Plato on Love in The Symposium
Love, it seems, is important to human existence. We bend over backwards to be loved, we are willing to kill and die for love, or love makes us do extremely stupid or heroic things. We usually know without a trace of doubt when we love someone or something. But what is love? That question is harder to answer. And is it possible to be mistaken in love? To love the wrong kind of persons or things? Questions like these are addressed in Plato’s Symposium, a short and beautifully written dialogue.
Setting: a drinking party (symposium) at Agathon’s house, the day after Agathon won a prize for one of his tragedies. Those present agree to not drink too much (because they are hungover) and to give a speech in honour of Love (the god Eros).
Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat
Pausanias, a legal expert
Eryximachus, a physician
Aristophanes, a comic playwright
Agathon, a tragic poet and playwright
Socrates, philosopher and Plato’s teacher
Alcibiades, statesman and general, young, handsome and in love with Socrates.
Diotima, a woman who taught Socrates all he knows about love. Not present at the party, but quoted by Socrates.
Paedrus concludes that Love is the most powerful and ancient god, because for the sake of Love people are willing to make the greatest sacrifices, sometimes – like Achilles and Alcestis – even their lives.
Pausanias distinguishes common love – sexual desire – from heavenly love – affectionate, life-long paederastia* relationships. He discusses laws and customs in various citystates and concludes that Athens’ custom, with its paederastia arrangements, favours heavenly love best.
Eryximachus discusses the workings of love in the body. He concludes that “Love has total power and is the source of all happiness.” It enables the connection between humans and gods, as well as among humans.
Aristophanes tells a satirical creation story: people used to be round creatures with four arms, four legs and two heads. They angered the gods, so to punish them, Zeus split them all in half so each human had to live their life as only half a person. Ever since, love is the desire to find our other half back. Pleasing the god Love thus leads to wholeness.
Agathon gives a poetic and rhetorical speech. He complains that previous speakers have described how Love works in humans, or how humans enact love, but failed to praise the god Love himself. To correct this, Agathon describes Love as young, beautiful, dainty and wise, and that the object of Love, the thing Love cares about most, is beauty (because everything that is good is truly beautiful).
Socrates departs from Agathon’s speech and asks Agathon a few questions: isn’t love always love of something? And if so, isn’t it contradictory to say that love is already that which it is a love of? A tall person can’t desire to be tall, because he already is. So Agathon must be mistaken that love is beautiful and wise. Love is love of beauty and wisdom, therefore it cannot itself be beautiful and wise already. Socrates then quotes a dialogue he once had with Diotima, who explained to him the same thing. Love cannot be a god, nor can he be powerful, beautiful, good or wise. Instead, Diotima explains, Love is a spirit, child of Poverty and Resourcefulness, who moves between ignorance and wisdom, ugliness and beauty, always directed at that which it wants but does not have. What mortals desire most is immortality, but they cannot have it. Therefore, they aim for the closest alternative: reproduction. Love enables this. There is bodily reproduction: a man and a woman who are pregnant with a human child. Then there is paederastia, homosexual love, which leads to another kind of pregnancy: they give birth to wisdom and virtue. The latter is a higher form of love than the former.
How to master the art of love in this latter sense? Diotima explains to Socrates that there are several stages. First, the lover must love one particular boy. Sexual attraction draws the lover to the boy, who thereby represents beauty to the lover. This leads to discussions about beauty between the two. Those discussions lead to the second phase: the lover comes to understand that the beautiful boy is only one among many. The lover becomes a lover of beauty more generally, and less obsessed with one particular boy. The third step occurs when the lover realises that beauty goes beyond physical beauty, to include beautiful souls and virtues that make young men better men. Finally, the lover understands that he loves the beautiful (i.e. the good) itself. Once he realises this, he will ‘give birth’ to beauty by mentoring the young beloved to ensure he grows up virtuously.
Finally, Alcibiades enters the symposium, drunk. He is handsome and he knows it, and tells the group that he initially sought to seduce Socrates with his beauty. However, once he caught a glimpse of Socrates’ hidden beauty, he found himself in love with Socrates rather than the other way around. He leaves with a group of Bacchian revelers, as usual seeking approval from the crowd. It illustrates why he is so in love with Socrates, because he loves what he does not have: Socrates’ virtue.
*Paederastia: Athenian custom whereby an older man (the lover) has a relationship with a teenage boy (the beloved). The older lover is attracted by the boy’s beauty and the fulfilment of his sexual desires, and in turn teaches the boy virtue. These relations existed alongside marriages between men and women. Homosexual love relations (for men as well as for women) were the norm.