Literature Study GuidesSymposiumSocrates And Agathon Summary

Symposium | Study Guide

Plato

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Symposium | Socrates and Agathon | Summary

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Summary

Agathon's speech is applauded as brilliant, but Socrates has a few pointed questions about Agathon's characterization of love. He argues that Agathon has attempted to make love appear "as attractive and perfect as possible" without any regard for the truth. If this is how the speeches are supposed to go, Socrates warns, his own speech will likely seem rude and unpolished by comparison.

Before he begins his speech, however, Socrates lures Agathon into one of the dialogues for which he is famous, asking him one question after another about the nature of love. In brief, Agathon finds himself forced to admit that love is a kind of desire, and something can be desired only if it is missing. Love, therefore, cannot be possessed of every good quality—or else there would be nothing left to desire. Thus, love itself cannot be as perfect as Agathon says it is.

Analysis

Socrates's response to Agathon's speech may seem pedantic and perhaps even a bit mean-spirited. His method of reasoning, however, is foundational to Western philosophy. In mounting his critique of Agathon's speech, Socrates defines his terms as precisely as possible, even coming up with examples to ensure his meaning is clear to his listeners. He then proceeds to probe Agathon's assumptions in detail, forcing him to clarify his own position on the issue and acknowledge its weaknesses. This approach to philosophical instruction is known as the "Socratic method," and it recurs throughout Plato's dialogues to varying degrees.

As a literary genre and a philosophical teaching tool, the Socratic dialogue was not limited to Plato and his contemporaries. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance such dialogues spread throughout Europe as a means of enlightening readers on a variety of subjects. The Socratic format frequently appeared, for example, in medieval theological treatises, where the "Socrates" role was played by a learned priest and the other participant was a student or layperson. This trend gained momentum following the 16th-century rediscovery of Plato's works, and Socratic dialogues came to be used for instruction in subjects as diverse as astronomy and music theory. In modern times less formal types of Socratic questioning have become mainstays of classroom education and psychotherapy.

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