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Plato - Philosopher: On Love

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Plato - Philosopher
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The Greek philosopher Plato wrote three main works in the 4th Century BC dealing with the theme of Love - Lysis, The Symposium, and Phaedrus. The type of love in Athens that Plato mostly considers is that of older men (lovers) who are attracted to young men (beloveds).


In this book, Plato writes that the philosopher Socrates meets an acquaintance, Hippothales. Hippothales is in love with Lysis, but is not sure that his beloved loves him. He has tried wooing Lysis with poetry and praises, and now he asks Socrates for advice. Socrates meets Lysis, and instead of complimenting him, Socrates questions him about what he knows and does not know. Together they deduce that Lysis does not have an inflated view of his own beauty or talents (even though Hippothales praised him) which is good.

Lysis is then joined by his friend Menexenus, and they discuss with Socrates the nature of friendship and its relationship to love. Socrates tries various arguments, thinking about whether lovers and their beloveds are friends, then considering whether friendship arises from like-mindedness or from opposites attracting, but he is dissatisfied with all the results. In the end, Lysis and Menexenus have to go home and no definitive conclusion is reached about the true nature of friendship.

The Symposium

This book is considered to be one of the best constructed of Plato's works in relation to its development of the single topic under discussion. It also sets the scene well, linking the philosophical arguments together in an amusing narrative. It commences in an impressively convoluted way, designed to emphasise the authenticity of the story. Apollodorus (a friend of Socrates) is telling a tale about a party which Socrates attended. Apollodorus mentions that he has already told the tale two days earlier to his acquaintance Glaucon. Apollodorus had heard about the event from Aristodemus (a devoted follower of Socrates) who had been at the party, and he tells the tale as Aristodemus told it to him.

Aristodemus began his tale at the point when he met Socrates, freshly bathed and dressed ready to go out to a drinking party - the Symposium of the title. The host was Agathon, who was holding the party to celebrate winning at the Athenian Dionysia festival competition with his tragic play1. One guest, a physician called Eryximachus, proposes that the flute girl who was to entertain the party be sent away and the guests should amuse themselves with conversation instead. He also proposes that the topic of conversation should be love (as another guest, Phaedrus, often mentions the subject to him and wishes to praise the god of love).

Phaedrus Starts the Discussion

Phaedrus takes his turn first as he is sitting on the left. He argues that love is beneficial, as lovers each strive to avoid dishonour so that their loved one can admire them. He gives the examples of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus, who offered to die so that her husband could live, and Achilles, who avenged the death of his lover Patroclus, even though he was killed himself as a result.

Pausanias Defines Two Types of Love

Several other guests give speeches, but they are not memorable to Aristodemus, so the next speech that is recorded is that of Pausanias, Agathon's lover. He starts his argument more rigorously, by first defining love - he identifies two types, heavenly and common love. Common love is defined as being more to do with satisfaction of physical desires, and may have young men or women as its objects of affection. It may or may not be good in the way that Phaedrus describes. Heavenly love is directed towards young men who are old enough to demonstrate intelligence rather than good looks. Such love is beneficial, as the lovers aim to do good things for their beloveds, and the beloveds become better people as a result. Physical affection between the beloved and the lover is encouraged by Pausanias as the reward for the lover's attention. Common love fades when the beloved's beauty fades, but heavenly love leads to lasting friendship.

Eryximachus Gives the Physician's Viewpoint

Aristophanes, the famous comedy playwright, is sitting to the right of Pausanius, but he has the hiccups, so Eryximachus is the next to speak2. He defines love more broadly than just relating to lovers and the young men they admire - his love encompasses animals, plants, the gods and even the stars. He also relates love to medicine - in his view physicians work by removing the wrong kind of love from ill people's bodies and replacing it with noble love, or causing parts of the body that are not working in harmony to love one another.

Aristophanes Tells of the Myth of Double People

Aristophanes jokes that his hiccups were cured by Eryximachus' suggestion of sneezing, but he doesn't know what kind of love wanted that sensation. His speech considers where the power of love comes from. He describes the myth of how people used to be double, essentially two people joined together and facing away from each other, with four arms and four legs, so they could cartwheel around as well as walk upright. People were male, female or hermaphrodite. Their pride angered the gods, so the people were cut in two, and the halves were either male or female.

As a result, people yearn for their other halves. When people who were parts of a hermaphrodite (a male and a female) meet, children are born. When two males meet and embrace, their physical desires are satisfied, so they are free to take part in other activities, such as politics. Devoted love and lifelong partnership arises when people find their true other halves, so love is a good thing as it encourages people to strive towards their earlier, superior, state of existence.

Agathon Describes the God of Love

Agathon's turn is next. He describes the god of love himself, which the other speakers did not do. Agathon asserts that the god is beautiful and nimble, able to sneak into (and out of) people before they know it. He is also non-violent and self-controlled, so mutual consent to love is a good thing, and he is wise, as his presence makes people become poets and artists.

Socrates Speaks

At last it is Socrates' turn, and he says he is unable to praise love in an artistic way as the others did, but he will speak the truth. He begins by questioning Agathon and deduces that love is love of something that is desired but not possessed, so love is neither beautiful nor good. Socrates then relates something that he learned from Diotima, his 'instructress in the art of love'.

She explained that just because love is neither beautiful nor good, it is also not necessarily ugly and bad, because there is a state in between the two extremes. Similarly love is neither mortal nor immortal and provides a link between humans and the gods. Love inspires in men the desire to reproduce. Reproduction is not only related to producing children with women the men find attractive, and caring for the children so that they outlive their parents and create a kind of immortality. It is also related to producing spiritual things, such as courage, poetry and laws, that will outlive their creator and again yield immortality. The midwife helping creativity to reproduce is beauty in the form of friendship and affection for a beautiful person with a beautiful soul.

Diotima then describes the ideal path of love, which even Socrates may not be able to follow. Love of a particular young man who is physically beautiful produces spiritual creativity, and then the love is generalised to the physical beauty in everyone. Next the love is extended to beauty in people's souls, and enables the lover to bring forth creativity in young people who may or may not be physically attractive. As a result the love is generalised to creativity itself, including activities such as science. The final beauty that is encompassed by the love, if all previous steps are followed, is the ideal form of beauty that is unchanging and enduring and which all other beautiful things are inspired by. Contemplation of this beauty would bring forth creativity of the best and truest kind.

Alcibiades Praises Socrates

After Socrates finishes his speech, Alcibiades, an Athenian politician, arrives at the party and sits between Agathon and Socrates. He is invited to give a speech on love, but instead decides to praise Socrates.

Alcibiades likens Socrates to Silenus and Marsyas. They, like Socrates, loved beautiful young men, but they were not considered attractive themselves, being short and having a bald head and snub nose. However, they could charm people with their music - Socrates' music being his speeches. In his youth, Alcibiades knew Socrates loved him because he took pride in his appearance, and he wanted Socrates to become his lover, but the philosopher exerted self-control - they wrestled together at the gymnasium and slept on the same couch, but Socrates behaved towards Alcibiades only like a father or a brother, which increased the boy's devotion to him. The two later served together in the army, and Socrates saved Alcibiades when he was wounded. The physical wounds healed, but the wounds in his soul that Socrates caused with his philosophy, that made Alcibiades think, are still there.


This book is a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus and mostly takes place under the shade of a tree in the countryside outside Athens. It commences with Phaedrus reading a speech by another philosopher, Lysias, that he had heard earlier that day.

The speaker had argued that people who are admired by people who do not love them are better off than people who are admired by people who are in love with them. Phaedrus praises the speech and asks if anyone else could possibly speak about the subject better than that. Socrates is hence persuaded to give a speech on the same subject, with a more rigorous argument in favour of the hypothesis.

After doing so, Socrates experiences his 'divine voice' (something that he heard on more than one occasion and which prevented him from proceeding with a particular action). He realises that he has been mistaken in disparaging love so completely. To make amends, he gives a second speech saying that love may be a kind of madness, but that does not make it a bad thing. He also describes the soul as being a charioteer in charge of two horses, one well-behaved and the other unruly. The best souls grow wings and can fly up to the gods and see the true forms of beauty and knowledge. Other souls are stuck on the surface of the earth so are unaware of reality, and better souls can sometimes fly and sometimes not, so they have glimpses of truth.

If love of a beautiful person can be extended to considering the ideal form of beauty, then that helps the soul's wings to grow. When the beautiful person is not there to inspire the love, the feathers are unable to grow out, and cause the lover pain that others see as madness - the pain is also pleasure, as it reminds the lover about the beauty of the beloved. Together the lover and beloved strive and help each other to be more like their favourite gods. If the charioteers of their souls can manage the horses in the right way, the beloved falls in love with the lover and also starts to grow wings. Both partners benefit in a way that they would not do if they were not in love.

After criticising the substance of the speech by Lysias, the conversation then turns to the way in which he composed the speech, and hence criticises the art of rhetoric. That then leads Socrates to explain that true rhetoric blends skill in speaking (including being able to tailor an argument to each type of audience) with a sound philosophical grounding. Finally, Socrates discusses writing: he considers it inferior to question and answer for educating people. A written text says only one thing and can't help if the reader doesn't understand it. Writers and speech makers should strive, not for audience appreciation, but for love of wisdom.

1The idea of a competition between plays seems odd to modern tastes, but it was normal in ancient Athens.2This device ensures that the arguments proceed in a logical order building up to Socrates' turn.

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