In the Symposium, Plato presents the love of wisdom as the highest form of love and philosophy as a refinement of our sexual urges that leads us to desire wisdom over sex. That is, we do not seek wisdom by first suppressing sexual desire and other distractions but rather by refining that desire and training it on a higher purpose. Plato sets his dialogue at a symposium, which was one of the highlights of Athenian social life, and amidst a discussion about Love to show us that philosophy is not removed from the business of everyday life. On the contrary, philosophy is the highest expression of the loves and desires that motivate us in everyday activities. If we could see things clearly, Plato suggests, we would see that our attraction to beautiful people or good music or exciting movies is really an attraction to Beauty itself and that philosophy is the most direct route to getting at what we most desire.

Diotima describes love as the pursuit of beauty in a gradual ascent from the particular to the general, culminating in an understanding of the Form of Beauty. Even the most ignorant soul is drawn to beauty on some level. What most of us don’t realize, she suggests, is that what attracts us to a beautiful person, for instance, is that we perceive in that person an idea of the greater Form of Beauty. That is, we are attracted not to the person but to the beauty in the person. If our love is keen enough, we will not be satisfied by beautiful people but will seek out beauty in more generalized forms: in minds, in the structure of a well-ordered state, and ultimately in the Form of Beauty itself, the most generalized form that beauty takes. Once we have come to grasp the Form of Beauty, we will have grasped the fundamental truth that the reality of our experience is just a shadow world compared with the ideal, eternal, and unchanging world of Forms. This Theory of Forms is presented in greater detail in the Phaedo and the Republic. Here, we get the hint that the way to an understanding of Forms is through a love of beauty.

The dialogue’s structure mirrors the progression Diotima describes of pursuing beauty in increasingly refined and generalized forms. Each speech in the dialogue takes us a step closer to understanding the true nature of love. Phaedrus gives us a simple enthusiasm for the value of love; Pausanias distinguishes between good and bad forms of love; Eryximachus expands the definition to cover other fields of inquiry; Aristophanes gives us a delightful account of the urgency of love; and Agathon applies the refined art of rhetoric to understanding love. Only by first considering and seeing the limitations in these earlier speeches can we then appreciate the importance of Socrates’ speech. We should also note that, in Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon, we have representatives of medicine, comedy, and tragedy, all three of which are important components of a healthy life. By having Socrates trump these other three, Plato is suggesting that philosophy is more important to our well-being than these other disciplines.

The original Greek text contains a number of untranslatable puns that enhance our understanding of the relationship between love, desire, and philosophy. The Greek word eros, translated as “love,” is also the root of our word erotic and can be used in Greek to describe sexual desire. Socrates is thus being coy when he explains that Diotima taught him everything he knows about eros, a coyness that is enhanced when we discover that Diotima of Mantinea was the name of a well-known temple prostitute in ancient Greece. The implication is that Socrates came to Diotima seeking sex, but she instead taught him about beauty and wisdom. This implication further reinforces the suggestion that the desire for wisdom is a refinement, and not a denial, of our desire for sex. In the dialogue, Diotima becomes the model of Beauty, which every lover seeks, while Socrates becomes the model of Love, being himself neither beautiful nor satisfied but constantly seeking more. This picture of Socrates the lover further plays on the word philosopher, which literally means “lover of wisdom.”

While the Symposium contains a great deal of explicit homoerotic content, it would be a distortion to label characters in the dialogue as homosexual or bisexual. These sorts of categories are modern inventions that do not just denote a person’s sexual preference but also define a person according to his or her sexual preference. Greek society, for the most part, didn’t consider sexual preference as a defining personality trait, so labeling Greeks as homosexual or heterosexual would be as odd to them as defining modern students as “white sock wearers” or “colored sock wearers.” Almost all Greek men married women and had children (Plato is a rare exception), while many Greek men also pursued less permanent sexual relations with other men. The activities thought most to display virtue and glory, such as athletics, warfare, and politics, were exclusively the realm of men, so two men could share in this virtue and glory in a way that a man and a woman could not. Consequently, male–male relationships were often romanticized, whereas male–female relationships were viewed as purely practical affairs, which united families and produced children. These two different kinds of relationships existed alongside one another, and both were considered healthy and natural.