Socrates agrees that Agathon’s speech was filled with beautiful phrasing and says that it reminds him of the famed orator Gorgias. He goes on to say that he was mistaken in his understanding of how to eulogize a subject properly. Based on what he has heard in the others’ speeches, the goal has been to give the appearance of praising Love—ascribing the best things to Love to make him look as good as possible—without actually doing so. He says he won’t try to compete with those speeches, but offers instead to give a speech which tells the truth about Love.
Gorgias was a famous orator of the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C.—so, he would have been influential at the time that Symposium is set. He was known for the kind of poetic phrasing and weak argumentation found in Agathon’s speech. Socrates’s praise of Agathon’s speech, then, isn’t to be taken at face value. Likewise, Socrates has not misunderstood the goal of the evening’s speeches, but is rather indirectly critiquing what’s gone before. His own speech will take a different approach, and this moment serves as the first indication that Socrates’s approach will be more rational and measured than those that came before.
Socrates begins his speech by questioning Agathon on some of the points he made. First he asks Agathon, “Is it Love’s nature to be love of something or nothing?” Agathon replies that love is of something, “undoubtedly.” Socrates then establishes that love desires what it is love of and that it does not already possess that object of desire. After all, someone who is tall or wealthy doesn’t desire to be tall or wealthy, but rather desires to continue being those things in the future. Therefore, desire is “desire for what isn’t available and actually there. Desire and love are directed at what you don’t have, what isn’t there, and what you need.”
This is the primary instance of typical Socratic dialectic that occurs in Symposium. In such a dialogue, Socrates asks his conversation partner questions which are designed to show that person the inconsistency in his thinking and to lead him to a more coherent way of thinking. In this case, Socrates prompts Agathon to rethink his argument that love already has all good things within itself. He is also speaking of love or eros more in terms of general desire, rather than in the interpersonal sense emphasized by earlier speakers.
Next Socrates questions Agathon about his claim that love is beautiful. If the affairs of the gods are “organized through love of beautiful things,” as Agathon had said, then it follows, based on what they’ve just established, that love needs beauty and does not already possess it; therefore, it can’t be said that love is beautiful. The same conclusion holds true for good things; love seeks what is good and doesn’t already embody it. Agathon concedes that he can’t argue against any of this.
One could question Socrates’s assertion that if something “needs” beauty or goodness, that means it’s totally lacking in beauty or goodness itself. However, the point is that Socrates has shown the flaw in Agathon’s claim that love fully possesses all good things in itself . Agathon doesn’t push back against any of Socrates’s claims, showing that his speech really was fairly empty from a logical standpoint.