Plato's Symposium (drinking party)

The Symposium


  • 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.


  • 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?

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