Symposium Essay Questions

  • 1

    Plato's text deals with the complex question of Love. What is Love? How do you achieve it? What is loved? What is Love's purpose?

    Love is in between mortal and immortal, in between beauty and ugliness, and in between wisdom and ignorance. To achieve it, one must complete Diotima’s “Ladder of Love,” to achieve its purpose of giving birth to true virtue, having seen Beauty. Not all accomplish this, but reproduction in body or soul achieve the purpose of Love as well. Interpersonal relationships, that of the lover and beloved, are important in discussing love as well.

  • 2

    What is the relationship between Diotima and Alcibiades’ speech? Why is his entrance significant? How do the first five speeches differ from Diotima’s and Alcibiades’? How are they similar?

    Alcibiades’ entrance juxtaposes the comedic elements of the book against its most serious moment--Diotima’s speech. His speech likens Socrates to Eros, describing Socrates in the way Diotima described Eros. Diotima’s speech reconciles all the contradictions found in the previous five speeches. Alcibiades’ deals on a different subject: praising Socrates. However, all touch on Love and its virtues.

  • 3

    What is function of the frame narrative (Aristodemus told Apollodorus who told a friend...) set up by Plato? Why does he go out of his way to set up this structure?

    The frame narrative distances the reader from the philosophical ideas, so as to reduce the authority of the speakers. They are not meant to be taken as absolute conclusions. It also emphasizes how serious philosophy can be lighthearted, making it more accessible. The layer separating the reader from Diotima also serves to imply that this speech has Plato’s views on love, not Socrates’.

  • 4

    Describe Diotima’s “Ladder of Love.” What does it encompass? What is its ultimate purpose?

    The “Ladder of Love” has multiple steps. First, a person loves one body, and then he finds beauty in all bodies. After this, he must appreciate the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of activities and laws, or customs, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom, which is philosophy. Upon reaching this, the lover will see Beauty in its pure form, and give birth not to an image of virtue, but true virtue.

  • 5

    Describe the nature of the lover/beloved structure in relationships. What is the importance of the relationships between adult and adolescent males in the text and how are they portrayed?

    These relationships are praised as the highest, even though they were under complex customs in Athens, possibly carrying stigma. Male adults and male adolescents in these affairs were described as lovers of pure knowledge. However, they could be praised highly or still take part in vulgar love, according to Pausanias’, depending on their actions.

  • 6

    How is Socrates portrayed in the dialogues?

    Socrates is likened to Eros by Alcibiades in his speech. Several likenesses are paralleled: being between mortal and immortal, in between beauty and ugliness, and in between wisdom and ignorance. Aristodemus’ description of him on their way to Agathon’s also has similarities with Diotima’s description of Love.

  • 7

    What role does homosexuality play in the text? Engage with ideas in the speeches and relationships among the characters.

    This work is the first major philosophical novel to deal on questions of love in Western literature, increasing the importance of having male sexuality praised as the highest form of love. At the time, these relationships, though common, were still complex. Male homosexual relationships are described as being the purest and only males are able to be pregnant in soul and finish the ladder of love. Alcibiades and Socrates’ relationships particularly illustrate the ideas in Diotima’s speech.

  • 8

    What is the role of women in the dialogues? Why is Diotima important?

    Women were generally not present at symposiums, other than as servants, slaves, and flute-girls, and in this case, they were all sent away. Women are also not described as being able to accomplish pure love or Diotima’s ladder. This makes Diotima’s creation by Socrates ironic, especially since she has the highest level of reasoning and leaves the guests in awe.

  • 9

    Why does the final dialogue deal with questions of tragedy and comedy as a genre? How are the two reflected in the text?

    The novel has shifts in tone and genre, particularly evident in the switch of Agathon, a tragedian who gives a comical speech, and Aristophanes, a comic poet who gives a serious speech. This provides serious philosophy in a fun way. It also serves to humanize Socrates, so the reader can think that the qualities of Love he possesses are accessible. Socrates also says in the final dialogue that tragedy and comedy must both be mastered, which is probably an idea Plato wanted to reflect.

  • 10

    Describe and explain the dichotomies in the text.

    The most important dichotomy created is Pausanias’: Common and Heavenly Love. Others include comedy (Aristophanes) vs. tragedy (Agathon), physical vs. spiritual, and drunk vs. sober. Some speakers depend on these more than others, but contradictions run throughout the text, and can be reconciled, as the five speeches are in Diotima’s speech.

  • The story we hear comes from Apollodorus, addressing an unnamed companion. He tells a story he once told to Glaucon and which he was told by Aristodemus. Glaucon had also heard a version of the story. What is the purpose of all these complex framing devices?

    Two answers to this question readily present themselves. One is that these framing devices serve to show the great level of general interest in the symposium. Years after the fact, people are still talking about it and wanting to hear about it. This prepares us for an event of great importance. The other is to distance the narration from the truth of the actual event. Plato wants to make clear that he is inventing most of the story, and not directly reporting factual events. This distancing from the truth also helps to emphasize a central theme, that the truth is something that we must struggle toward.

    What is the distinction between lover and loved one, and how does this distinction play itself out in the different speeches?

    Sexual relationships in ancient Athens were generally viewed asymmetrically. The lover is the active partner in the relationship and the loved one is the passive partner. In male-female relationships, the man is always the lover and the woman the loved one. In male-male relationships, the lover is usually the older man who pursues the loved one, a younger, beautiful man. The lover normally receives more sexual gratification, and in exchange rewards the loved one with gifts, money, prestige, and wisdom. Many of the speakers (Phaedrus, Pausanias, Agathon, and Socrates most notably) present versions of this relationship as the ideal of love. Agathon presents love from the perspective of the loved one, which is significant as he is the passive partner in his relationship with Pausanias. Socrates presents love from the perspective of the lover, which is significant, as he is an older man who spends a great deal of time associating with, and sharing wisdom with, handsome youths. Interestingly, we find the lover/loved one dynamic largely absent in Aristophanes.

    Socrates asserts, against Agathon, that Love is a relational property. What does this mean, and what philosophical significance does it bear?

    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.

    Compare and contrast the speeches of Aristophanes and Agathon. What elements of comedy can you find in Aristophanes, and what elements of tragedy can you find in Agathon?

    What role does Diotima play in the dialogue? Why is she introduced?

    What does one find at the end of the ascent that Diotima details when discussing the final mysteries? What is the nature of this thing?

    What role does Alcibiades play in the dialogue and what is the significance of his sudden appearance near the end?

    In what ways does Socrates represent the idealized version of the lover as given in Diotima's account?

    Whose speech do you find the most compelling? Is the account given by Socrates/Diotima satisfactory? What weaknesses might it contain?

    Why is Socrates presented as immune to the effects of alcohol and fatigue and disinterested in sex?


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