Gathered to celebrate Agathon’s victory at the theatre, a group of men discuss how to entertain themselves. Having had too much to drink the night before, they decide to give speeches about love. In other words, having physically experienced the effects of eros, they now decide to ascend from the physicality of their desire to the realm of thought, seeking to explain the nature of what they felt in the pure realm of ideas.
This theme, of ascending from the physical and finite world to the intelligible realm of eternal ideas, permeates the argument of Plato’s Symposium. Time and time again, however, the men fall away from their lofty speeches about the god of love and back into the particularity of their desire. For instance, it soon becomes clear that all of these men have crafted their speeches for a particular member of the gathered audience, their own beloved. In this, they hope to impress, persuade and even seduce one another with the ultimate goal not being the pleasure of more speeches, but the more obvious pleasure of their bodies.
The last two speakers of the dialogue both highlight this tension and also show a possible resolution. In his speech, one that he was taught by Diotima, Socrates describes a ladder of love. All individuals, he says, desire to have and produce the beautiful. This, he notes, is indicative of a yearning we have to grow closer to the gods. Seeking to be eternal, we are drawn to leave something of ourselves behind after our deaths, achieving thereby a kind of immortality. The more beautiful and better our children, the greater our legacy. Each rung on the ladder of love represents a different object of our desire and a different kind of off-spring, with those higher on the ladder being of greater beauty, greater truth and greater endurance.
One thus ascends from mere physical love and the resultant children, to the creation of virtue, poetry and laws. At the top of the ladder, the persistent lover discovers the ultimate object of desire – the Beautiful itself.
Just as when you climb a very tall ladder, following Socrates as he ascends in speech can be exhilarating. One rises from rung to rung, anticipating even greater delights the higher one goes, until, finally, all of one’s desires have been fulfilled. In the dialogue, however, we are brought crashing back down with the appearance of Alcibiades who enters the room at the climax of the discussion loudly declaring that he “is plastered.” Alcibiades, who brings with him all of the trappings of lust, goes on in rather explicit terms to describe the object of his love – Socrates. The man who pursued him, seduced him, and then dropped him all without consummating their relationship. Alcibiades now burns with desire for Socrates and no mere speech will be sufficient to satisfy him.
Given that we know that historically this is the same night that Alcibiades desecrates sacred statues and holy rites before sailing off to Sicily where he eventually betrays Athens and joins the Spartans in war against his homeland, the audience knows that Alcibiades’s heightened desire comes with dangerous consequences. Having climbed at least some of the ladder with Socrates, Alcibiades seeks glory and thus immortality, regardless of who he hurts or leaves behind. We are thereby reminded that as we ascend Socrates’s ladder of all that we would seemingly leave behind: friends, lovers, and even children, all those who are stuck in the realm of the body and unable to pursue the “greater pleasures”of the mind. Read in this way, Alcibiades’s treachery would seem to be a consequences of Socrates’s teaching.
This, however, is only half of the story. For while we climb a ladder to reach the top and thus anticipate what is ahead, at the same time, the higher we go we gain a better view of what is below us, of what we have seemingly left behind. At the top of the ladder we gain a vision of the beautiful. Socrates says this is the ephemeral form of Beauty itself, but perhaps what he means is the view we now have of all our friends, lovers and even children below gathered together revealing to us all that is good and beautiful in the world. The more we contemplate the nature of the beautiful, the more we are reminded of the goodness and beauty of the people we love and so moved to love them better.
Alcibiades complains that Socrates has seen through him and now left him behind. In some real way he accuses Socrates of the the terrible things that he himself is about to do. And perhaps there is some truth to this. At the same time, however, we see that it is Alcibiades who has been striving to climb this ladder. He is not content to spend the night with his friends, talking about love and participating in the small pleasures of their life together. Alcibiades does not merely want Socrates’s love, for if he did, he would stay with him. Alcibiades wants the whole world to know who he is. It is not Socrates who has left Alcibiades behind. Instead, Alcibiades leaves everyone and everything behind. In so doing, he does not discover beauty, but rather comes to the end of the ladder and finds that nothing and no one supports it. He thus falls away and, having climbed so high, his descent seems eternal.
The dialogue might thus seem tragic. In yet another light, however, it is hopeful. The world in which we live, like Alcibiades, participates in betrayal and destruction. Things and people come into existence and then, just as quickly it seems, they cease to be and we are left behind. Yet, in even Alcibiades’s deficient love of Socrates, we are reminded that even in the midst of his betrayal that he can be moved in love for beauty. And if this is possible of Alcibiades, for whom isn’t it possible?