A young man named Apollodorus, a disciple of Socrates, is walking along with an unnamed companion. He tells his friend the story of a recent conversation with another friend, Glaucon, in which he told the story of a dinner party that had taken place more than a decade ago in Athens. Apollodorus wasn’t at the party, but an acquaintance named Aristodemus, also Socrates’s disciple, was there, and he told Apollodorus all about what he saw and heard there.
One day, Aristodemus says, he came upon Socrates, who invited him to a dinner party, or symposium, at tragic poet Agathon’s house. At the symposium (a Greek ritual banquet that includes libations to the gods, hymns, and drinking wine), Eryximachus, a doctor, proposes that they take turns giving speeches in praise (also called eulogies) of Love, or the god Eros.
Phaedrus, a young student of rhetoric, gives the first speech. He says that Love is an old god who gives great benefits, such as the relationship between a lover and his boyfriend. Such relationships instill both pride and shame, which are important for living a good life. He also says that Love gives lovers and boyfriends the courage to die for another, which can be useful to society, especially in war.
Pausanius, Agathon’s older lover, argues that it’s important to distinguish between Common love and Heavenly love. Common love is felt by inferior people and directed toward women and unintelligent boys. Heavenly love is directed toward older boys who are beginning to develop intelligence. Even in the latter type of relationship, a boyfriend should only gratify his lover if there’s also a mutual interest in developing the boyfriend’s intelligence and virtue.
In his speech, Eryximachus discusses the insights he has gained about love from his practice of medicine. In particular, he sees how love is involved in the balancing of bodily humors, of musical harmonies, of the weather, and of relationships between humans and the gods.
Comedic writer Aristophanes begins his speech with a myth. He explains that humans used to consist of two half-humans—each person consisted of two males, two females, or one male and one female. When these primordial humans threatened the gods, Zeus cut them in half. The resulting half-humans were sexually attracted to the type with which they’d originally been united—either men to women (and vice versa), women to women, or men to men. Regardless, each half-human longs and searches for reunion with his or her “other half.” Ultimately, then, love is the search of what is like oneself.
Agathon’s speech is the most rhetorically impressive so far, though it has relatively little substance. He lauds Love as the most beautiful god, both possessing wonderful things within himself and conferring those qualities on all good things.
When Socrates begins to speak, he first asks Agathon some challenging questions. He gets Agathon to agree that Love must be love of something that Love does not already possess. Socrates then tells the story of his dialogue with a wise woman named Diotima of Mantinea. Diotima helps Socrates see that Love isn’t actually a god, but rather a daimon, an intermediary spirit. This form is proven by the fact that the gods are already perfectly happy and beautiful, but since Love needs something, he can’t be a god. She also challenges Socrates to identify “love” not with the beloved object, but with the one who needs and seeks the thing beloved. Moreover, the beloved object—the good—is desired forever.
Diotima goes on to explain that love’s function is “giving birth in beauty both in body and in mind.” By this she means, in short, that immortality is the object of love. People often try to achieve this immorality through reproduction—having biological children. However, men who birth “immortal” children—like virtues and philosophical discourses—take a superior path.
Diotima further explains that all she’s said so far leads to “the final mysteries.” She describes a “ladder of ascent,” which shows how a wisdom-loving soul proceeds toward a vision of the eternal Good. This ascent starts with love for one body, but it gradually recognizes the beauty of all bodies, then proceeds from bodies to minds, and then begins to apprehend the interrelation of all types of beauty. The more one appreciates beauty in general, the less attached he is to specific instances of beauty. Once he reaches this point, he is able to see Beauty as it eternally exists in itself, not simply as it appears in those specific things that share in its character. Only at this point does the philosopher (the lover of wisdom) produce the kind of virtue that leads to immortality.
Shortly after Socrates concludes his speech, Alcibiades, the notorious and handsome politician who is Socrates’s lover, drunkenly barges into the party. He insists on eulogizing Socrates himself rather than Love, speaking of Socrates’s famed moderation, sexual restraint, and constant occupation with philosophical problems, even in the midst of the battlefield. Alcibiades is helplessly attracted to Socrates, but Socrates’s way of life is baffling, and Alcibiades can’t bring himself to emulate it. He nevertheless commends Socrates’s discourses, which cover most of what one must know in order to become a good person. The symposium dissolves into chaos soon after, and after a little further talk with Agathon and Aristophanes, Socrates departs alone the next morning.