The dialogue opens with Apollodorus agreeing to tell an unnamed companion who is a
rich businessman the famous story of the party held in honor of Agathon to celebrate
the success of his first tragedy. Apollodorus retells the account he gave to Glaucon
(Plato's half-brother and main interlocutor of the Republic) who had in turn heard of the
party from some other, less reliable source. Glaucon had thought Apollodorus had been
in attendance, but Apollodorus points out that the party took place many years ago,
when he and Glaucon were just children. Apollodorus had heard the story from
Aristodemus, one of the guests at the party, and had also checked some of the facts
with Socrates himself.
The story begins with Aristodemus encountering Socrates, who has recently bathed and
put on sandals--things he rarely does. Aristodemus inquires as to why Socrates is all
dressed up, and Socrates answers that he is going to dinner at Agathon's. Agathon's
tragedy won him first prize at the Lenaean festival the previous day, and while Socrates
shunned the large crowds of yesterday's celebrations, he promised to join Agathon
today. Socrates invites Aristodemus to join him, and while Aristodemus is at first
hesitant about dropping in uninvited, Socrates persuades him that he must come.
Aristodemus and Socrates head off toward Agathon's together, but Socrates keeps
falling behind, lost in thought. Socrates urges Aristodemus to go ahead, saying he will
catch up. As a result, Aristodemus arrives at Agathon's without Socrates and is
welcomed in alone. Agathon is delighted to see him, saying that he was looking for him
yesterday so as to invite him. Aristodemus explains that he came upon Socrates'
invitation, and is surprised to find that Socrates has not caught up with him. Agathon
sends out a slave to find him, and the slave returns, reporting that Socrates is standing
on a neighbor's porch and will not come in. Agathon orders the slave to go and fetch
him in, but Aristodemus insists that Socrates be left alone: he will come of his own
accord when he has finished thinking.
Aristodemus joins the other guests and they begin eating. Among those assembled,
there is the young Phaedrus, Agathon's life-partner Pausanias, a doctor named
Eryximachus, and the great comic playwright Aristophanes. The meal is halfway over by
the time Socrates finally appears. Agathon encourages Socrates to join him on his
couch so that he may share in the wisdom that came to Socrates on the neighboring
porch. Socrates remarks that if wisdom could flow freely from the wiser to the less wise,
Socrates should be the one benefiting from sitting near Agathon. Noting the mocking
tone in Socrates' voice, Agathon suggests they might test one another's wisdom later
After dinner, Pausanias takes responsibility for organizing the drinking. All the guests
but Socrates have participated in the wild revelry of the previous night and are feeling
rather hung over. Eryximachus recommends that they not drink too much this evening in
the interests of their health. He suggests further that they send away the flute-girl, who
was to be their entertainment, and engage instead in conversation. He had been
speaking recently to Phaedrus, who had lamented that the poets compose songs of
praise to all the gods but Love. Consequently, Eryximachus recommends that each
person present, starting with Phaedrus, make the finest speech he can in praise of
Love. Phaedrus asserts that both gods and humans regard Love as great and awesome, for
many reasons. In particular, Love is widely considered older than almost all the other
gods, and has no parents. According to Hesiod, a great poet from around the time of
Homer, Chaos was the first thing in existence, followed by Earth and Love. Acusilaus,
the collector of myths, and Parmenides, the philosopher, both concur that Love is
among the oldest of the gods.
As Love is the oldest, Phaedrus suggests, he confers the greatest benefits. No young
man could derive greater benefit than from a good lover, and no lover could derive
greater benefit than from a young loved one. These relationships implant in men
stronger guidance toward leading good lives than family, state, money, or anything else.
Specifically, Love teaches us shame in acting disgracefully and pride in acting well. The
shame we feel when caught acting disgracefully is far greater when we are caught by a
partner than by a parent or a friend. Phaedrus suggests that an army that consisted
solely of lovers and loved ones would be unmatchable, as they would rather die than
show cowardice in front of their partner, and they would all strive constantly for greater
Phaedrus provides several examples of brave and honorable actions performed by
those in love. He recalls the story of Alcestis, who was willing to die for her husband
Admetus. Apollo told Admetus that he was to die unless he could find someone to die in
his place. Not even his parents would accept the responsibility, but Alcestis did,
impressing the gods so much that they brought her back to life. The gods have only
allowed a very few people to return from the underworld, which suggests that love is
one of the few guides to action that they value supremely. By contrast, Phaedrus
suggests, Orpheus did not have the courage to die for his love, Eurydice, but
descended into Hades to find her while still alive. As a result he returned empty-handed
and was later killed by the Maenads. Achilles, the great hero of the Iliad, was the loved
one of the older Patroclus, who was killed by Hector. It was prophesied that Achilles
would be killed if he killed Hector, but Achilles still hunted down and killed the man who
had killed his lover. Achilles showed supreme courage in accepting death in order to
avenge his lover so the gods sent him to the islands of the blessed when he died. Thus,
Phaedrus concludes, Love is the most ancient and most honored of gods, and most
capable of ensuring courage and happiness, in this life and the next.
Phaedrus' speech is followed by a number of others that Aristodemus does not recall,
and so we arrive at Pausanias. Pausanias points out that there are two kinds of
Aphrodite, the goddess of love. First, there is Heavenly Aphrodite, the daughter of
Uranus, with whom he associates "Heavenly Love." Second, there is Common
Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and Dione, who is considerably younger than Heavenly
Aphrodite, and with whom he associates "Common Love."
Pausanias argues that loving is in itself neither a good nor a bad activity. If it is done
properly, it is good, and if not, it is bad. Common Love, according to Pausanias, is bad
because its attraction is indiscriminating, directed toward bodies rather than toward
minds. As a result, people who are motivated by Common Love are equally interested in
women and boys, and the less intelligent the better: that way they can get what they
want more easily. Heavenly Love is associated with the daughter of Uranus who has no mother, and so it is directly only toward males. This kind of Love is usually felt for boys
of developing maturity who show signs of intelligence, and with whom a life-long
partnership is possible. Pausanias sharply criticizes those who take advantage of
young, foolish boys, or of women for the sake of sexual gratification. He suggests that
this inappropriate behavior brings a bad name to love and sexual pleasure altogether.
He goes so far as to recommend that laws be made to prohibit such behavior.
Pausanias notes that appropriate love takes place when the lover makes the loved one
good and wise, educating him and teaching him virtue, and when the loved one gratifies
the lover, and is eager to acquire the wisdom his lover can share. In such cases, either
partner is justified in doing all sorts of outlandish favors for the other. If someone were
to beg, to sleep out on another's doorstep, to undergo all sorts of slavish service in
order to gain money or political favor, then that person would be disdained and
humiliated. But if someone were to do these things in order to win favor from a loved
one, that person would be highly commended. Lovers can still get away with breaking
oaths in a way one could not in any other field, because those in love are granted every
kind of indulgence, both from humans and from the gods.
Pausanias points out that while lovers are encouraged to go to great lengths to win
favor, loved ones are discouraged from allowing themselves to be caught up in their
lovers' charms. This ensures that sufficient time will elapse so that the loved one can
test his lover's mettle. The loved one who is too easily won over by influence or by
money is clearly not after the wisdom of his lover and should be ashamed.
The main purpose of love, then, is to produce virtue, and love pursued for any other
means is wrong, regardless of the consequence. A boy who is fooled into a relationship
with a poor man because the poor man promises money will be humiliated. On the other
hand, a boy who is fooled into a relationship with a dishonest man because that man
promises wisdom will be honored, because the boy had the right intentions regardless
of the outcome. A loved one who gratifies his lover in the hopes of gaining virtue is
partaking in Heavenly Love, while gratification given for any other reason is simply
After Pausanias, Aristophanes is the next in line to speak, but he is undergoing an
attack of the hiccups and is unable to speak. He asks Eryximachus, the doctor, to speak
in his place. Eryximachus agrees to make a speech now so that Aristophanes can
speak afterward, when his hiccups are gone. He also recommends a number of
remedies for the hiccups, including induced sneezing.
Eryximachus commends Pausanias for distinguishing between two different kinds of
Love, but suggests that Pausanias limits himself when he considers all love to be
expressed in emotional responses between human beings. Eryximachus' medical
training shows that Love is expressed in the bodily responses of plants and animals. He
agrees with Pausanias that it is right to gratify good people and wrong to gratify bad
people. In medicine one should try to gratify the good and healthy parts of the body
while depriving the diseased parts of the body of any satisfaction so that they will cease
to be diseased. The doctor's role, then, is to implant one type of love in the body and flush the wrong kind out in order to reconcile and create love between the antagonistic
elements of the body, such as hot and cold, and dry and wet.
Not only medicine, but also athletics, agriculture, and music are all wholly governed by
the god of Love, according to Eryximachus. For instance, both harmony and rhythm in
music consist in creating agreement between divergent notes, or divergent tempos.
Medicine creates a similar agreement between divergent elements of the body, and all
creation of agreement and concord is a product of Love.
In practicing Love, whether by means of music or medicine, one is promoting order, and
may thus improve people. Eryximachus associates this kind of heavenly love with the
Heavenly Muse, which he contrasts with the Muse Polymnia, whom he associates with
common love. With common love, one must be careful to gratify the recipient without
rendering him self-indulgent. For instance, good cooking must taste good, but it cannot
make diners ill. In all things, both kinds of love are present, and we must proceed with
Eryximachus extends the scope of Love to include the seasons as well. The same
elements of hot and cold, wet and dry, that must be reconciled in the body must also be
reconciled in the weather, and when the right kind of love does so, all kinds of life
flourish, and there are good harvests and good health. But when these contraries
cannot be reconciled, there is bad weather, blight, and epidemics. Thus, astronomy also
deals with the workings of Love since the stars govern the movement of the seasons.
Further, Love governs divination, as one must find an appropriate balance in
worshipping the gods.
Eryximachus concludes that Love is ever-present and all-powerful in our lives, as it is
the cause of all self-control, happiness, and justice, and it produces good actions.
Eryximachus suggests that if he has left anything out of his eulogy, it is to Aristophanes
to fill in the gaps he has left, now that his hiccups have stopped thanks to Eryximachus'
sneezing cure. Aristophanes playfully remarks that it is odd that the well-ordered part of
his body must be gratified through such a disordered activity as sneezing. Eryximachus
warns Aristophanes that his speech may not be taken seriously if he jokes around like
that. Aristophanes replies that, as a comedian, he is not afraid of saying something
funny so much as he is afraid of saying something ludicrous.
Aristophanes' speech comes in the form of a myth. Long ago, he explains, there were
three genders: male, female, and androgynous, and each person was twice what they
are now. That is, they had four hands, four legs, two heads, two sets of genitals, and so
on. They could move both forward and backward and would run by spinning themselves
around cartwheel-like on all eight limbs. Males were descended from the sun, females
from the earth, and those who were androgynous were descended from the moon. They
were very powerful and vigorous and made threatening attacks on the gods. The gods
did not want to destroy them because they would then forfeit the sacrifices humans
made to them, so Zeus decided to cut each person in two. He also suggested that if this
didn't settle humans down, he would cut them in two once again and they would have to
hop about on one leg. As each person was cut in two, Apollo turned their heads and necks around so that they
would be facing toward the gash that had been made, so as to remind them constantly
of the punishment they had been dealt. He also pulled their skin tight to cover up this
gash, tying it together at the navel.
Because they longed for their original nature, people kept trying to find their other half
and reunite with it. When they found their other half, they would embrace and stay
together, not wanting anything else. Eventually, people started dying of hunger or
general inactivity. Zeus took pity on them, and moved their genitals around so that they
would be facing frontward. This way, when they embraced, they could have sexual
intercourse, and those who were formerly androgynous could reproduce, and even two
men who came together could at least have sexual satisfaction and then move on to
other things. This is the origin of our instinctive desire for other human beings. Those
who are interested in members of the opposite sex are halves of formerly androgynous
people, while men who like men and women who like women are halves of what were
formerly whole males and females. Aristophanes applauds male-male relationships
between men and boys since such couples value boldness, braveness, and masculinity,
both in themselves and in others.
When we find our other half, we are overwhelmed with affection, concern, and love for
that person. This great amount of care cannot result simply from a desire for sex, but we
have difficulty articulating precisely what it is that makes us care so much. If
Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, were to offer to weld a couple together so that they
would become one and never be parted, even in death, they would leap at this
opportunity. "Love" is the name that we give to our desire for wholeness, to be restored
to our original nature.
Aristophanes observes that if we are disobedient or disorderly toward the gods, Zeus
might split us in two once more, so we must strive ourselves, and encourage others, to
behave well toward the gods. In this respect, Love is our leader, and if we work against
Love we will find ourselves on the wrong side of the gods. Aristophanes urges
Eryximachus and the others not to take his speech as a simple comedy, or a joke
directed at such life-partners as Pausanias and Agathon. Given that we are all separate,
Love does what he can for us given the circumstances: he guides us toward those who
are close in nature to us and who best fit our character. Perhaps if we continue to show
reverence to the gods, he may one day restore us to our formerly whole selves
Eryximachus expresses great satisfaction at Aristophanes' speech and claims that if
speakers of any lesser degree than Agathon and Socrates were up next there would be
nothing left to say. Socrates remarks that if Eryximachus were in his position, not having
spoken yet and having to follow Agathon, he would be quite frightened. Agathon replies
that Socrates is trying to fluster him by suggesting that everyone expects a great
speech from him. Socrates answers that, having seen Agathon at the festival, he knows
that Agathon can speak with great confidence before large crowds. Agathon points out
that a small group of intelligent people is far more intimidating than a large crowd.
Socrates begins to question Agathon, suggesting that everyone gathered here was in
the crowd at the festival, but Phaedrus cuts them off, suggesting that Agathon should
make his speech. Agathon points out that all the previous speeches have spoken only of the benefits that
humans have gained from Love, but none of them have discussed the nature of the god
himself. Agathon suggests that Love is the happiest of the gods because he is most
beautiful and best. He is beautiful because, contrary to Phaedrus' claim, he is the
youngest of the gods. He always avoids old age, and only associates with the young.
Further, all the horrible things the gods did to each other in ancient times they did
because of Necessity and not Love. Since Love has ruled amongst the gods, they have
been far more peaceful.
Further, Agathon suggests that Love is sensitive. Rather than settle in the hard parts of
humans and gods, on the ground or in the skull, Love settles in our minds and
characters. Further, Love will only settle in the minds and characters of those with soft
natures, and will move on when he finds someone with a tough character. That he can
pass unnoticed in and out of our minds suggests further that the god is fluid.
Agathon goes on to speak about the virtues of Love. Love is just because he is never
forced and never uses force: everyone consents to his authority. Love practices
moderation, since he can master pleasures and desires. Love is braver even than Ares,
god of war, since Ares fell in love with Aphrodite and was thus mastered by Love. Love
is wise since he is the inspiration for all other acts of wisdom. No poet can be wise
without love, nor could the gods or muses master their respective arts without love for
those arts. The gods only became organized when Love came into being, and were