Plato's Symposium


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Does Plato's Symposium seem to validate or to undercut Foucault and/or Halperin in the matter of whether people generally have, most places and most times, understood sexuality more or less the same way? Do such modern concepts of "homosexual" or "heterosexual" apply here? How so or how not?


This work, entitled Symposium (Greek sumposion, "drinking party"), was written ca. 380-370 BCE — that's not much better than a guess.

The dramatic situation is that the tragic poet Agathon (a character in Aristophanes' Ladies' Day, which we'll be reading soon) has won the prize for tragedy; he is throwing yet another party to celebrate. (The previous night, he, his troupe, and many of the same friends went on a real bender.) Here, the main thread is a kind of party game: guests at Agathon's party have to give speeches in praise of love.

Socrates' love speech is saved for last, but there is much of interest in what precedes. Plus, there is a fascinating epilogue as the drunken Alcibiades bursts in.

Drinking parties (sumposia) were elaborate affairs and highly ritualized: pre-party bath; arrival and foot/hand washing; dinner; mixing of wine and water; drink offerings to Dionysus, Aphrodite, and Zeus the Savior; drinking. The ethos of the symposium was one of sharing and sociality. But they could, and, evidently, often did, turn into riotous occasions. Entertainment could include singing and recitation, but often would involve bringing in professional performers, including prostitutes. At Agathon's party, the assembled company decides against heavy drinking. Later, though, that begins to fall apart when Alcibiades walks in the door . . . .


Plato, son of Ariston, ca. 429-347 BCE. Athenian aristocrat, philosopher. Student of Socrates (a speaker in this dialogue), Plato taught Aristotle and many others at the school he founded, the Academy, named after the park it was located in.

Literary Form

Strictly speaking, dialogue within a dialogue. The work purports to be the words of Apollodorus telling a friend what he had told Glaucon (probably the Glaucon who was Plato's brother) about a party he had heard about from Aristodemus, who was there. So what we have presents a complex framing, with speakers quoting or paraphrasing other speakers.

Aristodemus, as quoted-paraphrased by Apollodorus, thus summarizes goings-on that he was witness to. Most important are the love speeches guests were required to deliver. But Socrates, one of the guests, declines to supply his own; rather, he quotes his own teacher in love, one Diotima. Given that Diotima's is the central speech in the dialogue, it is striking that it reaches its final audience — us — as indirectly as it does (Diotima > Socrates > Aristodemus > Apollodorus regaling his friends > Plato, the author > us.)

That indirection needs to be understood in relation to the dialogue's transparently inauthentic authenticity. Its realistic tone, like a tape-recorded conversation, collapses in the face of the indirect and reconstructive-fictive character of the whole thing. So, for instance, Apollodorus describes how one Glaucon, very curious about this famous party, got its date all wrong. This Glaucon, probably the Glaucon who was Plato's real-life brother, thus seems to suggest the author's disconnection from the "reality" his dialogue claims to represent.

Dramatic Date

Of Agathon's drinking party: exactly 416 BCE. Of Apollodorus' recollection of it, sometime around 405.


Our translation uses one word, "love," for various terms in the Greek. So here's some of that vocabulary:

  • eros. Lust, desire, potentially, for anything. By default, though, eros stands for desire of a sexual nature. Pederasty was conventionally supposed to involve only the man's eros for the boy. Contrast philia, though eros is sometimes presented as a broadly defined concept including philia within its scope. Eros (same word) the god personifies love
    • Pausanias talks about two kinds of eros:
      • "common" or "pandemian," i.e., carnal lust, plain and simple — a "vulgar" form of eros
      • "heavenly" or "uranian," i.e., sublimated attraction to a boy's (not a woman's) inner beauty — a more noble type of eros
  • himeros. Effectively identical to eros
  • pothos. Desire in the sense of feeling the lack or absence of something/someone — the pangs of yearning
  • epithumia. Generic desire
  • eunoia. The benevolence and kindness a good lover (erastes) is supposed to show his beloved (eromenos)
  • philia. Affection, friendly feeling, friendship, love. Honorable pederasty was supposed to involve two-way philia: man's for boy and boy's for man
  • "darling." translates Greek paidika, a term of quasi-endearment refering to the eromenos, the younger "beloved"

Speakers and Summary

What follows sketches the overall shape of the dialogue. Be warned: reading the following cannot substitute for reading the dialogue itself.

Outer frame. Accosted by friends wanting to know about Agathon's famous party, Apollodorus proceeds to tell them what he has heard from Aristodemus, one of Socrates' "groupies" and an eyewitness to the goings-on.

Party and Speeches. Phaedrus' speech. Phaedrus proposes that each guest at Agathon's party deliver a speech on the subject of eros, "love." In his speech (the first), Phaedrus relates the love god's power to his antiquity: he was among the first generation of deities. He is thus a cosmic force. Phaedrus further proposes that armies and states be composed of pederastic pairings, one might say, à la Harmodius and Aristogeiton. (Though Phaedrus makes no mention of them, Pausanias does.)

Pausanias' speech. Recognizing eros as a problematic, Pausanias tries to sort things out by dividing eros in two: chaste love (uranian or "heavenly" love), which he privileges; carnal passion (pandemian or "vulgar" love), which he does not. The former, spiritual in essence, is confined to the love of younger men by older. The latter can represent any passion, homo- or heteroerotic, concerned exclusively with bodily pleasure. When Pausanias comments on various legal systems that either do or don't allow the "lover to have his way," he means "permit the (male) lover (erastes) to have sex with his (male) beloved (eromenos)."

Note that Pausanias is Agathon's homoerotic lover.

Eryximachus's speech. Eryximachus, a physician, sees everything through a doctor's eyes. Still, Eryximachus has more to say on love in relation to music than to medicine. Eryximachus builds on Pausanias' chaste-vulgar dichotomy to suggest that "heavenly" eros conduces to harmony and health in all things, "vulgar/earthly" eros to discord and illness.

Aristophanes' speech. This is the Aristophanes, author of the famous comedies. No surprise, Aristophanes concocts a perfectly ludicrous, yet very important and, perhaps, revealing, myth of a race of composite sphere-people: balls originally consisting of two individuals united in unending union. But then Zeus split them in two, with the two halves (and the offspring of the two halves) eternally seeking to reunite with the gender of the original union. Hence the halves of orginally same-sex unions give rise to individuals who naturally feel homoerotic desire, while the offspring of halves split off from different-sex unions naturally feel heteroerotic desire.

Agathon's speech. Agathon, renowned tragic playwright and Pausanias' post-adolescent eromenos, we'll soon meet in Aristophanes Ladies' Day. Agathon takes issue with Phaedrus on the antiquity of Eros. According to Agathon, Eros is the youngest, not oldest, of the gods, delicate and soft — almost effeminate. Yet Eros wields great power through his beauty.

Socrates' speech. Socrates starts out by demolishing Agathon's theory of love: since desire is all about lack, the god of desire must lack the beauty Agathon attributes to him.

Socrates then proceeds to quote his own teacher on love, one. . .

Diotima, evidently a priestess, and probably to be regarded as possessing prophetic powers. (We seem to have a pun on Mantinea, Diotima's home city and a word suggesting the "mantic," or prophetic, art.) But whether she was a real person or not we can't say.

It is striking, and probably key to understanding the dialogue, to keep in mind that Diotima's is the only female voice we hear. At the same time, her voice is the most distant of all due to the boxes-in-boxes framing — more in David Halperin's essay, "Why Is Diotima a Woman?" (One Hundred Years of Homosexuality And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. 113-54. Print).

At the same time, Diotima's are the most important speeches in the dialogue. According to Diotima, Eros is neither god nor mortal, but something in between, a quasi-divine "spirit" (daimon). Child of Poros ("Resourcefulness") and Penia ("Lack"), Eros isn't beauty but the desire for beauty. Proximity to beautiful bodies creates desire to beget children; proximity to wise persons possessing spiritual beauty creates desire to spawn wise thoughts. All desire ultimately reduces to love not of individual beautiful things/persons, but of Beauty itself (i.e., god, truth, etc.).

Alcibiades' entry and speech. In his youth and continuing into adulthood, Alcibiades (a real person) was one of the most sought-after beauties in the city. Socrates was said to be a lover of his, the only one Alcibiades ever respected. Very rich and hugely gifted as statesman, orator, military commander, and self-promoter, Alcibiades was an unpredictable schemer — ambitious, violent, and self-centered. His shield was said to show the god Eros wielding Zeus' thunderbolts.

Rather than speak in praise of Eros, Alcibiades, who bursts in drunk mid-party, praises Socrates. According to Alcibiades, Socrates, whose somewhat grotesque appearance suggests the features of a satyr or silen, is just like one of those satyr/silen toys in sculpture shops. Open up the statuettes and you'll find little gods inside; go beneath Socrates' grotesque exterior and you find god-like temperance and wisdom. Still, Socrates' talk, like the flute music of the satyr Marsyas, exerts an irresistible, hubristic charm. So watch out! He'll try to seduce you to a life of uncompromising sophrosune and philosophy.

Study Questions

  1. Do we find here yet another instance of sexuality conflated with gender? (At the risk of oversimplifying: male good, female bad; love of male good; love of female bad.) If so, what to make of the role of Diotima, clearly, the most important speaker (whether or not Socrates is making her up) and, significantly, a woman sage?

  2. What do you make of Pausanias' seeming anti-straight (?) bias — indeed, of a perhaps anti-straight, perhaps even misogynistic, thrust to the dialogue as a whole?

  3. Does this dialogue validate or invalidate the structures of pederasty as presented in pseudo-Demosthenes' Erotic Essay and Foucault's analysis of that work? Where does a speech like Aristophanes' leave us as regards issues of essentialism versus contructionism? Where does Agathon's potently effeminate Eros, or Diotima's altogether novel conception of eros, leave us as regards the asymmetry hypothesis?

  4. Or is it possible that conventional notions of pederasty (i.e., as discussed by ps.-D. and Foucault) actually inform the otherwise novel and idiosyncratic views expressed by speakers in the dialogue?

  5. What is Eryximachus' role in the dialogue? Alcibiades'? Comic relief or something deeper?


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