The vivid love-speeches of the Symposium come to us, reach us, through several layers of incomplete remembrance, and as though from a mythic past…
Symposium (or Drinking Party) by Plato, translated and edited by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Hackett, 2017)
Why hast thou nothing in thy face? Thou idol of the human race, Thou tyrant of the human heart, The flower of lovely youth that art; Yea, and that standest in thy youth, An image of eternal Truth…—Eros, Robert Bridges
The Symposium is one of Plato’s most beloved and widely read dialogues. And no wonder: Its theme is Eros—erotic love, the all-consuming passion that has inspired countless poems, plays, novels, songs, operas and (in our day) movies. We turn to the works of great authors who have written about love to better understand both love and ourselves. Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus stand out as two of the greatest works on this topic. What is this passion that inspires, torments and consumes us? What causes it, and what does it want? Is there anything to the idea (which Plato appears to share with the poet Dante) that erotic love is somehow connected with the divine?
For the ancient Greeks, Eros was both the passion of love and the god Eros, who is closely associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual delight. Death, Sleep, and Eros are all represented as human males with wings. Eros, however, grows younger with time. Early on, he is a winged youth; in classical times he recedes to early adolescence, while later on he is depicted as a little boy. At this point, he multiplies: swarms of Erotes, baby Cupids, now come on the scene. If the speakers in the Symposium are envisioning the Eros they are praising, he probably has the age and aspect of a paidika or boy-love—a winged one.
Homer does not speak of Eros as a god, but Hesiod calls him “the most beautiful among immortal gods, a limb-loosener who subdues the mind in the breast and the thoughtful counsel of all gods and all men.” In the poems of Hesiod and Parmenides, he is connected with cosmic beginnings, as several speakers in the Symposium attest. The great lyric poets of earlier generations, such as Sappho and Anacreon, sang, as such poets do, primarily of Love—though not to praise but to blame. Here is the kind of thing they typically said. First Sappho, their chief:
Once again, Eros, the limb-loosener churns me up—
A bittersweet, intolerable thing.
Or, more brutally, Anacreon:
Once again, Eros, like a blacksmith, has whacked me
With his huge axe, and doused me in a wintry ditch.
Later the tragedians chime in:
Eros, unconquerable in battle! You, Eros who fall on our possessions!…
He who has you within is mad.
You twist the hearts of the just to be unjust—to their ruin.
For these poets, the god, whose name is a passion, is a power not to be praised but to be feared: “Oh no, not again!” So the somewhat effetely civilized dinner company in Plato’s dialogue will be trying not so much to fill in a blank as to reverse a fiercely knowledgeable poetic tradition about Eros.
Love’s blame is the unstated background of the Symposium, where formal speeches of praise replace (almost) Socratic conversation. The speakers, who have gathered at Agathon’s house to celebrate this young poet’s first triumph, set out to extol Eros as the divine cause of our greatest happiness. Socrates, who claims to know nothing but “erotica” or love-matters (177D), agrees to be part of this program but in his speech makes a dramatic change.
Through a no doubt fictional love teacher, he presents Love not as a god but as a daemon or spirit that is intermediate between gods and humans, the immortal and the mortal. This is the central teaching of the Symposium: Eros, as the desire for a vision of the Beautiful Itself, is an in-between being, in Greek, a metaxy ti.
The Symposium has a complex narrative frame that captures the real-life difficulties of transmission. The dialogue begins in mid-conversation, as Apollodorus, a follower of Socrates, tells an unnamed comrade that he’s not “unpracticed” in remembering what the comrade wants to hear: The love-speeches that were given at a drinking party at Agathon’s house. Apollodorus is not unpracticed because just the other day another friend, Glaucon, had asked him the same thing, and he obliged. Apollodorus was not himself present at the party but heard about it from someone who was—Aristodemus, another of Socrates’ followers. Apollodorus admits that neither he nor his informant could remember everything that was said (178A). And so, the vivid love-speeches of the Symposium come to us, reach us, through several layers of incomplete remembrance, and as though from a mythic past.
After an amusing story about how Aristodemus ended up going to the party at Socrates’ invitation, Apollodorus recalls Aristodemus’ account of what happened at Agathon’s house. The seriously hungover guests and their host forego the customary heavy drinking to give formal speeches in honor of the god Eros, whose praise, they think, has been strangely neglected. In order of their speeches, the men are Phaedrus, who gives the company their theme; Pausanias, a follower of the sophists and Agathon’s lover; Eryximachus, the doctor in the house and master of ceremonies; Aristophanes, Athens’ most famous comic playwright; Agathon (whose name means “good”), the famously beautiful and recently victorious young tragedian; and the philosopher Socrates, who refutes Agathon’s claims about Love and then reports what he learned about Love from a prophetess named Diotima. Finally, there is the party-crasher, Alcibiades—Athens’ brilliant statesman, general, and bad boy. He breaks into the party drunk and gives a speech praising not the god Eros but the godlike Socrates. After Alcibiades exposes what he takes to be the real Socrates, whom he alone has seen, revelers arrive and heavy drinking puts a stop to speech-making. The narration ends with Socrates drinking everybody under the table and trying to persuade the tragedian Agathon and the comedian Aristophanes that the same man should be able to write both tragedy and comedy. After they fall asleep and morning dawns, an unfazed Socrates goes off to spend the rest of his day as usual before going home to take his rest.
Agathon won at the Lenaea, a winter festival of Dionysus, which took place early in 416 BCE, sometime in January/February. This gives us the dramatic date of the drinking party recalled by Apollodorus. Other important events and dates for the Symposium include the beginning of the war between Athens and Sparta in 431, the Sicilian expedition (which proved disastrous for Athens) in 415–413, and the trial and execution of Socrates in 399. When the reported symposium is taking place, Socrates (born 469) is fifty-three and Alcibiades (born 451) is thirty-five. Agathon (born around 445 or a little earlier) is about thirty.
A more extensive discussion of the Symposium appears after the translation in our interpretive essay. For now, we propose the following basic points that readers should keep in mind as they make their way through the dialogue:
- “Love” translates the Greek noun Erôs, which can refer to either the god of erotic love or the love-passion itself.
- Erotic love between males is presented, with more or less emphasis, as higher than other erotic loves. (This should not prevent readers from asking how what is said about Eros applies to all forms of erotic attachment.)
- The dramatic details have philosophic and not merely literary importance.
- The dialogue is about erotic love, but it is also about rhetoric, especially the rhetoric of praise—the so-called encomium or panegyric.
- Poetry and myth are recurring themes, along with comedy and tragedy.
- The speeches are strongly influenced by the sophists, professional teachers who wandered from city to city and traded learning for pay.
- Each speaker has his own theology.
- Each speech, in addition to having a distinctive content or teaching, has its own character, style, tone, and vocabulary— its own “vibe.”
- The order of the speeches is important, and the reader must regularly search out possible connections between any one speech and all the others.
- The Symposium is one of Plato’s most visual dialogues. The reader must imagine, as the characters deliver their love- speeches, that they do so not from a standing position but reclining on couches, leaning on the left elbow with the right hand free to do whatever.
- Finally, no one Platonic dialogue gives a comprehensive treatment of its apparent topic, or of the philosopher, or of the Whole that the philosopher seeks to Apart from our never hearing Plato in the dialogues but only his characters, each dialogue focuses on certain aspects of philosophy or philosophic topics and downplays or neglects others. Socrates’ account of Eros in the Symposium differs significantly from that in the Phaedrus. Moreover, his inspired account of a philosophic “ascent” in the Symposium, unlike the one he gives in the Republic, makes no mention of mathematics as another, perhaps complementary, daimôn or mediator between mortal opinion and immortal truth, or even of dialectic.
In preparing this edition of the Symposium, we consulted a wide range of translations. Especially helpful were those by Seth Benardete, M.C. Howatson, and W.R.M. Lamb. We also regularly consulted the excellent German version by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Our goal was to devise a translation that was as faithful as possible to the Greek original in vocabulary and syntax, and that captured the playfulness of the interchanges and the varying tones of the formal speeches. We hope that our readers, as they reflect on what is said in the Symposium about love and other matters, will experience the sheer pleasure of reading—if only in translation—this astonishing product of Plato’s incomparable art.
This essay is excerpted from Hackett Publishing Company’s (March 2017) edition of the Symposium and is published by permission of the publisher. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Theogony 120 ff. 2 Fr. 130.
 Fr. 130.
 Fr. 413.
 Sophocles, Antigone 781 ff.
 The poetic indictment of Love accords with the philosophic critique of Eros in the Republic, where Socrates says that Eros “has from old been called a tyrant” (9.573B).
 The narration occurs around 402, since Agathon moved to Macedonia in 407 and the dialogue took place “years” after that but before his death in 401 (172C).
 Among those present at Agathon’s party, Phaedrus and Agathon are the youngest (Phaedrus was born around 444), and Alcibiades the oldest (after Socrates).