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Plato's Symposium

Updated on December 19, 2013

What's a Symposium?

A formal Symposium is an organized meeting for the discussion of a specific topic at which a number of invited speakers make a presentation before an audience. A good example of a modern symposium is the yearly, "Beyond Belief," forum which you can catch on youtube. If you have a general interest in scientific and social issues I highly recommend it.

A Symposium in the classical Greco sense is an informal meeting after a dinner where friends assemble to drink and discuss a topic of intellectual interest collectively.

Plato's Symposium Summarized

One of Plato’s best works, setting aside his accounts of the Socrates dialectics, is his Symposium in which seven speakers in turn give their views in monologues on the nature of love.

Phaedrus, the first speaker, speaks largely to the inspiring and sacrificing nature of love. Citing Eros as the oldest god and the impetus of love to inspire men to vain glorious acts of valor, he characterizes sacrifice of self in service to the love of another as the most noble type of offering that can be made to any god.

Pausanius spends his time distinguish between two separate guises of love, pure lust-ridden sex and a deeper intellectual replete Eros that holds a higher and more noble status. The commonly practiced pederasty of the period between wise men and their boy students is discussed and a distinction is drawn between a contemptible type of sexual subservience by a boy in hopes of wealth or material gains versus the noble and virtuous submission made in the pursuit of wisdom.

The third speaker, Eryximachus, an Athenian physician speaks of the apothecary value of love and it’s universal pervasiveness in governing all things concerned with truth and all things aesthetic. He distinguishes this from the love that can be detrimental to health, assumedly love characterized by obsession and jealousy.

Aristophanes carries on at some length concerning himself with a creation myth ostensibly explaining lovers’ affinity for one another. He speaks of early double sets people attached at the stomach forming, “double-backed beasts.” Some of these sets were of two men, some of two women, and others, of a man attached to a women. The god’s decided to split them in half and thus our lives are spent searching out our original complementary half, thus explaining both homosexuality and heterosexuality by attributing this to the gender of one’s missing half. He champions love between men as the bravest and most loyal form, castigating heterosexual capriciousness and fickleness.

Agathon engages in a piece of poetic sophistry that relegates love only to the youthful and lays the foundation for classical Athenian values such as justice and wisdom.

Socrates dismantles Agathon’s contentions through the use of his namesake method and goes on to speak of the origin of love as the child of resource and poverty and thus deceptive and harsh but capable of the intellectual procreation of wisdom thus fulfilling man’s need for immortality.

Alcibiades spend his time delivering an oration to Socrates, he compares him to one of Silenus’s statues, uncomely but filled with golden statues of the god’s. His advances go unrequited and he ends by commenting on the intoxicating lure of Socrates’s wisdom and its power to make other’s fall unwittingly in love with him.

There are a few concomitant themes that run through more than only a single speech regarding love. One, as I interpret the piece, is love’s numinous value: it shares ineffable transcending qualities that are also found in humanity’s interactions with justice, beauty, or music. Another recurring theme is that of the love between two people as being synergistic and leading to an immortal type of wisdom and an unrivaled personal wholeness. The tendencies of love to be manipulative and petty, and potentially unhealthy are also mentioned by more than only one speaker. Without exception though, love is discussed as a matrix supporting all the platonic perfection engendered by concepts such as wisdom, truth, temperance, and aesthetic appeal.

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