Plato: The Symposium

THIS wise and witty work of the great Athenian philosopher describes a debate supposed to have taken place at a supper party given by Agathon after he had won the annual prize for tragedy. The company included Socrates and Aristophanes, who took a delight in caricaturing Socrates on the stage; the brilliant, versatile and profligate Alcibiades is also introduced. The greater part of the dialogue consists of dissertations on the nature of Love; the whole is distinguished not only for subtle analysis and admirable characterisation, but as a picture of Athenian manners.


THIS discussion took place a long time ago; I had my report of it from Aristodemus, a great admirer of Socrates, who was present. He told me that he met Socrates, looking unusually smart, and asked where he was going. "To dine with Agathon," said Socrates, whom Aristodemus then accompanied, by his invitation. On the way Socrates stopped, and told him to go on in front. On reaching Agathon's house he was hospitably welcomed to supper, and then discovered that Socrates had not arrived. He had taken up his stand in a neighbouring porch, and quite declined to come in till supper was half over. Besides Agathon, Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes and others were present.

When supper was over, the company resolved unanimously to limit its potations, as most of them were suffering from the previous night's excesses, except Socrates, who was equally prepared to drink everything or nothing, being quite invincible by liquor; and, instead of drinking, to debate on a subject to be proposed by Eryximachus.

"My plan," said Eryximachus, "is really the plan of Phaedrus, not mine. He is always complaining that psalms and hymns are addressed to all the other gods, but none to Love, who is so mighty a god. So my plan is that everyone shall speak his best in the praise of Love, beginning with Phaedrus."

"No one present can possibly vote against you," said Socrates. "Certainly not I, who avow myself to know nothing about any other subject, nor Agathon, nor Pausanias, nor very assuredly, Aristophanes, who is an unfailing devotee of Aphrodite and Dionysius."

The company again agreed unanimously, and Phaedrus opened his discourse.

"A great god is Love, worthy to be admired of gods and men. Moreover, he is the source of our greatest blessings. For to youth there can be none greater than a true lover and a true love. Not birth, nor wealth, nor honours, nor aught else shall so inspire a man as Love with all that makes life worthy, shame of base deeds, and noble emulation. For to be shamed before parents and companions is less bitter to a man than disgrace in the eyes of his beloved, or of a comrade to whom he is devoted. So that comrades in this kind would far sooner die than desert one another in peril.

"There is none so base but that Love may breathe into him the spirit of a hero. Love alone makes men ready to die for another's sake; and not men only, but women. And to prove this we need but to look at Alectis, the daughter of Pelias, who, for her husband's sake was willing to die, so greatly her love exceeded that of his father and mother. Which deed the gods themselves did so approve that they suffered her soul to be released from Hades, a thing granted most rarely. Therefore I say that, of all the gods, Love is the eldest and the most to be honoured, and he that in life and in death helps men most to the possession of virtue and happiness."

After Phaedrus had ended, and some others, Pausanias began.

"This would be well enough if Love were one, but there is more than one Love. As there is that elder heavenly Aphrodite, motherless daughter of Heaven, and that goddess of the vulgar, daughter of Zeus and Dione, so there is a heavenly Love and a vulgar Love. The worthy Love is that which invites us to love worthily. The one is sensual, of the flesh; the other of the mind, freeing us from all wantonness. Now, it is most honourable to love the most excellent, even though they be less fair than others. And to win love is honourable, and to be rejected is shameful; wherefore all manner of devices are permitted to the wooer such as are permitted to none seeking another goal; yet in the lover they have a certain grace and may be done without dishonour.

"But honour and dishonour lie not in the love itself, but in the manner of loving, whether it be done worthily. For the vulgar love is worthless, inconsistent and fleeting; but the love of the virtuous character abides throughout life."

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