In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Plato's Symposium

  • Introduction
  • Editions and Greek Texts with Commentaries
  • Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • Introductory Guides
  • Monographs and Collections of Papers
  • Reception

Classics Plato's Symposium
Debra Nails
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0410


David Halperin (Halperin 1992), cited under Platonic Methods of Composition, does not exaggerate when he says that Plato’s Symposium “remains beyond dispute the finest work of fiction, of prose literature, to survive from the classical period—as well as one of the trickiest texts of all time to interpret” (p. 127). It is debated across disciplinary boundaries including literary theory, political studies, theology, education, feminism, history, rhetoric, psychoanalysis, and queer studies. Interpretation might be less tricky if the Symposium were not also philosophy of the highest caliber, intensely controversial on a wide array of issues. Ostensibly about ΕΡΩΣ which, as “Eros” or “Love,” is the name of a divinity, but as “erōs” or “love” is the passionate desire for sex with someone, the dialogue embraces human aspiration, attraction, beauty, the good, human mortality, virtue, and happiness. In no other dialogue is there so resonant an account of Platonic forms, or of how desire (erōs) to understand the forms operates to achieve its end. In no other dialogue is the route to virtuous human happiness (eudaimonia) so explicitly detailed as here, governed by the desire to have permanent possession of what is good. The arguments of the Symposium sit uncomfortably with the Phaedo on immortality, the Phaedrus on paiderasteia, and the Theaetetus on midwifery. For many readers, however, such tricky philosophical issues are not so enduring an allure as Plato’s dramatic direction and exquisite characterizations—especially of Socrates. The setting is young Agathon’s drinking party in celebration of the prize he has just won for his first tragedies. His guest list includes, besides his lover Pausanias, the orator Phaedrus, the physician Eryximachus, Socrates, and the great comic playwright Aristophanes. The guests take turns giving speeches of praise (encomia) to ΕΡΩΣ, then the drunken Alcibiades crashes the party and praises Socrates instead. Plato’s Symposium—because of its marvelous variety—has lent itself to thousands of published works, of which only a tiny selection can be recommended here, but this selection will lead to the others through their discussions and notes.

Editions and Greek Texts with Commentaries

The Greek texts of all Plato’s works have been established by painstaking comparisons of medieval manuscripts (and earlier papyrus fragments when available) that differ from one another in many details. The process of establishing the most reasonable or “best” text is ongoing, with scholars offering suggestions to replace what copyists may have misunderstood or miscopied. Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation in the early 1480s marked the renaissance of Plato for western Europe, and a Greek edition produced in Venice followed in 1534, unfortunately without information on the manuscripts that had been used to devise it. The key edition of Plato’s dialogues is Henricus Stephanus’s five-volume Platonis opera quae extant omnia (Geneva, 1578), where the Symposium appears in the third volume, pages 172a–223d—the same pagination that editions and translations, as well as the secondary literature on the dialogue, still use. Burnet 1901, the Oxford Classical Text (OCT) of Plato in five volumes, is slowly being replaced by a committee of scholars, but the new edition of the Symposium has not yet been published. Because the many disagreements about the best readings are unending, Greek texts have a special type of footnote keyed to the lines of text called an apparatus criticus; it provides significant divergent readings. For Plato’s Symposium, three Greek texts are most frequently cited: Burnet 1901 (the OCT), Hug 1884 (the Teubner edition), and Robin and Vicaire 1989 (the Budé edition). Editions with commentary are typically based on one or more of those three. An exception is the Loeb volume, Lamb 1925, which is based on an older text. Bury 1932 is the preferred text-commentary combination for scholars but requires facility with the Greek language. Rowe 1998a is now more widely used than any other of the text-commentaries, is more accessible without Greek, and credits the contributions of previous scholars. Both Dover 1980 and Rose 1985 are explicitly intended for learners of Greek, but many of Dover’s comments in his introduction and notes are substantive, going quite beyond explanations of Greek grammar.

  • Burnet, John, ed. 1901. Platonis opera. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades I and II, Hipparchus, Amatores. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Burnet’s caution as an editor is exemplified in his providing relatively few variant readings and in his rarely proposing emendations to reliable papyrus and medieval manuscript readings. The second printing, 1910, minus Burnet’s apparatus criticus, was digitized for the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae Stephanus (TLG) project at the University of California, Irvine, where the Symposium is included in a portion of the canon open to the public without subscription; registration required.

  • Bury, Robert Gregg, ed. 1932. The Symposium of Plato. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: W. Heffer & Sons.

    Unsurpassed in importance for anyone with Greek, repaying bronze with gold. His introductory material and hundreds of explanatory notes are trustworthy for citing ancient and modern sources prior to 1932; he initiates many topics still alive to scholars. Contemporary authors owe much to Bury’s parsing of controversial and interpretive issues. Copious notes to the Greek text include others’ readings. Greek and English indices. First edition 1909.

  • Dover, Kenneth J., ed. 1980. Plato: Symposium. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Dover follows his chief purpose assiduously: “to enable the learner to read and enjoy Plato’s Symposium in Greek, to understand its arguments, and to appreciate its artistry” (p. 7). He provides a succinct introduction to philological and philosophical issues in the dialogue; an apparatus criticus; and numerous helpful explanations of Plato’s Greek. He is unsympathetic to what he takes to be Plato’s philosophy. Dover uses the OCT and Budé editions.

  • Hug, Arnold, ed. and trans. 1884. Platons Symposion. 2d ed. Leipzig: Teubner.

    Greek and German on facing pages. Hermann Schöne undertook the third edition in 1909, following Hug’s death in 1895. Hug’s comments continue to be cited, playing a central role in the literature of the twentieth century.

  • Lamb, W. R. M., trans. 1925. Plato: Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias. Loeb Classical Library. Vol. 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Greek and English on facing pages. The text is based on the recension of Martin Schanz’s 1881 edition (Leipzig: Tauchnitz) with emendations by other scholars noted in the otherwise empty apparatus criticus. Brief introduction, and footnotes identifying some allusions. Free access on Perseus.

  • Robin, Léon, and Paul Vicaire, eds. and trans. 1989. Le banquet. In Platon oeuvres complètes, IV.2. Collection des Universités de France. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    Revised and corrected with Jean Laborderie. Robin made few editorial interventions, but his extensive introduction continues to have an enormous influence on the literature, and his views continue to fuel debate. Greek text and French translation on facing pages with notes and bibliography. Originally published in 1929, and often reprinted. Vicaire joined the project in 1989.

  • Rose, Gilbert P., ed. 1985. Plato’s Symposium. 2d ed. Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr Commentaries.

    Intended as a “clear and concise aid to the beginning student” (p. iii), and classroom-tested, the commentary consists of the Burnet 1901 text and full apparatus criticus plus seventy-six pages of brief comments on translating the Greek.

  • Rowe, Christopher J., trans. 1998a. Plato: Symposium: Edited with an introduction, translation and notes. Oxford: Aris & Phillips Classical Texts.

    Uses a modification of the text of Burnet 1901, noting disagreements in a limited apparatus criticus. Rowe’s translation, more carefully linked to the Stephanus text than most other translations, has become the standard for scholarly writing about the dialogue in English, and Rowe’s philosophical and philological commentary is widely cited.

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