The Symposium

by

Plato

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The Symposium: 212b-222b Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
While the guests are discussing Socrates’s speech, there’s suddenly a loud knocking on the door, the sound of revelers, and the noise of a flute-girl. Soon they hear Alcibiades’s drunken voice in the courtyard, and Alcibiades is led in, wearing a garland on his head.
In contrast to the earlier dismissal of the flute-girl, creating a deliberately male-only, intellectually-oriented space—and in contrast to the loftiness of Socrates’s speech—now the trappings of the outside world suddenly disrupt the gathering, marked by the drunkenness of the roguish political figure Alcibiades, who brings with him a more overt suggestion of sexuality. Alcibiades’s garland is suggestive of the god Dionysus, who was associated with lack of restraint in drinking.
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Alcibiades asks if he’s allowed to join the party, even though he’s very drunk, and promises to bestow his garland on the wisest and most beautiful man present. Everyone enthusiastically invites him in. He doesn’t notice Socrates at first because of the ribbons he’s wearing, which are blocking his vision. When he gives his garland to Agathon and notices Socrates, he says that Socrates has once again been lying in wait for him where he was least expected. Socrates comments that his love for Alcibiades has become a nuisance because Alcibiades is such a jealous lover.
Alcibiades and Socrates were well-known to have been lovers, a point that will be very significant for Alcibiades’s forthcoming speech. The fact that the ribbons block Alcibiades’s view of Socrates reinforces the idea that unrestrained frivolity can interfere with clear-eyed perception of wisdom.
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Alcibiades ties some of his ribbons on Socrates. Then he “elects” himself master of ceremonies for the symposium and, because the other men aren’t drunk enough, he fills a large vessel with unmixed wine. He adds to the rest of the company: “Not that my trick will have any effect on Socrates, gentlemen. However much you tell him to drink, he drinks without ever getting more drunk.”
Alcibiades, in keeping with his reputation for disregarding social conventions, breaks taboos by appointing himself host of Agathon’s symposium and not diluting the wine, as was proper. He also refers to Socrates’s famed sobriety—Socrates is so advanced in his detachment from sensory vices that he doesn’t have to make any special effort to avoid drunkenness, setting him outside the boundaries of classical Greek religion and social norms.
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Eryximachus explains that evening’s activity of giving eulogies in praise of love. Alcibiades ends up deciding to eulogize Socrates instead, telling the truth about his peculiarities. He compares Socrates to Marsyas the satyr, saying both are “insulting and abusive,” like flute players who bewitch others by the power of their mouths.
The Greek word Alcibiades uses for “abusive,” hubristes, has connotations of rape, with which satyrs were also associated. This usage is actually somewhat ironic, given Socrates’s notorious sexual restraint. Flute-playing is a metaphor for Socrates’s powers of speech.
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Alcibiades says that anyone who hears Socrates speak or hears his words reported is spellbound by his rhetorical power. The same is true for Alcibiades himself; when Socrates speaks, “My heart pounds and tears flood out…[Socrates disturbed] my whole personality and made me dissatisfied with the slavish quality of my life.” Rather than heeding this dissatisfaction, Alcibiades “neglects [himself] and instead [gets] involved in Athenian politics.” Alcibiades goes on to say that Socrates is the only person in whose presence he feels shame. He agrees with what Socrates tells him to do, but he inevitably gets “carried away by the people’s admiration.” 
Socrates was known to have tried to persuade Alcibiades to give up politics and pursue philosophy instead, but he was unable to guide Alcibiades toward becoming a better person. Alcibiades’s words suggest that despite Socrates’s strong rhetorical effect on him, he failed to be moved toward a higher pursuit of wisdom. Alcibiades’s mention of shame also recalls Phaedrus’s earlier claim that shame derived from love can be a useful motivation; Alcibiades’s failure to change seems to indicate that that claim isn’t valid.
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Warming to his subject, Alcibiades continues that Socrates is “erotically attracted to beautiful boys,” but if you were able to open him up, you’d discover that he’s actually “full of moderation.” He doesn’t care about anyone’s outward beauty or riches, but “spends his whole life pretending and playing with people.”
Alcibiades presents Socrates as someone who toys with people, conveying interest in them but not actually needing to indulge his desires. Alcibiades finds Socrates’s elevated way of life impossible to understand, hence his attributing it to irony or trickery rather than wisdom.
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Alcibiades was once so impressed by Socrates’s golden speech that he figured that if he gratified Socrates sexually, he’d be able to learn everything Socrates knows. He was therefore frustrated when he and Socrates spent a day alone together and even wrestled together in the gymnasium, but nothing sexual occurred. He even invited Socrates for dinner and made him spend the night after a long evening’s conversation, but this ploy failed—Socrates “completely triumphed over [Alcibiades’s] good looks” by refusing to sleep with him. Though humiliated, Alcibiades can’t help admiring Socrates’s self-control and tough-mindedness, feeling himself to be “more completely enslaved” to this man than ever.
Alcibiades’s account of Socrates’s invulnerability to his sexual charms has a humorous element, but it is also meant to show how soundly Plato rejects the type of sexual exchange Pausanias described earlier. Alcibiades is operating under the assumption that he can offer gratification in exchange for wisdom, but Socrates sees this as the wrong way of pursuing wisdom altogether. It also shows, again, Socrates’s restraint; he’s attained a level of wisdom that doesn’t require a lower, bodily expression of love.
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Sometime after this, Alcibiades and Socrates served together on an Athenian battle campaign. Alcibiades claims that Socrates endured the hardships of the battlefield better than anyone else did, even when the soldiers had to go without food. And yet, when they had a feast, “he was best able to enjoy it,” and when they all drank, Socrates “beat us all at it,” without getting drunk. He could also endure a bitterly cold winter while wearing thin clothing and no shoes. In another incident that Alcibiades relates, Socrates stood out in the open on the battlefield, contemplating a philosophical problem, from one dawn until the next, without moving.
Alcibiades’s anecdotes are set during the Peloponnesian War, a lengthy conflict between Athens and Sparta which would still have been ongoing at the time the Symposium is set. The anecdotes further illustrate Socrates’s detachment from material things: he can enjoy them, endure them, or go without them altogether, all without overindulging or unduly suffering. The story of Socrates standing still and contemplating recalls the incident earlier in the evening of the dinner party, when Socrates lingered on a neighboring porch until he’d resolved a mental problem.
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Alcibiades concludes that Socrates is “like no other human being, either of the past or the present.” He says that Socrates’s discourses are difficult to understand at first, and they may even seem ridiculous, but if one takes the time to consider them, they’ll find that “they’re the most divine and contain the most images of virtue. They range over most—or rather all—of the subjects that you must examine if you’re going to become a good person.”
Despite Alcibiades’s rather scornful tone at the outset of this speech, and his own inability to really understand or benefit from Socrates’s teaching, he ends up vindicating Socrates. In this unlikely way, Plato portrays Socrates as the ideal philosopher.
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