You Don’t Know What Love is

The Symposium
Plato (trans. by Walter Hamilton)

We’ve been here before. Well, not here exactly. But we’ve heard another’s account of this dinner party. So why not spend some time with the better-known version of the tale?

Tale strikes me as an inappropriate word for a serious work of philosophy. Make no mistake about it, this is as serious as it gets, from the author to the translator to the publisher, seriousness drips from every page. Yet the book does recount an evening’s entertainment, 5th century-BCEAthens style.

Things were simpler in those days. Let’s set the stage. A nice meal, a guest list that includes a well-known physician, a playwright, a vaguely literary hypochondriac,  a couple of other members of Athens’ swank crowd and the preeminent philosopher of the day.  Copious amounts of wine were served. Many a household would kill to host the contemporary equivalent.

It is, though, ancient Athens. Women are noticeably absent. Well, there may be a few servants and a flute player but that’s it. The latter is dismissed in a very telling way, ” … we should send away the flute-girl .. let her play to herself, or if she likes, to the women of the household.”  By the time the plates are cleared, we’re down to the menfolk and the main event, the speeches.

c. 470 BCE – 399 BCE

Okay, technically they’re panegyrics. You’d be forgiven if you associated that word with eulogies and laudatory poems, I certainly did, but in its original usage, it merely meant a formal speech. Our host, Agathon, proposes that “… each of us, going from left to right, make the best speech he can in praise of love…”  All assent and the seating order guarantees that Socrates will speak last.

That makes this as good a place as any to pause and take note of a few important points.  The first is that I have little Greek beyond the names of a few dishes I cook and some concepts critical to Catholic theology. While I stand in respectful awe of classics majors and their erudition, I read in translation and so am bound by the choices Dr. Hamilton has made.

Then there’s the matter on which  Prof. Hamilton expends quite a bit of ink. Best to let him speak for himself and illustrate just what sorts of disclaimers serious academic practitioners were forced to make not so long ago:

“… we must first face a fact which is so repugnant to the orthodox morality of our own times that there is a serious risk of it destroying the value
and pleasure of the Symposium for many readers. The love with which
the dialogue is concerned, and which is accepted as a matter of course
by all the speakers, is homosexual love; it is assumed without argument that this alone is capable of satisfying a man’s highest and noblest aspirations …”

There’s quite a bit more, I assure you, and almost any current reader can find something to be chagrined about. As you might expect given the manner in which Agathon dismissed the flute-girl, women fare particularly poorly.

The Goddess of Love

Last bit of digression, I wouldn’t indulge myself if it wasn’t important. In Greek mythology, there are a god and a goddess of love, Eros and Aphrodite. Sometimes the speakers remark on the concept of love, sometimes on the god of it. The shift can be abrupt and ought to be looked out for.

That’s not the only possibly confounding matter. In Greek, there are two words for love: eros and agape. The first is sensual, the second benevolent. (I give this short shrift. Someday, we’ll tackle Augustine.) Without the original text, it’s easy, reading an English translation,  to miss when the noun shifts.

Okay then, what of love? As in Xenophon, the whole point of going around the table is to allow the lesser guests to say more or less expected things about the subject.  Were I a better student, I might be able to expound at length about the significance of who sits where and why that matters in the structure of the dialog, but I’m older now and prefer to focus on the main point.

Here are two examples of what the main point decidedly is not:

“There is, as I stated at first no right and wrong in love, everything depends on circumstances.”,

“[It is Love] who presides over festivals, dances, sacrifices; who bestows good-humor, and banishes surliness; whose gift is the gift of good-will and never of ill-will.”

There’s a lot of this sort of thing, crafted to showcase the professions, reputations or predilections of the speakers. All of it is speechifying, which I suppose is to be expected from the folks who invented rhetoric. But it’s rendered in quite an entertaining fashion and if it’s philosophy it’s philosophy with a spoonful of sugar.

The gof=d of love (You’ll be forgiven if you read that as sex)

Then it’s time for the master. Socrates is always presented as self-effacing and he begins so here, calling himself idiotic and stupid and begging leave to ask questions. It wouldn’t be the Socratic method if it didn’t rely on questions. He plies Agathon with a series of simple queries establishing, of all things, familial relationships.

The point in this, and there is one, is to establish as a first proposition that love is in love with what one lacks.  But the master isn’t done and he begins to share his recollection of a conversation he had with one Diotima. The significant fact is that Diotima is a woman.

Diotima asserts that love is, among other things, driven by a desire to possess physical beauty and immortality. This, too, is a starting point that ultimately ends up where Socrates intends. Love is the contemplation of absolute beauty, which sits atop physical and moral beauty and all tops of knowledge. It is not desire for “ clothing or the beauty of boys and young men.”

A bit more happens. Alcibiades arrives, drunk, and makes a speech about his desire for Socrates’ love and affection, and the ongoing rejection he suffers. The drinking continues. More revelers arrive. Our correspondent falls asleep and awakens, hours later to find Socrates still deep in conversation before he gathers himself up and walks off, soberly, presumably to another day of teaching.

It’s actually great fun and provides quite a bit to think about. It’s also unlike a lot of Plato‘s other works and for that alone worth the price of admission.


Bryan Ferry, evidently, knows something of the classics.


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