The Symposium

by

Plato

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The Nature of Love Theme Analysis

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.
The Nature of Love Theme Icon

In the Symposium, the philosopher Plato’s dialogue set in Athens in the fifth century B.C., a man named Apollodorus describes a dinner party to an unnamed friend, who’s eager to hear what was discussed by famed the teacher Socrates and the other guests about love. Though Apollodorus wasn’t there himself, he tells the story based on the reports of a friend, Aristodemus, who accompanied Socrates to the dinner party. During the party, one guest, Eryximachus, suggests that they should take turns giving speeches, as is customary at such gatherings. On this occasion, each guest will take a turn praising Eros, the god of love. Through the speeches of various guests, including the playwright Aristophanes and the poet Agathon, and culminating in the speech of Socrates himself, Plato argues that love is the pursuit of what is good and beautiful.

In his speech, which consists of a myth he creates on the spot, Aristophanes argues that love is the pursuit of individual wholeness in union with another person. He says that, once upon a time, human beings looked much different. There were three genders—male, female, and androgynous. These humans each had two heads, two sets of arms and legs, and two sets of genitals. When these humans tried to reach heaven in order to attack the gods, Zeus decided to weaken them by cutting each human in half. Zeus later took pity on the hobbled humans and rebuilt their bodies so that they were capable of having sexual intercourse with each other. This was the beginning of human beings’ desire for one another: “It draws the two halves of our original nature back together and tries to make one out of two and to heal the wound in human nature.” The original composition of each half-human determines his or her current sexual attractions: formerly “androgynous” men are attracted to women, formerly “androgynous” women to men, and so forth.

Aristophanes concludes that humans’ longing for one another is not just the desire for sexual satisfaction, but “the desire [for] and pursuit of wholeness.” A lover “wants to find a loved one who naturally fits [their own] character.” Tucked inside the myth Aristophanes shares is the idea that humans are fundamentally incomplete on their own, and that love—finding another person with whom one fits, like a puzzle piece—is essentially the pursuit of completion. For Aristophanes, goodness and personal completion are one and the same.

In contrast, Agathon argues that the god eros, or Love, contains in itself the pinnacle of all good things and stands in need of nothing else: “Love is…supreme in beauty and excellence and…responsible for similar qualities in others.” Agathon gives an elaborate catalogue of Love’s praiseworthy qualities: “father of luxury, elegance, delicacy, grace, desire, longing […] every man should follow him [Love] singing beautiful hymns of praise, sharing the song he sings to charm the mind of every god and human.” In his speech, Agathon paints love as both pure and seductive, breathing gentle qualities like “grace” into lovers, as well as more sensual ones like “desire” and “longing.” Love is also an equalizer of sorts, as everyone—gods, common men, and great leaders alike—has the impulse to seek out love and celebrate it. Agathon’s speech is a sweeping and rhetorically seductive eulogy, with something in it to stir any listener.

When Agathon finishes his speech, his audience bursts into applause, showing that his elegance has pleased them and suggesting that his conception of love comes closest to contemporary assumptions about its meaning. And although he hasn’t actually offered much besides elegant rhetorical statements about love’s beauty, Agathon does seem to conflate love with goodness and argue that the pursuit of love is ingrained in all people.

When it’s Socrates’s turn to give a speech, however, he suggests that the preceding speakers have “[given] the appearance of praising love” without actually having done so, and he proposes to give a different kind of speech that will “tell the truth about love”—that love is actually the search for the good and the beautiful.

First, Socrates undermines Agathon’s argument by asking him a series of questions about the speech he just gave, which described how love is the patron and peak of all things beautiful. Socrates begins his questioning by asking: “Is it Love’s nature to be love of something or nothing?” Agathon admits that love is definitely of something—that it desires that “something” and doesn’t possess that thing already. In contrast, then, to Agathon’s enthusiastic eulogy, Socrates demonstrates that love is not sufficient unto itself, but is directed toward what it doesn’t have and what it needs.

Socrates then gives the account of love he says was given to him by a prophetess named Diotima, who was “wise about this and many other things.” Diotima chided Socrates, he reports, for supposing that if Love in itself isn’t beautiful, that necessarily means it must be ugly, and that if it isn’t wise, that means Love must be ignorant. Instead, it’s possible for love to be positioned in between these opposing qualities. From that point Diotima leads Socrates to the similarly nuanced conclusion that Love actually is neither a god nor a mortal, but something in between—a daimon, a great intermediary spirit.

Coming to the crux of his argument, Socrates shows how Diotima guided him toward the truth that Love is not the object—beautiful, elegant, perfect, and so on—but rather the subject’s search for these things. In other words, people tend to personify Love and to chase after it, but Love should instead be understood as the passionate search, through philosophy, for the eternal Beauty that can alone bring happiness.

By portraying Socrates rejecting the cleverly stated and conventional views of love offered by others at the party, Plato presents an altogether different perspective. Using Socrates as a mouthpiece, Plato rejects the clichéd view that people are simply seeking their “other halves,” as Aristophanes has suggested, because they are seeking something they don’t already have—not the characteristics they already recognize as their own. Likewise, love isn’t something eternally self-existent, as Agathon put it, but rather something the lover of good things must actively, continually long for and pursue.

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The Nature of Love Quotes in The Symposium

Below you will find the important quotes in The Symposium related to the theme of The Nature of Love.
172a-173e Quotes

As it happens, the other day I was going to the city from my home in Phalerum, and someone I know spotted me from behind and called me from a distance. He said (with playful urgency):

‘Hey, the man from Phalerum! You! Apollodorus, won’t you wait?’

I stopped and waited.

He said, ‘Apollodorus, I’ve just been looking for you to get the full story of the party at Agathon's, when Socrates, Alcibiades and the rest were there for dinner: what did they say in their speeches on love? I had a report from someone who got it from Philip’s son, Phoenix; but he said you knew about it too. He wasn’t able to give an exact report. Please give me your account. Socrates is your friend, and no one has a better right to report his conversations than you. But before you do,’ he added, ‘tell me this: were you at this party yourself or not?’

Related Characters: Apollodorus (speaker), Glaucon (speaker), Socrates, Alcibiades, Agathon, Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
174a-177e Quotes

After this, Aristodemus said, Socrates lay down and had dinner with the rest. They then poured libations, sang a hymn, and performed all the other customary rituals, and turned to drinking. Pausanias took the initiative, saying something like this: ‘Well, gentlemen, what’s the most undemanding way to do our drinking? I can tell you that I’m in a really bad state from yesterday’s drinking and need a rest. I think that’s true of many of you, as you were there yesterday - so think about how to do our drinking in the most undemanding way.’

Related Characters: Pausanias (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates, Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

“Isn’t it terrible, Eryximachus,” he says, “that the poets have composed hymns and paeans to other gods, but none of them has ever composed a eulogy of Love, though he is such an ancient and important god.” […] I think Phaedrus is quite right on this point. I’d like to please him by making a contribution to this project; also this seems a good occasion for those of us here to celebrate the god. If you agree, we won’t need anything to occupy us but discussion. I’d propose that each of us should make the finest speech he can in praise of Love, and then pass the topic on to the one on his right. Phaedrus should start, because he is in the top position, and is also the originator of the topic.’

Related Characters: Eryximachus (speaker), Phaedrus (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:
178a-180b Quotes

Because of his antiquity, [Love] is the source of our greatest benefits. I would claim that there is no greater benefit for a young man than a good lover and none greater for a lover than a good boyfriend. Neither family bonds nor public status nor wealth nor anything else is as effective as love in implanting something which gives lifelong guidance to those who are to lead good lives. What is this? A sense of shame at acting disgracefully and pride in acting well. Without these no individual or city can achieve anything great or fine. […] If there was any mechanism for producing a city or army consisting of lovers and boyfriends, there could be no better form of social organization than this: they would hold back from anything disgraceful and compete for honor in each other’s eyes. If even small numbers of such men fought side by side, they could defeat virtually the whole human race.

Related Characters: Phaedrus (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
189a-193e Quotes

When a lover of boys, or any other type of person, meets that very person who is his other half, he is overwhelmed … with affection, concern and love … These are people who live out whole lifetimes together, but still couldn’t say what it is they want from each other. I mean, no one can think that it’s just sexual intercourse they want, and that this is the reason why they find such joy in each other’s company and attach such importance to this. It’s clear that each of them has some wish in his mind that he can’t articulate; instead, like an oracle, he half-grasps what he wants and obscurely hints at it. Imagine that Hephaestus with his tools stood over them while they were lying together and …[said], ‘I’m prepared to fuse and weld you together, so that the two of you become one.’ […] We know that no one who heard this offer would turn it down and it would become apparent that no one wanted anything else.

Related Characters: Aristophanes (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
194a-198a Quotes

So it seems to me, Phaedrus, that Love is himself supreme in beauty and excellence and is responsible for similar qualities in others. […] Love drains us of estrangement and fills us with familiarity, causing us to come together in all shared gatherings like this, and acting as our leader in festival, chorus and sacrifice. He includes mildness and excludes wildness. He is generous of goodwill and ungenerous of ill-will. He is gracious and kindly; gazed on by the wise, admired by the gods; craved by those denied him, treasured by those enjoying him; father of luxury, elegance, delicacy, grace, desire, longing […] For the whole company of gods and humans, most beautiful and best of leaders; every man should follow him singing beautiful hymns of praise, sharing the song he sings to charm the mind of every god and human.

Related Characters: Agathon (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
198b-201c Quotes

‘Now try to tell me about love’, he said. ‘Is Love love of nothing or something?’

‘Of something, undoubtedly!’

‘For the moment,’ said Socrates, ‘keep to yourself and bear in mind what love is of. But tell me this much: does Love desire what it is love of or not?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘When he desires and loves, does he have in his possession what he desires and loves or not? […] Think about it,’ Socrates said. ‘Surely it’s not just probable but necessary that desire is directed at something you need and that if you don’t need something you don’t desire it? I feel amazingly certain that it is necessary; what do you think?’

‘I think so too,’ said Agathon.

‘That’s right. Now would anyone who was tall want to be tall or anyone who was strong want to be strong?’

‘That’s impossible, according to what we’ve agreed already.’

‘Yes, because no one is in need of qualities he already has.’

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Agathon (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 34
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:

“So how could he be a god if he is not in possession of beautiful and good things?”

“That’s impossible, as it seems.”

“Do you see, then,” she said, “ that you don’t believe Love is a god?”

“But what could Love be?” I said. “A mortal?”

“Far from it.”

“What then?”

“Like those examples discussed earlier,” she said, “he’s between mortal and immortal.”

“What does that make him, Diotima?”

“He is a great spirit, Socrates. Everything classed as a spirit falls between god and human.”

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

“Because he is the son of Resource and Poverty, Love’s situation is like this. First of all, he’s always poor; far from being sensitive and beautiful, as is commonly supposed, he's tough, with hardened skin, without shoes or home. He always sleeps rough, on the ground, with no bed, lying in doorways and by roads in the open air; sharing his mother’s nature, he always lives in a state of need. On the other hand, taking after his father, he schemes to get hold of beautiful and good things. He’s brave, impetuous and intense; a formidable hunter, always weaving tricks; he desires knowledge and is resourceful in getting it; a lifelong lover of wisdom; clever at using magic, drugs and sophistry.”

Related Characters: Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates
Page Number: 39
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

“The idea has been put forward,” she said, “that lovers are people who are looking for their own other halves. But my view is that love is directed neither at their half nor their whole unless, my friend, that turns out to be good. After all, people are even prepared to have their own feet or hands amputated if they think that those parts of themselves are diseased. I don’t think that each of us is attached to his own characteristics, unless you’re going to describe the good as ‘his own’ and as ‘what belongs to him,’ and the bad as ‘what does not belong to him.’ The point is that the only object of people’s love is the good — don’t you agree?”

“By Zeus, I do!” I said.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Aristophanes
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

“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:

People like that have a much closer partnership with each other and a stronger bond of friendship than parents have, because the children of their partnership are more beautiful and more immortal. Everyone would prefer to have children like that rather than human ones. People look enviously at Homer and Hesiod and other good poets, because of the kind of children they have left behind them, which provide them with immortal fame and remembrance by being immortal themselves. Or take,” she said, “the children that Lycurgus left in Sparta to provide security to Sparta and, you might say, to Greece as a whole. Solon is also respected by you Athenians for the laws he fathered; and other men, in very different places, in Greece and other countries, have exhibited many fine achievements and generated virtue of every type. Many cults have been set up to honor these men as a result of children of that kind, but this has never happened as a result of human children.

Related Characters: Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:
210a-212a Quotes

Looking now at beauty in general and not just at individual instances, he will no longer be slavishly attached to the beauty of a boy, or of any particular person at all, or of a specific practice. Instead of this low and small-minded slavery, he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it he’ll give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas. At last, when he has been developed and strengthened in this way, he catches sight of one special type of knowledge, whose object is the kind of beauty I shall now describe…

Related Characters: Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates
Related Symbols: Ladder/Staircase/Ascent
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

“When someone goes up by these stages, through loving boys in the correct way, and begins to catch sight of that beauty, he has come close to reaching the goal. This is the right method of approaching the ways of love or being led by someone else: beginning from these beautiful things always to go up with the aim of reaching that beauty. Like someone using a staircase, he should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning. From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is.”

Related Characters: Diotima of Mantinea (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker), Socrates, Agathon, Phaedrus
Related Symbols: Ladder/Staircase/Ascent
Page Number: 49
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:

“You’ve all shared the madness and Bacchic frenzy of philosophy, and so you will all hear what I have to say … But you, house-slaves, and any other crude uninitiates, put big doors on your ears!

‘So, gentlemen, when the lamp was out and the slaves had left the room, I decided I shouldn’t beat about the bush but tell him openly what I had in mind. I gave him a push and said, “ Socrates, are you asleep?”

“Not at all,” he said.

…“I think,” I said, “you’re the only lover I’ve ever had who’s good enough for me, but you seem to be too shy to talk about it to me. I’ll tell you how I feel about this. I think I’d be very foolish not to gratify you in this … Nothing is more important to me than becoming as good a person as possible, and I don’t think anyone can help me more effectively than you can in reaching this aim. I’d be far more ashamed of what sensible people would think if I failed to gratify someone like you than of what ordinary, foolish people would think if I did.’”

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Alcibiades (speaker), Apollodorus (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis: