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Plato’s Symposium: Love and Philosophy

by October 9, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Plato is regarded by many as the world’s greatest philosopher. In his dialogues, he examined everything from the nature of reality, to ethics, to beauty, to the state. The Symposium, which you can read in full here, is the summation of Plato’s ideas on love, and have proven very influential.

The main character in the dialogues is the great philosopher Socrates, who inspired Plato. Scholars have been trying to understand for centuries which of the ideas expressed in the Platonic dialogues are Plato’s and which are Socrates’.

A modern rendition of Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach

The Symposium

The Symposium was named after the cultural and social practice of the same name, which was a post-banquet gathering in which men would drink, listen to music, and relax. Typically, there was a great deal of conversation and witty talk. Guests would drink too much and would say things they would never say. The events portrayed in the Symposium dialogue took place in 385 BC. In the text, there are seven speakers, all based on historical characters.

Marble bust of Plato, a copy of the portrait made ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens

Characters in the Symposium

It is important to understand the characters in the dialogue in order to understand the philosophical arguments put forward by Plato.

Phaedrus was an Athenian aristocrat and a friend of Socrates. Pausanias was a legal professional and Eryximachus was a physician. The great comic playwright Aristophanes was also present at the banquet.

The host of the banquet was Agathon, a tragic playwright. Socrates is also present, as is Alcibiades, the notorious Athenian politician and general who played such a prominent role in the Peloponnesian War.  They all offer different definitions of Love.

Detail of Agathon from Feuerbach’s “The Symposium of Plato,” second version, 1873

The speeches

Like all the Platonic dialogues, the work, which is very literary, consists mainly of speeches. Socrates arrives at the party late because he had been lost in contemplation. Agathon invites his guests, to make a speech in praise of love.

Phaedrus goes first. He quotes some poets and argues that Love was the first of the gods and promotes excellence and goodness in people. He argued that there is also a lower sort of love, one based on desire and sexual gratification. Then there is a kind of divine love which involves a lover teaching his beloved virtue and wisdom.

Next spoke the doctor, Eryximachus, who says love is moderation and balance.

Next up is Agathon, who gave an elaborate speech arguing that love is the youngest of the gods. The object of love, according to Agathon, is nothing less than beauty.

Alcibades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1776

Socrates then spoke. He disagreed with Agathon, stating that he mistook the object of love with its intrinsic nature. He then told the following story: He once met a wise woman, who called herself Diotima. Love was a spirit, Socrates learned, that helped us to attain what we desired and needed. It is a spirit or daimon and it mediates between the gods and men, reproducing itself either through the birth of new beings or new ideas. 

Socrates held that the world of the senses is based on Forms which exist in an eternal realm. Thus, love is the desire or spirit which lifts the human soul to the knowledge of the Forms.

The Forms were the essence of things from which flow what we perceive as reality; they are called ‘ideas’ in some translations. One of the most important Forms was the form of beauty, and Socrates said love can guide a person to its contemplation.

He showed how love can help the human mind ascend to a higher, eternal realm, one beyond the temporal world of the senses.

At this point, the notorious Alcibiades, who is very drunk and rowdy, butted in.  He interrupted everyone to tell them how he tried to seduce Socrates.

In Ancient Greece, sexual relationships between males were tolerated, and those between an older man and a younger man were considered praiseworthy. Alcibiades’ story showed that Socrates had no interest in sexual pleasure. The party becomes chaotic and disorderly. Soon everyone passed out, except the philosopher, who left and went about his business.

Alcibiades vs. Pleasure

Socrates dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1791

Platonic Love

The Symposium is very important in the philosophical tradition. In the work, Plato rejected the idea that love is about desire and sexual gratification. However, many of the speeches make valid points about love, and each one can be seen as taking us nearer the truth.

For Socrates, love was a spirit that helps a person better understand the fundamental nature of reality, or Forms. In the dialogue, Plato, vis-a-vis Socrates, argued the highest love is the philosopher’s love of the truth, contained in the Forms.

This love of the truth is what distinguishes the philosopher. This is what is known as Platonic Love: a love that unites souls by uniting them with the truth.


The Symposium is among the most beautiful of the philosophical dialogues written by Plato, and it is very readable. It is one of the most important texts on love, and it provides insight into Plato’s philosophical system.

Wine as pharmakon: Persian drinking in the Histories

by October 7, 2020

Written by Ronan McLaverty-Head, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Herodotus tells us that the Persians were “very partial to wine,” something he illustrates with the following anecdote:

“If an important decision is to be made, they [the Persians] discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk” (Histories 1: 133).

Herodotus’s depiction here of a particularly Persian type of in vino veritas is part of a repertoire of stereotypes about Persian wine drinking in the Histories. As usual with Herodotus, the question of “truth” versus “lies” is hard to determine, especially when modern concepts of history do not easily apply to his work.

A Persian rhyton (drinking vessel). Source: Wikipedia

Because the consumption of food and drink is a mostly mundane part of the human experience, its role as a semiotic device makes us likely to miss the socio-cultural meanings it often carries.

A humble family meal, Thanksgiving dinner, fast food, ritual feasting, a trip to the pub, a wine-tasting party, State banquets – these are all settings where food and drink symbolize something more than just simply eating and drinking.

The preparation, presentation, and consumption of food and drink in a social setting can be egalitarian or profoundly hierarchical, fostering both social cohesion and competition.   

How something like wine is consumed, for example—and by whom and for what purpose—mattered a great deal to writers across the ancient world.

In the Hebrew Bible, wine also often serves as a proxy for foolishness. In Proverbs 21:17 we are told that, “he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.”

The Bible’s moralistic turn here against wine is similar to Herodotus’s view of Persian opulence symbolized by drinking. Like the writer of the Proverb, Herodotus wants to remind his audience that luxury and lasciviousness are a sign of weakness that will ultimately lead to downfall. The point seems to be that while the Greeks drink wine, they don’t drink it like the Persians.

Pottery showing Dionysus drinking Wine

Drinking wine in the undiluted Persian way (the Greeks diluted their wine) is what Herodotus is decrying in the Histories. He is right to note the importance of wine in Persia, but in relaying amusing anecdotes about drunken symposiums, he fully misses its importance in wider Persian society.

For the Achaemenids, luxury was often symbolized by wine and it publicly expressed the power of the kings. In sharing it with others, the kings demonstrated their largesse. In this, the Persians were no different from their Near-Eastern forebears.

The wider Near Eastern culture provides many similar examples of lavish commensality. Among the first are those from ancient Mesopotamia. In the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic period, royal commensality was used to support the elite classes’ position in society by emphasizing and elaborating social distinctions, reinforcing intra-group bonds, and distinguishing the elite group from others.

For example, the famous Royal Standard of Ur depicts an elite banquet. Extravagant feasts such as these (and their artistic display) reinforced the elite status of the king and his court while establishing that there was a hierarchy in the court itself  (on the Standard, the king is shown conspicuously larger than his fellow diners). It also served to show the lower classes the social and political distance between them and their rulers.

Banquet scene on the Royal Standard of Ur. Source: Wikipedia.

The Standard, the feasts, and the extravagant palaces that housed them were deliberate messages of power, aimed both at an illiterate public and an elite seeking to secure its privileged position.

This understanding of the wider context of wine drinking suggests that even if it is true that the Persians made important decisions while drunk, Herodotus ultimately misses the point about wine: its consumption was not about decadence or drunkenness but instead served to display elite power and establish intra-group bonding.

Herodotus once again proves useful in shining a light on Persian culture, but not necessarily in the way he intended.

Can Stoicism Offer a Practical Guide on How to Live Now?

by September 24, 2020

Can Ancient Philosophy provide real life solutions in our Modern times?
One of the keynote speakers to Classical Wisdom’s inaugural Online Symposium, the brilliant philosopher, prominent Stoic and hugely popular author, Massimo Pigliucci, says Yes.
(For those who aren’t already familiar with Professor Pigliucci – he is quite the polymath! Born in Liberia, Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology and Philosophy and his research interests include the philosophy of science and the practical philosophy of Stoicism.)
Not only that, he goes one step further to illuminate the way in his latest book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life.
For more than two thousand years, Stoicism has offered a message of resilience in the face of hardship. Little wonder, then, that it is having such a revival in our own troubled times.
In A Field Guide to a Happy Life, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci offers a renewed Stoicism that reflects modern science and sensibilities. Pigliucci embraces the joyful bonds of affection, the satisfactions of a job well done, and the grief that attends loss. In his hands, Stoicism isn’t about feats of indifference, but about enduring pain without being overwhelmed, while enjoying pleasures without losing our heads.
In short, he makes Stoicism into a philosophy all of us — whether committed Stoics or simply seekers — can use to live better.