In Plato’s The Symposium that we read for the Online Great Books seminar, ancient Greek partygoers choose not to drink the night away, again (text is translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff). Instead, these philosophers and tragedians and comedians have a friendly competition: everyone gives their own praise of love. But whose idea of love is true?
After hearing from five others, Socrates goes last. Though his explanations are usually complicated, his praise of love seems most rooted in truth and reality.
DISCLAIMER: I am no Plato scholar. This interpretation is compelling and is open to debate. And also, note that normal intimate relations in ancient Greece look a bit different than today.
Here is a summary of the six speeches, each of which builds on ideas as they respond to the previous speaker:
- According to Phaedrus, there is one type of love, which is virtuous and good.
- According to Pausanias, there are two types of love: good since it aims to obtain virtuous, soulful things. But the other kind of love is bad since it is shallow, bodily, and uncommitted.
- According to Eryximachus, love is the balance and harmony between bad and good love. The virtue of love depends on how the lover controls the direction of love.
- According to Aristophanes, love is the desire by one half to its missing other half. Humans were split from one being into two parts. And love is the force driving one to find its counterpart.
- According to Agathon, love is simply the best of all good things, including young, delicate, just, moderate, and brave.
- According to Socrates, love is a spirit that compels us on a journey to produce immortality by appreciating higher levels of beauty. The lowest level of love is for one beautiful body. The quest for immortality here results in human children. Then the smart person will grow that love of one body into all beautiful bodies. This love grows into a love of beautiful souls, then beautiful customs and activities, then beautiful knowledge. At this stage, the quest for immortality combines the person with beautiful knowledge into birthing good ideas. The highest level is an appreciation of Beauty in its pure form, the essence without grounding in time, space, or example. A person attains the highest level of love and immortality by beholding Beauty and birthing true virtue.
After Socrates’s speech, Alcibiades, the comedian, comes in, drunk from partying. He squeezes himself between Socrates and Agathon as they were flirting. He tells a story that serves as proof to which to test the accuracy of the love speeches.
Alcibiades describes the love that overcame him for handsome Socrates, which became lust for body and power. Socrates rebuffed the attempts until he explained the Alcibiades’s beauty wasn’t enough for Socrates’s offer and pursuit of pure wisdom. He admitted his love to Alcibiades, but Socrates didn’t give in to any seductive advances. Now, Alcibiades often erupts in a jealous rage while still lusting for Socrates’s good looks. But Alcibiades has learned to respect Socrates’s natural character, moderation, and fortitude. He also appreciates Socrates’s ideas and knowledge as the best way to become good.
This story makes sense. Assuming the story is true, let’s put it through the six ideas of love:
- Phaedrus’s love is not true because Alcibiades’s love changed forms.
- Pausanias’s love is not true because Alcibiades maintained two types of love at once.
- Eryximachus’s love is not true because Alcibiades was not in control of the direction of his love.
- Aristophanes’s love is not true because Alcibiades and Socrates had a love for each other, but the drives were not compatible as expected from two halves meeting.
- Agathon’s love is not true because Alcibiades’s love drives him to appreciate something better than love itself.
- Socrates’s love makes the most sense. Alcibiades started with love aimed at Socrates’s good looks. But he then climbed the ladder of love to now appreciate higher levels of beauty: Socrates’s soul and knowledge. Alcibiades’s love itself was not good, but it compelled him on a path to enjoy pure Beauty and produce the good.
Alcibiades puts is best:
If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they’d strike you as totally ridiculous… If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at this arguments. But if you see them when they open up… if you go behind their surface, you’ll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They’re truly worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They’re of great–no, of the greatest–importance fo anyone who wants to become a truly good man.The Symposium, p. 503
The Symposium is a masterful story rich with profound ideas. But only Socrates’s concept of love emerges as the victor in the battle for truth.