Diotima's Ascent to Beauty (Symposium 201–212)
IN Plato's philosophy, God is termed the Good, or the Form of the Good. In his dialogues, Plato describes three different means of ascent by which the mind may ascend to the Good in contemplation. Each route proceeds via one of the intermediate high-level Forms in the triad of Truth, Beauty, and Moral Virtue. The ascent to the Good via Truth and dialectic is described in Books 6 and 7 of the Republic; that discussion includes the famous Cave Allegory and Divided Line. The ascent via Moral Virtue is described in the Chariot Allegory of the Phaedrus.
The ascent via Beauty is described in the famous speech of Diotima in the Symposium, sometimes known as the Ladder of Love. This is Diotima's second speech below, beginning with section 210.
The principle is that one can use the energy of romantic or erotic attraction to launch the mind to a contemplation of God: (1) first one becomes aware of ones attraction to a person; (2) but instead of following that attraction blindly (lust), one remembers oneself as a divine being, and commences a 'spiritual exercise'; (3) one considers that one loves or finds attractive other people or things; (4) therefore there must be some common principle to all these attractions, something perfect and unchanging for which one longs; (5) then one arrives at the notion that things like Beauty, Gracefulness, Virtue, and Truth are far more lovely than any of their particular manifestations — and that in truth it is these Platonic Ideals that we really love; and (6) finally, perhaps after practicing this exercise many times, one considers that there must be some Supremely Loveable thing which all these Ideals have in common; and this must be the Form (Pattern) of Goodness, which is God.
Friends at a drinking party compete to see who can deliver the best speech about love. It now being his turn, Socrates relates his initiation into the Mysteries of Love by the enigmatic prophetess, Diotima of Mantinea. (Source: Jowett, Benjamin. The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes. 3rd ed. Oxford University, 1892. Vol. 1, pp. 571–582.)
Then now, said Socrates, let us recapitulate the argument. First, is not love of something, and of something too which is wanting to a man?
Remember further what you said in your speech, or if you do not remember I will remind you: you said that the love of the beautiful set in order the empire of the gods, for that of deformed things there is no love—did you not say something of that kind?
Yes, said Agathon.
Yes, my friend, and the remark was a just one. And if this is true, Love is the love of beauty and not of deformity?
And the admission has been already made that Love is of something which a man wants and has not?
True, he said.
Then Love wants and has not beauty?
Certainly, he replied.
And would you call that beautiful which wants and does not possess beauty?
Then would you still say that love is beautiful?
Agathon replied: I fear that I did not understand what I was saying.
You made a very good speech, Agathon, replied Socrates; but there is yet one small question which I would fain ask:—Is not the good also the beautiful?
Then in wanting the beautiful, love wants also the good?
I cannot refute you, Socrates, said Agathon:—Let us assume that what you say is true.
Say rather, beloved Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted.
Diotima of Mantinea
And now, taking my leave of you, I will rehearse a tale of love which I heard from Diotima of Mantinea, a woman wise in this and in many other kinds of knowledge, who in the days of old, when the Athenians offered sacrifice before the coming of the plague, delayed the disease ten years. She was my instructress in the art of love, and I shall repeat to you what she said to me, beginning with the admissions made by Agathon, which are nearly if not quite the same which I made to the wise woman when she questioned me.
I think that this will be the easiest way, and I shall take both parts myself as well as I can. As you, Agathon, suggested, I must speak first of the being and nature of Love, and then of his works:
‘What do you mean, Diotima,’ I said, ‘is love then evil and foul?’
‘Hush,’ she cried; ‘must that be foul which is not fair?’
‘And is that which is not wise, ignorant?
Do you not see that there is a mean between wisdom and ignorance?’
‘And what may that be?’ I said.
‘Right opinion,’ she replied; ‘which, as you know, being incapable of giving a reason, is not knowledge (for how can knowledge be devoid of reason? nor again, ignorance, for neither can ignorance attain the truth), but is clearly something which is a mean between ignorance and wisdom.’
‘Quite true,’ I replied.
‘Do not then insist,’ she said, ‘that what is not fair is of necessity foul, or what is not good evil; or infer that because love is not fair and good he is therefore foul and evil; for he is in a mean between them.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘Love is surely admitted by all to be a great god.’
‘By those who know or by those who do not know?’
‘And how, Socrates,’ she said with a smile, ‘can Love be acknowledged to be a great god by those who say that he is not a god at all?’
‘And who are they?’ I said.
‘You and I are two of them,’ she replied.
‘How can that be?’ I said.
‘It is quite intelligible,’ she replied; ‘for you yourself would acknowledge that the gods are happy and fair—of course you would—would you dare to say that any god was not?’
‘Certainly not,’ I replied.
‘And you mean by the happy, those who are the possessors of things good or fair?’
‘And you admitted that Love, because he was in want, desires those good and fair things of which he is in want?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘But how can he be a god who has no portion in what is either good or fair?’
‘Then you see that you also deny the divinity of Love.’
The wisdom of Diotima
‘What then is Love (Eros)?’ I asked; ‘Is he mortal?’
‘As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two.’
‘What is he, Diotima?’
‘He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.’
‘And what,’ I said, ‘is his power?’
‘He interprets,’ she replied, ‘between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and
‘And who,’ I said, ‘was his father, and who his mother?’
The tale of Poros and Penia
‘The tale,’ she said, ‘will take time; nevertheless I will tell you. On the birthday of Aphrodite there was a feast of the gods, at which the god Poros or Plenty, who is the son of Metis or Discretion, was one of the guests. When the feast was over, Penia or Poverty, as the manner is on such occasions, came about the doors to beg. Now Plenty, who was the worse for nectar (there was no wine in those days), went into the garden of Zeus and fell into a heavy sleep; and Poverty considering her own straitened circumstances, plotted to have a child by him, and accordingly she lay down at his side and conceived Love, who partly because he is naturally a lover of the beautiful, and because Aphrodite is herself beautiful, and also because he was born on her birthday, is her follower and attendant. And as his parentage is, so also are his fortunes. In the first place he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is rough and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets, or at the doors of houses, taking his rest; and like his mother he is always in distress. Like his father too, whom he also partly resembles, he is always plotting against the fair and good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. He is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when he is in plenty, and dead at another moment, and again alive by reason of his father’s nature. But that which is always flowing in is always flowing out, and so he is never in want and never in wealth; and, further, he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge. The truth of the matter is this: No god is a philosopher or seeker after wisdom, for he is wise already; nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom. Neither do the ignorant seek after wisdom. For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is
Love is of the beautiful, but in what?
‘But who then, Diotima,’ I said, ‘are the lovers of wisdom, if they are neither the wise nor the foolish?’
‘A child may answer that question,’ she replied; ‘they are those who are in a mean between the two; Love is one of them. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant. And of this too his birth is the cause; for his father is wealthy and wise, and his mother poor and foolish. Such, my dear Socrates, is the nature of the spirit Love. The error in your conception of him was very natural, and as I imagine from what you say, has arisen out of a confusion of love and the beloved, which made you think that love was all beautiful. For the beloved is the truly beautiful, and delicate, and perfect, and blessed; but the principle of love is of another nature, and is such as I have described.’
I said: ‘O thou stranger woman, thou sayest well; but, assuming Love to be such as you say, what is the use of him to men?’
‘That, Socrates,’ she replied, ‘I will attempt to unfold: of his nature and birth I have already spoken; and you acknowledge that love is of the beautiful. But some one will say: Of the beautiful in what, Socrates and Diotima?—or rather let me put the question more clearly, and ask: When a man loves the beautiful, what does he desire?’
I answered her ‘That the beautiful may be his.’
‘Still,’ she said, ‘the answer suggests a further question: What is given by the possession of beauty?’
‘To what you have asked,’ I replied, ‘I have no answer ready.’
‘Then,’ she said, ‘let me put the word “good” in the place of the beautiful, and repeat the question once more: If he who loves loves the good, what is it then that he loves?’
‘The possession of the good,’ I said.
‘And what does he gain who possesses the good?’
‘Happiness,’ I replied; ‘there is less difficulty in answering that question.’
‘You are right,’ I said.
‘And is this wish and this desire common to all? and do all men always desire their own good, or only some men?—what say you?’
‘All men,’ I replied; ‘the desire is common to all.’
‘Why, then,’ she rejoined, ‘are not all men, Socrates, said to love, but only some of them? whereas you say that all men are always loving the same things.’
‘I myself wonder,’ I said, ‘why this is.’
‘There is nothing to wonder at,’ she replied; ‘the reason is that one part of love is separated off and receives the name of the whole, but the other parts have other names.’
‘Give an illustration,’ I said.
She answered me as follows: ‘There is poetry, which, as you know, is complex and manifold. All creation or passage of non–being into being is poetry or making, and the processes of all art are creative; and the masters of arts are all poets or makers.’
‘Still,’ she said, ‘you know that they are not called poets, but have other names; only that portion of the art which is separated off from the rest, and is concerned with music and metre, is termed poetry, and they who possess poetry in this sense of the word are called poets.’
‘Very true,’ I said.
‘And the same holds of love. For you may say generally that all desire of good and happiness is only the great and subtle power of love; but they who are drawn towards him by any other path, whether the path of money–making or gymnastics or philosophy, are not called lovers—the name of the whole is appropriated to those whose affection takes one form only—they alone are said to love, or to be lovers.’
‘I dare say,’ I replied, ‘that you are right.’
‘Yes,’ she added, ‘and you hear people say that lovers are seeking for their other half; but I say that they are seeking neither for the half of themselves, nor for the whole, unless the half or the whole be also a good. And they will cut off their own hands and feet and cast them away, if they are evil; for they love not what is their own, unless perchance there be some one who calls what belongs to him the good, and what belongs to another
‘Certainly, I should say, that there is nothing.’
‘Then,’ she said, ‘the simple truth is, that men love the good.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘To which must be added that they love the possession of the good?’
‘Yes, that must be added.’
‘And not only the possession, but the everlasting possession of the good?’
‘That must be added too.’
‘Then love,’ she said, ‘may be described generally as the love of the everlasting possession of the good?’
‘That is most true.’
Desire for the immortal
‘Then if this be the nature of love, can you tell me further,’ she said, ‘what is the manner of the pursuit? what are they doing who show all this eagerness and heat which is called love? and what is the object which they have in view? Answer me.’
‘Nay, Diotima,’ I replied, ‘if I had known, I should not have wondered at your wisdom, neither should I have come to learn from you about this very matter.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I will teach you:—The object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul.’
‘I do not understand you,’ I said; ‘the oracle requires an explanation.’
‘I will make my meaning clearer,’ she replied. ‘I mean to say, that all men are bringing to the birth in their bodies and in their souls. There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation—procreation which must be in beauty and not in deformity; and this procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing; for conception and generation are an immortal principle in the mortal creature, and in the inharmonious they can never be. But the deformed is always inharmonious with the divine, and the beautiful harmonious. Beauty, then, is the destiny or goddess of parturition who presides at birth, and therefore, when approaching beauty, the conceiving power is propitious, and diffusive, and benign, and begets and bears fruit: at the sight of ugliness she frowns and contracts and has a sense of pain, and turns away, and shrivels up, and not without a pang refrains from conception. And this is the reason why, when the hour of conception arrives, and the teeming nature is full, there is such a flutter and ecstasy about beauty whose approach is the alleviation of the pain of travail. For love, Socrates, is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only.’
‘The love of generation and of birth in beauty.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Yes, indeed,’ she replied.
‘But why of generation?’
‘Because to the mortal creature, generation is a sort of eternity and immortality,’ she replied; ‘and if, as has been already admitted, love is of the everlasting possession
All this she taught me at various times when she spoke of love. And I remember her once saying to me, ‘What is the cause, Socrates, of love, and the attendant desire? See you not how all animals, birds, as well as beasts, in their desire of procreation, are in agony when they take the infection of love, which begins with the desire of union; whereto is added the care of offspring, on whose behalf the weakest are ready to battle against the strongest even to the uttermost, and to die for them, and will let themselves be tormented with hunger or suffer anything in order to maintain their young. Man may be supposed to act thus from reason; but why should animals have these passionate feelings? Can you tell me why?’
Again I replied that I did not know. She said to me: ‘And do you expect ever to become a master in the art of love, if you do not know this?’
‘But I have told you already, Diotima, that my ignorance is the reason why I come to you; for I am conscious that I want a teacher; tell me then the cause of this and of the other mysteries of love.’
‘Marvel not,’ she said, ‘if you believe that love is of the immortal, as we have several times acknowledged; for here again, and on the same principle too, the mortal nature is seeking as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is only to be attained by generation, because generation always leaves behind a new existence in the place of the old. Nay even in the life of the same individual there is succession and not absolute unity: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval which elapses between youth and age, and in which every animal is said to have life and identity, he is undergoing a perpetual process of loss and reparation—hair, flesh, bones, blood, and the whole body are always changing. Which is true not only of the body, but also of the soul, whose habits, tempers, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears, never remain the same in any one of us, but are always coming and going; and equally true of knowledge, and what is still more surprising to us mortals, not only do the sciences in general spring
The struggles and sufferings of human life are all of them animated by the desire of immortality.
I was astonished at her words, and said: ‘Is this really true, O thou wise Diotima?’ And she answered with all the authority of an accomplished sophist:
‘Of that, Socrates, you may be assured;—think only of the ambition of men, and you will wonder at the senselessness of their ways, unless you consider how they are stirred by the love of an immortality of fame. They are ready to run all risks greater far than they would have run for their children, and to spend money and undergo any sort of toil, and even to die, for the sake of leaving behind them a name which shall be eternal. Do you imagine that Alcestis would have died to save Admetus, or Achilles to avenge Patroclus, or your own Codrus in order to preserve the kingdom for his sons, if they had not imagined that the memory of their virtues, which still survives among us, would be immortal? Nay,’ she said, ‘I am persuaded that all men do all things, and the better they are the more they do them, in hope of the glorious fame of immortal virtue; for they desire the immortal.
The children of the soul
‘Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and give them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future.
The greater mysteries of love
He who would be truly initiated should pass from the concrete to the abstract, from the individual to the universal, from the universal to the universe of truth and beauty.
‘These are the lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter;
Diotima's last words
He should view beauty, not relatively, but absolutely; and he should pass by stepping–stones from earth to heaven
‘He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous Beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)—a nature which in the first place is everlasting,
This, my dear Socrates,’ said the stranger of Mantinea, ‘is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of Beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible—you only want to look at them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true Beauty—the divine Beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life—thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember
The words which I have spoken, you, Phaedrus, may call an encomium of love, or anything else which you please.
Psychology, Religion and Philosophy |