Plato's Symposium is one of the most widely read of his dialogues. It is said to be a departure from the usual style because except for a brief portion, it is not written in dialectical style. Instead, a variety of speakers have the opportunity to present their view on the topic of love; when they are done, Socrates speaks (Pecorino). There has also been speculation that this dialogue was written by Plato to serve as "a form of brochure for his Academy in Athens" (Pecorino). This is one explanation for the difference in the format.
The beginning pages are full of banter between Apollodorus and his Companion. Apollodorus has a tale to relate, but he prefaces it with a great deal of introductory information. This makes his Companion, who has grown impatient, say, "It is waste of time, Apollodorus, to wrangle about such matters now. Come, without more ado, comply with our request and relate how the speeches went" (173e). Apollodorus then agrees, and after relating more details, begins to talk about the banquet. Before we get to the actual views on love that are put forth by various speakers, however, it is clear that the actual speeches are several times removed, told within a framing format.
Socrates does not arrive in a timely manner at the banquet, but when he does, he starts off offering comments that sound courteous but are considered mocking. An example of this is when he says to Agathon, "if wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one of us who is fuller into him who is emptier, by our mere contact with each other, as water will flow through wool from the fuller cup into the emptier" (175d-175e). In this way he attempts to compliment Agathon, but Agathon, knowing better, advises Socrates to tend to the meal. This may also be considered as a statement on the concept of wisdom itself. Wisdom is not something that can be easily attained; sitting next to a wise person will not intellectually benefit those in close proximity to him. Work must be done to attain wisdom.
The first philosophy we hear is that of Phaedrus. According to Phaedrus, honor is the most important quality associated with love: "I for my part am at a loss to say what greater blessing a man can have in earliest youth than an honorable lover, or a lover than an honorable favorite. (178c). To support his theory, Phaedrus calls on the example of Alcestis, who gave her husband the ultimate gift by offering to lay down her life for his. This act so deeply impressed the gods, says Phaedrus, that they took an action that they rarely took, and brought Alcestis back to life "in admiration of her act: (179d).
Pausanias begins explaining his theory of love by describing Aphrodite as having two sides: Heavenly Aphrodite and Popular Aphrodite (180c-180e). Pausanias moves on from his discussion of the duality of love to extol the concept of virtue, which he ultimately believes to be the single best outcome of love: "so there is left one sort of voluntary thraldom which is not scandalous; I mean, in the cause of virtue (184c).
The next person to speak is supposed to be Aristophanes, but a throat irritation makes him postpone his speech. In his place is the physician Eryximachus, who, true to his profession, describes love in medical terms: "Reverence for my profession prompts me to begin with the witness of medicine" (186c). He speaks of harmony of the body as a prerequisite for satisfaction in love, asserting that a body that is not physically sound is incapable of feeling or expressing desire. Eryximachus does concede that he agrees with some of the points made by Pausanias regarding the duality of love, but continues at length to expound on what he explains as his medical perspective of love. He says, for example that "the art of medicine may be summarily described as a knowledge of the love-matters of the body in regard to repletion and evacuation" (186d). Describing the concept of love in such stark medical terms does not seem to do it justice, however, and most of what Eryximachus has to say sounds condescending and difficult for those who are non-physicians to truly understand (which may, in fact, be the point).
When Aristophanes begins to speak, it is a most welcome change. Pausanias' theories of the duality of Aphrodite have been somewhat interesting, but the tone of Eryximachus' speech has made the audience ready for something different. Aristophanes, known for his comedic ability, is a speaker who can do this. Having recovered from his throat irritation, he takes the stage and proposes a mythical tale to explain how love came to exist in the world. In a tone that is very different from that of the physician, Aristophanes states that at the beginning of time, there were in fact not only two genders, but three kinds of creatures on earth (189e). The third,
"which had equal shares of the other two, and whose name survives though, the thing itself has vanished" (189e).
Aristophanes goes on to explain that these creatures were powerful and willful. In fact, in their willfulness they dared to overstep their bounds and appeared to the gods to be threatening (similar to Biblical stories). Rather than obliterate the species, Zeus decided to control them by cutting them in half. As a result, these creatures would be in a constant state of anxiety, knowing that part of themselves was missing. They were doomed to spend the rest of their lives searching for their other halves to "complete" them.
Aristophanes theory is perhaps the most compelling of the ones that are presented at the Symposium. First of all, it has dramatic value that appeals to listeners. In addition, it explains to a certain extent the mystery of attraction that two people have for one another. According to Aristophanes, "each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him" (191d). In this version of love, issues of homosexuality may be implied as well. It is a theory that conveniently fits all.
Following in the footsteps of Agathon will be no easy feat, and Agathon acknowledges this when it is his turn to speak on the concept of love. Considering the perspectives expressed by those who preceded him, Agathon decides to focus on the god of love himself. As he points out, "not one of them has told us what is the nature of the benefactor himself" (194e-195a). For this reason, Agathon decides to explore the concept of love from this angle.
Agathon's description of love is rather all-encompassing. For example, he starts to sum up his ideas by saying that it is love "who casts alienation out, draws intimacy in; he brings us together in such friendly gatherings as the present; at feasts and dances and oblations he makes himself our leader; politeness contriving, moroseness outdriving" (197d). This is only the half of the list of roles that love plays in the lives of mankind. His message ultimately seems to be that love consists of all things that are good. There seem to be some contradictions in this, but that is not something Agathon covers here.
After all of these concepts of love have been proposed, Socrates finally steps forth to pose questions and engage in actual dialogue. As stated in the introduction, this is the usual style that these dialogues take. An example of the exchange of ideas is seen in the give-and-take between Socrates and Diotima. Plato's use of a woman…