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.

5. Permanent Beauty and Becoming Happy in Plato’s Symposium

Gabriel Richardson Lear [1]

Our first encounter with Socrates in the Symposium is bizarre. Aristodemus, surprised to run into Socrates fully bathed and with his sandals on, asks him where he is going “to have made himself so beautiful (kalos)” (174a4, Rowe trans.). Socrates replies that he is on his way to see the lovely Agathon, and so that “he has beautified himself in these ways in order to go, a beauty to a beauty (kalos para kalon)” (174a7–8). Why does Socrates, who in just a few moments will be lost in contemplation out on the front porch, care about being beautiful? His remark to Aristodemus is clearly in some sense ironic, but on the other hand, he really has taken unusual care with his physical appearance. Later, in his encomium to love, he will claim that beauty has this effect on lovers: the beauty of the beloved causes the lover to disdain his former way of life and “give birth” to beautiful “offspring.” Is the image of the squat and snub-nosed Socrates all freshly scrubbed and kitted out a comic foreshadowing, or a debunking, of his serious speech? Does Socrates really believe in the transformative power of beauty?

One of the most alien aspects of Plato’s ethical theory is that it gives a central place to beauty (to kalon) and erotic love. The young guardians in the Republic must develop erôs for the beautiful before they begin their training in {96|97} philosophy, an erôs first expressed in love for beautiful souls in beautiful bodies (402c–403c). And in the Phaedrus Socrates attributes to beauty the power to awaken the soul’s erotic “madness” and thereby to liberate us from our impure, bodily existence. For some reason, Plato seems to think that receptiveness to and devotion to beauty (including physical beauty) is necessary for a rational grasp of the good and for the virtuous behavior that follows from it. This is bound to strike us as strange. We may be ready to grant that erotic love, and thus physical beauty, is ethically relevant. But why exactly does Plato think they are so ethically important? This is the question I will try to answer here in my interpretation of the Symposium and in particular of Socrates’ speech.

The idea that beauty is central to ethical theory is, as I said, alien to us. So we should not expect an adequate interpretation of the Symposium to show us that this idea is, after all, one we already accept. But neither should we settle for a superficial explanation in which we get the gist, but not the details, of how beauty figures in the virtuous life. This danger is especially acute when we try to interpret Socrates’ speech. He evidently believes that good things are beautiful; and we know from other dialogues that beauty depends on goodness. Thus when he speaks about love as an urge to give birth in beauty, we may be tempted to suppose that this is merely a mysterious way of describing the fact that our desire for the good is focused and made effective when we encounter something in particular that we think is good, as if beauty per se did not really matter in this context. That is to say, we may be tempted to explain the ethical significance of beauty solely by appeal to the fact that, according to Plato, genuinely beautiful things are good. But we should not be too hasty. I do not want to deny that the connection between the beautiful and the good is relevant to the proper interpretation of Socrates’ account of love. Indeed, as we will see, it plays a central role in explaining why lovers want to create beauty. But what is especially interesting about the Symposium is that it draws our attention to the fact that our response to things qua good is not the same as our response to them qua beautiful. Even if, in truth, the class of good things is coextensive with the class of beautiful things; even if a thing’s beauty depends on its goodness, the experience of a thing as good plays a different role in our lives than does the experience of a thing as beautiful. This, I will argue, is something Socrates wants his audience to see. Thus if we adopt the strategy of substituting ‘good’ for ‘beautiful’ in his account of love, we will ignore and leave unexplained his overt and insistent concern with the place of beauty in human life. Perhaps worse, we will flatten out the distinction between the role of good as the object of love and the role of beauty as its midwife, a distinction that Socrates (speaking as Diotima) takes pains to make. {97|98}

I will argue that, according to Socrates, what grabs the attention of the lover when he experiences someone or something as beautiful is its self-sufficiency and lack of change. That is to say, insofar as things are beautiful, their goodness strikes us as being impervious to the passage of time. The temporal dimension of our experience of beauty has not, to my knowledge, been noticed as being part of Plato’s thought. It is important for two reasons, though. Once we understand it, we can better see why, in his view, we lovers who desire to be happy forever care so much about experiencing and creating beauty. This will be my focus here. But in addition, as I will suggest at the end, it helps us see how Plato can allow for that aspect of the experience of beauty which Kant called disinterestedness, while nevertheless maintaining that the pleasure we take in beauty is deeply interested. Thus, my reading of the Symposium will enrich our understanding of Plato’s conception of beauty and, in my view, make it more plausible.

1. Phaedrus’ Speech: A Paradigm and Two Problems

There is nothing extraordinary in the paradigm for praising love that Phaedrus introduces. [4] In fact, there is such a long tradition of praising love for its creation of beautiful poetry and acts of derring-do that it may to us seem trite. What is more interesting is that Socrates endorses both sides of Phaedrus’ trope. That is to say, he claims both (1) that love is a response to beauty and (2) that love responds by creating beauty. To be sure, Socrates (or Diotima) emphasizes the first half. Lovers of all stripes are able to give birth only in beauty (206c–d, 209b–c) and the steps by which the lover-initiate ascends the ladder of love are all beauties (210e, 211c). But when they encounter beauty, lovers of the lower mysteries give birth to laws, political wisdom, poetry, and glorious deeds of justice, moderation, and the rest of virtue—all of which Socrates calls beautiful (209a6–8, 209d6–e3). [5] And since he says that these offspring are more beautiful and immortal than physical, human children (209c6–7), it is reasonable to assume that bodily lovers, too, give birth to beauty, albeit perhaps only to beauty that a mother could see. The situation is the same for the lovers of the higher mysteries. At the first stage, when the lover loves a single beautiful body, he generates beautiful speeches (210a7); when he reaches the “great sea of beauty” he gives birth to “many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts” (210d4–5). At the apex of his journey, the lover grasps the most complete knowledge of the beautiful and gives birth to true virtue. Socrates does not say explicitly that this creation is something beautiful, but since all the earlier offspring were beautiful, and since virtue in general is usually considered to be kalon, it seems reasonable to assume that here, too, Socrates’ lover responds to beauty with beauty. His analysis of love is far more ambitious than anything Phaedrus suggests. Still, it {99|100} is fair to say that one of the principal tasks of Socrates’ speech is to rethink the way beauty figures in erotic experience while nevertheless remaining true to the widespread intuition that Phaedrus expresses.

Let us return to Phaedrus, however. His speech is obviously a party set-piece (Hunter 2004:38–39 suggests that it may have been prepared in advance), so it may seem churlish to examine it for philosophical coherence. Still, for the philosophically inclined reader the speech raises more questions than it answers. First, Phaedrus takes for granted that lovers are attracted to beautiful people. But given how ethically and politically crucial the effect of love is in his view, we might well find it curious that it is beautiful people who set love in motion. Why is it beauty that has this power? Second, despite what Phaedrus claims, it is far from clear that love as he understands it will characteristically issue in great and beautiful actions. As he sees it, the beneficial power of love is due to the fact that it instills philotimia, love of honor. Lovers are especially ashamed to be caught by their beloved doing something shameful and so, presumably because they would like to be admired, are zealous to perform fine actions on their behalf. But it is hard to see how love of honor can explain lovers’ inclination to take the most fine and beautiful risk of all, the risk of death. How will the lover enjoy the fruits of honor once he’s dead? Oddly, Phaedrus himself opens the door to this objection when he criticizes Orpheus, who dared to enter Hades for the sake of his beloved, but wasn’t willing to go there by the traditional, deadly route. If Orpheus’ love has in fact filled him with love of honor, as Phaedrus’ account requires, then his eagerness to do something fine up to the point of actually being killed seems utterly reasonable. What good will Eurydice’s attentions do him when he’s dead? (Cithara-players aren’t soft (179d4); they’re smart!)

Even leaving aside this extreme case, it is unlikely that philotimia can provide an adequate explanation of the phenomenon Phaedrus invokes it to explain. For honor is a reward not for behavior that genuinely is fine and beautiful, but for behavior conventionally assumed to be fine and beautiful. Thus, if a society admires actions that are not genuinely good, love of honor might in fact drive a Phaedran lover to actions that are shameful and ugly. [6] And indeed it soon emerges that even the Athenians encourage lovers {100|101} to behave in ways whose beauty may be seriously doubted. According to Pausanias, who speaks after Phaedrus, the custom in Athens is for lovers “to beg their beloveds, swear oaths, sleep in doorways, and be willing to submit themselves to forms of slavery that no slave, even, would submit to” (Rowe modified, 183a4–7). Pausanias professes to approve of this arrangement, but as he himself says, this is the sort of behavior that the Athenians would typically reproach as obsequious, shameful, and unbecoming a free man (183b1–3). Pausanias claims that the lover’s pandering and making a slave of himself (for the sake of sex, one assumes) is more admirable than comparable behavior for the sake of money (183a2), but it is hard to see why this behavior’s source in erotic desire makes it any better. (It is ironic that Pausanias heightens our uncertainty about whether the connection between love and beautiful action is reliable, for he explicitly claims that he will do a better job than Phaedrus had done of praising love as the cause of fine and beautiful action (180c1–d3; 180e4–181a7).)

Phaedrus’ account of love cannot ultimately be supported, therefore. He cannot explain why it is beauty to which we are especially responsive or why love properly issues in beautiful actions. If, as I said before, Socrates preserves Phaedrus’ idea that love is characterized by and is valuable for its response to and creation of beauty, we ought to wonder whether his explanation fares better. Why is it beauty that elicits this response? And why is it good for us to create something beautiful?

2. The Uncertain Value of Beauty

More important for the interpretation of the Symposium, however, Socrates actually includes a sense of confusion about the value of beauty in his very speech. Consider his conversation with Diotima. Early on, he agrees that happiness is the enduring possession of good and beautiful things—this is the divine condition (202c10–11). [8] And, like Agathon, he agrees that good things are also beautiful (201c2, 201e5–7). So it looks as though he confidently attributes the highest value to beauty. But a short while later, when Diotima asks Socrates why love wants to possess the beautiful things it desires, he does not have an answer.

“If someone should ask us, ‘Why is Love of beautiful things, Socrates and Diotima?’ Or to put it more clearly, the person who loves beautiful things, loves; why does he love?”

And I said, “To possess them for himself.”

“But that answer requires a question of this sort: what will he have when he possesses beautiful things?”

And I said that I wasn’t able to answer this question at all readily.

Symposium 204d4–10

Only when Diotima substitutes ‘good’ for ‘beautiful’ is Socrates able to see that the benefit of possessing love’s objects is happiness:

“Well,” she said, “answer just as you would if someone changed things and inquired using good instead of beautiful. ‘So, Socrates, the person who loves good things, loves; why does he love?’”

And I said, “To possess them for himself.”

“And what will he have when he possesses good things?”

“This,” I said, “I can answer more easily: He will be happy.”

Symposium 204e1–7

Diotima’s substitution of ‘good’ for ‘beautiful’ is perplexing. She and Socrates agreed earlier (as did Socrates and Agathon) that all good things are beautiful, but they did not agree in addition that all beautiful things are good. {102|103} That is to say, they did not agree that the class of good things and the class of beautiful things are coextensive. Thus Diotima’s substitution strikes us as being ad hoc and of questionable validity. We may be tempted to defend her logic by appealing to other dialogues in which Socrates claims that goodness is the cause of beauty. (As I will explain in a moment, this attempt to alleviate our discomfort is ineffective and also obscures part of the point of the passage. Nevertheless it will be worth our while to describe it in outline.) So for example in the Republic the good is “the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything” (517c; cf. 452e). Although I cannot discuss this in detail, what Socrates seems to mean is that the standard of beauty is functional goodness: “the virtue or excellence, the beauty and correctness of each manufactured item, living creature, and action is related to nothing but the use for which each is made or naturally adapted” (601d, trans. Grube/Reeve; cf. Timaeus 87d–e). When a thing’s parts are proportioned, ordered, and made appropriate to its characteristic work (ergon), then it will be truly beautiful (Republic 420c–d, Laws 668b, Timaeus 87c–d). Beauty is linked to moral goodness in the human case because, in Socrates’ view, the virtuous soul is one ordered to its proper (rational) activity. In addition to its connection to orderliness and proportion, beauty especially displays itself to perception and cognition (Phaedrus 250b) and this too may be due to its intimate connection to the good. At least in the Republic Socrates says that the form of the good, when considered as the cause of knowledge and truth, is the most beautiful thing there is (508e–509a). When we put these ideas together, the thought seems to be that beauty is the perceptible or cognizable—and also attractive, exciting (Symposium 206d; Phaedrus 251a–b), and pleasant (Phaedrus 251d; Philebus 65e–66a)—manifestation of goodness. [9] Thus not only are all good things beautiful, but all genuinely beautiful things (as opposed to things that are merely apparently beautiful) are good. However, it is hardly likely that the student Socrates, much less Agathon, has this sophisticated account of beauty in mind when they agree quite readily and with no explanation that good things are beautiful. And if we cannot assume some earlier (and unrecorded) acceptance by them of the sophisticated account of beauty, then it may look as if Diotima is playing a sophistical trick in her argument here at 204d4–e7. On the basis of their previous agreement that good things are beautiful she blithely substitutes ‘good’ for ‘beautiful’, a move that would be warranted only if they had agreed in addition that all beautiful things are good. [10] {103|104}

And, as we have seen, the new tack does enable Socrates to make progress, for once he conceives of the objects of love as good, he can explain why love wants them. The chain of implication, then, is not from their prior agreement that (1) good things are beautiful to the claim that, therefore, (2) love is of the good; rather, the implication is from the fact that (1′) it is illuminating to conceive of love’s objects as good (being assured that, as such, they are also beautiful) to the claim that (2′) we have reason to suppose that no one desires anything unless it is good (205d10–e2). Diotima supports this conclusion with an additional argument: since people reject even what is their own (e.g. their own body parts) if their own turns out to be bad (205e2–4), we must assume that people desire things only on the condition that they are good.

Still, even though the young Socrates finds it easier to understand why we desire good things, Diotima continues to insist that love is essentially inspired by the presence of the beautiful and that love causes us to create beautiful things, in particular beautiful acts of virtue. That is to say, she remains true to Phaedrus’ paradigm. And rightly so, since even if love does aim at things that are good, even if, as Diotima argues, love can desire them only on the assumption that they are good, it is their beauty that enchants us. So on the one hand, Socrates agrees with Phaedrus that it is right to praise love for making us responsive to and creative of beauty. But on the other hand, he begins his speech by making us uncertain of the value of beauty. Like the young Socrates, we are likely not to know why we want beauty. Since the Symposium raises the question, we may hope it will answer it, too.

What I have argued is that Plato in the Symposium brings our simultaneous attraction to and ambivalence about beauty to the fore in Socrates’ speech. Insofar as love is intertwined with the experience and creation of beauty, beauty is something we must consider in deciding how to live. But if it is clear that beauty does matter, it is not at all clear why it matters. In the next section we will examine the sense in which, in Socrates’ view, love is characteristically expressed in beautiful action or the creation of something beautiful. Once we understand that, we will turn in the following section to the question of the importance to the lover of his beloved’s beauty. {105|106}

3. Eros for Immortality and the Creation of Beauties

In contrast to the previous speakers, Socrates (and Diotima) argue that lovers love only objects they believe to be good. In the strictest sense, therefore, the object of love is the good (206a3–4). Furthermore, insofar as we all already desire to be happy, that is, insofar as we all already desire to possess good things for ourselves permanently, we are already full of love, a condition Diotima figures as a pregnancy (205a5–8, 206c1–3). Thus Diotima begins her positive account of love by denying both that beauty is the object of love’s desire and that beauty instills love. But notice that as soon as she banishes beauty from its expected roles, she reintroduces it. Curiously, she does so in a passage (206a3–13) that mirrors the one at 204d4–e7 (quoted above) where Socrates’ confusion about the value of love began. Here she reminds Socrates of what they had discovered earlier: love desires good things so that it may possess them and possess them forever. Given that this is love’s goal, she now asks what activity is characteristic of love (ergon, 206b3). Again, Socrates is stumped, so Diotima generously supplies the answer: the function of love is to “give birth in the beautiful” (206b7–8). Thus contrary to what Phaedrus (quite understandably) assumed, the role of the beautiful beloved is not to instill love, but rather to induce the lover’s labor. [13] Beauty evokes a creative outburst, a procreation, that is, Diotima says, an attempt to secure immortality insofar as that is possible for a mortal human being (206e7–8). The idea that beauty unleashes a desire for immortality may seem odd—Socrates certainly portrays himself as being astonished by what Diotima says (208b7–9)—but it is in fact required by the claim that love desires happiness. [14] For, as she has already argued, happiness is the permanent possession of good and beautiful things. {106|107}

I emphasize this point for two reasons. First, it makes clear that beauty reenters Diotima’s account of love precisely at the moment she begins talking about the immortal mode in which the lover desires to possess the good. Beauty is the goddess of erotic generation, the mortal form of immortality (206d1–2; 206e7–8). Thus if we want to understand why it is beauty to which lovers respond, we ought to explore the connections between beauty and immortality. (We will turn to this suggestion in the next section.) Second, it makes clear that the lover’s progeny must be things he considers good (or in possession of the good) if they are to serve his purpose of having the good forever. In other words, by conceiving of love as an expression of the universal human desire for perfect happiness, Socrates explains why lovers tend to create things that are good.

This point is confirmed by looking at the uninitiated lovers. [17] “By having children, they supply for themselves through all time to come immortality and memory and happiness,” (208e4–6). Notice that Diotima is talking about lovers {107|108} who are pregnant in their bodies here; living children serve the purposes of love not simply because they resemble their parents and so, in a way, extend their existence. Living children also provide future happiness for their parents, at least “as they think” (208e5). Diotima is not altogether clear about how this works, but presumably the idea is that these lovers think of bodily existence as itself being something good; in children it is possible for this good of bodily life to transcend the limits of the parents’ death but nevertheless to be in some sense their own. Or consider those lovers pregnant in soul who seek honor. It looks irrational to be driven by philotimia to risk death unless we understand that love fills the honor-lover with a desire for a name and a glorious reputation that will last forever (208c2–d2). Presumably, for such people, their own renown is a central component of happiness. Diotima argues that, counterintuitive as it may at first seem, sacrificing your life in a noble way is an effective means of extending your possession of glory past the limits of death. You may die before your time, but it is precisely self-sacrificing actions that are remembered and celebrated. And since the glory is always linked to you in particular—it is specifically your reputation that is remembered—then the glory that survives your death is genuinely yours. [18] Since death is in any case inevitable, the honor lover who dies a beautiful death actually manages to hold on to the good, at least in a way, for much longer than he would if he lived a long and quiet life. This is something Achilles in the Iliad understands quite well. Diotima also mentions Alcestis (208d2–4).

Diotima’s mention of Alcestis is important because it signals that she (or rather, Socrates) is directly addressing a problem that emerged in Phaedrus’ speech while nevertheless preserving his principal intuition that love causes the lover to respond to beauty with fine and beautiful deeds. Recall, we worried how philotimia could warrant taking the risk of death. As we have just seen, Diotima solves the problem by recasting erotic philotimia as a desire for immortality.

Let me recapitulate Diotima’s picture so far. We all have a standing desire to be happy—i.e. a desire to possess the good permanently. When we fall in love we are inspired to approximate to this godlike condition by creating an image {108|109} of ourselves in association with the good or the good life as we understand it. Those who think sheer physical existence is good create human children; those who think honor is good perform actions worthy of memory; those who think political power is good write constitutions that will influence the city after their death. But in every case lovers aim to create offspring that are, in their opinion at least, possessed of the good. Unless they do create good progeny, they will not succeed in making their own grasp of the good permanent.

We are now in a position to see why, in Socrates’ view, love tends toward the creation of beauty. Since all these creations are (or are apparently) good, they will be (or apparently be) beautiful. But in the case of the honor lovers it seems fair to say that the beauty of their offspring is positively desirable to them. Their ambition is to be celebrated forever. Thus they must try to act not just well, but beautifully. For it is only by acting in a genuinely beautiful way, in a way that commands the admiration of human beings across great reaches of time, that their names will be remembered and praised.

This point about the visibility of the lover’s beautiful creations has broader application than we might at first notice. Diotima says in the passage from 209a1–e4 (i.e. in describing the lower mysteries) that people who are pregnant in their souls give birth in the presence of a beautiful person to beautiful poems and laws and other manifestations of beautiful wisdom. It is notable that Diotima implies that these speeches bring the lover immortality by causing him to be remembered. “Everyone would welcome engendering children of this sort more than human children, and when they look at Homer and Hesiod and all the other good poets they envy the sort of progeny they leave behind them which provide them with immortal glory and memory because they are themselves things of this sort” (209c7–d5). Likewise, Solon and Lycurgus achieved immortality by establishing laws for which they are honored (209d5–e2). In other words, these lovers do not achieve immortality merely by perpetuating their ideas in teaching, song, or lawgiving. Rather, their beautiful logoi are remembered and remembered as belonging to them. Given that this is so, it is reasonable to suppose that lovers of this sort consciously aim to create something beautiful. They must make their creativity conspicuous (apophênamenoi, 209e2); and the more beautiful something is, the more likely it is to be remembered. (Notice, too, that when later generations remember Homer on account of the beauty of the Iliad, they remember him as a good poet. That is to say, he achieves a quasi-immortal possession of the good, as he understands it.)

We have discovered something about the value of living in a beautiful way: beauty allows us to be noticed and remembered as in some way or other {109|110} possessing the good. We want to have the good, but given the sort of creatures we are, our possession of the good is enhanced and extended when it is recognized and celebrated by other people. Thus, there is a sense in which our interest in the beautiful is an expression of our social nature.

This explanation for why lovers desire to create beauty is more difficult to sustain when we turn to the best, philosophical lovers, however. They, presumably, do not equate being honored with being happy. Socrates does not explain why this is so in the Symposium, but it is reasonable to suppose that it is because philosophers do not regard their social nature as essential to their rational selves. (This seems to be the view of the Republic, for example.) So if beauty’s tendency to be noticed and remembered is to play a role in their creation of beautiful offspring too, then we need to ask whether there is some other, higher good than honor that can be preserved by memory.

But of course the answer is yes; memory perpetuates knowledge. Indeed, Diotima says as much at 208a3–6 when she argues that the everyday experience of thinking “the same thought” from one day to the next is in fact a matter of creating a new memory to replace one that passed away by being forgotten. If, as she claims, my own process of remembering today what I understood yesterday counts as a case of achieving mortal immortality, then perhaps the same is true when other people remember what I have taught them. That is to say, perhaps my (good) thought transcends my finite ability to think it when other people remember it. Bearing this in mind we notice that at the beginning of the ascent, at least, it appears that the lover speaks in order to teach the beautiful boy who has captured his attention (210c2–3). It can be argued that, at every stage of the ascent, the lover continues to speak in order to inculcate his newfound wisdom. [19] This invites the speculation that the lover aims to make his speeches beautiful not primarily so that they will be noticed, but so that they will be especially intelligible and persuasive to others. This fits with the close association in Socrates’ speech between the kalon and sight. (There are numerous variations of the verbs blepein, theôrein, idein, and katidein in the description of the ascent, 210a–212a.) What is visible is not just noticeable; it can also be grasped in its sensible properties. Likewise, the thought would be, insofar as beautiful things “flash out” (Phaedrus 250d) or are apparent to the mind, they are not just easily noticed, they are intelligible. {110|111}

4. The Encounter with Beauty

I want to turn now to the question why beauty is so specially attractive. Diotima says that lovers give birth only in the beautiful because only beauty harmonizes with this divine activity (206c4–d1). Beauty is in fact the goddess of childbirth (206d1–2). But the role of beauty in unleashing erotic activity is obscure. As Anthony Price quite correctly observes, the “appeal to the divine seems extraneous, and sophistical: why must something that is divine in one way (being linked to immortality) be divine in another (being linked to beauty)?” (1997:16–17).

We might be tempted once again to recall that, for Plato, beauty is closely associated with goodness. If we human beings have a standing desire for happiness, then coming into the presence of something beautiful—which seems good—will naturally excite this desire. The suggestion becomes all the more promising when we recall that this beautiful thing which excites erôs is, in the first instance at least, a beautiful human body or, if the lover is more elevated, a beautiful human soul. Attraction to this sort of beauty makes sense given that, by manifesting human beauty, the beautiful person seems to be in possession of the good appropriate to human beings. No doubt this appear{111|112}ance will, to put it mildly, seem relevant to someone bursting with the desire for immortal happiness.

This suggestion is correct so far as it goes, but as I argued before, the intimate connection between beauty and goodness cannot all on its own explain beauty’s role as a midwife. Diotima says that “love is not of the beautiful in the way you [Socrates] think” but is rather “of generation and giving birth in the beautiful” (206e2–5). Here she corrects young Socrates’ assumption that beauty is the desirable object of love—that role goes to the good—and assigns it a different role, the role of facilitating the pursuit of the good. Now since all good things are, according to Socrates, beautiful, desirable objects of love are also in fact beautiful. But insofar as beautiful things play the role of love object, it is because they are good. On the other hand, when she emphasizes beauty’s role as midwife, Diotima seems to imply that if good things help us to “give birth,” they do so not insofar as they are good, but insofar as they are beautiful. If this is correct, then the goodness of beauty cannot explain the peculiar way that beauty releases the lover’s pent up pregnancy. We must find some role peculiar to beauty qua beauty.

There is something odd in thinking that we need a property in addition to goodness to explain the activation of a standing desire for happiness. If people do have a standing desire to be happy, then the ordinary way for a person to be moved to action is to see or remember something good, which he will then pursue as an object. There seems no need for beauty to play a facilitating role. But then again, this ordinary way of being prompted to action is quite different, I take it, from the extravagant generative activity “characteristic of this zeal we call love” in which beauty plays an essential part. [21] It may help to consider a case of being moved to act by an experience of good that is not at the same time an experience of beauty. I have in mind painful or embarrassing or just tedious medical treatments. The ordinary patient does not find these treatments beautiful and may in fact be repelled by them, considered just in themselves. Even if a person chooses medical treatment because, ultimately, he wants immortal happiness, it seems thoroughly unreasonable to describe his choice as “giving birth in the beautiful.” If a good thing does not strike a person as beautiful, then I cannot see how its beauty functions as a midwife. It is heartening to notice that every example Diotima mentions of giving birth in beauty is a case in which the lover is actually attracted by his beloved’s beauty. [22] This suggests that Socrates thinks of giving birth in beauty {112|113} as a special case of the universal pursuit of perfect happiness. And that, in turn, suggests that beauty is required not to facilitate the lover’s pursuit of good, but to facilitate his unusual means of pursuing the good. As I said before, since beauty reenters Diotima’s account as part of her explanation for how mortal creatures seek to possess the good immortally, we should concentrate on this question: how does beauty affect the lover’s desire to possess the good in an immortal way? [23]

When we examine the lover’s ascent through the higher mysteries, where Diotima especially emphasizes the phenomenology of encountering beauty, two points are notable, one concerning what the lover finds impressive in the beautiful beloved and the other concerning how his encounter with beauty affects the order of his life. I begin with the second point.

Consider how the lover experiences the form of the Beautiful. It rushes into his awareness. He “catches sight of it all of a sudden” (exaiphnês katopsetai, 210e4, cf. 210d7) and it is amazing (thaumaston, 210e5) to behold. The sight of the Beautiful itself arrests the lover and is experienced by him as interrupting his previous activity. “There, if anywhere at all, life is worth living (biôton) for a human being, for one looking at the beautiful itself” (211d1–3). Diotima says, and surely the lover must recognize too, that his previous activity was just an image of virtue. In the presence of beauty itself, the lover radically reevaluates and changes his life.

It is not only the fully initiated lover who experiences the beauty of his beloved this way. Socrates suggests that all lovers are “driven out of their minds” (Rowe trans., 211d5) when they see their beloveds and go so far as to stop eating and drinking just so they can look at their beauty. At each stage the lover recognizes that something new (or more vast) is beautiful. This recognition leads him to think of his previous way of living as foolish (pollê anoia, 210b2); he relaxes from his previous ardor and considers it to have been {113|114} in truth small (210b5–6). (Notice, it is his previous love he disdains, not the beloved body.) When he sees the “great sea of beauty,” he thinks of his former attachment to particular people or practices as having been “slavish, ignoble, and petty” (210d2). The experience of every sort of beauty changes the lover’s evaluation of his life. Interestingly, Alcibiades describes his own encounter with the beauty of Socrates in exactly the same terms. Socrates always appears to him “all of a sudden” (exaiphnês, 213c1) and when he speaks, Alcibiades becomes possessed, like a Corybant. Socrates makes him think that his present life is not worth living (biôton) since there is so much of importance that he lacks (215d7–216a5). [24] In any case, the emphasis in Diotima’s speech is overwhelmingly on the ethical effect of beauty. We could add that when the lover stands on the step of the vast sea of beauty, he grows and is strengthened (210d6), as if the metaphor of steps is intended to invoke not the ideas of trampling the beloved and using him merely as a means, but the idea of the beautiful beloved as a place where we rest and gather our strength.

So, to sum up, the experience of beauty—both the Beautiful itself and its images—is the feeling of being shaken from one’s way of living, so that one feels that it is better to live in association with this beautiful thing and to alter one’s whole life accordingly. Why does beauty have this effect? Diotima’s description of the Beautiful itself can help:

First, (1) it always is and does not come into being nor passes away, it does not grow or diminish; then, (2) it is not beautiful in some respect and ugly in another, not beautiful at one time and not at another, not beautiful in relation to one thing but ugly in relation to something else, not beautiful here and ugly there because it is beautiful to one person and ugly to another. (3) Nor again will it seem to him that the Beautiful is the sort of thing a certain face is or hands or any of the things partaking of body, nor is it a certain speech or knowledge, nor is it anywhere in some other thing, such as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in any other thing; but it is always itself by itself with itself one form. And all the other beautiful things partake in it in such a way that when those other things {114|115} come into being and pass away, it does not become more or less nor does it suffer anything.

Symposium 210e6–211b5

It is striking that the parallel description of forms in Socrates’ palinode in the Phaedrus gives more emphasis to their epistemological status as intelligible but not sensible. He says there that all the forms, including the form of Beauty, are without color, shape, solidity—i.e. they cannot be perceived by the senses. They are visible only to intelligence and as such are the subject of true knowledge (Phaedrus 247c6–d1). Phaedrus 250c2–3 does describe forms as complete (holoklêra), simple, unmoved, and (significantly) happy, but these qualities are immediately linked to the fact that the forms can be clearly seen only when we have been purified of the body (250c4–6). By contrast, the description of the form of the Beautiful in the Symposium is far more interested in contrasting its being with the being of lower objects. That is to say, Socrates in the Symposium is interested in the ontological status of the Beautiful itself more than its epistemological status (although of course these things are related). This emphasis is notable given that the lover of the higher mysteries is, presumably, engaged in an epistemological ascent. That is to say, at each level he obtains a deeper or more accurate understanding of beauty. We might expect, on the basis of similar ascents in the Phaedrus and also the Republic, that if the lover’s cognitive level has improved, the objects of his cognition have become more knowable. But although no doubt such a view is consistent with what Diotima says and may even be something she (or Plato) has in mind, it is not something she emphasizes or explains. Consider, for example, that once the lover moves beyond love of bodies, every beauty he encounters is grasped by thought rather than by sensory perception. Are souls less knowable than the practices that improve them? Are these in turn less knowable than the special sciences? Diotima is completely silent about this issue. Ontology, not epistemology, is her point. [

Consider again the three aspects of the Beautiful Diotima describes: (1) The Beautiful always is and never becomes; (2) not only does it not change its being, it does not change its appearance; and (3) it is metaphysically independent of particular things—it does not partake of them, but rather, these particular things partake of it. This is in marked contrast to the picture of {115|116} mortal, human life that Diotima has developed so far. We mortal human beings are always trying to become good and beautiful (i.e. happy), but can never permanently be so; we must concern ourselves with whether our actions seem beautiful to others since what strikes one person as admirable may not impress someone else; and we are so far from being self-sufficient that our selves persist in time only in the being of our literal or metaphorical children. In other words, given the context of Diotima’s speech, what is particularly notable about her description of the Beautiful and what she clearly emphasizes is that it has immortal being. She reiterates this point a few lines later: the Beautiful is “unalloyed, pure, unmixed, not infected by human flesh and colors and other great mortal nonsense, but [is] the divine, uniform Beautiful itself” (211e1–4). Whereas in the Phaedrus Socrates emphasizes the intelligibility of the Beautiful and the other forms by contrast with the sensibility of physical beings, in the Symposium he illuminates its immortality by contrast with our mortality. [26]

We know from other Platonic dialogues that being beyond change is not peculiar to the Beautiful. All forms have this property. Thus, presumably, if the lover caught sight of any other form at the end of his ascent, he would marvel at its unchanging character, too. But I take it that part of Socrates’ point in describing the lover’s encounter with the Beautiful itself is to show in a pure and unqualified light what strikes lovers as important when they experience in a similar but diminished way the beauty of their beloveds. After all, as we saw before, the experience of all beauties causes the lover to reevaluate what is important in his life. If this line of thought is correct then, although it is {116|117} not peculiar to the form of the Beautiful to be unchanging, it is peculiar to it that its unchanging character “shines out” in the beautiful bodies, souls, laws, and sciences that participate in it. The idea that the Beautiful manifests in its instantiations a property common to all forms has a parallel in the Phaedrus. There too it is not peculiar to the form of the Beautiful to be especially “visible” or intelligible; all the forms shine “in a pure bright light” (250c4) when they are seen just in themselves. But the Beautiful is especially “radiant’ with the result that its splendor “flashes out” like lightening in the physical objects which participate in it (250b5–6, 250d1–3). Socrates cannot mean simply that beautiful people, unlike just people or wise people, remind us of the forms, for he insists that all speech, i.e. all use of concepts, involves recollection of the forms (249b6–c4). Rather, the point must be that when we perceive and speak about things participating in other forms, we are unaware that our cognitive activity depends on our referring these sensible objects to something radically other than their imperfect, sensible nature. By contrast, when we perceive someone as beautiful, the transcendent, intelligible nature of Beauty appears to be present in the finite, sensible object which participates in it. That is to say, unlike the other participants in other forms, participants in the Beautiful manifest transcendence. For this reason, the lover seems to perceive a god inside his beloved and immediately begins to worship him (251a; 252d–253c). [28] What I am suggesting is that just as in the Phaedrus beauty manifests transcendent intelligibility, in a parallel way in the Symposium it manifests transcendent being.

If the interpretation I have suggested is correct, we are in a position to understand why beauty is the goddess of erotic creativity. The point is not, as Price worried, that beauty and immortality both happen to be divine attributes. The divine is beautiful because it manifests its immortal possession of the good. This is why Diotima says that beauty in all things harmonizes with the divine and is the midwife of creativity. Most of the time, we go through life with our heads down, being mortal, thinking mortal thoughts. We are absorbed in ordinary prudential calculation, figuring out how to get food, and clothes, and other goods for tomorrow and the next day and the next. Beauty—the manifestation of godlike permanence and self-sufficiency—reminds us that our aspirations for happiness are of a different order. Not just long-lasting, but immortal. When we see our beautiful beloved, our desire for immortality is unleashed.

To repeat, my suggestion is that in the Symposium Socrates presents and makes use of a connection between beauty and immortality. Beauty appears godlike in its relationship to time and change. In fact, its manifestation of its atemporal imperviousness to change is exactly what strikes the lover as being so wonderful about beauty. I think it is good evidence in favor of this interpretation that it can make sense of why beauty facilitates erotic creativity. It also explains why the objects at each level of the ascent are more beautiful than the ones preceding it: at least, the movement from bodies to practices and from practices to sciences is a movement away from what is subject to change. (My thought is that the epitêdeumata are practices peculiar to a particular social time and place.) Notice also that we students of Plato would expect that the more unchanging an object is, the more knowable it is. Thus the conception of beauty I have been describing is entirely consistent with the obvious, but unexplained fact that the higher mysteries represent an epistemological ascent. In fact, since the paradigmatically beautiful object is, of necessity, something intelligible, philosophy will be vindicated as the true art of love. {118|119}

The link Plato forges between beauty and immortality has not (I believe) been much noticed, but it is not found only in the Symposium. According to Timaeus craft objects are beautiful only when they are accurately copied from an unchanging model. If the craftsman takes as his model something that comes-to-be, his creation will not be beautiful (Timaeus 28a–b). And although what the Philebus says about beauty is extraordinarily complicated, if not just obscure, it clearly draws a link between beauty and self-sufficiency; they are of the same “family stock (geneas)” (66b1–3). To the extent that something is self-sufficient though, it will be resistant to change. It is not clear why in the Philebus beauty is akin to self-sufficiency. At one point Socrates claims that beautiful shapes are ones whose beauty is not relative to something else (pros ti, 51c6–d1). Perhaps his thought is that their appearing beautiful does not depend on their being juxtaposed to something else, so that the pleasure that arises from seeing them is pure. At any rate, it seems clear that in the Philebus the genuineness of a shape’s beauty comes—for whatever reason—from its independence. Furthermore, Socrates says that beautiful things are proportionate and symmetrical (summetron, 66b1). Insofar as they are proportionate, beautiful things will not lack anything—and so will be self-sufficient and stable. Finally, for what it is worth, I refer you to Aristotle’s remark in the Nicomachean Ethics: “For the one who acts (pepoiêkoti), his deed endures, since the beautiful (kalon) is long-lasting (polluchronion). But for the one who is affected, the benefit passes by in time” (1168a15–17). That is, Aristotle contrasts beauty and the beneficial in terms of their relationship to time. I do not claim that beauty’s transcendence of time and change is, for Plato, its most important feature. But there is a connection here that we ought to explore.

4. Real Life Beauty

The interpretation I have just given is in a certain way satisfying. It makes use of what little Socrates says to explain why he insists repeatedly that love is a response to and creation of beauty. But it may appear less satisfying when we consider it as an interpretation of an account that is supposed to be true. (Socrates begins by saying that he, unlike Agathon, speaks only the truth, 199a7–b2.) Isn’t beauty the most evanescent of qualities? Indeed, doesn’t a sense of transience give beauty the power to heighten our awareness of the presentness of present experience? Furthermore, we may wonder what room there is in Plato’s account of the experience of beauty for that quintessentially aesthetic attitude, disinterestedness.

The conception of beauty in the Symposium is certainly incomplete, but it has the resources to save these, perhaps more familiar, phenomena of aesthetic experience. First, Plato seems to agree that beauty affects the perceiver with a sense of immediacy and presence. The lover does not infer that his beloved participates in something transcendent and divine; he experiences it immediately; it startles him. But we should distinguish the kind of presence in which the present moment is a moment in flux from the presence involved in the immutable. For Plato, to experience something as beautiful is to sense in the present moment an infinite perfection. Now it might seem that this account is incompatible with the common intuition that beautiful things seem fragile. But we need not assume that they seem fragile insofar as they appear beautiful. In fact, if Plato is right that beautiful things manifest perfection, then a thing’s fragility cannot be a proper part of its appearance of beauty. For it is no part of perfection to be and seem to be on the brink of decay. Rather, if beautiful things often affect us with a sense of their fleetingness, then that may well be because something about beauty heightens our awareness of every living thing’s mortality, calling to our awareness how tenuous is their grasp of the good and, indeed, of beauty. The conception of beauty I have been describing, according to which beauty is a shining forth of stability and self-sufficiency makes good sense of this phenomenon. The fragility of beauty {120|121} would be a second, poignant, moment in our experience, when we reflect that this mortal thing cannot grasp the infinite perfection its beauty promises.

The pleasure and excitement aroused by this experience certainly differ from our ordinary experience of desire and prudential calculation. Usually we take as our object a good that can be possessed completely within a finite amount of time. We try to acquire some finite good, for instance a house or a car, and then seek to hold on to it for some specific length of time, for fifty years, ten years, or for tomorrow and the next day and the next. Thus, the way we normally attempt to possess the good is different from the “immortal” way beautiful things seem to have perfection. In this respect, then, Plato’s account captures the intuition that when we experience something beautiful we step apart from or transcend our quotidian practical standpoint. We may believe that this phenomenon is best described by saying that aesthetic experience is disinterested. But stepping outside our ordinary, finite practical standpoint does not imply that we have stepped outside the practical standpoint altogether. For according to Plato, our desire for the good is infinite, although this is not something we ordinarily notice. Thus, it is no longer clear that we must find a disinterested aspect to proper appreciation of the beautiful.

For Plato, the ethical imperative to become lovers of beauty is a reflection of his vision of human nature as aimed towards self-transcendence. We are creatures who by nature long to be more perfect, like the gods. Must we accept Plato’s view of human nature as being radically self-transcendent in order to accept his account of beauty? Perhaps not. All we must accept is that central to our practical perspective are not only finite desires—desires for objects which can be fully realized in a finite part of our lives—but also a desire that takes as its object the totality of our lives. Our desire to possess permanent happiness now is a desire to transcend our finite, temporally bounded moment and have a good that it seems no human being can have so long as he’s alive and subject to change. On the Platonic account, beauty reminds us of this desire and so recalls us to ourselves, to our erotic, aspiring nature. This is something ordinary encounters with the good do not do. Even if no mortal thing can have the degree of perfection its beauty makes it seem to have, nevertheless in its beauty it gives us a glimpse of what truly perfect being is like. If this is correct, it is ethically important. In the midst of this inevitably incomplete mortal life, the lover chances on someone beautiful, living proof that it is not completely futile to aim at an ideal of happiness more perfect than anything we can literally achieve. {121|122}


It is an assumption of my interpretation that not every experience of desire is an experience of erotic desire. Or to put it more clearly, not every desire is a desire to give birth in the beautiful. This is controversial and my reasons for interpreting the Symposium this way are not novel. (1) I cannot see how, for example, the desire for lunch and the activity of eating it, as normally pursued, can be interpreted as giving birth in the beautiful. There might be occasions where this activity does qualify—gourmet cooking may be like this—but it is not always a creative response to beauty. Eating lunch is sometimes just a response to the pain of hunger. Likewise, I do not see how every case Diotima mentions of acting for immortality can be interpreted as giving birth in the beautiful, e.g. growing hair (207d5–e2). (2) At 206b1–3, immediately before the analysis of erotic activity as giving birth in the beautiful, Diotima indicates that she wants to talk about the activity that is “called love.” I take it that she is referring back to the distinction made at 205d1–7 between erôs in the generic sense as desire for permanent happiness and erôs in the specific sense as sexual love. It is this sort of love that she analyzes as the desire to give birth in the beautiful. (Contra Rowe [1998b:245n15] Socrates’ perplexity at 206b5–10 does not indicate that Diotima is asking about generic love. Socrates is perplexed because he cannot see how sexual activity could be an expression of desire for permanent possession of the good. Diotima’s language of exertion and zeal [206b2] prompts Socrates to think of sex but, understandably enough, he cannot see how this could be the right answer to her question.) Now although in ordinary Greek and in the preceding speeches in the Symposiumerôs’ means sexual love, we should not think that it ordinarily connotes merely a desire for sexual pleasure. Lysias’ speech in the Phaedrus, which portrays a non-lover trying to persuade a young boy to give him sexual favors, shows quite clearly that ‘erôs’ does not simply mean a desire for sex. It is precisely because erôs means something more that, once she has analyzed it as giving birth in the beautiful, Diotima is able to expand the meaning of ‘erôs’ in this specific sense to cover cases that do not involve sexual desire at all. But just because “giving birth in the beautiful” describes more than sexual erôs does not mean that it describes absolutely all other kinds of desire for the good.

In sum, it seems to me that Diotima describes three layers of human striving: (1) All living things aim to possess the good forever, most basically by continuing in their own existence (e.g. growing hair); (2) sometimes that striving takes the form of desiring to have the good permanently, e.g. money-{122|123}making; (3) and sometimes that desire for the permanent good takes the form of desiring to give birth in the beautiful, e.g. sexual love, honor-seeking, and philosophy. (My thinking about this issue has been greatly helped by Rowe’s [1998b] thorough defense of the opposite position.) {123|124}


[ back ] 1. This paper was greatly improved by comments I received in various venues. I am especially grateful for the detailed response I received from Frisbee Sheffield at the Symposium conference at the Center for Hellenic Studies and for the comments of all the other participants. My thanks also to my colleagues in the Chicago Area Consortium who commented on this paper, Elizabeth Asmis, Richard Kraut, Jonathan Lear, Connie Meinwald, and Martha Nussbaum, and to the audience at University of Chicago Divinity School 2006 Ethics Club conference on aesthetics and morality. Finally, thanks to James Lesher, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield for organizing that excellent conference on the Symposium and for bringing the fruits of our thinking to bear in this volume.

[ back ] 2. Phaedrus does not emphasize as much as Socrates will do that love is a response to someone beautiful. Still, it is clear that he assumes it, for instance when he argues that Achilles must have been the beloved of Patroclus because he was more beautiful (180a5). The assumption is perhaps also implicit in Phaedrus’ claim that lovers are rivals in philotimia (179a1); the idea would be that love implants—or rather, awakens—love of honor because the beloved is kalon and seeing his beauty ignites a desire to outdo him in beauty. But as we will see, this is not the only possibility.

[ back ] 3. Hunter’s translation of philotimia (2004:41). Translations are mine, unless otherwise noted, but I have often consulted the translations of Rowe (1998a), and Nehamas and Woodruff (1989).

[ back ] 4. That is, I assume that Phaedrus’ phenomenon is a phainomenon in a more Aristotelian sense, i.e. a widespread belief that any account of love must accommodate or explain away. (See Sheffield in this volume for a consideration of the claim that Plato is working with the endoxic method in the Symposium.) Since Phaedrus and all the other symposiasts in one way or another mention that love of a beautiful person or thing tends to promote acts of virtue, deeds that are “beautiful and good,” I cannot agree with Ferrari that only lovers of the higher mysteries “establish a connection between the beautiful and the good” (1992:255). These lovers (including the other symposiasts) may not truly understand the connection, but they have noticed and reflected upon it.

[ back ] 5. Diotima does not limit the beautiful offspring of these psychic lovers to logoi, contra Ferrari 1992:255. Even if justice and moderation are kinds of wisdom, it is natural to think that the beautiful manifestations of these virtues, particularly at the lesser level, include actions as well as speech. This is supported by Diotima’s previous mention of Alcestis’ self-sacrifice and by her claim that cults have been established in honor of these psychic lovers’ kala erga (208d2–6; 209e3–4). Although there were hiera established for Lycurgus (a maker of political logoi), it is natural to think also of cult-heroes such as Heracles who were remembered more for their actions than for their words.

[ back ] 6. The connection between love and beautiful actions is even more tenuous if it turns out that winning honor is itself desired only as a means to sexual favors. Why not pay the beloved for sex, if that is more effective? The fact that, in ancient Athens, paying a citizen for sex would not be effective (since if the beloved were known to prostitute himself he would lose his civic privileges) does not alter the philosophical point. The beauty of the lover’s actions would still be merely instrumental and thus contingent.

[ back ] 7. Perhaps Socrates is being sarcastic here. Can a speech be genuinely beautiful if it is false? The Republic provides clearer evidence of Plato’s unsentimental attitude to beauty. Socrates claims both that training in and love of beauty are essential for moral and intellectual development (401d–402a, 403c) and that in certain circumstances attachment to beauty can stunt this very growth (476b–c, 479d–e; cf. 505d).

[ back ] 8. Young Socrates is utterly conventional both in (a) associating the happy life with the beautiful life and in (b) associating the happy, beautiful life with the life of the gods. Many of Socrates’ well-born interlocutors do the same, e.g. Crito 48b, Meno 77b, Gorgias 484a and 491e–492c, Republic 362e–363e, cf. Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Thucydides 2.44. Of course, these interlocutors also have the intuition that sometimes the beautiful life is not a happy one, e.g. Republic 363e–364b, Gorgias 474c–d.

[ back ] 9. See Lear 2006 for further discussion.

[ back ] 10. This is Dover’s interpretation (1980:144–145). The careful way Socrates prepares for his substitution of ‘good’ for ‘pleasure’ in the Protagoras (353c–356c), establishing that overall pleasure is both necessary and sufficient for a course of action to be good, suggests that Plato is aware of the logical problem Dover attributes to him.

[ back ] 11. Rowe defends the argument in a slightly different way. He claims that since Socrates has already agreed that love is of the good, the substitution is legitimate (1998a:179 on 204e1–2). But it does not seem to me that Socrates (or rather, Agathon) has agreed to this at 201c1–2. All he has said there is that among the class of beautiful things are all the good ones. (Thus, since love is utterly deprived of beautiful things, it must lack good ones as well.) He has not indicated that the good is a proper object of love. True, Diotima goes on to describe love as “a schemer after beautiful and good things” (203d3–4), but the emphasis in her speech here is clearly on the beauty of love’s object. If, as Rowe argues, Diotima is being careful here not to claim in her own voice that love is properly of the beautiful (1998a:176 on 203c4, 184 on 206e2–3), that only supports my reading that, while Socrates has admitted that love desires things that are good, at this point in the dialogue he still believes that, insofar as they are objects of love, they are beautiful.

[ back ] 12. Does he worry perhaps that love might acquire beautiful things that are not good? This possibility should not stump Socrates so completely and I see no evidence that this is what he has in mind. But this may be a reason we share in Socrates’ confusion and it is possible that the spectacle of Agathon’s beautiful but ignorant speech (198b–199a, cited above) was intended by Plato to make us uneasy in just this way.

[ back ] 13. This explains how we might be confused into thinking that the experience of beauty inspires love itself. We tend to identify love with the passionate excitement that, according to Socrates, is only a mode of our standing desire for happiness caused by the presence of beauty (206b1–3, 206d7–e2).

[ back ] 14. Of course it is not odd to think that people desire immortality. Homeric warriors want to be immortal like the gods; precisely because they cannot be, they strive to win glory and the quasi-immortality of fame. (See Iliad XII 322–328.) What strikes Socrates as odd is that this desire for immortality is characteristic of love. It is interesting to note that in epic culture the desire for immortality is also linked to beauty. (E.g. “But since men must die, why would anyone sit / in darkness and coddle a nameless old age to no use / deprived of all beautiful [kalôn] deeds?” Pindar Olympian 1.82–84, trans. Race, modified. See Vernant [2001] for this reference and a fascinating discussion.) However, in that tradition beauty is what is remembered and thus “possessed” by the warrior forever. For Diotima, beauty is also what excites the lover to this extravagant act of self-perpetuation.

[ back ] 15. Contra Ferrari 1992:255 and Santas 1988:35–36.

[ back ] 16. Presumably procreation is an instantiation of the desire for happiness as well. But since the process of giving birth applies literally only to women, it must apply metaphorically to all male lovers and thus to nearly all the lovers Diotima mentions.

[ back ] 17. Since bodily existence and honor and anything else pursued by lovers of the lower mysteries are not in fact the good that gives genuine happiness, their creative activity is in this sense a failure. But we should not dismiss their activity as utterly futile. Bodily existence and honor are not the good in Diotima’s account, but it is very likely that they nevertheless participate in the good. She appears to want to give a teleological explanation of all biological reproduction, i.e. she wants to explain it in terms of its aiming at the good. If the outcome achieved by reproduction on her account is not in fact good in any way at all, but is only apparently good, then she will not have succeeded in offering a teleological explanation. For this reason we are warranted in studying the details of the lower mysteries for information about Socrates’ account of the nature of love.

[ back ] 18. In fact, a further premise is needed. For although the long-lasting reputation may be mine, we may worry that nothing essential to me survives my death. The solution would be to suppose that the essence of my self is just my appearance in the opinion of my community. (Similarly, the lovers pregnant in body would need to believe not only that bodily existence is the good but also that the body is what the self essentially is.) It seems reasonable to attribute this confused view of the self to people who pursue honor as the highest good, but I leave that issue aside.

[ back ] 19. This idea was suggested to me by Richard Kraut (forthcoming). I am uncertain, however, whether we should accept the idea that the lover’s immortality is secured through his activity of teaching. As the lover ascends, the emphasis shifts to his being a student, someone who is led. If he continues to try to make young men better, Diotima does not say so.

[ back ] 20. A problem: if the lover’s understanding is genuine, then the account he grasps will not differ from the account of anyone else who genuinely understands. But in that case, how will his articulation of the account bring about the quasi-immortality of him rather than of anyone else who understands? After all, he will not be teaching the truth as he sees it, but simply the truth. That is to say, on this account of how the lover of the higher mysteries achieves immortality, there is a disregard not only for differences among beautiful beloveds (at each level), but also for differences among lovers.

[ back ] 21. See Appendix for a brief defense of this claim.

[ back ] 22. Are animals attracted to the beauty of their mates? Well, it is at least true that they do not mate with the first biologically suitable animal to come along; animals can be quite choosy. Male birds in particular seem to preen for the females and female birds seem to be attracted by it. Do admirable politicians give birth in beauty? Yes; they are attracted by the beauty of their cities.

[ back ] 23. All lovers give birth in beauty, including those whose pregnancy is not psychic and thus is not rational, much less philosophical. Thus, we need an account of the experience of beauty that explains (a) why all erotic creativity is inspired by beauty of some sort or other and (b) why the intelligible Beautiful itself inspires the most successful delivery. Constraint (a) necessitates that we not begin by attributing beauty’s power to its intelligibility. Although the intelligibility of beauty will explain its appeal to lovers who are already in the business of trying to understand, it will not explain its appeal to lovers in the business of trying to reproduce or to become famous.

[ back ] 24. Alcibiades’ beauty has the same effect. He enters “all of a sudden (212c6)” and immediately all the symposiasts—including Socrates—give up their way of proceeding (pantas, 213a3; Socrates makes a space for Alcibiades when he sees him, 213b1–2). Of course, Alcibiades’ beauty causes them all to give up their orderly speech-making in favor of uproarious drinking. Whether this is a change from better to worse is beyond the scope of this paper, but it does seem significant that only in this context is Socrates free to pursue one-on-one conversation (223c6).

[ back ] 25. In the world of the Symposium (as opposed to the Phaedrus), cultural practices do last longer than souls since souls are mortal. And the sciences are more “immortal” still, not necessarily by lasting longer in time but (in the rather different way explained below) by being associated with atemporal objects.

[ back ] 26. The difference is appropriate to the different subject matter of the two dialogues, persuasion and desire.

[ back ] 27. If no change can make a difference, we may wonder whether it makes sense to think of the Beautiful as existing in time at all. Cf. Timaeus 37d–38b on time as an imitation of eternity.

[ back ] 28. The picture is complicated somewhat by the fact that, in the Phaedrus, being divine is not equated with being a form. Rather, the gods are souls who, by contrast with human souls, have permanent and easy access to the forms, including the form of the Beautiful. Socrates makes it clear at 251a, though, that the beloved seems to be divine because he is beautiful. This is consonant with the account of love found in the Symposium. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain how these two dialogues describe aspects of a coherent account of love, despite apparent differences. But in general it is important to remember that while Socrates’ speech in the Phaedrus is intended to show the benefits of being loved (it is a seduction speech), his speech in the Symposium is intended to show the benefits of loving.

[ back ] 29. This effect is suggested in the Phaedrus as well. Not only does the beautiful boy remind the lover of the form of Beauty, he also reminds him of a god (251a–b, 252d–253c).

[ back ] 30. The point of this story is to show that Socrates is surpassingly temperate (216d7).

[ back ] 31. See Nussbaum 1986:183–184. Notice that this point is independent of the question whether Socrates achieves self-sufficiency by disassociating himself from his body.