Literature Study GuidesSymposiumSocratess Speech Summary

Symposium | Study Guide

Plato

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Symposium | Socrates's Speech | Summary

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Summary

Socrates's discourse on love is the centerpiece of the dialogue and, in part, a refutation of Agathon's one-sided speech on the topic. Agreeing with Agathon that love is deeply connected to the ideas of goodness and beauty, Socrates nonetheless insists the connection is more complex than Agathon has suggested. In what follows, he claims to be repeating the views of the priestess Diotima, his mentor in matters of love.

According to Diotima, Socrates says, Love (the supposed deity) is neither mortal nor immortal, neither beautiful nor ugly. Love is rugged and resourceful but also a spendthrift. In his restless, ambitious, seeking quality, Diotima adds, Love has more in common with the unsatisfied lover than with the beautiful beloved. As such, his benefit to humanity arises not from his own beauty and goodness, but from the way he gets people to seek after those qualities. On a deeper level, she continues, this drive to seek out goodness and beauty represents an attempt to secure immortality for oneself, either via offspring (physical procreation) or through one's legacy as an artist, philosopher, or statesman (mental procreation). The heroes of ancient myth, Diotima asserts, were all "in love with immortality."

In the last several paragraphs of his speech, Socrates charts out a step-by-step ascent from love of physical beauty to love of beauty in its highest and most eternal forms. Again quoting Diotima, he describes the first stage in this process as love of a single physical body. This, in turn, will lead the lover to an appreciation of physical beauty of all sorts, at which point obsessing over the beauty of any one person will seem "ridiculous and petty." From there, the lover's focus must shift from physical to mental beauty—the beauty inherent in creative thinking and sound reasoning. At this point, if all goes well, the lover will be well prepared to "catch sight of something ... which in fact gives meaning to all his previous efforts." This "something" is beauty itself, pure and abstract, unattached to any person, object, or idea.

Analysis

Although he claims he is merely relating the advice he received from Diotima, Socrates's speech hearkens back to what many of the previous speakers have said. This "coincidence" is one clue suggesting that Diotima is probably a rhetorical device, rather than a real historical personage like Socrates or Aristophanes. This is the view taken by most modern scholars, but it raises additional questions: for starters, as David Halperin puts it in a noteworthy 1990 essay, "Why did Plato select a woman to initiate Socrates into the mysteries of a male, homoerotic desire?" In his article, entitled "Why is Diotima a Woman?" Halperin surveys several possible answers, including the traditional one: Plato did not want to show Socrates learning about love from "an older and wiser male." Other explanations revolve around the existence of Diotima-like figures in literature or drama, or around the notion of procreation as a feminine activity. Ultimately, Halperin concludes, "to ask why Diotima is a woman is to pose a question that ... has no answer."

Diotima's description of Love's parentage offers a third alternative to the "common" and "celestial" origin stories recounted earlier. Unlike those two versions of Love's pedigree, which can be sourced to Homer and Hesiod respectively, Diotima's allegory appears to be an essentially original invention, with only a few echoes of earlier myths. In describing Love as the child of Plenty and Poverty, Diotima, and thus Socrates, provides an explanation for the quality of ambitious betweenness that she will attribute to Love throughout the speech. Notably, Love, as described by Diotima, is not a uniform mixture of "poor" and "rich" qualities, but is constantly vacillating between the two.

The other major ideas from Socrates's speech—love as a chasing after immortality, and love as an ascent toward pure beauty—are among the most important and influential in Plato's works. As such, each deserves a separate discussion: see "Main Ideas" for an exploration of the two concepts and their relation to the Symposium overall.

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