By Neha Dhull
Plato’s The Symposium is an account by Apollodorus of a gathering where few men come together and make an attempt to compose a eulogy on the God of love, i.e., Eros. Through the course of the symposium, people take turns to praise the God of Love and put forward their views on what constitutes as good love or who embodies the spirit of a good lover. Here, we will read The Symposium through the lens of social marginality, especially its relation to patriarchy and women’s issue as well as and class. We will also talk about the education system and the subtle ways in which forms of capital, i.e., economic, social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986), become apparent during this time.
The major structural observation that we can make is that of the political/cultural climate of the time, where men engage in philosophical questions over drinks, but women largely remain out of public spaces. In the entire symposium the only women we encounter are the house help. And it is only towards the end of the symposium that Socrates talks about the knowledge imparted to him on Eros by a wise woman, Diotima. She is represented in The Symposium as a priestess with psychic powers who prevents the plague. Generally regarded to be a fictional figure, we can notice that even when a woman is shown to be knowledgeable, she is not an active participant of society as she remains away from it. This invokes the idea that she is different from other women. The Symposium exposes structural inequalities present between men and women where men could be both knowledgeable and active participant of society but women could not do the same.
While male homosexuality is addressed at length in The Symposium and even considered important for intellectual reproduction, female homosexuality is hardly addressed in the text. In his speech, Aristophanes uses mythology to establish the genesis of gays and lesbians. The idea itself is ahead of its time. But he goes on to talk much more about being a gay and a lover of younger boys than about lesbianism and the socio-cultural implication of being so. One of the reasons for this omission could be that it is a gathering of men, who might not want to concern themselves with female love. However, it is also a gathering of some of the greatest philosophers of the time and their silence on lesbianism echoes the biases present in the society. Aristophanes, along with many other speakers, also goes to great lengths to justify pederasty, i.e., sexual activity between a man and a boy, as a form of true love. However, not all forms of gay love is accepted; only love between a boy and a man is considered superior. From a structural perspective, it can be seen that showing interest in older men bestows social capital, i.e., connections and cultural capital, i.e., mannerism, education, style of speech, and ways of dressing. The knowledge and connections that a young man develops as a consequence of being a lover to an older, accomplished man aid him to pursue politics. It is possible that younger boys looked to this practice as a way to improve their status in society.
Additionally, heterosexuality is considered to be important only for reproductive purpose. It is thought to be an imperfect form of love, as it is not an instrument to further intellect and wisdom. For Aristophanes, marriage or procreation is forced upon pederasts, lover of boys, by law. In one of the earlier speeches, given by Pausanias, he argues that love directed by men towards men is naturally more intelligent and vigorous. He goes on to say that even the Goddess of this kind of love does not have any female attributes but only male attributes. This demonstrates the values of their milieu, where masculine traits even in a woman are considered of higher value than that of feminine traits. Attraction to boys is even considered ‘heavenly love’, while attraction to women is referred to as ‘common love’.
In Agathon’s account we can vividly see the importance given to beauty and complexion. He argues that Eros does not settle on a fading body or soul. Thus, only people who have the time and the means to take care of their beauty and complexion are graced by the God of love. It invokes the idea that the God of love is classist. Although many other philosophers present at this gathering argues that loving the soul/intellect is more considerable, it is crucial to remember that the aristocrats/ philosophers were an exiguous part of the entire population of ancient Greece. The other classes are completely excluded in the text and not seen worthy to be embraced by the God of Love. One can assume that the working class neither had the means to take care of their complexion nor to gain education in most cases. This is only an assumption as neither this text nor others give us a gist of the kind of life ordinary people lived.
Towards the end of The Symposium, Socrates presents a drastically different ode to Eros. He goes on to argue that Eros is neither beautiful nor good. He is a daemon, i.e., someone between the mortal and the immortal, between ugly and beautiful, and between good and bad. Socrates argues that Eros’ love of something makes him desire of that something as he does not have it. Eros wants that something both in the present and in the future. Thus, Socrates argues that love is the path to immortality, as reproduction and birth are the only ways humans can come close to immortality. Immortality can be of both the body and mind and that the only kind of love worth pursuing is love for intellect. Socrates is not quite different from the other speakers when he argues that while heterosexual love is seen to contribute to immortality of human species, homosexual love between men is understood to be superior as it immortalises individuals by intellectual reproduction. Further, it becomes evident that knowledge production and reproduction itself were in the domain of men as, according to Plato, love between men can reproduce intellect, and is thus superior.
Having the luxury to pursue intellect also comes from being in a position in society where one does not have to worry about the basic needs of life. It is a well-known fact that most philosophers came from an aristocratic family and thus had the means and time to pursue philosophical knowledge. They considered gratification through earning money as immoral.
Plato’s recurring theme is that ‘common love’ is a bad kind of love and only that kind of love is relevant where gratifying a lover is done in pursuit of virtue or knowledge. A specific type of intellect, philosophical knowledge, is worth pursuing. Knowledge associated with skills does not constitute as intellectual development. This also gives us an idea of the education systems that existed at the time. While men’s education was aimed at developing intellect, women’s education was limited to training in domestic tasks (Murphy M., 2015). Although Plato himself was the first to suggest equality of education between men and women based on their natural ability, his consideration was based on the fact that some women were naturally as equipped to be guardians as some men (Brian C., 1975). This statement is testament to Plato’s inherent view that men were superior to women.
In this essay, we have made an attempt to understand The Symposium through the broader lens of gender and class. The ideas, especially held by the intellectuals, show us the subtle ways in which patriarchy operated in the society and the education system. Also, we see that the philosophers are unaware of their own privileged status in society and are critical of those who engage in activities in pursuit of money. They are also critical of those who do not have the time and means to invest in beauty and are not in pursuit of intellect or philosophical knowledge. While the main theme of The Symposium is the praise of Eros, it subtly informs us of the social and cultural milieu of ancient Greece.
Calvert, Brian. “Plato and the Equality of Women.” Phoenix 29, no. 3 (1975): 231–43.
Benardete, Seth and Allan Bloom. 2001. Plato’s Symposium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and John G. Richardson. The forms of Capital in “Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education.” CT: Greenwood (1986): 241-258.
Murphy, Madonna. “Plato’s Philosophy of Education and the Common Core Debate.” Online Submission (2015).
Neha Dhull completed Masters in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is currently pursuing her teaching degree from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research interest includes social marginality, women studies, golbalisation, global development and conflict studies.
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