Both Agathon and Socrates speak of Love in terms of the highest reverence, as we find in Plato’s Symposium. But Socrates is not only reverent, he also understands the inner essence of Love. The understanding helps him to be honest in his reverence, while Agathon can be only indiscriminately effusive in his praise. Agathon knows that Love is something extremely important in the life of man, but it is a hazy idea. As a result he deifies Love and sings praises to him, without understanding what he is really saying.
Indeed, the discussion had begun on the question of why Love, as a deity, was not sung hymns and encomiums to, when all other deities were so accorded. The general urge among the group was to fill this lack, and therefore it was decided upon that they take turns to sing praises to Love, each in their own way. Finally it is Socrates’ clarifications which make it clear to the party why Love is not held up as a deity on whom encomiums must be bestowed. Indeed, the speech of Socrates in not a paean at all, but rather a disclosure of the inner mysteries contained in the notion of Love.
The clarification of Socrates helps us to understand that Love is a spirit that leads to God, and therefore is not due the praises that apply to the divine. The first argument concerns whether it is possible to be reverent towards Love without attributing towards it the highest qualities. Agathon, and indeed the rest of the party, have confused love with the object of love, and this is the first thing that Socrates desires to make plain. Agathon’s holds reverence towards Love. He also knows that the object of love is due the highest praise.
The two are then confused, and he feels an obligation to sing praises to Love in the highest terms, thinking that any lack in his effort would make him appear not reverent enough. When it comes to his turn Socrates finds that he cannot take part in this ritual. He too is reverent towards Love, but this is because he knows the deeper mysteries that it contains. He tells the party: [T]he proposal, apparently, was that everyone here make the rest of us think he is praising Love – and not that he actually praise him.
I think that is why you stir up every word and apply it to Love; your description of him and his gifts is designed to make him look better and more beautiful than anything else – to ignorant listeners plainly, for of course he wouldn’t look that way to those who knew. (Cohen et al, p. 306) Socrates desires to praise in his own way, and this is by telling the truth about Love. The fundamental truth is that love is a lack. One loves because one desires to possess the beautiful and the good, and does not have it already.
Everyone is a lover, because everyone harks after the beautiful and the good. In the final analysis, it is the eternal good that all aspire towards. The triumph of love is in generation and creation. In the material sphere all things die and decay, and this signifies finiteness and mortality. But through the sexual impulse male and female meet towards procreation, which is the most beautiful thing that can happen. Procreation points to the possibility of eternity. This is how the body strives towards the eternal good; but there is a parallel creation of the mind.
The Poet is a creator through the mind. In his poetry he gives birth to beautiful forms independent of the body. In short, all creation is borne of love. In this way Socrates is expressing his reverence towards Love, even though he calls it an intrinsic deficiency. He would be dishonest if he simply pasted together all the praises and attributed it to love. The second argument concerns the definition of Love. Both Socrates and Agathon maintain that love is the principle by which the world moves.
But Socrates has come to spiritual understanding, whereas Agathon is limited to philosophical notions. Socrates understands love to be a spirit, whereas Agathon takes him for a god. His effort is to catalogue the virtues of Love as a deity. He is described as fair, just, brave, temperate and wise. Fair and just because all serve him by their own free will, and there is no coercion. Brave because there is nothing that inspires bravery more than love. Temperate because he masters all the pleasures. And wise because he inspires poetry.
Not only poetry, but creation of all sorts; all the arts and all invention are rooted in the pursuit of perfection, and therefore love. He calls Love young and tender-footed, because it seeks the bosom of the young, and treads in the softest place, which is the heart. The substance of Socrates’ counter argument is that Agathon is talking about the object of love and not love itself. The object of love is to attain the highest good, but it is not itself the highest good. Love is therefore a spirit that brings about divine realization. He elaborates on what spirits are.
They are neither mortal nor immortal, but are suspended between the two. “They are messengers who shuttle back and forth between the two conveying prayer and sacrifice from men to gods, while to men they bring commands from the gods and gifts in return for sacrifices” (Ibid, p. 310). As such it is neither good nor bad, but must be a mean between them. Nevertheless, the object of love is always the good. And in the purest sense it destines for the everlasting good. The heart of Agathon is in the right place, only that he lacks specific understanding.
The difference is that Socrates perceives “not images of virtue… but to true virtue” (Ibid, p. 319). In conclusion, Agathon wants to deliver a glowing encomium on Love, and his enthusiasm leads him to focus on Love as a deity, and he wishes only to catalogue the virtues of this supposed deity. But Socrates points out that he has confused love with the object of it, and therefore Agathon’s praises are not applicable He demonstrates that it is possible to pay reverence towards Love through an honest acknowledgment of its nature.
According to this point of view Love is not the highest good. It is instead a spirit that leads the way to the highest good, which it does by intermediating between mortal man and the immortal God. This is the essential correction that Socrates wants to make.
Cohen, S M; P Curd, and C D C. Reeve (Eds. ) (2005) Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.