Symposium is one of the most critically analyzed pieces of ancient literature, because it expresses in a fascinating format the lifestyle of the Athenian elite, as well as the intellectual maturity of the philosopher Socrates. While studying the nature of love may be a discussion of low importance to modern philosophers, an emotional reaction so strong as love is to human nature has always been a remarkable aspect of human life. In addition, in the time of the Symposium, Greek mythology had largely avoided the topic of an emotional love, in favor of violence, war, and lust. Therefore, the topic of love was not only one which could be shared within a room of men, but was actually a rather progressive topic which was understood in incredibly different ways than the modern concept of love. To better understand the lessons of the Symposium, one must study the nature of love from the two most prominent speakers on the topic, as well as come to a determination as to why Socrates' opinion was considered superior enough to bring an end to the debate on the nature of love.
The subject of love in the ancient world is an interesting one, because generally, marriage and procreation was about power and property, not love. Love is a relational property because Love does not have any properties of its own. Rather, it connects someone who desires something with the thing they desire. Thus, Love is not wise nor rich nor beautiful nor any of the other things we might ascribe to an object of desire. Rather, Love is that desire which finds itself in the absence of all these praiseworthy qualities. Presenting Love as a relation clarifies its position and identifies the flaws in the earlier speeches given. But in treating this relation as a thing with a nature and properties of its own, Plato is inching toward philosophically dangerous ground.
Agathon's speech on love, and the God of love, Eros, is generally well received by the audience, who enjoy the passion brought to Agathon's comments on the subject. Agathon believes that, "Eros is the best of the gods, young and good looking, with supreme strength and ultimately bearing good intentions for mankind" (Symposium, 193), an important distinction in a mythology filled with anti-human deities and supreme beings. This view is in opposition to Phaedrus' claim that Eros is old. Agathon continues by describing how Eros does not simply interact with humans' physical forms, but also their emotions and feelings, proving just how powerful and unique of a god that Eros is. Eros also had a positive effect on the Gods on Mount Olympus, who governed the world with less rage and chaos because of the influence that Eros had brought to the gods.
Socrates' complaint with Agathon's conception of love sweeps the Symposium's prior stories and philosophies aside, due in part to Plato's favoritism for his teacher, and part because of Socrates' immense abilities to whittle away at non-truths in the pursuit of logic. Finding the cause for why something is as it is, rather than simply suggesting a list of non-well reasoned guesses as the party had done. Socrates begins his critique of the Symposium's speeches thus far by noting how absolutely no form of logical argument can be made to support the claims by any of the participants. Indeed, the flowery stories woven so exquisitely only served to hide the truth of the subject under a weight of expectation.
Socrates focuses on Agathon's claim that Eros does not seek out what he requires, but rather spreads joy and happiness with no restraint. Socrates sees a flaw in this logic; if Love only wishes to spread love, then is the act of Eros spreading love not a selfish gesture? When one desires above all else love, then that becomes their necessity, thus proving that Eros is indeed a god simply acting out of his own wishes and desires, and therefore is not the selfless being that Agathon had described.
Socrates continues his speech by discussing the woman Diotima, and her lessons for Socrates. She says, "that above all else one must have a justified opinion" (Symposium, 201). If one simply holds a "true opinion" which is offered without justification, then it could be said that it is not a wise position to hold, even if it is true, because the holder of that opinion does not have a grasp of the wisdom of such an opinion. Diotima explains that love is neither good nor bad, but rather simply an intermediary between gods and mortals. Diotima believes that beauty and pleasure are the things that we love, but Eros himself is not the same, as he is the cross between Resource and Poverty, and therefore is always in conflict.
The "last word" by Socrates is the realizations that while all humans seek what they find beautiful, and in this effort discover what they love, when one looks hard enough, they will realize that what they love is beauty itself. This idea speaks to the Athenians powerfully, as they find pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge, and in this pursuit, find exceptional truths in math, architecture, art, and love. This pronouncement by Socrates not only impresses on his audience the high quality of his philosophical thought, but also teaches us through the ages in modern times just how far ahead Athenian society was compared to the contemporary civilizations at the time, best represented by Sparta, the war faring city-state which exists in opposition to the majesty of Athens.
Socrates is given the last word in order to stress the significance of his contributions. As the greatest philosopher of the time, Socrates is said to be "always searching for Wisdom" rather than being wise himself. Even after Agathon steps out of the debate, Socrates continues his lesson through dialogue with a person not even present in the room, allowing Socrates to continue with his analogy without having to create predictable outcomes for the questions he poses to Diotima, despite her not being present in the Symposium. The symposium is ended when Alcibiades enters the room, drunk and with a musician girl, and therefore Socrates is given the last word, without a formal conclusion to the Symposium. The story ends with Alcibiades in the symbolic role of Dionysus, god of alcohol and festivities, arriving to celebrate Socrates just as the man has delivered another rhetorical triumph.
The way that Plato wrote his piece, it would appear as if social events like this were very common, and it is easy to see why Athens developed to become such a progressive society for the time, due to the openness to honest debate. This is a far cry from the absolute word of Xerxes or the Spartans, the flexibility of the Athenian mind is epitomized in Socrates, and it is the greatest gift to man that Plato's writings happened to last through the millennia.
Interestingly, Agathon describes Eros as fickly and beautiful, without responsibility and without a destination, much like himself, Socrates, on the other hand, describes Eros as being wise and tough, poor yet wise, much like Socrates himself. In this way, love is relational; entirely dependent on the situation that one seeking love is presently faced with. Also, bringing in a woman's opinion to the discussion, even if her presence is not at the symposium, is an interesting twist from Socrates. The Greek culture was incredibly male-oriented, and this is present in the story as the women are told to leave at the beginning of the conversation between the men. Removing the gender bias is a way for Socrates to discuss the idea of pregnancy from the perspective of a woman, and Socrates uses Diotima's opinions of love to suggest that males are far more satisfied by sharing ideas between each other than in a sexual manner, as ideas last longer and are thus more powerful interactions.
In the Apology, Socrates' unsuccessful self-defense in the championing of independent thought is his last stand against the close-minded forces of a militarized Athens who see Socrates as a corrupting individual to society. Socrates' understanding that the gods are simply "rhetorical tools developed to explain the various aspects of Greek life" (Apology, Part One), Not as actual present beings, is dangerous to the Athenian state. Socrates' views directly competed with the goals of Pericles and Thucydides, who saw Athens as a regional leader, with various sub-states which all required management. Arts, Philosophy, and Mathematics simply were not useful in a city-state that was always under the threat of war by outside forces. Socrates is an incredibly stubborn man, however, and could not back down from a challenge even from the state itself, resulting in his forced suicide, despite the pleas of his followers that they should accept exile from Athens and escape to live on another day. The Apology is both an oral vindication of Socrates and his revolutionary ideas, as well as a testament to the lasting virtues of…