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Symposium | Summary

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Summary

On the road to Athens, the traveler Apollodorus recounts a famous gathering whose guests include Socrates, the statesman Alcibiades, and the playwrights Agathon and Aristophanes. At this party, he says, the revelers agreed to amuse themselves by giving speeches in praise of love. In their discourses, the same word, Eros, is used for both the feeling of desire and the Greek god believed to inspire that feeling.

The first five speeches are diverse in their approach to the topic. Phaedrus, who is first to speak, takes a religious tack, describing love as a divine force that brings out the best in people. Next up is Pausanias, who distinguishes between a superior "celestial" kind of love and an inferior love fixated on physical beauty and sexual gratification. Eryximachus, a physician, builds on Pausanias's ideas and argues that the best kinds of love inspire moderation and wisdom, while lesser kinds lead to immoderate desires. Aristophanes, a comic playwright, surprises his listeners by offering a mythological fable to explain the origins of human love. He is followed by Agathon, a tragic playwright, who praises love as the greatest and most benign of all the gods.

Finally, Socrates takes the floor. His speech, he claims, is essentially a retelling of a previous conversation with Diotima, a priestess of great insight in matters of love. According to Diotima, what people call "love" is really a drive toward immortality, which—for mortals—can only be satisfied by leaving something of value behind after one's death, such as children or an enduring work of art. Moved by this desire, Socrates says, people seek out those with whom they can procreate, either physically or mentally. A love of beauty guides this search, but beauty itself is not the ultimate goal; rather, it is a kind of signpost leading to self-fulfillment. Toward the end of his speech, Socrates describes the progress of the philosophical mind from love of physical beauty to the love of beauty in ever more abstract and profound forms. Socrates does not denounce a preoccupation with the physical, but, echoing Diotima, sees it as a stepping-stone to higher expressions of love.

After Socrates's speech, the party seems to be winding down—but then Alcibiades barges in, drunk and high-spirited. He proceeds to seat himself next to Socrates and is invited to take part in the speechmaking contest. He obliges, but instead of praising love, the agreed-on theme, he offers a passionate speech about Socrates's wisdom and virtue. The other guests are amused by Alcibiades's frankness and moved by his obvious devotion to his teacher. Soon, however, a crowd of additional partygoers crashes the symposium, bringing the highbrow discussion to an end. The next morning finds Socrates, still awake and evidently sober, chatting with the two playwrights about the nature of their craft.

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