Plato’s “Symposium” Essay (Book Review)
Love is a central feature in the day-to-day lives of human beings. Throughout the history of literature, various men and women have addressed the subject of love using different literary mediums. Plato is one of the most influential ancient philosophers, and the most prominent of Socrates’ disciples. Socrates did not record his philosophies, and most of what is known about him are what is contained in Plato’s dialogues.
The “Symposium” is one example of Plato’s dialogues that address the subject of love. In literature, love is often portrayed as an object of deep human concern. In the “Symposium,” several figures gather in an evening gathering that was commonly known as a symposium and give their views on the god of love. Most of the speakers in the “Symposium” are prominent people in the Athenian society. All the speakers in the “Symposium” express the various myths and beliefs about love using both verses and narratives.
The views that are expressed in the “Symposium” were expressed several centuries ago, but they have remained relevant to readers. This book is a unique work of literature from the prolific Plato, and he wrote it at the prime of his philosophical career. Plato depicts love as an object-directed desire that is often shallow and egocentric in nature. This essay analyzes and interprets the contents of Plato’s symposium, especially the views about love.
Several characters take part in the evening symposium, where the subject of love is discussed. Some of these characters include Socrates, Plato’s former teacher, and mentor. Socrates was a regular character in most of Plato’s dialogues. In the earlier dialogues, Socrates’ views would often represent those of Plato’s mentor, but in the later ones, they represented the views of the author. The other character in the “Symposium” is Diotima, a sophistic prophetess who supposedly taught Socrates about the mysteries of love.
Agathon is a Greek playwright who often concentrated on tragedies. Agathon contributes to the dialogue using ‘flowery’ language. Also, Agathon is in a relationship with Pausanias, who is also present in the symposium. Aristophanes is another character who is present during the discussion. Aristophanes was an ancient poet who mostly concentrated on comedy.
Another important participant in the symposium dialogue is Alcibiades, a prominent politician and a great admirer of Socrates. The other participants in the dialogue include Eryximachus-a doctor and Aristodemus and Phaedrus who are guests at the symposium.
At the beginning of the book, the narrator talks about a symposium that was held in honor of Agathon. Socrates is an invitee at the symposium, but he arrives late. After the guests have eaten, one of them suggests that all those who are present should give a speech to praise the god of love.
The first one to speak is Phaedrus, who says that love is an ancient god who helps to mold individuals into better people. The second speaker is Pausanias, who claims that there is a difference between common and heavenly love. According to Pausanias, while common love is ruled by lust, heavenly-love is often shared between men and boys. Pausanias’ views suggest that love is transactional, where knowledge is exchanged with sexual favors.
On the other hand, the doctor views love as an object that can bring order in society. Moreover, the doctor argues that love is not restricted to feelings between two individuals, but it can also involve other aspects of human livelihood such as music and careers. The next speaker in Plato’s dialogue is Aristophanes, the poet who describes love using a myth. According to Aristophanes, human beings were cut into two-halves by Zeus, and they were henceforth condemned to wander around the universe looking for their other halves.
Agathon is the next to give a speech on love, but Socrates is quick to question his views on love. Socrates then continues to give a story about a woman who once described love to him. According to Socrates, love is more of a spirit than it is a god. The spirit of love is “in charge of mediations between people and the objects of their desire” (Plato 202). Socrates continues by noting that love is only expressed through pregnancy and reproduction.
Before Socrates finishes his speech, Alcibiades bursts into the room while he is drunk and expresses his regrets over his inability to seduce Socrates. After the speech by Alcibiades, there is unrest at the party, and it is brought about by drinking. However, when the narrator wakes up in the morning, Socrates is still talking.
The “Symposium” stands out from the rest of Plato’s dialogues because it contains a very simple subject. The subject of love was of comparatively low stature as compared to other subjects such as justice, constitution, and knowledge in ancient Greece. The tone that is used in the other dialogues by Plato is also more serious than the one that is used in the “Symposium.” Most ancient Greek philosophers concerned themselves with important matters such as the ones that are addressed in the other Platonic dialogues.
Love was a topic that was mostly covered by playwrights, poets, and theologians. As witnessed in the “Symposium,” the language used by some of the speakers is poetic. For example, Agathon describes love as “young, beautiful, and wise” (Plato 192). The mixture of poetry, metaphysics, and philosophy that is contained in the “Symposium” is uncommon in other Platonic dialogues as well as other Greek philosophical works.
It is also important to note that Plato does not use Socrates’ voice directly in this dialogue. Instead, Socrates’ voice is heard through Diotima, the wise prophetess. In most dialogues, Socrates’ voice is used to represent his views or those of Plato. In the “Symposium,” Plato presents a third angle in which a sophist voices Socrates. All these anomalies highlight the unusual style used in the “Symposium” and the effectiveness of the dialogues.
The “Symposium” expresses the subject of love in detail. Phaedrus, the first speaker, spells the genealogy of love and its connection to the other gods. According to Phaedrus, “Love is the most ancient of the gods, the most honored, and the most powerful in helping men gain virtue and blessedness, whether they are alive or have passed away” (Plato 180).
This statement suggests that love is eternal, and it has always dictated some aspects of human life. On the other hand, Pausanias points towards the benevolent nature of the god of love. Consequently, Pausanias passionately praises homosexuality as a gift of ‘Eros’ the god of love.
The “Symposium” is one of the most famous dialogues by Plato mostly because it addresses a complex but universal subject. However, the views that are expressed by the speakers in the symposium do not reflect those of Plato, but the views of the society as a whole. All the speakers at the event represent prominent but diverse voices of the Athenian society. The “Symposium” is both a literary and historical masterpiece.
Plato. Symposium. Translated with introduction and notes by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989. Print.
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