Symposium by Plato
“Pregnant in Body and in Mind”: Reproduction and Immortality in Platonic Love
Not in entire forgetfulness,And not in utter nakedness,But trailing clouds of glory do we comeFrom God, who is our home.- William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, 62-65 Though Plato died nearly 2500 years ago, the English language still keeps his definition of love in common usage. To keep a relationship “platonic” means to eliminate its romantic aspect, restricting the partners to intellectual stimulation alone. Modern minds may think that this love is not as fertile as heterosexual romantic love and even consider this asexual affection something other than love, as it bears no children. Plato would respond that intellectual association leads to the creation of timeless ideas, and is therefore a greater love than the physical love which creates children. Plato explores and defends his view of love in the Symposium, specifically in the dialogue between Socrates and Diotima (Symposium, 204e 209e). Plato first defines love by examining the lover, then uses this definition to build an abstract function and purpose of love which places intellectual men above childbearing women. Diotima teaches Socrates that the lover of good things wants to possess them so that he might be happy (204e). This definition of a lover applies to everyone, for Diotima’s assumption, supported by Socrates, is that “everyone wants good things to be his own forever.” (205a) There is a need to refine this broad definition which would include as lovers those who try to attain the good by any means. The purview of love, in Plato as in common language, is restricted “to those whose enthusiasm is directed at one specific type who are described by the terminology that belongs to the whole class, that of love, loving, and lovers.” (205d) She then goes on to knock down Aristophanes’ definition of love as searching for one’s other half on the grounds that this is only true if being reunited is good, using the example that amputation is acceptable if a limb is seen as diseased. In place of Aristophanes’ argument that love is trying to find oneself, Diotima sets up a definition of love, the object of which is “the good” (205e). Naturally, if the object of love is “the good”, people who love want to have “the good” forever (206a). The progression from the initial definition of a lover as a concrete individual who wants the good forever to the definition of love as an abstract “desire to have the good forever” (206a) sets up a similar progression from a concrete function of love to an abstract function which is at the core of Platonic love. If the object of love is to have the good forever, the function of love is “giving birth in beauty both in body and in mind.” (206b) Diotima begins her explanation of how “all human beings are pregnant in body and in mind” (206c) by discussing the concrete, physical pregnancy of the body. Heterosexual relations and the child a woman bears as a result of them are a beautiful end of love because they perpetuate man. This perpetuation is essential because if love wants to possess the good forever, then love requires the immortality reproduction creates (206a). Reproduction creates immortality because just as a man’s body is constantly being renewed and he is still called the man, a man who grows old and leaves a new man in his place is also renewing himself (207d-208b). The shift to the abstract “pregnancy of the mind” hinges on the extension of this analogy to the mind and knowledge, saying that it grows old and must be replaced just like the body (207e 208a). This implies the existence of conceptual children as well as physical ones, and Diotima gives an example of the former by noting man’s love for honor, his desire that his name ring down through the ages “it is immortality they are in love with.” (208c-e) Just as the pregnancy of a man’s body is released through impregnating the body of a fertile woman (208e), the pregnancy of a man’s mind is released through teaching the mind of another intelligent man (209b). The possibility of a woman having a fit mind for wisdom is not even considered by Plato in this argument. The ultimate function of love is given to be the labor of the pregnant mind as it attempts to bring forth “what it is suitable for a mind to bear and bring to birth,” (209a) namely wisdom and other virtues. Chief among the kinds of wisdom, according to Diotima, is moderation and justice “connected with the organization of cities and households.” (209a) This kind of wisdom is most important because it creates virtue in other people (209d 209e). The result of this discussion is the creation of a spectrum of love’s functions, starting with sexual reproduction as its most base expression and ending with the teaching of justice and moderation as its most noble expression. The logical extension of this emphasis on intellectual reproduction is the glorification of the homoerotic teaching relationship over the familial heterosexual relationship and therefore the superiority of the intellectual man over the childbearing woman. Diotima says that men who try to gain the immortality they love by fathering children are only seeking “what they take to be happiness forever.” (208e) The true avenue to eternal remembrance and happiness is to give birth to a conceptual child of virtue. The two fathers of this beautiful child “have a much closer partnership with each other and a stronger bond of friendship than parents have, because the children of their partnership are more beautiful and more immortal.” (209c, my emphasis) Though the lover is initially inspired by his beloved’s physical as well as mental beauty, the emphasis of the homoerotic relationship Diotima describes is not on the sexual gratification of the lover, but rather on the perpetuation of the lover’s virtue and wisdom through teaching the beloved. Indeed, a step on the ascent to the ultimate form of love is to see “beauty of body as something petty.” (210c) Poets like Homer and Hesiod, lawgivers like Lycurgus and Solon men like these have left children of thought to live after them, and are greatly envied, honored, and even revered for it by other men (209d 209e). The physical children of uncertain virtue a man leaves to carry on his name can hardly hold a candle to great mental children, the virtue of which a man fashioned himself. Making such a comparison, it’s no wonder Diotima states, “Everyone would prefer to have [children of thought] rather than human ones.” (209c 209d) The proposition that the ideas a man bequeaths the world is as much his legacy as his children is not a shocking one. However, Plato’s defining the processes of passing down wisdom in terms of pregnancy and birth causes a restatement of fundamental gender roles. Not only can the man implant the seed of his pregnant body into a woman, he can implant the seed of his pregnant mind into his beloved student, who is also a man. Thus the man, who under the conventional definition of love only had the capacity to transmit physical fertility, gains the capacity both to transmit and to receive the germ of mental fertility, the revolutionary concept of Platonic love. Some have said that men are jealous of women’s procreative power and through culture attempt to minimize the importance of women. Perhaps this is an expression of “womb envy,” giving men the gift of a kind of childbirth nobler and more important than that of women. Whatever the reason for its creation, the concept of Platonic love is a beautiful affirmation of the human mind’s fecundity. Now that culture has admitted women into the ranks of intellectual humans, maybe a man shouldn’t be so disappointed when a woman he admires turns down his sexual advances, saying she wants to keep the relationship “Platonic.” He might end up having children with her after all, perhaps bearing them himself!
Pederasty Without Sexual Relations
Modern critics are quick to assert that Socrates failed in his role as a teacher to Alcibiades by refusing to engage in sexual relations. Upon closer investigation of both the traditional form and Socrates’ own revised form of pederasty, the reasoning behind the lack of sexual activity is gleaned. In classical Athens, the traditional, established form of pederasty had a complex interchange between lover and beloved that involved predetermined exchanges among the two parties. As the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades deviated from the normal model, it followed that the two were not forced to play within the traditional guidelines and, thus, sexual gratification was unnecessary. When investigating the relationship of Socrates and Alcibiades through the microscope of Socrates’ own reformed model of pederasty, the absence of sexual relations is, again, unsurprising. Socratic pederasty had less to do with the exchange of knowledge for sexual gratification and more to do with the achievement and enrichment of beauty through the education and observance of a youthful beauty, here, Alcibiades. Plato’s Symposium provides one with speeches made by dinner guests in classical Athens, most especially speeches made by Socrates and Alcibiades, demonstrating contemporary views on pederasty and the nuances of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades—illustrating with finality the exact basis of and failures within their close association.Pederasty, in its traditional form, which was observed by the majority of Athenian citizens, was the cornerstone of Greek democratic values and life. The roles of lover and beloved were already molded into the ideals of the older wise pursuer and the young beautiful pursued each offering their respective and balanced qualities to the other. Athenian society felt that one could “hardly point to a greater good for someone to have from youth onward than a good lover, and for a lover, a beloved.” The importance of the two to each other led to an accountability system for politics and warfare as a whole. As neither the lover nor the beloved could withstand public shame before their partners, their actions would, ideally, remain beyond reproach and complete a corruption free civic society. The pederasty relationship was also very integral to the educational system, providing the younger generation with an irreplaceable source of knowledge and experience. Athenian Greeks felt “that which should guide human beings who are going to live fairly throughout their lives can be implanted by neither blood ties, nor honors, nor wealth, nor anything else as beautifully as love.” Thus, the mutuality of this relationship stood for the same key values as the government and provided the basis for which the new generations would continue to lead the society.The traditional form of pederasty was only loosely defined by the presence of both a lover and a beloved, but many societal notions were formed based on the pretenses of the relationship. Athenian society dictated in which situations pederasty could actually be seen as an honorable practice and in which it could be seen as ignoble and worthy of disgrace. Harmodius and Aristogeiton, heroes of the republic, characterized the ideal form of the relationship—that which was based upon the goodness of the soul and was, thus, honorable. Athenian democratic legend credited this pair of lovers with bringing about the fall of tyranny in Athens, leaving this noble homosexual pairing as the republican ideal to be emulated. Conversely, in the Symposium, dinner guest Pausanias speaks of pandemian lovers who based their pederasty relationships completely upon the outward appearance of the young boys rather than the goodness of their souls—forming a transient and completely looks based bond. Pederasty relationships in which the lover discerns purely on the basis of appearance and the beloved is easily swayed by offers of money and political power are those relationships that Athenian society saw as barbaric and even worthy of criminal charges, as in Aeschines’ speech Against Timarchus. Athenian society prided itself that “here [in Athens] there are much finer customs than elsewhere…[for] it is said to be a finer thing to love openly than in secret and particularly to love the noblest and best even if they are uglier than others.”The notions governing Athens’ traditional form of pederasty proclaimed the institution to be noble and fulfilling for both the lover and the beloved in only very particular circumstances. For the lover should be “able to contribute to prudence and the rest of virtue, while the other [the beloved] stands in need of them for the acquisition of education and the rest of wisdom. Then and only then—when theses laws converge—does it result that a beloved’s gratification of his lover is noble; but in any other circumstance it is not.” In the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades these conditions were fulfilled, as Socrates could be described as Alcibiades’ “‘only deserving lover.'” Alcibiades, in fact, states to Socrates that he “‘should be far more ashamed before men of good sense for not gratifying a man like you [Socrates] than I should be before the many and senseless for gratifying you.'” In these terms Alcibiades offers himself to Socrates, but, strangely, the prudence and virtue that labeled Socrates as a deserving lover also proved him above accepting Alcibiades’ offer, as Socrates refuses the traditional pederast exchange of wisdom and experience for sexual gratification.Socrates’ refusal to accept Alcibiades proffered sexual gratification is not only merely acceptable but rather almost commendable. The pederast relationship has no clear cut rules stating that the lover must seek out and accept sexual exchanges although it does, indeed, seem to prohibit a pursuing nature within the beloved. As Alcibiades clearly admits in Plato’s Symposium, he was deceived “into thinking of him [Socrates] as the lover, [but] he brings it about that he is the beloved rather than the lover.” Whether Alcibiades is seen in the role of lover or beloved his sexual advances towards Socrates would be seen as socially unacceptable because they do not fit within the narrow confines of the noble pederast relationship. As a lover Alcibiades would have nothing to offer Socrates by way of wisdom or experience and in the role of beloved, Alcibiades is required to fill the role of the submissive pursued not of the sexual aggressor. Socrates’ refusal to engage in sexual relations is also admirable when seen from Athenian social standards. With Athenian society’s structured focus upon the importance of the soul rather than the body, Socrates’ strict adherence to only matters of the soul (i.e. matters concerning wisdom, prudence, and other enviable qualities) in his relations with Alcibiades is more idyllic than problematic. As the Athenians prided themselves upon their tradition of idealized pederasty, that is pederasty based upon the nobility of the soul, placing importance upon the base sexual relations would have cheapened the institution by placing importance upon the body. Thus, Socrates’ own lack of desire to engage in sexual relations made Alcibiades’ pushing of the issue socially incorrect and the actual nature of pederasty allows for the idyllic meeting of souls without the complication of the body.In the revised form of pederasty put forth by Socrates the main objective becomes, not the shared love and friendship between the two parties but, rather, the advancement on a intellectual and spiritual level through the relationship. Under the auspices of this model the “lover,” here Socrates, was to seek out “a beautiful, generous, and naturally gifted soul…and to this human being he is at once fluent in speeches about virtue—of what sort the good man must be and what he must practice—as he tries to educate him2E” Through the implementation of these educational speeches and works, the beloved was to gain wisdom and virtue while the lover was to advance intellectually. Most importantly, these lessons or “children” remain as the immortality of the lover—a testament to the virtue and wisdom of the lover for future generations. This process could only take place within the confines of the pederast relationship for the lover’s attempts at educating the beloved are “in order that [the lover], on his part,…may come to believe that the beauty of the body is something trivial…[and may] behold it [beauty] and give birth—in ungrudging philosophy—to many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts.”Socrates’ reformed version of pederasty, while staying true to the basic principle of lover and beloved, reevaluates many of the benefits to be gleaned from the association. This model follows the same guidelines as the traditional method in the dichotomy between body and soul, although here the division is in terms of achieving immortality while the traditional pederasty model is in terms of love. The ultimate achievement in the Socratic method is to obtain immortality, rather than wisdom, and for this the more ignoble populace “turns rather to women and are erotic in this way, furnishing for themselves through the procreation of children immortality, remembrance, and happiness (as they believe) for all future time.” However, the practitioners of the pederast model “are others who are pregnant in terms of the soul—for these…in their bodies conceive those things that is appropriate for a soul to conceive and bear…prudence and the rest of virtue.” Through the pederast relationship, those that are “pregnant in terms of the soul” are able to achieve their immortality through producing a legacy of great works and speeches pertaining to wisdom and virtue.Once again the question must be asked, within this model should Socrates have engaged in sexual relations with Alcibiades? The answer here remains a resonant no as, once again, the complications of the flesh would convolute the greater good of the soul. In the words of Socrates, the lover “must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this [erotic] intensity…in the belief that it is petty.” In the Socratic method, the reliance is placed even more heavily upon the importance of the soul and the advancement to be found there—to engage in pursuits of the flesh would only distract from the objective of the relationship. Thus, by refusing sexual relations with Alcibiades, Socrates was just true to his own model of the pederast relationship.Thus, in accordance with the two forms of pederasty, did Socrates fail in his role as educator by refusing to have sexual relations with Alcibiades? The answer to this question is no. Within the confines of both models of the relationship, Socrates engaged in the far more noble mating of the soul—without confusing the issue with sexual relations. If anything, Socrates’ failure as a teacher to Alcibiades lays, not in his refusal to engage in sexual acts, but perhaps in a flawed theory as to how to obtain further education for oneself while imparting that knowledge upon one’s educational pupil.
Love and the Importance of the Speeches
Plato’s Symposium is not only a discourse on the subject of love, it is a tribute to Socrates and his way of life, and the entire course of the discussion is guided by the ultimate objective of presenting Socrates as the representation of love itself. Though this is done slowly and indirectly through a series of steps, Plato eventually makes clear his admiration of Socrates’ way of life. This can then be compared not only to Socrates’ method of convincing the others that his view of love is correct, but also to the process of the ascent of love. All the speeches are instrumental in the presentation of Socrates: the first few, though superficial and trivial in content, are important for the process of which they are a part; Diotima’s speech is important because it establishes the basis for Socrates’ representation of love; and lastly, Alcibiades’ speech serves to complete the comparison. The text begins as a series of speeches mainly about the benefits of love, but soon shifts to discussion on what exactly love is. All of the interlocutors express their thoughts on love in turn, and each attempts to do this in a manner that is flattering to himself and to his lifestyle. Drawing from personal beliefs and experiences, each man, ranging in profession from comedian to politician, proffers his opinion. Their views on love vary as much as their lifestyles, and hence, there is disagreement as to what exactly the accurate definition of love is. As each man speaks, he rebuts certain parts of the previous speaker’s argument and builds upon certain other parts; the concept of love becomes increasingly broad and abstract. Dissent among the men, however, allows the reader both to view the progression and evolution of the meaning of love and to see the connection between this process and the process of love itself. According to Diotima, the process of love is by necessity, slow and careful, therefore the discovery of the meaning of love also must allow for the close examination and disproval of the erroneous beliefs of the opening speakers.Plato uses the various speakers not only to present contrasting views, but also to create a process whereby these men are seeking knowledge. This process is paralleled by Diotima’s description of love as a processa continual search for beauty and wisdom, and an ascension of the soul. Her concept of love stands in stark contrast to that of all the others. She describes it principally as a desire to possess good things eternally. This desire necessitates the concomitant desire for immortality. When asked what it is that love wants, Diotima responds, “Reproduction and birth in beauty” (206E, 53). She continues, saying, “…Reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality. A lover must desire immortality along with the good, if what we agreed earlier was right, that Love wants to possess the good forever. It follows that Love must desire immortality” (206E-207A, 54). One cannot possess something forever unless one is immortalthat much is obvious. For humans though, immortality can only be achieved through reproduction. There is both physical and mental reproduction though, and one can be pregnant in both body and soul. One can live on not only through children, but also, more significantly, through lasting ideas. Here, Diotima builds on Pausanias’ idea of “heavenly” and “common” love, attributing physical offspring to “common” love and intellectual or spiritual offspring as “heavenly” love. Socrates’ rejection of Alcibiades’ offer relates directly to this principle. As the representation of the more elevated, heavenly love, Socrates seeks to reproduce through ideas, and rejects the physical aspects of common love. What Alcibiades in effect is asking for, is his lower love for Socrates’ higher love– “‘gold in exchange for bronze'” (219A, 70). Socrates though, sees the inequality of such an exchange saying, “You [Alcibiades] can see in me a beauty that is beyond description and makes your own remarkable good looks pale in comparison. But is this then a fair exchange…?” (218E, 70). Alcibiades, however, demonstrates a love for Socrates that is of a higher level than the mere physical love, which is what he himself has to offer. Alcibiades loves Socrates not only for his wisdom, but also because he believes that Socrates can make him a better person through the reproduction of his beautiful ideas. Alcibiades is therefore seeking not only wisdom, but also more importantly, immortality. If Socrates were to accept Alcibiades offer though, he would not be living up to the image of the heavenly love. This then necessitates that he reject Alcibiades’ offer. Alcibiades’ attempt to seduce Socrates though, is his expression of lovehis attempt to achieve immortality.In order to gain this immortality though, one must reach the highest level of love. Diotima describes the process of attaining this level, saying:One always goes upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful… When he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seenonly then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue (because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (because he’s in touch with the true Beauty). The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could be immortal, it would be he.– Symposium, 211C-212B, 59-60Because love’s ultimate goal is immortality, Diotima describes it as a process, whereby one’s appreciation and desire for beauty ascend from merely that of the physical to the intellectual and finally to the mystical. Only upon scaling the final level of love, however, is one able to become immortal, and this level can only be scaled if one moves away from the base love of the physical to a love of the sharing, or reproduction, of ideas. This is exactly what Alcibiades attempts to do in pursuing Socrates. Before this one cannot experience the essence of beauty, but rather, only see images of it. Only after experiencing true beauty, beauty that cannot be seen with the eyes, can any other true beauty be reproduced. This then is immortality.Because love desires good things such as immortality, beauty, and wisdom, and because people do not desire that which they already have, Diotima reasons that love is none of those things. This once again relates love to the lover and Socrates, rather than the beloved, as previous speakers had done. In the arguments presented by Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Eryximachus, love was entirely good and beautiful; it was representative of the beloved. Diotima, however, asserts that love is neither beautiful nor wise nor immortal. Love, in all aspects, instead lies between the two ends of the spectrum, and is in constant pursuit of these traits. This therefore, likens it to the lover, and therefore, Socrates.Socrates ultimately proves to be the exemplar of love. He is, in every manner, as love should be. As love, he seeks immortality, beauty, and wisdom, but is in possession of none of these. This necessitates that he speak through Diotima, because in this manner, she is the one in possession of the knowledge and not he himself. As a philosopher, however, he seeks this wisdom, which is also a form of beauty. Similarly, he must reject Alcibiades’ physical offer because he seeks immortality through the reproduction of his ideas; this is true love and true beautythe only path to immortality. Finally, just as Diotima describes love as a “…messenger who [shuttles] back and forth between [god and mortal]… [rounding] out the whole and [binding] fast the all to all” (203A, 47), so Socrates also acts as a sort of transit between Diotima and the interlocutors at the symposium. He conveys her wisdom and knowledge concerning love, and in doing so, reproduces the immortal ideas. In the end, love is synonymous with Socrates, and immortality with philosophy and reproduction of beautiful thoughts.
Plato’s Psychology – The Tripartite Soul
Plato presents a complicated theory of human psychology spread out amongst his various works. In Republic, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and others, Plato develops a view of human psychology centered on the nature of the soul. He presents the bulk of his argument in Republic and Phaedo, introducing the ideas of the immortal soul and the tripartite division of the soul. At times, however, he appears to contradict his views. It seems possible that Plato is not being entirely truthful about his beliefs in at least one, if not both of the descriptions.The most important belief of Plato’s psychology was the idea of the tripartite soul. A soul, Plato believed, did not consist of a single part, but instead was composed of three distinct elements. This tripartite view of the soul is developed through an allegory to the ideal city, presented throughout the Republic. Plato hoped that by looking first at the composition and origins of justice in a city, he could discover the virtues that lead to justice in the individual. His ideal city consists of three distinct classes of individual, each of which, he argues, is crucial to the functioning of the city. Each of these three classes, in turn, exemplifies a virtue that is crucial for a city to function.The most important class in Plato’s city is the ruling class, which he refers to as the “guardians” of the city (Republic 374e). The ruling class is responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of all the members of the city. Plato argues that “philosophy, spirit, speed, and strength must all, then, be combined in the nature of anyone who is to be a fine and good guardian of our city” (376c). Importantly, the ruling class is not a privileged class. Rather, Plato argues that the guardians should eschew the trappings of status and wealth, noting that “they work simply for their keep and get no extra wages as others do” (419). Under such a system there would be no motive for individuals to aspire to the ruling class, leaving only those who are most suited to the task to perform out of a sense of duty to their fellow citizens.Plato associates the virtue of wisdom with these ideal rulers. Wisdom represents the epitome of the logic and reason that rulers should strive towards. Plato argues that “it is guardianship” that illustrates a city “has good judgment and is really wise” (428d). A city is “wise because of this smallest class and part in it, namely the governing or ruling one” (428e). Only when the guardians of a city have its best interests in heart can wisdom be achieved.The city is dependent upon the rulers for oversight, but Plato argues that a second class, the soldiers, is needed to defend it and ensure its ultimate survival. Well-trained warrior athletes will “be able to fight twice or three times their number” (422c), fending off any attack. When the soldiers are well trained and carry out their duties effectively, they represent the virtue of courage. Plato asks, “Who, in calling the city cowardly or courageous, would look anywhere other than to who fights and does battle on its behalf?” (429b). The virtue of courage is dependent upon the soldiers, just as the virtue of wisdom was placed upon the rulers.The third class of the city, the merchants and citizens, is by far the most numerous. Their specific jobs range from carpentry to banking and beyond, but they each serve a vital role in the functioning of the city. However, “one finds all kinds of diverse desires, pleasures, and pains” in this group, desires that do not necessarily coincide with what is best for the city (431c). Instead, it is the “wisdom and desires of the few,” the rulers, that makes the city runs smoothly (431d). Thus, the third class must embody the virtue of moderation. Plato notes that “unlike courage and wisdom, each of which resides in one part… moderation spreads through the whole” (431e). The vast majority of the city’s citizenship is in this third class, and the virtue of moderation, while spread amongst all three classes, depends most heavily upon them.It is when all three classes are in balance, and their respective virtues are in evidence, that Plato’s true goal emerges. He argues that the successful combination of the three virtues within the city leads to the expression of the ultimate virtue, justice. When the classes interfere in each others work, the city cannot carry out its responsibilities effectively. Plato notes that “meddling and exchange between these three classes, then, is the greatest harm that can happen to the city” (434c). Only when each class pursues its own purposes and works towards achieving its own specific virtuosity can the city become just.Having thus fully explored the origins of justice within the larger entity of the city, Plato turns his attention to the individual. He expresses hope that “if we first tried to observe justice in some larger thing that possessed it, this would make it easier to observe in a single individual” (434e). However, Plato here encounters a conundrum. In order to relate justice within the individual soul to justice in the city, the soul must possess divisions mimicking the three classes of the city. This implies a tripartite soul, with each section having its counterpart in the classes of the ideal city.Plato examines the problem of division in the soul through the example of a thirsty person restraining themselves from drinking (439c). Plato argues that when a thirsty person does not choose to immediately satisfy that thirst, “there is something in their soul, bidding them to drink, and something different, forbidding them to do so” (439c). These two separate thoughts, Plato argued, must be produced in two distinct sections of the soul. He claims that the thirst came from a part of the soul that desires and feels, while the restraint in not drinking came from a rational section of the soul (439d). Following this same reasoning, he argues that the emotional part “by which we get angry” is a third part, as “anger sometimes makes war against the appetites” (440a). Plato believes that in the city it is the different parts which meddle with and contradict each other, thus when contradictions arise in the soul it must be do to different parts of the soul.Plato’s derivation of the tripartite soul through the idea of restraining a desire suffers from a troublesome flaw. If, as Plato claims, any contradicting thoughts must come from different parts of the soul, there must be far more than three different parts. For example, when a person watching a play or other performance is thirsty, but does not wish to leave his or her seat due to a desire to continue watching the play, this contradiction does not appear to come from two different elements. Both the thirst and the intention of watching the play are desires, seemingly from the appetitive part of the soul, yet they are clearly in opposition. In Plato’s system this seems to imply that there are in fact two different appetitive parts of the soul for these two desires, just as there are different parts for other desires, ad infinitum. This is clearly absurd, yet the decision to group all of these apparently contradictory thoughts into the single entity of the appetite undermines Plato’s premise. If these contradictions can be grouped together, it seems entirely arbitrary to divide the soul into three parts at all. Why is there a need for disparate parts when contradictions can arise within the parts as well as between them? Yet Plato’s idea of a tripartite soul is not lost.Plato might argue that the contradictions within the sections are not true oppositions, but merely competing thoughts. When a thirsty person decides not to go to the store for a drink in the middle of a blizzard, their rationality is overruling their desire. When they choose to get a drink and miss the play, they are simply deciding that the drink is more desirable at that particular moment, and no contradiction or overruling within the soul becomes apparent. In this way, Plato can defend his division of the soul and move on to finish his allegory to the city.With the divisions of a tripartite soul securely established, Plato applies the ideals derived from the discussion of the city to his view of the soul. He first addresses the rational part of the soul. Its ability to control the other parts makes it a natural candidate for the position of the rulers and the virtue of wisdom. Plato asks “Isn’t it appropriate for the rational part to rule, since it is really wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for the spirited part to obey and be its ally?” (441e). Next, Plato looks at the spirited part of the soul, which he associates with the soldiers and notes that “it is because of the spirited part2E.. that we call a single individual courageous” (442b). Finally, he examines the appetitive part of the soul, relating it to the general population of the city (442c). Plato again argues that a person is moderate in as much as all three parts of the soul realize their proper places, placing the greatest burden on the larger appetitive soul (442c). Finally, when the rational, spirited, and appetitive souls are in harmony and do not interfere with one another, the soul embodies justice.Plato’s derives his tripartite theory of the soul in Republic through a search for the ideal of justice. Moving from justice in the city to justice in the individual, Plato provides a convincing argument for his theories. In Phaedo, Plato also examines the nature of the soul, but he does so without a specific goal in mind. As a result, his findings in Phaedo show a simpler, more universal nature of the soul. The contrast between the two is most clearly evident in Plato’s application in Phaedo of the same idea of restraint from desires as he used in Republic.Plato uses the example of a thirsty individual restraining himself from drinking in Phaedo and in Republic (Republic 439c, Phaedo 94b-c). In Phaedo, he introduces the argument in support of his ideas on the immortality of the soul. Plato believes that the immortal soul existed before it had life in the body, and will continue to exist after the body’s death. Looking first at the pre-existence of the soul, he introduces the idea of recollection, noting that “we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape” (73a). This argument calls for the existence of the human soul before it entered the body, but it does not satisfactorily prove the immortality of the soul, nor does it establish that the soul lives on after death.To address these concerns, Plato turns to the somewhat unconvincing idea that the soul is a Form. Here he argues that the soul “is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself;” in essence, that it is most like a Form (80b). This somewhat unconvincing argument is exploited by the antagonists in the dialogue who point out that a soul in this sense would be independent of the body, but the soul seems to act more in harmony with the body, overseeing it and looking after its health (86b). Here we have the introduction of Plato’s idea of the thirsty soul restraining itself from drink once again. Plato notes that “if the soul were a harmony, it would never be out of tune with the stress and relaxation of the elements… it would follow and never direct them” (94c). The idea that when a body is thirsty it can be restrained by the soul contradicts this idea of harmony. The soul is not “following” the body, but rather it “appear[s] to do quite the opposite, ruling over all the elements of which one says it is composed” (94d). This observation adequately defends Plato’s position in the Phaedo, but it raises some questions about Plato’s true beliefs on the matter.When compared directly with the passage in Republic, Plato’s words are clearly contradictory. In Republic, he used the idea of restraint to show a conflicted, divided soul. In Phaedo, however, he uses it to show a strong, resolute, and most importantly unified soul. While the Republic suggests that the appetitive desires are contained within the soul itself, Phaedo seems to suggest that the desires are separate from and controlled by the soul. There is no rational soul overruling the appetitive soul in Phaedo, it is simply the soul overruling the body. In this way, the appetitive and spirited sections of the soul are moved into the body in Phaedo, yet they are incorporated into the soul in Republic.This confusion regarding the parts of the soul does not necessarily present a contradiction. Throughout Phaedo, Plato discusses the idea that the soul and the body are linked. If the soul and body are linked, then perhaps the soul contains in itself the desires and emotions of the body, at least for such time as it is alive and residing within the body. This would appear to reconcile the conflicting arguments presented in Phaedo and Republic. He even obliquely references this with the comment that the soul’s purpose lies in “ruling over all the elements of which one says it is composed” (94d). This statement generates conflicts of its own, as it implies that the soul rules over itself. Plato argues in Republic, however, that all three of the parts of the soul are equal, with no part controlling the other. Plato actually works to resolve some of these contradictions in Phaedrus, where he introduces the image of the rational soul as a charioteer commanding the spirited and appetitive souls. Phaedrus is beyond the scope of this essay, however, and it nonetheless fails to fully rectify the contradictions Plato has created for himself in Phaedo and Republic.These contradictions raise the question of which underlying theory Plato ascribes to. Plato’s discussion of the tripartite soul and the immortal soul presents two distinct views. In one, the soul is divided into separate but equal parts. In the other, the soul is, depending on your view, either composed of a single controlling part or composed of many unequal parts, controlled by the rational mind. Some of the contradiction found within the works can perhaps be attributed to their differing purposes.Phaedo, subtitled “On the Immortality of the Soul,” had as its primary purpose an exploration of the nature of the soul’s existence, specifically its immortality. It is possible that Plato, speaking through the persona of Socrates and confronted with challenging arguments against his ideas, simply modified his theories of the soul in order to more accurately defend the idea of immortality. More precisely, he may have presented only those parts of his concept of the soul that pertained to a defense of its immortality. Since the exact constitution of the soul and its parts was not the concern of the work, there was no need to formulate and defend the full range of his arguments.In Republic, subtitled “On Justice,” Plato makes a more concerted effort to explore the origins of justice in the soul. Plato must be as specific in his arguments as possible in this work, as he is attempting to apply the complex concept of justice to the human soul. Perhaps Plato delved deeper into his ideas here, causing some of the apparent contradictions to develop. It is possible that these are simply two different underlying theories, but it seems more likely that they are simply different interpretations of the same theory. While there are differences between them, these differences are not so pronounced as to be irreconcilable.In looking at Plato’s theories of the soul as presented in his works, chiefly Phaedo and Republic, it is apparent that two slightly different views on the soul are at play. Given the greater depth of the discussion in Republic, it seems that Plato may have considered this view to be more accurate than the one presented in Phaedo. No matter which one is considered “correct,” however, the fact remains that the two works present slightly different views on the soul. The differences in these views stem from the differing aims of their respective works, and while contrasting, they are not in total conflict. Rather, the two views represent different aspects of the same issue, and not two separate underlying theories. Plato’s view of the soul is highly complex, and, like a good politician, he simply presents the reader in each case with whichever particular qualities of the soul are crucial to the understanding of his current argument.
The Structure of Plato’s Symposium
The philosophical debate that is the focus of Plato’s Symposium culminates in the speech of Diotima. She is a mysterious figure, a brilliant woman with the powers even to put off a plague. What she does here is miraculous too: she manages to tie together everything the speakers said during the gathering into a coherent whole, extracting what proves to be true from that which is false or irrelevant without ever having set foot in Agathon’s house. She holds the answer to the question of the night. She defines love.Every speech on love up until that point anticipates Diotima’s argument in some way, so that we as readers can build up to it much like the characters do. This does not mean that we must have a functional understanding of Agathon’s pompous nonsense before we can understand what love is fundamentally, for the truth (or Truth) can stand on its own. It means rather that the reader goes bouncing around from thinker to thinker. If he is a careful reader at all, he attempts to reconcile the contradictions, find the similarities, and eventuallyif Plato is successful at allhe will desire some closure, some final explanation which has in it no contradictions. And that desire is the climax of Diotima’s discourse on love, which the reader can finally fully appreciate, since he has engaged with it: “[the lover] gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom.” (210D)If the symposium is an orgy of thought, Diotima is the climax. The buildup is a very carefully ordered series of inferior speeches that build on one another. Phaedrus opens the evening by calling Love “the most powerful [god] in helping men gain virtue and blessedness.” (180B) Pausanias follows by giving Love even more power. He does this by saying that love has a dual nature, both a “vulgar” side and a side that compels a lover to “make virtue [his] central concern.” (185B) Here Plato interrupts the flow with Aristophanes’ “bad case of hiccups,” (185C) which reminds the reader of the casualness of the setting. It suggests to us that even though the characters are knee-deep in abstraction, they are also unavoidably tied to the mundane reality we all know. Eryximachus then speaks. He makes love all-powerful, saying that it “directs everything that occurs.”(186B) This implies a acceptance of Pausanias’ distinction between good love and bad love, for if love is responsible for everything that occurs, and since that which occurs must either be good or bad, then love must have a dual nature.Plato then focuses us on ideas that are less general. Aristophanes’ myth and his consequent definition of love introduce the idea that love is a desire for something that we lack: “Each [human] longed for its own other half.” (191A) Agathon introduces the idea that love is tied to beauty, employing the phrase, “the beauty of the god.” (196B) Socrates concludes this half of the speeches on the nature of love by questioning Agathon. He brings together the idea of lack and the idea of beauty by concluding that “Love needs beauty.” (201B)But it is Diotima, as Socrates quotes her, who brings together all of the different theories. She separates the physical world from the divine world, homosexual love from heterosexual love, and love of the body to a love of beauty itself. She builds up an irrefutable argument which leads inevitably to love being defined principally as the longing to perceive beauty in its true and absolute form, a feat that one can only accomplish through philosophy. In short, she justifies all the speeches before her, not by agreeing with them, but by praising the act of philosophizing. Philosophy is merely love of wisdom. Thus, Plato has inextricably linked his form to his content. It is love that dictated the progression of the speeches, the structure of Symposium. Just as his characters are philosophizing, so too is Plato. He shows us that the way to truth is through a development such as the one he has so carefully sculpted.Symposium though does not end on this unsurpassable high note. Alcibiades’ comical hysteria is a comedown from Diotima’s serious, focused lecture. He is more believable as a character than she is. He is very emotional. He is grappling with a personal contradiction: “[Socrates] always traps me… and makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time.” (215E) This is because he has undergone what, hopefully, the reader has undergone after Diotima’s speech: “…my heart, or my soul, or whatever you want to call it… has been struck and bitten by philosophy.” (218A) Thus Plato ends the speeches with a character to whom we can easily relate. To put him at the end is to suggest that that is where Symposium leaves us as readers. We are shaken and a bit confused, but enthusiastic. So Symposium leaves us in the same state of conflict as Alcibiades. We can choose philosophy as a way of life, or we can continue our “political career.” Plato’s careful placement of Alcibiades in the story is inseparable from what he is actually saying. Again, structure and meaning are indistinguishable from one another.Symposium has an even larger, overarching structure to it, beyond the gathering scene itself. Plato in the very beginning introduces to us the narrator of the story, Apollodorus, who heard the story from a man named Phoenix, who heard the story from Aristodemus, who was at the gathering himself. And of course the reader is aware that there is an author looming behind all these characters, so that the first thing Plato says to us is that Symposium is a story of a story of a story of a story. Anything repeated that many times is doomed to degeneration or idealization, especially when the story deals with Socrates, whom Apollodorus comes dangerously close to worshipping: “I’ve… made it my job to know exactly what [Socrates] says and does each day.” (137A) So we start miles away from the actual event. From this initial haze, Plato brings us progressively upward, towards Diotima’s speech on Beauty. To perceive “Beauty” is to understand perfect form. Philosophy then has brought the reader from the messy world of the fourth-generation story to the Platonic Idea. Yet again, structure and meaning meet.Symposium quite obviously advocates philosophizing. For Plato to make an effective pitch, the work then must justify itself. The reader must at the same time understand both the merits of the arguments themselves and why the arguments are worth having. Plato accomplishes the former through the speeches of the characters, the latter by their placement in the story. This unity is what makes Symposium so convincing.
Socrates, Alcibiades, and the Pursuit of Beauty
The logistical problems of everyday human life are often concerned with the pursuit of love and beauty. The impracticalities of actively chasing after phenomena that we do not fully understand are considerable – unless, of course, you’re Socrates. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, in his spoken recollection of a conversation with the priestess Diotima, attempts to define love, and outlines a clear, step-by-step method of how to fully appreciate love by pursuing beauty and knowledge. These stages of the pursuit of beauty, a “ladder of love”, are analyzed as a practice when Socrates’ would-be lover Alcibiades gives a speech both praising and criticizing the old philosopher and his way of life. Alcibiades’ speech reveals the implications, both positive and negative, of following Socrates’ teachings in a material manner, and reveals the ultimate impacts of the pursuit of beauty.
Socrates’ speech is hardly ambiguous in detailing how a lover ought to engage with beauty. The speech, Socrates’ retelling of a dialogue between himself and Diotima (likely an invention of Socrates), first defines Love. Love is, to Diotima, a being in between man and god, a clever child of Wherewithal and Wit who spends his time hunting for truth and wisdom . Love is a brilliant speaker, dresses crudely and walks around barefoot, and is neither materially poor nor rich (203d). The parallels between Diotima’s description of Love and Socrates himself are clear – Love is a philosopher, in pursuit of knowledge, exactly like Socrates; moreover, Socrates is described earlier in the text usually barefoot and unclean (176a), and relies heavily on the hospitality of strangers, while avoiding serious poverty. Clearly, the Love Diotima is describing is representative of philosophers, and specifically Socrates, so it follows that the pursuits of Diotima’s Love may also run parallel with the pursuits of Socrates.
Living in harmony with love, Diotima goes on, is the desire to be immortal, by means of “conception and birth in beauty” and knowledge of beauty (206e). The chase after the knowledge of beauty is the fuel of love. The pursuit of beauty is a very particular process, known as the “ladder of love”. The process begins with a love of the physical, then ascends to a love of the sciences and then to a love of pure beauty (209a-211a). It is important to note the symptoms Diotima describes as part of the ascension of the ladder. The lover is described as bursting to share their love, initially in a sexual manner, but eventually in terms of a relationship based purely on dialogue and the pursuit of knowledge (206e). Additionally, the lover who has ascended to the highest level of the pursuit of beauty will lose all interest in mere physical beauty; they will transcend customs and conventional beauty and instead see beauty as a purer thing, looking over manners of beauty they had previously been fixated on (211d). It is by observing beauty in this pure manner that a lover can find happiness. These symptoms of pursuing beauty are manifest in a lover, so it is reasonable to hypothesize that if “Diotima” intended Love to be Socrates, he will also possess these symptoms.
Next comes Alcibiades’ drunken speech, an “ode” to the old philosopher himself that in essence acts as a response to Socrates’ process of love. Alcibiades details how, as a younger, handsome man, he became seduced by Socrates’ brilliant speeches, only to be rejected by the ugly old philosopher, who was immune to his physical charms (219c). In fact, Socrates, by Alcibiades’ account, has little care for physical pleasures at all, never losing himself in them; yet, when he does begrudgingly indulge in wine and good food, he enjoys them more than anyone else (220a). Socrates has no need for physical pleasures, but he still seems to find a particular beauty in them that others do not.
Alcibiades also indicates that Socrates has little interest in the customs of society, claiming that he cares little for them, saying,
“…he couldn’t give a damn whether a boy is beautiful or rich or famous or any of the things most people care about. I tell you he has contempt for all of that…” (216e)
Socrates finds some beauty in the physical, but does not lust after the physical; similarly, he does not lust after the customary or the societal. As Alcibiades evidences, Socrates appears to be a prime example of a lover of pure beauty, as outlined by Diotima; he is above both the physical and the customary.
If Socrates is this perfect lover, can Alcibiades’ speech tell us more about what it means to be this kind of lover, and the difficulty of devotedly living the life of the Lover of pure beauty? Does this manner of living demand sacrifice? Most importantly, how do Diotima’s heady and idealized instructions materialize in everyday life?
Firstly, it seems obvious that even if Socrates’ manner of living is beneficial for himself, it can be harmful to those around him. Alcibiades was clearly emotionally damaged in a permanent way by Socrates’ romantic rejection, a rejection that came directly as a result of Socrates’ distance from the physical. Alcibiades additionally alludes to the possibility that he is not the only one among the elite of Athens that has been emotionally damaged by Socrates (222b). For those who cannot understand the knowledge Socrates has acquired and are confused by his peculiarly principled lifestyle, hurt will ensue.
Moreover, towards the end of Alcibiades’ speech, it is made clear that Socrates has acted in ways that seem to be in conflict with Diotima’s idealized pursuit of beauty. Yes, he spends most of his time contemplating knowledge, completely isolated from the outside world, but he also risks his life to save the life of Alcibiades during war (220e). This sacrifice seems to be incompatible with the singular pursuit of beauty; how can saving the life of one superficially beautiful person compare to encountering pure beauty itself? This apparent diversion from the path towards knowledge could represent one of two things: either Socrates occasionally abandons his pursuit of knowledge for other ideals – which seems unlikely – or, most probably, his pursuit of beauty has made him into a person who is more capable of expressing love in a nuanced way. Perhaps Socrates rescued Alcibiades not because he cared for him and not because he was superficially beautiful, but because his existence itself contained pure beauty, a form reflected in all beautiful existence. By ascending the ladder, Socrates gained the ability to see the pure beauty present in all beautiful things, and thus values the beauty of life.
Socrates’ speech detailing Diotima’s method is an outline for how to immerse oneself in beauty; Alcibiades’ speech is a portrayal of the reality of living out a life immersed in an understanding of beauty. While the life of the philosopher of beauty may not be as pure and uncomplicated as Diotima preaches, and may even result in the harming of others, it is ultimately a life that can result in a special empathy for the beauty of others. Socrates, in studying beauty and the forms, has discovered the universality of the beautiful; he is not attracted by the physical or ethical manifestations of beauty, but by beauty itself, and as a result, his life is one that rejects individual beautiful aspects of things, but embraces kind acts towards the ideal beauty he sees in others.
Plato’s Ladder of Love
One of the most famous passages in Plato’s Symposium and one that seems to receive the most attention in contemporary philosophy is Diotima’s Ladder of Love. Diotima explains that love is an ascent through a number of stages or steps on the ladder that ultimately lead to the Form of the Beautiful. This view of love is a little problematic however, and a number of critics popularly accuse the Ladder of Love to be instrumental, impersonal and abstract. Proponents of Plato, namely Kristian Urstad, argue that this critique is slightly mistaken and defend Plato’s love insofar as it is not as instrumental and impersonal as is said of it. However, this effort is merely valiant as the Ladder ultimately proves to fit its critique. There is little convincing evidence of the contrary, and most problematic is Alcibiades’ speech. There is one possible argument that can entertain Plato’s critics and but one redeemable quality about the ascent.
Critics of Plato argue that as we ascend the first three steps of the Ladder from loving a beautiful body, to loving all beautiful bodies, to loving a beautiful soul, we use others merely instrumentally. That is, we love others as means to an end. Critics point to the following passage in the Symposium:
“He will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body … next he must see that the beauty of each and every body is the same. At this point, he must be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into proportion by deeming it of little or no importance (210b).”
Supporters of this interpretation conclude that we abandon the love of lower steps once we ascend to higher ones. For instance, if we are on the third step of the Ladder and love beautiful souls, we will no longer love beautiful bodies. Plato’s love is very exclusive in this sense. Moreover, as we ascend we take away the value or importance away from those we once loved making them interchangeable, almost discardable.
As the ascent continues, from loving laws and activities, to loving knowledge, to loving the Form of Beauty itself, critics argue that love becomes impersonal and abstract. So far in our ascent we have loved beauty in bodies and souls of others. As we progress up the Ladder the beauty is no longer found with concrete individuals but in abstractions such as laws, institutions and knowledge. And when at last we reach the final step of the Ladder, Diotima notes that “the lover…will be free of human flesh and coloring and all that mortal rubbish (211e).” Love according to Plato is a dehumanizing and impersonal quest to achieve Beauty in its most abstract form. We abandon people altogether at these higher stages, and at the final step of the Ladder our love is no longer for anything worldly.
Kristian Urstad argues that this popular reading of Plato is mistaken. Urstad believes Plato never wants us to abandon our lovers. It is a matter of interpretation. When Diotima speaks at 210b, we are not to relinquish everything that is valuable in them, but rather readjust it. We do not abandon our loved ones in the physical sense, but rather we abandon the limited scope we could see them in. We simply liberate ourselves from the obsession of the physical beauty of our lover’s body. When Diotima claims that “slavish love of youthful beauty is a thing of the past (210d),” we see this again. Urstad points out that what Diotima wants us to discard is specifically the love of a beautiful boy. And when we do, we begin to recognize what is really of value, what is really worth loving – no longer bodies and souls but rather more abstract features. And it is these abstractions, according to Plato, that resemble Beauty more closely and are in turn more deserving of our love (Urstad, 35-38). Thus, Urstad urges us to see that in fact love is not instrumental or impersonal. We ascend the Ladder but we do not turn our backs on our loved ones, on the contrary, we embrace them a richer, fuller and more appropriate way. We can now recognize and appreciate our lovers in all their totality.
Kristian Urstad’s response to popular criticism is valiant, but it fails to convince us. It becomes really problematic with Alcibiades’ speech and frustrates any further attempt to defend Plato. Socrates is most likely on the fifth step but surely the second half of the Ladder, while Alcibiades who pursues Socrates is on the third. We can be sure of this since Alcibiades loves Socrates who is not aesthetically pleasing (he compares him to a satyr at 215b), so he must love Socrates for his beautiful soul. It is not Socrates’ looks but his wisdom that has an erotic pull on men like Alcibiades. This is at least some evidence that the Ladder exists as Alcibiades is past loving bodies and onto loving souls. But this demonstrates that Socrates who is at a higher step on the Ladder than Alcibiades, rejects Alcibiades’ love. Do we see that Socrates loves Alcibiades here in any larger more inclusive scope like Urstad suggests? The answer is most definitely no. Socrates seems completely unmotivated by physical pleasures and unresponsive to any of Alcibiades’ sexual advances. Socrates further claims he is “not interested in exchanging his genuine wisdom for physical beauty…[or] gold for bronze (218e).” There is no scenario where Socrates can love Alcibiades because Socrates loves wisdom exclusively. The proof is in the fact that Socrates does not sleep that night or has a hangover in the morning. Instead he stays up and argues the entire time and then goes about his regular business the next day. His love of wisdom is not hindered or interrupted by any distractions found on previous steps. Taken together, Urstad is not necessarily wrong, he just has matters reversed. As we ascend the Ladder we do abandon any interest and value in those at lower stages. We surely do not love them in any greater scope. However, the reverse seems to be true. Those at lower steps love those at higher ones in a richer, fuller manner. Alcibiades loves Socrates not for his body but for his soul, for his knowledge of Greek costumes and laws, and for his wisdom. Plato’s critics are still right, but Urstad is on to something that needs to be illuminated.
There is one argument I would like to propose that can shed new light on the discussion so far. It can at least entertain the idea that the Ladder is not so instrumental and impersonal. We have said so far that the reverse of Urstad is true; Alcibiades loves Socrates in a larger more inclusive way, not vice-versa. But can Socrates ever love Alcibiades? The ascent can after all be a mutual experience. Let us continue to look at Socrates and Alcibiades. Alcibiades tells Socrates, “Socrates is the only worthy lover for him and he can gratify Socrates in any way if Socrates agrees to help him attain the highest possible excellence (218c-d).” Alcibiades does not understand love (or at least Plato’s love) and wants to jump the steps of the Ladder and so Socrates of course rejects him. Socrates however does help Alcibiades climb the Ladder. Much like in other Plato’s dialogues, but not so explicitly in the Symposium, Socrates’ behavior toward Alcibiades is that of the typical Socratic fashion – elenchus. And much like with other interlocutors, Socrates leaves Alcibiades confused and humiliated, but in a position where Alcibiades can reevaluate his assumptions about love and truly start climbing the Ladder. This is similar to what Diotima does with Socrates. By the virtue of this, people can still love one another given they are on the same step on the Ladder. And we see this with Alcibiades and Socrates. So Urstad has it slightly confused. It is not Socrates, but Alcibiades who loves in a greater scope. And Socrates can love Alcibiades too, and perhaps we can only assume, but only and only if Alcibiades ascends the Ladder to match with Socrates. This only further entertains any imaginable defense of Plato. The idea is that wisdom can be embodied and if we find ourselves on the same step of the ascent we can still love each other for these abstract qualities. Thus, love does not have to be so instrumental and impersonal as the critics make it out to be.
In the end, there is one redeemable quality that Plato’s Ladder of Love has – it provides us with eternal fulfillment and immortality. One other relationship worth noting is that between Socrates and Plato himself. Plato must have loved Socrates similarly to Alcibiades, but Plato was probably at a higher step on the Ladder than Alcibiades, perhaps very close to Socrates. And the result is both men became immortalized in the works like the Symposium. Plato, the philosopher, and Socrates his mouthpiece reproduced ideas that live to this day and will live forever.
Plato. Symposium. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.
Urstad, Kristian. Loving Socrates: The Individual and the Ladder of Love in Plato’s Symposium. Pgs. 33-46.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
In Plato’s The Symposium, Plato details the events of a dinner party, a symposium for which the work derives its namesake, comprised of a group of seemingly well-educated individuals. Plato tells the story of the symposium and the dialogue of the individuals in attendance through a framed narrative, utilizing the character of Apollodorus, one of the attendees at the party, to relate the story to an unnamed companion. The party is hosted and held in honor of the tragedian Agathon, in celebration of his recent victory in a drama writing contest. In addition to Apollodorus, the party is attended by Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agothon, and Socrates. At Phaedrus’s suggestion, the conversation switches to the topic of Eros, the Greek god of love. Each of the individuals take a turn in making a speech in praise of Eros. Socrates, poised by Plato to be the protagonist of The Symposium by allowing him to speak last with the longest dialogue, presents an argument regarding Eros that differentiates itself from those of his peers. Socrates’s argument is unique in that he begins his argument by questioning and refuting the claims made by the previous speaker, the playwright Agathon, through a style of Socratic questioning that is characteristic of Plato’s works. Furthermore, the bulk of Socrates’s argument is built upon a foundation that is not wholly his, but rather of Diotima of Manitea, a character Socrates claims to have taught him all that he knows in regards to Eros and love. Although each of speakers present a unique perspective and interpretation of Eros, the speech made by Socrates — although it might be more justly referred to as Diotima’s speech — is arguably the most important made in regards to Eros in The Symposium. Furthermore, the evidence by which Diotima uses to substantiate her argument makes it the most convincing of those made by Socrates’s colleagues.
Socrates presents the basis of Diotima’s argument early in his speech, noting Diotima’s belief that eros is “of the good being one’s own always” (206a). This is taken to mean that people only love that which is good for them. The object of love, then, its eternal desire, becomes the want to possess this goodness forever. With this, Diotima refutes the earlier claim made by Aristophanes that a person will always pursue their other half. For Diotima, this person would only pursue their other half if it is what is good for them. Diotima attempts to defend this rather bold and startling claim by raising a number of subsequent questions, the first seeking to answer that which is the purpose of love. Indeed, if the object of love is to possess that which is good, what then becomes the purpose of love in order to reach that end? Diotima claims that this purpose is to bring “birth in beauty both in terms of the body and in terms of the soul” (206b). The difficulty, therein, becomes connecting this somewhat abstract claim to Diotima’s definition of love. Diotima believes that all human beings are pregnant, “both in terms of the body and in terms of the soul” (206c), and it is the natural process that drives their desire to give birth in both of these aspects. This birth can only be one forged in beauty, as birthing requires the harmony of both a man and a woman. Likewise, the process of reproduction is a divine one, as it is the closest feat that mere mortals can accomplish to achieving immortality. In that respect, reproduction is an immortal process, as it allows mortals to continue living through their offspring, both in body and in soul. Love, then, is not purely the desire for which is beautiful, as Socrates earlier stated, but rather the want of reproduction in birth and beauty. This aspect of immortality connects the two elements of Diotima’s argument. Love’s purpose of birthing beauty substantiates Diotima’s earlier notion that love is the eternal want of that which is good, as reproduction provides mortals a means to immortality, albeit a means more of the soul than of the body. For love to want to possess good forever, it must want the immortality made possible by reproduction. The very fact that humanity has continued to reproduce throughout the history of mankind is additional evidence that defends Diotima’s claim. It is human nature to desire to reproduce after reaching adolescence and young adulthood. This urge to reproduce ensures the immortality of the human race. The love that enables the continued progression of humanity, then, undoubtedly becomes the love of that which is good for oneself.
Diotima then shifts her argument from speaking on the love regarding human beings to the love that can be found within animals, stating that “in the eros of the beasts … the mortal nature seeks as far as possible to be forever and immortal” (207d). The same argument that was applied to humankind can be applied to lesser beings as well, further substantiating Diotima’s initial claim. Like humans, animals with far less intellectual capacity have an innate desire to achieve immortality, and have found closest means to accomplish this goal to be reproduction. As this example demonstrates, the notion that love is the want of that which is good for oneself is a universal one, capable of being applied not only to human beings, but also to lesser animals and creatures.
Diotima’s speech then branches on to the a more in-depth discussion of the aspect of reproduction, this means by which mortals are able to seeming obtain immortality, stating that “it is always leaving behind another that is young to replace the old” (207d). This reproduction is not solely exclusive in terms of reproducing new individuals through offspring, but can also take place within a single individual. This is evident by the fact that no single individual stays identical from the moment of their birth to their death. Although one might be said to be the same individual and the same being, the constant reproduction of their body and soul results in countless cycles of death and rebirth within same person. While the body ages physically, so to does the soul and the mind with new knowledge and mannerisms. Diotima applies the same logic to studying, claiming that “forgetfulness is the exiting of science; and studying, by instilling a fresh memory again … preserves the science” (208a). For the purposes of attaining immortality, this constant process of reproduction leads humans to honor that which are their offspring. It is this nature that has lead both humans and lesser beings to develop a nurturing and protective attitude towards their children, for their children are, in essence, their immortality. Diotima goes on to apply this same principle to other things that humans hold to a high standard or value, such as honor and virtue. In doing so, Diotima cites the actions of Alcestis and Achilles, stating that they were not done out of love for Admetus nor Patroclus, but rather for an “immortal remembering of their virtue” (208d). This refutes Phaedrus’s earlier claim that these actions were self-sacrificial for the good of their lover and beloved. This discussion ties into Diotima’s claim and substantiates the notion that love is the desire for what is good for oneself, as the want to attain immortality of that which humans perceive to be good for them is what ultimately drives human actions.
The next portion of Diotima’s speech contains perhaps the oddest elements of her argument, wherein she discusses the pregnancy found in men, stating that “they turn rather to women … furnishing for themselves through the procreation of children immortality, remembrance, and happiness (as they believe) for all future time” (208e). Although these men act in accordance to Diotima’s claim of striving for immortality, better yet, she claims, is those who are pregnant not in body, but rather in soul. These individuals, “all the poets and all the craftsmen” (209a) according to Diotima, seek those who are beautiful in the soul, so that they are able to procreate and birth in the soul. These individuals are able to obtain a far greater kind of immortality, as by giving birth in the soul, they are truly remembered forever, memorialized through fame and memory. Diotima’s main argument shines through in both of these instances. Regardless of the immortality that one wishes or is able to attain, it nevertheless remains an essential part of one’s well-being. The pursuit to attain it, then, becomes an act of love itself, seeking what is good for oneself and attempting to make this goodness last forever.
Diotima’s conclusion to her speech establishes an outline of what she refers to as the rites of love, a seemingly complex ladder to attain the greatest love. First, one loves one body alone. This leads one to realize that “beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body” (210b). This realization compels the individual to seek beauty in all bodies and become a lover of all beautiful bodies. Following this, one finds that beauty in the should is a far more substantial one than beauty in the body. This argument is in accordance with Diotima’s earlier claim of birth of the soul being a greater feat than birth of the body. An individual, seeking love in the soul, is opened to seeing “the beautiful in pursuits and laws … and the beauty of sciences” (210c). The last step of Diotima’s ladder of love involves the individual giving birth to “many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts” (210d). This, according to Diotima, allows the individual to birth true virtue, earning the favor of the gods and becoming one of the few who are truly immortal. Although this ladder initially presents itself as a complex, somewhat convoluted means of quantifying love, this odd scale works to defend Diotima’s initial claim of the true meaning of love. Only through a continual effort to seek what is good for oneself is one able to climb Diotima’s proposed ladder of love. Love, then, at every step on this ladder of love, is just that: an effort to obtain that which is good for oneself and retain it until the constant cycle of the immortal reproduction changes one to pursue a higher step on the ladder.
Although Diotima presents a rather convincing argument for love being “of the good being one’s own always” (206a), it does not come without a number of critical flaws that might lead one to doubt the whole of her argument. Most notably, Diotima’s fundamental argument upon which she develops the rest of her case, the notion that love is always the pursuit of that which is good for oneself, can also be her largest weakness, as the argument could easily be made from an opposing stance that that which one perceives to good for oneself might not always be truly good. Clouded by the fog of judgement and denial that is also a common aspect of human nature, one might not realize that the pursuit of the perceived goodness is actually causing harm to one’s own being. Examples of this include individuals trapped in abusive relationships or unable to escape the allure of drug abuse. It is likely that Plato considered these flaws of her argument, thus, making the decision to make Socrates the last speaker so that he is able to refute the weaker parts of the preceding speeches while not being questioned himself. Furthermore, Plato positions the entrance of the drunken Alcibiades immediately after Diotima’s conclusion, shifting the topic from a discussion of Eros to one of Socrates himself. The introduction of this character, at this particular point, mitigates the opportunity for Socrates’s colleagues to cross analyze Diotima’s argument.
Diotima’s argument is portrayed to the reader by Plato’s use of a double framed narrative of sorts, going first through the character of Socrates before going through Apollodorus. It is interesting to note that Plato made the decision to further distance the reader from the dialogue, especially at what appears to be the most critical point of The Symposium. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the conversation between Diotima and Socrates never even took place, and that the character of Diotima is simply Socrates’s fictitious creation, used to further his own argument. The fact that Diotima’s character touches upon all of the other speakers substantiate this viewpoint. Her argument refutes claims made by Agathon and Phaedrus, she comes from Manitea, a town mentioned by Aristophanes during his speech, she “caused the onset of the disease to be delayed” (201d), demonstrating her skills as a physician akin to Eryximachus, and she is somewhat similar to the teacher that Pausanias is. Regardless of whether or not Diotima of Manitea was a real individual who conversed with Socrates, one thing remains certain: Her argument regarding the god Eros and love being the pursuit of the good for oneself, substantiated by a large amount of evidence in regards to the immortality of reproduction, has proven to be the most convincing out of those made by the members at the symposium.
Eryximachus: The Role of Contradiction
Through all the speeches of the Symposium, Eryximachus’ speech may be the most difficult to understand. Looking at Eryximachus’ initial, more scientific approach to love, under which he views love as something that can be quantitatively measured, one many find it difficult to accept the more abstract arguments of a “universal” love that he poses later on in his speech. Thus, one can ask: Why does Plato present such a striking, almost contradictory, set of arguments within Eryximachus’ speech?
The initial portrayal of Eryximachus shows him to be a man of science. From the very onset of Eryximachus’ speech he begins with the statement, “I feel sure it’s from medicine, my own area of expertise that I’ve realized how great and wonderful a god Love is, and how his power extends to all of human and divine life.” These words indicate a man who clearly takes pride in his occupation in medicine. This “pride” in his occupation then continues to manifest itself in his following arguments. As shown in the statement, “Love is not only expressed in the emotional responses of human beings to beautiful people, but… in the bodily responses of every kind of animal, in plants growing in the earth,” Eryximachus’ pride in medicine is shown in his adherence to the belief that love can be viewed, and therefore explained, in terms of medicine and science. This “scientific” view is supported by the fact that Eryximachus’ assertions imply that he believes that love is a quality that can be quantitatively measured. This is seen in his words “bodily responses” which supports the idea that Eryximachus believes that he can physically view and acknowledge the presence of love in all living things.
Another important aspect of Eryximachus’ speech is seen in the very nature of the speech itself. Because Eryximachus’ speech is so distinct from the other speeches, it is clear that Plato uses this argument as a representation of a very specific way to view love. This tactic is seen in the fact that Eryximachus’ speech uses a disproportionate number of personal pronouns—the words “I” and “my”—which supports the idea that Plato clearly desires to distinguish Eryximachus’ speech from that of the other characters by showing to the readers that Eryximachus, himself, believes his speech to be unique to the other speeches. In addition, Eryximachus’ first words, “This is what I think,” also provides another layer of separation between his speech and the other speeches by stating the obvious and asserting that what he is about to say about love is totally original. From the start, this separation between Eryximachus’ speech and the other speeches helps provide a clear visual of how Eryximachus thinks, allowing readers to compare and contrast this line of reasoning with a different one in Eryximachus’ next argument. Eryximachus’ following argument portrays a very different line of reasoning from the argument prior. After speaking of the quantitative aspects of love, Eryximachus asserts a more abstract and philosophical argument, one that contends that love is a universal force. Eryximachus’ statement, “When those elements I mentioned before (hot and cold, dry and wet) are influenced by the well-ordered Love, they are in harmony,” provides a glimpse of the idea that love is far more than just a “bodily response,” but rather a universal force that rules the balance between opposite forces. This “universal” view of love is also shown in Eryximachus’ statement, “So Love as a whole has great and mighty—or rather total—power, when you put this all together,” which portrays Love to be an omnipotent and all-encompassing power. In addition, the fact that the word “Love” is capitalized hints at the idea that Eryximachus views Love as a god, a view that adds to the more “abstract” and spiritual basis of his new argument.
After reading the entirety of Eryximachus’ speech, one cannot help but to be confused. After all, Plato presents a striking dichotomy between Eryximachus’ arguments. On one hand, Eryximachus seems to adhere to the scientific method, on the other, Eryximachus seems to base his definition of love on philosophy. In fact, these very contradictions undermine Eryximachus’ speech rather than strengthen it. So why does Plato present Eryximachus’ speech in this manner? Perhaps, Plato is concerned with an idea beyond the topic of love. By giving such contrasting views of love, Plato subtly hints at his view of the relationship between science and philosophy. The very undermining of Eryximachus’ speech due to the two perspectives reflects Plato’s view that science and philosophy are incompatible. Perhaps more intriguing is the fact that because Eryximachus’ is a scientific man by trade, Plato is also asserting the shallow nature of science in it’s understanding of abstract qualities such as love.
This negative view of Eryximachus by Plato is seen in the pompous portrayal of Eryximachus’ character. For example, Eryximachus’ statement, “I feel sure it’s from medicine, my own area of expertise, that I’ve realized how great and wonderful a god of love is…,” shows Eryximachus to be someone who repeatedly tries to remind everyone that he is a doctor, despite the fact that it is clear that the other characters already know that he is a doctor. It is the very weakness of Eryximachus’ speech that explains to the audience that men who base their views solely off science are incapable of understanding love and other ideals through the correct way of philosophy. Plato, therefore, may have created this dual-faceted argument in order to establish the idea that it is philosophy, not science, that is able to answer the truly important questions in life.
The Role of Love in Plato’s Symposium
Life is filled with dualities and opposing figures: love and hatred, light and dark, male and female, life and death. Aristophanes addresses a duality in the context of love in Plato’s The Symposium. The Symposium raises the question of what love truly is and means. Aristophanes brings the idea of soulmates to the party. Aristophanes explains it through the use of a myth. This myth discusses how people came to love who they love. Aristophanes brings forth the idea of soulmates or a life time partner. The myth assists the divulging of the origins of this idea. This idea is also played out by other characters in the dialogue, concluding that while one looks for a soulmate they also must recognize that they are independent beings. Whether you are in a relationship or not you are still an independent being who makes choices and must face consequences, good or bad. The idea of love is necessary to address due to its important role in Greek society and culture. Despite there being multiple pleasing aspects to loving someone, the ultimate desire is to feel whole, and once someone has found their soulmate, they become a better person.
Aristophanes’ speech shares this theme of love bringing gifts of goodness to the people that praise him. He chooses to explain to the group why humans desire one another so strongly. He uses a myth as the back bone of his speech. The myth is used to explain the meaning of eros and its origins. Aristophanes explains that there were originally three genders, male, female and androgynous. These people had four arms, four legs, two heads, two sets of genitals, these beings were double of what humans are now. Males were descendants of the sun, females of the earth and the androgynous people came from the moon, as Aristophanes describes, “…because the moon is a combination of sun and earth” (Plato 190b, p. 23). These beings were very powerful and threatened to attack the gods. Zeus, in order to humble these beings, decided to cut each person in two to stop these attacks (190d, p. 23). These beings longed for their original state and they began searching for their missing half. When their other half was found they would run to each other, embrace and not long for anything else, “since their original nature had been cut in two, each one longed for its own other half and stayed with it” (191a, p. 24). This caused people to die due to hunger and lack of movement, so Zeus took pity and moved their genitals around so they could have sexual intercourse. This gave the beings something to do and also the ability to procreate, “the aim of this was that, if a man met with a woman and entwined himself with her, they would reproduce and the human race would be continued” (191c, p. 24). Aristophanes explains that this is the origin of desire for another human. “It draws the two halves of our original nature back together and tries to…heal the wound in human nature” (191d, p. 24). Aristophanes saying this shows the true nature of love, to improve things. When someone finds their other half, they are overwhelmed with feelings for this person. These could be feelings of love, affection, anger, concern or even sadness or jealousy. The love one feels for another makes them act in certain ways around their lover. The love between two people can make them better people, and make them feel whole, as was their original state. “The reason is that this is our original natural state and we used to be whole creatures: ‘love’ is the name for the desire and pursuit of wholeness” (192e, p. 26). The concept of soulmates is so that people can become their whole selves once again.
Zeus’ threats are a reminder that eros can bring moral improvement. Aristophanes states that if humans are disobedient to the gods, Zeus might split them in two once more, so people must strive to behave according to the wishes of the gods. It is told that when humans were their whole selves they were pleasing the gods, but because of their wickedness, they were separated. So this gives humans a reason to be good if they hadn’t had a reason before. “There’s a danger that, if we aren’t well ordered in our behaviour towards the gods, we’ll be split up further…” (193a, p. 26). In the beginning of his speech Aristophanes states that people need to understand the power of love, “I think people have wholly failed to recognize the power of Love; if they’d grasped this, they’d have built the greatest temples and altars for him…” (189c, p. 22). This quotation shows that Aristophanes believes in the importance of praising eros. Along with feeling whole, the people will also prevent any future punishment from Zeus. If one lets love rule over them, they can only be good, and if they are good there can not be evil. Aristophanes urges that people should let love be their guide. If love is your leader in life, you can do nothing but good things. “…if we show reverence towards the gods, he will restore us to our original nature, healing us and so giving us perfect happiness” (193d, p. 27), Aristophanes is saying that if everyone found their love and returned to their natural selves that the whole world would be happier. If one praises love and is reunited with their soulmate, that feeling of wholeness will be gifted to them from the gods.
The other speeches in this dialogue also echo the idea that love brings goodness. Phaedrus’ speech is described as one praising eros, “…saying that Love was regarded by humans and gods as a great and awesome god for many reasons, especially his origin” (178a, p. 9). Phaedrus shares that love is a god that is to be praised. Phaedrus states that if you do praise eros and worship eros you will be gifted guidance and goodness. Phaedrus’ speech introduces the idea that love brings virtuous actions to those who praise the god. By praising the god of love one receives his gifts and shares them with others. In Agathon’s speech, he describes love as the youngest god. Agathon shares that love brings peace to humans. “So, in the case of Love, the right thing is to praise his nature first, and then his gifts” (195a, p. 28). He then goes on to say that love carries the four cardinal virtues, which are justice, moderation, bravery and wisdom. Agathon explains that love can never be touched by violence. Those who feel love are not violent. Love faces no injustice. Love is moderate, love has power over its pleasures. Moderation is the ability to have power over your pleasures and passions. Agathon shows love’s wisdom by equating it to love’s poetry. Love is the greatest poet, making it the most successful and wise, says Agathon. He ends his speech by praising eros, taking the reader back to Aristophanes’ views on praising the god of love and desire. Praising eros brings one goodness.
It is shared throughout Plato’s entire dialogue that love does make people better. Love creates something to aspire to. That feeling of wholeness will give you happiness. Finding your soulmate helps you to strive to be better. Aristophanes uses the myth of the original humans to display this idea. The world would be a much happier place if humans were reunited with their soulmates. While life is filled with dualities, one that is faced every day is the choice between right and wrong. The Symposium shares that love helps humans with this trial.