The Symposium

by

Plato

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Themes and Colors
The Nature of Love Theme Icon
Inferiority of Women Theme Icon
Sobriety, Restraint, and Wisdom Theme Icon
The Ascent to Immortality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Symposium, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Inferiority of Women Theme Icon

The symposium, or ritual banquet, at Agathon’s house is a very intentionally male space. Symposia would often include flute-girls (courtesans who provided entertainment and often flirted with guests), but after the men settle the question of how much the guests should drink that night, Eryximachus proposes that they should “send away the flute-girl who’s just come in, and let her play for herself, or for the women in their part of the house, if she prefers, and that we should spend the evening in conversation.” This statement underscores the fact that even the men and women within a given household were strictly segregated, it makes clear two key features of the symposium: first, it will be intellectually oriented (that is, not a space for women, who were thought irrational) and second, whatever eroticism occurs there will be male-oriented. The rest of Plato’s dialogue bears out the view that women are inferior to men. Even though Socrates’s speech modifies aspects of previous speakers’ views, like those of Pausanias and Aristophanes, Plato still argues through Socrates and the other guests that women are neither fit objects for men’s love, nor—because of their inherent irrationality—are they themselves capable of loving.

Pausanias, one of the symposium guests, argues that love for women is inherently “common” and inferior to love for boys or other men. This so-called common love is undiscriminating, felt only by “inferior” people. Such people “are attracted to women as much as boys, and to bodies rather than minds. They are attracted to partners with the least possible intelligence, because their sole aim is to get what they want.” In other words, women lack sufficient intelligence to be worthy objects of love; they exist purely so that men can satisfy their baser desires. “Heavenly” love, by contrast, is felt toward boys who are beginning to be capable of some intelligence (“around the time that they happen to grow a beard”). Because it’s founded on intelligence and virtue, this type of love is oriented toward “a fully shared life,” something that isn’t possible with women. According to Pausanias, “This [love]…is a source of great value to the city and to individuals, because it forces the lover to pay attention to his own virtue and the boyfriend to do the same. All other forms of love derive from the other Love, the Common one.” In other words, then, “common” love toward women is not only a waste of a man’s time, it’s also useless to society at large.

Aristophanes, through his myth-making, creates a space for the desire of women, but he ultimately argues that love of women is inferior to love of men, echoing Pausanias’s argument. After explaining how humans and their attractions came about through Zeus’s splitting in half of the double-humans who originally existed, he claims that men who love other men are “the best of their generation” and “naturally the bravest” because of their desire for what is “bold, brave and masculine.” They desire to return to the wholeness they once possessed, so they are attracted to those qualities they already have. He further argues that men with these superior desires will only settle for marriage and fatherhood out of the pressures of convention; since a lover “wants to find a loved one who naturally fits [his] character,” such men possess a primeval superiority.

Socrates’s presentation of the prophetess Diotima, and of her teaching rejecting aspects of previous speakers’ arguments, suggests that Plato has a somewhat more elevated view of women than was common in classical Greece, but this view ultimately doesn’t value women in and of themselves. The very fact that Diotima isn’t an ordinary human being, but rather a prophetess with access to wisdom that mortal humans can’t easily attain, underscores the fact that women weren’t viewed as equal to men in Plato’s society. Instead of overturning the widely held idea that women were irrational and inferior to men, Diotima’s status was intended by Plato to be shockingly unconventional.

Diotima’s teaching also presents a radical rethinking of reproduction that ultimately downplays physical childbearing as an inferior pursuit. Intercourse and reproduction, she explains, are one way that mortal human beings can get to close permanence and immortality. Men with merely “bodily” desires for children are drawn toward intercourse and childbearing with women, and that is praiseworthy; however, Diotima argues that there’s a still more superior path. There are men who “are even more pregnant in their minds than in their bodies, and are pregnant with what it is suitable for a mind to bear and bring to birth”—in other words, wisdom and virtue. Men with such intellectual desires are drawn toward other men, in order to form the kinds of friendships that can bear immortal children—things that are founded on virtue and will stand the test of time, like poetry, laws, and philosophical discourse. Such people “have a much closer partnership with each other and a stronger bond of friendship” than men and women can have with each other or parents can have with their biological children. Diotima takes for granted that “everyone would prefer to have children like [Homer’s or Hesiod’s] rather than human ones”—so even in Diotima’s view, natural childbearing is inferior to “mental” childbearing, the latter being something that only men can attain.

While Plato’s argument through Socrates doesn’t claim that marriage and conventional parenthood are worthless, it does prize intangible, philosophical beauty as an incomparably higher goal. “If someone could see beauty itself…not cluttered up with human flesh and colors and a great mass of mortal rubbish,” then that person couldn’t help but realize the superiority of beauty’s eternal form to anything found on earth. Only someone “who’s given birth to true virtue and brought it up”—something that only happens through men’s wisdom-seeking relationships with one another—"has the chance of becoming loved by the gods, and immortal.” Even with the example of Diotima as prophetess and educator of Socrates himself, there’s no place within Diotima’s scheme for a mortal woman who’s capable of pursuing true virtue or giving birth to immortal beauty.

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Inferiority of Women Quotes in The Symposium

Below you will find the important quotes in The Symposium related to the theme of Inferiority of Women.
180c-185c Quotes

Common Love is genuinely “common” and undiscriminating in its effects; this is the kind of love that inferior people feel. People like this are attracted to women as much as boys, and to bodies rather than minds. They are attracted to partners with the least possible intelligence, because their sole aim is to get what they want, and they don’t care whether they do this rightly or not. So the effect of love on them is that they act without discrimination: it is all the same to them whether they behave well or not.

Related Characters: Pausanias (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

These two rules must be combined (the one governing the love of boys and the one governing the love of wisdom and other kinds of virtue), to create the conditions in which it is right for a boy to gratify his lover. These conditions are realized when lover and boyfriend come together, each observing the appropriate rule: that the lover is justified in any service he performs for the boyfriend who gratifies him, and that the boyfriend is justified in any favor he does for someone who is making him wise and good. Also the lover must be able to develop the boyfriend’s understanding and virtue in general, and the boyfriend must want to acquire education and wisdom in general. When all these conditions are met, then and then alone it is right for a boyfriend to gratify his lover, but not otherwise.

Related Characters: Pausanias (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
201d-204c Quotes

‘Now I’ll let you go. I’ll try to restate for you the account of Love that I once heard from a woman from Mantinea called Diotima. She was wise about this and many other things. On one occasion, she enabled the Athenians to delay the plague for ten years by telling them what sacrifices to make. She is also the one who taught me the ways of Love. I’ll report what she said, using as a basis the conclusions I reached with Agathon, but doing it on my own, as far as I can.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Diotima of Mantinea, Agathon
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

“Who are the lovers of wisdom, Diotima,” I asked, “ if they are neither the wise nor the ignorant?”

“Even a child,” she said, “would realize by now that it is those who fall between these two, and that Love is one of them. Wisdom is one of the most beautiful things, and Love is love of beauty. So Love must necessarily be a lover of wisdom; and as a lover of wisdom he falls between wisdom and ignorance. Again the reason for this is his origin: his father is wise and resourceful while his mother has neither quality. So this is the nature of the spirit of Love, my dear Socrates. But it’s not at all surprising that you took the view of Love you did. To judge from what you said, I think you saw Love as the object of love instead of the lover: that’s why you imagined that Love is totally beautiful. But in fact beauty, elegance, perfection and blessedness are characteristic of the object that deserves to be loved, while the lover has a quite different character, which I have described.”

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:
204d-209e Quotes

“Men who are pregnant in body,” she said, “are drawn more towards women; they express their love in trying to obtain for themselves immortality and remembrance and what they take to be happiness forever by producing children. Men who are pregnant in mind - there are some,” she said, “who are even more pregnant in their minds than in their bodies, and are pregnant with what it is suitable for a mind to bear and bring to birth. So what is suitable? Wisdom and other kinds of virtue: these are brought to birth by all the poets and by those craftsmen who are said to be innovative.”

Related Characters: Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:
212b-222b Quotes

After Socrates’ speech, Aristodemus said, while the others congratulated him, Aristophanes was trying to make a point, because Socrates had referred to his speech at some stage. Suddenly, there was a loud noise of knocking at the front door, which sounded like revelers, and they heard the voice of a flute-girl.

‘Slaves, go and see who it is,’ Agathon said. ‘If it’s any of my friends, invite them in; if not, tell them the symposium’s over and we’re just now going to bed.’ Not long after, they heard the voice of Alcibiades in the courtyard; he was very drunk and was shouting loudly, asking where Agathon was and demanding to be brought to him. He was brought in, supported by the flute-girl and some of the other people in his group. He stood by the door, wearing a thick garland of ivy and violets, with masses of ribbons trailing over his head…

Related Characters: Agathon (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis: