Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception

  Lesher, James, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield, eds. 2007. Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 22. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

3. A Platonic Reading of Plato’s Symposium

Lloyd P. Gerson


The American poet and critic John Jay Chapman (1862–1933) wrote,

… to the historical student, to the man who not only knows something of books, but something of the world, the Symposium of Plato is seen to have been in every age since Plato the most effective plea for evil that one can point to or recall. The moral disease which it inculcates is apt to break out in any age and to poison the young. The Symposium has always been the vade mecum of those who accept and continue the practice which it celebrates. To them it is a sort of lurid devotional book—the sulphurous breviary of the pederast.

When Diotima turns to the “higher” mysteries of love, she proceeds to explain an ascent or progression or ‘right order’ (ἐφεξῆς τε καὶ ὀρθῶς) of spiritual or intellectual love, from individual beautiful bodies, to all beautiful bodies, to beautiful practices and laws, to beautiful areas of knowledge, to, finally, beauty “by itself” (210a4–211d1). It is only when the lover has reached this goal that he is able to give birth, not to ‘images’ (εἴδωλα) of virtue, but to true virtue, because he is in touch with true beauty (212a4–5). And thus he will attain immortality, if any human being may.

These passages are puzzling precisely because we are unsure what tools to bring to their interpretation. The apparent denigration of the individual as love object, the casual conflation of the beautiful with the good, the claim for the ubiquity of love as a psychic phenomenon aimed at the good, the distinction between bodily and spiritual beauty and love, the imitation of immortality, the superiority of the spiritual to the bodily and the further superiority of one who produces “true virtue” as opposed to one who, presumably, produces mere images of it, and, finally, the very idea of an “ascent” or “right order” of ascent to the vision of a separate Form—all of these “mysterious” {48|49} statements have evoked in readers the awe and wonder Socrates reports that he felt himself when Diotima uttered them. If one takes these claims seriously, it is certainly possible to question them. Why, for example, should we believe that there is a “right order” to the ascent or even that there is an ascent? Or what reason have we for agreeing that spiritual beauty is superior to bodily beauty or that true virtue is produced only by one having experienced philosophical knowledge of beauty itself? Indeed, why should we accept that goodness has anything to do with beauty at all?

Owing to such difficulties, a “middle” position is sometimes sought. One middle position asserts that some material from other dialogues can be licitly used to interpret any one. The principle of selection is almost inevitably developmentalist in some way. Thus, if we can distinguish, say, early, middle, and late Platonic dialogues on philosophical grounds (whether we identify the first with Socratic philosophy or not), we can use material from one period of development to interpret dialogues from the same period, but not from any other. According to most proponents of this view, material from Phaedo, Republic, Gorgias, Lysis, and Meno would probably be eligible for use in interpreting Symposium, but material from Philebus, Timaeus, and Laws would not. [6] But surely, apart from the inherent and well canvassed problems with developmentalism as such, this principle of selection as stated is too strong. [7] For proponents of its use would in fact want to exclude only those dialogues or their parts which maintain a view contrary to the one maintained in Symposium. And here the problem is determining the view being expressed in Symposium so that one could maintain that what is being expressed in, say, Timaeus is contrary to that. For example, it is often supposed that Symposium does not acknowledge or maintain real immortality, but rather only the quasi-immortality possible in reproduction, whether physical or “spiritual.” If this is the case, it is incorrect to suppose that the immortality proclaimed in Timaeus and Laws can be read back into Symposium. Two things are wrong with this: (1) Republic, a dialogue that on this view may be adduced on behalf of interpreting Symposium, maintains a view of immortality that at least appears to be pretty close to Timaeus, and (2) Timaeus does not maintain the immortality of {50|51} the human being any more than does Symposium, if the human being is understood as the composite of the immortal part of the soul plus the mortal parts of the soul plus the body. Only if we insist on identifying the person or true self with the human being would there seem to be any opposition between Symposium and Timaeus. [8] But to hold that the former dialogue so identifies the person would be to put it into conflict with the view directly implied in, for example, Phaedo, a dialogue supposedly usable for interpreting Symposium.

A different sort of evidentiary consideration is the analysis of the position that arises when one takes together the contradictories of the philosophical positions of Plato’s predecessors rejected in the dialogues. By “Platonism” I mean, as a starting point, roughly, what results if you reject Eleaticism and its implicit nominalism, the materialism of the “giants” in Sophist, Protagorean epistemological relativism, extreme Heracliteanism, the doctrine that the soul is a harmonia of bodily parts, and the hedonism of the “subtle thinkers” in Philebus. I realize that many find a certain tentativeness or equivocation in many positive doctrines expressed in the dialogues. I find no such tentativeness in the arguments offered on behalf of rejecting the above positions. If you add to the Aristotelian testimony the position that emerges from the conjunction of the negation of the above rejected views, then that is basically what Platonism is. [17] There is an additional and highly controversial potential adumbration of this position. That includes whatever is entailed by this position whether Plato endorsed the entailment or not or even whether he was aware of it or not. So, for example, Plato endorses some consequences of the rejection of nominalism, like the possibility that two things, though they be self-identical, can be the same, though he does not explicitly consider other implications of the rejection of nominalism, like the equivocity of being. Such a contentious adumbration of Platonism allows for the possibility of varieties of Platonism, depending on how many implications you can figure out and how many you embrace. [18] {53|54}


When Proclus at the beginning of his Platonic Theology singled out Plotinus, along with Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Theodore of Asine as great “exegetes of the Platonic revelation,” he was acknowledging the consensus (which actually antedates Plotinus) that there was a coherent and distinctive philosophical position to which those who called themselves “Platonists” generally adhered. It is this general position that provides the framework for interpreting any dialogue or any part therein. Plotinus would have decisively rejected the eighteenth-century characterization of him as a “founder of Neoplatonism;” on the contrary, he would have insisted on being understood as nothing more than a “paleo” Platonist. He stands out among Platonists as absorbed with understanding what Plato has to say about erôs in the light of Platonism. It is not merely that he wrote a treatise (3.5 [50]) devoted to the topic, but he endeavored to integrate the concept of erôs fully into Platonic metaphysics and psychology. Most remarkably, he employs Plato’s concept of erôs in his characterization of the One or the Good, the first principle of all, as a “lover of itself.” [24] This is remarkable because, as we know, erôs in Symposium at any rate, is a concept from which connotations of “lack” or “deficiency” are seemingly inseparable. [25] Yet the absolutely first principle of all is without limitation or {55|56} imperfection of any kind. How can this be? Why does Plotinus take from Plato the appropriateness of applying the concept of erôs to the One?

If this makes good sense, we can perhaps next resolve an ambiguity in the contrast between the higher and lower mysteries. When in the higher mysteries, the lover attains his goal, he gives birth to true virtue, not its images. What is true virtue here supposed to be and what are its images? How does the offspring that is true virtue differ from the offspring of the spiritual or intellectual love in the lower mysteries? I cannot fathom how anyone could understand what Plato means by “images” of true virtue without adducing what is said in other dialogues. [29] In addition, I cannot fathom what the reason {56|57} would be for not adducing other dialogues, given that the material for an answer to these questions is readily available there. One may indeed suppose that the offspring that is true virtue do not differ at all from the offspring of spiritual love and that the images referred to are a rhetorical flourish on Plato’s part. Yet, the offspring of spiritual love are logoi about virtue (209b8). [30] The offspring of contact with the good or intelligible beauty is true virtue, not logoi about it. [31] As Plotinus argues elsewhere, the images of true virtue are identical with the “popular and political” virtues of Phaedo. [32] One could, I suppose, take the images of true virtue as deceptive images or counterfeits of virtue. But only one who is reading Symposium in the light of the Platonism as expressed in the other dialogues would realize that, for Plato, not all images are deceptive.

It is common for the relation between beauty and good in Diotima’s speech to be understood as follows. When Diotima ‘shifts’ (μεταβαλών, 204e) from asking “what will one have when one has the beautiful” to “what will one have when one has the good,” she is generalizing, treating “beautiful” as but one example of “good.” [49] So, on this view, what one really desires is the good, which one supposes is achieved by “possession” of the beautiful. [50] Apart {60|61} from the obvious objection that the beautiful would seem to be an instance of beauty itself, not of the good, there is the more profound objection that treating the beautiful as an instance of the good makes utterly obscure the motive for affirming a hierarchy of beauty, of love, and of the products of love. No one instance or beautiful example of good is more of an example than another. Perhaps it will be replied that the beautiful is not here being considered as an example of the good, but as a means to it or an instrument of it. But if we take the beautiful as a putative means to the good, like money or power or the way that Epicurus takes the beautiful as a possible means to the good conceived of as pleasure, and say that just as one desires the latter because they are thought to be a means to the good or happiness, so that is why one desires to possess beautiful things, it still remains obscure why this should produce a hierarchy; why, for example, true virtue should result from loving and possessing beauty itself but not from loving and possessing beautiful bodies or even other beautiful souls. [51]

There is apparently one textually based reason for resisting this approach. This is that the ultimate vision revealed in the higher mysteries is of the Form of beauty itself, not of the entire intelligible realm, taken by Plotinus as an aspect of the Idea of the good. [55] Beauty is in this passage characterized as ‘uniform’ (μονοειδές) and ‘itself by itself with itself’ (αυτὸ καθ᾿ αὐτὸ μεθ ᾿ αὐτοῦ), ‘simple’ (εἰλικρινές), ‘pure’ (καθαρόν), and ‘unmixed’ (ἄμεικτον). How can these be referenced to the entire realm of intelligible reality as opposed to just the Form of beauty? Well, for one thing, if the ultimate vision is of a single Form of beauty, then why is it that the ergon of this vision is birth in true virtue? We might just as easily suppose that the vision of a Form of a virtue or of a Form of virtue itself would produce such a birth. It would seem that on this interpretation, good drops out of the picture. The previous conflation of beauty and good is ignored. For another thing, if the ultimate vision is of the Form of beauty, then the penultimate vision of “the sea of beauty,” can hardly be a vision of other Forms. For the product of this vision is “many and beautiful logoi and ‘thoughts’ (διανοήματα)” (210d4–5), whereas the product of the vision of beauty is true virtue. It does not make sense that the vision of one class of Forms (including, presumably, Forms of the virtues) produces logoi whereas the vision of beauty produces virtue. [56]

A second requirement for keeping beauty and good united within a hierarchy is that the love that is for the beautiful is identical with the desire that is for the good. The latter, though, is achieved by a cognitive experience, a vision of intelligible reality. It is one thing to make the general point that when you think you desire x, you really desire y, if x is a counterfeit of y. But is it plausible to apply this general principle to the present case and say that when you think you desire heterosexual or homosexual intercourse, what you really desire is knowledge of Platonic Forms? Of course, it will not do to reply that the latter desire is a substitute (in the Freudian sense) for the former. If anything, it is the other way around. How can we make sense of the implicit claim that there is only one real desire and that the desire is for the knowledge of the good?

In some way or another, it must be shown that the subject of the desire for the putative counterfeit x is not the real subject. This is, not surprisingly, exactly how Plotinus understands the claim. [63] My main point, however, is not that Plotinus has interpreted Plato correctly, but that Plato himself in numerous places identifies the “real person” with the ideal knower. He does this with sufficient clarity and frequency that there is no reason to hesitate to call this doctrine a central tenet of Platonism. [64] But he does not say this in {64|65} Symposium. One could, I suppose, say that Plato, when he wrote Symposium, had not yet figured out this part of the picture. In that case, we must prepared to say that when Plato wrote Symposium, though he had a view about hierarchy and its metaphysical analysis, he really had no clue how to fit the human soul into this picture. He grasped the difference between real virtue and its images, but he did not realize that subjects engaged in practicing the former were not identical with subjects engaged in practicing the latter. This is, of course, a possibility. But it would require, in addition, that we athetize Alcibiades I, or at least that part where Socrates clearly distinguishes between the soul and the body, and identifies the “real self” with the former. [65] We would also need to “deal with” Gorgias and its affirmation of personal immortality (albeit in a myth). At some point, though, one begins to lose enthusiasm for these hermeneutical epicycles. Why not simply admit that there is a philosophy called “Platonism” and that bringing it to bear on the interpretation of any dialogue enables us to resolve interpretive problems better than any other approach?

Finally, a last requirement for keeping beauty and good together within a hierarchical ascent is the manner in which we conceive of the ergon of the desire for the good. Treating the birth in beauty as an instrument for satisfying the desire for immortality is psychologically lame, to say the least. [66] But this seems inevitable if the desire for immortality is merely the desire for quasi-immortality. On this view, the ergon turns out to be the steps taken to achieve this quasi-immortality, rather than the natural result of the achievement of the desire for the good which is identical with the natural result of the love of the beautiful. The work of love turns out to be a peculiarity of certain people, not the necessary property of love that it is evidently supposed to be. [67] Either people really want the good itself, in which case the psychological explanation for birth in beauty is rendered null and void or else they really want, say, physical or spiritual offspring, in which case beauty and good are, once again, pried apart. The latter alternative could only appeal to one who supposes that Symposium can be understood on its own. The former alternative holds that in talking about the work of love, Diotima is making a metaphysical point, one which draws beauty, good, and erôs even closer together. The achievement of the good, that is, the knowledge of intelligible reality, necessarily results in {65|66} the birth of true virtue because that knowledge is extensionally equivalent to true virtue. [68]

All three of the above requirements can be met if we adduce material from the other dialogues, as does Plotinus. If we do not seek out help from other dialogues, the association of beauty and good appears to be arbitrary and perhaps even absurdly false. What is sometimes called “the principle of charity” in the interpretation of the works of philosophers seems to suggest that we opt for the former approach.

Here is an additional consideration on behalf of this interpretation. At the beginning of Republic II, Glaucon, no doubt expressing a common Greek notion, says that there are three kinds of good. There is (a) a good that we desire for itself; (b) a good that we desire not in itself but only for its consequences and (c) a good that we desire both for itself and for its consequences. Socrates, of course, wants to argue that justice belongs to the third kind. If we suppose that the good desired in Symposium is, too, of the third kind, we can make sense of the idea that its achievement produces true virtue as a consequence. If, on the other hand, we take the products of love—the births that occur in beauty—as a means to achieving some good, namely, quasi-immortality, we deprive ourselves of an explanation for the love of offspring except as a means and of an explanation for the hierarchy of products.

Meeting the above three requirements for uniting beauty and the good actually enables us to understand why the pederast embraces his “sulphurous {66|67} breviary” without delusion while at the same time meeting them enables us to understand the inadequacies of an interpretation based on that embrace. Plato, understood Platonically, has given us a way not just to acknowledge the manifest diversity of desire but to order that diversity hierarchically. One is of course free to reject the hierarchy, or even to reject its presence in the dialogue, but not I think without abandoning hope for its coherent interpretation. {67|68}


[ back ] 1. Though it is an interpretation implicit in the culture that, say, produced Brideshead Revisited.

[ back ] 2. ῎Εστιν ἄρα συλλήβδην, ἔφη, ὁ ἔρως τοῦ τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὑτῷ εἶναι ἀεί, picking up ἐπιθυμία from 205d2.

[ back ] 3. See, e.g. Press 1995:133–152.

[ back ] 4. Such a view is the contradictory of the rarely maintained position that Diotima’s speech contains an anti–Platonic doctrine of love. See Neumann 1965:33–59.

[ back ] 5. A stellar example of this mode of interpretation is Tejera 2000. A different and more interesting example is Shorey 1933, who believes that Plato’s philosophy is a unity and that that entire philosophy has to be adduced in order to understand each dialogue. Yet, his account of each dialogue fairly consistently refuses the adduction of material from elsewhere.

[ back ] 6. Cornford 1971:119–131, provides an excellent example of a very vigorous, though selective, use of Republic in interpreting Symposium (especially in the application of the doctrine of the tripartite soul to the higher mysteries, along with a reluctance to allow that genuine immortality is present in Symposium), but a disinclination to use much of anything else.

[ back ] 7. The mere possibility of Plato having a large philosophical vision that is variously expressed in the dialogues itself always trumps developmentalism. That is, Plato might be developing in the sense of unfolding the expression of Platonism. There is no space here to enter into the developmentalism vs. unitarianism debate. But I take the above possibility to render it unnecessary that I do so.

[ back ] 8. See Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan 2004:224–234, for some perceptive remarks on how Symposium must be understood to be focusing on the soul-body composite or the embodied person, not the true, immortal self.

[ back ] 9. Cherniss 1944 and 1945 is the mirror image of Robin 1908. Often the rule seems to be: “if I can’t understand the argument or if the argument seems silly to me, then Plato could not have held the doctrine whose expression is the conclusion of the argument.”

[ back ] 10. Strauss 2001 provides an elegant example of the pitfalls of combining the principle of “reading Plato dialogue by dialogue” and yet bringing to the dialogues a mitigated Platonism. Strauss, 200, declares that in Diotima’s speech, the good is not identical with the beautiful and then, 238, Strauss says that the beautiful is the good. Strauss’s way of dealing with such absurdities is to proclaim that what we have in Diotima’s speech (and in the dialogue as a whole) is a “poetic presentation of philosophy.” In such a presentation, there is no compelling need for consistency.

[ back ] 11. Kahn 1996 elaborates what I regard as the least objectionable form of this interpretation. On Kahn’s view, all the dialogues prior to Republic should be read “proleptically,” that is, as anticipating or pointing to that work. Kahn, however, cannot explain why all the dialogues, including Republic, are not proleptic to Platonism itself. The limitation to Republic seems arbitrary. A similar problem is faced by Allen 1991:85, who thinks that in Symposium beauty and good are “equivalent” and “at the same level” because this dialogue “looks forward” to Republic. Neither of the specific passages that are what Symposium supposedly looks forward to (507b4, 532b1) say precisely this about beauty and good. The first passage just says that there is a αὐτὸ καλόν and a αὐτὸ ἀγαθόν. The second passage just says that αὐτὸ ὅ ἐστιν ἀγαθόν has to be grasped in order to grasp the being of each thing. Better passages for Allen’s case might be 509a6 where Glaucon says that the good is ἀμήχανον κάλλος and 508e5 where Socrates says that the good is κάλλιον than knowledge and truth, though the use of the comparative in the latter passage tells us at least, I take it, that τὸ καλόν is not being treated like an ordinary Form. Indeed, one might reply that the Idea of the good is no ordinary Form either. It is not clear why Allen thinks that Symposium does not look forward to Philebus 64e5–65a5 where beauty is treated as an aspect of good, not literally identical with it. Allen does add that “beauty is … the sensuous aspect of goodness,” though what this means in the context of his assertion that beauty is identified with that which is beyond being I have no idea. Surely, it is not just the sensuous aspect if laws and institutions can be called “beautiful.” In my view, what underlies the interpretations of both Kahn and Allen is a reluctance to face squarely full-blown Platonism.

[ back ] 12. Whether the protreptic aimed at drawing readers to the philosophical life generally or to “enrolment” in the Academy, I have never understood why it is supposed that a protreptic precludes a heavy dose of doctrine. For example, the explicit protreptic function of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles is intended to depend entirely upon the force and extent of the argument therein. Ancient Platonists like Proclus reasonably enough took the prologues to dialogues like Symposium and Timaeus to anticipate the dialogue’s main theme. But Symposium was classified by all the ancient Platonists as a “theological” dialogue, that is, one whose central theme was the intelligible world. The connection between the contents of the prologue of that dialogue and the theological theme is itself dependent on bringing to that dialogue the wider framework of Platonism.

[ back ] 13. A nice summary of the elements from later dialogues needed to illuminate Symposium can be found in Corrigan and Glazov-Corrigan 2004:236 and n119.

[ back ] 14. Cf. especially Miller 1995:225–244.

[ back ] 15. See Miller 1995:239–243.

[ back ] 16. This is, incidentally, why the analogy of Shakespeare’s plays adduced on behalf of the view that Plato’s dialogues are to be read non–doctrinally is false. We have no evidence of Shakespeare having a view of literature or of life other than that which we find in each individual play. So, we can safely ignore his “real” intention and avoid what aesthetic theoreticians have long recognized as “the intentional fallacy.” For the interpretation of all the dialogues as plays, see Arieti 1991.

[ back ] 17. Perhaps more precisely, Aristotle’s testimony indicates his interpretation of one version of Platonism which is just the position that emerges from rejecting the above mentioned competing philosophies.

[ back ] 18. See Gerson 2005b for a much fuller exposition of Platonism positively and negatively conceived. I do not mean to suggest that Platonism is to be understood exclusively as consisting of the conjunction of the contradictions of all the positions refuted in the dialogues. On the contrary, I believe that there is an abundance of evidence in the dialogues that positively supports the position here sketched.

[ back ] 19. But we might, with Sedley 2004:chap. 1, expect to find in Plato’s later works efforts to “reclaim his Socratic heritage” by locating Socratic philosophy within a Platonic embrace, that is, we would find him drawing out some of the implications of the Socratic inspiration.

[ back ] 20. Proclus Platonic Theology 1.6.19 (S–W), calls Plotinus and others “exegetes of the Platonic revelation” (τοὺς τῆς Πλατωνικῆς ἐποπτείας ἐξηγητάς). Proclus goes on to make clear that Plato was not the first or only vehicle of this divine revelation. The justification for distinguishing Platonism from what Plato says is that Plato is himself articulating or expressing an “ancient tradition.” We call what Plato says “Platonism” because he was the greatest exponent of this tradition.

[ back ] 21. See Gerson 2005a.

[ back ] 22. I believe that this interpretation is at least consistent with a central element of that of Rowe 1998b:246–247; 258, namely, that the central desire of the lover is for the good. Rowe holds that Diotima transforms this into a desire for quasi-immortality. I would prefer to say that the latter is an expression of the former rather than its transformation. Cf. Allen 1991:77 who concisely catalogues the ways in which Diotima’s speech corrects the claims of all the previous interlocutors. Also, Buchner 1965:16 who argues that Diotima’s speech provides a “criterion” by which the truth in each of the previous speeches can be judged.

[ back ] 23. See Metaphysics 2.1.993a30–b11.

[ back ] 24. Enneads 6.8 [39] 15, 1–2: Καὶ ἐράσμιον καὶ ἔρως ὁ αὐτὸς καὶ αὐτοῦ ἔρως, ἅτε οὐκ ἄλλως καλὸς ἢ παρ᾿ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν αὐτῷ. Square brackets indicate the chronological ordering of Porphyry’s edition of Plotinus.

[ back ] 25. Plotinus Enneads 3.5 [50] 7, 9–15; 19–24, acknowledges this feature in his interpretation of the myth of the birth of ἔρως.

[ back ] 26. See ibid., 1.4 [46] 16, 9–13: Οὐκ ἔστιν οὖν ἐν τῷ κοινῷ [i.e. the composite of body and soul] εὐδαιμόνως ζῆν. ᾿Ορθῶς γὰρ καὶ Πλάτων ἐκεῖθεν ἄνωθεν τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἀξιοῖ λαμβάνειν καὶ πρὸς ἐἐκεῖνο βλέπειν τὸν μέλλοντα σοφὸν καὶ εὐδαίμονα ἔσεσθαι καὶ ἐκείνῳ ὁμοιοῦσθαι καὶ κατ᾿ ἐκεῖνο ζῆν. Plotinus is here referring to Symposium 212a as well as to Theaetetus 176b1.

[ back ] 27. O’Brien 1984:185–205 argues that the immortality attained by one engaged in contemplating the Form of beauty and in thereby becoming virtuous is genuine immortality. It is a gift of the gods, like that awarded to epic heroes. Cf. 212a. This is in contrast to the quasi–immortality of the lower mysteries. O’Brien is followed, though without attribution, by Dyson 1986:67, who argues that philosophers—those who are privy to the higher mysteries—experience the “personal survival of the ephemeral soul” owing to their having pleased the gods.

[ back ] 28. See Gerson 2004:217–248, where I argue that Aristotle similarly distinguishes between the happiness of the composite and the happiness of “that which we are especially,” namely, intellects. I adduce Aristotle here because Plotinus was bolstered in his interpretation of Plato by finding the same distinction in Aristotle. Porphyry, Plotinus’ pupil, tells us that Plotinus’ teacher, Ammonius Saccas, was one of the first to show that Aristotle was a Platonist.

[ back ] 29. At Lysis 219d2–5 Socrates argues that things that are dear for the sake of the ‘primary dear’ (πρῶτον φίλον) are only ‘images’ (εἴδωλα) of the “true” dear, namely, the first. Although he does proceed to argue that the good is dear (220b7), it is not clear that it would appropriate to read back into Lysis what is said about the Idea of the good in, say, Republic. On the other hand, the logic of the Lysis argument provides the framework for its application to the Symposium argument. There are, of course, several big inferential steps from: when each of us loves or desires some concrete good (e.g. health), anything we pursue for the sake of that we do not truly love to: there is one thing (the Idea of the good) that we all truly love. Note also that whereas in Symposium it is the product or the ἔργον of love that is the image, in Lysis it is the putative object of love that turns out to be the image.

[ back ] 30. Cf. 210a7–8 where the first step on the ascent within the higher mysteries is love of one beautiful body which produces καλοὶ λόγοι.

[ back ] 31. See Cratylus 439a–b where Socrates contrasts learning about things “through themselves” and learning about them through ‘names’ (ὀνόματα). Previously, at 425a, he describes a λόγος as consisting of names plus ‘verbs’ (ῥήματα). Cf. Sophist 262e. The point is not, I think, that the addition of verbs turns the image of the thing into something else.

[ back ] 32. See Enneads 1.2 [19] on the grades of virtue. The “popular and political” virtues are described in Phaedo 82a10–b3. Cf. 69b6–7, where this sort of virtue is called an ‘illusory façade’ (σκιαγραφία), fit for slaves. Cf. Protagoras 323a7, b2; 324a1 where Protagoras uses the term “political virtue” in the same way without of course the pejorative Platonic overtones. Cf. Republic II 365c3–4 and VI 500d8 with VII 518d3–519a6 where the “popular” virtues are identified as the “so–called virtues of the soul” and especially 619c7–d1 for participation in virtue by ‘habit’ (ἔθει) “without philosophy.” At 430c3, courage is characterized as “political.” At 443c10–d1, characterizing justice, Plato contrasts “external” behavior with “internal” virtue, which is concerned with what is “truly oneself and one’s own” (ἀληθῶς περὶ ἑαυτὸν καὶ τὰ ἑαυτοῦ).

[ back ] 33. Cp. Phaedo 82b1 ἐπιτετηδευκότες; Symposium 209c1 ἐπιτηδεύειν.

[ back ] 34. Theaetetus 176b.

[ back ] 35. Republic IX 589a7–b1. As Price 1989:30, points out, both Phaedrus (245c5–246a2, 276e5–277a4) and Laws (721b7–c6, 895e10–896e2) recognize both quasi–immortality and real immortality in the same dialogues.

[ back ] 36. See Timaeus 41c–d, 69c5–6, e1, 90a, c1–3. Cf. Republic X 611b9–612a6: Laws IV 713b8, XII 959b3–4. That Symposium is denying immortality to the ἄνθρωπος and not to the rational or divine part of the soul that is identical with the real person was seen long ago by Luce 1952:137–141, refuting Hackforth 1950:43–45. Cf. 208b1–4 for the explicit contrast between the participation in ‘immortality’ (ἀθανασίας) by that which is ‘mortal’ (τὸ θνήτον) and by that which is ‘immortal’ (ἀθάνατον).

[ back ] 37. See Enneads 6.9 [9] 9, 41–43: … καὶ ὅτι ταῦτα μὲν τὰ ἐρώμενα θνητὰ καὶ βλαβερὰ καὶ εἰδώλων ἔρωτες καὶ μεταπίπτει, ὅτι οὐκ ἦν τὸ ὄντως ἐρώμενον οὐδὲ τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἡμῶν οὐδ᾿ ὃ ζητοῦμεν.

[ back ] 38. Cf. Price 1989:48–49, who disagrees and takes the true virtue to be identical with the products of spiritual love and so to require interpersonal relations.

[ back ] 39. For example, Robin 1964:9, just assumes that ‘belle’ and ‘bon’ are synonymous, though in his concluding remarks (183–189), he does adduce Philebus 64e–65a on behalf of understanding the relationship between good and beautiful. Cf. Grube 1935:21, 30. One motive for the conflation is, I suspect, the assumption that if beauty and good are not conflated, then Plato’s own argument in Symposium is actually refuted by an argument in Philebus, an argument against Eudoxus’ conflation of pleasure with the good on the grounds that there are goods other than pleasure. See Philebus 20e–22e; 60b–61b. If, however, beauty is not conflated with good, then a similar argument can be made adducing goods that are not beautiful.

[ back ] 40. See Vlastos 1973b. Vlastos complains about the denigration of the individual as love object in Symposium. Cf. Neumann 1965:41, who makes the same complaint, referring to scholars going back to Wilamowitz who share this view. Vlastos is well answered by Levy 1979:285–291. As Levy argues, Vlastos’s definition of love—“wishing good things for someone for that person’s sake”—is neither necessary nor sufficient for love. Only, though, if one gets the relation between beauty and good right, can the charge of egocentrism in the pursuit of the beloved be dismissed. Cf. Warner 1979 for a different sort of response based on a defense of the claim that qualities not persons are the objects of love. Mahoney 1996 argues that love is egoistic at the “lower levels” but non-egoistic at the “highest level.” This seems to me to presuppose a false dichotomy if in fact everyone desires the good for themselves. Allen 1991:95–98, brings out very clearly the specious contrast of ἔρως and ἀγάπη used to fuel the dichotomy egoistic/selfless love. Indeed, this interpretation also rests heavily on the mistaken idea that the ἔργον of love is its purpose such that one reproduces in order to get something for oneself, in this case quasi-immortality.

[ back ] 41. Nussbaum 1986:176–184, thinks the gradations in the ascent can be preserved despite univocity if the grades are grades of increasing quantity. But on this view, the “vast sea of beauty” should be “higher” in the scale than the Form of beauty, though in fact it is not.

[ back ] 42. Cf. Tolstoy’s remark in What is Art? “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.”

[ back ] 43. Enneads, 6.7 [38] 30, 29-39 alluding to Philebus 64e5–65a5. Cf. Republic VI 517c2–3 and Phaedrus 250e which stresses the easy accessibility of beauty to our senses. At 1.6 [1] 9, Plotinus explains in one sense the intelligible world is primarily beautiful, in which case, the good has beauty προβεβλημένον … πρὸ αὐτῆς. In another sense, the good is itself the “primal beauty” because it is virtually what the intelligible world is. Cf. Murdoch 1970:41–42, 59–60, 92–95, who expresses a similar view.

[ back ] 44. Cf. White 1989:152–157 for a criticism of the view that (a) love is of the beautiful and (b) the beautiful is identical with the good. White, though, 155–156, misinterprets Philebus as maintaining the identity of the beautiful and the good. Since White thinks that Symposium denies this, he rejects the relevance of the Philebus passage here. But see n19 for a concession that “good” and “beautiful” may be “co-extensive.”

[ back ] 45. See Republic VI 505d5–9; Enneads 5.5 [32] 12, 19–25.

[ back ] 46. Cf. Republic V 479e7–480a13. Rosen 1968:270, maintains that “Diotima’s description of beauty does not presuppose the theory of Ideas.” Yet, the diminished reality of the sensible world and its description as that which is “not really real” is a direct inference from the separation of the really real, that is, of the Ideas.

[ back ] 47. Price 1989:40, puzzlingly, claims that the recognition that beauty is beauty wherever it is found (210c4–5) “confirms a reduced valuation of, and commitment to, an inferior object, whether individual physical beauty (b5–6), physical beauty in general (c5–6), or any individual beauty (d1–3).”

[ back ] 48. See Timaeus 35a with 41d–e. Plotinus generally treats the myth of the birth of ἔρως as an allegory of the creation of a property of soul; hence, Πόρος and Πενία stand for indivisible οὐσία and divisible οὐσία respectively. See especially 3.5 [50] 5–9. Cf. 3.6 [26] 14, 10–12.

[ back ] 49. See e.g. Gould 1963:46: “The beautiful is but a special, electrifying example of the good that which, when possessed, will make us happy.” By contrast, Bloom (Benardete 1993:134–135), apparently completely unfettered by textual scruples, goes from “Diotima insists on a distinction between beautiful and good” to this distinction indicating “the conflict between the aesthetic and utilitarian ways of life.” As it turns out, though (151), Diotima is really confused about the relation between beauty and good, unlike Socrates in Republic.

[ back ] 50. Cf. Meno 78b5; Gorgias 468a7–8. See Price 1989:16. who thinks that “beauty” and “good” are interchangeable, though not synonymous. But Price goes on to analyze their connection in a way that makes hierarchy unintelligible. He takes the ascent as one of increasing generalization rather than gradation in being. Cf. 38–42.

[ back ] 51. That the beautiful and the good are habitually related by Plato is clear from Lysis 216d2: λέγω γὰρ τἀγαθὸν καλὸν εἶναι; Protagoras 360b3: εἰ καλά, καὶ ἀγαθά; Hippias Major 297b2–3: εἰ ἄρα τὸ καλόν ἐστιν αἴτιον ἀγαθοῦ, γίγνοιτ᾿ ἂν ὑπὸ τοῦ καλοῦ τὸ ἀγαθόν. In none of these passages, however, is hierarchy implied. Cf. Alcibiades I 115a–116e, where Socrates tries to persuade Alcibiades that something καλόν, since it is good, could not also be bad. Even if we endorse Socrates’ argument, there are no grounds here for hierarchy. Indeed, since the argument maintains that something is good just insofar as it is καλόν (see 116a–b), hierarchy would seem to be precluded.

[ back ] 52. Ferrari 1992:253 and n14, recognizes that the hierarchy is not explained in Symposium. Ferrari thinks, though, that the tripartite soul of Republic provides the relevant basis for the hierarchy.

[ back ] 53. Cornford 1971:127, for example, sees nothing problematic in saying that one type of beauty is “above” another. When at Symposium 206c3–4 Diotima says: τίκτειν ἐπιθυμεῖ ἡμῶν ἡ φύσις these words do not indicate an alternative to the good that all desire. It is because humans desire the good that they desire to reproduce. So, the effect of the primary desire is a secondary desire, secondary only in the sense that it is the desire of the composite human not the desire of the real person. Cf. Dover 1980:146–147, who remarks that “since on most occasions people have sexual intercourse for its own sake and not as a means to procreation … the argument requires the assumption that humans, like animals, are impelled by forces of which they are not aware.”

[ back ] 54. At 210b7, the beauty of souls is said to be more ‘honorable’ (τιμιώτερον) than the beauty of bodies. Though one might build an objective standard on “honorable,” how exactly within the context of Symposium alone is this to be done? See Gerson 1997:1–11. Cf. Crito 47e6–48a3; Gorgias 512a5; Protagoras 313a6; Republic III 415a9; Laws V 727d8 on the superiority of soul to body. But in all these passages, the superiority is owing to the fact that soul identifies us more than body, which is essentially a possession. This could not be the reason for gradation throughout the ascent.

[ back ] 55. Ibid., 1.6 [1] 9, 35–36: τὸ κάλλος τοῦτο εἶναι, τὰς ἰδέας. Cf. 5.8 [31] 9, 40–42: Διὸ καὶ τὸ εἶναι ποθεινόν ἐστιν, ὅτι ταὐτὸν τῷ καλῷ, καὶ τὸ καλὸν ἐράσμιον, ὅτι τὸ εἶναι. Πότερον δὲ ποτέρου αἴτιον τί χρὴ ζητεῖν οὔσης τῆς φύσεως μιᾶς.

[ back ] 56. Dancy 2004:287–290, confuses the ultimate stage of the ascent with the penultimate stage. He identifies the ultimate state with the vision of the “sea of beauty” and claims that the product of this vision is additional λόγος rather than true virtue.

[ back ] 57. Cf. Republic VI 490a8–b7 where the achievement of the ἔρως of the philosopher is a vision of all the Forms and a “birth” in understanding and truth. Allen 1991:80, thinks that the hierarchy is based on grades of universality, though there is nothing in the text to indicate this. At the same time, his correct observation that the beauty of souls is not the same thing as the beauty of bodies undercuts his argument for a single Form of beauty.

[ back ] 58. See Republic VI 510d–511a. So Moravcsik 1971:295; Sier 1997:151–153.

[ back ] 59. See Republic VII 533e7–534a8. This corrects what he says at 511d–e where he seems to identify understanding with knowledge alone.

[ back ] 60. Republic VI 511b2–c1. The Symposium passage describing the ultimate stage of ascent (210d7–e1): κατίδῃ τινὰ ἐπιστήμην μίαν τοιαύτην, ἥ ἐστι καλοῦ τοιοῦδε, should be compared with Phaedrus (247e1–2): τὴν ἐν τῷ ὅ ἐστιν ὂν ὄντως ἐπιστήμην οὖσαν. The latter passage explicitly goes on to take this knowledge as being of all the Forms. The words in Symposium (212a3): ὁρῶντι ᾦ ὁρατὸν τὸ καλόν, are usually taken to refer to intellect as that by which the beautiful is seen. But it is not clear why this is not a reference to the Idea of the good, as in Republic VII 509b5, where the Idea is that owing to which that which is knowable is knowable.

[ back ] 61. Plotinus, Enneads 6.7 [38] 22, 5–7: Ἔστι γὰρ ἕκαστον ὅ ἐστιν ἐφ᾿ αὑτοῦ· ἐφετὸν δὲ γίνεται ἐπιχρώσαντος αὐτὸ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ, ὥσπερ χάριτας δόντος αὐτοῖς καὶ εἰς τὰ ἐφιέμενα ἔρωτας. So, we can cognize form, and hence beauty, without being attracted to it or without desiring it. With the recognition of form as an expression of the good, we have, once again, the basis for hierarchy. The “goodlikeness” of intelligible form is easier to discern than the “goodlikeness” of bodily form because the latter is occluded by body. If we agree that beauty is form, we certainly would need to say that we can recognize form or beauty without being attracted to it or loving it.

[ back ] 62. Cf. Republic VII 517b7–c4 where the Idea of the good is said to be αἰτία πάντων ὀρθῶν τε καὶ καλῶν in τὸν νοητόν τόπον. Also, Timaeus 28a8–b2 where the demiurge produces that which is καλόν because he is using as a model intelligible reality; 30d2. Cf. Price 1989:43, “In effect the Form of beauty constitutes the world of Forms qua objects of love.” I would say: “not just in effect.”

[ back ] 63. See especially Enneads 6.9 [9] 9, 22: Καὶ ἐκεῖ [in the intelligible world] γενομένη γίγνεται αὐτὴ [the soul, that is, real person] καὶ ὅπερ ἦν. In this chapter, Plotinus is interpreting the underlying doctrine of both Symposium and Phaedrus.

[ back ] 64. It is also a central tenet of Aristotle, a fact which ought to mitigate the criticism that Plotinus is “reading his own views” into Plato. See Nicomachean Ethics 10.7.1177b30–1178a8. See also the line here referred to, namely, 9.8.1169a2: ὅτι μὲν οὖν τουθ᾽ [intellect] ἕκαστός ἐστιν ἢ μάλιστα, οὐκ ἄδηλον … Also, 9.4.1166a22–23; 9.8.1168b31–33. See Gerson 2004:217–248.

[ back ] 65. See Alcibiades I 129b1–131a1.

[ back ] 66. So Rowe 1998b:253. Rowe, though, thinks that despite the implausibility of the claim, it would appeal to the Symposium’s interlocutors—Phaedrus, Pausanias, and the rest. And that is why it should be taken ironically.

[ back ] 67. Cf. Republic I 353a9–11: Νῦν δὴ οἶμαι ἄμεινον ἂν μάθοις ὃ ἄρτι ἠρώτων, πυνθανόμενος εἰ οὐ τοῦτο ἑκάστου εἴη ἔργον ὃ ἂν ἢ μόνον τι ἢ κάλλιστα τῶν ἄλλων ἀπεργάζηται.

[ back ] 68. Cf. Enneads 5.4 [7] 2, 26–28 where Plotinus introduces the principle that generation is a product of the perfection of an activity. Contra White 1989:154 who argues that “birth in beauty” is the “means” to the only sort of immortality available to mortals. On White’s view, the production of true virtue is presumably another “means.”

[ back ] 69. The prior expression is the demiurge’s production of order in the universe, Timaeus 29e. Because the demiurge is good, he is without φθόνος. “Being ungrudging” is a negative way of characterizing the ἔργον of love. But even in the case of the demiurge, the production is a result of the good that he possesses, not a constituent of it.