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Plato’s Approach to Economic Matters in “Symposium”

While Symposium is not the most famous of Plato’s works, like Republic or Allegory of the Cave, it still occupies a prominent place within the philosopher’s legacy. Although mainly concerned with questions of love and virtue, Symposium, true to the multifaceted nature of its author’s thought, covers a broad range of related issues as well. Among other things, the participants in the dialogue refer more than once to the economic issues of desiring, accumulating, and distributing wealth. Generally speaking, Plato’s economy, as represented in Symposium, is subject to his ontology of true forms and his ethics of pursuing and loving the true form of beauty. Based on that, Plato rejects the pursuit of profit or the desire to amass wealth and instead suggests the economy of moderation where people only desire as much as they need for a virtuous life.

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The first thing to understand about the economic context of the Symposium is that economic matters are never at the forefront of Plato’s thought. Instead, economic analogies surface from time to time to illustrate the points made by the speakers, and it is up to the reader to reconstruct Plato’s economic views, which the dialogue does not outline specifically. For Plato, the economy is subjugated to the central idea of true forms – that is, metaphysical universalia epitomizing the essence of things – and the most important of these is the true form of beauty. As Socrates, referring to Diotima of Mantinea, puts it, the “absolute, pure, unmixed, not cluttered up with human flesh and colors and a great mass of mortal rubbish” is the highest ideal imaginable (Plato). Understanding this ideal enables pursing true virtue, and only “someone who’s given birth to true virtue… has the chance of becoming loved by the gods” (Plato). Thus, Plato’s ontology and ethics converge in the conviction that the utmost goal of living is the pursuit of virtue. All that remains is to establish where and how economic considerations fit within this picture.

As mentioned above, economic examples usually come up in Symposium as illustrations for broader discussions, and one of the most telling examples is the attitude toward profit demonstrated by Pausanias. As far as the latter is concerned, the pursuit of money for the sake of becoming rich is not in accordance with true virtue and, as such, can and should not be encouraged. When discussing ephebophilia, Pausanias points out that there are people who “would do any service for anyone to make money, and that is not right” (Plato). This passage demonstrates that the pursuit of wealth cannot be good in itself because it does not necessarily move a person toward a better understanding of beauty and virtue. From this perspective, the drive to turn a profit, which is the moving force behind a business enterprise, is not something to admire, and Plato does not paint it as a desirable behavior. If anything, this passage showcases that, as far as Plato is concerned, the economy only makes sense when it is subjugated to ethics, not the other way round.

Another important passage that reveals more about economic matters as represented in Symposium is the discussion of wealth and the attitude toward it. At one point, seeking to correct Agathon, Socrates points out that “no one is in need of qualities he already has,” as wishing to have something already in one’s possession would be absurd (Plato). According to him, when rich people say they want to be rich, they can only refer to remaining rich in the future rather than being rich in the present, which they already are (Plato). In other words, Socrates views being rich as a singular quality with no degrees – someone is either wealthy or not – and the idea of wanting to be richer at present does not make much sense to him. This perception ties in well with everything said before: accumulating material wealth beyond a certain threshold is senseless because it does not facilitate the foremost goal of living – that is, the development of virtue. According to Plato, one only needs as much wealth as is required to steadily pursue virtue without the necessity to distract oneself with basic human needs.

To summarize, the economic content of Plato’s Symposium subjects the matters of wealth to the philosopher’s ontology and ethics to propose what one could call ‘the economy of moderation.’ According to the philosopher, the highest goal of living is attaining virtue by understanding true beauty, and wealth is only important insofar it facilitates this purpose. Through the words of Pausanias, Plato derides the idea of seeking profit for profit’s sake as base and unbecoming. Similarly, the fact that he views wealth in absolute rather than relative terms suggests that he sees little sense in rich people becoming richer. Based on that, one can deduce that the economic ideal of Plato’s Symposium is the society when people attain sufficient wealth to pursue virtue but do not aim to get more than they need.

Work Cited

Plato. The Symposium, translated by Christopher Gill and Desmond Lee. E-book, Penguin, 2006.

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