The Symposium (c. 385-370 BCE) is widely regarded as one of Plato’s greatest philosophical and stylistic triumphs. The dialogue recounts a drinking party in the house of Agathon at which Socrates and a number of other prominent Athenian citizens deliver speeches in praise of Eros (Love). Our assigned section begins just after the end of Agathon’s speech, in which the young Sophist heaped lavish praise on Love for his youth and beauty. Socrates addresses the gathering and disputes Agathon’s account, laying out his own vision of Love as the desire for the eternal possession of the good, a bridge between man and the divine.
Socrates begins by cross-examining Agathon and drawing out the faults in his speech. Love, Socrates forces Agathon to admit, is always love of something, in the same way that a father is always the father of someone. Love desires what is beautiful and good, and we always desire that which we do not possess. Love, therefore, must be neither good nor beautiful in itself. After forcing this series of admissions, Socrates recounts a dialogue he had with the Mantinean priestess Diotima, his teacher in love.
Diotima provided a mythology of Love’s birth as a way of introduction. Love is not himself a god, as the previous speakers assumed, but a spirit that serves as an emissary between human beings and the divine. He is the child of Poverty and Plenty and partakes in characteristics of both, always bountiful in his energies but wanting in substance. The figure of the god is not dainty or beautiful, but rough. He desires what is beautiful and very much unlike himself. These rich metaphors lay the groundwork for Plato’s philosophical project in the next few pages.
They help to make sense of the fact that the erotic drive, which seems rough, messy and exceedingly human, can at the same time touch upon the divine. Love is a desire that, when properly focused, can act as a bridge between human beings and the gods. Once Diotima has established that Love is the desire for something that the lover does not possess, she begins her inquiry into what this something is. At first Socrates ventures that love desires beauty. She corrects him by pointing out that what a man really desires in the possession of beauty is possession of the good.
She briefly considers the old adage that a lover searches for “his other half,” but dismisses this piece of folk wisdom because it fails to consider that men love the parts of themselves only insofar as they are good (and will amputate a limb when it becomes diseased). Love is not the desire for any temporary object (fleeting youth and vitality) but the desire for everlasting good. Because Love is the desire for everlasting good, and the lifespan of human beings is finite, human love is inextricably linked to procreation.
As human beings we undergo a “perpetual process of loss and reparation” – losing skin, hair, and nails, turning over flesh, bones, and blood, shedding old habits and opinions and adopting new ones – that always ends in the death of our physical form. Given the impermanence that marks human life, it is impossible for one person to maintain the beauty of his knowledge or physical accomplishment forever. Nature desires the perpetuation of beautiful and harmonious forms. So men and women are drawn together in union by Love, which is the “love of generation and of birth in beauty.
That is why goddess of birth is generous with her conceiving power when she approaches the beautiful but “frowns and contracts” at the sight of ugliness. Through procreation the beauty and goodness in man achieves immortality while the ugly and the bad perishes. As Shakespeare, inspired by the Neoplatonism of the 16th century, put so eloquently in the introduction to his sonnets: “From fairest creatures we desire increase/That thereby beauty’s rose might never die. ” Of course, physical procreation is only one way that human beings pass on the beautiful parts of themselves.
To begin with, the quest for kleos (glory), for which so many great heroes like Achilles relinquished their lives, is at bottom a quest for immortality. Moreover, while some men are only “pregnant” in body, wishing to pass on their physical form through love and procreation, others are pregnant in mind or spirit. Their love is superior to bodily love because the beauty of the mind is superior to the beauty of spiritual forms. Artists like Homer pass on great creative visions, treasure troves of wisdom and aesthetic delight whose influence far exceeds that of even the most distinguished flesh-and-blood descendants.
Still greater are those who cultivate and pass on the higher virtues of justice and temperance. These are the philosophers and law-givers who create order in human wherein justice can flourish, like Solon who laid down the laws of Athens After laying out these principles, Diotima reveals that they are only the “lesser mysteries of love. ” Love cannot simply be taught; it is a process of learning and growing. At first a man jealously loves a single beautiful form. Then he broadens his perspective and sees the same beauty in many forms. Then he recognizes the beauty of the mind as superior to the beauty of the body.
He sees the beauty of laws and well-ordered institutions and then the more abstract beauty of the sciences. Finally, after a lifetime in which his idea of beauty expands from a small stream to vast sea, the philosophical person is granted a final vision of beauty everywhere. Out of a material world that grows and decays, waxes and wanes, emerges something timeless. This beauty absolute is “separate simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other thing.
Diotima’s description of the “science of beauty everywhere” brings to mind the famous words of William Blake, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour. ” This grand aesthetic vision is the culmination of the philosopher’s love for the beautiful in mortal life. Diotima’s splendid descriptions allow the reader to glimpse something of the nature “Beauty” as an eternal object in Plato’s world of forms.