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Critical Analysis of the Concept of Love in Plato's Symposium

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One can gauge the seriousness of Plato’s Symposium from the title itself: which means ‘drinking party.’ Naturally, like all drinking parties, absurdity is bound to be mixed with philosophy— but the overall mood is light and the celebratory atmosphere. Far from these reasons, it is appropriate that the Symposium’s theme is love, for if there is one subject that captures the ethereal, it is love. Or, in other words: Plato uses his characters as instruments to offer many love accounts and show their true meaning as a quest for enlightenment and self-improvement. (Dialog is a mechanism and the true meaning of love is reflected in the way characters give many accounts of what love is— a quest for enlightenment), what kinds of love are worthy of praise and the purpose of love? Loving is Mortal and Immortal and between wisdom and ignorance. To achieve this, it is necessary to complete the ‘Ladder of Love’ of Diotima, to achieve its purpose of giving birth to true virtue, having seen Beauty. Not everyone does this, but reproduction in the body or soul also achieves Love’s purpose. Interpersonal relationships are also significant in the discussion of marriage, that of the lover and beloved. Plato’s symposium is not just telling that beauty is in the soul and its imperishable, he instead is suggesting that everybody’s definition of love is different, but each is connected as part of the total ‘love’ chimera: each idea: just like every voice, it flows into each other; and Socrates sums it up best — love is a concert.

Plato prevents his readers to settle for one definition of love by distancing the reader from the philosophical ideas, to reduce the authority of the speakers using a frame narrative (Aristodemus told Apollodorus who told a friend…). This prevents the reader from settling with the conclusion of one particular speaker. It also emphasizes how serious philosophy can be lighthearted, making it more accessible. The layer separating the reader from Diotima also serves to imply that this speech has Plato’s views on love, not Socrates’. To explain that love (in man) follows love (in the abstract), let’s take the example we began with. Socrates is on his way to a banquet (Agathon— a fine man, as Socrates describes him— for which reason, as Aristodemus observes, Socrates himself is finely dressed). Socrates, Plato’s beloved, is on his way to dining with one who is loved by himself— and on his way, he meets another who is loved and beloved and is then invited to join. On arrival: Agathon immediately welcomes Aristodemus (although not personally invited, Agathon tells Aristodemus that he went out to try him to extend the invitation). So, we see how love, represented by Agathon: draws love — or we might say love follows love (represented by Socrates) as represented by Aristodemus. Like knows like in either case and love follows love just as good follows good— implicit in the opening proverb of Socrates. We see a literal portrayal of our thesis here.

However, the very structure of the Symposium extends the idea that love follows love: each guest gives a series of speeches about the nature of love. Love is the theme of the evening: and in speech after speech love follows love.

However, to understand the nature of the idea that love (in man) follows love (in the abstract), we must examine how each of the men at the symposium represents love by examining their beliefs, we will make our thesis clearer: in the discourse of Phaedrus, we will learn that love is, in fact, the eldest of the gods,’ a point that signifies love as a seed — or as a font from which all things are filled. He introduces the complex layers by focusing on the virtue of bravery in love. (He narrates stories of Achilles exemplifying his bravery of love). Pausanias follows his speech with a self-righteous tone. He bifurcates love into two- Common love and heavenly love, associating the latter to homosexual relationships. He appreciates this love and discusses the role of law, justice, and equality. Phaedrus, who talks about bravery, states that in front of the person they love, people feel the most remorse. If they were in a war, they would never do anything humiliating, such as lowering ranks or losing arms in front of their beloved just keeping on, trying to be a hero. “If only there were a way to start a city or an army made up of lovers and the boys they love. Theirs would be the best possible system of society, for they would hold back from all that is shameful, and seek honor in each other’s eyes.” (Phaedrus, 10). This underlies the undercurrent of honor in the speeches. Only Diotima explicates that a person seeks glory and honor in their quest for immortality.

The importance of virtue as an end in seeking love is introduced by Pausanias. “Our customs, then, provide for only one honorable way of taking a man as a lover. In addition to recognizing that the lover’s total and willing subjugation to his beloved’s wishes is neither servile nor reprehensible, we allow that there is one–and only one– further reason for willingly subjecting oneself to another which is equally above reproach: that is subjection for the sake of virtue.”(Pausanias, 18) This will prove an important point in Diotima’s “Ladder of Love.” Pausanias, who in his speech reflects on tradition and policy, explains the practice of mentor-student partnerships in Athens. They help to stave off common love, as complex as they are. The actions serve to make such partnerships seem disgraceful, even if welcomed. Moreover, when looking for goodness, even if the other party is disgusting, the one who submits cannot be ashamed of the honorable thing.

Eryximachus follows this speech, validating our thesis when he refers to ‘the course of the seasons’ and the harmonious love of one another and how all things ‘mix intemperance and harmony’ (20). Here we see love as a principle underlying the whole world and uniting all things in one harmonious semblance. Love follows love just as the seasons go by, just as there is a kind of harm to each other. He also extends the idea of love beyond interpersonal relationships, claiming love is found in the coexistence of opposites and the harmony of nature. He states that almost everything can have love and has vital importance. Eryximachus says love is harmony between opposites in nature and people. It is much more than just interpersonal relationships. “Love does not occur only in the human soul; it is not simply the attraction we feel toward human beauty: it is a significantly broader phenomenon. It certainly occurs within the animal kingdom, and even in the world of plants. It occurs everywhere in the universe.” (Eryximachus, 20) This is important since he is the only one of the first five speeches to branch out beyond individual human actions and relationships in discussing love, making it something different altogether.

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Aristophanes, of course, arrives at our study from a deferent angle that he ends his discourse by mocking Eryximachus’s speech on harmony-for Aristophanes is of a disposition that is fine-tuned to perceive the human tendency towards disharmony (as his earlier hiccups shows) Aristophanes starts by saying that no one has ever grasped Love-and here he is perfectly true. While we say passion serves life, it’s a rough and intense way of speaking which suits more tightly with the first three serious speakers It says calling the humorous side of existence that is partly made up of bile. Aristophanes, the great comedic playwright, relieves his heaviness symposium by maintaining that Love is a drama in a way and a spectacular version. He does not refute our argument, but rather strengthens it by broadening our view of love and man’s interest of man. Not (as Aristophanes reveals in his account of the separation between man and woman) and therefore he must strive to find his wholeness in love (In the abstract) love accompanies love. The end of the desire of love is finding the person who constitutes our other half, to heal the wound created by Zeus. “Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.” (Aristophanes, 29) This end is denied by Diotima, who asserts that we will only look for our other halves’ if that person is good. She also denies the idea that the end of this desire is only finding the person since that is only the beginning of the purpose in the pursuit of love.

This satire is described in a conversation that follows immediately between Agathon and Socrates Agathon. Love Is the motivation for all good deeds and is the purpose and justification of good deeds Love creates love. Socrates builds on the philosophy of Agathon by asking Agathon about the nature of love. Socrates admits it cannot be explained as easily as Agathon implies-but Socrates does not in any way cause us to modify our study. The discourse of Agathon serves as a springboard for Socrates: Socrates follows Agathon, and his understanding of love builds on Agathon’s-just as each speech built on the one before him. Socrates criticizes Agathon’s speech by questioning him, and they arrive at this point, which allows them to refute Agathon’s assertions of Love being beautiful and good. Rather, Socrates proves, Love is not good or beautiful since he desires these things. “So, such a man or anyone else who has a desire desires what is not at hand and not present, what he does not have, and what he is not, and that of which he is in need; for such are the objects of desire and love.” (Socrates. 42) Their conceptions of love should have been based more on the image of the lover than on the image of the beloved they had been incorrectly using. This shifts from the previous speeches, setting up Diotima’s arguments.

Socrates deconstructs his Agathon’s speech. He conveys his thoughts on Love through Diotima’s point of view. They establish that Love is between Beauty and ugliness, between Mortal and Immortal, and between wisdom and ignorance. She believes that love means more than just the love between two people. The purpose is not to find the other half, but to give birth in beauty. Everyone pursues love differently, whether through making money, sports, or philosophy; but according to Diotima, only passionate, exclusive love between people is truly called love. “It’s only when people are devoted exclusively to one special kind of love that we use these words that belong to the whole of it; ‘love’ and ‘in love and ‘lovers.’”(Diotima, 51). Diotima argues that love is outside of solely individual relationships, but then she also only grants the term love to one path: “the rites of Love leading to philosophy”. The idea of procreation delivered by her is not just pregnancy but giving birth from the soul too. Reproduction is the mortal’s eternal way of being immortal and will only occur in the presence of beauty. The purpose of love is to give birth in beauty, whether in the body or soul. Reproduction only happens out of beauty and is the tool for mortals to have any type of immortality, whether through childbirth or ideas. “Reproduction and birth in beauty.” (Diotima, 53). This answers the question set up by Phaedrus as to what the purpose of love is, which he and the other speeches had not fully addressed. She also strongly believes that giving birth from the soul is a purer form of immortality and only males can be pregnant of the soul (e.g.: poets, writers, artists).

Her famous idea of love is the “Ladder of Love”, which describes each stage. First, a person loves one body. Secondly, the person finds beauty in all the bodies. Thirdly, the person appreciates the beauty of all souls over bodies. Lastly, the person(lover) will see the beauty in its purest form and gives birth to true virtue. She says that being pregnant in the soul allows a person to see the true Form of Beauty, something people pregnant in the body cannot achieve. These people have learned all the rungs on the ladder of love, becoming lovers of wisdom, so they can see the Form of Beauty. “That in that life alone, when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen–only then will it become possible for him to give birth, not to images or virtue, but true virtue.” (Diotima, 59-60). Having been pregnant in the soul through the process, this sight of actual Beauty, as opposed to a mere image of it, allows the person to give birth to true virtue. The “Ladder of Love” has multiple steps. First, a person loves one body, and then he finds beauty in all bodies. After this, he must appreciate the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of activities and laws, or customs, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom, which is philosophy. Upon reaching this, the lover will see Beauty in its pure form, and give birth, not to an image of virtue, but true virtue.

The introduction of Alcibiades combines the book’s comedic elements with its most serious moment— the expression of Diotima. His speech connects Socrates with Eros, identifying Socrates as Eros was portrayed by Diotima. The statement by Diotima reconciles all the inconsistencies contained in the five prior speeches. The deals of Alcibiades on a different topic: to honor Socrates. Everything depends on Love and its values, however. In his speech, Alcibiades compares Socrates to Eros. “But once I caught him when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike — so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing that I no longer had a choice, I just had to do whatever he told me”(216-17). Alcibiades has seen more of the true Socrates than the others, allowing him to make his claims with authority. His speech shows that Socrates is the perfect image of love. There are several similarities in parallel: being between mortal and immortal, beauty and ugliness, and wisdom and ignorance. The description of Aristodemus on his way to Agathon also has similarities with the description of love by Diotima.

The Vulgate’s atmosphere and the theme were dynamic throughout the Symposium. We encounter different perspectives on love from 6 men but also learn that after the climb of the “Ladder of love”, which is Diotima’s point of view, we each the absolute beauty, which is eternal. She gives a positive definition of love and a negative for beauty. (she is not, what it is). We also learn that the purest form of love is the one who gives birth from the soul and beauty is in the soul and is imperishable. Though their definition of love was different, their ideology is connected as part of the total ‘love’ chimera. This was praised and accepted by all the men that night following a change in the atmosphere. Subsequently, Alcibiades praises Socrates instead of Eros. Though it all looked like Plato was pushing the beauty of the soul, Rather, he implies that the definition of love for all people is different — but everyone is linked in the full ‘heart’ chimera: every thought: it flows like every voice, into one another.

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Critical Analysis of the Concept of Love in Plato’s Symposium. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
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