In order to answer the question of what 'love' means to Plato/Socrates in the Symposium, the most important aspect is to explain how the other participants define it before Socrates weighs in with his more philosophical and spiritual explanation. All of these participants are wealthy, privileged young men from the aristocratic class, except of course for Socrates who comes from the artisan class. They are arrogant, shallow, and narcissistic, and mainly in love with themselves, and also define love as Eros or erotic, physical and sexual experiences, and of course love of money, fame and physical beauty. Sometimes they also realize that philos or friendship can also be a form of love, with which Socrates certainly agrees, although he then carries it to the higher level of agape or universal and God-like benevolence, understanding and virtue. Instead of democracy, they would prefer Athens to be governed by an elite or an aristocracy, but Socrates opposes this. Like Alcibiades, they may be a wealthy ruling class with contempt for those not as privileged as themselves, but that is never the political and moral position of Socrates. All citizens of a republic should be motivated by a higher type of morality than simply love of money, pleasure and the self, and follow the example of Socrates.
Unlike the audience at the Symposium, Socrates of course is not rich or powerful, nor is he young and good looking, and the only celebrity he has is for being mocked and derided by most of the other citizens of Athens. He speaks finally and definitively at the Symposium, after all the younger men have offered their opinions on love and beauty that invariably dwell mostly on the physical and sexual aspects rather than higher spiritual level that most interests a philosopher or religious guide. For those who do not understand his message that true love is a passion for eternal truth, wisdom and virtue rather than the things of the world, Alcibiades conveniently appears at the end and explains it all again for the slower learners.
Socrates regards philosophy as a spiritual quest and an activity of the soul's longing and desire for God, while he disdains money, power, sex and fame that most mortals strive for all their lives. His task is to elevate that conversation and steer it away from mere worldly concerns about the purely sexual side of love and beauty into the spiritual and transcendent levels. He guides the youths in this direction by describing his own encounter with a wise woman named Diotima when he was their age. According to her love should not simply be and erotic desire for the beautiful bodies and material things of the world, all of which were temporary and transitory. Instead, the highest form of love is that of wisdom and truth, which were eternal, and the love of the immortal soul in seeking after God. This same lesson could easily be applied to political or economic life rather than simply the relations between individuals, for Socrates also feels love for the beautifully constructed state and its laws. For this reason, Socrates he refuses to be seduced by the rich and beautiful young man Alcibiades, who was also quite arrogant and conceited about himself until Socrates showed him higher truths. Alcibiades and his aristocratic friends disdain the democracy of Athens, for example, and prefer an oligarchy of their own kind, but this is definitely not the political and moral position of Socrates.
All the wealthy young men are permitted to give their own narrow and materialistic definitions of love and beauty while Socrates says nothing and pretends that he has never heard any of this before. At the end, though, Alcibiades makes it clear that he has already dealt with these questions many times before. Phaedrus comments on famous lovers in history such as the beautiful, young Achilles and his older mentor Patroclus. This gave him the idea that all soldiers should be lovers, since they would fight to the death for each other and generally show great courage in battle. Pausanias praises Eros and Aphrodite as well, cautioning that "the Eros we should praise is the one which encourages people to love in the right way," which is not simply the sexual act but a love between minds (Gil 19). He also values the love of boys higher than that of women, but "only with boys old enough to think for themselves" and which develops into friendship or philos (Gil 20). He notes that fathers will protect their sons from male lovers and not allow them to meet, while other boys will sneer at them, and this was a way of testing whether the older man "loves the body rather than the mind" (Gil 23).
In their turn, Aristophanes and Agathon also proclaim Eros to be the best and most beautiful of all the gods. Aristophanes describes him as "the most friendly towards men," and then relates the legend that three genders once existed, and that the third sex was originally a combination of male and female or a hermaphrodite. Zeus divided them in two and now they spend eternity trying to find each other again, seeking the perfect lover, bit "in an imperfect world we must settle for the nearest to this we can get, and this is finding a boyfriend who is mentally congenial" (Gil 38). Agathon then offers his opinion that Eros is "the most beautiful and best of the gods" and also the youngest, since he is fast enough to always run away from old age (Gil 40). Eros also promotes the "love of beauty" in the world and among the gods, and was also kind, generous and gentle, so that because of his influence "all manner of good has resulted" (Gil 44).
All of this materialism and physicality gives Socrates his opening to begin the discourse on love and beauty from a spiritual and philosophical perspective. He instantly paints young Agathon into a corner by asking him whether the nature of Eros is such "the he is love produced by something, or by nothing" (Gil 50). Of course, this is one of his famously simple questions that conceals considerably complexity, but Agathon has no choice except to answer that love must be produced by something. Socrates makes his key point by relating a discussion he had with an older and uglier wise woman or seer named Diotima, who taught him that Eros may not necessarily be ugly or beautiful, and that what is physically ugly may not necessarily be bad. Eros was a spirit, after all, neither a god nor a human but still something immortal and elemental (Gil 53). As Diotima explained erotic love, it should be focused on a passion for reason and wisdom, and philosophy or the love of wisdom, was a spiritual quest moving up the ladder from ignorance and base desires. No one desires something that he already has, even if the desire is to be truly beautiful or good in the spiritual sense, and the life of the philosopher ultimately was to channel love and desire away from beautiful bodies and material things to the absolute beauty of the immortal and everlasting God (Gil 54). This also applies to political and economic life, since the ideal citizens of a republic or democracy should be motivated by a higher kind of morality than money, self-interest and personal pleasure.
Alcibiades serves as a foil or a contrast to everything Socrates stands for in religion, politics and morality. Naturally has heard all of the ideas of Socrates before and even praises him as the greatest and most virtuous man in the city -- and example which he is never really able to emulate. He reveals that he has always been in love with Socrates in the physical or erotic sense, but the philosopher does not reciprocate on that level. Nor does he wish to be part of his elitist or aristocratic ruling class, since he regards their motives and morality are dubious at best. Alcibiades is young, rich and beautiful, supposedly possessing all of the qualities so desired in the material world, but for Socrates "beauty, wealth and honor, at which the many wonder, are of no account with him, and are utterly despised by him" (Gil 56). Socrates is not seduced by this cunning political operator, not even when Alcibiades says that "of all the lovers whom I have ever had, you are the only one who is worthy of me, and you appear to be too modest to speak" (Gil 58). Socrates as always wants to guide him away from the purely physical and sexual aspects of love to a passion for wisdom, virtue and philosophy (Gil 60). Even in the army, Socrates is Stoic and self-controlled, capable of enduring cold, hunger and fatigue without complaint when others could not. In this respect, he is the model citizen-soldier of the Athenian republic. He even saves Alcibiades' life in battle…