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Symposium | Quotes

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1.

So important a god, and so little attention has been paid to him!


Eryximachus, Prologue

From a modern viewpoint, it may seem bizarre to claim that too little attention is paid to love, but Eryximachus's complaint is well-founded. Homer does not include Eros as a character in his epics, and Hesiod's version of Eros is a vague, somewhat dark primordial deity—not the cute little Cupid of later centuries. Between them, the two poets most respected in Eryximachus's time have remarkably little to say about love.

Love poems did become more commonplace, and perhaps a bit more respectable, in the Hellenistic period (late 4th century BCE and beyond), but it wasn't until the rise of the Roman Empire that a culture of love poetry really took off. The most celebrated ancient masterpieces of the genre were written by Ovid, more than three centuries after Plato's death.

2.

Possession by love would infuse even utter cowards with courage.


Phaedrus, Phaedrus's Speech

As the first to speak, Phaedrus praises love in straightforward, even simplified terms. He argues that love endows people with a sense of shame since they do not wish to seem cowardly or contemptible in front of their loved ones. This, in turn, forces them to act courageously, even if they would not ordinarily do so. Connecting the dots, Phaedrus gives love the credit for creating heroes out of ordinary men.

3.

Love is one of the most ancient and venerated gods, and one of the most effective in helping a person [...] attain goodness and happiness.


Phaedrus, Phaedrus's Speech

The conclusion to Phaedrus's speech expresses a conventional but rather limited view of Eros, the Greek personification of love. Phaedrus is emphasizing love's good qualities for rhetorical effect, but his efforts in this direction are not nearly as excessive as Agathon's will be.

4.

A lover who loves goodness of character is constant for life.


Pausanias, Pausanias's Speech

Unlike Phaedrus, who sees love as an essentially good force, Pausanias draws a distinction between love of mere physical beauty (the bad kind) and love of another person's virtues (the good kind). In doing so, Pausanias sets the reader up for Socrates's later, more elaborate discussion of the relationship between love and beauty.

5.

It's hardly going too far to say that Love is present in everything that exists.


Eryximachus, Eryximachus's Speech

Eryximachus claims to have developed his theories on love from his training and practice as a professional physician. In his speech, he begins with medical analogies but then extrapolates them to music, weather, and, eventually, the workings of the entire cosmos. As a sort of ancient scientist, Eryximachus gives love a place in the universe similar to what we might call gravity or magnetism: it is a power that draws things together and keeps them in balance.

6.

Love draws our original nature back together; he tries to reintegrate us and heal the split in our nature.


Aristophanes, Aristophanes's Speech

In his speech, Aristophanes mythologizes love by suggesting that humans were once whole but were split in two as the result of a divine curse. In this view, love is the force that literally makes a person complete.

7.

Now, when someone ... actually meets his other half, it's an overwhelming experience. ... It's hardly an exaggeration to say that they don't want to spend even a moment apart."


Aristophanes, Aristophanes's Speech

For Aristophanes, the sensation of falling in love is the best proof of love's mythic origins. The profundity of the feeling shows that love is a "desire and pursuit for wholeness" going far beyond mere physical intimacy. Those who are truly in love, Aristophanes says, would gladly let themselves be welded together into a single body and mind, if such a thing were permitted by the gods.

8.

You can't give what you don't have and you can't teach what you don't know.


Agathon, Agathon's Speech

Agathon makes this remark in an attempt to prove that Love is creative because so many artworks and other creative acts seem to be inspired by love. Socrates, however, would likely have a bone to pick with Agathon's reasoning here, just as he does with Agathon's defense of love overall.

In fact, it's not too much of a stretch to say the entire Socratic method consists of "teaching what one doesn't know," since it relies on asking the right questions rather than on supplying answers. Socrates himself was famous for professing his own ignorance, but he had a knack for drawing knowledge out of others with a carefully crafted question. As soon as Agathon's speech is over, Socrates will put this talent to use in pulling the playwright's argument apart.

9.

[Love] looks after the good and overlooks the bad.


Agathon, Agathon's Speech

This comment nicely captures the lopsidedness of Agathon's view of love, which is focused only on its positive, creative attributes. Love, from Agathon's perspective, is a nurturer and a creator, not a disrupter or a destroyer. His statement might be described as an instance of unwitting verbal irony, since Agathon is himself "overlooking the bad" in his attempt to sing love's praises.

10.

I was so naïve that I thought the point of any eulogy was to tell the truth about the subject!


Socrates, Socrates's Speech

With his usual mixture of sarcasm and self-deprecation, Socrates sets his listeners up for a "eulogy" quite different from the ones they have just heard. By insisting on dealing honestly with his subject, the philosopher leaves himself free to treat love in a neutral or even an uncomplimentary manner—if that is what the facts suggest. His speech, as expected, is less outwardly flattering than the others', but he still accords love a central and creative role in human life.

11.

Stop insisting, then, that 'not attractive' is the same as 'repulsive,' or that 'not good' is the same as 'bad.'


Diotima, Socrates's Speech

Early on in her exchange with Socrates, Diotima becomes annoyed at his tendency to view everything in terms of absolutes. In repeating her criticism at the symposium, Socrates is offering his own implicit critique of the attitudes put forth by his drinking companions, who have tried to divide love into good and bad (or "celestial" and "common") parts.

12.

Love's purpose is physical and mental procreation in an attractive medium.


Diotima, Socrates's Speech

With this assertion, Diotima lays the groundwork for a discussion of love in the broadest possible terms. The image of "procreation" is extended from its most obvious and familiar result—i.e., children—to include such figurative "offspring" as works of art and the cultivation of a virtuous character.

13.

You should use the things of this world as rungs in a ladder.


Diotima, Socrates's Speech

Diotima's advice to Socrates makes perfect sense, given the progression she has just sketched out from earthly beauty to eternal beauty. The idea of the "Ladder of Love," which gets its name from this passage, went on to hold great sway in both ancient and Renaissance-era interpretations of Plato. Modern readers, however, are sometimes troubled by the idea of using lovers or friends—the objects of love at the ladder's lower rungs—as mere tools in philosophical self-advancement.

14.

He's the only person in the world in whose company I've felt something which people wouldn't think I was capable of feeling—shame.


Alcibiades, Alcibiades's Speech

With a bit of self-deprecation, Alcibiades bolsters the case for Socrates's powers as a persuasive speaker. By this point in his career, Alcibiades had a reputation for reckless, unscrupulous behavior, as well as for charisma and intelligence. However, Plato may also be counting on the reader's familiarity with Alcibiades's later exploits, including the doomed Sicilian Expedition and his defection to Sparta, then back to Athens.

In addition, this little admission links Alcibiades's speech to Phaedrus's, at the beginning of the Symposium. Phaedrus, had argued that love's ability to inspire shame—and thus ensure virtuous conduct—was its main benefit to humankind. Alcibiades evidently feels shame, but not strongly enough to change his life and become a philosopher.

15.

He takes people in by pretending to be their lover, and then he swaps roles and becomes their beloved.


Alcibiades, Alcibiades's Speech

In using the terms lover and beloved, Alcibiades creates an image of Socrates pursuing a young man, then changing his course and allowing himself to be pursued instead. The point is not that Socrates is capricious in his love life; rather, he becomes emotionally involved in the lives of young men like Alcibiades in the hopes of winning them over to the ways of philosophy. Alcibiades, who seems to want more than intellectual discussion out of his relationship with Socrates, is disappointed by this ruse.

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