Apollodorus relates to an unnamed companion a story he heard from Aristodemus about a symposium, or dinner party, held in honor of the playwright Agathon. Besides Aristodemus and Agathon, the guests include Agathon’s lover Pausanias, the doctor Eryximachus, the great comic poet Aristophanes, and the young Phaedrus. Socrates arrives late, having been lost in thought on a neighboring porch. Once they have finished eating, Eryximachus proposes that, instead of the usual entertainments, the guests should take turns giving speeches in praise of the god of Love.
Phaedrus speaks first, praising Love as the oldest of all the gods and the one that does the most to promote virtue in people. Pausanias speaks next, distinguishing the base desires involved in Common Love from the purity of Heavenly Love, which only ever exists between a man and a boy. In exchange for sexual gratification from the boy, the man acts as a mentor, teaching him wisdom and virtue. Eryximachus, the third speaker, argues that Love promotes order and moderation, not only in people but also in all things. Thus, Love can exist in such fields as music and medicine.
Aristophanes is the next to speak, and he presents his conception of Love in the form of a myth. Humans once had four legs, four arms, two heads, and so on, he says. Some were male, with two sets of male sexual organs; some were females; and some were hermaphrodites, with one set each of male and female sexual organs. We were twice the people we are now, and the gods were jealous, afraid we would overthrow them. Zeus decided to cut us in half to reduce our power, and ever since we have been running all over the earth trying to rejoin with our other half. When we do, we cling to that other half with all our might, and we call this Love.
Agathon speaks next, giving an elaborate and flowery speech about Love, which he describes as young, sensitive, beautiful, and wise. All our virtues are gifts that we receive from this god. Socrates questions Agathon, doubting his speech and suggesting that Agathon has described the object of Love, not Love itself.
To correct him, Socrates explains he once held the same beliefs until he met Diotima of Mantinea, a wise woman who taught him everything he knows about Love. According to Diotima, Love is neither a god nor a mortal but rather a spirit born of a coupling between Resource and Poverty. Love itself is not wise or beautiful and does not have any of the other attributes Agathon ascribed to it. Rather, it is the desire for all these things. As such, Love wishes to give birth to Beauty, and so Diotima associates Love with pregnancy and reproduction. Some seek to reproduce sexually, while other seek to give birth to ideas, the children of their minds. We first learn about Beauty by seeing and desiring beautiful people or objects, but our desire for Beauty can be gradually refined until ultimately we love Beauty itself, which is the highest love there is.
As Socrates concludes his speech, the famous politician Alcibiades bursts in completely drunk. He complains that he has consistently tried to seduce Socrates in order to glean wisdom from him but that Socrates resists any kind of sexual advances. Shortly thereafter, more revelers arrive and the party descends into drunken chaos. When Aristodemus wakes up the next morning, he sees Socrates, Agathon, and Aristophanes still engaged in sober conversation. Eventually, Agathon and Aristophanes fall asleep, and Socrates leaves and goes about his daily business.