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Plato's SymposiumThe Ethics of Desire$

Frisbee Sheffield

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199286775

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199286775.001.0001

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Erōs and the Good Life

Erōs and the Good Life

(p.8) 1 Erōs and the Good Life
Plato's Symposium

Frisbee C. C. Sheffield (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the relationship between Socrates and his devotees shown at the start of the dialogue. In exploring this relationship, it teases out some of the dialogue's central questions about the role that lovers can play in the moral education of the young, the sorts of values that they might advocate as central to the good life, and the way in which desires can be shaped towards certain ends. It goes on to examine a variety of answers to these questions in the first five speeches in the dialogue.

Keywords:   Socrates, moral education, love, praise, encomium


The Symposium is itself presented as an act of erōs. The dialogue opens with a group of Socratic devotees whose affection for Socrates has led them to remember and pass down the narrative we are about to hear. It begins with Apollodorus, an intimate companion of Socrates, claiming, in response to a request by an anonymous friend, that he is not unrehearsed in narrating the speeches at Agathon's symposium. This conversation recalls another between Apollodorus and Glaucon, which took place two days before. Glaucon had already been given a report of this banquet by another person who heard it, in turn, from Phoenix, and that account was unclear (172b4–5). He wants to hear the account again, this time from Apollodorus, because Apollodorus is a devoted friend and follower of Socrates, one whom Glaucon accordingly expects to have been present (172b5 ff.). Apollodorus is surprised at Glaucon's supposition that the event was a recent one (172c1): in fact, the party at Agathon's took place a long time ago, when Apollodorus was just a boy. Agathon has since been out of town for many years, and Apollodorus has only been a follower of Socrates for three years (172c6). As it turns out, Apollodorus heard the account from Aristodemus, another lover and follower of Socrates, who was himself present at the party (173b22–3). Apollodorus assures Glaucon that he did check some of the details with Socrates himself (173b5). Glaucon, evidently impressed with Apollodorus' Boswellian devotion, urges Apollodorus to relate the account as they walk into town (b7). The result of this conversation, so Apollodorus proudly repeats to the anonymous friends (henceforth Anon.), (p.9) is that he is ‘not unrehearsed’. The convolutions of the prologue highlight the fact that Apollodorus and others have ensured that this account has been preserved over a long period of time because, as devoted followers and friends of Socrates, they have made it their business to be attentive to Socrates' words and deeds (172c4–6). This chain of reception of which we are now a part is inspired by erōs. And Socrates makes his first appearance in this dialogue as an object of that erōs, a man whose appearance of happiness has inspired a slew of followers eager for the same benefits (cf. 173d6).1

Loving Socrates has inspired both Aristodemus and Apollodorus towards an appreciation of the philosophical life, to which they are recent converts (172c6). Apollodorus begins to explain the connection between the two:

Apoll. In fact, quite apart from thinking I benefit from it, I myself get an amazing amount of pleasure from any talking I do, or hear others doing, about philosophy; other sorts of talking, especially your rich businessmen's talk, bores me and I pity you who are my friends because you think you are achieving something when you're achieving nothing. Maybe you in your turn think I am in a wretched state, and I think what you think is true; however, I don't just think you are, I know you are.

Anon. You're always the same Apollodorus, you're always insulting yourself and everyone else. You seem to me to suppose that simply everyone is in a miserable state except Socrates, starting with yourself. Where on earth you got that nickname of yours—‘Softy’—I've no idea; when you talk you're always as you are now, savaging yourself and everybody else except Socrates (173c3–d10).2

(p.10) The contrast between the happiness of the philosopher, and the materially abundant, and yet somehow impoverished, life of those who do not value wisdom, is in effect a promissory note for the advocacy of the philosophical life in Socrates' speech. And it is this promise of genuine happiness that philosophy holds out to its devotees that is illustrated by the appeal of both Socrates and his characteristic conversations to all those who are eager to hear them. Socrates appears to Apollodorus to be living a worthwhile and happy life. As such his philosophical conversations are pursued with the hope that they will effect a similar transformation in those who practise them. This stands in contrast to the materialistic goals of Apollodorus' interlocutor; a valuation of wealth, he believes, will lead only to unhappiness.3 Apollodorus pities such types for being unaware of their deficiency: they are satisfied that they are achieving something when, according to Apollodorus, they are achieving nothing. Apollodorus himself used to wander around in a similarly self‐satisfied state (173a1–2), but having come upon Socrates he is now, at least, aware of his wretchedness and values philosophical conversation instead (cf. 173c3–4). Although he appears to his friend to be wretched (173d1), he refuses to admit that he knows that he is in a bad way, because he is confident that he is on the right path and will, eventually achieve happiness, as he thinks Socrates has (d6). By contrast, Apollodorus claims he knows the others to be in a bad way since, we infer, they are not even aware of their deficiency, and so do not practise the philosophical life (173d1–3). Apollodorus' harsh words to his anonymous friend urge him to reflect on the kind of person that he will turn out to be as a result of his desires—an unsatisfied and wretched one, apparently—and on his chances for living a worthwhile and happy life. What Apollodorus' own chances are remains to be seen.

The salient point for now is that the context for Apollodorus' conversion to a life of such promise is an attraction towards Socrates. It is Socrates who has made Apollodorus realize something that he lacks and strives to become, and it is through an association with him that Apollodorus has learnt to transform his desires in what he (p.11) perceives to be a more fruitful direction. Apollodorus' autobiographical explanation for his practice of philosophical conversation highlights the transformative potential of erotic relationships that will become a central feature of the dialogue. Socrates' appearance of happiness has aroused both an erotic attachment and educational benefits. These are intimately related: it is because Apollodorus perceives Socrates as an exponent of the happy life that he is drawn to him and encouraged to try to embody that value in his own life by adopting Socrates' characteristic philosophical lifestyle. Socrates has this effect on many others in the dialogue: Aristodemus and Alcibiades, in particular, as we shall see. These Socratic intimates also perceive something valuable about Socrates and this basis for their attraction makes them realize something they themselves lack and strive to achieve. The reason why we can learn from lovers, the prologue suggests, is that our attraction to them urges us toward something valuable that we desire to realize in our own lives—happiness, however that is construed—and in associating with them we hope to transform our lives in new and beneficial directions.

The positive benefits that such relationships can bring will be a central feature of all the speeches at Agathon's symposium. The sorts of relationships with which all the speakers are concerned were an important way in which desires were educated to ensure that erōs could lead to positive social benefits. As we shall see when we turn to the speeches themselves, in his association with an older man the younger partner was supposed to learn about the sorts of things that are worth pursuing (wisdom for Apollodorus), and the manner in which one should pursue them (by philosophical practice). An important context for associating with one's lover and receiving this sort of education was the symposium. The symposium was both a context for erōs and for education. And when Socrates enters the narration with ‘one of his greatest lovers’ (173b3–4), this is where he is leading him. By taking Aristodemus to this banquet, Socrates makes his first appearance in the dialogue as both a lover and educator.

Apollodorus recounts how the two men proceeded to the symposium and in so doing invites us to reflect upon Socrates' role as lover and guide. Apparently, Socrates encouraged Aristodemus to come along to Agathon's symposium (since he was not officially invited, (p.12) 174b1).4 Aristodemus had expressed fears about going uninvited to the symposium, but then agreed to do ‘whatever Socrates commands’ (174b2) as long as he makes a defence on his behalf. Socrates says that they will deliberate together about what to say (174d2–3) and the two men started their journey. But Socrates stopped, wrapped in thought, and urged Aristodemus to go on ahead independently (174d4–e1). He left Aristodemus to approach the reputedly wise and beautiful Agathon alone, while he was left behind (174d6). Although Aristodemus seems to want to resign authority to Socrates—he wants to be guided there and provided with something to say on arrival (174d1)—Socrates resists. He will deliberate together with him en route, and guide him in the right direction, but at a certain point Aristodemus must go it alone. Socrates, it appears, may have encouraged Apollodorus and Aristodemus to revise their conceptions of happiness (eudaimonia) and to pursue the life of philosophy, but we are left to wonder just how far he will take them and in what capacity. If Aristodemus is attending this symposium with Socrates as part of his moral education, then we are invited to consider just what role his relationship with Socrates plays in achieving that end.5

On arrival at the symposium we are invited to reflect upon similar themes. The beautiful host Agathon flirtatiously invites Socrates to recline beside him so that he can enjoy the benefits of Socrates' wisdom. This request draws on the sympotic practice of the beloved reclining next to his lover and receiving his wisdom.6 But Socrates rejects his advances as follows: (p.13)

It would be a good thing, Agathon, if wisdom were the kind of thing that flowed from what is fuller into what is emptier in our case, if only we touch each other, like the water in cups which flows from the fuller into the emptier through the thread of wool (175d4–e2).

The mention of the wine cup (kulix) is particularly appropriate given its role at symposia, and roots this model of the transmission of knowledge in a sympotic context where lovers would transmit their wisdom to their chosen beloved as they pass the wine cup. Socrates, in effect, condemns the model in his response to Agathon. Wisdom is not to be transferred from the resourceful into the resourceless in this active–passive manner. How a love relationship is to foster and inculcate wisdom will be a central concern of Socrates' speech.7

The interaction between Socrates and his devotees introduces some of the dialogue's central themes. What we want out of our love relationships is ultimately the happiness that Apollodorus believes Socrates can provide. One is drawn to a lover of a particular sort because they embody something perceived to be of value and, in associating with them, one is inspired to engage in the sorts of pursuits that one believes will deliver happiness. To his followers, associating with Socrates has encouraged the pursuit of wisdom and leading the philosophical life somehow promises to deliver the happiness they seek. We shall need to know more about the connection between happiness and the desire for wisdom, and just how an association with a lover is supposed to lead to that end. For although the relationship between Socrates and his followers emphasizes the transformative potential of erotic relationships we are also invited to wonder whether, in fact, any of these men have been improved by Socrates and, if not, what went wrong. The self‐conscious way in which Apollodorus and Aristodemus imitate Socrates in their style (173b2), self‐deprecating habits (173d9), and devotion to philosophical conversation (173c2–6) raises questions about whether this is a productive way to learn from one's lovers. Should Apollodorus be making an ‘ascent’ to town to talk about Socrates and his peers? Should Aristodemus be following Socrates, ‘as usual’ (223d10) and (p.14) adopting his habits of dress (173b2)? Will such practices provide the wisdom and happiness they seek? What is wrong with Agathon's approach to Socrates? If such men desire the wisdom and beauty they see in Socrates, and which promises to deliver eudaimonia, how do they go about getting it? How, if at all, can Socrates provide it? Exactly what role do our lovers play in a happy life?8

The beginning of the Symposium not only raises some of the central questions of the dialogue, but it focuses in particular on Socrates as a lover‐cum‐educator. In many dialogues where Plato is concerned with moral education, he is often just as concerned with Socrates as a teacher and a role model. The charge of his having corrupted the youth is never far from view, and many dialogues appear to defend Socrates from this charge. These are also key themes in this text and ones we shall return to more explicitly when we examine the description of Alcibiades' notorious relationship with Socrates. But the substance of this defence, and the answer to many of the above questions, is to be found in the accounts of erōs provided by the speakers at this symposium. Once we have an account of the nature and aims of erōs, and its role in a flourishing life, we will be in a better position to determine how an erotic relationship can lead to positive benefits and to assess Socratic erōs, in particular.


All the speakers at this symposium will be concerned with erōs as a guide towards the attainment of good things and happiness, and in so doing they begin to answer many of the questions posed by the prologue. For the expressed agenda of this symposium is to offer an encomium to erōs (personified as a god, Eros); in other words, it is to show that erōs is good and does good things.9 There is a self‐referential dimension to the exploration of the beneficial effects of erōs at a symposium since the context itself was one that attempted to make erōs work towards certain cultural norms. The framing question of this section will be to explore how, for each speaker, erōs performs this beneficial role. The speeches will be as much about presenting the speakers as the best candidates for the title of σοϕός—a contest which will become explicit in the case of Agathon and Socrates (175e7–10)—as it will be about erōs.10 The two are related. For if (at best) erotic relationships were typically educational relationships, designed to lead to the acquisition of virtue and happiness, then presenting oneself as knowledgeable about the benefits of erōs will inevitably involve presenting oneself as wise about virtue and how one should achieve it.11

(p.16) Although Socrates' extended critique of their accounts will show that, from a certain perspective, there is something amiss in his predecessors' speeches, the various accounts of erōs nonetheless introduce certain central features of the role of erōs in moral education. Or so I shall argue. The participants are, after all, the καλοὶ κἀγαθοί of the day, representatives of a wide variety of Greek wisdom, and it is expected that they will say some interesting things about erōs and its role in the good life, and that their accounts will deliver reputable opinions on the topic, backed up by the authority of ancient tradition or current expertise.12 But we shall also see that their speeches bring to light puzzles and inconsistencies that stand in need of resolution by the next speaker(s). Reading the speeches in this way will form part of an argument for the claim that the speeches have an important philosophical role in the dialogue, a claim to be substantiated later, when we come to examine the relationship between Socrates and his peers. The previous speeches contain some plausible and often insightful views that raise significant issues and questions, and in so doing the speeches serve as useful starting points for further inquiry.13 This approach will have implications for our reading of the whole dialogue. If this is a plausible account of the role of the speeches, then they will form an integral part of an overall understanding of erōs. They will not, as is often supposed, be extraneous to a philosophical account. Let us see how they do so.

(p.17) Phaedrus' speech (178a6–180b8) is a literary collage packed with allusions to the great poets. He begins with Hesiod and follows encomiastic procedure in his celebration of the birth of Eros (178b4; Theogony 116–17, 120), and he continues with Acousilaus (178b8), Parmenides (178b9 ff.), and Homer (179b1). Although he is clearly concerned to display his knowledge of the great poets, an approach which lends itself more to bold statement than considered reflection, his speech is nonetheless a thought‐provoking account of how erōs can lead to virtue.14 His central claim is that there is no greater good than a lover, or a beloved, because erōs has the most power when it comes to the acquisition of virtue and happiness (178c3–d1; 179a8; 180b6–8). This power is apparently due to the fact that erōs can instil a feeling of shame at shameful things and a love of honour in the case of fine ones (178d1–2). Without this attraction towards the kalon and aversion to the shameful, he continues, it is impossible for any individual or city to perform good actions (178d3). And this sense of the kalon required for virtue, Phaedrus claims, is best cultivated through an erotic relationship. Indeed, an army of lovers would be invincible, for in the presence of one's lover or beloved one is ashamed to pursue anything shameful and aroused to the performance of noble deeds (179a5). As examples of this phenomenon he cites Achilles' heroic exploits on the battlefield and Alcestis' act of self‐sacrifice for her husband (179b5–180a4). Such virtuous behaviour, he concludes, was motivated by erōs.

According to this account there is some connection between an erotic relationship, an appreciation of the kalon, and a striving for virtue. The idea that lovers somehow bring out the best in us is a promising suggestion, not only because this seems to be true (if they are worth being with at all), but also because this would go some way towards explaining the role of erōs in moral education. Phaedrus' claims are that in the presence of either lover or beloved one is inspired to pursue the kalon, and that this pursuit issues in virtuous actions. The relationship between a love relationship, erōs for beauty, (p.18) and virtue, will be central in this dialogue and crucial to an exploration of the benefits of erōs. For if it is the case that erōs can instil a love of the kalon, and it is the case that this is necessary for virtue, then it will have been shown that erōs has positive potential. But we need to know how a love relationship can instil an appreciation of the kalon and what beautiful things lead to virtue, rather than, say, idle staring or sex. Is it the case that a lover or beloved is seen as beautiful in some way and that an appreciation of this beauty arouses us to pursue beauty more widely, for example, in the pursuit of fine actions? But why, one might ask, does the perception of beauty issue in the performance of noble deeds, rather than sex? According to Phaedrus such relationships foster a love of honour, and it is the realization of this aim in our erotic pursuits that motivates such action. But, again, we will want to know what this appreciation of the kalon involves such that it arouses this aim and why it is that erōs aims at honour, rather than sex or wisdom, for example. Surely our desires can manifest themselves in the pursuit of these goals, too. If so, then we need to know just what sort of erōs can lead to this end in particular, and why it does so.

Pausanias' speech (180c3–185c3) builds on Phaedrus' idea that erōs can lead to the acquisition of virtue (cf. 185b1–c1) and in so doing he begins to address some of the above. He begins by criticizing Phaedrus for ignoring an important distinction necessary for the praise of erōs: ‘it is more correct to preface what one says by first saying what sort of erōs one should praise’ (180d1). Pausanias says that he will remedy this error and ‘indicate the erōs one should praise, and then praise him in a way worthy of the god’ (d1–3). Eros, he explains, has a twofold nature; it is not all erōs that issues in the benefits Phaedrus claimed, but only erōs of the right sort. This is the heavenly as opposed to the vulgar erōs, which privileges the soul over the body. Attraction to a beautiful soul will be concerned to encourage the development of the soul and its characteristic virtues (184c3–4) rather than seeking the sort of physical expression found in ‘vulgar erōs’. Perhaps rather surprisingly, then, Pausanias goes on to describe this relationship as an exchange of sexual gratification for wisdom: if he finds a lover of the right sort, a young boy should yield himself to an older man for the sake of an education (185b4–5). The benefit of erōs for the soul is that it is more stable than that of the (p.19) body; the bloom of the body fades and desire based on this attraction is therefore bound to be inconstant (183e1–6). But love for the ‘right sort of character’, by contrast, can remain as an object of love for life, ‘attached as [it] is to something permanent’ (184a). So, if we want to find a fulfilling and secure match, and one that will issue in the benefits Phaedrus praised, we need to turn our attention towards the soul. This is the type of correct pederasty that is apparently encouraged by the laws of many city–states, which privileges those who make virtue their central concern (185c3).

Since lover and beloved aim at the production of virtue, erōs is, again, seen as important to moral education. But are we any clearer about how this works? Although Pausanias fails to clarify just what the connection is between erōs for the soul, virtue, and wisdom, we can perhaps extrapolate as follows. If Phaedrus is right that erōs can lead to the attainment of virtue, and that this has something to do with appreciating the kalon, then one must surely have a lover who can guide one towards the appreciation of the right sorts of beautiful things. For if one is concerned only with the beauty of the body, then it is unclear how that can lead to an appreciation of the sort of beauty required (somehow?) for virtue. Pausanias suggests that cultivating wisdom is intimately related to virtue (184d1–2) and goes on to claim that the best relationship occurs when the lover is able to help the man become wiser and better, and the young man is eager to be improved by his lover (184d–e). If virtue is intimately connected to wisdom (a relationship that remains to be clarified), then one can see why erōs must be focused on the areas responsible for its realization: the soul. Erōs of this sort, we may suppose, will not issue in idle staring or sex because erōs of this sort is attracted towards the beauty of soul and so, we might suppose, will encourage an appreciation of the beautiful psychic qualities that attracted one in the first instance. If we take it that there is an intimate connection between attraction towards the beauty of soul and virtue (as Pausanias' focus on the soul suggests), then perhaps it is the case that if a lover falls for a beautiful soul, then what he is really attracted to is the potential of that soul for virtue. If so, then perhaps the very act of someone loving us for some perceived psychic beauty will foster the development of those attractive features. And this would go some way towards explaining why a relationship of this sort can have such positive potential. For a lover (p.20) will want to encourage the development of those beneficial qualities which attracted him in the first place, and a beloved will desire to be worthy of the love that attracts the lover and, consequently, to make himself (his soul?) as attractive as possible. A good relationship, we may agree, is often one in which your partner sees the best in you and in so doing encourages you to develop those good characteristics. If someone is attracted to us because of physical qualities, then that relationship is one that might encourage the development of those qualities (by going to the gym, for example). But if someone is attracted to our souls, then they might encourage the development of psychic qualities, intelligence and so on (by taking degrees and writing books). This is why, perhaps, lovers can be powerful forces for self‐improvement. In order to be convinced of this we will need to know more about the relationship between attraction to the beauty of soul and the cultivation of wisdom, and just what role a relationship is supposed to play in the acquisition of this end. Is this end best served by a pattern of exchange between lover and beloved?15 We shall need to read on.

The next speaker agrees with Phaedrus that the proper outcome of such a relationship is virtue (188d4–9), and with Pausanias that this requires education (187d3–4). Eryximachus begins by claiming that although ‘Pausanias started well on his theme, [he] failed to finish it off satisfactorily’; his task, as he puts it, is ‘to try to round off what has been said’ (185e6–186a2). He begins from the duality of erōs noted by Pausanias and expands this distinction so that it applies not only to the human sphere, but in the universe at large (186a2–b2). The heavenly erōs Pausanias praised manifests itself by bringing together opposite tendencies and creating harmonious relations between them (187c2 ff.). In order to instil this harmony in the human soul we need a suitable education, and a good practitioner to serve as our lover (187d2–3). This is the sort of lover to which Pausanias referred, under the auspices of the heavenly muse (e1) and this lover is here identified with various forms of expertise. An expert lover is one with moderation and justice who embodies this harmony and (p.21) order. He has the greatest power, apparently, ‘providing us with all happiness and enabling us to associate and be friends both with each other and with the gods’ (188d8–9).16

Eryximachus, then, agrees with Phaedrus that the aim of erōs is virtue. And if Pausanias is right that it is only erōs for the soul that can produce this, and if (as Pausanias also claimed) the development of the soul's characteristic virtues requires wisdom, then the correct lover must have an expertise. According to Eryximachus it is even more important than Pausanias suggested that we have this science of erōs. According to his synoptic account of erōs, there are even larger ramifications to vulgar erōs than Pausanias envisaged. What is not so clear is why this expertise should be associated with the medical art (186c5–6), or music, prophecy, and astronomy (187c2–3), in particular. All of them apparently promote heavenly, harmonious, erōs. But the connection between the harmonious order promoted by these technai and the development of the virtues he mentions is not so clear (188d5). Is the suggestion that the virtues are, or require, a kind of harmony? And, if so, a harmony of what? Eryximachus claims that the proper realization of this erōs is ‘moderation and justice, towards the good, both among us and among the gods… providing us with happiness and enabling us to associate and be friends both with one another and with the gods’ (188d5–9). So erōs involves the promotion of a harmonious order between men and gods, and this somehow issues in, or is, erōs' characteristic virtue. If so, then the positive potential of erōs must be brought about by an expertise able to promote this harmony. Although Eryximachus explains that the medical art produces a harmonious effect on opposite powers in the body, we need an account of the sort of expertise (p.22) that can achieve this in the area of the human soul. He suggests that musical education promotes correct erōs in the soul, but it is not clear what this expertise is here, nor how it achieves happiness and harmonious relations with the gods. Until we know what ‘knowledge of ta erōtika’ involves (188d2) we shall not know how to bring about the positive benefits the speakers thus far claim for erōs.

It is difficult not to read much of Aristophanes' speech as a parody of Eryximachus'.17 (He has also been hiccuping throughout Eryximachus' speech, 185c7–8.) It locates itself, not surprisingly, as comic, true to the muse he invokes (189b6–7). Although his focus throughout is the Eryximachean notion of ‘the healing power’ of erōs (189d1, 193d5), this healing erōs is not discussed through appeals to experts, but in a fantastic tale of the origin of our sexual orientation.18 Fantastic though it may be, however, Aristophanes' speech ‘fills in’, as he puts it, an important gap in the accounts thus far. In order to appreciate why erōs has such ‘healing’ and beneficial effects for human beings we need an account of human nature and its needs. Apparently human beings were originally whole, but they became too powerful, made an ascent to the divine, and were punished by being divided in two to lessen their strength (190b–e). Since our natural state is whole, we are forever seeking our other half to make us complete again. This is the cause of our desire to love one another (191d). When a person meets his other half they are struck by a sense of belonging to one another and desire never to be separated. No one, he explains, would think that mere sex is the reason each desires the other; the soul of each person longs for something else, but cannot say what it is (192d). This something that they long for is their own self—fully realized and complete in another. For the human race to find happiness, then, we must each find the partner naturally suited to us (193c5).19

(p.23) According to this account, then, the power of erōs derives from its use to us as needy creatures. Human beings are incomplete and need to strive towards a state of self‐realization and happiness. This state of fulfilment, it is claimed, does not consist in honour or virtue, but in the oikeion, what is akin to ourselves. And this is what is found in another. A state of unification with our other half is where our happiness resides. We desire what we lack and have not yet become and the erotic expertise discussed by Eryximachus must therefore involve the ability to discern what these deficiencies are—what it is that we are lacking—and how they should best be remedied by finding the appropriate partner.

The idea that we need first to clarify what our needs are and then to ascertain whether or not the objects of our attraction can meet them sounds intuitively plausible. What is not so compelling is the account of what this need boils down to and the manner in which another person can meet it. Why, as Socrates will ask him later, do we desire what is akin to ourselves when we are willing to amputate our own limbs if they are diseased (cf. 205d10–11)? Our attachment to our own selves is one that seems to be grounded in the recognition that there is something good about that self. If we discover that is not the case we seek medical or psychotherapeutic attention to rid ourselves of objectionable baggage. If so, then it cannot be the oikeion as such that attracts, but something else that we desire—something good. And if that is the case, then the correct erotician must be able to determine what this good is that we need and how we can best go about getting that. Further, if it is good things that will bring us happiness, how can fusion with another individual provide that? The romantic individualism of this account has led to immense popularity down the ages. The idea that there is another person out there who can make us complete and happy resonates with many of our modern conceptions of romantic love. But the account invites us to wonder whether we really want to be joined together with the objects of our love, never to leave them even for a moment, and to live and die in their arms, as Hephaestus promises? It would surely have to be an all‐consuming and enduring passion to sustain that state. If what we lack and desire are the good things that we believe will make us happy—healthy limbs and peaceful souls, for example—then is this best served by constant unification with another person? What would (p.24) their lives bring to ours, and ours to theirs in such a state? We tend to view such intense unification as a ‘honeymoon period ’ because it is viewed as a state which is not sustainable—alone—for human happiness. We might think it preferable to lead a life with another, but not solely in and through that other. Seeing other persons as the repository of all that can make us happy is, perhaps, a heavy burden for any individual to carry. But if we reject the comedian's reductio of our erotic myopia, then what exactly is the role of individuals in the pursuit of the good and happy life?

3. INTERMISSION (193D6–194E3)

After Aristophanes' speech, we are told of some flirtatious banter between Socrates and Agathon. This puzzling exchange can be read as a reflection upon some of the themes that have arisen so far. Socrates claims that he is afraid to deliver his speech after the fine array produced already, and he reminds the symposiasts of Agathon's recent bold display in the theatre, which they are honouring on this particular occasion. Agathon responds by saying that he is more afraid of delivering a performance in front of this small but intelligent group (194b6–8), a remark which Socrates uses to encourage this particular lover to reflect on the role of shame in our aspiration towards the kalon. Would Agathon feel shame, he asks, if he were doing something shameful only in front of a few intelligent people, or in front of ordinary people, too (c9–10)? Sensing the onset of a characteristically Socratic elenchus, Phaedrus interrupts this discussion and pleads for them both to continue with the encomiastic format (d4–5).

Had this discussion continued, Socrates might have returned to Phaedrus' discussion of the role of shame in our aspiration towards the kalon and the production of virtue. Agathon admits that he would feel shame towards those he deems wise, if he were doing something shameful (194c5–8). The perception of some value in a particular group motivates him towards the production of a suitably kalos logos in this instance. (Whether he actually achieves this is a further matter.) If Agathon perceives no value in his audience, by (p.25) contrast, he appears to feel no qualms about failing to deliver such a logos. This episode suggests that if virtue is really to be achieved it must be generated in the presence of those who are (perceived to be) of real value (i.e. wise). Such partners will encourage shame about the right sorts of things, namely a lack of genuine wisdom in this case, and a striving toward what is truly kalon. The type of conversation that Socrates is prevented from pursuing in this sympotic context is particularly suited to inducing the sort of shame necessary for the production of wisdom and virtue, as Alcibiades will explain later (216b–c).20 Sympotic conversation, by contrast, is both motivated by, and fosters, desire for a different goal.21 Whether this is an expression of a truly beneficial erōs and is productive of genuine wisdom and virtue remains to be seen.

4. AGATHON'S SPEECH (194E4–198A1)

The interlude is a fitting preamble to Agathon's speech, for which he will receive the largest applause and yet he will be shown to care more for pleasing the crowd than for wisdom. His speech is packed with mythological allusions (195b7, c2–3, d2, 196, a, c, e, 197b), it is self‐consciously stylized (194e4, 197c3), and embellished with the rhetorical flourishes of his day.22 Much of the speech is constructed in equal units and parallel clauses, and he clearly draws on his playwriting skills in his ample use of poetic rhythms.23 The most conspicuous part of the speech is a display of Gorgianic rhetoric, as Socrates will confirm (197c–e with 198c1–3).24 But Agathon's account also returns to the themes laid down by his predecessors. The previous speakers (p.26) have discussed the benefits to human beings for which erōs is responsible, but, according to Agathon, they have failed to explain the sort of nature that is responsible for those benefits (194e5–8). This is the central point of Agathon's speech.

‘There is one correct method for any praise of any subject [he explains], namely to describe in speech what sort of character whoever is the subject of the speech has in virtue of which he is actually responsible for what’ (195b7). According to Agathon, erōs can cause the benefits previously praised because lovers are beautiful themselves (195a7), and so drawn towards beauty in others (196b2–3). This attraction of like to like issues in the production of good things: ‘from the love of the beautiful all good things come about for both gods and men’ (197b8–9). Whilst ‘agreeing with Phaedrus on many other things’ (195b6), he rejects the idea that Eros is an ancient god on the grounds that he flees old age and is always with the young and, given the principle of like to like, Eros must himself be young. Further, Eros is also delicate, graceful, supple of form and in every way supremely beautiful. And then there is Eros' virtue (196b5–6): as well as justice (195bc), Eros shares most fully in moderation (196c5), courage (d1), and wisdom (d5). Agathon then, ‘takes his turn in honouring his own expertise as Eryximachus honoured his’ (196e1–2) and identifies this wisdom with poetic expertise. Because Eros is so bountiful himself he can induce others to wisdom and virtue (‘for the sorts of things one either doesn't have or doesn't know, one can't give to another or teach anyone else’, 196e5–6). Indeed, ‘everyone who is touched by erōs turns into a poet’ (196e1–2), or becomes productive in some creative endeavour.

According to this account, then, the reason why erōs can have such positive benefits is that it is an aspiration towards beauty, and good things (such as virtue, now construed as poetic wisdom) arise from erōs for beautiful things. This draws on the theme, introduced by Phaedrus, that there is some relationship between erōs for beauty and virtue. But we are none the wiser about the details. Why does erōs for beauty issue in the creation of good things, rather than straightforward possession? It is surely possible to think of beautiful things that one desires to possess, rather than to create. Why, then, is erōs creative? Since Agathon characterizes lovers as already in possession of almost all the good things that one can imagine: health, beauty, (p.27) grace, moderation, justice, courage, wisdom, and so on, it is not clear why they should engage in erotic endeavours at all. Why not just sit back and enjoy their state of abundance? This account is certainly at odds with the Aristophanic model of a lover's needy nature; at least that picture could explain the origin of erotic pursuits. If we do not know why erōs issues in such productive activity, then we will not know the end this activity is supposed to serve, nor what activity best leads to this end. Like his predecessors, then, Agathon's speech raises some significant issues and questions.


Each speaker thus far has attempted to praise the role of erōs in our attainment of good things and happiness. Taken together, their ethical reflections upon the role of erōs in the good life present some significant ideas, albeit ones that need further clarification. Although each speaker criticizes his predecessor in some way, we have also seen that they incorporate elements of the previous speeches and supplement certain features of their accounts. This is explicit at numerous points. Eryximachus claimed that Pausanias failed to bring his speech to a close (186a), and is concerned that he, too, may ‘have left out many things in my praise of erōs, but that was certainly not my intention. If I have left anything out, it is up to you Aristophanes to fill in the gaps’ (188e). After Aristophanes, there is a concern that Agathon and Socrates might be at a loss for things to say because of ‘the many and various things that have already been said’ (193e5–7). But Agathon rises to the challenge and hopes to deliver a complete and unbeatable performance: ‘let me leave nothing out’, he says at the start (196d5). This manner of supplementing and building on one's predecessors lends itself to reading the speeches as one ‘intertextual web’, a characteristic feature of sympotic discourse.25 The accounts of each are incomplete, but taken together (p.28) they can be see as parts of an overall picture of the role of erōs in the good life. Phaedrus explains that the aim of erōs is virtue. Pausanias adds that it is erōs for the soul that can achieve the virtue he praised. Eryximachus adds that the correct application of erōs must be governed by knowledge. Aristophanes ‘fills in’ with an account of human nature and its deficiencies which attempts to explain why erōs has such beneficial effects. And Agathon attempts to explain these beneficial effects as creative expressions that result from an encounter with the kalon, towards which erōs is essentially directed.26

But we have seen that in addition to their incompleteness, there are many puzzles and inconsistencies that remain for those who would like a clear and consistent account of the role of erōs in the good life.27 Among the most pressing puzzles are the following. Phaedrus presents the idea that erōs can lead to the acquisition of virtue by instilling a sense of shame and a striving towards the kalon. But he leaves us wondering just what the connection is between an erotic relationship, an appreciation of the kalon, and a striving for virtue. Pausanias agrees that erōs can lead to virtue, but goes on to argue that it is only erōs which privileges the soul over the body and, (p.29) as a consequence, is concerned to encourage the development of the soul and its characteristic virtues that can lead to that end. But we were left wondering about the relationship between wisdom and virtue and how a love relationship is supposed to foster that end. Eryximachus argues that the correct application of erōs must be governed by knowledge. But it is not clear what knowledge of ta erōtika consists in. Aristophanes' account of human nature and its deficiencies leaves us wondering why we should desire the oikeion, and whether there is anything particularly productive about being welded together with another person. And Agathon invites us to consider why erōs for the kalon is productive of good things and whether (and, if so, why) it is a state of plenitude that motivates this beneficial and productive erōs.

Various significant issues and questions relating to the role of erōs in the good life emerge from reflection upon this ‘web’, which raises some of the difficulties and problems in need of resolution by the next speaker, Socrates.28 Indeed it highlights where the agreements and the disagreements are on the subject of erōs. The previous speakers seem to agree that erōs has some relationship to eudaimonia (180b7, 188d8, 193d5, 194e6, 195a5) and that this has something to do with pursuing beauty (178d1–2, 196e4–5), and virtue (179d1–2, 184d7, 185b5, 188d4–9, 196d4–e6). The disagreements lie in their accounts of the nature of this virtue and happiness. In one account virtue is heroism on the battlefield and related to, or identified with, honour (Phaedrus). In another, wisdom is somehow central to virtue (Pausanias). For Eryximachus the virtues are those of the doctor or seer who can promote a harmonious order (188d). Aristophanic erōs pursues the oikeion, though he also highlights the virtues of the politician that result from that pursuit (192a7–8), and Agathon identifies virtue with poetic skill (196d5, e1). At numerous points it is suggested that erōs' beneficial effects are related to wisdom (182b7–c2, 184d1, 187c4–5, 184e1, 196d5–6), but this is variously construed as medical expertise and poetic skill (186c5, 196e1–2). The accounts leave it unclear why erōs should manifest itself in such virtue and just what such virtue is supposed to be. Further (p.30) disagreements are to be found in the accounts of the aims thought to constitute, or lead to, eudaimonia (honour, the oikeion, some kind of wisdom?).

The ‘intertextual web’ created by the speakers raises some of the difficulties and problems in need of resolution by the next speaker, in way that is suggestive of a significant philosophical role. But although Socrates criticizes and responds to his predecessors as the others have done, he does so in such a way that many have wondered whether and, if so, how his account fits into their intertextual web at all. He claims that all the speakers (note the ‘you’ plural):

attribute the greatest and most beautiful characteristics possible to the thing in question, whether they are true of it or not, and if they are false, well, that is of no importance. It seems that what was proposed was that each of us should appear to be offering an encomium to Eros, not that we should actually offer him one. It is for that reason, I imagine, that you rake up everything you can think of saying and attribute it to erōs (198d7–e6).

Since Socrates says that he will speak differently from his predecessors (199b2–5), in a way that privileges the truth, we may be tempted to see a sharp break in the text between the ‘rhetorical and poetical [and] the dialectical’. If there is such a break, then does this imply that, from Socrates' perspective at least, the previous accounts are nothing more than literary frivolities, ‘fanciful performances’ with little to offer to our understanding of erōs?29

(p.31) This question has larger ramifications. It is by now something of a commonplace to complain when reading Platonic scholarship that either the philosophical or the literary content of a particular work has been underestimated. The Symposium offers particularly rich pickings in this area since the diverse and entertaining speeches have given this text recognition as the most literary of all Plato's works, and yet it has also just begun to receive more systematic philosophical attention.30 Although we may not, after all, agree with Socrates that his criteria (whatever these may be) are those that are best for delivering an insightful speech about erōs, if we are to read the Symposium as a philosophical text, then clarifying where this material is located will be important. It is difficult to dismiss the previous accounts as nothing more than literary frivolities from this perspective, since they occupy a large part of this text (twenty‐seven Stephanus pages compared with nineteen for Socrates). It is hard to believe that Plato would have us wade through these accounts without good reason. Moreover, within the drama itself, the speeches remembered by Aristodemus and reported by Apollodorus were picked out as ‘worthy of remembrance’ (178a4); others were assigned to the scrap heap. We have also seen that they raise significant issues and contain promising suggestions which, as we shall see later, are employed in Socrates' own account, one which professes to ‘speak the truth’. This suggests that they make at least some kind of contribution to a philosophical understanding of eros, and yet Socrates' critique does suggest that a fresh start somehow needs to be made. The relationship between Socrates and the previous speakers in the Symposium is a matter of some difficulty and controversy.

A careful reading of Socrates' critique of his peers does nothing to undermine the idea that they raise significant issues and questions about the topic at hand. Socrates' central claim is that his predecessors have not made the truth their priority (198e1–6). He does not say that the accounts are actually false, just that if they are false, then (p.32) that seems to be of no importance to the speakers.31 This leaves room for the possibility that his predecessors may have hit upon the truth, but if they did, it would have been in spite of themselves, since they did not aim for this goal (198e2). But Socrates does imply that they have no knowledge about erōs. They have been more concerned to appear to be offering an encomium to Eros than with actually offering him one (e4).32 This concern with appearances rather than truth motivates the attribution of all sorts of characteristics to erōs, without any clarity about whether and, if so, how these characteristics actually do apply to erōs.

There are some substantive views about knowledge and method behind this assessment of the previous accounts which Socrates begins to clarify when he turns to Agathon's account next. He approves (199c) Agathon's methodological rule (195a) and the distinction it implies (201e): one should first display the character erōs has and then go on to explain what it does. Socrates' approach shows that he believes that questions concerning the nature of the subject are prior to questions about the effects of the subject. For as he makes more explicit elsewhere, it is only when one has correctly identified the nature of one's subject matter that one can go on to make (p.33) inferences about the kind of benefits that such a character can bestow and how it can bestow them.33 Since the other speakers have not identified erōs' nature, they cannot know what it is about such a nature that leads to the virtue they praise as its proper outcome. We can imagine Socrates saying (as he does more explicitly elsewhere): ‘When I do not know what erōs is, I shall hardly know whether or not it happens to lead to benefits, or whether or not the one having it is happy’ (cf., for example, Laches 190b7–c2). Without such knowledge accounts of erōs' benefits are speculations based on personal experience and contemporary culture. That is, perhaps, why we are offered such diverse views about the nature of erōs and its relationship to virtue. The speakers have not begun by identifying the nature of erōs first and so they have no firm basis on which to infer anything about its beneficial effects. When Phaedrus attempts to settle a dispute about the status of the lover and beloved he merely cites the conflicting accounts of Aeschylus and Homer (180–1; cf. 178b, 178c for further reliance on tradition and agreement). As Socrates makes plain elsewhere, the poets could be used in support of almost anything since there is no way of determining what they mean (Prot. 347e). The ‘many and various things said’ on the subject (193e6–7), we infer, manifest the inconsistencies which have not been generated by the appropriate procedure.34 Since they do not adopt a method which prioritizes the correct identification of the subject under discussion, they do not know what erōs is; consequently, they cannot know what it is about such a nature that leads to the acquisition of virtue.35

In order to have knowledge about erōs one must be able to identify the nature of the thing under discussion and go on to make (p.34) inferences about this nature and its beneficial effects on that basis.36 So to imply that Agathon and others do not have knowledge of erōs, is to imply that they cannot provide a clear and consistent account of erōs because they do not have a viable definition of erōs on which to ground their views about his proper functioning, and from which to infer his benefits. And this is not to say (or imply) that they have no plausible beliefs about erōs. Many of the things said by the previous speakers will be included in an account professing to ‘speak the truth’. For example, the claim that erōs desires what it lacks (191a5–6); that erōs is of beauty (197b8); that erōs for the soul is more valuable than erōs for the body (184a1); that good things arise from the love of beautiful things (197b8–9); that erōs aims at virtue (178c5–6, 179a8, 180b7–8, 188d5–6), the good (188d5), and happiness (180b7, 188d8); that erōs must be governed by knowledge (188d1–2; cf. 184d1–e1), or at the very least, that it has some intimate relationship to phronēsis (182b7–c2, 184d1), epistēmē (187c4–5), sophia (196d5–6), and that erōs brings together the human and the divine (188d8–9). The accounts may have hit upon the truth in these areas, as their later inclusion in an account professing ‘to speak the truth’ will strongly suggest. The previous speakers may believe many fine things about erōs (and some false ones, as we shall see), but they do not know why these opinions are true. To know why these things are true of erōs, one must have a definition of erōs which these statements involve. And to acquire this one must adopt a method designed to lead to that end. Nothing so far, then, rules out the possibility of continuity between a philosophical account and those with no concern for the truth. The previous speakers may be like ‘untrained soldiers in a battle, who rush about and often strike good blows, but without science’.37

Significantly, when Socrates demonstrates what a philosophical procedure of this kind must at least involve he does so by engaging directly with the views of his host. Socrates begins by subjecting Agathon to an elenchus (199c3 ff.) designed to scrutinize Agathon's (p.35) proposed characterization of erōs personified as a beautiful god, Eros. Agathon's speech may well have been picked out for elenctic scrutiny because Agathon is the most conceited of the symposiasts.38 But Agathon's speech may also have been selected because his speech, at least, attempts to clarify the nature of the subject before making inferences about its beneficial effects. If one must begin an investigation, as Socrates suggests, with an identification of the subject matter, then examining Agathon's speech will be the best place to start.39 Although this testing ends with Agathon's frank admission that he did not know any of the things which he said then, as he puts it (210b10), it also shows that Agathon' speech contains some promising insights which, when properly developed, lead to some plausible views. Let us see how it does so. Agathon had claimed that Eros' nature is beautiful and that Eros pursues beauty (197b). On reflection, he is also shown to believe that Eros lacks what he desires (200e1–5). Even those who apparently desire what they already have, such as a healthy man who desires health, really desire something they lack, namely the possession of that thing in the future (200d4–6, 200d9–10). These opinions are inconsistent. For if Eros desires beauty and lacks what he desires, then Eros cannot possess beauty. Either Eros does not, in fact, pursue beauty, or Eros lacks the beauty he desires (either now or in the future). Both Agathon and Socrates preserve the view that Eros pursues beauty, which leads to the preliminary conclusion that Eros' nature is such that he lacks the beauty he desires (202d1–3). Agathon evidently did not propose a viable account of Eros' nature (as a beautiful god) on which to base his account of its beneficial effects.

(p.36) But this is not to say that Agathon's speech is nonsense. Socrates goes on to show that Agathon is right that Eros has some relationship both to beauty and to divinity; he is muddled about the precise nature of those relationships. This is a muddle to which Socrates himself, apparently, was subject, before he met the mysterious Diotima (201e3–7). Indeed Socrates presents his own account as a repeat performance of this meeting because he used to say very similar things to Agathon. Agathon (and the young Socrates) was on the right track when he claimed that Eros is of beauty, and that good things arise from erōs for beautiful things (197b8) as we shall see; he was wrong to infer that because good things arise from the desire for beautiful things that Eros must himself be in possession of those things. For if Eros desires what he lacks, then Eros cannot be beautiful and good. Agathon had not thought through the implications of his beliefs and, consequently, he had misunderstood the precise nature of the relationship between erōs and beauty.

Agathon's mistake here allows Socrates/Diotima to home in on something valuable—because it is partially right (erōs does have an intimate relationship to beauty, 197b, which Socrates develops at 201a)—and to clarify the precise nature of erōs' relationship to beauty. Socrates emphasizes the importance of the points agreed to during the elenchus of Agathon and continues the discussion—on the basis of the things agreed between them—in much the same way in which he and Diotima proceeded (201e2–7). He goes on to play the roles of both the Agathon who now realizes that he lacks wisdom about these things (201b11–12), and Diotima, who was ‘wise in these things and much else’ (201d3). In so doing Socrates shows the productive effects of clarifying the puzzling relationship between erōs and beauty that emerged from Agathon's speech. He explains how his initial reaction to the notion that Eros lacks the good and beautiful things he desires was to assume that whatever is not good and beautiful must be the opposite (201e8–9, 202b1–2). But he came to realize (perhaps through similar elenctic scrutiny) that there is a realm of intermediates between the opposites good and bad, beautiful and ugly (202a1–e1), and wisdom and ignorance (202a5–9). Socrates readily agrees that there is such a state as correct belief—believing truths without being able to account for them, but is still puzzled about Eros' status. In particular, he has difficulty with the (p.37) belief that Eros is a great god and that the gods possess all good things, such as wisdom (as Agathon and Phaedrus had also held), and at the same time that Eros has an intermediate status in relation to these things. Diotima points out to Socrates that he himself does not believe that Eros is a god (202c1–4). She guides Socrates to see that, given that he has agreed that Eros lacks what he desires (202d1–3, which repeats Agathon's agreement at 201a–b), and that the gods possess good things (202c6–8), Eros cannot be a god (202d5). Eros' status in relation to the mortal and the immortal is analogous to his status in relation to wisdom and ignorance: he is a great spirit in between the two realms ‘and everything spiritual is in between god and mortal’ (202d13–e1). So, the clarification of the nature of erōs' relationship to beauty leads to the claim that Eros cannot be a god but an intermediate being.

When a viable account of erōs' nature is reached Socrates' expression refers back to Agathon's encomium (204c with 197b). Agathon had, in fact, confused the lover with the beloved in his account of erōs' nature. The way in which Socrates returns to Agathon's speech after he has formulated his own corrective account of erōs' nature suggests that there is no sharp break between their accounts of erōs' nature. Indeed, Socrates seems concerned to emphasize a degree of continuity between himself and Agathon by showing how the clarification and development of the view that erōs has an intimate relationship to beauty—a promising view—leads to a plausible and consistent set of conclusions. It would seem that Agathon's speech, at the very least, addresses some of the right sort of issues and questions that an explanatory account of erōs' nature needs to clarify. And that is perfectly compatible with Socrates' earlier critique.40

(p.38) If this is the case for the other accounts, too, then we will have good reason not to ignore them as extraneous to a philosophical understanding. We shall be able to clarify their role more precisely after examining Socrates' speech. For we should like to know whether, for example, the previous accounts have more than pragmatic utility in directing our attention towards possibly promising theories. If they play a role in a developing understanding of erōs, then how substantive is this role? My reading of the speeches so far has tried to tease out a number of issues and questions that we would expect a clear and consistent account of erōs to resolve. We will need to see whether this is, in fact, the case, that is, whether there is evidence of the sort of engagement with puzzling issues that emerged from Agathon's account. Socrates will not submit all the accounts to the same procedure as Agathon's, however. We are given a sample of what a philosophical inquiry must involve in the elenchus of Agathon, and we are told that numerous elenchi have been involved in his account. But we have not witnessed such processes and will have to struggle through many of the puzzles alone. If we achieve any greater clarity about the topic, though, we should not forget how we arrived: by struggling through some salient views about erōs, realizing where the gaps are and where the problems lie, before being guided towards the revisionary world of philosophical erōs. If so, then marginalizing the previous accounts of erōs would inhibit a proper understanding of the topic.

If Socrates is to do any better than his predecessors we would like to see how following his criteria for truthful speech‐making provides answers to the puzzles that emerged from the previous accounts. We need him to explain why a striving for the kalon issues in the virtue Phaedrus praised. We also need to know what relationship holds between erōs for the soul, wisdom, and virtue (Pausanias), and how knowledge of ta erōtika can lead to this end (Eryximachus). Further, what is it that erōs really lacks and desires (Aristophanes)? If it is the beautiful, then how and why does erōs for the kalon produce the good things and beneficial effects these accounts have claimed for erōs (Agathon)? If we cannot answer these questions then we will not have understood how erōs can lead to the virtue they praise as its proper outcome. In order to do that we need to clarify what ‘virtue [consists in] and the sorts of thing the good man must be concerned (p.39) with, and the activities such a man should involve himself in’ and so on (cf. 209c1–2). If Socrates is to take this task upon himself, then we should expect his methodological procedure to deliver substantive views on eros' nature, its aims, the role of the kalon and virtue, and an account of eros' proper activity and functioning. Let us see how his account fares.


(1) Halperin (1992) 93–129 describes this as ‘the erotics of narrativity’. Cf. Henderson (2000) 288. Seeing the prologue as a chain of reception inspired by erōs helps to explain the predominance of indirect discourse in the text. Prior to Halperin's article much of the debate over the significance of the prologue's recycled narrative centred on the question of the dialogue's historicity. Bury (1932) xvii–xix argued that Apollodorus' verification of the account suggests a degree of historical truth, whilst the inadequacy of Phoinix's account may be a way of discrediting a rival and distorted account of the original occasion (perhaps an account by Polycrates). But as Rowe (1998a) 142 has argued, this assumes the dialogue's historicity from the outset. Moreover, as the narrative unfolds, a couple of blatant anachronisms (182b6–7, 193a2–3), and the mention of the army of lovers in Phaedrus' speech (178e–179b)—referring to events which took place after the dramatic date of the dialogue—make it very difficult to read this text as if it were concerned with historical veracity. On these anachronisms see Dover (1980) 10.

(2) Reading malakos ‘softy’, instead of manikos ‘mad’ at d7–8 with Rowe (1998a), who argues that this makes better sense of the surprise caused by his ‘savaging everyone else except Socrates’. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of the Symposium are from C. J. Rowe (1998a).

(3) The contrast with material riches is one that Socrates draws in the Apology in his description of the philosophical life (29d–e, 30a7–b4, 38a1–6).

(4) The figure of the ἄκλητος seems to have been a commonplace in the description of feasts; see Odyssey 13. 430, 17. 382; Archilochus fr. 78 D; Xen. Symp. 1. 13; cf. Fehr (1990) 185–96.

(5) It may also be significant that both men present themselves very differently in their approach towards the beautiful and wise Agathon. Aristodemus is deficient and needy, concerned that a ϕαῦλος, as he puts it, should go uninvited to the feast of the σοϕός (174c7). But Socrates appears as a lover of Agathon, dressed up beautifully so as to approach this beauty (174a9; cf. Alcibiades' jealousy at Socrates' attention to Agathon at 213c). This may be taken to provoke reflection upon the nature of a lover: How do we approach the objects of our attraction? As deficient and needy, like Aristodemus? Or beautiful, like Socrates? Cf. Lowenstam (1985). See Ch. 2 for a discussion of the nature of a lover.

(6) There will be various attempts to negotiate the seating plan in this dialogue. For example, both Alcibiades and Socrates wish to sit next to Agathon, the most beautiful man at the party and recently crowned σοϕός. Cf. Henderson (2000) 299.

(7) See Luc Brisson (1999), who argues that Plato's Symposium is centrally concerned with criticizing the dominant model of education in his time.

(8) For Apollodorus' ‘ascent’ from Phaleron to town, see 172a. For an informative discussion of road imagery in the Symposium, see Osborne (1994) 86–90. Halperin (1992) 93–129 argues that Apollodorus engages in the wrong sort of practice. Instead of engaging actively in philosophy, he simply repeats what others have said. Support for this might be drawn from the predominance of μελετάω in the prologue, a common rhetorical term for memorization (cf. Phdr. 228b). But one might object that Apollodorus does say that he takes pleasure in making λόγοι himself, or in hearing them (cf. 173c3–4). And it is not particularly unSocratic to remember philosophical λόγοι. In the Timaeus Socrates rehearses a Republic‐style conversation (Ti. 17b–19b). Further, at least Apollodorus has the right desires and is devoted consistently to the philosophical life; he is ‘always the same’, says Glaucon (173d4). Compare Alcibiades, who is inconsistent in his attachment to the philosophical life, and does not take pleasure in philosophical discussion; he flees from Socrates and blocks up his ears (216a5–8). There are further reasons for suspecting that Apollodorus has a misguided conception of philosophical practice, however. As Nussbaum (1986) 168 argues: ‘Socrates' pupils, inspired by personal love, tend not to follow his advice. Instead of ascending to an equal regard for all instances of value they, like Alcibiades, remain lovers of the particulars of personal history.’ For further discussion of their misguided attachment to Socrates, see below, Ch. 6, s. 3.

(9) When Phaedrus requests that erōs form the topic of conversation he does so because it has not received proper praise (177b1). Eros was, of course, the subject of much poetry and prose, so the emphasis here must be on showing that erōs is a good thing and does good things, a task which would by no means be obvious to a contemporary readership. (see above, Introduction). Neither the ode to Eros (the god) in the Antigone (781–801), nor the ode in Euripides' Hippolytus (525–64) could be seen as praising Eros for his beneficial effects. This is the gap Phaedrus proposes to fill. The later Rhetorica ad Alexandrum describes the encomiastic procedure as follows (35): The speakers must praise the external blessings of the subject, for example, his wealth, beauty, and good birth. Then the subject's virtue proper must be discussed, which was traditionally divided into the traditional four Greek virtues. After praising the subject's ancestry, the speaker must turn to the achievements (ἔργα) of his subject. On this procedure, see Dover (1980) 12.

(10) For the competition between Socrates and Agathon, see Bacon (1959) 415–30.

(11) Or, as Socrates puts it later, a lover will discuss ‘virtue, and the sorts of thing the good man must be concerned with, and the activities such a man should involve himself in’ and so on (209c1–2).

(12) Along with Bury (1932) Ivii, I agree that there is little evidence for the view proposed by Sydenham and endorsed by Schleimacher and Ruckert that Plato is presenting historical people behind these speakers. They seem rather to be ‘five intellectual types’, as Bury puts it, that reflect the intellectual currents at work in the 5th and 4th cent. See also Rowe (1998a) 9. In other Platonic dialogues, some of those present are linked to famous wise men. Phaedrus is linked to Hippias in the Protagoras (315c) and to Lysias in the Phaedrus (228a). Pausanias is linked to Prodicus in the Protagoras (315d), Eryximachus' speech links him to Hippocrates, as we shall see; Aristophanes needs no introduction, and Agathon is linked to Gorgias (Symp. 198c). One might read the speeches not just as a loose collection of representative samples of Greek wisdom, but as displaying a temporal movement from the epic wisdom of Phaedrus' speech to the later rhetorical wisdom of Agathon.

(13) One might compare Aristotle's use of endoxa in these respects (for the description of endoxa in Aristotle see Topics 2, 100b22 ff.; and for his use of endoxa see Nicomachean Ethics 1145b1–2 with Eudemian Ethics 1.1, 1216b26–35). For the differences between Plato's procedure here and Aristotle's endoxic method, see below (Ch. 7, s. 1).

(14) An example of this unconsidered reflection is his citation of Parmenides to support the claim that Eros is the oldest god, which is followed by an assertion that ‘because he is very old he is also the cause of very great goods for us as human beings’ (178c1–3). He never explains the connection between Eros' age and his beneficial power.

(15) Socrates' rejection of Agathon's advances at the start suggests that there is something wrong with this model (175d4–e2; cf. 219a1–3).

(16) Eryximachus describes the medical art, in particular, as concerned with the reconciliation of opposite powers, drawing on the Empedoclean harmony of opposites. See Bury (1932) xxix; Rowe (1998a) 148; Dover (1980) 113. However, the numerous cultural authorities Eryximachus draws on mark him out as an exponent of a wide range of technical knowledge (e.g. Heraclitus at 187a3–4 and the Hippocratic medical writers (for which, see Edelstein (1945) ). Given the quite exceptional (and rather confusing) breadth of his discussion, one is tempted to speculate that Plato is presenting Eryximachus as a polymath in the style of Hippias, with whom he is associated in the Protagoras (315c–e). For Hippias as a polymath, see Hip. Mi. 363e ff., Pr.t. 315c, 318e.

(17) On which, see Bury (1932) xxx–1 and Dover (1980) 113.

(18) On the origins of the story see Dover (1966).

(19) Since Empedocles also discussed double beings (B57–62, 336–8 KR), it is likely that this part of his tale continues the parody of Eryximachus' favoured authorities. As Bury has noted, there was a Hippocratic treatise which offered a theory of the origin of the sexes. See περὶ διαίτης 28 ff. with Bury (1932) xxxii. But by offering his own fantastic version of the origin of the sexes, Aristophanes seems to be playing with the Hippocratic authorities Eryximachus employed in his speech.

(20) When Phaedrus interrupts this conversation and pleads for them both to continue with encomia, Socratic conversation is repeatedly contrasted with the speech‐making appropriate to this symposium (διαλέγεσθαι 194d4, 5, e3).

(21) Cf. Nightingale (1993) and (1995) 110–32.

(22) For which see Bury (1932) xxxvi and Dover (1980) 124.

(23) Rowe (1998a) 161; Dover (1980) 124.

(24) See Dover (1980) 123–4 for an analysis of the Gorgianic features of this speech with Denniston (1952) 10–12.

(25) See Stehle (1997) 222, from whom I take the phrase. Commenting on sympotic discourse more generally, Stehle argues that: ‘All of the forms that this might take, the singing in turn, the new turn on the known song, are designed to keep the discourse collective, while at the same time highlighting each person's contribution. The participants must constantly respond to one another, but the full forms…require the work of more than one contributor. One could say that ideally the symposium should create one intertextual web.’ As Rowe (1998a) 8 argues, the responsiveness in this case takes the form of competitiveness, a prominent feature of encomia in the 5th and 4th cents (on which, see Nightingale (1995) 117).

(26) Compare Rowe (1998a) 8, who argues that: ‘The capping effect of the first five speeches means that they already, in a sense, represent a single whole, culminating first in the speech of Agathon…and then in Socrates’ contribution…But we should be wary of supposing that there is, or is meant to be, any sense of a gradually developing picture of eros…with each speaker fitting new and better pieces to the jigsaw. Socrates, after all, prefaces his account with a general criticism of the others, and proceeds immediately to reduce Agathon's speech—which everyone else thought brilliant—to rubble. It is in any case hard to construct a joint account that might emerge from the sequence from Phaedrus to Agathon. All five are essentially individual contributions, with each attempting to go one better than the one before in an apparently haphazard way.’ The view I am developing here implies that the relationship is not quite so haphazard.

(27) And this, of course, will not be everyone. There are many merits to the speeches thus far and other criteria they can be measured by which may not involve clarity and consistency (e.g. literary finesse, humour, etc.). I am concerned here with what relationship, if any, they have to a philosophical account of erōs and that will be one in which clarity and consistency are important criteria. See the discussion of Socrates' critique of his peers below, Ch. 7.

(28) This is not to make the further claim that the speakers themselves should be taken to be suggesting these specific puzzles.

(29) See Rowe (1998a) 8, Jowett (Plato I) 256, Bury (1932) I. iii, and Dover (1980) 5 n. 1 on this issue. They all agree that the speeches are ‘rhetorical and poetical, rather than dialectical’, but there is some disagreement over how sharp a distinction is to be drawn between Socrates and his peers. For varying interpretations as to why Plato should offer us five such speeches if they are ‘fanciful and partly facetious' performances’ (Jowett), see Rotscher, who argues that the speeches are arranged in order of ascending importance, and Hug, who argues that the speeches are arranged according to aesthetic considerations (cited from Bury (1932) I. iii). See also Isenberg (1940) on the order of the speeches. Grube (1935) 96, Brentlinger (1970) 21, and Markus (1971) view Socrates' speech as the culminating stage of a dramatic structure encompassing all the speeches which in its totality expresses Plato's view, but they do not explore this in any detail. Reeve (1992) 91 also argues that the speeches ‘contain some grain of what Plato takes to be the truth about love’. Cf. Wardy (2002) 2, who agrees that significant ‘patterns’ emerge by reading the speeches in their totality, but disagrees insofar as he ‘resist[s] the temptation to hear a single voice as authoritative’. My view defended here and in Ch. 7 is that the speeches have a philosophical role to play insofar as they raise significant issues and questions which are resolved in Socrates' account. So there is no sharp break between Socrates and his peers (contra Rowe), and Socrates' speech is authoritative for a philosophical account of erōs (contra Wardy). Socrates' account may not be authoritative when assessed by other (non‐philosophical) criteria, however.

(30) In the work of Price (1989), Kahn (1996), and Rowe (1998a, b), for example.

(31) It is difficult to determine what is involved in the characterization of their speeches as ‘fictitious’ or ‘false’. Janaway (1995) notes that in the Republic the young guardians should be educated first in the pseudeis logoi and later in true discourse (376e11–377a2). So, he argues that pseudeis ‘must merely be a way of classifying discourses, not in itself a reason for objecting to them’. He cites Guthrie (1975) 457, on the neutral use of pseudos in this passage, who suggests that ‘fiction’, ‘fictitious’, ‘invented’ convey the sense of the term. The implication that their speeches are fictitious can be taken to refer, in part, to their ample use of mythology and poetry, in accordance with sympotic tradition. For poetic and literary references in the Symposium, see 174b (Il. 10. 222–6); 177a (Eur. Melanippe); 178b (Hes. Th. 116–20, Parmenides B13 with B12); 179b (the Alcestis story); 179d (the Orpheus myth); 180a (Homeric and Aeschylean versions of the Achilles and Patroclus story compared); 182c (for the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton); 183e (Il. 2. 71); 187a (Heraclitus B51); 190c (Il. 5. 385, Od. 12. 308); 195c (references to Hesiod and Parmenides); 195d (Il. 19. 92–3); 196d (Soph. fr. 235; Od. 8. 266–366); 196e (Eur. fr. 663); 198c (Od. 11. 633–5); 199a (Eur. Hipp. 612); 208c (line of unknown origin); 208e (references to Alcestis and the legendary king Kodrus of Athens); 214b (Il. 11. 514); 215b (the myth of Marsyas); 219a (Il. 6. 232–6); 220c (Od. 4. 242, 272); 221b (Aristophanes, Clouds 362); 221c (references to Achilles and Brasidas); 222c (Il. 17. 32).

(32) The speakers seem more concerned with ‘the probable’, rather than ‘the necessary’, as Socrates implies later (200a9; cf. 201a8).

(33) This manner of investigating a subject is familiar Socratic procedure; see, for example, Meno 71a5–b7, Rep. 354c1–3.

(34) On the association between inconsistency, polymathy, and poikilia, see Theognis 213–8; Pindar, Olympians 1. 28–9; Xen. Mem. 4.4.6–7 with Blondell (2002) 61.

(35) Perhaps the importance of the proper order and the absence of such order in the previous accounts is that ‘other cause’ responsible for Aristophanes' attack of hiccups (185c7–8). This other cause may be the kind of disorder which Eryximachus explains as a manifestation of wayward erōs. The speeches thus far both express and foster disorderly erōs, one indication of which is Aristophanes' hiccups. For an alternative explanation of the hiccups in terms of a surfeit of speeches, see Brentlinger (1970) 13.

(36) This procedure might suggest parallels with other dialogues in which the priority of definition is discussed (for which see Benson (1990) 19–65 and Prior (1998) 97–113). Of course, those who believe that Socrates was not committed to this principle will not find such parallels illuminating.

(37) Aristotle, Metaphysics 985a. I thank Jim Lesher for this reference.

(38) As Socrates explains elsewhere (Apol. 21c5–7), the aim of the elenchus is to investigate such types in order to show that they are not wise if they are not and to learn from them if they are (Apol. 21c7–8, 22b5, 23b6–7). Typically such types are politicians (Apol. 21c3–22a) poets (Apol. 22a8–c8), and craftsmen (Apol. 22c4–e5), many of whose areas of expertise are celebrated here. But among this particular group Agathon is the most celebrated. If Socrates can show that the ‘most wise’ Agathon, who is being honoured by the speakers for his theatrical victory at this very banquet, is not in fact knowledgeable about important matters, then he is also casting aspersions on his peers.

(39) Agathon's speech is, in this respect, an improvement (199c). One might compare here the similar difference between Lysias' speech and Socrates' first speech in the Phaedrus: although Socrates' first speech is misguided, it is nonetheless methodologically sounder than that of Lysias.

(40) To say, then (with Rowe 1998a: 8) that Agathon's speech is ‘reduced to rubble’ is perhaps too strong. For a more positive assessment compare Stokes (1986) 146: ‘In the talks as recorded Socrates takes over the part of Agathon and Diotima that of Socrates. The Socrates of the story has accepted exactly the same propositions (201e) as the Agathon of the Symposium; and Diotima, although she has naturally not heard Agathon's encomium and the ensuing discussion, bases her arguments on Agathon's admissions and implications, or (occasionally) corrects them.’ He argues that ‘every question Socrates has asked has been explanatory of Agathon's original encomium. In each question Socrates either extracts from Agathon a relatively clear inference or he asks for a resolution of a difficulty or ambiguity’, see Stokes (1986) 130, 114.