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.

7. Where is Socrates on the “Ladder of Love”?

Ruby Blondell

On the Road

This preliminary journey introduces the next one: Socrates’ journey to the house of Agathon in the company of Aristodemus. Like Apollodorus’ opening journey, but more fully and subtly, this too is a metaphor for human relationships and philosophical progress. [6] This time, since Socrates is actually present, we receive a sketch of the philosopher as fellow traveler, one that underlines his autonomy both in choosing a destination and in proceeding towards it. Thus Socrates chose not to be present at yesterday’s gathering, a decision illustrating his independence from social convention (174a). Similarly, by “spoiling” the proverb about party-crashing (174b–c) he shows a light-hearted disrespect for traditional wisdom, and by bringing along an uninvited guest he challenges symposiastic exclusivity and decorum, [7] as Aristodemus’ nervousness and embarrassment make clear. Socrates tries to {148|149} enroll Aristodemus in his own independent ways, suggesting that the two of them proceed autonomously (αὐτόματοι 174b5). Though he initially tells Aristodemus to “follow” him (174b2–3), he quotes Homer to suggest collaboration as equals: “going along the road together as a pair, we’ll plan what we shall say” (174d2–3; note the dual). This cooperative approach to life, and discourse, is typical of Plato’s Socrates. [8] Aristodemus, however, will “follow” mechanically until the very end (223d10; cf. 172c5–6). Here in the prologue he refuses to take responsibility for himself, saying he will do whatever Socrates “orders” (174b2) and warning him that he will have to take responsibility for “leading” him to Agathon’s (174c7–d1). Despite his enthusiasm for things Socratic, Aristodemus lacks his idol’s chutzpah and is dubious about Socratic autonomy and collaboration as equals. These character traits are echoed in his inability to follow Socrates intellectually (cf. 223c6–d1).

Despite his collaborative proposal, however, Socrates ends up obliging Aristodemus to strike out on his own, upsetting the leader-follower hierarchy by falling behind and “ordering” Aristodemus to go on ahead (174d). Aristodemus will prove laughably bad at this enforced exercise in Socratic autonomy and unwanted leadership, failing to notice that he has left Socrates behind and feeling ridiculous upon arriving without him (174d–e). When he is “led” in by a slave (174e3) Agathon asks him why he is not “leading” Socrates (174e8). Aristodemus has apparently failed as a “leader,” since unbeknownst to him, Socrates is not “following” (174e10). Though “left behind,” Socrates has not become a follower in the way that Aristodemus expected. Whatever role he takes, he handles the situation on his own terms, proceeding autonomously even when Aristodemus is leading the way, and at the same time “leading” Aristodemus by suggesting a destination and then encouraging him to strike out towards it on his own.

This opening scene, with its literal journey to Agathon’s house, foreshadows questions that we will want to ask of Socrates in connection with the more profound, figurative journey of the “ladder of love.” We will want to know not only where he is, but where he is going (and whether he will ever arrive), who (if anyone) is leading him, and whom (if anyone) he is leading. The journey to Agathon’s also adumbrates answers to such questions: Socrates covers a good deal of ground, but is sometimes in an unknown (and potentially unknowable) place; he is equally capable of leading, following, collaborating and proceeding autonomously; whatever role he may take, he goes only where he pleases, and encourages others, such as Aristodemus, to do the same; in the end, he arrives; but although the location of his body can (eventually) be determined at any given moment, the location and activity of his mind or soul cannot—at least not always.

Alcibiades will speak of Socrates’ resistance to being led or won over erotically (προσαγαγοίμην 219d8), and of his autonomy over his own movements in defiance of “normal” behavior (cf. 220b4), both features that we {151|152} have seen foreshadowed in the opening scene. Yet these traits do not prevent him from himself “following” the right kind of leader in the right kind of way (cf. 210a4). He seeks out Diotima for enlightenment, just as others such as Aristodemus seek him out, impelled by erôs (173b; cf. 206b). [20] She adopts a bossy tone appropriate to a paidagôgos (esp. 204b1; also 201e10, 202a5–6). But despite her commanding style (and slightly acerbic tongue), [21] her mode of “leadership” turns out to be uncannily similar to Socrates’ own pedagogical methods. [22] He even seems to have learned from her the most characteristic of those methods, as exemplified in the elenchus of Agathon (201e). She supposedly “taught” him through question and answer, showing him his own ignorance just as he shows Agathon his. [23] In another familiar Socratic move, she even places herself in the position of learner (along with Socrates), vis à vis an imaginary and more knowledgeable questioner (204d), suggesting that she has attained her exalted wisdom in part by learning from others dialectically, in the same way that Socrates learns from her, and others such as Agathon learn from him. Socrates’ self-substitution for Agathon in his conversation with Diotima signals that he too is one who can both lead and be led, as he demonstrates by jauntily switching roles to suit his purpose (201d).

Room at the Top

STEP 1 (210a4–8): The one going correctly (ὀρθῶς) towards this matter must (δεῖ) begin while young to go towards beautiful bodies, and FIRST (πρῶτον), if the one leading him (ἡγούμενος) leads correctly (ὀρθῶς), be in love with (ἐρᾶν) one body and there give birth to (γεννᾶν) beautiful λόγοι. [Reprise A: start from the beauty of one body (211c3).]

STEP 4 (210c4–6): … SO THAT (ἵνα) NEXT (αὖ) he may be forced (ἀναγκασθῇ) to gaze upon (θεάσασθαι) the beauty in activities and νόμοι and see (ἰδεῖν) that this is all akin (συγγενές) to itself, so that (ἵνα) he may consider (ἡγήσηται) the beauty that concerns the body to be something slight (σμικρόν). [Reprise D: from beauty of bodies to beauty of activities (211c4–5).] {153|154}

STEP 5 (210c6–7): AFTER (μετά) activities [he] must [δεῖ] lead [him] (ἀγαγεῖν) to the [various] kinds of knowledge, so that (ἵνα) he may see NEXT (αὖ) the beauty of kinds of knowledge… [Reprise E: from beauty of activities to beauty of kinds of learning (211c5–6).]

STEP 6 (210c7–d6): … and AT THIS POINT (ἤδη) looking towards beauty that is abundant, may no longer be worthless (φαῦλος) and petty (σμικρολόγος) in his servitude, feeling affection (ἀγαπῶν) like a slave, for the beauty of some individual boy or other person or single activity, but being turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing at it (θεωρῶν) may give birth to (τίκτῃ) numerous beautiful and magnificent (μεγαλοπρεπεῖς) λόγοι and thoughts (διανοήματα) in unstinting philosophy … [This step absent from the reprise.]

STEP 7 (210d6–211b5): … UNTIL (ἕως) strengthened and increased there, he catches sight of (κατίδῃ) a certain kind of knowledge which is one, whose object is beauty of the following kind … For whoever is guided (παιδαγωγηθῇ) until this point concerning τὰ ἐρωτικά, gazing (θεώμενος) at beautiful things in order (ἐφεξῆς) and correctly (ὀρθῶς), coming now (ἤδη) to the end/goal (τέλος) of τὰ ἐρωτικά will suddenly catch sight of (κατόψεται) something amazingly (θαυμαστόν) beautiful in its nature, the very thing for the sake of which all the previous labors [were undertaken] …; and beauty will no longer appear to him (φαντασθήσεται) like some face or hands or anything else that the body shares in, or some λόγος or some kind of knowledge, nor as being in anything other [than itself], such as an animal, the earth or the sky, or anything else … [This step absent from the reprise.]

STEP 8 (211b5–c1; 211c7–d1; 212a2–7): When someone going up away from these things by means of correct παιδεραστεῖν begins to see that beauty, the END/GOAL (τέλος) is pretty much within his grasp. For this is to approach τὰ ἐρωτικά correctly (ὀρθῶς) or be led by someone else … [omitting reprise A–E] … [reprise F]: from kinds of understanding to end up (τελευτῆσαι) at the kind of understanding that is the understanding of nothing other than that very beauty, so that he may understand (γνῷ) in the end (τελευτῶν) what beauty itself is … There alone will it happen to him, seeing beauty with the kind of vision with which it is visible, to give birth (τίκτειν) not to images (εἴδωλα) of excellence, since he is not grasping an image, but to true things, since he is grasping truth; and after giving birth to (τεκόντι) true excellence and rearing it (θρεψαμένῳ) it is his to be god-loved, and himself immortal as far as any mortal can be. {154|155}

REPRISE (211b7–d1)

On which of these steps does Plato envisage Socrates as standing? I shall examine each in turn, beginning with the summit (Step 8), the climactic level at which the successful lover gazes upon the Form of Beauty itself. Since the Form exists outside space and time, [27] it is not comparable to, or on a level with (κατά), beautiful objects or people (211d3–5). It is perceptible only with the mind or soul (212a3). Those who can gaze upon it by such means (θεάομαι 211d2, d7, 212a2; cf. 210c3, e3) will give birth to true aretê, not mere images of it, and become “god-loved” and as immortal (i.e. divine) as a human can be (212a). The successful lover is alone at the top. [28] The leader has evaporated, since the destination has been attained. The love-object is now the Form itself (cf. Republic 490a–b, 501d), which has replaced all previous objects of desire. The lover no longer has need of other human beings—or indeed of anything in the material world—to inspire his procreativity. The metaphor of raising a child is carried over from its initial appearance in the “lesser mysteries” (210a6; cf. 209c), but there is no longer any sign of a second human parent (or foster-parent). [29] Moreover since the lover is now producing true aretê, instead of mere (verbal) “images,” [30] he no longer needs anyone to listen to his words. Accordingly, there is no sign of discourse at the summit. [31] Presumably, “true” virtue is a state of soul that causes one to act virtuously with full and complete understanding of the “beauty” and excellence of one’s deeds. Since the philosopher cannot exist permanently in the contemplation of the {155|156} Forms, [32] and must descend to interact with his fellow humans, such virtue will produce collateral benefits for others. [33] But any such benefits are side-effects of the successful lover’s relationship with Beauty, not its purpose. The purpose of his affair with the Form is to generate his own virtue for his own sake, not to benefit others qua love-objects.

The most important evidence, however, for Socrates’ arrival at the top of the ladder consists in those dramatically powerful moments when he turns inward, in solitude, abandoning the physical gaze entirely in favor of the intellectual. Intellectual perception is required on lower rungs of the ladder too, of course (cf. e.g. 210c3–5). But only when the Form itself is sighted does all need for other people for such activity—whether as participants in philosophy or as the recipients of improving logoi—come to a full stop. Only when his journey is at an end does the lover’s relationship to the human world become utterly insignificant. Socrates’ isolation from his fellow mortals at such moments is strongly marked dramatically. There is also heavy emphasis on the fact that he is standing still, as if at the telos of his journey (175a8, b2, 220c4, 5, 7, d3).

This opacity bespeaks a Platonic attempt to represent the unrepresentable by dramatic means. Plato can show us only Socrates’ exterior, since Socrates cannot use logoi to express the state of mind at the top of the ladder without descending to the level of mere images. Accordingly, no logoi are produced in immediate consequence of Socrates’ episode in the doorway. He avoids giving Agathon an account of what happened during that interlude, and goes out of his way to ascribe the birth of his logoi at the symposion to a different occasion, and indeed a different author. Likewise the incident at Potidaea generates no logoi except for a prayer to the sun (220d), a divinity clearly suggestive of the godlike Form. If Socrates has indeed been gazing on the Form of Beauty, the offspring he produces will be not logoi, but interior virtues. Such virtues may, however, be manifested in action. That this is true of Socrates is hinted by the artful disorder of Alcibiades’ speech, in which the account of Socrates’ exceptional courage, for which he deserves the aristeia, follows immediately on the incident at Potidaea.

The identification of Socrates with Eros the seeker is also ambiguous, for it is by no means precise or complete. For example, Socrates is not nearly as rootless and grubby as the personified Eros—especially on the present occasion. Unlike that unshod divinity, he sometimes gets cleaned up and puts on shoes to attend a party. [52] Unlike Eros, he is, on this occasion, “beautiful” (174a), and will turn out to be an erômenos as well as an erastês. Moreover unlike Eros (203d1) he has a home. This fact is sometimes downplayed, [53] but it should not be dismissed, since we are told in the last two words of the dialogue that he went there to rest (ἀναπαύεσθαι). This is an unusual moment of even temporary closure for a Platonic dialogue, evoking the “rest” (ἀνάπαυλα) of the philosopher who reaches the end of the dialectical journey in the Republic (532e). [54] To judge from Plato, Socrates’ home is a place where his daily travels—both physical and philosophical—come to an end. But it is also a place where he seems to spend very little time. My point is thus not that Socrates should not be identified with Eros as the philosophical seeker—clearly he should—but that we should not limit ourselves to this identification or insist on disambiguating the mixed messages that Plato sends our way. As so often, Plato wants to have his cake and eat it, to situate Socrates as the philosophical seeker while simultaneously hinting that he is the wise man who has arrived.

Stairway to Heaven

At Step 1 a young man (νέος) is in love with a single beautiful body—or at least with one at a time [57] —and there gives birth to beautiful logoi (210a). It is a fact well known from Charmides that Plato’s Socrates is not immune to strictly physical desire for the body of an extraordinarily beautiful individual (Charmides 154b–d, 155d). [58] Within the Symposium itself, obsession with the physical beauty of an individual paidika is a condition that Diotima attributes to Socrates, along with “many others” (211d). [59] If his conversations with Diotima are supposed to have occurred around 440, then Socrates would have been about thirty years old—a little younger than both Agathon and Alcibiades at the time of the party, and still (barely) a νέος, as the first rung of the ladder requires. [60] Socrates is, of course, situated in an Agathontic role here in relation to Diotima, who serves as his “leader.” Plato may have had a number of reasons for temporarily putting him into Agathon’s sandals in this fashion. [61] One such, I would argue, is that it allows us to envisage a Socrates at the very bottom of the ladder—a place from which a young and gifted Agathon, {162|163} with all his potential for growth (175e4), might himself ascend if he proceeds “correctly.” [62] If Socrates can (supposedly) see his younger self in Agathon, perhaps Agathon (and others like him) can see themselves in this imagined early-model Socrates. This playful conjuring of what he might once have been links the extraordinary Socrates—who is also the extraordinary lover of the ascent—to our ordinary (Agathontic) selves.

Many scholars take the “beautiful logoi” generated at Step 1 to be conventional discourses in praise of the beauty of the erômenos. [63] But in so far as Eros is a philosopher, and a Socratic philosopher to boot, we would expect the “correct” lover to produce encomia of a Socratic nature, privileging moral education, as in Lysis, and truth, as here in the Symposium (198d–199a). [64] The physically gorgeous Agathon is very keen to be praised by Socrates, who in turn desires (ἐπιθυμῶ) to praise him (222e–223a). But we may surmise that this hypothetical encomium would look very different from the norm. The beauty of an individual body might also be the starting point for the Socratic “what is x?” question, which could plausibly be involved in the transition to Step 2. [65] Socrates’ elenctic discourses are—notoriously—not beautiful in any ordinary sense (cf. 221e); but they are certainly kalos, ‘fine’, and Plato gives us reason to believe they are both beautiful and erotically effective in a way that trumps the superficial beauty of oratory like Agathon’s. [66] Socrates has no objection to the original project of praising Eros “as beautifully as possible,” and implies that he will not speak himself if he thinks this project has been successfully fulfilled (177d–e). As for his revised species of encomium, he grants that his speech will be less beautiful than Agathon’s but also implies that it will be as beautiful as is consistent with the truth (198d). This may actually make it the most beautiful speech possible since it will not be marred by the ugliness of falsehood (cf. Theaetetus 194c). {163|164}

On to Step 2. The lover has now progressed from serial to simultaneous admiration of beautiful bodies, with a concomitant weakening of desire for any one individual. It is not difficult to see in Socrates an admirer of all beautiful bodies, and even one who regards the beauty of all such bodies as “the same.” His general interest in physically attractive young men is notorious. [67] This is not contingent on beauty of soul. In Charmides he inquires after youths with beauty of body or wisdom, or both (153d), and claims that all young men of a certain age look beautiful to him (Charmides 154b–c; cf. Republic 474d–e). A similar outlook is taken for granted in the Symposium (cf. 194d, 213c–d). Alcibiades claims that Socrates constantly behaves like someone “in love” (ἐρωτικῶς κεῖται), that he is visibly and “always” smitten with beautiful people (216d; cf. also 192b7, 222b, 223a). [68] Socrates himself acknowledges that he desires proximity to any beautiful person (213c–d), and manifests this desire by flirting—successfully—with Agathon (222c–223a). Alcibiades’ language (ἐκπέπληκται 216d3) suggests the intensity of Step 1—an intensity supposedly abandoned by Step 2 (210b5)—and echoes Diotima’s admonishment to the untutored Socrates (ἐκπέπληξαι 211d5). But this behavior is (now) directed at many beautiful young men (216d, 222b). If we can believe Alcibiades—and his appeal to the assembled company as witnesses suggests that we can (216d)—then Socrates behaves like someone who has arrived at Step 2 without losing the intensity of a Step 1 lover.

At the same time, Socrates’ interest in bodily beauty exceeds that of Step 3 by a considerable margin. His preference is not merely for the non-ugly, as per Step 3, [85] or the reasonably attractive, but for the stunningly beautiful, {166|167} the supermodels of Athenian culture: the gorgeous Alcibiades and Agathon, the extraordinary Lysis, and the super-beautiful Charmides. Alcibiades adds Euthydemus son of Diocles, another conspicuous beauty, [86] to the list of Socrates’ boytoys (222b). Socrates’ attraction to these stunning beauties seems, on its face, to distinguish him from the Step 3 lover. Yet a continued passion for extremely beautiful bodies is presumably not ruled out at this level, provided the erastês is fortunate enough to find well-endowed souls in the bodies of supermodels. Certainly these gorgeous youths all seem to have substantial philosophical potential as well as, and possibly in proportion to, their physical beauty. [87] We might therefore speculate that Socrates prefers to spend time with the super-beautiful in body because he thinks they are more likely to have beautiful souls. This would be entirely concordant with Greek tradition and aristocratic ideology, which tends to see physical beauty as reflecting and complementing nobility of character or soul. [88] Bodily beauty is, after all, an excellence, and the best person will have as many excellences as possible. But Socrates never makes such a claim, and even if he did, his predilection for stunning beauties would remain in tension with the main emphasis of Step 3.

Do we have any reason for situating Socrates on this step? It is clear enough that he thinks of bodily beauty in general as something slight. Other things being equal he would always rather be in the presence of such beauty, but he will talk to anyone who is willing to listen to him even if they are not beautiful (194d)—in body or even in soul. [97] Does he also appreciate the beauty of νόμοι and ἐπιτηδεύματα as such? Between them, these words embrace laws, customs, and all kinds of human activities, behaviors, institutions and social practices. [98] Though Plato’s Socrates never declares his erôs for such things, he does engage with many of them. In Plato’s dialogues he grapples continually both with Athenian political culture (along with the associated νόμοι) and with an array of culturally central ἐπιτηδεύματα. An exceptional number of the latter are represented in the Symposium in particular, through the various participants with their different skills and ways of life, as reflected in their speeches. One of the most important of these is the theater, which informs the setting of the dialogue. Socrates shows ironic, but not necessarily insincere, appreciation of its charms, as he praises the brilliant beauty of Agathon’s {169|170} wisdom (175e). [99] Notoriously, Plato allows him to intervene in the dramatic contest and emerge as the ultimate victor, one who, by means of his dialectical understanding, transcends the tragic-comic divide. [100]

In what does their beauty consist, however? In what sense is it all “akin,” as Step 4 indicates, and is this something to which Socrates can be seen to respond? The context would suggest that the beauty of laws and activities inheres in their effectiveness at fostering virtue, which in turn depends on their availability for dialectical understanding and—crucially—on their relationship to truth. We may safely assume that Socrates agrees with Diotima that sophia is one of the most beautiful of all things (204b3; cf. Protagoras 309c–d), and hence an object of desire. [107] Truth is wisdom’s inseparable companion, and likewise an object of philosophical erôs (Republic 485a–b, 501d, Philebus 58d). As Socrates puts it to Theaetetus, truth bestows beauty upon one’s opinions, in contrast to the ugliness of falsehood (Theaetetus 194c). [108] As for the Symposium itself, the intimate relationship between truth and beauty will be made clear at the summit of the ascent (212a). [109] And it is truth that underpins Socrates’ various cultural reinventions, distinguishing his encomium {171|172} from Agathon’s (198d), [110] his rhetoric from that of Lysias. [111] Commitment to truth is thus a unifying force in his engagement with the cultural institutions of his time. It also unifies his own behavior. He will discourse upon anything, and yet, as Alcibiades declares, what he says is always the same (221e). It is all philosophy, the single activity that trumps all others, [112] with which Socrates tells us elsewhere that he is in love (Gorgias 481d). [113] This movement towards unity, a perception of what is shared by different kinds of intellectual and cultural activity and their common availability as grist to the philosophical mill, is illustrated at the end of the dialogue when Socrates argues that the expertise of the tragic and comic poet is one and the same (223d).

Step 5 precipitates the lover’s perception of the “great sea of beauty” (Step 6). All the significantly beautiful items of the human world—bodies, souls, cultural practices, intellectual attainments—have now been embraced in such a way that their common beauty can be perceived and their relative beauty properly comprehended. [116] The repudiation of an attachment to indi{172|173}vidual items at any of the previous levels is therefore reiterated (210d1–3). The lover who gazes upon the “great sea of beauty” with the eye of the mind can perceive the true degree of beauty of everything in the human world, rather in the way that an infrared sensor allows the viewer to “see” an object’s temperature. The naked eye allows us to guess which items in a landscape are warmer, but the guess can be quite wrong (e.g. we often mistakenly equate heat with light). The same is true of beauty: the naked eye needs the assistance of philosophical insight (the eye of the mind) to perceive the landscape of beauty in its true intensity. A beautiful soul shines forth through an ugly body, just as an infrared sensor may reveal the hot core of a nuclear reactor in winter. Beautiful boys and individual activities are no less beautiful at Step 6 than they were at previous levels (210d2–3), [117] but they are merely a drop in the “great sea” as a whole, where the beauty of understanding outshines everything else as the sun outshines a fire-fly. The vision of this “sea” inspires the lover to produce explicitly philosophical logoi, [118] which are abundant, beautiful and “magnificent” (210d), like the great sea itself, [119] and filled with equally magnificent ideas.

Nowhere Man

What are we to make of this? Perhaps we should envisage Socrates as having ascended the steps in due order, occupying each in sequence over time until he stands securely and permanently at the top, having left behind the lower steps on which we temporarily glimpse him at moments in his past. [125] But it is in practice impossible to chart his position on the ladder against time in any such fashion. Alternatively one might argue—on a strongly “inclusive” reading—that his existence at the summit is somehow expressed in behaviors that only appear to belong to the lower steps. Thus, for example, his erotic {174|175} response to beautiful young men may be viewed as compatible with, or even an expression of, his presence at the top. [126] But in my view this is inconsistent with the rhetoric of the ascent, with its belittling of the steps that are left behind and the shift of the lover’s passionate attention to a new object at each new level. [127] This shift is marked most strongly at the transition from Step 6 to Step 7. There is a categorical leap here away from the ordinary world, [128] based on the sharp disjunction between beauty as manifested in anything in that world and Beauty per se, which is explicitly detached from all such manifestations. The “great sea” of beauty consists in the sum total of these worldly manifestations of the Form, but the lover who takes the crucial next step comes to see all such objects in their true light, as “mortal rubbish” in comparison with the Form itself (211e). As beautiful as Alcibiades’ body may be, its beauty appears only in the kind of visibly beautiful surfaces—flesh and skin-color—that the successful lover now views with contempt. [129] Even his soul is a particular, and as such insignificant. The lover’s gaze in its full intensity cannot rest on human bodies, souls, activities, and the Form of Beauty all at once. He cannot simultaneously participate in the world of eating and drinking and gaze at a vision so beautiful that it deprives him of any desire to do so (211d–e). [130] Such Beauty will surely blind the lover completely to the beauty of this world, just as the vision of the Form of the Good blinds the philosopher who returns to the cave in the Republic. [131] At best, Beauty’s earthly manifestations can occupy no more than the periphery of the successful lover’s vision. {175|176}

A third possibility is that Socrates should be construed as shimmying up and down the ladder, as Steve Lowenstam has argued. [132] I find this more plausible for a number of reasons. First, it is not possible for a human being to reside permanently at the top of the ladder. The temporarily solipsistic Socrates will soon be back in the company of his fellow mortals (cf. 175b2–3, c4–5). Even he must eat and sleep occasionally. Second, this interpretation evokes the activity of the daimôn Eros with whom Socrates is so strongly identified, who runs up and down between mortal and divine realms in a dynamic process of interpretation, communication, “intercourse and conversation” (ἡ ὁμιλία καὶ ἡ διάλεκτος 202e–203a). On this interpretation the ladder provides a less mythic, more systematic explanation of how mere mortals may imitate the daimôn, allowing for the fact that even the most philosophically exalted among us must inevitably descend from time to time. One advantage of this interpretation is that it lets us grant, for example, that Socrates has a real erotic response to Alcibiades qua love-object while on Step 3, while also accepting that individuals are not the objects of his erôs when he is at the summit. In other words, it gives us a different way of approaching the issue of “inclusiveness,” allowing Socrates to embody a variety of different kinds of love-relationships at different moments in Plato’s presentation without destroying the magnificent solitude of the philosopher in intercourse with the Form.

Socrates’ singular (in both senses) body grounds his various identities as a receptacle of human possibilities. He is both the lens through which we perceive all the different steps of the ascent, and the paradigm by which we may judge their “correct” performance. He thus invites emulation. [136] Yet his atopia resists imitation. [137] The strength of the authorial invitation to place Socrates on the ladder, which I emphasized at the outset, is in itself significant here. Plato elicits our desire, only to frustrate it by refusing to locate Socrates securely on any one step or in an orderly sequence of steps. [138] This desire and its frustration lure us into scrutinizing Socrates’ ascent, seeking traces of his passage, while at the same time preventing us from organizing those traces into a coherent set of signposts—like Internet driving directions—that we can use to follow him in any straightforward or comfortable sense. Plato deflects {177|178} our attempts to “grasp” Socrates or his wisdom directly as Alcibiades and Agathon try to do, each in his fashion (175c–d, 219b). He prohibits us from taking him as our “leader” in the mindless manner of an Aristodemus, who is unnerved when left to forge his own path. We must start at the bottom of the ladder for ourselves (as he, putatively, once did) and respond actively to his enigmatic mode of “leadership,” emulating his independence by seeking to “grasp” not Socrates, but the truth from which he insists on distinguishing himself (209c), which may allow us ultimately to “grasp” Beauty itself (211b7, 212a4–5).


[ back ] 1. For Plato’s Socrates as a wanderer, like the Homeric Odysseus, in search of his true “home”, see Blondell 2002:158–159; cf. also Montiglio 2005:151–155. Alcibiades’ particular allusions, to Odyssey iv 242 and 271, would suggest that Socrates is far from reaching home, since they both refer to events at Troy. The first reference is particularly suggestive in the context of the Symposium, since it tells of Odysseus disguising himself with a beggar’s ugly exterior, which only one person (Helen) can see through (Odyssey iv 240–250). Socrates himself alludes to the Odyssey at 198b–c (cf. Rosen 1987:204).

[ back ] 2. On the “ladder of love” as a mystic’s journey see especially Nightingale 2004:83–86. “Love” is an inadequate translation of the Greek erôs (see Halperin 1985:161–163). Moreover the ascent is more like a staircase than a ladder, since it leaves room on each step for company (which suits the Socratic model of “leadership,” as we shall see) and suggests ascent to a temple and thus to divinity. But the traditional phrase remains more euphonious than “staircase of passionate desire.”

[ back ] 3. See Montiglio 2005. As Nightingale has recently argued (2004), the theoric journey is of particular significance for philosophical inquiry. For the “path” of dialectic cf. Nightingale 2004:108–110. The “journey” of narrative is also of particular interest in the context of the Symposium’s complex narrative structure (cf. e.g. διελθεῖν x 3 at 201d–e).

[ back ] 4. Cf. Blondell 2002:64. On the opening journey of the Symposium and its relevance to the ascent cf. Osborne 1994:86–90.

[ back ] 5. Cf. also the “going around” and random encounters of the non-philosophical lover (209b), and Alcibiades’ “going around” in a state of aporia after Socrates rejects him sexually (219e). On the interplay between directed travel, wandering and rest in Plato see Montiglio 2005:163–179.

[ back ] 6. Cf. Lowenstam 1985:87; Osborne 1994:90–91, 97–98 (though their interpretations differ from mine).

[ back ] 7. On which cf. Stehle 1997:218.

[ back ] 8. Cf. Blondell 2002:120–121. At Protagoras 348d–e he uses the same quotation from Homer to express both kinds of cooperation.

[ back ] 9. Though atopos primarily means “strange”—having lost most of its spatial sense—Plato reactivates its association with (intellectual) wandering by linking it with Socrates’ signature state of mental aporia. See further Blondell 2002:73–74; Nightingale 2004:105–107; cf. also Montiglio 2005:154–155, 170.

[ back ] 10. For the textual evidence see Bury 1932:lx–lxii. The equation has been much discussed (see e.g. Robin 1908:194–196, 1958:ci–cviii; Anderson 1993:101–103; Osborne 1994:93–101; Hadot 2002:42–50). But Socrates also differs from Eros in significant respects, as we shall see.

[ back ] 11. There are many puns on his name, the most overt of which is at 174b4.

[ back ] 12. The diction (διέφυγον) suggests this connotation (cf. e.g. Sappho 1.21).

[ back ] 13. On Socrates as the beautiful erômenos see especially Lowenstam 1985:98–100.

[ back ] 14. Referred to variously as the ἡγούμενος (Step 1 in my summary below), “leader” (implied at Step 5 and in the reprise) and paidagôgos (Step 7, 210e3).

[ back ] 15. Blondell 2002:95–101; cf. also Burnyeat 1977:9. On the Socratic character of the guide see Sheffield 2001a:17–18.

[ back ] 16. In Aristophanes’ speech Eros is the ἡγεμών and στρατηγός (193b1). In Agathon’s he is a leader and teacher (197a), the ἡγεμών whom we should all follow (197d–e). For Phaedrus, Eros implants the sense of shame that should lead us (178c).

[ back ] 17. Alcibiades’ misunderstanding of Socrates’ collaborative proposal (219b) betrays an intellectual passivity that parallels that of Aristodemus: he views Socrates’ advice as “ordering” (216b4, 217a2) and desires simply to “hear” his inner wisdom (217a5).

[ back ] 18. Pace Ferrari, who thinks the leader is optional (1992:257). This seems most unlikely considering the heavy emphasis on the “leader” throughout the ascent (cf. Rowe 1998a:ad loc .).

[ back ] 19. See Blondell 2002:214–216.

[ back ] 20. Note the suggestive verb φοιτάω, which can be used as a euphemism for sex (cf. e.g. Republic 390c).

[ back ] 21. Cf. Blundell 1992:130; Rutherford 1995:192.

[ back ] 22. She incorporates aspects of both the elenctic and the constructive Socrates (cf. Blundell 1992:129–130; for the terminology see Blondell 2002:10–11).

[ back ] 23. Like an elenctic victim Socrates (as “Agathon”) starts with the beliefs held by “everyone” (202b) or the many (203c7).

[ back ] 24. The reference to the plague (201d) seems to indicate that Diotima was in Athens around 440, from which most commentators infer that her conversations with Socrates are imagined to have taken place around that time (whether or not the relationship is entirely fictional, as I take it to be). Anton 1974 speculates on Socrates’ erotic/philosophical development over this period of time.

[ back ] 25. See Rowe 1998a:ad loc. for a defense of this interpretation of αὐτόν.

[ back ] 26. For defense of the text here see Sier 1997:276; Rowe 1998a:ad loc. (and cf. his note on 210d4–6).

[ back ] 27. Cf. Rowe 1998a on 211a7–b8.

[ back ] 28. I am all too aware that this claim will not meet with universal agreement. Rowe and Price, for example, believe that the individual beloved boy remains a presence all the way up the ladder to the top (Rowe 1998b:257; Price 1997:52–54). But pace e.g. Rowe 1998a:ad loc., Price 1997:48, 259, the word παιδεραστεῖν (211b5–6) does not show the continued presence of a human love-object as such (cf. Sier 1997:150n10, 287). See further Sier 1997:149–151.

[ back ] 29. The other parent, if there were one, would have to be the Form on whose beauty the lover now gazes. On the awkwardness of this see Pender 1992:82–85. For the lover’s need to “nurture” his aretê see Nightingale 1993:129–130.

[ back ] 30. Poets, craftsmen and lawgivers were previously said to produce aretê, including phronêsis, in deeds as well as words (209a–c, e), but these likewise now turn out to have been mere images.

[ back ] 31. Cf. e.g. Ferrari 1992:259–60.

[ back ] 32. Cf. the difference between human and divine nature at 208a–b. On the impossibility of dwelling permanently in the presence of the Forms see especially Nightingale 2004:98–100.

[ back ] 33. So rightly Lowenstam 1985:94; Price 1997:50–52. But Price is wrong to identify those so benefited with “an individual … as an object of love” (1997:53). The “object of love” is the Form of Beauty.

[ back ] 34. See e.g. Robin 1908:196–198; Burnet 1928:140; Stannard 1959:125; Taylor 1960:232–233: Gagarin 1977:27–28; Lowenstam 1985:92–93; Nussbaum 1986:183–184; Price 1997:49; Gill 1990b:80; Blundell 1992:128; Lear 1998:164; Hadot 2002:48.

[ back ] 35. The metaphor of an (ascending) path towards virtue standardly implies hardship and struggle (cf. e.g. Protagoras 340d). Compare Nightingale 2004:113–114 on the difficulty of the path of dialectic in the Republic. Cf. also the struggles directed towards lesser forms of immortality in the Symposium (207b, 208c–d).

[ back ] 36. Their rivalry is also configured as a contest of sophia (175e8–9; cf. 212e7–8).

[ back ] 37. The discussion usually revolves around Alcibiades, but Laches (221b6–7) is presumably no love-object.

[ back ] 38. E.g. Nussbaum 1986:195; Hunter 2004:19.

[ back ] 39. The connotations of the word agalma, in Plato and elsewhere, have been much discussed. See most recently Nightingale 2004:163–164 (and passim).

[ back ] 40. They also serve as a diagnostic test for those who stand in need of divinity (215c5–6). That Alcibiades views Socrates as bordering on divinity is further suggested by 214d.

[ back ] 41. According to Chantraine the words could be connected but there is no evidence (1968:s.v.). Either way, there is probably a Platonic pun.

[ back ] 42. 213e2, 215b8, 217a1, 219c1, 220a4, c6, 221c3, c6, 222e8.

[ back ] 43. It is, of course, hard to attain this kind of vision. The ordinary soldiers cannot see Socrates’ inner beauty, so they become hostile (220c1), foreshadowing his death.

[ back ] 44. On this I completely agree with Nightingale 1993:119–127. Cf. also Belfiore 1984:141–143; Halperin 1992:115; Lear 1998:159; Hunter 2004:100.

[ back ] 45. Many commentators have followed their lead (e.g. Dover 1980:ad loc.; Allen 1991:86).

[ back ] 46. Socrates himself repudiates Agathon’s account of what happened in the doorway (175c–d). Cf. his warning regarding Alcibiades’ interpretation of his inner beauty (218d–219a). Only Aristodemus is wisely cautious enough to remain an exterior observer of Socrates’ behavior (175b). His inability to see past Socrates’ external appearance and behavior makes him deficient as an imitator of Socrates (cf. Blondell 2002:107–109). At the same time, his respect for Socrates’ exterior saves him from interpreting his interior in ways that may be quite misleading.

[ back ] 47. Cf. Hunter 2004:32.

[ back ] 48. See Gould 1963:44; Lowenstam 1985:94–98.

[ back ] 49. On this tension in the Symposium see Scott and Welton 2000. The paradox becomes even more acute if we ask whether Eros himself ever reaches the top. For Eros qua permanent seeker, the answer must be no; for Eros qua ideal erastês, however, and communicator with the divine, the answer would seem to be yes.

[ back ] 50. In Belfiore’s formulation, he may be simultaneously indispensable and unnecessary (1984:148).

[ back ] 51. Elsewhere he makes similar claims, with varying degrees of strength (cf. Theages 128b, Phaedrus 257a, Lysis 204c; Xenophon Memorabilia 2.6.28).

[ back ] 52. Socrates’ uncharacteristic wearing of shoes in the Symposium has been much discussed (e.g. by Osborne 1994:96–100). Whatever else it means, it clearly distinguishes him from Diotima’s Eros (cf. Gagarin 1977:26–27; Rosen 1987:234).

[ back ] 53. E.g. by Osborne 1994:91.

[ back ] 54. Cf. Nightingale 2004:114.

[ back ] 55. Scott 2000:33 is a partial exception.

[ back ] 56. More generally, he must have visited all the steps below whatever step he has attained, and done so in sequential order. For why all the steps are necessary see Sheffield 2001a:22–24.

[ back ] 57. I see no reason to rule out serial obsession with particular individuals, provided that the lover in each instance thinks of the boy in question as the sole object of his desire. The apparent idealization of lifelong monogamy in male couples by Pausanias (181d) and Aristophanes (192d, 193b) is highly unusual (contrast Xenophon Symposium 8.2, where Socrates says he cannot remember a time when he was not in love with someone or other). Besides being culturally appropriate, serial obsession would also provide a natural foundation for the transition to Step 2.

[ back ] 58. Cf. Patterson 1991:198. Xenophon’s Socrates appears to acknowledge physical desire for a woman (Memorabilia 3.11.3).

[ back ] 59. That this erôs is based on external or bodily beauty is clear from the mention of gold and clothing in the same breath as beautiful boys, plus the emphasis on gazing at the beloved. That it is directed towards an individual (at least as long as this particular infatuation lasts) is clear from the desire to be with the beloved and gaze at him forever. Cf. the obsessive desire for one’s individual complement in Aristophanes’ speech (esp. 191a).

[ back ] 60. A man is a νέος until about the age of thirty (Garland 1990:242). Alcibiades and Agathon are probably both in their early thirties (see Nails 2002:s.vv.), but still notional “youths” because of their desirability as love-objects (cf. 198a2).

[ back ] 61. The most commonly given, but scarcely sufficient, reason is that Socrates is sparing Agathon’s feelings (cf. Sier 1997:9). A more significant factor is the part the substitution plays in revealing the Socratic pedigree of Diotima herself, as we saw earlier.

[ back ] 62. Agathon is the erômenos of Pausanias, rather than an erastês. But an attractive male of his age might be simultaneously erastês and erômenos, provided this was not in relationship to the same person (cf. 222c–d). (Dover [1989:1n1 and 87] cites Xenophon Symposium 8.2 where the person in question is Charmides, at about age twenty-four) Socrates himself embodies the fact that philosophically speaking, one may be both a lover and an object of desire.

[ back ] 63. So e.g. Price 1997:41; Ferrari 1992:256. Agathon—with whom Socrates at this stage is equated—does something of the kind in praising Eros qua erômenos.

[ back ] 64. Cf. Patterson 1991:211–214. On Lysis see Nightingale 1993:114–116.

[ back ] 65. Cf. Socrates’ efforts to lead Hippias beyond the idea that τὸ καλόν is a beautiful girl (Hippias Major 287e–289d). I cannot address here the question of how one proceeds from step to step. In my view this is radically (and provocatively) underdetermined, but clearly depends on philosophical activity of a kind associated with Socrates.

[ back ] 66. Cf. 213e, 215b–216a, 221e–222a, 223a, and Patterson 1991:197n3.

[ back ] 67. Cf. Lysis 204b, Meno 76c, Phaedrus 227c, 257a, Xenophon Symposium 8.2. Xenophon emphasizes the physical basis of the attraction (see Gould 1963:193n28; Vlastos 1991:38n65).

[ back ] 68. καλῶν at 216d2 is of course ambiguous (it could be neuter), an ambiguity no doubt intended by Plato, but not by Alcibiades.

[ back ] 69. See Vlastos 1991:40–41 and cf. Friedländer 1969a:139–142; Price 1991:297–298. I do not agree with Vlastos, however, that Alcibiades is using the verb εἰρωνεύω in a “modern” sense (so too Nightingale 1993:120n28).

[ back ] 70. Socrates’ lack of interest in money is notorious. For status cf. 174a6–7, 220e5–7.

[ back ] 71. Cf. also 220c1, where the soldiers think Socrates has contempt for them. This time Alcibiades can see they are mistaken because it is not his vanity that is being challenged.

[ back ] 72. Cf. Nightingale 1993:n29.

[ back ] 73. Note that his vision of Socrates’ interior is a mere doxa (216e7). He clearly has not “seen” Socrates’ virtues for what they truly are, since he thinks of them as something that can be traded for sex.

[ back ] 74. Xenophon insists on Socrates’ openness, as Nightingale interestingly points out (1995:124–125). This defensive maneuver implies that Alcibiades was not the only one who found Socrates baffling, if not actively deceptive.

[ back ] 75. Cf. Price 1991:297–298.

[ back ] 76. The verb κήδεσθαι (210c1) is often used for the kind of concern that is due to family members.

[ back ] 77. So too Rowe 1998b:256. Price argues on the basis of 210d2 and 7 that it is more exclusive (1997:39n38). But in both the passages he cites the word τις is made more exclusive by the presence of ἐνός and μίαν respectively.

[ back ] 78. There is a marked contrast with the singular and lasting obsession of the non-philosophical lover when he encounters a beautiful soul in a beautiful body (209b–c). On the difference between this lover and the “correct” lover see especially Sheffield 2001a:2–11.

[ back ] 79. It is unclear how long it is supposed to take to proceed up the ladder to the top, but the erastês starts as a young man and it presumably takes a good many years for the “eye of the soul” to mature (cf. 219a). Cf. the many years required to attain the vision of the Good in the Republic.

[ back ] 80. So too Scott 2000:35–36.

[ back ] 81. For the latter in Plato see esp. Alcibiades I and II, Protagoras 309a–c, Gorgias 481d. It was also a fixture of the Socratic literature generally.

[ back ] 82. Physical beauty, though desirable, likewise comes a distant second to excellence of soul in the fledgling guardians of the Republic (402c–e, 535a). Cf. also Xenophon Symposium 8.12.

[ back ] 83. At the dramatic date of this dialogue Alcibiades is about twenty (past the ἄνθος of adolescence). But Socrates’ depreciation of his physical charms should be taken with a pinch of salt. Not only is it clear that Alcibiades remained attractive for many more years (cf. Symposium 213c–d, 222c–d), but Socrates takes a serious interest in him while he is still at his physical prime (Protagoras 309a–b, Symposium 217b).

[ back ] 84. E.g. Bury 1932:xxxviii; Wellman 1969:150–155; Reeve 1992b:113 with Blundell 1992:126.

[ back ] 85. This is Rowe’s interpretation of 210b8 (1998a:ad loc.; 1998b:256).

[ back ] 86. See Nails 2002:s.v.

[ back ] 87. Alcibiades, Agathon, Lysis and Charmides are all marked, in various ways, as intellectually gifted as well as extraordinarily beautiful. The same applies to Euthydemus son of Diocles, as far as we know of him from outside Plato’s pages (Nails 2002:s.v.). Meno, another handsome young man (Nails 2002:s.v.) with whom Socrates flirts (Meno 80b–c), seems less gifted, but takes a definite interest in current intellectual trends.

[ back ] 88. Blondell 2002:58–62; Patterson 1991:199–202 (though he goes too far in equating grace of deportment etc. with beauty per se. Aside from anything else, this undermines the paradox of Socratic ugliness, on which see further Blondell 2002:70–77).

[ back ] 89. Protagoras is nearly sixty at the dramatic date of his dialogue, which rules him out as a physically attractive erômenos. On Theaetetus see Blondell 2002:260–261.

[ back ] 90. Cf. Rosen 1987:266–267.

[ back ] 91. Such language is also suggestive of the mysteries (O’Brien 1984:204; Nightingale 2004:83–86). On the need for bodily beauty cf. Pender 1992:77–78.

[ back ] 92. It is illustrated in the Symposium by his elenchus of Agathon. Alcibiades I shows Socrates addressing improving logoi to Alcibiades himself.

[ back ] 93. Both are included in the improving discourses of the non-philosophical soul-body lover (209b8–c1, 209d4–7).

[ back ] 94. Cf. the erôs for virtuous ἐπιτηδεύματα at Laws 711d. Comparable ideas are expressed at Laws 643e (erôs for being a perfect citizen) and Letter VII 339e (erôs for the best life).

[ back ] 95. So Bury 1932 and Rowe 1998a:ad loc.

[ back ] 96. The degree of purity depends on the extent to which a beautiful item is or is not contaminated with “mortal rubbish” (211e).

[ back ] 97. Plato shows Socrates eagerly conversing with some quite untalented people, and in general, with anyone he happens to meet (Apology 30a).

[ back ] 98. Alcibiades’ reference to Socrates’ ἐπιτηδεύματα (221c) includes by implication the whole preceding account of his extraordinary sôphrosunê, courage, and so forth, as well as his philosophical activities. Omission of νόμοι from the reprise suggests that ἐπιτηδεύματα can stand for both. At Laws 793c–d the two are equated (along with ἤθη) as the glue that binds the city together. For educational ἐπιτηδεύματα cf. also Republic 444e, Gorgias 474e, Laches 180a.

[ back ] 99. There is no reason to believe that Socrates’ reaction is not based on his own experience of the performance, especially since he was present at the προαγών (194a–b). The criticisms of drama voiced by Plato’s Socrates bespeak a general familiarity with the theater, and a number of anecdotes locate him there, especially in connection with Clouds (cf. Aelian Varia Historia 2.13, Plutarch Moralia 10c–d).

[ back ] 100. Cf. Rowe 1998a:ad loc. On the theme of dramatic contest in the Symposium see Bacon 1959; Friedländer 1969b:32; Clay 1975; Sider 1980; Patterson 1982.

[ back ] 101. Socrates calls rhetoric an ἐπιτήδευμα (albeit a despicable one) at Gorgias 463a. It is perhaps through such ἐπιτηδεύματα as this that we can find a place on the ladder for beautiful logoi as an object of desire—one of those objects that is left behind at the summit (211a7)—despite the fact that they have previously been mentioned only as the lover’s progeny.

[ back ] 102. Cf. the equivalence of Socrates with his logoi—a point perceived, but not fully understood, by Alcibiades (221c–d).

[ back ] 103. See Rutherford 1995:179–180.

[ back ] 104. Tecuşan 1990.

[ back ] 105. This is marked dramatically in the Symposium by his late arrival, bringing an uninvited guest, and changing the rules of discourse. In addition, Plato as author uses various strategies to appropriate the sumposion on his behalf. E.g. the sumposion included a libation to the Ἀγαθὸς Δαίμων, and Socrates is equated with the beneficent δαίμων Eros; Socrates surpasses all others in the sumposion’s test of character through drinking, which equates him with Dionysus, “the only one who can drink without danger” (Lissarague 1990:37; cf. 8–9); he is equated with a satyr, a figure emblematic of the sumposion (cf. Lissarague 1990:passim); his commitment to truth reflects the ideology of the sumposion (Rösler 1995; for the educational significance of the sumposion see also Bremmer 1990).

[ back ] 106. Cf. Pausanias’ consuming interest in the proper νόμοι surrounding such relationships (182a–185c).

[ back ] 107. Erôs is almost by definition a response to beauty (Symposium 204c, Republic 402d6, Charmides 167e; cf. also Symposium 196a4–b3, 197b3–5, 201a2–5, Isocrates Helen 55). (See further Lear’s paper in this collection.)

[ back ] 108. In the Philebus he declares the “truest” patch of white to be the most beautiful (53a–b). Cf. also Pausanias’ remark that nothing is “beautiful” unless done “correctly” (181a). In the Republic, the Good is the cause of everything “correct and beautiful” (517c1).

[ back ] 109. Cf. Stokes 1986:180.

[ back ] 110. It is lack of truth that marks the deficiency of Agathon’s admittedly beautiful speech (201b–c).

[ back ] 111. Phaedrus 277a–c; cf. 272d–273a, Apology 17a–c, Gorgias 521d–522c. Socrates’ overall commitment to truth is, of course, well known (cf. e.g. Gorgias 458a–b).

[ back ] 112. Contrast the fragmenting view of the lover who cannot see beyond a single activity (210d2–3). Philosophy transcends this particularity because it engages with what is (or is not) valuable in all other human activities.

[ back ] 113. On Plato’s use of erotic language for intellectual states and activities see Halperin 1986:71–72.

[ back ] 114. From a larger Platonic perspective, however, this is not a real distinction. Cf. Republic 501d where the word ἐπιτηδεύματα refers to the entire course of the philosopher-rulers’ education, including its highly theoretical upper levels. The ethical significance of understanding as such in the Symposium is evident from the fact that the wisdom achieved at the summit of the ascent yields true virtue (212a).

[ back ] 115. For the criteria that make something count as an ἐπιστήμη in Plato see Patterson 1991:205–206.

[ back ] 116. Some kinds of beautiful thing, such as works of art and the natural world, are not explicitly considered as objects of erôs, but they are implied in the repudiation of particulars of all kinds at the top of the ladder, which mentions material objects such as gold and clothing and also the natural world (211a5–b1, 211d3–4). Presumably such items are even less significant than human bodies because they do not house a soul. Thus Socrates is capable of enjoying a beautiful landscape, but this is far outweighed by his desire to be near beautiful bodies and their souls (Phaedrus 230b–d). As for works of art, his simultaneous erôs and disapproval are, in the case of poetry, legendary (Republic 607e–608a).

[ back ] 117. Even at the summit the beauties of this world remain beautiful (211b2, 211d4). This is a broadly but weakly “inclusive” reading similar to that of Vlastos 1991:40.

[ back ] 118. The mysterious phrase “in philosophy” (210d6) must refer to the lover’s activity in producing these logoi (cf. 218a5). I am sympathetic to Pender’s interpretation, whereby philosophy is the beautiful love-object (1992:81–82), and in light of the presentation of philosophy as an object of desire elsewhere in Plato it is hard not to hear such resonances. But by Pender’s own criterion—the “logic” of metaphor—philosophy cannot serve here as the love-object, since it is an activity, and as such cannot simply be equated with the “great sea” of beauty that inspires the lover’s discourse at Step 6 (though qua activity it presumably manifests a beauty that is part of the “great sea”). It is, rather, the activity that enables us to attain the ἐπιστήμη that is the object of desire.

[ back ] 119. A more beautiful love-object generates more beautiful (and “more immortal”) offspring (209c). The logoi generated at each level are thus more beautiful in proportion to the beauty that inspires them (Santas 1988:43). Similarly in the Republic the erastai of truth (501d) are also begetters of truth (490a–b).

[ back ] 120. Cf. Penwill 1978:157. I see no reason, however, to doubt Socrates’ assertion that he has been convinced by Diotima (cf. Rowe 1998b:240–241; O’Brien 1984:186–190).

[ back ] 121. See Gallop 1971.

[ back ] 122. E.g. Penwill 1978:159.

[ back ] 123. For these aspects of the sumposion see Lissarague 1990. Hunter 2004 is especially useful on their relevance to Plato’s dialogue.

[ back ] 124. The phrase is Bury’s (1932 on 210a).

[ back ] 125. This seems to be Scott’s view (2000:31–34), though he does not place Socrates at the very top.

[ back ] 126. So e.g. Kosman 1976:65–67; Irwin 1977a:169 with 323n58. This issue is distinct from the question of whether he still cares—non-erotically—about other people. (The two seem to be confused by e.g. Irwin 1995:310.) Cf. Scott 2000, though I am not as sure as he is that rescuing Alcibiades is a sign of Socrates’ special affection (2000:36). He also saves the life of Laches (221b6–7), and his courage would presumably lead him to protect any fellow-soldier in need. Possibly, however, philia is one of the virtues that is generated in the lover at the top of the ladder.

[ back ] 127. As Allen acknowledges in passing (1991:82), a strongly inclusive reading is inconsistent with the ladder metaphor itself. The same may be said for the cave image of the Republic, which implies that the philosopher cannot remain in the cave while contemplating the Forms.

[ back ] 128. On this point I agree with Chen 1983 (though he disregards the ladder metaphor altogether). Price resists this on the circular ground that it is necessary to avoid an “acute discontinuity” (1997:50), but the discontinuity is marked by Diotima herself. The stairway to heaven is a way to bridge this gap, not to eliminate it.

[ back ] 129. This does not mean that he has contempt for Alcibiades’ beauty qua beauty. But this kind of beauty is also, always, ugly (cf. Republic 479a).

[ back ] 130. Diotima’s point here is that even the lover of beautiful boys would gaze upon his love-object constantly without eating or drinking, if only that were possible. The implication is that the lover of Forms must likewise take a break from gazing in order to turn to such mundane matters as food and drink—or else he will starve.

[ back ] 131. See Nightingale 2004:102–105. As has often been noted, visual language increases higher up the ladder, as if in compensation for the fact that literal (physical) vision is becoming otiose.

[ back ] 132. Lowenstam 1985:94–98. But Lowenstam addresses only the vacillation between the mortal realm and the summit, not the sequence of lower steps as such.

[ back ] 133. The memory of having seen the Form itself might accelerate one’s progress in repeating the ascent, for example by enabling one to recognize manifestations of the Form in bodies or souls more easily, but there is no sign that it is possible to actually skip any of the steps.

[ back ] 134. The same applies to the way he shifts from leader to follower, and from subject to object of desire.

[ back ] 135. On Socrates’ mysteriousness see esp. Nehamas 1998:91–92; Blondell 2002:69.

[ back ] 136. For the pervasive Greek assumption that one emulates literary characters see Blondell 2002:80–86.

[ back ] 137. Cf. Blondell 2002:106–109.

[ back ] 138. For the way Plato simultaneously elicits and thwarts the reader’s interpretive desire by raising unanswerable questions see Halperin 1992.

[ back ] 139. Theaetetus 155d; cf. Symposium 205b, 208b.