At this dinner party, set more than 2,400 years ago, Love is the night’s theme. The Symposium can still be read as one of the greatest stories of love in Western literature. Socrates is among the guests. The only subject in the world that Socrates believes himself to be the unsurpassed master of is love. ‘I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with someone.’ Socrates loves his fellow men with an overpowering eroticism, and because he believes he can look into their eyes and understand a little about himself as he does so, we are taught that it is through our relationship with the world around us that we can become whole. Socrates sees the massive power of love. We too are just beginning to unpick the complex, psychophysical parcel that love is. Socrates makes our relationships with one another his life’s work.
Socratic love is enormously powerful, it turns the world upside down. What the philosopher knows is that we love love-stories, and our love is often a love-story played out. But nowhere does he mock. Socrates’ love is literal: the point of life is to love it. He is erotic. He states that if Eros passes you by in life, you are a nonentity. All those aspects of love he approves of, as good-life glue for society, since ‘festivals, sacrifices, dances’ are motivated by Eros. And, more than that, love is a guide – a passion for what is good and a horror for what is degrading. And the genuinely heart-warming revelation of Socrates in the Symposium is that dedication to love is not a selfish pursuit. The point of love is not gratification, but symbiosis. And love, desire, ambition, hope, concord, enthusiasm, drive whatever you want to call it – if tended, if not allowed to burn itself out, plays a long game. His love is not flash-in-the-pan passionate. In Socrates’ eyes, it is honesty and a pursuit of knowledge rather than ignorance that leads to loveliness in life. For him, love has a purpose. It is the life-force, the desire to do, to be, to think. It is the thing that makes us feel great about our world, and therefore makes us be great in it. Socrates describes these ‘good’ dynamos as ta erotika – the things of love.
Bettany Hughes is the author of 'The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life' (2011). Bettany leads our event Socrates' Search For The Good Life on Thursday 1 March. For more information and to book click here