The significance of Alcibiades and his speech in Plato’s Symposium

Alcibiades and his speech play a crucial role in the Symposium, because they serve as a platonic image complementing Socrates’ speech. According to Socrates in The Republic, images serve as a first step on the path to understanding (imagination is the first part of the divided line) (The Republic, 511 d), and thus are the most accessible form in which somebody can be put on the path to knowledge. Thus, compared to the highly abstract and complex language of Diotima, Alcibiades’ account portrays how eros works in practice in a more easy to grasp form for the reader. Furthermore, this image is useful for persuasive purposes. If Plato would simply state that love should not involve any sex, but instead it should consist mostly of philosophy, he will probably be outright rejected by many people. By offering an image, in this case Alcibiades’ account of his relationship with Socrates, he can present the idea to the reader in a form that seems more natural and that will not invite visceral immediate rejection. The third and most powerful purpose that this image has is that it gives rise to philosophical inquiry, because of the different ways of interpreting it and the questions that it poses. Thus Plato, rather than offering a direct addition to Diotima’s speech about souls ruled by honor, presents this particular story to the reader, and requires him to build his own philosophical theory and explanations about it (which might be different than those the author intended), thus serving to encourage and to advance philosophical inquiry.

For that reason, much of the value and significance that the image (Alcibiades’ personal account) brings to the text as a whole is through the questions that it poses, one of which is: where can we place Alcibiades’ love for Socrates on Diotima’s ladder of love? Each and every step of Diotima’s ladder of love requires the follower to give speeches (Symposium, 210), until he reaches the form of beautiful itself (211 A, B, C). Yet because Alcibiades did not associate love with giving speeches for the sake of the truth (since when Socrates offers him to “deliberate” over Alcibiades’ insistence to have a more physical erotic relationship, he interprets it as a rejection) (219 B), and was erotically interested in Socrates so that he may teach him how to become “the best” (219 D), his speech does not seem to be anywhere on the ladder of love. This gives rise to the most crucial question that Alcibiades’ speech raises for the dialogue as a whole: Is Alcibiades personal account of eros compatible with Socrates’ speech and his attempt at defining the concept, and if so, where does it fit into his theory? In order to address this question, and most of the other questions raised by the image, and to be able to make sense of Alcibiades’ account of what happened between him and Socrates, we must use Socrates’ speech, and try to build a more complete and coherent framework about eros out of it.

When Socrates begins his speech at 201 D, the interlocutors were still talking about Eros as a god. Socrates (invoking Diotima’s speech) then shows that Eros is actually a daemon, an entity that bridges the gap between humans and the divine (202 E). At 205A, another jump is made, and we start talking about “eros” instead of “Eros”. Eros thus becomes more like a force of nature, a more abstract entity. Once Diotima has started talking about this abstract “eros”, she says that there are actually two kinds of “eros” (205 B).

There is the general concept of eros: “In brief, eros is the whole desire of good things and of being happy” (205 D). This is something that all human beings have (205 A).

Then, there is a more specific kind of eros, which “we detach from eros and give it the name eros, imposing upon it the name of the whole;” (205 B). It’s very easy to mix these two up, so in this essay I will call them general eros and specific eros. While there is only one type of general eros, there can be numerous types of specific eros, which are subsumed under the general eros, depending on what people consider “good things” to be. Diotima describes in detail only one type of specific eros, to which I shall refer as the calculating eros, which is defined by the desire for “the good’s being one’s own always” (owning the good, forever) (206 A).

But Alcibiades does not seem to be driven towards “the good” itself, nor are most people when they think about love. As a solution to this problem, in order to be able to integrate Alcibiades’ account into Diotima’s erotic framework, I propose to build upon Diotima’s classification, and add two other kinds of specific eros, depending on which part of the soul rules in a certain person: a spirited eros (for the likes of Alcibiades) and a desiring eros (the most common one, present in the vast majority of people).

How would this work in Diotima’s model? First, there is the general kind of eros, that present in all people: “the whole desire of good things and of being happy”. Then Diotima says that there are many subtypes of general eros, depending on how one approaches it (205 D), more exactly on what people consider “good things” to be. With this in mind, we draw upon Plato’s The Republic, and depending on what part of the soul rules, we have different types of specific kinds of eros.

If the calculating part of soul rules, that man will be driven by a calculating (rational) eros. In order to obtain “good things”, he realizes that he must first know what “good” itself is. Only then can the good be “one’s own always” (206 A). This is the eros that Diotima uses for the rest of her speech, and the one to which the ladder of love applies to.

If the spirited part of the soul rules, that man will be driven by a spirited (honor-seeking) eros. He will consider good things to be things such as being the best, earning honor or glory and being admired by others. By obtaining these, he will be happy (204 E).  Warriors, politicians and other honor-seeking people like Alcibiades would have this kind of specific eros.

If the desiring part of the soul rules, that man will be driven by a desiring eros. Depending on the stage of his life, he will desire things such as sex, marriage or children, and consider them to be good things, which once in his possession will make him happy (204 A). Since the majority of people are ruled by the desiring part of their soul, they will have this kind of specific eros.

An argument for why the calculating type of eros is the preferable one can be made drawing upon Plato’s The Republic. There, it is shown that the calculating part should rule the soul (The Republic, 442 a, b), and thus it follows here in the Symposium that humans should preferably be guided by the calculating eros.

Socrates considers the calculative eros to be the only true kind of eros, since he agrees with Diotima that “there is nothing that human beings love other than the good” (Symposium, 205 A). Thus, we can understand Socrates’ behavior as described by Alcibiades, by thinking about how a person with a calculative eros acts. What will a person who seeks to always own the good do? First, if they want to own the good, they need to find out what the good is. In order to do that, they need to create different ideas about what the good is, to analyze them, to construct upon them, in one word: to philosophize. But in order to philosophize properly, which requires dialectic, one needs other people (The Republic, 534 c). Thus, in order to find out what the good is, one will seek environments (people) in which he can philosophize and give rise to ideas. With this in mind we can understand Diotima’s statement about how people who are driven by this calculative eros will act: “Their deed is bringing to birth in beauty both in terms of body and in terms of soul” (Symposium, 206 B). They will look for beautiful environments (people with which to philosophize) in order to “birth” (to create) ideas (“in terms of soul”). This possibility is mentioned specifically by Diotima in her speech (209 A).

But it is not enough only to try to figure out what the good is. This calculative eros also makes you want to own it forever (206 E, 207 A). That gives rise to a desire for immortality that all living things share, and which they can achieve through “birth” (206 D). Some give birth in a physical sense, and have children, others “give birth” and find their immortality in a more abstract way (208 E, 209 A). Those who choose to do so abstractly for example seek immortality by “giving birth” to ideas, thoughts, philosophies, laws, etc (209 A, B).  Diotima (and thus also Socrates) argues in favor of the second way of achieving immortality, through abstract things (209). Beauty comes into play as a desirable attribute of the environment in which such offspring are to be generated (206 C, D, E). Thus, the calculating eros would include the desire and the search for such an environment (205 D, E).

This seems to fit Diotima’s ladder of love pretty well.  If one is to love correctly (to seek to own the good in perpetuity) then he must be “guided” this way (210 A): he must first love a body, then realize that what he is looking for is a characteristic of bodies in general, and thus love bodies in general, then move on to the abstract plane and love souls (minds in contemporary terms), and then realize he does not love a specific mind, but certain patterns that pertain to many minds, and thus he turns his love towards beautiful pursuits and laws, then to the sciences and philosophy, and in the end to beauty itself (210, 211). Once he reaches beauty itself he can use that environment to “give birth to and cherished true virtue” (212 A), which implies knowledge of the good, and “if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well” (212 A), which will allow the human to possess the knowledge of the good forever.

Now that we have Diotima’s philosophical framework for eros, which we have taken further by adding two new types of specific eros, we can use it to return to the image, and understand the significance of Alcibiades and his speech in the Symposium.

First, we can understand what Socrates means when he says “I claim to have expert knowledge of nothing but erotics” (177 D, E). He means that he has expert knowledge of desiring to understand what the good is and to posses it (which we can see play out in The Republic). Furthermore, we can see how this fits with Alcibiades’ description of him. He is shown to be an intellectual person, who spends most of his time either thinking (220 C, D) or philosophizing with others (215 C; 221 D, E; 222 E). Because his soul is ruled by the calculating part, he is able to have extraordinary self-control (221 B) and endurance (220 B). When it comes to love, because he is driven by a calculative eros, he does not desire physical beauty, money, honor, or whatever else most of the people would be attracted to (216 D, E), but he is interested in giving speeches and philosophizing.

Alcibiades on the other hand has a spirited, honor-driven soul. He admits that he has succumbed to the honor he receives from the masses (216 B), and his main interest is “becoming the best possible” (218 D). He thinks in terms of superiority and honor, as shown by his behavior. He comes surrounded by attendants, “thickly crowned with ivy and violets, with many fillets on his head” (212 D, E) – all social signs of superior status, and indicative of the fact that he cares about the opinion of others. He says that he could not come to Agathon’s show, but later he comes to “wreathe” Agathon (212 E) and thus to confer honor to him, from a position of superiority. Furthermore, his state of drunkenness (212 E) can be interpreted as a metaphor for his clouded reason, which does not rule in his soul.

Alcibiades’ approach to philosophy is also in line with his honor-driven soul. He does not care about truth; he cares about the power that comes with the knowledge. When he describes Socrates, he seems fascinated by the “power” Socrates has to enthrall others (215 E). Later, when he recounts about his time spent with Socrates speaking and wrestling, without “gratifying Socrates” or doing anything sexual with him, he concludes that “I got no advantage from it at all” (217 C). Furthermore, when Socrates responds to his sexual offer by inviting him to deliberate and later decide together on what course to follow, Alcibiades interprets this as a rejection (219). He does not seem to understand how love works for Socrates’, and neither what philosophy is about. He is not interested in conversing with Socrates, but only in obtaining some kind of power from him, that will enable him to enthrall others and to be able to contradict and to defeat anybody in argument (216 B).

Socrates also has an interest in Alcibiades. He mentions that he still has some love for Alcibiades, and that has proved quite bothersome (213 C, D). But his love is of a different kind. Socrates is interested in finding out what the good is, and in order to achieve that he will look for people with which to philosophize, and to ascend together with them on the ladder of love by giving speeches. Judging by his actions, that is exactly what he was trying to do with Alcibiades. Alcibiades’ main activity with Socrates was conversing (217), and when Alcibiades’ tried to make their relationship more erotic, Socrates responds that “what you say is good” and offers to deliberate (to think about issues) together with him (219 A, B). For Socrates, this is a sign of affection, and not one of rejection. Since love for Socrates means spending time with the other person and giving speeches, rejection would mean simply not spending time with the other person. Thus, Socrates did not reject Alcibiades, but on the contrary, offered him his love according to his eros.

The breaking point in their relationship was caused by Alcibiades’ inability to understand and to satisfy Socrates’ eros. Socrates desired a dialectical partner with which he may ascend on the ladder of love, but had no interest for bodily pleasures, money, honor or power over his peers. On the other hand, Alcibiades’ wanted Socrates to give him his knowledge so that he may obtain power, and was not interested in philosophy for the sake of the truth. Thus, because Alcibiades’ had nothing to give Socrates, since he was not concerned with the search for the truth, and he was not interested in what Socrates had to give willingly (dialectic), their different types of eros were fundamentally incompatible.

Alcibiades’ presence also serves to bring into light the issue of jealousy and eros. His jealousy and envy still haunt Socrates at the time of the feast, and they need to be removed or kept in check in order for the two men to be on friendly terms again (214 D). Since Alcibiades was honor-driven, we can infer he wanted to be Socrates’ only lover, since that would confer him more honor than simply being one of his lovers. Also, since he would have had exclusivity to Socrates’ wisdom and teachings, he would have gained an advantage over his Athenian peers. Thus it was in his interest for Socrates to be only his. Socrates on the other hand was driven by a different kind of eros, the calculative one. Since he would be interested in searching for people with which to philosophize (or beautiful environments in which to give rise to ideas), he had no need to limit himself to only one person. On the contrary, a diversity of philosophical perspectives usually serves better in order to dialectically get closer to the truth. It follows then that jealousy was a much smaller part, if not entirely absent, for Socrates than for Alcibiades.

Thus, after being compelled by the initial image, we have gone back and understood Diotima’s erotic framework; and after we have closely read and interpreted the last part of the Symposium, we can see that Alcibiades and his speech actually offer us not one but three distinct images to complement Socrates’ abstract account of eros. These images are: the image of Socrates (as a man who is driven by a calculating, rational, eros), the image of Alcibiades (as a man who is driven by the spirited, honor-seeking, kind of eros), and the image of how each of the two men (and types of soul) approaches an erotic relationship. Each of these images, once understood, offers the reader a more intuitive and comprehensive understanding of Diotima’s (and Socrates’) theory of eros, and most importantly of all, invite him to ask further questions.

Bibliography

  • The Republic, Plato, translated by Allan Bloom, second edition, Basic Books (1968)
  • Symposium, Plato, translated by Seth Benardete, The University of Chicago Press (2001)
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