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.

9. The Virtues of Platonic Love

Gabriela Roxana Carone

Socrates’ speech on Love in the Symposium (201–212), reporting his conversation with the Mantinean priest Diotima, stands as prima facie counterintuitive. First, it is not clear that it has anything to say about interpersonal love at all; and even if it does, it might seem to offer a view that conforms pretty well to our popular notion of “Platonic Love,” one that does not involve any personal commitment, and that is spiritual rather than physical. How, if at all, is the speech supposed to help us understand ordinary love in our practical lives? [1] In this paper I wish to argue, by considering various objections, that the speech can be seen as providing useful tools for enhancing our understanding of love, both from a descriptive and a normative perspective.

While (2) might seem intuitively right—after all, few people would disagree that in searching for an object of love, one is searching for happiness—the other claims seem vulnerable to objections. For example: {208|209}

(1) seems to imply that when we love, what we love is a universal property, beauty, rather than an individual. This may appear problematic for various reasons: First, it seems to overlook a uniqueness in the person we love that cannot be reduced to her being a particular instantiation of a universal property (let us call it the “Uniqueness Problem”). Second, it could be thought that one may be drawn to, and love, precisely the ugly aspects of a person, so it is just wrong to claim that beauty is the aspect of something to which all love is directed. At least, it is not immediately clear that we are all attracted to Beauty and only to Beauty (call this the “Attraction to Beauty Problem”).

(4) might also be resisted if it is taken to imply, first, that a life devoted e.g. to intellectual endeavors or artistic creativity (procreating in beauty through books, education, or works of art) is to be preferred to a life devoted to procreating children, and second, that one can be as much “in love” with art, philosophy or one’s career as one is with a human being one is attracted to.

(5) is probably the greatest target of criticism, insofar as it seems to imply, first, that Platonic love at its summit excludes love of individuals, and second, that the individual that one loves can at most have value as a means—or rung in the ladder—and not as an end in itself.

While I agree that in many of these areas the text seems to be challenging our intuitions, I believe it deserves more credit than one might be inclined to give it at first sight. For, even where Diotima says something that does not sit well with our ordinary preconceptions about love, I wish to show that she has the resources to respond to our objections. The force of the speech, I contend, consists in working partly with preconceptions that we may share but showing us from there that, if we are to be utterly consistent, the conclusions that flow from them may differ markedly from many of the ordinary conceptions about love with which we began.

Love and Beauty

By these lights, Diotima’s speech in the Symposium would seem to offer a more optimistic response to the question about the determinable quality of the object of love by telling us that it is beauty. Whether this answer is satisfactory, however, is a different matter, and we might wonder to what extent we are allowed to relate her remarks on erôs to the emotion we ordinarily call ‘love’.

To be sure, the Greek term erôs seems rather more restricted in meaning than our English “love.” What is distinctive of erôs, and need not be present in the other kinds of love, is the notion of a lack that triggers the desire for a fulfillment of that lack. Sexual desire is the most basic manifestation of erôs, but erôs would also encompass any striving for something stemming from a lack. Thus, when Peter is in love with Mary, part of his feeling (the one corresponding to erôs) consists in feeling that he needs Mary for his life to be fuller; he misses her insofar as that latter state is not achieved. (To this point, one could also feel erôs for, say, reading, if that desire stems from a lack and represents reading as the object that would render satisfaction. Thus conceived, my love of reading would also be a case of erôs, and we shall see later how Diotima exploits this.) By contrast, when Peter cares for Mary’s well being, he may not be in a state of need; he may spontaneously and generously feel inclined to help her and protect her. Insofar as Peter is in the latter state of mind, we can say he is in a state of philia (of the sort Alcestis displayed in dying {210|211} for her husband, Symposium 179b–c) [6] or in a state of agapê. Thus, the word the Christians chose to refer to God’s “love” was agapê—they could not, obviously, choose erôs, insofar as erôs would have conveyed a desire and an attraction stemming from a need that a superior being like God could not feel for his inferior creatures. Similarly, Diotima contends in the Symposium that god, insofar as he is perfect, lacks nothing, which implies he feels no erôs (cf. 202c–d, 203e–204a). [7]

Thus the English “love” only partially overlaps with the ancient Greek erôs. But, despite this restriction, the speech still has many enlightening things to say about the “erotic” part of our love, where erôs need not be exclusively sexual, even though sexual desire is not excluded from it.

Diotima claims, in fact, that erôs “is love for beautiful things” (204d), but immediately proceeds to add that one can put “good” in place of “beautiful,” {211|212} so that love can be rendered as a desire to make good things one’s own (204e). The ease with which “beautiful” and “good” are interchanged may baffle us (after all, the Charmides had claimed that the good is the distinctive object of another faculty, namely wish, boulêsis, 167e). Yet the Symposium is very far from detaching moral from aesthetic value. It uses kalon (beautiful) and agathon (good) as words that can jointly help to describe the valuable aspect of an object that triggers our attraction to it. [10] According to this view, for example, crime is repulsive not only because it is morally reprehensible but also because it is aesthetically ugly. (After all, in English we can also call a good theory a beautiful theory, and a bad act an ugly act.) The interesting implication underlying this claim, however, is that Plato seems to believe that erôs for any object, whatever it may be (Mary or philosophy) is for that object qua beautiful; erôs could never be for an object qua ugly. In a similar way, Plato had Socrates claim in the early dialogues that one’s wish is—only—for the good. [11] If this theory is maintained in the Symposium, and if it equates “good” with “beautiful,” there is an implication that all the erôs one feels—however irrational it may seem— involves wishing for the good.

To illustrate this point, let us consider the following two scenarios:

    Tom is attracted to Mary who is indeed ugly-and-bad, even though he finds her beautiful-and-good.Tom is attracted to the ugly aspects of Mary.

The Symposium would allow 1, along the lines presented above, but deny that Tom is attracted to the ugly aspects of Mary qua ugly. Rather, Tom is attracted to the ugly aspects of Mary insofar as he finds those ugly aspects beautiful. That is, Mary may either be found ugly by most, even though Tom finds her beautiful, or Mary may indeed be ugly. In this latter scenario, it would again be denied that Tom could be attracted to Mary, who is really bad and ugly, insofar as he finds her so; rather, 2 would be treated as a case of 1: Tom must find Mary beautiful somehow or other if he is attracted to her. This introduces a distinction between the subjective and the objective aspects of good/beautiful, and betrays a commitment to some form of realism (aesthetic and/or moral) about properties such as the beautiful, a theory which precludes any sort of reduction of the beautiful to one’s own perceptions of it. Controversial as this commitment may be, certain rewards are apparent. For, as we shall see, it is precisely because the reduction cannot be performed that one may have grounds for changing one’s perceptions: one who starts being attracted to the “wrong” kind of person (say an abusive one), has potential for growth if she realizes that her value judgments guiding her original choice were mistaken. That is, however fashionable it may seem to say that “beauty” (and for that matter “goodness”) is in the eye of the beholder, we come to see on close examination that, by postulating the existence of Beauty/Goodness as an objective value, the Symposium is providing us with standards by which to make our choices and assess their correctness or otherwise. [13]

Now, if this is so, a new problem might seem to arise: is Diotima claiming that one feels erôs for the (objective) Beautiful, or for what one believes to be beautiful? The latter might seem to undermine objectivism, depriving us of those standards that it seemed useful to have. On the other hand, if the claim is that we all feel erôs for the objective Beautiful, then we would be committing Diotima to denying that Tom really loves Mary (whose apparently beautiful side is actually ugly), even though he believes he does.

Procreating in Beauty, the Scope of Love, and the Uniqueness Problem

There are many factors that might make us question the soundness of this argument. First, to make our desire to share in the beautiful and good coextensive with “being in love” seems too broad. Second, if all of us have that desire, the conclusion that we are all in love seems disconcerting. If we are all in love already, why do some people feel that they would love so strongly to be in love? (After all, even Diotima concedes that in colloquial usage “we say that some people love and others don’t,” 205b.)

But even this might seem hard to understand. Nussbaum (1986:180) expresses her reaction powerfully:

Just try to think it seriously: this body of this wonderful beloved person is exactly the same in quality as that person’s mind and inner life. Both, in turn, the same in quality as the value of Athenian democracy; of Pythagorean geometry; of Eudoxan astronomy. What would it be like to look at a body and to see in it exactly the same shade and tone of goodness and beauty as in a mathematical proof—exactly the same, differing only in amount and in location …?

This opens up a new question, one which Vlastos raised, [
18] and Nussbaum tries to address, about the fact that the Symposium, in the speech of Diotima, seems to suggest that our love is only for the repeatable properties in an individual, thus missing their “uniqueness and wholeness” (what I have labeled as “the Uniqueness Problem”). Now the Symposium gives us an answer as to why love is not of the whole: “Love is neither of half or whole, unless, my friend, it happens to be good” (205e). Aristophanes, a previous speaker in the Symposium, had represented picturesquely what it is to yearn for someone, {215|216} through the myth of those who were originally round wholes and, by punishment of Zeus, were cut in half, thereafter seeking their irreplaceable “other half” (189d–191d). While this myth may well capture a recognizable experience (we can have the sense of meeting, or even yearning to meet, “the one,” that person who makes us complete), [19] Diotima seems to demystify the yearning by telling us that indeed it is the beauty, the property, that we yearn for, rather than the “other half” as such. Even granting the intuitive appeal of Aristophanes’ speech, the point here is that no other human half as such, even if we meet it, can possibly satisfy our fundamental desire for completion; to understand that is to become initiated in the ladder of love:

This is the correct way of approaching matters of love or being led by another: beginning with the beautiful things here and using them as steps, one always goes up for the sake of that Beauty, from one body to two, and from two to all the beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful pursuits (or forms of behavior, epitêdeumata), and from pursuits to beautiful pieces of knowledge, and from pieces of knowledge one ends at this piece of knowledge, which is nothing other than knowledge of that very beauty, until finally one recognizes what is beautiful. Here, if anywhere in life … is human life worth living: in contemplation of Beauty Itself … unalloyed, pure and unmixed.

Symposium 211b–e

It is the third transition that marks an important shift between stages, which can also be described in terms of different sorts of procreation resulting from one’s basic desire for immortality, or for perpetual possession of the beautiful: what the Symposium had previously described as pregnancy of soul rather than pregnancy of body (208e–209c, cf. esp. epitêdeumata at 211c5 with 209c1). The drive to procreate in beauty explains why people seek to leave behind carnal children, but it also explains the desire to leave a spiritual legacy. Certainly, the step concerning love for ethical behavior (and thus for the soul) is presented as higher than the one concerning love for the body, and accordingly procreation in the former will have higher value than procreation in the latter. This need not exclude carnal procreation, but can simply be seen as emphasizing the right order of priorities—for one would not want to procreate in the body {216|217} if one were to know in advance, for example, that one’s children are fated to become incurable criminals. Further, much as the Symposium exalts procreation in the soul, special stress is laid on how one cherishes beauty of both body and soul in another person, even when the soul has priority of value: “So he welcomes beautiful bodies more than ugly ones insofar as he is pregnant, and if he encounters a fine, noble and gifted soul, he warmly embraces the combination (sunamphoteron),” 209b. That is, the Symposium teaches us to honor the people that we love as wholes rather than as objects of merely physical attraction. [

Certainly, if one’s erôs is towards beauty, then one will be inclined to embrace the most beauty one can get. Nussbaum goes on to remark: “So, in each stage of the ascent, the aspiring lover, aided by his teacher, sees relationships between one beauty and another, acknowledges that these beauties are comparable and intersubstitutable” (180).

Should we really take the text to mean that the beauties we encounter are “intersubstitutable”? Here we must pause and reflect briefly on Platonic metaphysics. In the first place, it is true that all singular beauties in the realm of particulars are instances, or exemplifications, of Beauty. At the end of the ladder we shall see them as “images” of it (cf. 212a4). But images are not necessarily intersubstitutable, since the combination of beautiful properties that a particular sample embodies will most likely be unique in each case (let us just imagine making a list of the beautiful properties in the person we love: how complex a task, and how absurd the thought would seem to us that we might just encounter another person with exactly that same complex combination!).

At the same time, Beauty appears to be an all-pervasive property, at least to the extent that, since particulars suffer from compresence of opposites, everything in that realm that is not beautiful in one way will also be beautiful in another. The contrast between these and the Form of Beauty is made clear later on, when we read that: “First, it [the Form] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, nor does it increase or decrease; next, it is not beautiful in one way and ugly in another, nor beautiful at one time and not at another, {217|218} nor beautiful in one respect and ugly in another, nor beautiful here and ugly there, as being beautiful to some and ugly to others” (211a). [21] It is, then, the fact that no particular can bear beauty unqualifiedly that makes it incomplete and imperfect in many ways, including the fact that particulars lend themselves to different perspectives. So, I may be attracted to someone because I rightly see the respect in which the person is beautiful (which you may miss, by focusing on her non-beautiful sides), or even because (unlike you) I wrongly take some aspects of her to be beautiful. To some extent, then, it is the ontological makeup of particulars that explains the phenomenology of love (why we tend to be attracted to different people and make the most diverse choices); it even leaves room for some sort of perspectivism based on our perceptions, as it is part of the various senses in which particulars appear beautiful and not beautiful that I may find a particular person beautiful (and thus be attracted to him or her) while the perceived lack of beauty in the same person keeps you away. Of course, this is not tantamount to saying that all perspectives matter the same; for, as was argued above, knowing the correct standards can serve to correct possibly distorted perspectives. [22] But it is the fact that individual beauty is in flux that explains our propensity to perspectivism. [23]

Perspectivism, then, together with the fact that to some extent beauty is everywhere, explains the variegatedness of our choices and attractions, and why there is always some beauty to be discovered even in the most apparently repellent person. The fact that there is beauty everywhere may in fact be seen as a consolation to the person who has suffered a particular loss, were she to {218|219} climb higher in the ladder. But would that mean that a particular instantiation of beauty that was lost—and that was bound to be lost, cf. Symposium 211a—can easily be interchanged with another?

Personal commitment and the goal of one’s erotic initiation

At the same time, the right choice of companion may be viewed as a way of sustaining the erôs for that beauty which can now be seen more lastingly and fully instantiated in that individual than in others:

For by being in contact with the beautiful and associating with such, one begets and generates those things which one has long been pregnant with, and whether present or absent he remembers. And jointly with the beloved he nurtures the offspring, so that such people have much more to share between them than they would with children and a firmer friendship (philian bebaioteran).

Symposium 209c {220|221}

Thus, just after we are told that everything is in flux and nothing stays the same in the mortal realm (cf. 207d–208b), it is now insinuated that erôs, when directed to a beautiful whole including above all the soul, can precisely bring some stability to our lives, a stability in turn supported by philia. It is worth noting to this effect that the Symposium does not contain any theory about the preexistence or postmortem survival of the soul; rather, the only (monon, 207d2) form of immortality envisaged is through reproduction or leaving a legacy, either carnal or spiritual. But, without assuming a theory of recollection of the Phaedo sort, [
29] we still find how important it is to have constant reminders of the value or values that ground the meaning of our lives. [30] And it is precisely that personal bond alluded to at Symposium 209a that helps one sustain the communing with the Form envisaged at the end of Diotima’s speech (cf. theômenou kai sunontos autôi, 212a2). If, as in other dialogues, also in the Symposium philosophy remains not a solipsistic but a communal affair (recall here Socrates’ crowning his report of Diotima’s speech by declaring that he has been “persuaded” by its truth, and that he feels a desire to “persuade others too” about it [cf. pepeismenos de peirômai kai tous allous peithein, 212b2–3] as well as to exhort them [cf. tois allois parakeleuomai, b6–7]), [31] reaching the top of the ladder must be seen not as excluding but as grounding and enriching the practical dimension of our lives (erôs being a sunergon, 212b3–4), as it provides the scenario where the enlightened lover not only communes with the Form but is also able to use it to inform his practical existence. And this will in turn have the consequence that, once we have grasped the correct standards of beauty, there is more of a guarantee that our love choices will be the right ones, and thus more enduring. [32] {221|222}

Now, there are still issues concerning commitment and attachment. Does an enlightened understanding of the nature of Beauty liberate us from all contingencies, or, as Nussbaum would put it, “our bondage to luck” (1986:181)? To some extent, yes. For it is clear that, at some point in our ascent, there occurs, so to speak, an “internalization” of Beauty: now the beauty to be found need not be outside us, as we can become instantiations of fine forms of behavior, virtues, or knowledge by the love that draws us to them. In that sense, we have gained some self-sufficiency and detachment from this or that external instantiation of Beauty; we know that we can have fulfillment even if we are not attached to a particular person, as we have not only the beauty that we have internalized, but also the “vast sea of beauty” (210d4) that surrounds us. We understand that happiness is not just about this or that particular companionship, but a higher order experience. Is such experience of detachment, however, only, or mainly, therapeutic, as Nussbaum contends? That is, is it aimed at making one “abandon his or her cherished human belief in irreplaceability in the service of his inner need for health” (1986:181)?

To answer this question, it is useful to see the speech of Diotima side by side with the speech of Alcibiades. Nussbaum contends that, while the former tries to “describe the passion or its object in general terms,” the latter describes precisely the particularity of it, “because his experience of love has happened to him only once” (1986:187). According to Nussbaum, the latter then captures an aspect of the experience that the former misses, even though, at the end of the day, the two speeches are put in front of us rather dilemmatically, as two “mutually exclusive varieties of vision” insofar as “we must choose: one sort of understanding blocks the other” (1986:198). Socrates gives us recipes to get away from the vulnerability and volatility that we all fear; but Alcibiades makes us realize “the deep importance unique passion has for ordinary human beings; we see its irreplaceable contribution to understanding.” {222|223}

Rather than meant to juxtapose two attitudes on love, however, I believe that the addition of Alcibiades’ speech after Diotima’s can be read in an alternative way—that is, as providing a practical illustration of the risks one runs if one avoids philosophizing about love, and of the kind of confusion that a person who does not have a proper understanding of love is bound to experience. This is the confusion of Alcibiades, who arrives after Socrates’ speech is over (212d), and who, so to speak, mistakes Socrates for the Form itself (just as the cave dwellers in the Republic mistake images for the realities that cause them). [33] Even though this section of the dialogue does have a positive side—showing us, through the image of Socrates, what it is like to be ascending the ladder [34] —it is not, in reality, a choice between a particularized experience of erôs and the apprehension of a Form (for we have shown that in a sense the latter is not even the ultimate end of the speech of Diotima—there is clearly a practical reward after the ascent). It is the choice between having an unenlightened experience of particulars and the transformed approach to them that one can gain ultimately through grasp of the Form. Socrates refuses to sleep with Alcibiades, but not because getting higher on the ladder has killed every sort of sexual attraction in him. [35] Indeed he is far from minimizing his feelings towards him: on the contrary, he describes his love (erôs) for Alcibiades to Agathon as “no trivial matter” (ou phaulon pragma, 213c). [36] It is rather that, one could say, the fact that his erôs is also directed towards a higher standard of beauty helps him realize that sex with that man would not be fulfilling, or (as he puts it) a fair exchange (cf. 218a), if the spiritual values that Alcibiades {223|224} professes to lack (216a–c) are supposed to be present in a sexual exchange that honors the beauty of the person as a whole (recall here the sunamphoteron of 209b7); instead, Socrates, exemplifying a point previously made in the speech of Diotima, spends a good part of his time trying to bring forth virtue in his beloved (cf. 216a). (And after all, Socrates himself is far from being portrayed as a man who would shun bodily pleasures in the Symposium, as he is, for example, the man who can drink as much as it pleases him (cf. pros hêdonên, 176e3), albeit without getting drunk, 220a4–5, and “enjoys” (apolauein) feasting, not like any other, but uniquely so (monos, 220a2); other dialogues reveal that he has been sexually active in old age.) [37]

But this then leads to another philosophical question: if equipped with the correct standards, it appears that we shall be able to make better choices, and that we are lucky if, even deprived of those standards (as in principle Alcibiades would be), we come across a person with the capacity to draw others to them. But then, would this have the consequence that, despite the variegated and multiform mass of images of Beauty, we should all be drawn to the one that embodies it best? For example, assuming that Plato intends to represent Socrates as the “best” instantiation available, should then everyone around him be infatuated with him above all mortals?

To an extent, Plato might perhaps be willing to grant the point. How could one fail to be drawn to an individual of exceptional charisma, and how could one deny the rightness of such attraction if it promises significantly to improve the quality of our lives? At the same time, we must not forget that we are finding this or that other individual attractive; however high we have climbed on the ladder, we are after all human; and insofar as we are human we have needs that continue to be particular precisely in that we ourselves embody beauty in one sense but not in another. The sense in which we don’t creates a lack, and it is the desire to fulfill that particular lack, distinct from one individual to another, that may draw us to different persons instead of necessarily the same one in all cases. And even in cases where we are attracted to, and seek the companionship of, a person embodying properties that we ourselves have, Plato would argue that, as one does not embody that property in its whole perfection, such companionship may make one’s experience of beauty fuller and thus be a suitable channel for its enhanced instantiation.


[ back ] 1. Christopher Rowe, for example, doubts that one can extract from this work much in the way of “general messages about personal relationships” (1998a:7).

[ back ] 2. Talk of “states of mind” is here intended in a non-committal way. For love as a diathesis see e.g. 207b1, c1.

[ back ] 3. See here my 1998:273–274 and 2001:118.

[ back ] 4. All translations are my own.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Taylor 1979:165.

[ back ] 6. Even though erôs can also be a component of this experience, as explicitly attested: cf. 179c; also Nehamas and Woodruff 1989:xiv.

[ back ] 7. On erôs and philia in the Symposium see also Ludwig 2002:212–220; on the triad erôs, philia and agapê (a noun which as such does not occur in Plato) see Santas 1988:8–9; on agapê in the Christian Bible see Nygren 1953 and Osborne 1994:24–51.

[ back ] 8. Cf. Republic IV 437d–e.

[ back ] 9. At e.g. Republic IX 573d erôs (as grows in the tyrannical soul) is associated with feasts and luxuries. On “erôs for food and drink” in Homer see e.g. Hunter 2004:16.

[ back ] 10. Cf. Nussbaum 1986:178n: “The kalon is meant to include … everything that is valuable in the world,” so that it might be more accurate to render it as “valuable”; also Price 1997:16 on subtle distinctions between the two notions. On the force of Plato’s objectivist assumption here see Gentzler 2004.

[ back ] 11. See e.g. Gorgias 466b–468d, Meno 78b, and cf. Protagoras 358c–d; also my 2004:61–67.

[ back ] 12. Erôs in the Symposium can be said to be teleological in many ways: (1) insofar as Love is directed to the good; (2) insofar as Love has a purpose in nature (206–207); (3) insofar as Love is of use for humans (204c).

[ back ] 13. See also n21.

[ back ] 14. For an explanation of a similar problem in the early dialogues concerning our universal desire for the good cf. my 2004:61–67. And after all, if one finds out that a person doesn’t have the qualities one used to believe she did, one may be willing to concede that one was not in love with that person but with the “idea” of her.

[ back ] 15. Cf. Symposium 211a and below, n21.

[ back ] 16. See Nicomachean Ethics 1.4.1095a17–19.

[ back ] 17. See here the Republic, where desire is attached to all parts of the soul, but where erôs can also be seen as a single source of motivation that can be diverted to different channels (IX 580d, VI 485a–e), as I have argued in my 2004:69–71.

[ back ] 18. See Vlastos 1973b.

[ back ] 19. A similar thought seems to underlie talk of “merging of identities” and “ontological dependence” between lovers as found in modern studies of love such as Solomon 1988. Cf. also Scruton 1986, Hunter 1980, Fisher 1977 and 1990, Nozick 1989, Delaney 1996.

[ back ] 20. Certainly, it could still be argued that the whole we honor is the combination of the beautiful bodily and psychological properties of the person, to the exclusion of her ugly ones. Does this mean not having respect for the person as such? Much depends on our (or, for that matter, Plato’s) notion of the person. After all, it might not seem unreasonable to identify a person with her better side, if identity, as Plato believes, is normative, that is, something to aspire to: in this regard, being loved for our good properties would work as an incentive for us to achieve our higher selves and thus grow further in virtue. For an argument along these lines see Price 1981.

[ back ] 21. I believe that here the various forms of compresence (of which the Form of Beauty is said to be free) must be understood as applying to tokens, and not just to types, as indicated by the context, which has just contrasted the Form of Beauty with the beauty of particulars such as “a certain young boy or man or single pursuit” 210d2–3, and which presents Beauty Itself as the top of a ladder whose first step is precisely an individual beautiful body (cf. henos, 211c3).

[ back ] 22. Thus, a person who knew the correct standards of beauty would not fall back into inaccurate valuations of beauty when returning to the realm of particulars. Rather, the person who has reached a grasp of objective beauty would align her own valuations with objective standards. To the extent that a thing participates in beauty, and I recognize the exact degree or respect of such participation, my valuation is objectively correct, and it is precisely the grasp of the Form (what beauty is) that provides the criterion for assessing the correctness or otherwise of that valuation. The philosopher who has reached the top of the ladder can thus use the Forms as correct standards precisely insofar as grasping their essence will allow one to tell accurately whether or to what extent other things participate in it (just as the liberated prisoner in the Cave will be better able, after seeing the Forms, to discern their images, since he will know “the images and of what they are images,” Republic VII 520c). More precisely, knowing what beauty is will allow one to distinguish correctly a person’s beautiful and ugly aspects – and this is how one will be able to correct possibly distorted perspectives.

[ back ] 23. For flux understood as compresence of opposites see e.g. Irwin 1977b.

[ back ] 24. See n33.

[ back ] 25. The concern about treating people as means towards some larger ethical goal is not confined to the Symposium. Michael Stocker 1997 finds a similar problem posed by the constraints of modern ethical theories such as consequentialism and deontology.

[ back ] 26. Pace Strauss 2001:239, who claims that here, given the interrogative mode in which Plato presents the issue to us, “he is not concerned with generating true virtue, he is only concerned with beholding beautiful things and beauty itself.” As a matter of fact, the grammatical form of the Greek at 212a3–5 most likely indicates endorsement by the speaker.

[ back ] 27. Begetting true virtue would result from spiritual pregnancy, of the sort described at 209a, which is said to “beget virtue” in a context where the “biggest and finest part of wisdom (phronêsis)” includes no less than the administration of cities, and is called moderation and justice; in a similar practical manner, at 209b8 the discussion of virtue is related to how the good man should be and what pursuits (epitêdeumata) he should practice. Certainly, one could argue that the “true virtue” of 212a is supposed to supersede the virtue discussed in 209a–b, since that passage comes before the “biggest mysteries” of 210a–212a, so that “begetting true virtue” is a merely contemplative affair (after all, we had been told about “begetting thoughts” at 210d5–6, which suggests the begetting needn’t be practical). The burden of proof, however, lies in this opposing view, and I shall argue that a more interesting reading of the text results if we take Diotima’s speech as a consistent whole rather than have one section (the one about the “highest mysteries”) nullify the other, much as the ascent is undoubtedly supposed to give a theoretical foundation to our ethical lives.

[ back ] 28. I am not here addressing the pederastic assumptions of the Symposium and its reflection of its own historical context (for a discussion, see Dover 1989 and the paper in the present volume by Luc Brisson); I take it that many of its claims can be applied to both heterosexual and homosexual love in our own age.

[ back ] 29. For a recent discussion of its absence in the Symposium see Sheffield 2001a.

[ back ] 30. It is suggestive that the Greek tou kalou at 209c2 (in the expression “by being in contact with the beautiful and associating with such”) is ambiguous, as it can be either neuter or masculine. While the latter reading may suggest remembering one’s beautiful companion, the former would proleptically suggest something like the Forms—after all, the language used for communing with it (haptomenos, homilôn, ibid.) is used, later in the Symposium and elsewhere, in relation to the Forms: cf. ephatomenôi Symposium 212a5, homilein Republic VI 500c, haptesthai Phaedo 65b, ephaptesthai Timaeus 90a.

[ back ] 31. Cf. e.g. Gorgias 527e, Republic 531e–532b, 534b–c. Even Diotima herself, whom we can take as an example of someone who has presumably “seen” the Forms and grounds her report on such a vision (whether or not this is the case with Socrates himself) feels the desire to “instruct” Socrates: see 201d–e, 207c, 210a.

[ back ] 32. According to Price (1981:28) companionship of this sort “first reminds the lover of Beauty itself, which is the apex of the ascent” (210e–211a); but I suggest that whether or not there is recollection à la Phaedo triggered before knowledge of the Form, such a companionship in any case provides the constant stimulus to keep recollection alive after communion with the Form itself, or even to preserve that very communion to the extent that it is possible for humans to do so (cf. Diotima’s qualifications and hypothetical mode in this regard: ei tôi genoito auto to kalon idein, 211d8–212a1, dunaito 211e4)—just as in the Republic dialectic is an activity of dialogue rooted in the elenchos: cf. VII 531e–532a, 534b. One might still wonder whether this sort of scenario is not ultimately based on self-interest rather than interest in the other person’s good. I believe the question is misguided, as it is clear that “the good” (or “the beautiful”), to the extent that it subordinates and grounds all other things that we call “good,” subordinates and grounds both one’s own and one’s companion’s good. Thus even if, at the beginning of the ascent, one may be motivated by a selfish quest for immortality or possession of the beautiful, it will be part of the transformative effect of grasping the Form that one will put not only the other person, but also oneself in the right perspective, and realize the importance of promoting the good in others no less than in oneself. For further discussion of this large issue in Platonic philosophy see e.g. Kraut 1973, Kosman 1976, Irwin 1995:308–311.

[ back ] 33. Alcibiades, like the sight-lovers in the Republic—who (unlike the philosophers, cf. VII 520c) “think that what is similar to something is not similar but that thing itself which it is like,” V 476c—does not see the difference between the copy and the original, and that is why he is prone to confusion. For this, of course, he does not need to know the original; on the contrary, because of his uninformed view about what it is to embody beauty fully and unqualifiedly, he misidentifies the latter with particular instances such as Socrates (hence his obsession with him). For other ways in which Alcibiades misunderstands Socrates, cf. Reeve’s paper in this volume.

[ back ] 34. On this many scholars agree: see e.g. Bury 1932:lx, Dover 1980:164, Rowe 1998a:206. See also Sheffield 2001b:196–198 for a summary of many parallels between Alcibiades’ portrait of Socrates and the description of philosophical erôs in Diotima’s speech.

[ back ] 35. Pace e.g. Scott 2000, who claims that Socrates does not feel erôs but only affection for Alcibiades.

[ back ] 36. Further, Alcibiades refers to Socrates as “always in the company of beautiful boys and thunderstruck” (or “drawn out of his senses,” ekpeplêktai) by them” (216d2–3; the same verb that he uses to describe his reaction to Charmides at Charmides 154c3, cf. Symposium 211d5), which suggests that these boys have a physical effect on him (just as at Charmides 155d), even though he refrains from acting on his desire—and that’s why in the Symposium he is described as temperate (211d7), resilient, and brave (219d)—as mentally “looking down” on that physical beauty by which he is stricken (as at 216d7–8).

[ back ] 37. See here Phaedo 116b and Apology 34d describing Socrates, at the age of seventy, as having small children, with Woolf 2004:104–105.

[ back ] 38. It may be objected that there are many couples that stay and die together without being philosophical about their love. The point here, however, is not about the fact of their love, but the grounds for it. It is one thing to say that a relationship can happen to last, and another that it was inherently stable in the sense of being well-grounded.

[ back ] 39. Cf. 210a–212a. The point is noted in Nussbaum 1986:179.

[ back ] 40. It could be objected that the thought of “loving someone qua” is contrary to our experience of love. However, common usage reveals it all the time: “I love you for your generosity.” Likewise, one may find an object attractive precisely because of its illicitness.

[ back ] 41. The germinal ideas of this paper originated in many undergraduate philosophy lectures on the Symposium that I have given over the years. The research was furthered while I was holding a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and subsequently a Fellowship at the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC. I should like to thank both institutions for their support, and the other conference participants, an anonymous referee, and especially J. H. Lesher, for their helpful comments on the penultimate version.