Socrates’ Speech

Socrates follows Agathon and begins with his tongue so firmly in his cheek, I am surprised he can say anything at all.  Damning poor Agathon with faint praise, he claims ignorance for himself in the matter of eulogies – he doesn’t know how to make eulogies, only how to tell the truth!  Being encouraged to go ahead with a truthful speech anyway, Socrates turns his attention to Agathon and uses him to display his method of leading students to knowledge through questioning.

The logic goes like this:

  • Love is love of some object.
  • Love desires that object
  • One desires only what one does not have (one can desire the continuance into the future of what one already has though)
  • Those who love do not have the object they love/desire.

Agathon has said ‘the gods made the world from a love of beautiful things for there was no love of ugliness’ so….

  • Eros must be love of beauty and not of ugliness. (hmmm ?)
  • Eros then lacks beauty and does not possess it.

Poor Agathon at this point admits he didn’t know what he was talking about only to receive the most damning rejoinder ‘καὶ μὴν καλῶς γε εἶπας’ – ‘Ah, but at least you spoke beautifully’.

The logic contiues

  • Love lacks beautiful things
  • Good things are beautiful
  • Love lacks good things
Jadwiga Łuszczewska, who used the pen name Diotima, posing as the ancient sage in a painting by Józef Simmler, 1855 provided by Wikimedia Commons

Jadwiga Łuszczewska, who used the pen name Diotima, posing as the ancient sage in a painting by Józef Simmler, 1855 provided by Wikimedia Commons

Socrates finally lets Agathon off the hook and proceeds to a description of what he has learned about Love from the Matinean woman, Diotima.  Apparently it was she who put right Socrates’ own misguided belief that Love was a great god, and was of beautiful things, using the same method he has just demonstrated using Agathon.

Diotima reveals (using the same dialectic teaching method) that there is a halfway house between beauty and ugliness, just as, for example, the the state of having correct beliefs (ἔχειν λογον)  without understanding, lies between knowledge and ignorance.  Eros is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither good nor bad, but something between the two extremes. Neither, she contends, is Eros a mortal nor a god, but something between the two – one of the spirits who mediate between men and gods.

Diotima answers Socrates question about the origin of Eros with the story of his birth.  He is the son of Poverty and Resource who met at the celebrations for the birth of Aphrodite. His attachment to Aphrodite and all things beautiful springs from this, and he also shares his mothers neediness and his father’s resourcefulness.  He oscillates between flourishing and dying and also stands between wisdom and ignorance.

This shimmies neatly, though not particularly logically, into the claim that in general neither the ignorant nor the wise seek wisdom, but (back to the original argument) that Love does seek wisdom because he stands between ignorance and wisdom.

Now we get a link back to the original speeches with a claim that Socrates must have believed the ‘beloved’ (the young boy) rather than the ‘lover’ (the older man) to be Love. Diotima seems to associate the ‘beloved’ with beauty, and the ‘lover’ with the Eros she has described.

Discussion proceeds into the usefulness of Love to mankind, and more dialectic takes us (via a pretty tortuous route which I have not attempted to map) to the conclusion that Love has many forms which are encompassed in the desire for good things and being happy.  I think that is the conclusion anyway but am happy to be corrected! Apparently the  Greek is difficult to decipher too.

After a glancing (and prescient, since Diotima hasn’t heard him) reference to Aristophanes’ speech in 205e , we get the answer to Socrates’ question on how to pursue love.  Apparently, it is all about the begetting of beautiful things, either with the body or through the soul.   Fortunately, Socrates doesn’t follow this so we get further explanation:

At a certain age, men yearn to beget things to win themselves a sort of immortality. Beauty is a necessary adjunct, as they only want to beget beautiful things, and recoil from ugliness. So, after all, love is not love of the beautiful, but love of engendering and begetting upon the beautiful…. τῆς γεννήσεως καὶ τοῦ τόκου ἐν τῷ καλῷ.  Love is love of immortality as well as of good because ‘love is of permanent possession of the good’ – ‘τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἑαυτῷ εἶναι ἀεὶ ἔρως ἐστίν’.

So now Diotima take us on to discover the cause of love and desire, which is common to animals and men, and which makes them beget and nurture and protect the things they bring to birth, even if it costs their own lives.  This desire is obviously (though Socrates needs to be told) caused by the wish to brings themselves as close as possible to immortality by leaving behind a new creature. Even as men age, they constantly renew themselves, losing bits (eg hair) and beliefs and growing others though we still have the illusion of being the same person. We also lose knowledge through forgetfulness and re-grow it by study giving the impression we keep it the same all the time.  This losing and growing lets a mortal taste immortality, which is then extended by the birth of an offshoot. Reputation, even more than children, can be considered such an offshoot as it wins ‘deathless memory for valor’, ‘οἶμαι ὑπὲρ ἀρετῆς ἀθανάτου’. Furthermore, those who give birth to prudence and virtue in the form of poetry and arts are revered as inventors, εὑρετικοὶ, and are superior. The highest and fairest prudence is directed towards regulating cities and justice.  The most divine men will seek beauty not only of body but of soul upon which to beget and also lead that which they beget upon in education.  So …. men who take younger men as lovers have a very strong relationship because their children are children of the soul rather than human children.  (Its a bit strange that this woman love expert seems to assume it is not possible to find such a soul sharing parenthood between a man and a woman or indeed between two women.) Examples of offspring of this higher type include poems, laws and customs.  Diotima reckons Socrates might be able to cope at this level but there is more to come which she thinks will be beyond him….

So this is the ladder which needs to be climbed:

  1. Find a single body and love it (presumably him)
  2. Appreciate the beauty of all (beautiful?) bodies – reduce love of single body
  3. Appreciate the beauty of souls – reduce love of beautiful bodies
  4. Find beauty in laws, observances and kinship – let go of the beauty of bodies
  5. Find beauty in knowledge (general not particular branches) – let go of observances etc
  6. Turn to the wide ocean of beauty and bring forth a plenteous crop of philosophy until … you see …. the revelation of essential beauty which is imperishable and constant. This is much better than boys…

So … the next bit is very tricky … if he can see this essential beauty, he can breed true examples of virtue, because he has consorted with truth, and then he will have the friendship of Heaven and be immortal …..

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

So, with quite a bit of relief we turn back to Socrates, who has been relating Diotima’s words. He thinks she is right! Because of this, he is persuading others to use the best helper they can find ( ie Love) to lead them towards the top of Diotima’s ladder.  And so Socrates honours Love’s power and valor…. τὴν δύναμιν καὶ ἀνδρείαν τοῦ Ἔρωτος.

So there you have it.  I am sure there is a lot here that needs further explanation and / or correcting …  please help with your comments ..

Meanwhile, some questions.  Are there direct correspondences here to the other speeches?  Is Socrates recommending the lover – beloved relationship as a first step on the ladder?  Why is Plato attributing the wisdom delivered through Socrates’ words to someone else?  Why is the source of the wisdom a woman? Why is she from Mantinea? What’s it all about really?

[This content was provided with a great deal of difficulty by Mairsmagic]


Alcibiades’ Speech


So-called “Alcibiades”, ideal male portrait. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century BC—the hermaic pillar and the inscription (“Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, Athenian”) are modern additions.

So-called “Alcibiades”, ideal male portrait. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century BC—the hermaic pillar and the inscription (“Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, Athenian”) are modern additions. This image was provided by Wikimedia Commons Jastrow (2006)

At 212d, Alcibiades makes his entrance like this:

‘A few moments after, they heard the voice of Alcibiades in the forecourt, very drunken and bawling loud, to know where Agathon was, and bidding them bring him to Agathon. So he was brought into the company by the flute-girl and some others of his people supporting him: he stood at the door, crowned with a bushy wreath of ivy and violets, and wearing a great array of ribands on his head. “Good evening, sirs,” he said; “will you admit to your drinking a fellow very far gone in liquor …’

Being welcomed, he flirts with both Agathon and Socrates and then takes over the running of the Symposium, making his own speech in praise, not of love, but of Socrates.  He likens Socrates to a Silenus figure which can be opened to reveal images of the gods, and to the satyr Marsyas, in his ability to draw a crowd of admirers to himself and fill them with emotion.  He tells of his own infatuation and  his rejected attempts to become Socrates’ lover.  He praises Socrates imperviousness to his own charms, to inebriation and to the cruellest of weather.  He commends the endurance which lets him stand from one dawn to the next considering a problem.  He recounts Socrates courage in battle and reluctance to accept recognition for it.  Finally he praises the wisdom hidden within the shell of Socrates’ simple words.

Alcibiades ends his speech abruptly at 222b with a warning to Agathon that many beautiful young men have loved Socrates but been hurt by his rejecting them as lovers.

Alcibiades’ speech takes up about one fifth of the entire content of the Symposium.  Why did Plato devote so much space to his words?  What does the speech add to Plato’s exposition on love?  What does it tell us about Socrates and why?  Socrates himself accuses Alcibiades of trying to stir up trouble between him and Agathon.  Is there any justification for this? Why is the character of Alcibiades so attractive relative to the others at the Symposium? Does this reflect anything of the character of the ‘real’ Alcibiades?

Answers on a largish postcard please 🙂

[This content was provided by Mairsmagic]

The Conclusion

The end of Alcibiades’ speech is met with laughter because ‘he seemed still to be affected by love for Socrates’. Socrates accuses him of trying to stir up trouble between Agathon and himself and Agathon, agreeing with him, manoeuvres round Alcibiades, who has physically placed himself between them, so he can be by Socrates again. Socrates denies Alcibiades request that Agathon lie in the middle, saying, inaccurately, that this would mean that Agathon now had to make a speech in praise of Socrates too. (In fact it has only been agreed that Alcibiades may praise Socrates instead of Eros – no general agreement on praising the person to your right has been made).  Agathon is keen to receive Socrates’ encomium and he moves right so that Socrates can be between him and Alcibiades.

At this point, the Symposium is interrupted by revellers and no more speeches are made. We begin to move back out of the framing narrative  with “ἐφη ὁ᾿Αριστοδημος” (‘Aristodemus said’) as he tells us that Eryximachus and Phaedrus (his ‘friend’) and some of the others left and that Aristodemus himself then slept. At dawn he found Socrates, Agathon (comic dramatist) and Aristophanes (tragedian) still drinking and Socrates trying to persuade his companions that the man who can write tragedy can also write comedy. They are overcome by Socrates’ argument and by sleep so Socrates leaves, shadowed by Aristodemus, washes at the Lyceum and spends the day as usual and before going home to rest next evening.