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Symposium | Main Ideas


Varieties of Love

In their speeches, most of the symposiasts propose tackling the theme of love by dividing it into categories. This is both a rhetorical device and a reflection of their philosophical outlook. For Pausanias, there are "common" and "celestial" kinds of love, not to mention good and bad erastai (lovers). Accordingly, much of his speech concerns the circumstances under which a relationship is appropriate, and the boundaries of acceptable behavior within such a relationship. "A lover is bad," he states bluntly, "if he is of the common type, who loves the body rather than the mind. ... On the other hand, a lover who loves goodness of character is constant for life."

Eryximachus, too, attempts to draw a kind of map in which some kinds of love are healthy and valuable, while others are off limits. He differs from Pausanias mainly in terms of where he draws the line. Pausanias sees some kinds of behavior as acceptable only when a man is in love: "both gods and men," he says, "give a lover a completely free rein" during courtship, though once a relationship is established, a lover must be held to a higher standard. Eryximachus, who is preoccupied with balance and harmony, argues that even the "common" love can be indulged from time to time, so long as moderation is observed. He likens the situation to that of a diner who can "enjoy the pleasure of eating without getting ill," so long as he does not overindulge himself.

The other speakers follow suit in sketching out theories of love that rely on division and categorization. In order to explain both homosexual and heterosexual pairings, Aristophanes offers an origin myth with three categories of relationship—male/male, male/female, and female/female)—corresponding to three original types of human being—male, androgyne, and female. Even Phaedrus, who has a rosier and more simplistic view of love than the others, admits that some people simply love more deeply, earning the admiration even of the gods. Of the five original speakers, all but Agathon tackle the problem of love by attempting to subdivide it, usually along lines of common versus celestial or superior versus inferior.

Socrates's speech, with the "ladder" or "ascent" image supplied by Diotima, can be seen as a more sophisticated version of the same process. For all the other symposiasts, the categories of love seem to be fixed: a person is either a good lover or a bad one, with no discussion of reform or improvement. Socrates innovates by suggesting that change is not only possible, but is necessary to an individual's philosophical development. For him, love is a force driving the process of ever-greater self-realization and leading to ever-more exceptional forms of beauty.

Love and Immortality

Immortality was an important theme for Plato, who offered several arguments in defense of the soul's immortal nature in the Phaedo. In the Symposium, he backs off from his claims about the afterlife and instead reflects on the other, less direct forms of immortality a person might achieve. Phaedrus, in his speech, describes heroes and heroines who have earned mythic stature through courageous acts of self-sacrifice. Later on children are mentioned as another way of preserving one's legacy after death, as are works of art, such as the epics of Homer and Hesiod, which at the time of the Symposium had already been passed down for centuries. Also related to the Symposium's emphasis on immortality is the notion of love as a deep, fundamental longing, one that goes beyond mere physical attraction. Aristophanes attempts to account for this longing by describing each person as fundamentally defective—not just restless, but literally incomplete without their "other half."

Socrates unites these two major ideas in his speech. According to his theory (i.e., Diotima's theory), the goal of love is "permanent possession of goodness for oneself." To possess something forever, however, one must be immortal—a quality humans clearly lack. Consequently, love drives humans to cheat mortality in various ways, whether by physically procreating or by leaving behind something of worth, such as an artwork or an invention. These forms of "mental procreation," which also includes the instilling of virtue in the young, may outwardly differ from physical childbirth, but in Socrates's view they all have the same goal—the attainment of immortality. This overpowering drive, he argues, underlies all of the other, smaller-scale activities that seem to be motivated by love, such as finding a mate or mastering a craft.

Ladder of Love

Diotima's notion of love as an ascent toward higher things has captivated many readers of the Symposium. The concept has been given many names but is commonly referred to as "Diotima's Ladder" or the "Ladder of Love." Both terms reflect the step-by-step nature of the ascent, which Socrates describes as consisting of four distinct stages.

  1. love of a single physical body
  2. love of all physical beauty
  3. love of mental beauty
  4. love of beauty itself

In youth, Diotima observes, a person is likely to be attracted to the physical beauty of a single individual (stage 1). Neither she nor Socrates makes any allowances for those who play the field. This, she says, is fine for the time being, but if one then reflects on the nature of beauty, one is bound to realize that "the beauty of any one body hardly differs from that of any other body." Following this line of reasoning far enough, one comes to "regard the physical beauty of all bodies as absolutely identical." Emotionally, this realization corresponds to a love of physical beauty in all its forms (stage 2).

From there, it's not a huge leap to recognize the beauty of ideas as well. This leads the lover to enter a phase of preoccupation with "mental beauty" (stage 3). Diotima describes this stage in more exalted terms than those that come before; she speaks of "facing ... the vast sea of beauty," motivated by a "boundless love of knowledge." Lovers in this phase—who by now are more like philosophers than typical lovers—are mentally prolific, capable of great creativity in their reasoning and thought. But the ladder doesn't stop here. Once someone has spent considerable time contemplating mental beauty, a breakthrough follows, and the lover comes face to face with perfect beauty in its purest form (stage 4). This beauty doesn't take the form of "a face or hands or any other physical feature," nor does it appear as "a piece of reasoning or knowledge." Rather, this beauty exists "in itself and by itself, constant and eternal." Beholding such beauty, Diotima says, is an achievement that makes life worthwhile.

The image of a "Ladder of Love" has struck a chord with Plato's readers since ancient times. Plotinus (204–270 AD), the founder of the Neoplatonic school of thought, was dazzled by the idea of a perfect, objectless beauty, which he associated with the idea of God. Plato's latter-day European readers, steeped in a culture of Christianity, likewise found the "ladder" analogy intuitive, compelling, and essentially religious in its implications—though they generally ignored, downplayed, or denied the homoerotic dimension of Socratic love. Ficino, the great 15th-century translator of Plato, regarded Diotima's ladder as the centerpiece of Plato's works, as did his contemporary Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94). Modern scholars, in contrast, have tended to look on Diotima's ladder with irreverent fascination: Diskin Clay (2006), for example, jokingly describes Italian humanist reactions to the image as part of a cultural "hangover."

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