The Symposium

The Symposium Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Plato's The Symposium. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Plato

Plato is one of the most important philosophers who ever lived; his thought influenced the entire subsequent Western philosophical tradition. He was born into an aristocratic Greek family. His father was named Ariston and his mother Perictione, and he had two brothers and a sister. The young Aristocles was said to have been given his nickname, Plato, by his wrestling coach (platon means “broad” in Greek). In his youth Plato wanted to become a playwright, but in his late teens or early twenties he heard Socrates teaching in the marketplace and decided to devote his life to philosophy. Plato continued to study under Socrates until the age of 28, when, in 399 B.C., the older philosopher was tried and executed for impiety. After this, Plato spent time traveling around the Mediterranean before settling down in Athens to write and establish his Academy, which would become the predecessor of the modern university; Aristotle became his most famous student there. The Academy persisted until 86 B.C. Plato also invented the dialogue, a literary form which depicts a conversation between one or more characters. Some of his most famous dialogues (he wrote more than 20) include Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, and The Republic. Plato died at the age of 81.
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Historical Context of The Symposium

Even though an event exactly like the symposium portrayed in Symposium probably didn’t occur, ritual banquets like this one—marked by liberal drinking and deep discussion—were markers of culture and status in classical Athens and were attended by aristocratic men like the characters in the dialogue. In fact, the men in Symposium were all historical figures. Because Plato wrote this dialogue after Alcibiades was murdered (404 B.C.) and Socrates was executed (399 B.C.), we can also assume that he was trying to convey something of these men’s character to a younger generation that was still wrestling with the upheavals caused by the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) and the emergence of Athenian/Greek identity. Plato’s own influence as a philosopher made both an immediate and an ongoing cultural impact: his most famous Academy student, Aristotle, became the tutor of the young Alexander the Great, and Plato’s writings essentially launched the academic discipline of philosophy, from antiquity through the Middle Ages and down to the present day.

Other Books Related to The Symposium

Plato’s best known work, The Republic, especially sections 514-517 (“the cave”), discusses an ascent to goodness that provides an interesting comparison to Diotima’s ladder, within the context of an overall discussion of the ideal city-state. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written c. 523, is heavily influenced by Plato’s dialogues. It contains a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy and looks to God as the source of all good. Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1320), with its allegory of the soul’s journey toward God, also gives a later, Christian view of something akin to Diotima’s ladder of ascent.
Key Facts about The Symposium
  • Full Title: The Symposium
  • When Written: c. 385-370 B.C.
  • Where Written: Athens, Greece
  • When Published: c. 385-370 B.C.
  • Literary Period: Classical Greek
  • Genre: Platonic dialogue
  • Setting: Agathon’s house in Athens, Greece, in 416 B.C.
  • Climax: Socrates’s description of Diotima’s “ladder of love”
  • Antagonist: Alcibiades, and the other party guests to various extents
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for The Symposium

More than Friendship. Even though the concept of “Platonic Love” is often thought to have its origin in Symposium, the term doesn’t appear there. The colloquial understanding of the concept—which contrasts it with romantic love—actually has more in common with ideas found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. In Symposium Plato sees love as needing to transcend attachment to particular bodies and souls altogether, seeking union with eternal goodness and beauty.

The Invisible Plato. Although Plato portrays his teacher, Socrates, as well as many of his historical contemporaries as characters in many of his dialogues, Plato himself never appears in any of these texts—even at events at which he probably was present, such as the death of Socrates, which he describes in the dialogue Phaedo.