Plato's Symposium (drinking party)



  • B. 427, d. 348 BCE
  • lived almost entirely in Athens
  • an associate of Socrates
  • founded the Academy in 385; the Academy did not close its doors until the 6th century CE
  • much of Plato's work is composed in dialogue form, which does not give straightforward analysis like a treatise; early dialogues present Socrates as the questioner who "doesn't know"; middle dialogues, such as the Symposium, evince a shift with the introduction of a theory of forms, which does provide a kind of absolute, final answer (though it can be accessed only indirectly).
  • Plato is known for his theory of forms or 'ideas', the absolute essence that lies behind the material realm. Human sense perception can perceive only distorted material "shadows" of the real (the forms); through philosophy one may attain to a closer apprehension of the form, but not yet a direct apprehension.


  • "love of boys"; refers to an asymmetrical and hierarchical relation between an adult man and a pubescent boy; ideally the relationship, once established, continued for a period of time during which the older man conferred on the boy the benefits of his knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the polis and the boy granted his older lover sexual favors; in other words, the relationship was seen as part of the education and initiation of youths into adult male society. (Recall from Aristophanes' Clouds the interest of Better Argument in young boys genitalia.)
  • the Greeks conceived of the asymmetricality not in terms of the gender of the partners (male-female), but in terms of active and passive roles; hence pederasty refers to an asymmetrical relation between an older and active partner,the lover/erastes; and a younger, passive partner, the beloved/eromenos;
  • adult males were expected to be the active partner (i.e., the one who penetrates); sex with a passive (i.e., penetrated) partner of either gender was generally socially acceptable (excepting, of course, with certain protected Athenian women such as citizens' wives and unmarried daughters);
  • the relationship between the erastes and eromenos was frequently valorized as contributing to the moral and intellectual development of the youth (e.g., Pausanias in the Symposium); it was also demonized by some writers as aristocratic excess;
  • a pederastic relationship was ordinarily terminated when the youth came to full maturity (could sport a beard), at which point he could become the active partner in a relationship with a younger male. The evidence about whether married men continued to pursue relations with boys is mixed, but it is very possible that they did so. (Men married in classical Athens at about 30 years of age)
  • there is little or no evidence from Greek antiquity for a concept of homosexuality as sexual orientation; the norm was something like serial bisexuality;
  • Athenian society generally encouraged the erastes to pursue a boy to love, courting him with gifts, etc.; but nonetheless expected the boy (and his family) to resist the relationship; the youths were not expected to enjoy the sexual relation but to finally give sexual favors in return for the benefits of the mentoring relationship;
  • copulation with citizen boys was usually intercrural, that is, penetration was between the boys thighs, not anal;
  • religious festivals, the gymnasium, and symposia were popular places to pursue youths;
  • this is not to say that pederasty was the only expression of same-sex relations in ancient Greece; indeed Pausanias--whom Plato (in the Symposium) has defend long-term same-sex partnerships between adults--was known to have had a lengthy relationship with Agathon. Such relations were, however, suspect at best because of the passivity that would necessarily be involved.

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The Symposium


  • Observe the techniques of distancing the reader from the "actual" (though they are fictional) events and speeches:
    • Time: the symposium occurred "long ago" in 416 BCE; the account is supposedly provided by a certain Apollodoros in 406-400 BCE; the dialogue was probably written between 385-378 BCE.
    • Sources: the internal (and external) auditor hears the speeches only at third remove: the actual speeches filtered through Aristodemos, who was there, and filtered again through Apollodoros, who was not there.
    • Speakers>Aristodemos>Apollodorus>Plato>reader
  • Pay attention to the gentle but humorous depiction of Socrates' tendency to become 'lost in thought', so that he arrives late to the drinking party.
  • Since a symposium was not only a place to perform poetry or speeches about love but was also a place to pursue erotic attachments, we should pay attention to exchanges of various kinds between the participants as well as to the content of the speeches themselves.


  • Eros is the best guide to virtue; the lover inspired by eros will be inspired to display courage leading to self sacrifice:
    • Three mythological exempla (all flawed in one respect or another): Alcestis, Orpheus, Achilles


  • Distinction between two kinds of love: heavenly love/Aphrodite and common love/Aphrodite (derived from two myths about the origin of Aphrodite)

heavenly love

  • comes only from the male and pertains only to men;
  • exclusively homosexual (male-male)
  • more spiritual;
  • not directed toward little boys (from whom one can derive only sexual gratification) but toward slightly older youths with whom an intellectual relationship can be fostered;
  • Aim is moral improvement

common love

  • indiscriminately takes male or female objects
  • physical love whose goal is sexual gratification
  • produces regeneration

  • Contemporary (not mythological) exempla:
    • Boeotia/Elis: man-boy love is indiscriminately approved, which show they are not intellectual enough to think with sophistication about it
    • Ionia/Persia: man-boy love is indiscriminately disapproved, which shows that tyrannical forms of government can't tolerate deep spiritual bonds (witness the tyrannicides/lovers Harmodius and Aristogiton)
    • Athens/Sparta: society encourages the erastes, but puts obstacles in his way and discourages the eromenos from giving in. Why? To weed out the merely common love from the heavenly.
  • QUESTION: Do you think Pausanias satisfactorily accounts for the sexual element in his argument? Put another way, in his defense of pederasty, does he adequately integrate the sexual and intellectual aspects?
  • OBSERVE that, while sex with women or with one's wife is not ruled out, and even affection for a woman is not ruled out, women are eliminated from these 'higher forms' of physical/intellectual bonding because of a pervasive notion that women were intellectually inferior and thus not capable of the kind of bonding idealized in man-boy love.
  • OBSERVE: Aristophanes has the hiccups during the final part of Pausanias' speech. What might be the significance of this?



  • brings the body back into the center of the discussion (Eryximachus is a physician)
  • agrees that there is a noble love and a bad love:
    • health/good is harmony/balance; the good love causes things to come together in harmony ("I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. . ."?)
    • strife is what causes things to come apart
  • QUESTION: Does Eryximachus' abstract speculation take the ethical aspect of love/pederasty sufficiently into account? Does he offer physics of love without metaphysics?



  • brings the relationships between individuals back into focus; shifts from the effects of eros to the nature of eros.
  • Speech is original in two respects
    • in its portrayal of reciprocal love between individual (as opposed to the 'one way' love of pederasty
    • strong 'essential' argument for preferences as to gender of object of eros
  • story of origins that accounts for the human condition and for the nature of love as 'longing': the human condition is that we are lacking, that is, we are separated from another 'half' for which we search until we find him/her
    • the gender of the other half for which humans search is determined the gender from which each originated: male/male, female/female, or female/male
    • I point out that this is the only reference in the Symposium to female desire or to female same-sex love.
  • sets up privation view of love, which Socrates picks up
  • QUESTION: Does Aristophanes' story account for the institution of pederasty (a kind of serial bisexuality)?


  • although Agathon is a tragic poet, the effect of his speech is comic because of its unrestrained parody of sophistic style and argument (not to mention use of double-entendre)
  • he proposes to praise Eros first for what he is, and secondly for his benefits
  • Agathon emphasizes aspects of love that relate most to him: love is delicate, of extraordinary beauty, and outstanding in virtue
    • It is here that Socrates will attack his speech!







  • Socrates questions Agathon (199D-201C)
    • Example of the Socratic method of cross-examination (elenchus)
    • He gets Agathon to agree that since no one desires what one already has, eros cannot be either good or virtuous.
    • When Agathon admits he does not know what he thought he knew, what has Socrates accomplished?!
  • Diotima questions Socrates (201D-203B)
    • Diotima elicits from Socrates that love is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither mortal nor immortal, neither wise nor ignorant, but something in between


DIOTIMA, priestess of Mantinea, is surely a fictional character. She functions to keep the reader yet another step removed from the true form. As the form cannot be perceived by the senses nor is it readily accessible, neither is the source of information about it.

  • Eros is offspring of Poros (Resource) and Penia (poverty)
    • consider the description of Eros in 203 D-E; does he sound a little like. . . . Socrates?
  • Eros is in love with what is beautiful; wisdom is very beautiful; therefore is Eros is a lover of wisdom (a philosopher).
    • Thus she turns the lover from a purveyor into a pursuer of wisdom
  • Love is wanting to possess the good forever (206A)
    • cp. Socrates' ethics, namely, that he has no concept of humans knowingly loving, pursuing, or doing evil, since for him, to know good is to love good and therefore will always lead to doing good.
  • The REAL object of love is not just the good, but giving birth in beauty (206E), which is, at heart, a desire for immortality:
    • Men who are pregnant in body turn to women and give birth to children (209A)
    • Men who are pregnant in soul turn to youths who are beautiful in body and soul; when they come together, the lover gives birth to virtuous acts (209 B-C)
  • The LADDER OF LOVE 210A (note progress from individual and zpecific to general and transcendent):
    • start by loving one beautiful body (and begetting beautiful ideas): What is this? Pederasty; on the lowest rung of the ladder; compare to Pausanias.
    • generalize from one beautiful body to all beautiful bodies, and love all beautiful bodies
    • step up to loving the blauty of another's soul, 4*! and, accordingly, regard the beauty of bodies as a thing of no importance (note dualism of body and soul: leave behind love of one to love the other)
    • love the beauty of a whole sea of knowledge
    • 210E: all of a sudden you will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature, which is the rehson for all the lower steps on the ladder: gaze on the eternal and pure Form of Beauty. (read 211 A-E very carefully for the concept of the Form)

What problem or question is Plato's theory of forms a response or answer to?


  • comes in to the party, as he says, "plastered."
  • Alcibiades the quintessential example of physical beauty and lack of self-discipline; represents the physical side of passion.
    • So, as suddenly as the philosopher sees the ) Form of Beauty, the physical down at the bottom rung .# comes crashing in. This should raise the question of what a philosopher does. . .
  • Alcibiades' speech in praise of Socrates:
    • What are Socrates' effects on Alcibiades?
    • What is Socrates' like (his nature)?
    • Socrates is)pregnant (like Silenus statues) in soul
    • But Socrates is 'deceptive', for he presents himself as a lover, but you (i.e., Alcibiades!) end up loving and pursuing him yourself.
    • Note that when Alcibiades offers Socrates an exchange--physical love for metaphysical wisdom (the ideal of pederasty, after all)--Socrates rejects it bechuse he would get the worst part of the bargain.


  • Thinking back over the whole ff the Symposium, what do you think is the relation of the final discussion (whether or not the same writer can write both tragedy and comedy) to the dialogue you have just read?

Sample Essay


Discuss the following quotation. Contextualize it (work, author, speaker, place in the work) and discuss its significance for representations of pederasty in the work (2 paragraphs for quiz; 3-5 for final exam):

"I think," I said,"you're the only worthy lover I have ever had--and yet, look how shy you are with me! Well, here's how I look at it. It would be really stupid not to give you anything you want: you can have me, my belongings, anything my friends might have. Nothing is more important to me than becoming the best man I can be, and no one can help me more than you to reach that aim. With a man like you, in fact, I'd be much more ashamed of what wise people would say if I did not take you as my lover, than I would of what all the others, in their foolishness, would say if I did."

Discuss the following quotation. Contextualize it (work, author, speakers, place in the work) and discuss its significance for Plato's depiction of Socrates' method and/or concept of wisdom (2 paragraphs for quiz;3-5 for final exam):

"So, if something needs beauty and has no beauty at all, would you still say that it is beautiful?"

"Certainly not!"

"Then do you still agree that Love is beautiful, if those things are so?"

"It turns out, I didn't know what I was talking about in that speech."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

""As for me, Socrates," he said,"I am unable to challenge you. Let it be as you say."

""Then it's the truth, my beloved_______, that you are unable to challenge," he said. "It is not hard at all to challenge Socrates."

Discuss the following quotation. Contextualize it (work, author, speaker, place in the work) and discuss its significance for the development of one of the major themes in the work (2 paragraphs for quiz; 3-5 for final exam):

"This then is the source of our desire to love each other. Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a 'matching half' of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him."

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