Socrates and the Limits of Love: The Erotic Philosophy of Plato’s Symposium

Socrates and the Limits of Love: The Erotic Philosophy of Plato’s Symposium

Plato’s Symposium is a philosophical exploration of the nature and function of erotic love. Apropos the subject matter, the dialogue begins in confusion. The dialogue proper occurs between Apollodorus, someone so obsessed with Socrates that he has been given the nickname “the maniac” (173d), and an unnamed friend of his. Apollodorus recounts a story he heard from Aristodemus, another man obsessed with Socrates (173b), about a series of speeches that occurred one night to celebrate Agathon’s winning a prize for his first tragedy (173a). Though the events recalled are presented as having happened long ago, back when Apollodorus was still a child, he claims to have checked parts of Aristodemus’s story with Socrates, and that Socrates confirmed them (173b).

So, according to Apollodorus (and his source Aristodemus), several prominent men were gathered at Agathon’s house to celebrate his poetic victory. And, instead of getting drunk and listening to the music of flute girls as they usually do (176e), they decide to remain sober and give a series of speeches in honor of the god of love (177d). The theme of love is suggested by the physician Eryximachus, but he claims that the idea originated from Phaedrus who observed that though poets have honored all sorts of gods, from Hercules to the element of salt,1 they have neglected to praise Love, a god of supreme power over human life (177b-c).

Though much of what was said, including some whole speeches (180c), is admittedly forgotten, Apollodorus claims to have remembered the fundamental points. He promises, “of course, Aristodemus couldn’t remember exactly what everyone said, and I myself don’t remember everything he told me. But I’ll tell you what he remembered best, and what I consider the most important points.” (178a). The Symposium is thus arranged in a series of speeches, and, for the most part, does not display the usual back and forth of Socratic dialectic. Yet, when read carefully, the speeches can be seen to undergo a certain kind of dialectical development.

Phaedrus’s Speech: Love Supports Civic Virtue.

Phaedrus gives the first speech in praise of Love, asserting that, since poets such as Hesiod and Parmenides describe Love as “one of the most ancient of the gods”, he must be considered as bestowing the greatest goods to humanity (178c). And Phaedrus claims that mankind’s greatest goods are social. There is nothing better for man than to be guided into appropriate civic behavior, and “nothing imparts guidance as well as love” (178d). This guidance, Phaedrus maintains, takes the form of feeling shame at acting shamefully and pride at acting honorably, since a man is more concerned with his lover’s appraisal than with that of anyone else, even family and comrades (178e). Phaedrus then conjectures that if a city were to be composed entirely of lovers, it would be unstoppable:

“If only there were a way to start a city or an army made up of lovers…! Theirs would be the best possible system of society, for they would hold back from all that is shameful, and seek honor in each other’s eyes. Even a few of them, in battle side by side, would conquer the whole world” (178e-179a).

And he concludes by appealing to a further poetic justification for his model, observing how Alcestes was willing to descend into the underworld for her lover Admetus (179c-d), and how Achilles was willing to die to avenge the death of Patroclus, and, as a result, was sent to the isles of the blessed (180a). In short,

“Therefore I say Love is the most ancient of the gods, the most honored, and the most powerful in helping men gain virtue and blessedness, whether they are alive or have passed away” (180b).

The careful reader is likely a bit skeptical of Phaedrus’s lofty rhetoric at this point. For, not only can one easily call to mind cases in which erotic love might undermine social order (Samson and Delilah, Solomon and his wives, Tristan and Isolde, etc.) but the myths to which Phaedrus appeals have a more ambivalent character than he realizes. For example, though Hesiod claims that Love was one of the first gods to be generated, he maintains, in the passage Phaedrus cites, that Love is born of primal chaos. If Love is born from chaos, then it is not obvious how its main function will be to bolster civic order. The same holds for the passage from Parmenides. For though Love is the first god the cosmogenic deity creates, this passage occurs in Parmenides’ description of the way of opinion, not the way of truth. And he does not paint an uplifting picture of this goddesses’ reign over the realm of becoming. Speaking of the creation of the physical universe, Parmenides declares:

“For the narrow ones were filled with unmixed fire, the next ones with night, and afterward [or: among these] there rushes a portion of flame. And in the middle of these, the divinity who steers all things. For she begins the hateful birth and mingling of all things, leading the female to mingle with the male and again, in the opposite direction, the male with the female” (Parmenides, 14b).

Though this goddess creates Love, she does so in order to facilitate “the hateful birth and mingling of all things.” These sorts of worries are picked up in the next speech, wherein Pausanias presents his alternative account of love.

Pausanias’s Speech: Two Kinds of Love

Pausanias declares that the subject of their speeches, love, has been ill defined, since there are, in fact, two kinds of love, corresponding to two different goddesses called “Aphrodite.” The elder comes from a single parent, Uranus, and “is known as Urania, or Heavenly Aphrodite” (180d). The younger has two parents, Zeus and Dione, and is called “Pandemos, or Common Aphrodite.” To these two Aphrodites, then, correspond two different Loves: The common and the heavenly.

Common love is directed towards only the body, and, as a result is inconstant. “This is the love felt by the vulgar…to the body more than to the soul, and to the least intelligent partners, since all they care about is completing the sexual act” (181b). Such love, claims Pausanias, should be considered vile, since:

“It is the common, vulgar lover, who loves the body rather than the soul, the man whose love is bound to be inconstant, since what he loves is itself mutable and unstable. The moment the body is no longer in bloom, ‘he flies off and away,’ his promises and vows in tatters behind him” (183e).

Heavenly love, in contrast, is directed towards the soul– these lovers “find pleasure in what is by nature stronger and more intelligent” (181d). This kind of love desires virtue and is rendered constant as a result. “How different from this [vulgar lover] is a man who loves the right sort of character, and who remains its lover for life, attached as he is to something that is permanent” (184a).

Pausinias concludes that it is thus heavenly rather than common love that creates the civic virtue of which Phaedrus spoke.

“[Heavenly] Love’s value to the city as a whole and to the citizens is immeasurable, for he compels the lover and his loved alike to make virtue their central concern. All other forms of love belong to the vulgar goddess” (185c).

Yet, the careful reader might once again be skeptical. Even if we distinguish two kinds of love, and claim that one of them produces social order, we have not yet been given an account of how it does so. This worry is addressed in the next speech as the doctor Eryximachus sets forth a theory of love as a metaphysical principle of order underlying the cosmos as a whole.

Eryximachus: Love as Cosmic Harmony

In fact, Aristophanes is slated to speak next, but he is incapacitated by hiccups, so Eriximachus takes his place. Eryximachus extends the twofold account of love given thus far to explain not only the order of the city, but also the order of the cosmos. Love, he claims, is not confined to the soul, but is “a significantly broader phenomenon” (186a), encompassing the animal kingdom, plant life, and, indeed, the entire universe (186b).

He begins by observing that, as a doctor, he sees the same two kinds of love mentioned earlier in the bodies of his patients. Diseased loves desire objects that break down the harmony of the body, while healthy loves desire things that maintain that harmony. Medicine is thus the art of encouraging healthy and discouraging diseased love (186d), and physicians intervene with remedies to harmonize the opposite elements of which the body is composed, e.g. hot/ cold, sweet/ bitter, wet/ dry, etc. (186d). In fact, Eryximachus declares that “our ancestor Asclepius first established medicine as a profession when he learned how to produce concord and love between such opposites” (186e).

Erixymachus then goes on to note that this principle extends beyond the practice of medicine into physical education, farming, poetry, and music (187a). All of these practices are concerned with creating harmony among opposites. And he claims that this harmonization of opposites reaches up to the very heavens and their effects on weather. He declares:

“Even the seasons of the year exhibit their influence. When the elements to which I have already referred—hot and cold, wet and dry—are animated by the proper species of Love, they are in harmony with one another: their mixture is temperate, and so is the climate. Harvests are plentiful; men and all other living things are in good health; no harm can come to them. But when the sort of Love that is crude and impulsive controls the seasons, he brings death and destruction. He spreads the plague and many other diseases among plants and animals; he causes frost and hail and blights. All these are the effects of immodest and disordered species of Love on the movements of the stars and the seasons of the year, that is, on the objects studied by the science called astronomy” (188a-b).

And he goes on to note that religion and divination are also disciplines that harmonize by love, since they are meant to establish proper relations between men and gods. When diseased love occurs in this domain, impiety results. So, Erixymachus stipulates, “the task of divination is to keep watch over these two species of Love and to doctor them as necessary. Divination, therefore, is the practice that produces loving affection between gods and men; it is simply the science of the effects of Love on justice and piety.” (188d).

Though Erixymachus has argued for Love’s universal scope as a cosmic harmonizing principle, one might suspect that something vital has been lost in the process. Are we still talking about specifically erotic love? What does the kind of harmonization that creates good weather have to do with the psychological state of falling in love with someone? This concern is developed in Arisophanes account.

Aristophanes: Love as Psychological Wholeness.

After recovering from his hiccups, Aristophanes, the comic playwright, declares that he will take an approach different from that so far. For, in raising love to the level of a universal phenomena, we have come to neglect its specifically human dimension, namely, its psychological character. Aristophanes hints at this criticism when he observes that “people have entirely missed the power of Love”, because they have overlooked the fact that “he [Love] loves the human race more than any other god, he stands by us in our troubles, and he cures those ills we humans are most happy to have mended” (189d). Aristophanes thus offers an account of Love that speaks to the human condition and what he calls its “original wound”.

To explain the psychological dimension of love, Aristophanes concocts a myth, maintaining that humanity, at its inception, was of three kinds: male, female, and androgynous (189e). The male was born of the sun, the female of the earth, and the androgynous of the moon, “because the moon shares in both.” (190b). And, because humans were born of these heavenly bodies, they were themselves round and traveled in circular orbits (190b). He explains:

“The shape of each human being was completely round, with back and sides in a circle; they had four hands each, as many legs as hands, and two faces, exactly alike, on a rounded neck. Between the two faces, which were on opposite sides, was one head with four ears. There were two sets of sexual organs, and everything else was the way you’d imagine it from what I’ve told you. They walked upright, as we do now, in whatever direction they wanted. And whenever they set out to run fast, they thrust out all their eight limbs, the ones they had then, and spun rapidly, the way gymnasts do cartwheels, by bringing their legs around straight” (190a).

Because they were whole, men were “terrible” “in strength and power” and “had great ambitions” (190b). In fact, they were so ambitious that they tried to overthrow the Olympian gods (190b). The gods were troubled as a result. They didn’t want to exterminate humanity, because they enjoyed their sacrifices (190c). But they also didn’t want to allow them to keep causing trouble, so Zeus formed a plan to weaken them by splitting them apart and severing their wholeness. (190d).

Zeus “cut those human beings in two, the way people cut sorb-apples before they dry them or the way they cut eggs with hairs. As he cut each one, he commanded Apollo to turn its face and half its neck towards the wound, so that each person would see that he’d been cut and keep better order” (190e).

This, then, is man’s original wound. He has been sundered from a prior whole to live a partial existence. Arisophanes claims that Love is what occurs when two halves once more find each other to reconstitute their former wholeness:

“Now, since their natural form had been cut in two, each one longed for its own other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together. (191a)….This, then, is the source of our desire to love each other. Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of nature (191d)….And so, when a person meets the half that is his very own…then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment” (192c).

Aristophanes thus paints a compelling picture of romantic love and how it drives people to join together. Love, then, for Aristophanes, should be considered as “the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete” (193a). And just as his psychological depiction of Love continues to resonate today, so too does his warning, in our age of ever increasing fragmentation. For, in Aristophanes’ tale, Zeus threatens:

“If they still run riot and do not keep the peace…I will cut them in two again, and they’ll have to make their way on one leg hopping” (190d).

And Arisophanes himself advises:

“Long ago we were united, as I said; but now the god has divided us as punishment for the wrong we did him, just as the Spartans divided the Arcadians. So there’s a danger that if we don’t keep order before the gods, we’ll be split in two again, and then we’ll be walking around in the condition of people carved on gravestones in bas-relief, sawn apart between the nostrils, like half dice” (193a).

Looking around at contemporary society, where people have as many selves as digital avatars, one might wonder whether Zeus’s judgment has already come to pass. Yet, despite the psychological perspicacity of Aristophanes’ account, one might still wonder what this has to do with Love in itself, not just love as it appears to us. This problem motivates Agathon’s subsequent speech.

Agathon’s Speech: Love as a Thing In Itself

Agathon begins by pointing out that the speeches so far have praised love’s effects, but not its intrinsic character, and this, he contends, is unfitting. Rather, “it is right for us to praise him [Love] first for what he is and afterwards for his gifts.” (195a). Love may nurture civic virtue, hold the universe together, and bestow a yearning for psychological wholeness, but none of this speaks to what Love is in itself. In virtue of what intrinsic properties does Love do these things? Agathon attempts to answer this question by setting forth what he takes the be Love’s essential properties.

He proclaims Love the best and most beautiful of the gods, and, as a result, the most happy (195a). Contrary to Phaedrus and Pausanias, Agathon claims that Love is the youngest of the gods and derives his superiority from his youth (195b). The stories of Hesiod and Parmenides, he contends, narrate events that “happened under Necessity (ἀνάγκη), not love” (195c). For, under Love’s reign, “not one of all those violent deeds would have been done—no castrations, no imprisonments…There would have been peace and brotherhood instead, as there has been now as long as Love has been king of the gods” (195c). Love makes peace, Agathon claims, by drawing gods and men to beauty:

“That too is how the gods’ quarrels were settled, once Love came to be among them—love of beauty, obviously, because love is not drawn to ugliness. Before that… many dreadful things happened among the gods, because Necessity was king. But once this god was born, all goods came to gods and men alike through love of beauty” (197b-c).

Agathon also claims that love is delicate (195e), fluid and supple (196a), and possesses the four cardinal virtues of justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom (196b-e).

The guests applaud Agathon’s speech, but Socrates, as expected, begins to probe its basic premises. He asks Agathon whether love is always a love of something. Is love essentially directed towards an object? (199d). Agathon agrees that it is. For example, we might say that when Tristan and Isolde are in love, Tristan’s love would have Isolde for its intentional object, and vice versa. Tristan loves Isolde, and Isolde Tristan. Love, then, is an intentional state, and hence, is essentially directed towards an object.

Furthermore, Socrates asks Agathon about the relation between Love and desire. And Agathon claims that desire is the manner in which Love relates to its object (200a). To love something is to desire it. But then Socrates points out that one can desire only what one lacks. A weak person can desire to be strong, but the strong person doesn’t desire to be strong, he is strong (200b). Socrates observes that one might object that some people claim to desire things that they already have, but he contends that what they really mean is that they desire to have in the future what they currently possess in the present, and he points out that this future state is one they do not now possess (200d). For example, Milo the wrestler might be strong yet nonetheless assert: (D) I desire to be strong. Yet, the actual content of his assertion is (D’): I desire to be strong in the future. Milo thus desires strength in the future, something he does not currently have.

Agathon is convinced and agrees to the claim that one “who has a desire desires what is not at hand and not present, what he does not have, and what he is not, and that of which he is in need; for such are the objects of desire and love” (200e). Socrates then points out that this contradicts Agathon’s initial account of Love. For Agathon claimed that Love is both beautiful and desires beauty. But this cannot be the case, since if Love desires beauty, it must lack it (201b). So, in light of Socrates’ cross examination, Agathon admits:

“It turns out, Socrates, I didn’t know what I was talking about in that speech” (201c).

At this point, Socrates sketches his own account of love.

Socrates’s Speech: Diotima and the Mysteries of Love

Instead of giving a formal speech like the others, Socrates recounts a dialogue he had with Diotima, a wise woman from Mantinea.2 This would no doubt have surprised his interlocutors, since some of them had earlier asserted that women were incapable of higher love (181b).3 Socrates describes Diotima as his teacher in the art of love, and highlights her wisdom by calling attention to the fact that she diverted the plague from Athens for ten years by instructing the people in how to make appropriate sacrifices (201d).

Socrates claims that he initially held a view similar to Agathon’s, believing Love to be a great and beautiful god, but she convinced him otherwise. Using the same argument Socrates has just used on Agathon, Diotima persuades Socrates that love is neither beautiful nor good, since he desires them, and one can desires only what one lacks. But Diotima contends that this does not entail that Love is bad or ugly (202a), since it is possible for something to be in between the two contrary properties. For example, judging things correctly without being able to furnish a reason for it would stand between wisdom and ignorance. If one were wise, one would be able to justify one’s claims, and, if one were ignorant, one’s claims would be false (202a). Having a correct opinion without being able to justify it thus constitutes an intermediate state between the two.

In the same manner, Diotima contends that Love is not a god at all,4 but a great daimon “in between god and mortal” (202e). Love is neither a genuine god nor a mere mortal, but a mediating spirit between them. She explains:

“They [daimons] are messangers who shuttle back and forth between the two, conveying prayer and sacrifice from men to gods, while to men they bring commands from the gods and gifts in return for their sacrifices. Being in the middle of the two, they round out the whole and bind fast the all to all. Through them all divination passes, through them the art of priests in sacrifice and ritual, in enchantment, prophecy, and sorcery. Gods do not mix with men; they mingle and converse with us through spirits instead, whether we are awake or asleep. He is who is wise in any other way, in a profession or any manual work, is merely a mechanic. These spirits are many and various, then, and one of them is Love” (202e-203a).

Diotima then goes on to explain the nature and function of Love, beginning with an account of his nature and then going on to describe his function. Love, she claims, was conceived at the celebration of Aphrodite’s birth. His father was “Poros [Resourceful], the son of Metis [Cunning]”, and his mother was Penia [Poverty] (203b). Poros got drunk at the party, and Penia, who had come to beg, devised a scheme “to relieve her lack of resources” (203c). She decided to conceive a child from Poros, so she lay with him while he was drunk and “got pregnant with Love.” (203c). This explains why Love serves Aphrodite, since he was conceived at the celebration of her birth, and it accounts for why he loves beauty, since “Aphrodite herself is especially beautiful” (203c). And as a child of both Resourcefulness and Poverty, he partakes of both their natures. Because he shares in his mother’s nature, he is poor, tough, shriveled, shoeless, and homeless (203d). But, because of his father, he is also resourceful: “he is a schemer after the beautiful and the good; he is brave, impetuous, intense, an awesome hunter, always weaving snares, resourceful in his pursuit of intelligence, a lover of wisdom through all his life, a genius with enchantments, potions, and clever pleadings” (203d). And, he is “neither immortal nor mortal”, dying and rising to life again. “Because he is his father’s son…, he keeps coming back to life” (203e).

Likewise, Diotima contends that Love is the archetypal philosopher, loving wisdom but failing to possess it. He thus exists between wisdom and ignorance (204a). She explains:

“None of the gods loves wisdom or wants to become wise—for they are wise—and no one else who is wise already loves wisdom. On the other hand, no one who is ignorant will love wisdom either or want to become wise. For what’s especially difficult about being ignorant is that you are content with yourself, even though you’re neither beautiful and good nor intelligent. If you don’t think you need anything, of course you won’t want what you don’t think you need” (204a).

This, then, is the mediating nature of Love.

Diotima then inquires into Love’s function and observes that Love seeks the Good. Specifically, she contends that “Love is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a) and that people attempt to do this by “giving birth in beauty, whether in body or soul.” (206b). She explains that though humans are mortal, they pursue eternity through the process of reproduction. “Reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality” (207a). Every particular mortal dies, yet the human species will continue as long as children are born. And this, she claims, is why beauty is essentially connected to love, since birth can occur only under the beautiful. She explains:

“Beauty…is in harmony with the divine. Therefore the goddess who presides at childbirth—she’s called Moira [Fate] or Eilithuia—is really Beauty. That’s why, whenever pregnant animals or persons draw near to beauty, they become gentle and joyfully disposed and give birth and reproduce; but near ugliness they are foul-faced and draw back in pain; they turn away and shrink back and do not reproduce, and because they hold on to what they carry inside them, the labor is painful. This is the source of the great excitement about beauty that comes to anyone who is pregnant and already teeming with life; beauty releases them from their great pain” (206d-e).

Human love thus does not desire beauty as such, but reproduction and birth in beauty, given that reproduction is the closest thing man can have to possessing the good forever (206e). Beauty, or Fate, is what allows for reproduction.

Note that, on this view, Love is essentially delusional. It desires the eternal possession of the Good, but can attain, at best, only a continual process of reproduction through time. As the later philosopher Novalis aptly put it, “we seek the Unconditioned, but all we ever find are things.” Hints of such a negative appraisal can be seen in Diotima’s portrayal of Love as a disease afflicting unreasoning animals. She declares: “What do you think causes love and desire, Socrates? Don’t you see what an awful state a wild animal is in when it wants to reproduce? Footed and winged animals alike, all are plagued by the disease of love” (207a-b). Likewise, her analysis of the extent of the cycle of reproduction, the simulacrum of eternity, leads her close to the Buddhist concept of the no-self. She explains:

“For among animals the principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it always leaves behind a new young one in place of the old. Even while each living thing is said to be alive and to be the same—as a person is said to be the same from childhood till he turns into an old man—even then he never consists of the same things, though he is called the same, but he is always being renewed and in other respects passing away, in his hair and flesh and bones and blood and his entire body. And it’s not just in his body, but in his soul, too, for none of his manners, customs, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, or fears ever remains the same, but some are coming to be in him while others are passing away. And what is still far stranger than that is that not only does one branch of knowledge come to be in us while another passes away and that we are never the same even in respect to our knowledge, but that each single piece of knowledge has the same fate. For what we call studying exists because knowledge is leaving us, because forgetting is the departure of knowledge, while studying puts back a fresh memory in place of what went away, thereby preserving a piece of knowledge, so that it seems to be the same. And in that way everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been” (207d-208b).

Diotima here claims that though we say a man remains identical through time, this is never literally true. His body changes from moment to moment, its parts dying and being reproduced. And his psychological states change as well. Habits, beliefs, wishes, and fears all come to be and pass away. And even knowledge, what would seem to be the most stable psychological state, is perpetually forgotten and recalled.

It would seem, then, that the most rational approach to the situation would be to give up the illusion and renounce Love. Love desires immortality but can never grasp it, and, so, is essentially delusional. Such considerations would hold even for the kinds of births she attributes to the soul, such as honor (as in the case of Achillles or Alcestes) (208d) and the establishment of civic laws (as in the case of Lycurgus and Solon) (209d). For, cultures, like people, die, and their stories and customs perish with them. We would thus suspect Diotima to advise us to renounce desire and its delusions.

But she does not do this. Instead, she introduces what is perhaps the most novel doctrine of the Symposium, her famous ladder of love. She claims that, for those properly initiated into Love’s mysteries, the daimon can actually attain its goal: eternal union with the Good. She proclaims:

“Even you, Socrates, could probably come to be initiated into these rites of love. But as for the purpose of these rites when they are done correctly—that is the final and highest mystery, and I don’t know if you are capable of it. I myself will tell you,’ she said, ‘and I won’t stint any effort. And you must try to follow if you can” (210a).

Here Diotima describes her approach to Love as an initiation into the highest mysteries, thus articulating her account in terms of the mystery religions. She declares that, in this process, Love is the leader (ἡγούμενος) who guides mortals (210a).

One should begin, she maintains, by loving a single beautiful body, and under that beauty, begetting “beautiful ideas (λόγους)” (210a). But, in so doing, one is led to discern a higher kind of beauty, the beauty of all bodies, since “the beauty of one body is brother to the beauty of any other”, so, if one “is to pursue beauty of form (εἶδος)”, one would be “very foolish not to think that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same” (210b). And, under this new beauty, one begets further ideas, and comes to see a yet higher kind of beauty: the beauty of the soul. As a result, one seeks to give birth to ideas (λόγους) that will improve the soul of one’s lover (210c). This then allows one to discern the higher beauty of laws and customs (210c), which will again cause one to give birth and once more see a higher beauty: the beauty of knowledge (ἐπιστήμη). Observing “the great sea of beauty, and gazing upon this,” one “gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom” (210e). Here, following Love as his guide, the lover has progressed to philosophy. He loves wisdom and under it gives birth to ideas and theories. However, Diotima maintains that this is not yet the highest mystery. For philosophy itself must be transcended: the love of wisdom must give way to Wisdom, and the philosopher be transfigured to a sage. She claims that the initiate must continue his philosophy “until, having grown and been strengthened there, he catches sight of such knowledge, and it is knowledge of such beauty…”, but she then breaks off her sentence to chide Socrates who has apparently let his mind wander. She rebukes him,

“Try to pay attention to me… as best you can. You see, the man who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for his earlier labors” (210e).

She claims that the goal of this entire process is to behold the Form of Beauty itself, and, under it, to give birth to true virtue (212a), thereby attaining the true aim of love: possession of the Good forever. In short, under the form of the Beautiful, one gives birth to God in the soul. In a moving passage, Diotima describes this beatific vision as follows:

““First, it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another; nor is it beautiful here but ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change. So when someone rises by these stages, through loving boys correctly, and begins to see this beauty, he has almost grasped his goal. This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always 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” (211a-d).

Thus, when approached rightly, Love can attain its true aim: immortality (212b), the eternal possession of the Good. Love need not pursue mere images of the Good, such as reproduction in time, but can possess it in truth. Desire, then, need not be renounced, but may be embraced as a workmate (συνεργός). Love is an energy that propels the soul’s journey into God. Socrates thus concludes:

“This is what Diotima told me. I was persuaded. And once persuaded, I try to persuade others too that human nature can find no better workmate for acquiring this [Good] than Love. That’s why I say that every man must honor Love, why I honor the rites of Love myself and practice them with special diligence, and why I commend them to others” (212b).

Socrates’ speech is greeted with raucous applause and the shouting of Aristophanes as he tries to respond to a point Socrates made about his account (212c). And their yelling is then swallowed by an even greater commotion as “a large drunken party” arrives “at the courtyard door”, “rattling it loudly, accompanied by the shrieks of some flute-girl they had brought along” (212c). This drunken party is led by Alcibiades, so plastered he can barely stand (212d). After being carried into the room, he is invited to give a speech, but, given that he is utterly inebriated, he doesn’t want to compete with them in praising love, and so chooses to give a speech in honor of Socrates instead (214e).

Alcibiades’ “Speech”: In Praise of Socrates

Alcibiades rightly observes that, since Socrates is without equal, his task will be difficult. While other great men can be compared to one another, for example, Achilles the warrior to Brasidas and Pericles the Orator to Nestor or Antenor, Socrates remains bewilderingly unique:

“There is a parallel for everyone—for everyone else, that is. But this man here is so bizarre, his way and his ideas are so unusual, that, search as you might, you’ll never find anyone else, alive or dead, who’s even remotely like him” (221d).

Alcibiades claims that the best he can do is compare him, not to anyone human, but a satyr, likening him to a statue of Silenus. He explains:

“Look at him! Isn’t he just like a statue of Silenus? You know the kind of statue I mean; you’ll find them in any shop in town. It’s a Silenus sitting, his flute or his pipes in his hands, and its hollow. It’s split right down the middle, and inside it’s full of tiny statues of the gods” (215b).

According to legend, Silenus was an old satyr who taught Dionysus. Satyrs were known for being lecherous and crude, and so a statue of Silenus would at first glance appear grotesque. Yet, because these vessels were hollow, their true function could be seen only by examining the gods they secretly housed inside. And just like these statues, argues Alcibiades, Socrates appears grotesque when viewed superficially, seeming to be interested in tawdry love affairs and claiming to know nothing of wisdom. Indeed, Alcibiades declares that “in public, I tell you, his whole life is one big game—a game of irony.” (216e). Yet, if one could peer inside him for a moment, one would catch a glimpse of something divine. For, though he acts as if he were infatuated with beautiful bodies, he actually cares nothing for physical beauty, containing within himself an absolute sobriety and temperance (216d). Alcibiades elaborates: “You can’t imagine how little he cares whether a person is beautiful, or rich, or famous in any other way that most people admire. He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well.” (216e).

Likewise, though Socrates acts as if he held the world in ironic detachment, he is, in fact, deadly serious:

“I don’t know if any of you have seen him when he’s really serious. But I once caught him when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within; they were godlike—so bright and beautiful so utterly amazing—that I no longer had a choice—I just had to do whatever he told me” (216e-217a).5

Though he acts as if everything were a joke, he actually lives in view of the unrelenting presence of the gods and the transcendent order they serve.

And Alcibiades observes that Socrates’ words also take on the character of a statue of Silenus. They too appear ridiculous from the outside, but when examined from within, prove to be temples of the gods. Alcibiades explains:

“Even his ideas and arguments are just like those hollow statues of Silenus. If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they’d strike you as totally ridiculous; they’re clothed in words as coarse as the hides worn by the most vulgar satyrs. He’s always going on about pack asses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners; he’s always making the same tired old points in the same tired old words. If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments. But if you see them when they open up like the statues, if you go behind their surface, you’ll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They’re truly worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They’re of great—no of the greatest—importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good man” (221e-222a).

Superficially considered, Socrates’ arguments look ridiculous. They employ homely examples and use no elevated rhetoric. But, when one looks behind their appearance to their content, a content shrouded from the common gaze, one perceives Socrates’ arguments to be the only ones that make sense, pointing the way to virtue and inner transformation. Thanks to the empty space contained within them, Socrates’ carry this occult power.

Alcibiades’ image of a hollow statue of Silenus hearkens back to Aristophanes’ idea of an original wound of nature in which humans are sundered from wholeness and yearn to return to it by embracing their other halves. For Alcibiades describes these statues specifically as being “hollow”, and “split right down the middle” (215b). It is in virtue of this empty space inside, in virtue of the fact that it is not whole, that the statue can house the gods.

Socrates had already criticized Aristophanes’ model when he reiterated Diotima’s claim that Love seeks the Good, not just wholeness:

“Now there is a certain story,’ she said, ‘according to which lovers are those people who seek their other halves. But according to my story, a lover does not seek the half or the whole, unless, my friend, it turns out to be good as well” (205e).

And Alcibiades appears to point out that in Socrates, this original cleaving, the great empty, not only does not need to be filled, but itself becomes the place where the gods establish their abode. Alcibiades observation is thus akin to Daoist reflections on the value of emptiness:

“Thirty spokes converge on a hub/ but it’s the emptiness/ that makes a wheel work/ pots are fashioned from clay/ but it’s the hollow/ that makes a pot work/ widows and doors are carved for a house/ but it’s the spaces/ that make a house work/ existence makes things useful/ but nonexistence makes it work” (Tao Te Jing 11).

And similar parallels can be seen in Alcibiades claim that Socrates “despises” everyone, since the Daoist sage is also said to treat everything like a straw dog:

“Heaven and Earth are heartless/ treating creatures like straw dogs/ sages are heartless too/ they treat people like straw dogs/ between Heaven and Earth/ how like a bellows empty but inexhaustible/ each stroke produces more/ talking only wastes it/ better to protect what’s inside” (Tao Te Jing 5).

Aldibiades’ likening of Socrates to a statue of Silenus therefore suggests that Plato intended to imply that Socrates had transcended philosophy and become a sage. As noted earlier, Diotima’s ladder suggests that philosophy’s ultimate goal is to transcend itself in the Good. When successful, the practice of philosophy leads from philosophy to enlightenment, and Plato appears to here hint that Socrates attained this goal.

This interpretation is bolstered by the rest of Alcibiades’ speech. For example, he compares Socrates not only to Silenus, but to Marsyas, a satyr who could enchant through music. Alcibiades declares:

“You’re quite the flute player, aren’t you? In fact, you’re much more marvelous than Marsyas, who needed instruments to cast his spells on people. And so does anyone who plays his tunes today—for even the tunes Olympus played are Marsyas’ work, since Olympus learned everything from him. Whether they are played by the greatest flautist or the meanest flute-girl, his melodies have in themselves the power to possess and so reveal those people who are ready for the god and his mysteries. That’s because his melodies are themselves divine. The only difference between you and Marsyas is that you need no instruments; you do exactly what he does, but with words alone. You know, people hardly ever take a speaker seriously, even if he’s the greatest orator; but let anyone—man, woman, or child—listen to you or even to a poor account of what you say—and we are all transported, completely possessed” (215b-d).

Alcibiads here identifies the words of Socrates with divine music, a music capable of possessing people,6 of drawing them into the sacred mysteries, and, ultimately, of bringing them face to face with the divine. Alcibiades describes his own experience of Socratic possession when he comes to perceive a goal so lofty that he grows ashamed of his former life (216c). He explains:

“When he starts to speak, I am beside myself: my heart starts leaping in my chest; the tears come streaming down my face, even the frenzied Corybantes seem sane compared to me, and, let me tell you, I am not alone. I have heard Pericles and many other great orators, and I have admired their speeches. But nothing like this ever happened to me: they never upset me so deeply that my very own soul started protesting that my life—my life!–was no better than the most miserable slave’s! And yet that is exactly how this Marsyas here at my side makes me feel all the time: he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! …. He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die’” (215e-216b).

Socrates words are thus depicted as having the same effect as the Bacchic rituals of the Corybantes, working a change in Alcibiades’ soul.

And Alcibiades’ depiction of Socrates’ way of life also presents him as a sage possessing extraordinary powers. For example, when serving in the military with Alcibiades, Socrates is unmoved by the hardships of war. “No one else stood up to hunger as well as he did.” (220a). Or again, though Socrates can drink more than anyone, he never gets drunk (220a, 214a, 176c). And he is even said to be resistant to cold. Alcibiades recalls:

“Once, I remember, it was frightfully cold; no one so much as stuck his nose outside. If we absolutely had to leave our tent, we wrapped ourselves in anything we could lay our hands on and tied extra pieces of felt or sheepskin over our boots. Well, Socrates went out in that weather wearing nothing but this same old light cloak, and even in bare feet he made better progress on the ice than the other soldiers did in their boots. You should have seen the looks they gave him; they thought he was only doing it to spite them! (220b-c).

Socrates is thus impervious to the weather. Likewise, when he gets wrapped up in thinking, he can stand motionless day and night.

“One day, at dawn, he started out thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very spot until dawn! He only left the next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day” (220c-d).7

Socrates is thus capable of absolute stillness and self-control. Yet, when Socrates does have to fight, he performs heroically, single-handedly rescuing Alcibiades. (220e). And, when the Athenian troops were forced to retreat, Socrates remained undaunted and observant, saving the life of his comrades in the process. Alcibiades recounts:

“That day I had a better opportunity to watch Socrates than I ever had at Potiaea, for, being on horseback, I wasn’t in very great danger. Well, it was easy to see that he was remarkably more collected than Laches… the midst of battle he was making his way exactly as he does around town….with swaggering gait and roving eye. He was observing everything quite calmly, looking out for friendly troops and keeping an eye on the enemy. Even from a great distance it was obvious that this was a very brave man, who would put up a terrific fight if anyone approached him. This is what saved both of them. For, as a rule, you try to put as much distance as you can between yourself and such men in battle; you go after the others, those who run away helter-skelter” (221b).

Alcibiades panegyric to Socrates thus presents him as a sage who camouflages himself in irony. Though he looks repulsive to the outward eye, when one looks aright, one can descry the presence of an immortal in the visage of Socrates.


However, despite its lofty claims, Alcibiades’ speech is met with laughter, “since it was obvious he was still in love with Socrates” (222c). And Socrates replies by declaring the whole speech to be designed to get between himself and Agathon. Then, as Agathon moves to sit closer to him, another large drunken group descends upon the party. “There was noise everywhere, and everyone was made to start drinking again in no particular order” (223b). Some of the original guests make excuses and leave, and Aristotemus, the source for the story, himself falls asleep. Apollodorus recounts: “He himself fell asleep and slept for a long time (it was winter, and the nights were quite long).” (223c). Aristodemus wakes up later that morning, and finds only Agathon, Arisophanes, and Socrates still awake and still drinking as Socrates argues that a single poet should be able to write both tragedy and comedy:

“He woke up just as dawn was about to break; the roosters were crowing already. He saw the others had either let or were asleep on their couches and that only Agathon, Arisophanes, and Socrates were still awake, drinking out of a large cup8 which they were passing around from left to right. Socrates was talking to them. Aristodemus couldn’t remember exactly what they were saying—he’d missed the first part of their discussion, and he was half-asleep anyway—but the main point was that Socrates was trying to prove to them that authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy: the skillful tragic dramatist should also be a comic poet. He was about to clinch his argument, though, to tell te truth, sleepy as they were, they were hardly able to follow his reasoning. In fact, Arisophanes fell asleep in the middle of the discussion, and very soon thereafter, as day was breaking, Agathon also drifted off. But after getting them off to sleep, Socrates got up and left, and Aristodemus followed him, as always. He said that Socrates went directly to the Lyceum, washed up, spent the rest of the day just as he always did, and only then, as evening was falling, went home to rest” (223c-d).

So, at the revel’s end, Socrates alone remains awake, the rest drifting into drunken slumber. I believe Plato intends for us to understand Socrates’ contention that a skillful poet should be able to write both tragedy and comedy as a description of the Symposium itself. It is a work of tragedy in that none of the participants are capable of understanding the mysteries before them. We can see this in the fog of forgetfulness that surrounds the tale from the outset, and in the fact that, though the party began with the intention not to get drunk, it ended in a drunken blackout. Though they all speak of Love, a force capable of leading to enlightenment, no one understands what they are saying. Like Agathon, each must admit, “it turns out, Socrates, I didn’t know what I was talking about in that speech” (201c). Yet, the work is also clearly comic. Each scene of the drama is gripping and an underlying joy shines throughout, a joy embraced by Socrates, and, if we turn our gaze aright, espied by us us well.

And this same tragic farce has continued throughout the history of so called “philosophy”, a discipline which has defined itself through its self-sundering from its spiritual roots, but which, from its inception, was forged as an instrument of theosis, a vehicle for the mind’s journey into God, a ladder to be abandoned after ascent.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is “Plato’s Symposium” by Anselm Feuerbach and is in the public domain. It can be found here:]

1 There are likely intentional occult allusions here. Hercules is hero who achieves immortality through his labors, and salt is a preserving agent (Matt 5:13) and, in alchemy, can represent the purified and incorruptible element of earth. As a result, they would point to the same process involved in the secret initiation of love sketched later in the dialogue by Diotima.

2 Some suspect that the term “of Mantinea” (μαντινικῆς) is etymologically derived from μάντις (prophet) and νίκη (victory), meaning prophet of victory.

3 Pausanias, for example, had maintained that: “Now the Common Aphrodite’s Love is himself truly common. As such he strikes wherever he gets a chance. This, of course, is the love felt by the vulgar, who are attached to women no less than to boys, to the body more than to the soul, and the the least intelligent partnes, since all hey care about is completing the sexual act.” (181b). And he claims that Heavenly Love is higher, because the higher Aphrodite’s “descent is purely male”, being created from Uranus. (181c).

4 Since gods are of necessity good and beautiful, and Love has proven to be neither of these.

5 This claim is akin to Aristodemus’s response to Socrates (174b). Both convey a sense of Socrates’ bewitching power over others.

6 Socrates is described as doing this repeatedly throughout the dialogue. Possessing not only Alcibiades, but also Apollodorus, Aristodemus, and, most likely, Plato himself.

7 This is also something Socrates has done on the way to the Symposium (174d, 175a-d).

8 It is interesting to note that the word here translated as cup, φιάλη, can also mean cinerary urn (LSJ).

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