Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Wounded HeroesVulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy$

Marina Berzins McCoy

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199672783

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672783.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy).date: 21 July 2019

Eros, Woundedness, and Creativity in Plato’s Symposium

Eros, Woundedness, and Creativity in Plato’s Symposium

(p.114) (p.115) 5 Eros, Woundedness, and Creativity in Plato’s Symposium
Wounded Heroes

Marina Berzins McCoy

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter five examines the links between eros and vulnerability. Against those who read the Symposium’s ‘ladder of love’ as a move away from loving the ordinary and imperfect, I advocate an understanding of philosophy that retains a care for the imperfect and ordinary. Diotima’s speech describes eros at its last stage before reaching the finality of eternal contemplation, as the place where human creativity takes place. Reproduction in not only a physical, but also intellectual and creative sense, is part of the human response to our own need and lack, as we strive for but cannot yet reach the eternal. The fruitfulness of eros depends upon a lack and need in human beings, and their responsiveness to the neediness of one another, and not an other-worldly or perfectionistic orientation. Alcibiades’ entrance into the party as a drunk, erotic, and frustrated young man who speaks of suffering from a Socratically induced ‘snakebite’ also suggests a tragic dimension to eros.

Keywords:   Plato, Symposium, love, eros, vulnerability, ascent, Diotima, need, creativity, reproduction, lack, Alcibiades, tragedy, contemplation, forms, particularity, immortality, self-knowledge

Plato’s Symposium speaks to the vulnerability of eros. Among the topics addressed is that of love’s incompleteness and the vulnerability that arises from incompleteness. While Socrates’ claim that love is the offspring of Poverty and Means is undisputed, many question whether the incompleteness of eros is overcome, or remains perpetually a lack within us, and whether overcoming such a lack completely would be good on Socrates’ view. This question of incompleteness also extends to the question of whether the desire for the universal means also to leave behind the particular. Scholars have been of two minds as to whether the ascent to the good, as described by Diotima, is one that takes up and incorporates the previous objects of love, or leaves them behind in order to focus solely on the good. More precisely, one might ask whether the vulnerability to another person that we experience in falling in love is left behind when we fall in love with, and ascend to, ‘the good’, or whether the two somehow coalesce. If one loves the good, and is vulnerable to it, is such a person still also vulnerable to other human beings? Or does Plato intend that we achieve contemplation of the good, and so overcome vulnerability?

The well-known ascent passage in Plato’s Symposium seems to advocate leaving behind the particulars of this world in order to achieve love of the most ‘real’ objects of all, namely the forms. The form of beauty is the ultimate τέλος‎ of love, and each previous step described as a means to ascend to this final good.1 Diotima suggests (p.116) that all the other loves of our lives are ultimately for the sake of that final love, Beauty itself, which is its primary motivating force. However, critics have also seen her presentation of love as being a little too ‘other worldly’. If the ladder of love is for the sake of the forms, then it seems that once we reach them, we need neither the ladder nor the many loves that helped us to arrive at the forms. We also then leave behind our vulnerability to other persons. Vlastos famously writes that Plato’s understanding of love leaves behind any care for the particularity of the individual person: ‘The individual, in the uniqueness and integrity of his or her individuality, will never be the object of our love.’2 Nietzsche even saw in Plato’s metaphysics the root of nihilism: in loving the (for him, invented) forms instead of worldly things, we end up loving nothing at all.3

However, I shall argue that Plato does not present us with an impoverished or ‘other worldly’ understanding of love. Instead, he offers a rich series of accounts that are attentive both to the goods of this world and to the good of the loving soul itself. My argument will have two parts. First, I will argue that for Socrates, eros is always relational. Eros is never only about the lover or the object of love, but always about a lover, a beloved, and the creative acts that result from the encounter between lover and beloved. Such a triadic understanding of love suggests that not only the forms, but also others in the world, are participants in the activity of loving. This triadic notion of eros requires ongoing vulnerability by lovers to others outside of themselves. Diotima’s account of love preserves love’s complexity in focusing on reproduction as the key to eros. While vulnerability could be understood only as a lack or an impoverishment, Diotima instead presents incompleteness as the very source of human creativity. Indeed, creative love born out of vulnerability transforms the (p.117) neediness of the lover into a creative force that is outwardly oriented toward the world and others in it, rather than inwardly oriented toward oneself. Paradoxically, lack and longing lead not to narcissism, but rather to a relational and creative orientation to the world.

Second, I examine the scene in the Symposium in which Alcibiades declares himself to be wounded by a ‘snakebite’ in his time with Socrates. The relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates complicates the picture of eros laid out in Diotima’s speech. Alcibiades questions whether Socrates is able to love others in their particularity, and suggests there is a problem with Socrates’ universal and even somewhat detached approach to loving others. Further, while Alcibiades is open to eros and even to a sense of his own limit at times, he fails to ascend along the kind of path that Socrates envisions for a lover. Alcibiades admits his vulnerability to the forces of erotic love, shame, and even old age. To this extent, he is more vulnerable than many other characters in the dialogue. However, Alcibiades is unable to transform his vulnerability from awareness into action. Plato’s inclusion of this Alcibiades—who possesses some self-knowledge, yet is unable to transform his life accordingly—suggests Plato’s sensitivity to the tragic.


Plato’s critics have had good reason to worry about the ‘other worldly’ nature of Platonic love. For example, Diotima’s ascent passage does seem to advocate moving from love of particular things to things that are more and more general: a particular boy’s body is no longer seen as beautiful when one realizes the beauty of all bodies. Presumably when one cares more for νόμοι‎ (laws), political institutions, learning, and so on, the value of these beautiful bodies is lessened even further. The universal seems to be valued at the expense of the concrete and interpersonal. This other worldly sentiment seems to culminate when Diotima finally describes the form of Beauty itself as something apart from the ordinary world. One of the most striking passages in this regard is near the conclusion of Diotima’s teaching:

What then do we suppose it would be like, she said, if it were possible for someone to see the Beautiful itself, pure, unalloyed, unmixed, not full of human flesh and colors, and the many other kinds of nonsense that attach to mortality, but if he could behold the divine Beauty itself, single in nature? (p.118) Do you think it a worthless life, she said, for a man to look there and contemplate that with that by which one must contemplate it, and to be with it? (211e–212a)4

While the ordinary world might be the needful route to the forms, once the forms have been accessed, then the world of the ordinary seems not just inadequate, but a mere imitation, pale, in contrast to the vivid reality of the form which is most worthy of love.

However, Diotima’s ideas here must be contextualized in the whole of her speech and the series of other speeches in the Symposium. In recent years in Platonic scholarship, much has been made about the importance of distinguishing Socrates’ words in the dialogue from Plato’s own meaning as author.5 Diotima is a single voice, one of the most persuasive voices in the dialogue, but her voice is mediated not only through Socrates, but also through the storytelling that frames the dialogue, as Apollodorus narrates the discussion to an unnamed friend.6 We are not even certain that the story is entirely faithful to the reality, as Apollodorus admits that he has forgotten some parts.7 But the presence of the framing device highlights that each account of love takes place in a larger context of interchange between different people with different understandings. Later speakers at the symposium explicitly address the ideas of earlier ones, sometimes rejecting them and sometimes reincorporating them at a newer and more complex level. Plato’s presentation of love is found in the whole of the Symposium and not in the ascent passage alone.

Two elements within the ascent speech suggest a more nuanced approach to the interrelation of love of others and love of Beauty itself. First, Diotima’s speech uses the language of fertility and reproduction to discuss human love, precisely at the point at which the person on the ascent begins to approach the form of Beauty, but has not yet attained (p.119) the final goal. Diotima herself does not reject love of particulars in favour of contemplation, because it is precisely in the encounter of human lover and beloved that creative acts take place. Second, if we compare her account to earlier accounts of love of the particular and its role in reproduction, Diotima most of all emphasizes the creativity inherent in love, a creativity that is fruitful for the human world, and not the world of the forms. The speeches that precede Socrates’ speech are deficient for their inattention to the creative and fruitful tension inherent in love. Socrates’ speech alone preserves the importance of not only lover and beloved, but also ‘reproduction’ in loving.

In determining whether love of the forms is other worldly, it is necessary to understand the relation between loving the forms and loving individuals. If, for example, individuals are loved only as reflections of the forms, then it would seem that love of the forms is by its nature an abandonment of love of individuals as individuals. In such a case, the lover does not love his beloved’s beauty, but only a reflection of Beauty itself in the beloved. However, articulating how one loves an individual beloved even in ‘ordinary’ accounts of eros, excluding the forms, proves to be philosophically difficult.

One way to understand erotic love for an individual is as love of his or her qualities. On this account, one loves another because of her compassion, or wry sense of humour, or because she enjoys the same sports. This seems true even in cases of non-erotic love. Even if one loves one’s child apart from his particular qualities (e.g. a mother might love a literary child just as much if he had been an athletically driven competitor), one might still argue that this love is driven by the child’s specific qualities, albeit at a different level. She loves him because he is her child. Still, love of a person for his qualities can seem trivial when one contemplates the temporary nature of many personal traits. As Stern-Gillett notes, Pascal pointed out the difficulty at hand in his Pensées:

What is the self? A man goes to the window to see the people passing by; if I pass by, can I say he went there to see me? No, for he is not thinking of me in particular. But what about a person who loves someone for the sake of her beauty; does he love her? No, for smallpox, which will destroy her beauty without destroying the person, will put an end to his love for her.8

(p.120) Pascal goes on to point out that even if we were to say that we love a multiplicity of qualities in another, we still love only qualities and not some ‘essential’ person. After all, what else is the self other than body and soul, each of which has qualities?

However, to love someone only as a means for seeing the forms would seem to have a parallel problem: if one loves the beauty of the beloved’s body because it is reminiscent of the forms, he is apparently loved only as an instantiation of the Form of Beauty, and not in his particularity. The lover does not love his beauty, but rather how his beauty reflects real Beauty. Put together this idea with Diotima’s claim that the forms are unpolluted, unmixed, and pure, and one might even conclude that Plato finds the love of a particular body to be somewhat tainted.

An alternative picture might say that to love an individual is to love him for ‘himself’, with the claim that the self is a being that is impossible to describe adequately. On this model, one loves not simply the beloved’s qualities, good and bad, but ‘something essential’ and indescribable about him that makes him unique. This position has at least two difficulties: first, this way of thinking seems mysterious and incapable of full expression in a λόγος‎; it does not really provide for the possibility of a philosophical account of love at all. Second, the description seems counterfactual, insofar as at least some of the time, love of another is expressed by extolling his or her good qualities, and even how those qualities are related to one’s own needs or desires.

Perhaps what is being said when one claims that we do not merely love someone else for their qualities, is that we do not love them only for their good qualities. That is, in the most profound experiences of love, one loves the whole person, including his or her flaws; that is, the person’s vulnerabilities and even errors become the objects of our love. At times these imperfections are related to other goods. For example, we might see how these flaws are linked to other aspects of the person that we consider to be good: she is neurotically picky about a neat house, but also excellent at getting the details right in her projects at work. Or, one loves a certain quirk (for example, unusually shaped ears) because it reminds the lover of the beloved as a whole and what is beautiful. In this case, one loves a human being still for his (p.121) or her qualities, but is simply more generous in how we understand how particular qualities fit together into a coherent and lovable whole.

In the above analysis, the description of love focuses on the nature of the beloved: the qualities or characteristics that he or she possesses such that he or she becomes ‘worthy’ of love. However, Diotima’s speech focuses on how creativity overcomes the mutual incompleteness of both a lover and a beloved. Diotima does not view eros as being about the qualities of a beloved alone, or of a lover alone, or even simply the relationship between lover and beloved. Rather, central to a love relationship is the lover, the beloved, their relationship, and the creative activity that stems from their eros for one another. After all, Diotima’s speech is not primarily an account of Beauty, but rather an account of eros. Her speech is not a metaphysical description of the nature of the forms. Rather, the focus of her speech is to convey what it means to love. Eros, for Diotima, is about a well-spring of creativity and reproduction that allows the lovers to go beyond their own and their beloved’s personal need.

Diotima’s speech begins with a mythical description of the genesis of the god Eros from Poros and Penia. Eros is born of both want and plenty; therefore, Eros cannot be understood as either fullness or complete lack. Eros is always in between the complete and the incomplete; he is therefore neither god nor mortal, but in between mortal and immortal (203e). Diotima even describes Eros as always coming to be and dying away: at night, Eros withers away, but by day is regenerated again (203e). Eros is always vulnerable to loss. However, along with diminishment, Diotima emphasizes the re-genesis of love. We should not regard Diotima’s speech with attention exclusively to its ultimate τέλος‎ in the form of Beauty, but rather with attention to the movement of love and love’s activities throughout the entire speech. Diotima’s speech is not primarily an account of Being, or even of particular beings, but instead about becoming, the becoming of love and love’s creative activities.

Diotima’s focus upon the genesis and reproduction that occur through love is clear from her choice of words. Diotima’s language is positively fecund: her speech is filled with the use of terms such as τόκος‎ (childbirth or child; 206b; 206c; and 206e) and τίκτειν‎ (to give birth; twice at 206c; 206d; and 208e; 209a; 209c; 210b; 210c; twice at 212a), while the more abstract and less metaphorically vivid term γενέσθαι‎ occurs only once in her speeches (204d). In addition, the (p.122) term ἔκγονος‎, child or offspring, occurs twice (at 190a and 209c). Diotima relies heavily upon the language of childbirth to describe eros. Childbirth is the ultimate image for becoming, since it refers to the creation of a new being, rather than a mere change in the state of already existent beings. The vast majority of Diotima’s speech discusses eros and its role in creation, making (ποίησις‎), birth, death, and immortality (205a–210e). In contrast to her discussion of reproduction, Diotima’s discussion of Beauty itself is relatively short, running just a little under one and a half Stephanos pages (210e–212a).

Diotima’s speech refers to six kinds of erotic reproduction in the following order: (1) the begetting of Eros himself by Poros and Penia (203a–e); (2) the way in which any genesis in the arts is a kind of ποίησις‎ in the arts (205b–e); (3) giving birth to physical children for the sake of immortality (207b–208b); (4) giving birth to noble acts, even to the point of death, for the sake of glory, as in Achilles’ sacrifice (208c–208e); (5) giving birth to practical wisdom and excellence, particularly in the right ordering of cities and households (208e–209a); and (6) giving birth to discourses (λόγοι‎) (210d). A remarkable feature of Diotima’s speech is the variety and multiplicity of sorts of things that are produced through eros in her view: not only physical children, but also poems, inventions, noble deaths, glorious acts, and philosophical speeches are all different ways in which eros manifests itself. Reproduction includes, but is in no way limited to, physical reproduction. Eros is presented as enormously fruitful and multiple in the sorts of fruits it bears. All six of these sorts of genesis or giving birth require others: we need another person with whom to bear physical children, but also need to love those in our city in order to give them good laws, or to die nobly for them; philosophical discourse requires someone with whom to talk, as we see in the conversation at hand in the Symposium.

The description of the end of the ascent, however, brings to a close Diotima’s description of the ‘becoming’ of the erotic person: once a person has reached knowledge of Beauty itself, his desires are suddenly markedly different from what they were prior to the end of the ascent. While the description of Beauty itself is presented in an overwhelmingly positive light, Diotima also emphasizes the enormous gap between a life that is lived pursuing the creation of beauty and striving for immortality, and a life that is spent gazing at the forms:

(p.123) If ever you see it [Beauty], it will not seem to you as gold or raiment or beautiful boys and youths, which you now look upon as dumbstruck; you and many another are ready to gaze on those you love and dwell with them forever, if somehow it were possible, not to eat or drink but only to watch and be with them. (211d–e)

One who has seen Beauty itself will lack interest in the ordinary things of this world, just as those in love with boys lack an interest in plain food and drink. Diotima suggests that one who beholds Beauty itself will want to do nothing but watch and be with the forms: eternal contemplation of Beauty is all that a lover who has discovered the forms will want. There is no going back to an old life once the contemplation of true Beauty takes place. ‘Human flesh and colors’, and the ‘nonsense’ of human mortal life, now are irrelevant to the former lover of these things. According to Diotima, all else that came before the end of the ascent seems not to matter to the person who has reached the final goal. One might venture to say that such a person loves only the perfect and invulnerable.

However, if eros is intermediate between wisdom and ignorance, as Diotima emphasizes at 202a, then by definition the one who has become wholly wise is no longer erotic. He has instead reached a final happiness that needs no further explanation for its pursuit (205a). He who contemplates Beauty lacks eros, being already satisfied with complete Beauty—or is only erotic insofar as she wishes to continue having what she already possesses. Either way, the person has reached the end of the ascent: he has nowhere further to go, and lacks the restlessness endemic to those who are still becoming in eros. Eros has not just changed one object for another, but has itself been transformed by this encounter with Beauty. Diotima’s speech therefore seems to contain two different accounts of love in tension with one another: an account of love that emphasizes its genesis, movement, and its generative effects in a changing world, and a second account in which love finds completeness and satisfaction.

Ionescu has argued that in Diotima’s account of procreation there are two different sorts of immortality: at the lower levels of the ladder, the immortality comes through substitution, in which though the lover dies, something else, a child, an idea, a law, exists after the death. At the higher levels, however, the idea of a substitutional immortality is replaced by an eternity of the ‘always’, that is, by the idea that Beauty itself is unending and eternal, due to the perfection of the object itself. In these later stages the object’s eternal nature is what (p.124) offers solace to the limited, mortal human being, rather than the prospect of some further mortal reproduction that grants a sense of longevity after death. In addition, at the lower levels, human knowledge is understood to be imperfect and temporary, while in later stages it is possible to speak of knowledge that is ‘permanent and stable’.9 It would seem that the later stages call for a human being to be outwardly focused, less on himself and upon his own immortality than upon the object of his love.

While at a lower level the person who procreates in order to gain a sense of personal immortality ‘loves’ the other, such a love retains a moment of selfishness. Although the child, physical or spiritual, may be genuinely an object of care (not cared for solely as a means to immortality), still, the presence of the other on Diotima’s account is at least in part to fulfil a sense of the desire to be immortal, in the absence of the possibility of temporal immortality. At least to some small extent, the other exists in part for the sake of one’s personal fulfilment. However, the human being who progresses along the ascent undergoes a transformation of self and the very nature of his desires. The lover at the highest level of the ascent, who loves Beauty itself for its immortality, and not his own, has undergone a fundamental reshaping of his own values. He now loves the Other (Beauty itself) for its own sake, on account of its own qualities; one might say that the very existence of this other good in its perfection makes the loss of the mortal self somehow more bearable. Eros at its final stage is more fully ecstatic.10

At the same time, the life of philosophy takes place not only at the final level of contemplation. Philosophy, as we see it practised by Socrates, takes place at the intermediate levels in which all forms of spiritual procreation take place, for this is where conversation takes place. Those at the highest level of the ascent no longer procreate, but (p.125) instead contemplate. But Socrates likes to talk. In conversation, one gives birth to some sort of wisdom—or more often, what Socrates in the Theaetetus says turns out to be a ‘phantom’ (Theaetetus 150c). But philosophy is only philosophy instead of wisdom so long as it is incomplete, and still en route to its final goal. Conversation can only take place when one is open to the other, and becomes aware of one’s own lack and need for the other to inform and even transform one’s self. Conversation that is open to transformation requires a kind of vulnerable openness that risks the self. Socrates the philosopher is a lover, not a wise man, as evidenced by the fact that he has not reached the end of his ascent, but only heard of it from a mysterious, feminine figure, a kind of philosophical prophetess.

Socrates’ description of himself as a midwife in the Theaetetus picks up on the language of procreation. Midwifery seemingly unifies Socrates’ love of the good and love of another person, insofar as Socrates’ attending each person’s birth of ideas is both a care for the integrity of the good (and casting out false goods) and the good of the person who ‘gives birth’. Indeed, midwifery is a kind of selfless and generous love, since Socrates’ aim is not to give birth to his own ideas, nor to attend to his own needs. Rather, his focus is on the other with whom he speaks, and his relation to the good. While, strictly speaking, a triadic relationship exists between the interlocutor, the good, and Socrates, his aim is to cultivate the other person’s relationship to the good. If Socrates also grows in love and understanding of the good in his role as midwife, so much the better, but his fundamental locus of concern is for the other.

Human eros, then, for Socrates, is never about only one person who loves; it is nearly always about a lover and a beloved and the ways in which their love affects the larger world in which they live. Eros gives birth in beauty to beautiful things, but these beautiful things only come into being when there is another present with whom to beget beautiful discourses, art, laws, or children. To those who say that eros is ‘really’ about certain qualities in the beloved, Socrates might object that trying to understand such love in terms of its object alone is too constricted a view of eros in the first place. Eros is always about a tension and a relation, between lover and beloved, and also between those lovers and what they create as a result of their love: it is a triadic relation between lover, beloved, and the resulting creativity of the pair. Vulnerability and creativity are intertwined, for the creativity arises from lack and from opening one’s self and one’s need to another.

(p.126) Artificially separating out the beloved object’s qualities from this greater set of relationships is also a distortion of the lover’s self-understanding, if he sees his own eros as entirely about the beloved and his qualities. For Socrates presents the lover’s eros as being the result also of the incompleteness of the self, its longing, and the effect of that longing in desiring the beloved. In Socrates’ account, a self-aware lover sees in his beloved more than a set of qualities if he understands his own eros properly. He sees in his beloved the beloved’s qualities, but also something about himself, and something about what the lover and beloved might make or do together. To the extent that such vulnerability gives rise to creativity, the love also brings the individual out of himself and more focused on what is outside of himself. Diotima’s account of eros is generously and even lavishly productive and re-productive; these relations between lover and beloved, the things created in love and the longing for more creation to find one’s immortality, are more fundamental to the nature of love than static qualities in the object of the beloved. The creative nature of eros, in these penultimate stages on the ladder of love, begins with individual lack and need, but results in the lover’s reorientation of his energy and focus on the beloved, outside of himself. Eros that begins with lack, then, does not end in a lover’s simple desire to fill his lack. Rather, the lover who is willing to be vulnerable to the beloved is transformed from being simply a needy being, to a being whose creative energies are an outpouring of the self to the beloved and the larger world. To this extent, the fecundity of love at this stage is also ecstatic, in the sense of bringing oneself out of oneself, although focused on the ‘ordinary’ world and not the world of the forms.


Let us turn to a few brief comparisons of Diotima’s speech to earlier speeches in the dialogue in praise of love, for the speeches build on one another, sometimes rejecting and sometimes taking up and elaborating on the ideas of previous speakers.11 Phaedrus emphasizes (p.127) the lover above all else. Although Phaedrus’ speech is a speech in praise of Eros the god, his illustrations and examples are all about particular couples; very little is said about the god himself. Phaedrus emphasizes the lover who is willing to die for his beloved. As Diotima will also do later, Phaedrus attributes the valorous actions of warriors to their eros for their beloveds. However, in doing so he claims that the lover is more divine than the beloved (180d). Phaedrus emphasizes the virtue of the lover such that the beloved receives almost no mention in his speech except as a means to the lover’s achievements. While it might seem that the beloved is loved in all his particularity, since the lover is willing to sacrifice so much for him, in fact, Phaedrus’ speech is an encomium to the lover alone. Eros is good for the lover, and the qualities of the beloved are not that important so long as the lover acts virtuously.

Pausanius’ account of eros divides it into two kinds of love, the heavenly and the vulgar. It corrects Phaedrus’ overemphasis on the lover by looking at love’s different objects. Pausanius claims that heavenly love has a better object than vulgar eros, namely, the best love is of boys who show themselves to have worthy characters. Love of body is inferior to the love of the right kind of soul. Pausanius tries to differentiate between what sorts of actions are good and appropriate in love and what form of gratification is base, but in the end he concludes it is not the type of action performed per se, but rather the beloved’s understanding of his lover’s character that matters. Even if the beloved makes a mistake, and thinks that his lover is good when he is really bad, this is acceptable. For what matters is that the beloved attempts to act for the sake of his own virtue and self-improvement. While Pausanius reintroduces the importance of the beloved in this speech, his view of eros is no less narcissistic than that of Phaedrus; only this time, the beloved is the centre of erotic desire, and not the lover or his intentions. Again, the relational aspect of the lover–beloved relationship is overlooked in this dyadic (not triadic) account of eros.

One would expect that if any of the speakers present were to discuss the role of reproduction and birth in love, it would be Eryximachus, the physician. Strikingly, his account of love contains almost no reference to the reproductive powers of love, even as it emphasizes φύσις‎ (nature) throughout. Eros, for Eryximachus, is about the concord and attunement of different elements, as in the case of different elements in the body in the case of health, or (p.128) the attunement and right rhythm of beautiful music. Eryximachus expands upon the previous notions of eros by making them relational; eros is never about only a lover, or a beloved, or even virtue, but is always about the bond and harmony between at least two things. However, in emphasizing the ways in which parts fit together into coherent wholes in nature, Eryximachus says nothing about death, birth, or the generative power of love to overcome human limitations. He ignores what Phaedrus and Pausanius say about the valorous results of love altogether. Neither does he suggest that love plays a role in biological generation, or the regeneration of living things through the art of medicine. Thus, while relational, Eryximachus’ account of eros lacks attention to vulnerability or need.

In contrast, Aristophanes presents a relational understanding of eros that does take account of the vulnerability of persons who love. Eros, for him, is a matter of finding one’s other half and being reunited to a more primary and primal whole. Since human beings are literally only half of our original selves, we are by our very nature erotic, driven to find the rest of ourselves in the other. Aristophanes makes both halves of this loving relation important; each half is a lover, but each half is a beloved, too. Eros involves lack and neediness, even woundedness, and to understand ourselves we have to also understand what we lack. In this way, Aristophanes’ view of eros is more complex and nuanced than in the previous speeches: eros is best understood by looking at both the beloved and the lover’s experience of longing. However, Aristophanes also suggests that this erotic drive can never be wholly satisfied, as the lovers never do permanently become one again (although this is their wish). Neither does the human being ever fully understand his own motivations in loving. When the two halves finally meet one another:

they are then marvelously struck by friendship and kinship and Eros, and scarcely willing to be separated from one another for even a little time. These are the people who pass their whole lives with each other, but who can’t even say what they wish for themselves by being with each other. No one can think that it is for the sake of sexual intercourse that the one so eagerly delights in being with the other. Instead the soul of each clearly wishes for something else it can’t put into words; it divines what it wishes, and obscurely hints at it. (192c–d)

In other words, eros never fully satisfies. For Aristophanes, the incompleteness of eros is fundamental, and his descriptions of the (p.129) experience of eros’ incompleteness seem right: we do not want our beloved merely to talk, to make love, or even to spend a life together, though we might want each of these activities. There is something deeper, a nameless ‘more’ that speaks to the incomplete and restless nature of ourselves as human beings, and that leads each lover and beloved to seek and to find not an end to restlessness, but a kind of dialectical movement between more or less incompleteness, and more or less fulfilment, through the intimacy with another.

The lovers are literally cut in two, wounded, torn in their individual existences. These lovers experience the world as fundamentally ruptured and each senses that the rupture is within himself. Indeed, Aristophanes even describes individuals as not wholes, but ‘slices’ of wholes (191e). The navel comes to signify this primal wound, an outward sign of the inner sense that each lover feels of his own incompleteness. Zeus says that the wound remains, while others are healed, in order that ‘man would be more orderly by contemplating his own division’ (190e). Just as Socrates will later point to the need to acknowledge limit, Aristophanes here points to woundedness as a divine corrective against hubris. The navel, while healed over, always leaves its trace as a reminder of one’s own limit. In the mythic account, the navel signifies the wound suffered as a result of hubris, but of course in ordinary human life, it signifies each human being’s prior dependence on his or her own mother.12 No one enters the world except by being part of a prior whole, from which they later become separated. Thus, the myth reflects a kind of genuine truth about one’s own natality as rooted in dependence, a dependence that suffers a rupture that leaves behind a reminder of the prior dependence.

Surprisingly, Aristophanes says little about erotic love and its relation to birth. Aristophanes’ lovers reproduce, but Aristophanes only briefly mentions reproduction as a consequence of eros (1911c). Most couples are only interested in the other partner as a means to self-completion, but Aristophanes makes no mention of children or any other sort of creative endeavour as part of the lovers’ happiness. Aristophanes’ lovers are passionate, but still mostly self-interested as a couple, or interested in their beloved alone, but only themselves and their beloved, as if they were a small cosmos unto themselves. Their love remains an unsatisfying, if compelling, seeking of reunion. (p.130) In contrast, Diotima’s account of love significantly widens the creative aspect of love, both in the seeking and in the satisfaction a lover has in being a creative, generative being.13 The world of the lover expands on Diotima’s view beyond the longings of one person for another to complete him.

Agathon’s account praises love more than lovers or beloveds. In this way, his description of Eros the god is not unlike Diotima’s description of Beauty. Eros is simply perfect: young, wise, just, beautiful, and best in every way. Agathon even mentions the reproductive nature of love explicitly in a multiplicity of ways: eros makes animals have children, makes us poets, makes us craftsmen, and in short, is responsible for a wide variety of beautiful and good human activities. Agathon, like Diotima, connects the creative activities of human beings to love, and makes the relation of Eros (understood as a god) more important than beloved or lover alone. But the deficiency that Socrates sees in Agathon’s view of eros is that it overlooks its ‘in between’ nature, i.e. the lack, the desire, and what is not had, in favour of what is achieved, satisfied, and possessed. Socrates reminds Agathon that this, too, is a crucial part of eros. Eros is not eros without poverty and incompleteness.

But if Socrates is right, then the account of the final contemplation of Beauty itself cannot be read in isolation from the rest of Diotima’s speeches about eros’s movement. Eros, for Diotima, is about the experience of moving towards an object that can satisfy our desire and not leave us empty handed (in contrast to Aristophanes’ lovers). However, at the same time, eros is in that movement and in that relation of self to other, of lover to beloved, and beloved to lover, and also in the relation of each of these to what is created in the encounter with eros. Eros, for Diotima, is about a state of becoming, not only the becoming of the lover and beloved, but also the becoming of the world as the lovers fruitfully contribute to it with their philosophical discussion, their poetry, their children, laws, and other creative acts. The beloved is always incomplete, and imperfect in his qualities, as much as the lover is; however, the creative acts of eros help us to (p.131) overcome our incompleteness and our mortality. In fact, it is because we are incomplete that eros is so productive. Ascent to the forms is a genuine good, but certain kinds of goods (such as philosophy) only come about because we have not yet reached our destination.


If there is any critique of Socrates’ and Diotima’s views in the dialogue, it is found in Alcibiades’ speech. For it seems that as much as Socrates loves the forms, he cannot bring himself to love the particularities of Alcibiades: he seems unmoved by Alcibiades’ beauty, unaffected and even dispassionate. And yet, as Nussbaum emphasizes, throughout the Symposium we find allusions to Alcibiades, the passionate lover, who both understood something about eros and yet, needs his eros to be purified. Alcibiades has many identities, writes Nussbaum:

A man who died shot by an arrow will speak of the words of love as arrows, or bolts, wounding the soul (219b). A man who influentially denounced the flute as an instrument unworthy of a free man’s dignity will describe himself as a slave to the enchanting flute-playing of a certain satyr (215b–d, 216c, 219c). A man who will deface holy statues compares the soul of Socrates to a set of god-statues, and speaks of the injustice of rubbing out, or defacing, Socratic virtues (213e, 215b, 216d, 217e, 222a).14

With Alcibiades’ arrival, what was seemingly a private dialogue, a matter of entertainment among a small group of friends who enjoyed discussing and debating eros, suddenly takes on enormous political significance. For Alcibiades’ discussion of eros here is reminiscent of his other famous association with eros, namely, the accusation that he defamed the hermai. Such defamation was a political act, an iconic representation of Alcibiades’ apparent disdain for the city and its religious and political institutions, as a result of his own corrupting political ambition. While Socrates may have cared for and sought to teach Alcibiades, Plato’s dialogue was composed long after his death, and after the dire consequences of his betrayal of Athens and the (p.132) results for Athens’s decline in regional power had become clear. For Plato’s audience, to understand Alcibiades’ speech on love here cannot have the apolitical associations that it seems to have had for the characters internal to the dialogue; his claim that he was never able to resolve his unhappiness with himself and his ambitions takes on an especial poignancy closely linked to the poignancy of Athens’s larger political losses.

Alcibiades, however, understands his account of love to be acutely personal. Alcibiades describes himself as not only vulnerable to love, but already wounded. He says of himself:

I’m almost like a man who’s been bitten by a snake. They say that anyone who’s suffered it is unwilling to tell what it was like except to those who have been bitten, because they alone will sympathize and understand if one was driven to do and say everything in his pain. Well, I’d been bitten by something more painful, and in the most painful place one can be bitten—in the heart or soul or whatever one should name it, struck and bitten by arguments in philosophy that hold more fiercely than a serpent, when they take hold of a young and not ill-endowed soul and make him do and say anything whatever. (217e–218a)

While Alcibiades had thought he ‘had loosed his arrows and wounded him [Socrates]’ (219b), Socrates turns out to be invulnerable not only to Alcibiades’ seductive words, but also to the inebriating effect of wine (220a), to money (219e), and even snow on bare feet (220b).15

Alcibiades wants from Socrates the passion of a lover, but instead receives the affection of a father figure. When Alcibiades speaks of his uneventful night under the covers with Socrates, one senses not so much sexual frustration, as a desire to be special to Socrates, to be something more than a person whom Socrates wishes to bring to the ‘good’. Insofar as Alcibiades feels treated by Socrates as simply ‘one who ought to ascend to Beauty’, as a potential philosopher, he feels Socrates has not loved him as himself, his particular, quirky, passionate, flawed, ambitious, handsome, confused, particular self. Howland notes the similarity between Alcibiades’ understanding of Socrates as satyr-like, and the satyr in Euripides’ Cyclops, who delights in mocking others just after he has succeeded in getting them to be their most exposed and vulnerable. Alcibiades’ comparison of Socrates to a satyr (p.133) indicates his sense of Socrates’ strangeness and seeming removal from the ordinary passions of other human beings.16

Alcibiades even implies that if only Socrates would love him in the way that he wants to be loved, he might be inspired to live a better life. Socrates seems only to care about loving knowledge and seeking the truth through conversation; the speech of Alcibiades calls into question whether this is really enough. Alcibiades is drunk, and his speech is about the drunken, manic, possessed aspects of love entirely overlooked by other characters so far. For Alcibiades, eros is painful, crazed, as much about Bacchic possession as about valorous action. Alcibiades says that part of why he loves Socrates is that Socrates is full of beautiful λόγοι‎ that contain images of virtue (222a), but loving a virtuous beloved turns out to be insufficient to make Alcibiades virtuous. For him, eros is not only a source of beauty and creation, but also—if frustrated—a source of suffering and destruction.17

While Socrates emphasizes the importance of care for the soul through the pursuit of the philosophical life, Alcibiades raises the question of the sufficiency of this view. He asks, Socrates may love the others as partners in conversation, but can he say of anyone (as Alcibiades says of him) that there is absolutely no one who has affected him in this way, that there is another of whom he can say, ‘I will never find another one just like him’? Is Socrates open to an eros that can weaken and transform him as a ‘whole’ human being, and not only as a seeker of Beauty itself?

Here Alcibiades displays his vulnerability, not only admitting to his desire for Socrates (contrary to the Greek expectation that the beloved ought to resist his lover while the lover pursues with open desire). He knows of his shortcomings and of his need to transform his life from an ambitious political life to a virtuous, philosophically informed care for his soul:

For he compels me to agree that though I am much myself in need (ἐνδεὴς‎), I neglect myself and attend to the affairs of Athens. So I stop my ears by force as if against the Sirens and run away (φεύγων‎) in order that I may not grow old sitting here beside him. Before him alone among men I suffer what one might not have supposed is in me—shame before anyone. Before him alone I feel ashamed (αἰσχύνομαι). (216a–b)

(p.134) Alcibiades is unrestrained in his ambition and concern for the praise of the multitude, except around Socrates. Socrates’ presence to him as a lover makes him, the beloved, aware of a latent sense of shame. That shame arises from a desire to look good in the eyes of Socrates, but also explains his awareness of his own need. His use of the verb ἐνδέω‎, translated here as ‘need’, indicates a lack or falling short, of which Alcibiades is self-aware. Unlike the Aristophanic lovers, who know only that they lack ‘something’ and so seek a lover without full self-awareness, Alcibiades even knows that the solution is to care for his soul and to stop attending to the attention of the multitude.

Alcibiades here reveals his great desire not to be vulnerable in three key ways in which he might show weakness: personal need; old age; and shame. These three forms of vulnerability that Alcibiades wishes to avoid are interrelated. Alcibiades must ‘stop up his ears’ (literally close himself off to prevent Socrates’ words from entering into his inner being) because if he were truly honest with his neglect of his own soul even when apart from Socrates, shame would be a natural result.18 Even his admitted fear of growing old, being a philosopher like Socrates instead of an active man of the city, reflects the idea behind Diotima’s claim that we seek immortality in accomplishment, knowing that life comes to an end. Alcibiades hints that his lack of shame and lack of care for his own soul comes from a fear of old age and even death, which leads him to ignore these difficult, but important, truths about human existence, in favour of an active political life and Dionysian approach to eros. His entrance into the symposium, drunk, crowned with ivy and violets, is suggestive of this Dionysian element in Alcibiades.19

Other ancient authors also describe Alcibiades as possessing an overinflated sense of pride. Thucydides, for example, writes that Alcibiades defended his expenditures at the Olympics by saying that he was ‘arrogant’ (μέγα φρονεῖν‎) in ways not equalled by others (Thucydides 6. 16. 2).20 But Thucydides also makes clear that Alcibiades lived beyond his means, always having greater desires than (p.135) means to fulfil them. Thucydides even specifies that Alcibiades’ excessive desires caused the downfall of the state when they made the multitude reject him (Thuc. 6. 15. 3–4).21 Socrates in Alcibiades I, too, presents Alcibiades as enormously ambitious, desiring to make himself not only ruler of Athens, but also over all of Greece and most of Asia (104–5).22 At least one forensic work presents Alcibiades as a threat to the community on account of his overinflated sense of pride, as well as his παρανόμια‎ (lawlessness of desire). A fragment from Eupolis even jokes that Alcibiades ought to be credited with the invention of drinking alcohol in the morning (frag 385K-).23 Demosthenes in his Against Meidias seeks to associate Meidias with Alicibiades in order to encourage the jurors to punish him. He warns that in the past, the city tolerated and excused the ‘insolence’ of figures such as Alcibiades, with the result of threatening genuine democracy (143–6). Alcibiades is a man who tries to live without limit, always pushing against his own vulnerability, even while such living threatened the well-being of the city. His self-awareness of his vulnerability, while it exceeds that of many others at the symposium, still does not translate into action. When Socrates disappears and Alcibiades finds himself before a crowd again, he admits that his shame dissipates and worldly ambition returns. Alcibiades’ downfall is that he was not vulnerable enough to Socrates’ λόγοι‎. While he describes those arguments as biting words that wounded him, he flees (φεύγει‎) from the source of the pain, rather than face it.

In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson suggests that eros makes us aware of our own boundaries as limited human beings. When one feels eros for another, the desire to overcome separation and to become one with the object of one’s love is impossible to realize: ‘[I]t is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realize I never can.’24 In the mix of desire for an impossible unity and awareness of one’s own boundaries, the lover becomes more profoundly aware of her own limit. One temptation is to blur the line between the self and Other, or to consider the Other only in terms of how he or she can fill the lack in oneself.25 Perhaps this is (p.136) why Alcibiades feels such anger that Socrates treats him only as a father would a son, when he desires the touch of a lover. He is not simply frustrated that Socrates does not reciprocate his love. He seems to feel upset that Socrates as a person is not defined by Alcibiades’ own need of him, which he admits to be substantial. Thus, he blames Socrates for not making him better than he is, in his illusory belief that Socrates’ identity can be defined in terms of his own lack.

While Socrates and Alcibiades are both aware of their own limit, in a sense, Alcibiades will not claim his limit as his own. Perhaps this is the key difference between the two of them: Socrates takes on a kind of responsibility for responding to his own limit while Alcibiades expects others such as Socrates somehow to care for and to tend to those limits adequately. However, Socrates is right that there is a certain kind of aloneness, perhaps inevitably even loneliness, in taking on responsibility for one’s weaknesses as well as strengths. Unlike the Aristophanic notion of a primal wound that can be healed if only the ‘right’ match is found, Socrates’ picture of human limit and loving is not solved by another person’s actions or presence, and perhaps not even soluble. Instead, Socrates emphasizes a constant attentiveness to the limits of one’s own humanity and staying with one’s responsibility to respond constructively to one’s own limits.

The Phaedo puts it most starkly in Socrates’ claim that all philosophy is ‘practicing for death’ (81a), the ultimate insoluble limit. The philosopher must not avoid the hard truth of death’s inevitability, but rather live with the understanding that death is not something to be avoided at the expense of other goods. Socrates, then, while invulnerable to snow, money, bodily beauty, and status, is nonetheless one who places a great deal of emphasis on being vulnerable to the words and arguments of others. Indeed, his account of how the prophetess Diotima taught and corrected him provides a paradigm for the significance of receiving teaching from outside oneself and acknowledging the need to learn.26 Socrates does not say that he has made the ascent himself, only that Diotima has ‘persuaded me’ of the account of eros.27 While Socrates and Diotima were not lovers in a strict sense, they do fit the model of reproduction of beautiful ideas that Diotima (p.137) sets out: Diotima has shared something of her knowledge of love’s nature with Socrates, who recognizes his need for such a teaching. He describes his encounter with her as a matter of having been ‘cross-examined’ (ἀνακρίνουσα‎; 201e). Given the near absence of women from political and philosophical discourse, the admission of being cross-examined by a woman, and found wanting, is particularly humbling. But Socrates’ response was to learn, and to praise Diotima for her wisdom, not to get angry at his own insufficiency.

Further, in this conversation at the symposium, Socrates participates again in a conversation in which the knowledge is reproduced, again handed on to others, who may or may not respond to it with a sense of their own neediness (or its persuasiveness as an account). But it is Socrates’ sense of his own limit, the ‘knowledge of his own ignorance’, that he characterizes as his ‘true wisdom’ in the Apology, a wisdom that makes possible both learning and passing on what he has learned, but a form of wisdom which also makes him vulnerable to the charges of those who feel humiliated by his questioning attempts to get others to feel their own neediness. This mode of questioning in order to make others understand their ‘lack’ will eventually contribute to his being put to death, but also to his creativity here in contributing to the ongoing discussion of love.28

Socrates’ justice and Alcibiades’ injustice are the respective consequences of different responses they each have to their own vulnerability. The previous chapter explored how in the Gorgias, Callicles sees Socrates’ inattentiveness to political and pragmatic concerns as potentially harmful. However, the Symposium suggests that there are tremendous costs in too great a concern with political pressure. While Socrates’ death is the consequence of choosing philosophy, a life of enquiry and of questioning of others, as his response, Alcibiades avoids his own vulnerability with the resulting peril of losing a sense of his own virtue. If we contrast Socrates’ relative placidity and acceptance of his own death in both the Phaedo and the Apology, to the inner turmoil and confusion that we see in Alcibiades’ speech, as well as the outward tumult of his political actions, Socrates’ response seems to result in greater happiness. Indeed, his recognition (p.138) of his limit seems to be the very source of his own freedom, for without fear of death or loss of status, Socrates can speak truthfully and authentically about all matters.29 Socrates’ death is not something that he regards as evil, given that he has been as just as possible in the course of his life. In contrast, Alcibiades seems to struggle with the good of his own activities and his self-understanding, with peace never quite in reach.

But Socrates’ response to vulnerability does not only have consequences for personal happiness as an individual. For this openness to language and its transformative potential is true also for some others in the dialogue. Dialogue is made possible because Socrates and others take seriously the need to be vulnerable to λόγοι‎, in ways that Alcibiades refuses. Eros drives the philosophical conversation of this meeting of friends and acquaintances. For some of the same themes in the individual speeches about eros are recapitulated in this particular symposium’s interactions in deed. While the flute girls have been sent away, and speeches have supplanted (at least to some extent) kisses and heavy drinking, after a previous night’s excess (176a–e), eros still abounds at the party. Aristodemus attends the party because he is, according to Apollodorus in the dialogue’s opening, ‘obsessed’ with Socrates. But Socrates is clearly not bothered by Aristodemus’ attention; instead, he invites him along to the party, which only Socrates had been asked to attend. Because Socrates becomes lost in thought, Aristodemus ends up accidentally at the party without Socrates, and so experiences the awkward unpleasantness of being an uninvited guest. Eros itself is something like that experience, of being an ‘uninvited guest’; such a moment takes us off guard, and interferes in the ordering of our best, most carefully laid out plans. This sense of eros as an interruption continues in the dialogue’s action when Aristophanes gets the hiccups, and so Erixymachus takes over his place in the speechmaking. Alcibiades’ sudden, drunken entrance is its most powerful interruption.30

Eros is also present in the philosophical conversation itself, in the mixture of Poverty and Plenty, πενία‎, and πόρος‎, in the quest to understand love’s nature. Love is not only the topic of conversation; (p.139) it is its motive, when we understand eros in its wider dimension as that which gives birth to, among other creative goods, beautiful speeches. These speeches also bind the participants in this conversation together, to one another, so that they are also like the lover and beloved of Plato’s Phaedrus, whose love for each other leads to the sprouting of wings and ascent to that which they both love outside of one another. Diotima and Socrates might be one such pairing, as her questioning of him fruitfully contributes to his further growth and development.31 But instead of philosophy existing only between the lover–beloved dyad, the Symposium makes the whole community, whose speeches build dialectically upon one another in conversation, the means of the ascent. While Socrates can fall prey to his temptation to turn away from the world and its interactions, and get lost in his thoughts while leaving poor Aristodemus at the door, the larger community of philosophers and poets, doctors and politicians also ensures that he does not remain standing there in contemplation. The incompleteness, longing, and even wounded nature of souls such as Alcibiades ensures that Socrates remains an active part of the life of the community, not only a contemplator, but also as a moral and political actor, and friend.


(1) As Payne has argued, however, this teleology is not of the sort where an action is performed for the sake of an end, for the lover lower on the ascent has no idea of what awaits at the ascent’s end; he is unaware of the nature of Beauty itself, which nonetheless is pulling him along in his unknowing pursuit. See Andrew Payne, ‘The Teleology of the Ascent in Plato’s Symposium’, Apeiron 41 (2008), 123–46.

(2) Gregory Vlastos, ‘The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato’, in G. Vlastos, Platonic Studies, 2nd edn. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 39. Against this view, Nehamas writes, ‘The philosophic lover does not reject the beauty of what he leaves behind as he rises toward the Form. Although he discovers beauties that exceed anything he has already seen, the beauty of what he leaves behind does not disappear; only its brilliance diminishes, as the moon’s radiance wanes in the light of the sun.’ See Alexander Nehamas, ‘“Only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living”, Plato Symposium 211d’, European Journal of Philosophy 15 (3) (2007).

(3) E.g. Friedrich Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage, 1967).

(4) Translations are from Plato,Symposium, trans. R. E. Allen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), with permission.

(5) Charles Griswold, ‘Irony in the Platonic Dialogues’, Philosophy and Literature 26 (1) (April 2002), 84–106.

(6) For a thorough account of the philosophical importance of narration in the dialogues, see Ann-Marie Bowery, ‘Know Thyself: Socrates as Storyteller’, in Gary Scott (ed.), Philosophy in Dialogue Form: Plato’s Many Devices (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 82–109.

(7) Kevin Corrigan and Elena Glasov-Corrigan, Plato’s Dialectic at Play: Argument, Structure, and Myth in the Symposium (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).

(8) Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1995), 688. I am indebted to Stern-Gillett’s book Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship for drawing attention to this passage in the context of the discussion of love in ancient thought. See Suzanne Stern-Gillett, Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship (New York: SUNY Press, 1995), 60–1.

(9) Cristina Ionescu, ‘The Transition from the Lower to the Higher Mysteries of Love in Plato’s Symposium’, Dialogue 46 (1) (2007), 29. Ionescu argues that the theory of recollection is present here as the link between the two levels.

(10) D. C. Schindler, ‘Plato on the Problem of Love: On the Nature of Eros in the Symposium’, Apeiron 40 (3) (2007), 199–220, persuasively argues that in the final stages of eros, desire is ‘naturally ecstatic’, not selfish. Against this reading, Kosman argues for a view of Platonic love that is essentially a form of self-love. See L. A. Kosman, ‘Platonic Love’, in W. H. Werkmeister (ed.), Facets of Plato’s Philosophy (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1976), 53–69; Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953); and Gerasimos Santas, ‘Plato’s Theory of Eros in the Symposium’, Nous 13 (1979), 67–75.

(11) Rangos characterizes the speeches as akin to a series of stepping stones. Spyridon Rangos, ‘On Diotima’s Allusions to Earlier Speakers in Plato’s Symposium’, Skepsis 16 (1) (2005), 168.

(12) Thanks to Jill Gordon for pointing out this connection between the navel and dependence on the mother as implicit in the myth.

(13) Fussi shows the sense in which Diotima’s speech is a response to Aristophanes’ speech, not refutative in nature, but rather a more complex development of how love is a response to incompleteness and mortality. See Alessandra Fussi, ‘Love of the Good, Love of the Whole: Diotima’s Response to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium’, Epoche 13 (2) (2009), 267–90.

(14) Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Speech of Alcibiades: A Reading of Plato’s Symposium’, Philosophy and Literature 3 (2) (1979), 133.

(15) Jacob Howland, ‘Plato’s Dionysian Music: A Reading of the Symposium’, Epoche 12 (1) (2007), 31.

(16) Howland, ‘Plato’s Dionysian Music’, 32.

(17) Jill Gordon brings out the tragic element of Alcibiades in the Symposium in her book Plato’s Erotic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 180–3.

(18) Scott and Welton suggest that it is Alcibiades’ desire to avoid shame that leads him to make his speech at the symposium, in order to knock down Socrates from his pedestal. See Gary Scott and William Welton, ‘An Overlooked Motive in Alcibiades’ Symposium Speech’, Interpretation 24 (1) (1996), 70.

(19) Corrigan and Gazov-Corrigan, Dialectic at Play, 163.

(20) See D. Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 14–15 and chapter 3.

(21) Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens, 69–70.

(22) Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens, 17.

(23) Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens, 79.

(24) Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (Champaign, Ill.: Dalkey, 1998), 30.

(25) Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 34–5.

(26) Ionescu, ‘The Transition from the Lower’, 9.

(27) William J. Prior, ‘The Portrait of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy Vol. XXXI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 147.

(28) Socrates suggests that the real reason that others became angry with him was that they redirected their frustration at their inability to answer his questions at him: ‘those who are examined are angry with me, instead of angry with themselves’ (Apology 23c).

(29) Scott and Welton, ‘An Overlooked Motive’, 74–7.

(30) Nussbaum points to the significance of the dialogue’s dating as an allusion to Alcibiades’ later mutilation of the hermai as well. See Nussbaum, ‘The Speech of Alcibiades’, 171.

(31) Corrigan and Glasov-Corrigan note the importance of balance between the feminine and masculine, as well as between Diotima’s Plenty and Socrates’ Poverty, as creative forces in the dialogue. See Corrigan and Glasov-Corrigan, Dialectic at Play, 111–18.