Before Socrates gives his speech in Plato’s work, The Symposium, his host Agathon gives a speech of his own, extolling love in terms that imply Love is like the boyfriend (the beloved). His older partner, Pausanias, had given a definition of Love in terms of the actions of the Lover. Agathon’s speech was for me the most disappointing of the whole work, and I shall pass over it. There is one point that deserves mentioning, though: Socrates, after Agathon is finished, seeks his permission to engage him in dialogue, which Agathon readily accepts. Then follows the typical Socratic argument, which seeks to show the other speaker that he does not really know what he thinks he knows. Socrates begins by asking basic questions that Agathon can fully assent to, which he does, good-naturedly, by saying “certainly” on several occasions. I mention this only because of something in Xenophon which I will come to in a post on that writer’s Symposium.
When Socrates finally gives his speech, he decides not to extol Love as a god, or to define Love’s attributes and effects, as most of the others had done. Rather, he examines what love is, but he comes to a startlingly different conclusion from that reached by Aristophanes.
Socrates’ starting point is not only his own considerable experience and wisdom. He claims to have higher knowledge, which in this case comes from a woman, a priestess of love, as it were. Her name was Diotima of Mantinaea. Socrates presents her as interviewing him with the same “Socratic” method with which he had reduced Agathon. Through this method, Socrates is brought by Diotima to a higher knowledge of what Love is.
Before beginning, though, I found it fascinating that Diotima is female. She is idolized, to be sure, and perhaps even as mythical and allegorical as Boethius’ Dame Philosophy, but she is still female in a discourse dominated by men and homo-erotic relationships. Aristophanes had first broken the mold, but Diotima-Socrates cracks it wide open.
Plato’s narrator, our Apollodorus, has Aristodemus reporting Socrates had been told by Diotima–but that’s a mouthful. Apparently, many of the sentences in The Symposium begin by saying “he said that he said.” Anyway, Socrates had been told by Diotima that Love was the son of Resource and Poverty, and as such, is a minor deity somewhat below the Olympians.
Because Love was born on Aphrodite’s birthday, he worships beauty. Because he is the son of his mother Poverty, he is hardened and rough–very much like the physical depiction of the partly-ascetic Socrates himself. Because Love is born of Poverty, he always seeks what he wants. And what does Love want?
For Diotima, “Love is the desire to have the good forever.” This is obviously a very different definition from that provided by Aristophanes in his speech. For Socrates-Diotima, Love’s function is to “give birth in beauty both in body and in mind.” Diotima says that all humans are pregnant both in body and in mind (there’s that theme of androgyny again). Here’s what follows:
When we reach a degree of adulthood, we naturally desire to give birth. We cannot give birth in what is ugly, only in what is beautiful. Yes, sexual intercourse between men and women is a kind of birth. There is something divine in this process; this is how mortal creatures achieve immortality, in pregnancy and giving birth. This cannot occur in a condition of disharmony.
For Socrates-Diotima, then, Love is all about going through beauty to achieving immortality–and this holds true not only for people, but for animals, too.
All this applies to what is physical: physical beauty and physical offspring. But Diotima, in the famous “staircase” passage, then says that the journey to Love begins with a young man being in love with a woman or a boy because she or he is beautiful. But then (a step up) he realizes that there are many beautiful bodies. Later, he realizes (a step up again) that it isn’t beautiful bodies that interest him, but beautiful minds. He will give birth to “beautiful discourses.” And then, he realizes that it’s not beautiful bodies and minds only that interest him so, but beautiful ideas and the beauty of knowledge.
Looking now and beauty in general and not just at specific instances, he will no longer be slavishly attached to the beauty of a boy, or of any particular person at all, or of a specific practice. Instead of this low and small-minded slavery, he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it, he’ll give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas.
There then remains only one more step: all that remains is for one to see “beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed.”
Quite clearly, we are on the territory of capital “M” mysticism here. We are also very far from the romantic monogamy advocated by Aristophanes. We are no longer even in the realm of the physical at all, and in some respects I am very much reminded of the transition, in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, of Dave from being an ordinary astronaut to being something else entirely: an idea that is symbolized as a giant cosmic baby begotten of the stars. I would not be at all surprised if Stanley Kubrick had read his Symposium, but in any case, Socrates-Diotima has given the listeners at the dinner party something to think about.
Before ending this piece, I have one other interesting point worth noticing: just as Diotima began by defining love as a minor deity, like the nymphs and the river-gods, but led Socrates up, up, up to a wider understanding of what Love is, so Plato has led us as readers from the apparently trivial concerns of specific lovers and boyfriends (like Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Agathon), to the more full and reciprocal relationships of adults in the speech of Aristophanes, and finally to the beauty of ideas and discourses impregnated by the sea of beauty itself.
But I prefer the earthiness of The Symposium’s Aristophanes.