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Symposium | Phaedrus's Speech | Summary

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Summary

In his brief oration, Phaedrus first describes love as a "great and awesome god" whose primordial nature grants him precedence over other deities. Being in love, he argues, is good for one's character because it causes one "to feel shame at disgraceful behavior and pride in good behavior." On the battlefield, Phaedrus suggests, a man would rather die than abandon his lover; thus, love makes men courageous even when they are not naturally brave.

Phaedrus continues his speech with examples of famous Greeks who nobly died for love. The princess Alcestis, he says, willingly took the place of her husband Admetus when the Fates decreed his death; not even his parents loved him enough to do this. Likewise, he reminds his listeners, Achilles died avenging his lover Patroclus in the Trojan War. These acts of valor, Phaedrus concludes, prove that love brings out the best in human nature.

Analysis

In describing love as a "primordial" deity, Phaedrus draws on the works of Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in Boeotia at the beginning of the 7th century BCE. The text Phaedrus has in mind is an epic, now known as the Theogony, which sets forth the foundations of Greek mythology and tells the origin stories of many of the gods. In it, Hesiod describes Eros (the love god) as

the most beautiful among the immortal gods,
loosener of limbs, who subdues the mind and prudent counsel
in the chests of all gods and of all men.

Clearly, Phaedrus differs a bit from Hesiod in his interpretation of love's effect on mortals. Eros, in his Hesiodic incarnation, is a troublemaker who robs people of their wits—much like the modern idea of Cupid, his Roman counterpart. Phaedrus puts a positive spin on this aspect of love without denying it outright: what Hesiod sees as recklessness, Phaedrus describes as self-sacrificing courage.

The Homeric epics—especially the Iliad—will be another important reference point in the Symposium from this speech onward. Achilles, whom Phaedrus cites as the prime example of a valiant lover, was a Greek soldier who refused to fight the Trojans after he was cheated of his war prize. He eventually rejoined the fray after Patroclus—his best friend and perhaps his lover—was slain by the Trojan prince Hector. As Phaedrus points out, Achilles returned to the battlefield even though it meant certain death: the gods had forewarned him that he would die soon after avenging Patroclus.

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