In Plato’s dialogues, it just so happens that Socrates gets to have the last word. In The Symposium, this works out to be either irritating or titillating, depending on how much patience you have. In this dialogue on love, various friends of Socrates come together at a drinking fest to offer speeches in praise of love. But all their speeches are somehow limited and incomplete and as you read, you can’ t help get the feeling that this can’ t be it and that you want something more, something more fulfilling and holistic that gives you the whole picture and not merely provides you with contradictory and confusing fragments. If you know anything about Socrates, you just know that he will put it all together somehow in a very pleasing way to make you say “Aha, yes that’ s it, that’ s the answer, that’ s the epiphany.” So if you have a lot of patience, you will be in a state of giddy anticipation. Otherwise you will be irritated at those other speakers that come before Socrates and delay him from finally revealing the mysteries of love.And now that we’ ve talked about the structure of the dialogue, we can start talking about its major theme, which actually, surprise, reflects the structure. Just like the fragmented and limited answers to what love is give way to Socrates’ complete conception of love, so does the very crux of what love is about come down to a conflict of limitation and completeness, fragmentation and wholeness, and lack and abundance.

So, let’ s first start with the fragments and the limited conceptions of love before we go on to see how they are completed and unified. The first speaker, Phaedrus, articulates love using the metaphor of a god that remedies the inherent lack of virtue in human beings by having a magical effect on the human heart. He says that love inspires courage because a male lover would be too ashamed to be reflected as a coward in the eyes of his beloved. (Note: In male relationships, the lover is the older man who appreciates his younger beautiful beloved/love for his physical beauty and perhaps also his intellectual curiosity.) Phaedrus goes on to say that if an army were made up of lovers and their loves, every soldier would be incredibly courageous because his motivation to be brave for the possessor of his heart would prevent him from abandoning his post in battle and deserting. As a prime example of this tendency, he cites Achilles from Homer’s Odyssey who gave up his life to avenge the death of his love partner, Patroclus. Thus, with this first speech, we see the introduction of the idea that normally limited and lacking courage becomes completely present and abundant due to the inspiration of love.

In the next ode to love by Pausanias, the theme of whole versus limited is carried over to the contrast between the love of the body and the love of the soul. The unstable and decaying body of a charming youth that attracts lovers will eventually pass the stage of its bloom much like a flower does and become ordinary as its beauty wanes. As the charms disappear, the lover abandons his beloved. A love of a beautiful and charming body is thus a limited love that is bound to end fairly quickly, probably in the course of a few years. The love of a youth for his noble soul on the other hand is bound to be longer lasting, since a noble soul will continue to develop its ideas and notions past the age when the youth is flowering and entrancing the lover with his alluring appearance. The contrast between the two types of love is best exemplified by the two goddesses of love. Aphrodite the younger, daughter of a male and a female god, represents the vulgar love of the body experienced by men towards women and beautiful youths. (Remember women were thought of as lacking intelligence, courage, and a sense of justice and temperance and therefore were only attractive for their body.) Aphrodite the older only has a male father, Uranus, and represents the love of men towards each other, a love based on the common respect for virtues such as courage, justice, and the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and truth. In this version of love, the lover helps the younger beloved learn about notions of the good so that he will grow up to be an upstanding young man. (The whole story on the link between love and knowledge will be given in Socrates’ own speech.) Long-term sustained love that is represented by Aphrodite the older, based on the spiritual quest for a good life, completes and fills out the hollow created by a vulgar physical love that is both shallow in its emphasis on appearance and just as temporary as the desired appearance itself.

While the conflict between limitation and completeness and fragmentation and wholeness has been touched upon with respect to human affairs, only in the speech of Eryximachus the doctor does it get articulated as an abstract principle for the first time. Eryximachus conceives of love as a force that harmonizes hostile elements within the human body to make them work together in harmony and produce health. Love is thus a force described in the metaphor of music. Originally, without harmony, notes of higher and lower pitch disagree and sound dissonant and ugly. Harmony makes them agree much like it reconciles fragmented and discordant short and long elements of rhythm and brings them into a state of unity. The metaphor of harmony, unity, and coherence applies to nature as well. The elements that nature consists of - hot, cold, moist, and dry, need love to harmonize them so that they don’t cause destruction. Without the force of love, the elements in the state of disharmony would cause “pestilence, hoarfrost, hail and blight.” Love as a harmonizing force is conceived by Eryximachus not only to embrace the domains of nature and medicine, but also the domains of human affairs, namely religion and morality. To make the first point about the need for love’ s harmonizing influence requires us to go back to medicine. This speech defines the role of a doctor as that of advising his patients to curb their appetites for the pleasures of drink, food, sex, and sport so that the patient doesn’t overstrain his body and damage it by excessively partaking in any of these pleasures. Thus the body’s own internal mechanism requires the virtue of temperance in order to maintain health, a virtue based on harmony since it advocates mixing pleasure in just the right proportions to get the optimal combination for health. The force of love can also restore the harmony between the opposing interests of gods and men. Love is in charge of the art of making sacrifices to gods that curry favor with them and align their actions to human interests; love, therefore, reconciles human actions with divine actions. To know what the gods expect of them, men need to make use of the art of divination and prophecy. Seers tell men what they must do to avoid divine curses or to make up for past sins so that the gods are on the side of men and bless them, for without divine accord all mortal plans will go awry. The goal here is to please the gods so that they won't thwart but instead will aid the plans of men.

As we move on from Eryximachus to the next speaker, Aristophanes, the themes of fragmentation versus wholeness, limitation versus completeness lose their sheen of conceptual abstraction and become embodied and concrete. Aristophanes sees each human being as limited and fragmented without love, not in terms of some kind of principle, but literally. He actually means that a couple united by the bonds of love is not just a coming together of two disparate individuals to live their lives together, but a restoration of human beings to their original primeval state. He proposes the theory or rather the myth that human beings were once round, circular beings with two heads on one neck, four feet and four hands that used their circular shape to roll around at great speed. However, they proved to be too strong and arrogant for the gods in this state, as they dared to ascend to heaven and challenge the divine ones. To ensure their security, the gods decided to split the human beings in two. The human beings of course couldn’ t bear to only live as a half so they immediately started seeking another half so that they could feel complete. To explain the desperate need of each human being to overcome the limitation of being only a half and to achieve wholeness, Aristophanes offers this pithy quote: “Each of us when separate, having one side only like a flat fish, is but the indenture of man and always looking for his other half.” Now of course, Aristophanes's myth accounts for all possible combinations of love relations between genders, while, if you've been reading thus far, unsurprisingly favoring the male-male relations. So, some men are born as parts of what originally would have been a primeval all male creature with two male parts. Both individuals that are the split parts of a male have a very manly nature and tend to be courageous, and in their union with each other reinforce and support each other’ s courageous nature. Incidentally, this point is similar to that made in the first ode of Phaedrus, who emphasized how love between males encourages both to be courageous, in that case however, the motivation behind the courage was not to lose face and honor in the eyes of the male love partner. Here, on the other hand, the men are assumed to be courageous by nature and to support each other’s brave deeds not by virtue of one being ashamed of disgracing themselves in front of the other, but simply because they are incomplete half-strong half-courageous beings when alone, but when together create a complete being who was originally so strong that he could ascend to the heavens and challenge the gods themselves. Upon meeting each other, the two feel so much like one that they would gladly give up their status as individuals and “grow together ..become a single man and after death depart as a single soul.” Oh, and of course, the male-male relationship is supposed to be based on mutually reinforcing virtue and not be sexual, much like in the speech of Pausanias. The sexual relationships that don’ t focus on virtues such as courage but on physical intimacy are left to those split male and female parts that want to restore their primeval androgynous state of being. (Note: One of the other virtues that these male relationships are supposed to embody and mutually reinforce is that of responsible and just statesmanship, but Aristophanes speech only provides a brief reference to this virtue. As for the women-women relations, no explanation is given whatsoever for their nature.)

In Agathon’s praise of love, the limitation that is remedied by love and turned into wholeness has nothing to do with bringing together separated parts of a single being, but rather with filling the vacuum of an empty soul with the inspiration brought by the spirit or daemon of love. Thus the spirit, of flexile form, is flexible and smooth enough to wind his way into the souls of men and dwell in them. All things that are graceful and beautiful owe their grace and beauty to the presence of the spirit of love within them. The most beautiful of all the gods, love gives birth to works of beauty in the souls of those he inhabits and is therefore responsible for all the poetry and the fine arts. However, love, the youngest god also is responsible for all the good works of the older gods. The older gods used to be ruled by the god of necessity that made them commit violent acts such as chaining and mutilating each other. Once they are ruled by the spirit of love, they are led to discover the practice of various arts under his guidance. With the inspiration of the god of love, Hephaestus discovered metallurgy, Athene discovered weaving, and Apollo discovered archery, medicine, and divination. If you think that Agathon is attributing to the god of love everything but the kitchen sink, then you are not alone in your criticism as Socrates himself will come to raise it. However, despite spanning a large domain of affairs, all of the men and gods blessed with the presence of love do receive similar benefits and not just random ones. The benefits are largely a gift of an intuition for the aesthetic and the sense of timing and just proportion (or in other words, harmony) that it inspires. Those with god of love in their soul will understand the aesthetic virtues of “delicacy, luxury, desire, fondness, softness, grace” along with a sense of proportion since the god of love is “exceedingly temperate” and “no pleasure ever masters him.” Just what the doctor Eryximachus would recommend as the recipe for health: the avoidance of overindulgence in pleasure. Thus love endows the weaver with the vision of the beautiful tapestry that she will be weaving, while providing the archer with the sense of timing to shoot his arrow at the right time. Those inspired by the god of love, whether they shoot, weave, or sing, won’ t do so with force and violence, as he abhors them, but with delicacy and grace. This means that their movement will be measured and timed perfectly and won’ t require undue exertion. A singer inspired by the god of love will breathe well and hit his or her notes without straining his or her voice and will never suffer from labored breathing and forced vocal acrobatics that tire his or her vocal cords.

It comes as no surprise that right after Agathon’ s speech, Socrates reflects on all that has been said about love by everyone by telling the other speakers that "You attribute to love every imaginable form of praise which can be gathered anywhere." Socrates objects to this approach because he rejects that love can be the treated as the cause of so many wonderful things. He promises to use his speech to establish the truth of what love is and therefore dispel some of the exaggerated claims about what love is responsible for. He defines love by recalling his conversation with the priestess Diotima who apparently taught him the correct ideas about love. One of the shocks that may somewhat shake the reader at this point in the dialogue is that the love is not supposed to fair and beautiful. This is because by definition love can only desire that which it does not have. Love of beauty, wisdom, and goodness is not necessary to the perfect beings who have them: the gods. The logic seems to be convincing. After all, he who dreams of breathing usually has an illness such as asthma that prevents him from doing so. People who breathe normally don’ t usually spend their time desiring and yearning to breathe. Gods who know all don’ t yearn for wisdom, but men do. Since, love is not a god, and not perfect, what is this spirit that is supposed to dwell in the hearts of men? According to Socrates and Diotima, he is the son of both Penia, the male god of poverty and Poros the female god of plenty, because Penia/Poverty came to bet at Aphrodite’ s birthday and got herself knocked up by Poros/Plenty who happened to be sleeping after drinking too much nectar that made him drowsy. From his father, Love acquired the characteristics of being poor and ugly. However, from his mother’ s side, he has the qualities of sorcerer and enchanter that enable him to acquire resources and riches and wisdom and love. Thus, an intermediate between the extremes of poor and plenty, he is flourishing and alive at one time and dead and barren at another time. The riches and wisdom and beauty that he acquires slip out of his possession and the quest to acquire them must begin anew.

With this conception of love, Socrates redefines the conflict between limitation and completeness inherent in the concept of love. Unlike the previous speakers, love isn’ t conceived of as a possessor of perfect beauty, wisdom, and harmony. It is not that perfect state of completeness that transcends all limitation. Love is a pursuer of beauty and wisdom that occasionally acquires them, but on a limited basis. Love reaches for the stars to pluck the divine and the perfect from their domain, but it only gets a limited amount of it and must keep on going back to get more and more to replenish its reserves. But Diotima the priestess doesn’t leave it at that, although to learn that much already seems like a lot to absorb. She builds on this concept of the lover as the pursuer to explain the mysteries of life in general. Now, as Love tries to bring some of the riches of the gods down to the earth, it is frustrated because it has to keep going back again and again to replenish. If you were to ask Love what it would want more than anything, it would probably say, I’d rather make one more trip and get all the beauty and wisdom that I will ever need and not have to come back again and again to refill my share. Hence, those inspired by the spirit of love, would be in the same limited condition as this spirit; wanting eternally-lasting goods like the gods, but getting get a limited share of them at a time, always coming back to emptiness and the need to refill.

To address this issue of beauty and wisdom always coming and going, Diotima points out that the only eternal beauty and wisdom human life offers is procreation. Love, in human life, is the attraction towards someone or something beautiful, with the goal to recreate this very object of beauty, before it expires and vanishes, in another being or object. Thus the reproductive force in animals is the force of love, love that desires to pass the beauty and the harmony inherent in one mortal being to another mortal being that will extend the existence of this beauty in time. With humans, of course, who unlike animals have wisdom and various virtues, it is these forms of beauty that procreation seeks to extend temporally. (Yes, virtues are beautiful. More on that later.) While human beings and animals can never possess their beauty, their wisdom eternally, the constant and unceasing birth of one human being from another extends the chain of life seemingly ceaselessly and thus enables humans to get a grasp on immortality and to leave behind beautiful, harmonious, and virtuous beings that last beyond their own lifetimes. As the priestess Diotima puts it : “Conception and generation are an immortal principle in a mortal creature.” But love doesn’ t only motivate those who are attracted by beauty to mate with its possessor. Beauty can be found and reborn on the level of ideas too. A male lover who sees a nascent moral and intellectual beauty in his beloved will impregnate this youth with beautiful ideas, all the while ignoring the potential temptations for physical love with said youth. (A point illustrated by Socrates’ relationship with Alcibiades, a youth who he fell “in love with” and chose to teach virtue to, but would not have sex with him despite Alcibiades frequent advances.) The seed planted by the mentor in the mind of the student will give birth to works of art or virtues of justice and courage that will allow the youth to positively impact the lives of many as a statesman and ruler or to defend the lives of his citizens as a warrior.

The male lover falls in love with a beautiful mind and sees it as fertile soil that could give birth to noble acts and noble creations. However, the lover also teaches his beloved to value intellectual beauty over physical beauty, much like he himself does. This expands on the notion of love of the soul versus that of the body as advocated in the earlier ode to love by Pausanias. The youth mounts from physical love to spiritual love in various steps. From seeing physical beauty incarnated in a specific instance, he grows to see it as a form in his mind and then he begins to perceive the abstract mental form of beauty as it is present in all things. Through the contemplation of the form of beauty and goodness in laws, human acts, and works of art, he will attain to the true view of beauty as an eternal imperishable principle constantly at work in all creation.

Thus, love is both limitation and completeness. It is the spirit that enables humans to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful and to embody it in their own acts and creations.An intermediate between mortals and immortals, he “bridges the chasm between gods and men.” Through him, gods learn of the desires of men as articulated in prayers and sacrifices performed at shrines and altars and men of the replies of the gods to their prayers. To be possessed by love is to turn to the gods and ask them to help you incarnate the beauty and wisdom you yearn for in earthly creations. (This point was already anticipated by Eryximachus.) The spirit of love brings a limited quantity of wisdom and creativity from the kingdom of the gods and delivers it to the mortals who manage to give birth to works of art like the Iliad and the Odyssey, to ideas such as the Athenian laws created by Solon, and to virtuous acts like the self-sacrifice of Achilles who dies to avenge the death of his lover Patroclus.

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