NOTE: There are no breaks in The Symposium as Plato wrote it. These notes on the text were made later, with sections beginning or breaking off where a new theme or topic is introduced or dropped. Sections in this guide are demarcated according to the Stephanus numbers (the page numbers from the complete works of Plato edited by Henri Estienne—"Stephanus"—in Latin) published in 1578). For Plato's works, the Stephanus numbers are the standard page references, and most editions of Plato's work contain the Stephanus numbers along the margins.
The dialogue opens with Apollodorus agreeing to tell an unnamed companion who is a rich businessman the famous story of the party held in honor of Agathon to celebrate the success of his first tragedy. Apollodorus retells the account he gave to Glaucon (Plato's half-brother and main interlocutor of the Republic) who had in turn heard of the party from some other, less reliable source. Glaucon had thought Apollodorus had been in attendance, but Apollodorus points out that the party took place many years ago, when he and Glaucon were just children. Apollodorus had heard the story from Aristodemus, one of the guests at the party, and had also checked some of the facts with Socrates himself.
The story begins with Aristodemus encountering Socrates, who has recently bathed and put on sandals--things he rarely does. Aristodemus inquires as to why Socrates is all dressed up, and Socrates answers that he is going to dinner at Agathon's. Agathon's tragedy won him first prize at the Lenaean festival the previous day, and while Socrates shunned the large crowds of yesterday's celebrations, he promised to join Agathon today. Socrates invites Aristodemus to join him, and while Aristodemus is at first hesitant about dropping in uninvited, Socrates persuades him that he must come.
Aristodemus and Socrates head off toward Agathon's together, but Socrates keeps falling behind, lost in thought. Socrates urges Aristodemus to go ahead, saying he will catch up. As a result, Aristodemus arrives at Agathon's without Socrates and is welcomed in alone. Agathon is delighted to see him, saying that he was looking for him yesterday so as to invite him. Aristodemus explains that he came upon Socrates' invitation, and is surprised to find that Socrates has not caught up with him. Agathon sends out a slave to find him, and the slave returns, reporting that Socrates is standing on a neighbor's porch and will not come in. Agathon orders the slave to go and fetch him in, but Aristodemus insists that Socrates be left alone: he will come of his own accord when he has finished thinking.
Aristodemus joins the other guests and they begin eating. Among those assembled, there is the young Phaedrus, Agathon's life-partner Pausanias, a doctor named Eryximachus, and the great comic playwright Aristophanes. The meal is halfway over by the time Socrates finally appears. Agathon encourages Socrates to join him on his couch so that he may share in the wisdom that came to Socrates on the neighboring porch. Socrates remarks that if wisdom could flow freely from the wiser to the less wise, Socrates should be the one benefiting from sitting near Agathon. Noting the mocking tone in Socrates' voice, Agathon suggests they might test one another's wisdom later that evening.
After dinner, Pausanias takes responsibility for organizing the drinking. All the guests but Socrates have participated in the wild revelry of the previous night and are feeling rather hung over. Eryximachus recommends that they not drink too much this evening in the interests of their health. He suggests further that they send away the flute-girl, who was to be their entertainment, and engage instead in conversation. He had been speaking recently to Phaedrus, who had lamented that the poets compose songs of praise to all the gods but Love. Consequently, Eryximachus recommends that each person present, starting with Phaedrus, make the finest speech he can in praise of Love.
The "symposium," translated literally as "drinks-party," was a central and highly ritualized part of Greek social practice. The party takes place in a square room, the andron, which is the main room in the men's part of the house. Guests at the symposium, who are always freeborn adult males, recline on couches, two to a couch, arranged in a square that allows easy conversation. The party is sharply divided into two parts. First, there is the meal, which is not a particularly ritualized affair. Once the meal is done, the drinking begins. First, the guests are cleaned and perfumed by attendant slaves, and then unmixed wine is poured out and tasted, while the guests sing hymns in honor of the gods. One member of the party--Pausanias in this case--is appointed "symposiarch," and determines in consultation with the other guests exactly how much wine will be drunk and to what extent the wine should be mixed with water. Normally, the subsequent drinking is accompanied by conversation, singing, and speeches. Male and female slaves provide music and other entertainment, and serve as "escorts," flirting with, though rarely having sex with, the guests. That Eryximachus sends away the flute-player suggests that this party will be more serious than normal, and philosophical discussion will take the place of erotic stimulation.
The Symposium is framed by several levels of narrative distancing. Apollodorus tells the story to his companion, but the story he tells is actually a retelling of the story he told Glaucon. This story has in turn been gleaned from Aristodemus, and confirmed by Socrates. Glaucon also notes that he has heard a version of the story. Plato, the actual writer of the dialogue, is nowhere found in this cast of characters, so there must be a further level of retelling by which Plato himself learns the story. All this framing serves two immediate purposes. One is to suggest the extreme importance of this dialogue. It is being discussed years after the fact, there are many versions floating about, and everyone wants to hear the story told. The other purpose is to distance the narration from the events themselves, suggesting that Plato's dialogue is not a direct transcription of factual events so much as an imaginative retelling that is probably more fiction than fact. The characters in the dialogue are celebrating a victory for the dramatist, Agathon, and the dialogue itself is a drama, though it treats of philosophy rather than tragedy. This framing also reflects another theme of the dialogue, which is the difficulty of attaining the truth. There are several layers of narrative, and in the story itself we get several different speeches. In both cases, we are given the sense that truth is not something we can be given, but something that must be sifted through, something we must work to acquire.
Agathon's victory comes at the Lenaean festival, one of the dramatic festivals that were so central in Ancient Greek society. Tragedians such as Aeschyllus, Sophocles, and Euripides competed in these festivals presented in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ritual dance, and patron of drama and poetry (Plato, too, wrote some plays, though none of them survive). The winner of the festival became a major celebrity, and was widely celebrated.
Plato was generally skeptical about poetry, and we find expression of this mistrust in Socrates' sarcastic remark to Agathon about his great wisdom. Tragedy purports to lay wisdom upon great crowds of people directly and immediately. As this dialogue and its framing devices suggest, Plato is of a mind that wisdom is something that must be worked toward, not something that can be given easily. Socrates suggests that wisdom is not something one can gain by osmosis, simply by sitting near someone wiser than oneself. Implicit in this suggestion is the claim that tragedy does not transmit wisdom, and that only careful philosophical thinking can be a successful teacher.
We find further evidence of this claim in Socrates' delay in arriving at the party. He gets lost in thought and must stand still where he is and think until he has worked his way through a problem. This kind of inner dialectic is clearly common with Socrates, as Aristodemus is already familiar with it. We might liken Socrates' behavior with that of the stereotypical "absent-minded professor" who cannot deal with day-to-day activities as a result of being so caught up in intellectual pursuits. Socrates does not feel compelled to abide by social norms, valuing philosophy over propriety.