The Symposium

by: Plato

180c - 185c

Pausanias' account refines and deepens the one given by Phaedrus. Not all love is considered honorable, but only love pursued in the proper fashion. The distinction Pausanias pushes throughout is one between love as physical gratification and love as moral and mental development. Heavenly Love, as love that can improve the mind and soul of the loved one, is reserved for older youths since they have developed a capacity for rationality and virtue. Women and younger boys alike would have been considered non-rational, and so incapable of acquiring the virtue a lover might bestow. As a result, Pausanias disdains love for women and younger boys, as he takes it to be aimed purely at physical gratification.

A modern reader must obviously object to the notion that a woman is non-rational and incapable of ethical development. We should remember that in Greek culture the male and female spheres were strictly separated, and those aspects of civic life in which virtue was thought to be displayed were restricted to men only. Women in ancient Greece were obviously equally capable of rational development as women today, but they were not, for the most part, provided with the opportunities to prove this.

Pausanias' central argument, then, is that love is only beneficial when it is directed toward the end of virtue. Lovers should seek to improve their loved ones, and loved ones should look to gain wisdom from their lovers. We should note, however, the asymmetrical nature of this relationship, where loved ones are also expected to sexually gratify their lovers in return for the virtue they are taught. Pausanias' point is that such sexual gratification is laudable, but only on the condition that it is pursued with the end of virtue in mind. Pausanias' emphasis on lifelong partnerships may seem a little biased considering his own relationship with Agathon, but perhaps no more so than the biases that inform any of our own opinions.

The question of whether and how virtue can be taught is a central concern of Plato's; he focuses on the question in such dialogues as the Meno and the Republic. The final answer given by Socrates in the Symposium should also be read as one answer given by Plato. Starting with Pausanias, then, we see the focus of the dialogue shifting slightly from love in the passionate romantic understanding of the word (an understanding we share) to an understanding of love that relates directly to a passion for wisdom and virtue. It is by this means, and not by sexual gratification, that love can improve us. In this sense, Plato can be seen as moving against a romantic sensibility, suggesting that we must refine it to something much deeper.