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.
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