompromising sophrosune and philosophy.

Study Questions

  1. Do we find here yet another instance of sexuality conflated with gender? (At the risk of oversimplifying: male good, female bad; love of male good; love of female bad.) If so, what to make of the role of Diotima, clearly, the most important speaker (whether or not Socrates is making her up) and, significantly, a woman sage?

  2. What do you make of Pausanias' seeming anti-straight (?) bias — indeed, of a perhaps anti-straight, perhaps even misogynistic, thrust to the dialogue as a whole?

  3. Does this dialogue validate or invalidate the structures of pederasty as presented in pseudo-Demosthenes' Erotic Essay and Foucault's analysis of that work? Where does a speech like Aristophanes' leave us as regards issues of essentialism versus contructionism? Where does Agathon's potently effeminate Eros, or Diotima's altogether novel conception of eros, leave us as regards the asymmetry hypothesis?

  4. Or is it possible that conventional notions of pederasty (i.e., as discussed by ps.-D. and Foucault) actually inform the otherwise novel and idiosyncratic views expressed by speakers in the dialogue?

  5. What is Eryximachus' role in the dialogue? Alcibiades'? Comic relief or something deeper?


AScholtz home | BU home | || © Andrew Scholtz. Last updated September 25, 2013

Introductory Dialogue

The dialogues at a party at Agathon’s house, which occurred years previous to this telling in Athens, are retold in this piece by Apollodorus to a friend, who is only described as a rich businessman. As Apollodorus explains to his friend, he had recently retold it to Glaucon, having heard it from Aristodemus, one of the fellows at the dinner. The dinner was held the day following a victory celebration for Agathon’s prize for his first tragedy.

Apollodorus expresses to his friend he will be glad to tell the story, since he gains pleasure from engaging in philosophical conversation, being bored by all other talk, particularly that of rich businessmen, who he describes as failures. His friend accuses Apollodorus of thinking everyone, even himself, are worthless, except for Socrates, an accusation Apollodorus does not refute. Socrates was known by Glaucon and Apollodorus’ friend to have been a part of the dialogues at Agathon’s.

Apollodorus decides to begin the story from the very beginning, before the dialogues began, as Aristodemus told him. Aristodemus ran into Socrates, who invited the former to the dinner he was heading to at Agathon’s. Aristodemus felt he was an inferior arriving uninvited, but proceeded to follow Socrates.

During their walk, Socrates lagged behind as he would stop to think about something. Aristodemus waited, until Socrates urged him to continue, causing him to arrive at Agathon’s alone. Agathon sends one of his slaves to fetch Socrates, found standing in a neighbor’s porch. However, Socrates did not join the gathering until about halfway through dinner, sitting next to Agathon.

Upon the meal’s end, as they were about to turn their attention to drinking, Pausanias addressed the group, asking if they could drink less, as he still had a hangover from the previous night’s celebration. Agathon and others agreed they lacked the strength for another night of heavy drinking. Eryximachus, a doctor, agreed, and sent away the flute girl, proposing instead they pass the night in conversation.

He continues on to quote Phaedrus, present at the gathering, who had noted the lack of hymns and works by intellectuals dedicated to the ‘god of love.’ Eryximachus therefore proposes the night be spent giving speeches in praise of Love, from left to right, beginning with Phaedrus. All agree, with the slight complaint of Socrates that he would go last, fearing he’d have nothing to add. Despite this, they continued, pressing Phaedrus to begin. Apollodorus here says that Aristodemus did not remember all the speeches exactly, but the most important point would be conveyed.

The Speech of Phaedrus

Phaedrus begins his speech reiterating that Love is a god, and is actually one of the most ancient gods. According to Hesiod, he was born to Chaos and Earth. Love gives us the greatest goods and guidance. Guidance is given through shame when acting shamefully and pride when acting well. Phaedrus explains this further by describing that when in front of a boy he loves, a man will be most ashamed or most proud. A city or an army made up of lovers would be the best possible system of society, since they would hold each other back from shameful acts, he claims.

Phaedrus then tells two stories to exemplify why only a lover, even a woman, will die for their beloved: that of Alcestis and Achilles. Alcestis was the only person willing to die in place of her husband, making even his parents look like outsiders. Her deed struck all as noble, so the gods sent her back from the dead, an honor granted to few. He also tells the story of Orpheus, who charmed his way into Hades for his wife, but unwilling to give up his life, was only given an image of her and was not praised.

Achilles had been sent to the Isles of the Blest having decided to avenge Patroclus, his lover, even though he knew he would be killed if he did. He chose to die for Patroclus, a person whose life was already over. The gods gave him special honor. Phaedrus claims that Achilles received higher honor than Alcestis because the former was the beloved, or the pursued, by Patroclus while Alcestis was the lover, or the pursuer of her husband. The gods are more generous with a loved one who cherishes his lover than vice versa.


From the introductory dialogue, the reader is immediately drawn into a complex and indirect narration structure. The story is told to the reader, or Plato, by Apollodorus, who relies on his recent telling of the story to Glaucon on the road to Athens, having heard it from Aristodemus. Although Apollodorus is a historian and checked some facts with Socrates, the report to the reader is very indirect, not inspiring complete confidence.

This indirectness continues throughout the book. Speeches are given in direct discourse, but conversation among members of Agathon’s party are retold in Aristodemus’ words, reminding the reader of the layers of narration. The elaborate structure distances the reader from the philosophical ideas in Plato’s work. They create temporal distance and suggest the fictional nature of the dialogues. The complex frame’s distancing also warns against considering Socrates’ or any of the speeches with absolute authority.

The descriptions of Socrates as he walks to the dinner with Aristodemus both begin to shape the image of his character, which will become important particularly in the last speeches, and set the lighthearted tone of the dialogues. This tone is further emphasized when Agathon’s guests are deciding what to do for the night.

Phaedrus’ speech focuses on self-sacrifice and the beautiful acts that love begets. He indiscriminately praises love and exemplifies the self-sacrificial acts through three stories. The speech introduces the idea that love leads to virtuous action, a central theme in Diotima’s account of love, even though they define love differently. This sense of introduction and exemplification is emphasized in the clear, balanced, and concise style of Phaedrus’ speech.

The stories of Alcestis and Achilles exemplify the acts of self-sacrifice that arise out of love, the acts originating from a love theorized in Diotima’s speech. Phaedrus makes the guests understand that goodness is “beautiful deeds.” The stories of Alcestis and Achilles show that it is beautiful to give one’s life for another, and this is more beautiful than doing the same while simultaneously trying to preserve one’s own life. Retreat might be better, but not more beautiful, Phaedrus argues by comparing Alcestis and Achilles to Orpheus, who still preserved his own life in his actions for his beloved.

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