The kernel of the dialogue is of course the speech of Socrates, but the earlier speeches, each of which is strongly individual, and most of which are probably parodies of the styles of their supposed speakers, are so arranged as each to contribute something to the philosophy of love expounded by Socrates. But before indicating briefly the points which Socrates takes up or corrects in the earlier speeches, and trying to show the relation of the contents of his speech to the rest of Plato's philosophy, 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 its 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, including Socrates, is homosexual love; it is assumed without argument that this alone is capable of satisfying a man's highest and noblest aspirations, and the love of man and woman, when it is mentioned at all, is spoken of as altogether inferior, a purely physical impulse whose sole object is the procreation of children. In approaching the Symposium we must set aside our personal views as irrelevant and accept this state of affairs as an historical fact, if we are to achieve much understanding either of this aspect of Plato's thought or of the character of Socrates.
It is generally held that, apart from a few brilliant exceptions like Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, women in the golden age of Greece, both at Athens and in other states, took no part in public life and hardly any in public amusements, and that their confinement to the domestic affairs of their homes at a period when a citizen spent almost his whole life out of doors made it impossible for them to become adequate companions to their husbands. Where young persons of opposite sexes rarely met, marriage would normally be merely a matter of arrangement and romantic love impossible. Whether this is an altogether satisfactory account of the relations between the sexes seems at least open to question, and it is still more doubtful whether in any case it provides a sufficient explanation of the homosexual tendency of Athenian men. The part played by women in tragedy does not suggest complete inferiority and seclusion, and it may be that our belief in the prevalence of homosexuality is exaggerated by the fact that it was free from the necessity of concealment which later moral codes have imposed upon it. But that it was not uncommon, at any rate among the leisured classes, is undeniable, and it would certainly appear that the conception of marriage as a partnership between man and woman for all the purposes of life was almost entirely foreign to the Greek mind. Even Plato, who in the Republic proposes that men and women shall receive exactly the same education and be equally capable of discharging all the duties of a citizen, at the same time expressly prohibits for the men and women of his ruling class anything beyond temporary sexual relations for the purpose of breeding. It is true that both there and in the Laws he forbids also sexual intercourse between men, and condemns it as being unnatural, but this is probably due more to a puritanical aversion from the physical aspect of sex in any form than to a disapproval of homosexuality as such, and he certainly seems to have held that a homosexual relationship is alone capable of being transformed into a lifelong partnership, and that homosexual love, like heterosexual love with us, has a range which extends from the crudest physical passion to a marriage of noble minds with no physical manifestation at all. The earlier speeches in the Symposium deal with various gradations in this scale, and the ideal is finally put forward, and sensuality entirely transcended and sublimated, in the speech of Socrates.
The first two speakers, Phaedrus and Pausanias, confine themselves to the treatment of love in its most obvious sense. And here it should perhaps be observed that the personification of Love which persists throughout the dialogue, though often little more than a figure of speech, is a further fact for which allowance must be made by an English reader, unaccustomed to such a manner of treating psychology and metaphysics. To Phaedrus the nature of Love presents no difficulties; he is the oldest of the gods, and the supreme benefactor of mankind, inspiring both a high sense of honour, because a man is particularly afraid of being detected by his lover or beloved in any mean or cowardly action, and also the spirit of self-sacrifice. These conclusions are illustrated by examples from history and mythology, and woman, in the person of Alcestis, is allowed a place in the category of those who may be led to sacrifice their lives by love.
Pausanias, though hardly more profound, is a good deal more subtle, and introduces a distinction between a nobler and a baser kind of love which in a sense prepares the way for Socrates. The baser love aims at nothing beyond sensual gratification; it finds the means to this in women and young boys, and in the latter case it is to be severely discouraged. The nobler love is directed exclusively towards young men, and its object is a lifelong association productive of such good results as have been described by Phaedrus. In the light of this distinction the attitude of various states and forms of government towards homosexuality is analysed, and the apparent inconsistency of public opinion on the subject at Athens explained. But the importance of the distinction drawn by Pausanias should not blind us to the fact that the nobler sort of love no more precludes sexual relations than the baser, and it is possible to see in Pausanias a clever pleader for homosexual licence, who employs high-sounding but sophistical reasoning to justify the satisfaction of physical desire. His principle that all actions are morally indifferent in themselves, and become good or bad only through their circumstances or motives, particularly lays him open to this charge, and is fundamentally opposed to the teaching of Plato.
Pausanias should be succeeded by Aristophanes, but Aristophanes is suffering from a hiccup, and Eryximachus prescribes for this and takes Aristophanes' turn. Eryximachus is very strongly and cruelly drawn in the narrative part of the dialogue as a pompous and oracular pedant, and the speech which is put into his mouth is characteristic of him. He is unable to consider any subject except in a professional and technical way, and the main idea in his speech, the distinction between a good and a bad kind of love, is not original, but borrowed from Pausanias. His method is to exalt this distinction into a universal principle, whose operation may be detected not only in the human soul, but also in his own study, medicine, and even in music, astronomy, and divination. His analysis of these activities in the light of this principle is mechanical, catalogue-like, and forced, and must have seemed so even to readers to whom the scientific theories on which he relies were living and credible. He is ready to torture the most diverse phenomena into the strait waistcoat of a single formula quite arbitrarily assumed, and it can be no accident that in his treatment of music he is made to misinterpret a famous theory of Heraclitus.
Yet, though Eryximachus' speech is poor stuff and meant to be so — it is presumably by way of contrast that it is interposed between the much more important speeches of Pausanias and Aristophanes — it has its contribution to make to the whole. The treatment of love as a cosmic principle at work in the universe at large, though pushed by Eryximachus to the point of absurdity, marks a significant transition from the narrow sense of physical desire which is all that it has been given by Phaedrus and Pausanias, and to that extent prepares the reader for the ascent from physical to intellectual love and from the sensible to the ideal world which will be described by Socrates.
Eryximachus ends with a self-satisfied invitation to Aristophanes to fill up any gaps that he may have left in his speech, 'unless you plan to take some other line in praising the god', It is like Eryximachus to be insensitive to the absurdity of expecting a mind so richly inventive and whimsical as that of Aristophanes to be content to follow his own pedestrian and mechanical method; in fact the contrast between them is overwhelming, and the speech which Plato assigns to Aristophanes constitutes almost the most brilliant of all his achievements as a literary artist. Beginning with a humorous fantasy of the nature of the first human beings and of their rebellion against the gods, which has often been called Rabelaisian and which recaptures much of the spirit of Aristophanes' own comedy of the Birds, the speech goes on to describe man's present condition. Men are merely halves of original wholes, which were of three sexes, male, female, and hermaphrodite, and were bisected by Zeus as a punishment for their pride. Love is 'the desire and pursuit of the whole', man's attempt to regain his former happy state by uniting himself to his lost half, and the direction taken by the sexual impulse in any individual is dictated by the nature of the whole to which that individual originally belonged. It is noteworthy that Aristophanes, unlike the other speakers, treats heterosexual and homosexual love as being on the same level, since both are predestined; but this is an inevitable consequence of the mythical hypothesis of three original sexes, and we cannot infer from it any real change of attitude, especially as Aristophanes is made to describe as the best among their contemporaries those individuals who are halves of male wholes and in consequence homosexual.
Aristophanes speaks of himself as merely an entertainer, and his speech begins as a jeu d'esprit of fantasy in whose details we need not expect to find any very profound meaning, but, as he continues, a vein of seriousness and almost of pathos begins to mingle with the humour, and an important truth is brought to light. Aristophanes recognizes that love is a need, and a need whose satisfaction is much more than physical; the nature of this universal need or desire will be explored and explained to Socrates by Diotima. But love is also a longing to regain a lost happiness, and this too is characteristic of Platonic love at its highest. The ultimate object of love is the vision of absolute beauty which man's soul once enjoyed before it was incarnate, when in the language of the myth in the Phaedrus it followed in the procession of the gods upon the 'plain of truth'.
An interlude of some length follows, apparently designed to create an atmosphere of heightened expectation for the speech of Agathon. None of Agathon's plays survives, but the picture which is drawn of him in the Symposium and confirmed by what is known from other sources is not so much of a professional writer as of a dilettante, handsome, elegant, and vain, recognizably akin to the decadents of other ages and countries. His speech is what one might expect from such a person, a rhetorical exercise composed according to the rules of the sophist Gorgias, the emptiness and preciosity of which stand in strong contrast with the speeches both of Aristophanes and of Socrates. Aristophanes, the comic poet, delivers in simple, unaffected language a speech which, for all its extravagance of fancy, has an underlying strain of strong and genuine feeling; Agathon, the tragic poet, beneath his carefully elaborated style and consciously poetical diction, is at his best cold, superficial, and conventional, and at his worst a mere verbal trickster, as when he proves that Love must be self-controlled because he is master of all the passions.
More important is the contrast with Socrates. Rhetoric and philosophy are here face to face, the former content if its conceits tickle the ear and using the theme proposed merely as a foundation on which to build its artificial edifice of words and rhythms, the latter labouring to discover the truth and professing indifference to its formal expression, though in fact Plato is too thorough an artist for Socrates' speech not to be perfect in form. Agathon claims to improve upon the methods of his predecessors, who have talked of the gifts conferred by Love rather than of his essential nature, but his own method is simply to heap upon Love all desirable qualities and all virtues, and he closes with a tremendous purple passage, of which Socrates subsequently remarks that the beauty of its words and phrases (not, be it noted, of its thought) has taken his breath away. Even Agathon is allowed to contribute one positive idea, that the object of love is beauty, but otherwise the importance of his speech is purely negative, in that it provides material upon which Socrates' dialectic may work in order to establish certain preliminary conclusions.
The discussion between Agathon and Socrates which follows arises so naturally from Agathon's speech that it would be easy not to notice that we are here entering on the second and much the more important section of the dialogue. The transition is marked by a significant change of tone. Socrates with characteristic irony professes to be overwhelmed with admiration at what he has heard, and exclaims that he would never have been so foolish as to put himself in competition with the others in praising Love had he known that what is needed in a panegyric is not knowledge of the nature of its object but a flow of fine phrases and laudatory language whether true or false. As it is, he must withdraw from the contest; he is willing, however, to make a plain statement of the truth about Love, provided that it is understood that he is not competing. This is the answer of the philosopher to the rhetorician; in what follows we shall be engaged, not with prize exercises upon a set theme, but with the search for truth. What more natural then than that Socrates should begin by employing upon Agathon the instrument of philosophical inquiry that is peculiarly his own, the method of question and answer, of which the first stage consists in reducing the interlocutor to 'helplessness', the admission that his existing views upon the subject under discussion are completely mistaken?
The criticism is sometimes made that Socrates often overcomes his opponents in such discussions by methods which seem to us unfair and quibbling, but in Agathon's case, at any rate, the argument appears to be quite legitimate. The positions established are:
This paradoxical conclusion is the result of no mere word-play. The point is established that love is the consciousness of a need for a good not yet acquired or possessed. A hint of this has already been given in Aristophanes' fantasy, but it is now laid down on rational grounds as a foundation for the exposition of Plato's own view.
Agathon admits that he did not know what he was talking about, and Socrates embarks upon his promised statement, which, however, takes the curious form of a reported debate between Socrates and a woman of Mantinea called Diotima, who plays the same part towards Socrates as Socrates himself has just been playing towards Agathon. It is almost universally and no doubt rightly held that Diotima is a fictitious personage, in spite of the apparently historical statements made about her by Socrates. It is not desirable here to go into the arguments in favour of this conclusion, but it may be noticed that this is not the only place in the Platonic dialogues where Socrates is made to ascribe the substance of what he has to say to others, particularly in dealing with subjects such as love and the fate of the soul about which dialectically established certainty is impossible, and that it was precisely with regard to such subjects that Plato was most influenced by the mystery religions of his day, whose language is here used by Diotima in describing the ascent of the soul from the sensible to the eternal world. If we ask what was Plato's purpose in using this device on the present occasion, it may suffice for the moment to answer that it is more consistent with the amenity of the party, and softens the rough handling which Agathon has just received, that Socrates should be placed on the same level as the rest of the company and not represented as a hierophant revealing ultimate truth; the tone used by Diotima to him is very much that of sage to pupil, and she is even made to express a doubt whether he will be capable of the final initiation into the mysteries of love.
Socrates, then, reports that he has been convinced by the same arguments as he has just used against Agathon that Love is neither good nor beautiful, and proceeds to give the rest of his supposed conversation with Diotima. It does not follow that because Love is neither good nor beautiful he is therefore ugly and bad. He is in an intermediate state, just as a man who has true opinions without being able to give a rational account of them is half-way between wisdom and ignorance. This comparison is of supreme importance for the understanding of the dialogue. It presupposes the whole of Plato's Theory of Ideas or Forms, which, reduced to its barest elements, is that the manifold and ever-changing phenomena of the world of sense are imitations or copies of eternal and absolute Forms, which alone have true reality, and to 'participation' in which the sensible world owes such partial reality as it possesses. The impulse to this theory was originally given by the search of the historical Socrates for universal definitions of moral concepts, but the mature system goes far beyond anything that Socrates can be supposed to have contemplated; apparently for almost every class of things, whether material or abstract, which can be embraced under a common name, there exists a Form in the eternal world., The task of the philosopher is to pass from the shadows of the sensible world, by which he is 'reminded' of the Forms, which the soul saw before its incarnation, to the contemplation of the realities of the Forms themselves. These are arranged in a hierarchy, at the head of which stands the Form of Good, and the man who has made this ascent and who can see reality as a connected system dependent upon this Form has wisdom; all others have at the best only true opinion. The ascent demands the severest intellectual training, the stages of which are described in the central books of the Republic; but it is another aspect of the same ascent which is described by Diotima in the Symposium, because, as we have been told in the argument with Agathon, the beautiful and the good coincide, and it is the beautiful that is the object of love. The philosopher who makes the purely intellectual pilgrimage of the Republic is also the ideal lover of the Symposium, who is led by examples of beauty in the world of sense to the same goal, the contemplation of the Form of Beauty, a mystical experience which is incommunicable, but which Plato comes nearest to describing in the concluding passage of the speech of Diotima. Love, therefore, the consciousness of need for the beautiful and the good, is not beautiful and good because it has not attained its goal, but in so far as it is an attempt to strive towards it, it is removed from the opposite state of being ugly and bad.
Love, in fact, as Diotima goes on to show, is one of the links between the sensible and the eternal world. This is expressed mythologically by making him a being of intermediate nature between gods and men, one of the class known to the Greeks as spirits or daemons, and the idea of the contrarieties in his nature is reinforced by a myth of his birth. Poverty was his mother, and he therefore lives in want, but from his father, Contrivance, he has inherited boldness and resourcefulness in pursuing his object. He is a philosopher or lover of wisdom, because wisdom is beautiful and beauty is the object of Love. And here it may be remarked that the lover too, and indeed man in general, is a daemon, a creature attached to both worlds, and Plato's analysis of man's condition appears to be consistent with religious experience. Life is a struggle for a far-away but dimly discerned good, to attain which is happiness. If man possessed it he would no longer be man; if he had no yearning for it he would be mere animal. What Plato calls ignorance Christians call sin, but this apparently fatal discrepancy fades in the light of the Socratic and Platonic doctrine that all wrong-doing is ignorance, and that perfect knowledge inevitably issues in perfect conduct.
If love embraces every desire for good and for happiness, all men may be called lovers, and we seem to have wandered far indeed from the common man's idea of love. Diotima explains that, though in the widest sense all men are lovers of the good (or what they conceive to be such), yet in ordinary usage the name Eros has been restricted to the sense of sexual love, the meaning which has been attributed to it by all the previous speakers. This is one form of desire for the good, and here the important point is introduced without argument that men desire not merely to possess the good but to possess it perpetually. There is only one way in which Eros in the narrow sense can achieve anything like perpetuity, and that is by pro-creation. Through the perpetual replacement of an old member of the race by a new, mortal creatures can put on immortality, and so procreation, for which association with beauty is a necessary condition, may be said to be the natural object of love.
Although Diotima appears thus to restrict the range of the discussion to sexual love, it at once becomes plain that this restriction is illusory. Physical procreation is only one, and that the lowest, of the forms which Eros can take. Far nobler is spiritual procreation, the activity of the soul to which we owe not only the products of art but all progress in civilization and the ordering of society. All such advances are apparently to be attributed to the marriage of noble minds; when a man's soul is pregnant with some creation or discovery he looks for a partner in association with whom he may bring his spiritual offspring to birth. Physical beauty will influence his choice of such a partner, but the marriage will not be fertile unless there is also beauty of soul.
We seem to have arrived again at the nobler of the two kinds of homosexuality distinguished by Pausanias, and this may cause surprise in view of the previous conclusion that the object of love is procreation, and that even in animals what appears to be a desire for sexual union is really desire for parenthood. One might have expected that this would lead to an unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality as being sterile. The reason why it does not do so is that for Plato physical parenthood is the lowest and least important kind — he is not really concerned with it at all — and spiritual parent-hood, with very rare exceptions, is possible only for men. In spite of the emphasis laid on the equality of the sexes in the ideal state of the Republic he presumably believed that, as things are, women are incapable of creative activity above the physical level. So what might well have been a strong argument for heterosexuality is with Plato an argument for a refined homosexuality, though, as we shall see shortly, it is a homosexuality which in its highest form is entirely unphysical.
So far, then, we have advanced only one stage beyond physical parenthood, and it is to be noticed that the examples which Diotima gives of persons in whom love has taken the form of desire to leave an immortal name behind them, Alcestis, Achilles, Codrus, are not chosen from among philosophers. Even when she passes on to those in whom it is easier to recognize spiritual parenthood by reason of their tangible achievements still remaining with us, she does not rise above poets and lawgivers. It is at this point that she expresses the doubt already mentioned of Socrates' ability to follow her further, and this marks a critical stage in the argument. Henceforth she is concerned with a third and even nobler type of lover, the philosopher or lover of wisdom, who is capable of ascending above the sensible world altogether. The stages of his ascent are from love of particular examples of physical beauty to physical beauty in general; thence to beauty of soul even if unaccompanied by beauty of body (in this he is distinguished from the second type of lover already described), and so to moral beauty in general; and finally to the beauty of knowledge, and through various branches of knowledge to that vision of the Form of Beauty itself which gives complete and unifying knowledge of truth concerning the whole universe. This is the same intellectual pilgrimage as is described in the Republic; what we have added to it here (and in the Phaedrus) is the idea that it is a pilgrimage inspired by love. Diotima describes it in terms borrowed from the mysteries, partly, no doubt, because it is a gradual progress comparable to the stages of an initiation, and partly because the final vision is a religious rather than an intellectual experience, and, like the culminating revelation of a mystery religion, is not to be described or communicated. The guide of the desiring soul corresponds to the hierophant of the mysteries, but we shall hardly be wrong to see in him also the familiar features of Socrates, practising what he calls in the Theaetetus his art of 'midwifery', by which he helps his associates to bring to birth the ideas and discoveries with which they are in travail.
There follows a description of the life of the lover of wisdom who has made this ascent. He has absolutely emancipated himself from the bonds of sense, and lives in the real and not the perishable world: we may fitly compare Diotima's final words with the description given of such blessedness in a corresponding passage of the Republic (490) :
'Shall we not reasonably plead that the genuine lover of learning has a natural tendency to strive towards true being, and does not remain among the multiplicity of particular things which men believe to be real? On the contrary he goes on his way with unabated desire and unceasing love until he can lay hold of the real nature of each thing with that part of the soul which can lay hold of reality because it is akin to it. Then and not till then, when he has approached reality and entered into union with it and begotten intelligence and truth, does he enjoy knowledge and true life and nourishment, and cease from the pangs of travail.'
Here also we find Plato using the language of love, and speaking of the crowning achievement of the philosophic quest as a marriage with the supremely real and good.
The understanding of the Symposium has sometimes been hampered by failure to recognize the vital distinction between the second and third types of lover. Comparison with the Phaedrus, which is also largely concerned with the subject of love, confirms the existence of the distinction, if confirmation is needed. There too we are presented with the same three types, the purely sensual, those who are called in the Phaedrus 'lovers of honour', and the lovers of wisdom. The second type, who have not entirely passed beyond physical love, and who correspond to the nobler lovers of Pausanias, are not condemned in either dialogue; in the Phaedrus it is positively stated that these lovers are capable of growing wings which may lift them again into the eternal world of the Forms which the soul once inhabited. Such lovers may have trouble in subduing their physical desires, and may never rise above the level of the 'lover of honour', but they are infinitely to be preferred to the merely sensual lover, who is severely indicated, and they have made some progress towards the state from which they fell at birth. The best type, however, the lover of wisdom, though he may still feel some pleasure in the things of sense, will never allow them to divert him for an instant from the pursuit of real beauty. But it is to be remembered that the first impulse to that pursuit, even in his case, is provided by the physical beauty of particular persons. Plato's opinions, when he wrote these two dialogues, had not yet crystallized into the complete reprobation of all physical homosexuality which we find in the Laws, and there can be little doubt that he, as well as Socrates, was strongly attracted by beautiful young men. Socrates frequently speaks of himself as being in love with them, and we must recognize that such language is not wholly ironic; the irony consists in such love having a meaning for him quite different from that which the common man attaches to it. Such considerations lead us to the final scene of the dialogue, the speech of Alcibiades in praise of Socrates.
First, however, a few final words on the Platonic theory of love as expounded by Diotima. An attempt has been made to show, very superficially, that it is an integral part of Plato's whole philosophical system. Eros is for him a principle pervading all worthy human activities, and Platonic love, in spite of the meaning commonly attributed to it, is a common search for truth and beauty by two persons of the same sex inspired by mutual affection. Plato's conviction is that it is the same impulse which prompts love between individuals (provided that it is something more than mere physical desire) and the search of the philosopher for truth or, we might add, of the mystic for God. The extended range of meaning thus given to the term 'love' seemed no doubt paradoxical to most of his original readers, and may well seem so to us. Even if we leave out of account the fact that for Plato true love between individuals is normally homosexual, it is not easy to follow him even as far as the second section of his first stage, the generalized love of physical beauty. After that what Plato calls love is hardly what we recognize as love at all, especially when he speaks of the moral beauty of laws and institutions as objects of love. Yet two considerations may be urged in favour of Plato's theory. First, modern psychology has detected the operation of the sexual impulse in many hitherto unsuspected fields, and viewed as the gradual sublimation of physical desire the ascent described by Diotima may sound more plausible to modern ears than to those of the Greeks. Secondly, the terms in which Plato speaks of the felicity of the lover of wisdom when he has achieved what we may not unreasonably call the beatific vision is much the same as that which has been found appropriate by mystics of other ages and countries; we have only to think, for example, of the interpretation which Christianity has placed upon the Song of Solomon, and of the countless instances in mystical writings in which the individual soul, no less than the Church, is spoken of as the bride of Christ.