Literature Study GuidesSymposiumEryximachuss Speech Summary

Symposium | Study Guide

Plato

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Symposium | Eryximachus's Speech | Summary

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Summary

Aristophanes is supposed to be the next speaker, but he has succumbed to a case of the hiccups. Eryximachus, the physician, offers him various remedies to try; in the meantime, he volunteers to give his own short speech.

Building on Pausanias's distinction between common and celestial love, Eryximachus suggests that love, like medicine or music, is all about balance and harmony. Celestial love, Eryximachus proposes, is like fair weather or a well-tuned lyre: everything is in proportion and nothing is excessive. Common love, in contrast, can be described as an out-of-control appetite that is ultimately self-destructive. In Eryximachus's view, the individual's job—and the physician's—is to cultivate moderate, healthy desires in all areas of life, including love.

Analysis

The early parts of Eryximachus's speech strongly reflect his training as a doctor. He is interested in love not only as a feeling or as an abstract concept, but as a phenomenon with real effects on the body and mind. "What it takes to be a true professional," he says, "is the ability to discern ... which loves are good and which are bad, and then to effect a change so that a body acquires a good love rather than a bad one." In other words, a healthy mind, like a healthy body, will naturally crave what is good for it, but to bring about this state of affairs, one must feed the "good" desires while gradually starving out the "bad" ones. Eryximachus's advice on this score resembles that of his more famous contemporary, Hippocrates, who prescribed specific foods as medicines and recommended fasting during periods of illness.

Eryximachus's fondness for balance and order—not only in the body, but in human activity, the weather, and even the movements of the stars—is another hallmark of early Greek medicine, which was grounded in the doctrine of humors. According to this theory, the various fluids circulating in the body existed in a delicate balance whose preservation was essential to good health. When the balance was disrupted, disease resulted, and changes in diet and activity—sometimes accompanied by purgatives or bloodletting—were prescribed to restore it. To the extent that he subscribed to this way of thinking, it is unsurprising to hear Eryximachus treating love, too, as a problem of finding a happy medium.

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