“Commemoration of Love, Friendship, and Women”
[[ This post is adapted with edits from the 2022 post ]]
Plato’s Symposium is a complex and beautiful dialogue. Most of the dramatic events take place in Athens at the house of Agathon, a tragedian playwright who recently won his first victory at the festival of “Lenaia,” which is held in honor of “Dionysus of the Winepress” (Dionyos Lênaios). We can pinpoint the intended dramatic date to Jan. 5th, 416 BCE (See the very bottom of the page for more detail on how this date is calculated).
I want to use this festival as “a commemoration of love, friendship, and women.” I’ll say a little on each of these in order to direct your thinking about the holiday and to inform your practice.
Love and Friendship
Plato’s Symposium is titled this because it centers around a “symposium” [from the Greek symposion—literally, ‘an event/place (-ion) for drinking (-pos-) together (sym-)’]. It should be noted that a symposium was both a drinking party and a private religious ceremony (having fun and being religious were certainly not mutually exclusive in ancient Greece).
The theme of the dialogue and the event it portrays is love (erôs). The word erôs means love in the sense of romantic love, and certainly included sexual passion (though not necessarily). Though some scholars want to make a sharp distinction between love (erôs) and friendship (philia), I think it’s best to think of the former as an extension of the latter—at least when reading Plato and the Stoics. Erôs is distinguished as an intensified version of philia, which can be categorized as an unhealthy emotion (pathos) or as a healthy emotion (eupatheia) depending on whether we align it with reason. Socrates’s speech on love seems to assure us that this can be done. [see Plato’s Lysis for a dialogue dedicated to the theme of philia]
The guests are good friends of Agathon, who is the host for the evening. They include Phaedrus, Pausanius, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Aristodemus, Socrates, and—later in the evening—Alcibiades.
These guests already had strong intimate relationships with each other by the time we find them at Agathon’s: Pausanias and Agathon were lovers; Eryximachus and Phaedrus were close friends; Aristophanes and Aristodemus were fellow-tribesmen; and Socrates and Alcibiades had a legendary relationship— lovers, military comrades, philosophers, tragic figures. To pass the time, all the guests are asked to give an encomium on love, the god known as ‘Eros’ by the Greeks (‘Cupid’ by the Romans). All of them oblige except for Aristodemus (who appears to have been skipped over) and Alcibiades (who gave an encomium on Socrates instead).
The speeches themselves run the gamut; they talk about love as one god, two gods, a natural force, a spirit (daimôn), and an abstract concept. There was as much disagreement about its qualities and ambivalence about its benefits in ancient times as there is in modern times.
The speech that Socrates gives is not quite Stoic, but he may be the closest to the Stoic position on love. Love is not good (that doesn’t mean it’s bad). Love is not beautiful (that doesn’t mean it’s ugly). Love is bad when it’s irrational, but can lead to beautiful things when it accords with reason—but only when we sublimate our desire for bodies to a desire for virtue.
IDEA FOR PRACTICE: Contemplate the love you have in all its manifestations (physical, intellectual, spiritual). Commit to never ignoring or repressing these feelings, but rather commit to finding ways to align them with your moral values. That is, take time to articulate what love looks like in the life to which you aspire.
Though this may seemed shoehorned into this holiday, it’s not meant to be. The ancient festival of Lenaia—as with all Dionysian festivals—is thought to have been a time where women can celebrate together without fear of persecution. It’s difficult to know how they celebrated considering the secrecy of the Dionysian Mysteries in which women were inducted. But there likely would have been many liberating and cathartic gatherings of women—drinking and dancing in symposia and bacchanals.
Perhaps Plato had this in mind when he had Socrates give his speech. In an endearing passage, Socrates admits that he is very self-conscious about his style of speaking (reminiscent of the first remarks he makes in the Apology). While other guests gave encomia on love demonstrating their rhetorical rather than their truth-telling abilities, Socrates would rather tell the truth about love as well as he could. This leads him quickly to correct Agathon and argue that love is not ‘good’ nor ‘beautiful’ strictly speaking. After his exchange with Agathon, Socrates gives a speech that he says originated with one of his teachers, a woman named Diotima.
If Diotima was real, then she would have given Socrates two of the most important lessons of his life. First, philosophy is literally ‘love’– love of wisdom, love of virtue, love of beauty. Second, insofar as you ‘love’ something, you cannot yet possess it; love is an activity of pursuit that ends with the possession of that which you pursue. Thus, philosophers do not yet possess wisdom, virtue, or beauty otherwise they would not be pursuing these things [only the Sage (sophos) has wisdom]. The implications of these lessons are powerful and explains why Socrates never admits that he has wisdom or virtue. He will only admit that he knows ‘the ways of love’ (erotikê) (Symposium 177e)
IDEA FOR PRACTICE: Feminist philosophers who promote an “ethics of care” recommend that we cultivate virtues that have often been neglected by those in power (i.e., intellectual, political, and religious authorities, often men). Instead, these virtues have historically been fostered by women in the course of their domestic duties: empathy, sensitivity, discernment, cooperation. More complex virtues associated with childcare include a disposition toward ‘preservative love’ (work of protection with cheerfulness and humility), a disposition towards fostering growth (sponsoring or nurturing a child’s development), and a disposition towards training for social acceptability (a process of socialization that requires conscience and a struggle for authenticity). If you think you’ve neglected these virtues, how can you rectify this? Remember that the goal is to be a well-rounded human being regardless of gender—rational and good. To that end, contemplate on whether you’ve neglected certain character traits because of cultural expectations around your gender. Think of ways you can cultivate those traits more deliberately.
Foreshadow: Tragedy in Comedy
There’s one last theme that I would like to mention.
The year that symposium takes place, 416 BCE, would have had significance for contemporary readers. Within a year, three of the party-members—Phaedrus, Eryximachus (along with his father), and Alcibiades—would be accused of sacrilege. Soon afterwards, Alcibiades would be leading Athens on the notorious Sicilian Expedition, only to be recalled and forced into exile. In seventeen years, Socrates himself would be charged with impiety and executed (a fact that readers are reminded of throughout Alcibiades’ speech as he ‘accuses’ Socrates, calls ‘witnesses’ against him, and appeals to the ‘jury’).
Do these facts cast a shadow over the merry-making and affection they show each other in the Symposium? Or is the message that we all will experience tragedy and death, yet that should not detract from enjoying life? Does Socrates exemplify how we should all make the most of the time we have—by not getting belligerent and forgetful but, rather, being persistent in our pursuit of truth and virtue? I think Socrates would like us to think that tragedy and comedy are one and the same thing as evident of the last scene in the dialogue:
[Aristodemus] awoke towards dawn, as the cocks were crowing; and immediately he saw that all the company were either sleeping or gone, except Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates […] ; and Socrates was arguing with them. […] the substance of it was, he said, that Socrates was driving them to the admission that the same man could have the knowledge required for writing comedy and tragedy—that the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well. While they were being driven to this, and were but feebly following it, they began to nod; first Aristophanes [the comedian] dropped into a slumber, and then, as day began to dawn, Agathon [the tragedian] also. When Socrates had seen them comfortable, he rose and went away,—followed in the usual manner by my friend [Aristodemus]; on arriving at the Lyceum, [Socrates] washed himself, and then spent the rest of the day in his ordinary fashion; and so, when the day was done, he went home for the evening and reposed.223c–d
IDEA FOR PRACTICE: Treat every day as special and every day as ordinary. Recall to mind that your life is a tragedy by definition—it will end in death—but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a comedy as well—it will end in happiness.
At the very least, you should read some of the Symposium. It’s moderately long, so if you’re short on time, just read sections 193e-212c for the philosophical essence. Here are all the sections with my recommendations. Of course, readers get the full impact of the work when they read it from beginning to end.
- Read sections 172a-175e (for background): Apollodorus’ and Aristodemus’s Prologues
- Read sections 176a-177e (for background): Speech-giving Preliminaries
- Skip sections 178a-189b (read to detect later references and ring structure of dialogue): Encomia on Love by Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Eryximachus
- Skip sections 189c-193d (read to detect later references and to appreciate its beauty… and if you’re a fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch): Aristophanes’s Folktale on Love
- Read sections 193e-212c (for its philosophical substance): Agathon’s encomium on love up to the end of Socrates’s teachings of Diotima)
- Read [if time allows] section 212d-223a (for its insight into Socrates the man): Alcibiades’s Antics and Encomium on Socrates
- Read 223b-223d (for closure): Epilogue
Here’s more detail about the calculations for the date.
Athenaeus of Naucratis (3rd Century CE) in Bk. 5 of his Deipnosophistae sets the date of Agathon’s first victory with his first tragedy as the Linaean festival of the 4th year of the 90th Olympiad, which would correspond to 416 BCE. This corresponds with the two in-text support we have: (A) The festivities seem to take place during Lenaia (the 12th day of the month of Gamêliôn) since Agathon mentions Dionysus at 175e, Aristodemus mentions that it was a long winter’s night at 223c, and Lenaia is the only Dionysian festival that took place during winter; and (B) the events certainly took place after the Peace of Nicias (421 BCE) but before the Sicilian Expedition (415 BCE) that led to Alcibiades’s exile since Alcibiades is there himself to recount Socrates’s courage during the first half of the Peloponnesian War at 219e-221c. Since Athenaeus’s date hasn’t been seriously disputed by the scholarship, I think it’s reasonable to adopt that date and year: 12 Gamêliôn, 416 BCE. If use data on summer solstices and moon phases during the 417-416 BCE solar year (the Attic Calendar was lunisolar) and extend the Julian calendar backwards, the 12th day of Gamêliôn in 416 BCE fell on Jan. 5th.
Careful readers will note that the symposium that Socrates attended actually took place the day after Lenaia as reported at 174a. This would mean that the dramatic events took place on Jan. 6th—a notable day for Western Christians (Epiphany) and, since 2020, for all Americans. I decided against shifting the date so that Stoics and philosophers can have more space to contemplate Plato’s Symposium.
Allen, R.E. (1991). The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. II: The Symposium. Yale University Press.
Hannah, R. (2005). Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of time in the classical world. Bristol Classical Press.
Nails, D. (2002). The People of Plato: A prosopography of Plato and other Socratics. Hackett Publishing Company.
Parke, H.W. (1986). Festivals of the Athenians. Cornell University Press.
Scullard, H.H. (1981). Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Cornell University Press.