|Symposium scene from Paestum, c.475 BCE |
The dialogue is a rich and elegant piece of literature as well as of philosophy, painting a vivid picture of a typical ancient Greek social occasion. Its main subject is love, but it touches on other questions such as panegyric, and includes a famous discourse on beauty. In this article I shall focus on the latter, the part most relevant to aesthetics and theory of art. Plato discusses beauty in several other dialogues, e.g. the Hippias Major which attempts to define it, but here I will try to limit myself to The Symposium.
This famous text is no dry philosophy tract but a finely-constructed narrative with distinctive characters and wit, and it is a pleasure to read. I am using the 1951 Penguin translation by W. Hamilton, though of course there are others available. Several English translations are free online, such as Benjamin Jowett’s at the Internet Classics Archive, or Harold N. Fowler’s on Perseus Digital Library. If you can, try more than one translation: the differences between them can be disconcerting.
Plato frames the guests’ conversation at a couple of removes: it is recounted to an unidentified companion by the narrator Apollodorus, who heard of it from someone who was there, namely Aristodemus, an admirer of Socrates. As such it is more a narration at third-hand than a true dialogue, although there are dialogues within it.
The symposium is given in honour of Agathon, who has just won a prize for his first tragedy, and the guests are already worn out by a night of heavy celebratory drinking. After the guests have eaten, Eryximachus proposes they entertain themselves with conversation, and that each man make a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love. The Symposium employs a richer vocabulary of ‘love’ than is available to our English translations. The main noun eros has a range of meanings: it may refer to strong desire in a broad sense (e.g. wanting something), to passionate love, or to the god Eros himself. Unlike the dispassionate philia, which implies friendship, affection, loyalty etc, eros is mostly sexual. As we shall see, Plato takes it on a journey that leads beyond physical attraction to seek spiritual truth.
There follow a series of speeches, each more or less building upon the last.
Going first, the handsome young Phaedrus says that Love is one of the most ancient gods, implying it is worthy of great respect. Love brings out the best in us, as we don’t like to look bad to those we love, and it encourages self-sacrifice: for this reason the best army would be one packed with male couples.
The next speaker is Pausanias, the lover of Agathon, who argues that Love does not have a single nature. He makes a distinction between Common (or ‘popular’ or ‘vulgar’) Love, which is physical rather than spiritual, and Heavenly Love, which is between males. The only honourable form of the latter is when a youth in search of wisdom gratifies an older man’s sexual needs in return for a moral and social education. Heavenly Love is ‘valuable for both states and individuals because it entails upon both lover and beloved self-discipline for the attainment of excellence’ (185b-c).
This pairing of an older male lover (erastes) with a passive adolescent (eromenos) in a homoerotic relationship was well-established in ancient Greece, though it had its detractors. We must be cautious about labelling it as homosexual in the modern normative sense: it was more an initiation of boys into the norms of the male world.
The doctor Eryximachus follows, arguing that Love, like medicine, encourages moderation and harmony, and by extension plays its part not only in human relationships but in music and ‘practically all existing things’. He extends Pausanius’ concept of two loves: Heavenly Love is conducive to good health and harmony, whereas Common Love can bring illness and disorder.
The next speaker is Aristophanes, the comic poet and playwright, who relates an eccentric myth about how the original human beings were spherical with two heads and eight limbs. In punishment for challenging the gods, they were bisected by Zeus, and now spend their lives seeking their other half so they might become whole again.
The host Agathon then makes a very different, rhetorically high-flown speech. Bringing the conversation back on topic, he praises the god Love as young, good, beautiful and wise. Love encourages creation, both reproductive and artistic, and confers greatness and fame. ‘Supreme in beauty and goodness’ (197c), it bestows those qualities on us, too.
Finally it is Socrates’ turn. He says he is simply interested in the truth, and tears into Agathon, arguing that Love must desire something, and that one desires what one lacks; once one has it, one desires to keep it. He recalls Agathon’s remark that ‘the troubles among the gods were composed by love of beauty, for there could not be such a thing as love of ugliness’ (201a). If Love desires goodness or beauty, then Love itself could not be good or beautiful as Agathon claims.
He goes on to share with the symposiasts what he learned from a wise woman of Mantinea called Diotima, who taught him about the philosophy of love. In this way she effectively gets a speech at the symposium – a dialogue within a dialogue – and hers is the most important by far. Diotima says that Love is the desire for goodness, wisdom and beauty. Love’s object is ‘to procreate and bring forth in beauty’, either in the bodily sense or in the world of ideas. A man’s highest goal should be to seek wisdom by contemplating the abstract, absolute Form from which all objects’ beauty derives.
As Socrates finishes talking, the colourful politician Alcibiades burst in drunk with some companions. He praises Socrates, whom he has tried, but failed, to seduce, and the party breaks down into uproar and drunkenness.
Given the deliberately unreliable nature of The Symposium – speeches by drunken guests, recalled by another drunken guest, then related to a further person Apollodorus, who then tries to recall everything for a companion – we must be cautious in judging precisely what is Plato’s belief and what is merely the belief of a character. However, it is reasonable to take Diotima’s speech (201d-212c), which is the intellectual climax of the work, as representative of Plato’s own views. Each speaker contributes a little more insight into the topic of Love, helping the discussion gradually draw closer, in a process known as the Socratic dialectic, to what Plato considers the truth. In her contribution as reported by Socrates, Diotima touches upon themes introduced by earlier speakers, but explores them more cohesively and profoundly.
Given the intense sexism of ancient Greece, it is curious that Plato uses a female character, albeit through the voice of a male, in such a prominent philosophical role: the teacher of Socrates. (The only other female present is an unnamed flute-girl, who is dismissed early on lest she distract the men from their talk.) One reason may be that Plato considers a female, looked upon as a vessel of reproduction, better-suited to report the language of ‘pregnancy’.
Let’s walk through Diotima’s speech. She begins with the arguments Socrates just used to crushed Agathon, to prove that Love is neither beautiful nor good. But she goes on:
Do not suppose that because, on your own admission, Love is not good or beautiful, he must on that account be ugly and bad, but rather that he is something between the two. (202b)
Love, who desires goodness and beauty and must therefore lack both, cannot be a god.
He is a great spirit [daimon], Socrates; everything that is of the nature of a spirit is half-god and half-man... Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. (202e)
It is not a thing, but a relationship between things. This mediator serves to bring us closer to the things we lack and desire: it takes us from mere opinion to possessing wisdom. Who seeks wisdom? Not the gods, who are already wise; not the ignorant, who are satisfied with themselves. The seekers of wisdom are
the intermediate class, of which Love among others is a member. Wisdom is one of the most beautiful of things, and Love is love of beauty, so it follows that Love must be a lover of wisdom, and consequently in a state half-way between wisdom and ignorance. (204b)
Love of beauty is equated with love of good, whose obvious purpose is to make us happy. This desire is common, Socrates argues, to all people. Diotima points out that we misleadingly don’t describe everyone who loves as being in love.
This desire expresses itself in many ways, and those with whom it takes the form of love of money or of physical prowess or of wisdom are not said to be in love or called lovers, whereas those whose passion runs in one particular channel usurp the name of lover, which belongs to them all... (205d)
She now asks, what is the nature of this love? It is desire for the good, that we may possess it for ourselves, in perpetuity. Diotima goes on to explain by what action it is expressed:
The function is that of procreation in what is beautiful, and such procreation can be either physical or spiritual... All men, Socrates, are in a state of pregnancy, both spiritual and physical, and they come to maturity they feel a natural desire to bring forth, but they can do so only in beauty and never in ugliness. There is something divine about the whole matter; in pregnancy and bringing to birth the mortal creature is endowed with a touch of immortality. But the process cannot take place in disharmony, and ugliness is out of harmony with everything divine, whereas beauty is in harmony with it. (206b-d)
Contact with beauty makes us happy and delivers us from our burdens, whereas ugliness makes us sour. What we all want as human beings is to be happy. To achieve happiness, we need to be creative: to bring forth works of some kind.
The object of love, Socrates, is not, as you think, beauty... Its object is to procreate and bring forth in beauty. (206e)
Diotima speaks of pregnancy in broad sense: it can mean bearing children, but also means creativity in making and in ideas. Procreation is love’s object because it is the nearest we can come to immortality. Here again we have the perpetual possession of the good. This is true in the physical sense – as with animals, sex ensures our natures are passed on to further generations by making offspring. Here Diotima argues that we live in a constant process of change: as we get older, our bodies and minds go through ‘loss and reparation’, and to offset this we seek to replace the old with the new. This cycle of reproduction offers us a kind of immortality, different of course to that of the gods, but craved by all living things after their own manner. This craving explains acts like Achilles’ in the Iliad when he avenges Patroclus: he is motivated by the longing for immortality through the songs that are sung of him.
People may reproduce in two ways, one heterosexual and physical, the other homoerotic and spiritual:
Those whose creative instinct is physical have recourse to women, and show their love in this way, believing that by begetting children they can secure for themselves an immortal and blessed memory hereafter for ever; but there are some whose creative desire is of the soul, and who conceive spiritually, not physically, the progeny which it is the nature of the soul to conceive and bring forth. (208e-209a)
This progeny is wisdom and virtue, it is the laws of Lycurgus and Solon, it is the poetry of Homer and Hesiod. These are humankind’s spiritual children, a higher form of creativity than mere physical reproduction. Diotima is speaking of creativity in a broad sense, but there is a theory of artistic creation embedded here: the begetting of spiritual progeny in the beautiful is what gives us works of art and the achievements of civilisation.
Diotima then goes on to describe, in a famous passage (210a-212a), how a man might aspire to spiritual production. It is a quest for beauty that ascends through several stages.
- He begins by contemplating physical beauty, and falls in love with a beautiful boy, and they conceive noble sentiments together.
- Later he realises that physical beauty is similar in everybody, and takes an interest in all beautiful bodies, since investing his passion in one individual is ‘of small account’.
- He realises that beauty of soul is more valuable than beauty of body, and can move on from loving physical beauty to loving beauty in general.
- He starts to see beauty in other things, such as activities and institutions (alternatively, ‘observances and laws’).
- Freed from fixation on a beautiful individual, he now gazes upon a ‘vast ocean of beauty’ and can conceive the noblest ideas, until he finds one special knowledge, whose object is absolute beauty.
- There is now revealed to him a marvellous beauty, the final goal: a beauty that resides in no single body or idea but is absolute.
|My diagram of Diotima’s ladder. (Click to enlarge)|
Diotima concludes with a fine and rather moving passage describing what is revealed to the wise man.
This beauty is first of all eternal; it neither comes into being nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes; next, it is not beautiful in part and ugly in part, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in this relation and ugly in that, nor beautiful here and ugly there, as varying according to its beholders; nor again will this beauty appear to him like the beauty of a face or hands or anything else corporeal, or like the beauty of a thought or a science, or like beauty which has its seat in something other than itself, be it a living thing or the earth or the sky or anything else whatever; he will see it as absolute, existing alone with itself, unique, eternal, and all other beautiful things as partaking of it, yet in such a manner that, while they come into being and pass away, it neither undergoes any increase or diminution nor suffers any change. (210e-211b)
Although she does not refer to it as such, Diotima is describing the Form of Beauty: an abstract, absolute ‘beauty in its essence’ of which all physical things – boys, rich clothes, etc – are mere flickering shadows, a ‘mass of perishable rubbish’ (211e). From the first step of being physically attracted to a good-looking boy, we may gradually learn how the world truly is, and spend our life contemplating a beauty that is good, and wise, and eternal.
Do you think it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself. (212a)
Diotima argues that contemplating this beauty is the best life we can lead. Someone who has ascended the ladder brings forth not mere images or reflections of goodness, but true goodness. The greatest lover is the philosopher, the lover of wisdom.
Schooled in Diotima’s teachings, this is why Socrates honours Love. And when Alcibiades knocks on Agathon’s door, his is no mere drunken interruption. For in his eulogy of Socrates, he describes a living example of someone who has climbed the ladder of Diotima. Despite Alcibiades’ attempts at seduction, Socrates always exercises self-control, as his ambition is ‘to come as near perfection as possible’. He has learnt to dismiss mere physical pleasures, and Alcibiades, too, can see in Socrates a beauty of mind that far outweighs his satyr-like appearance. Alcibiades’ praise puts an individual human face to Diotima’s rather abstract and impersonal account.
In summary, Plato contends that:
- Love is the desire for the good and beautiful, which will make us happy.
- We desire to possess it eternally. Thus we yearn for immortality as much as for good.
- The way to achieve the object of Love is through Love’s function: to bring forth works, whether physical (children) or spiritual (ideas, philosophy). For mortals this creative production is the only path to immortality and happiness.
- To bring forth works we must ascend a ladder of enlightenment from the physical to the spiritual, and contemplate the absolute Form of beauty.
Plato’s attitude to art and beauty
Plato regards art and beauty differently to modern theorists. Recall the etymology of ‘aesthetics’ – aisthanomai, to perceive or sense. There is a tension between the concrete, sensuous process of making art and Plato’s idealism, which makes him suspicious of the senses and the physical world. In consequence he is mostly, though not entirely, hostile towards the arts, a hostility best expressed in The Republic. He draws a distinction between the poet, who has no true knowledge and only creates second-hand imitations, and the philosopher, who has true knowledge and therefore brings into the world something good and beautiful.
I would not deny the philosopher the ability to create beautiful works. And aesthetics is itself a branch of philosophy. But in aesthetics the theoretical focus tends more heavily – and reasonably – towards the relationship between beauty and the artist.
Diotima’s account, glorious though it is, raises several problems. I’m not attempting an exhaustive exegesis here, but I discuss some of them below.
1. Conceptual weaknesses
It is impossible for people who do not believe in supernatural things, or at least in ancient Greek supernatural things, to accept the idea of Love as a ‘spirit’. We cannot even interpret this ‘spirit’ as a metaphor for human desire, because it explicitly stands between gods and humans as an intermediary.
In addition, there are weaknesses in Diotima’s reasoning. For example, desiring something does not mean we lack it. We can easily think of examples of people desiring something they do not lack, such as the billionaires who continue to relentlessly increase their capital despite already having more money than they could ever spend. It is not a strict either/or. On that evidence, Love does not necessarily lack goodness or beauty. This undermines the first steps of her argument.
But there are more profound difficulties than this.
2. The strangeness and impersonality of Platonic love
Plato takes the topic of Love into strange territory. Love, we learn, ultimately isn’t about such things as having sexual partners or the joy of embracing our pets and children. It is not a human emotion, as most of us assume, but a spirit intermediary. This is a strange conception. Also, the dismissal of physical Love as we ascend the ladder, illustrated by Socrates’ rebuffal of Alcibiades, implies that Plato favours non-consummation. But what is wrong with consummation? Sex is a common and delightful part of being human. Plato’s peculiar conception of Love alienates many of us from his theory.
Plato goes on to claim that Love’s goal is the contemplation of an abstract concept of beauty. This has the unhappy consequence of depersonalising Love. Plato seems to regard it as a means to something abstract and absolute that doesn’t involve beloved persons. The scholar Gregory Vlastos took Plato to task for this in an influential essay, ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’2, summarising him thus:
What we are to love in persons is the image of the ‘idea’ in them.
Individuals only appear on the lower rungs and disappear as we climb higher. Plato seems to see other people instrumentally – a means to absolute beauty, rather than worthwhile in their own right.
This criticism assumes that as we ascend the ladder, we metaphorically kick away each previous rung. In fairness, Diotima does not say this. The passion for one individual person becomes ‘of small account’, and physical beauty ‘a poor thing’ in comparison with higher levels of beauty, but they are not of no account. And they may arguably be superceded by a more spiritual Love that still embraces the individual but without the pre-occupation with physicality. We may debate this as we please. But Diotima says:
Having his eyes fixed upon beauty in the widest sense, he may no longer be the slave of a base and mean-spirited devotion to an individual example of beauty, whether the object of his love be a boy or a man or an activity...
Perhaps she means to exclude only the ‘base and mean-spirited devotion’ to a beloved rather than to exclude the beloved entirely. But that is not what is implied, and to rescue the beloved individual we must clutch at fine distinctions and at things left unsaid. Diotima makes no mention at all of a beloved individual in her climactic vision, which concerns only the Lover and his goal, the Form of beauty.
It is difficult, therefore, to reconcile Plato’s account with our actual, lived experience of Love, which does normally centre upon other individuals. And a theory that does not explain reality is not of much use to anyone.
Another problem is that the Love that can lead men (not women) to the highest intellectual achievements and knowledge of beauty is exclusively homoerotic; heterosexual relations in the Symposium are good for producing children and little else. The claim that true beauty may be known only to men who have relationships with adolescent boys may have seemed feasible in Plato’s culture, but for us it is clearly preposterous. Beauty is experienced by, and accessible to, everyone: man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, etc. Plato however thinks that high-level creativity is beyond the capability of the female half of humanity, and of the males who do not practice pederasty.
3. Do Forms exist?
The most fundamental problem lies at the core of Plato’s philosophy.
Plato is an idealist philosopher: he believes that ideas are more real than the objects in which those ideas are manifested.3 They exist outside of time and space, and are the true objects of knowledge. This is known as his theory of Forms. The Symposium does not explicitly discuss that, but readers familiar with other works such as the Phaedo or The Republic will recognise it in Diotima’s account of beauty.
Plato believes there are two kinds of reality: a sensable world of everyday things and an intelligible world of Forms. For everything that exists, whether concrete objects like shoes or abstract notions like democracy, there is a perfect, unchanging and eternal Form or Idea in which it partakes. Every shoe partakes in the universal Form of a shoe; every election in the universal Form of democracy.
For example, during our lives we will see a multitude of tea-cups, all of them different. They will be made of different materials, be decorated in different ways, have different sizes, and so on. However, they have something in common which, despite this great variety, makes all of them tea-cups. Plato would argue that there exists, in another realm to which we normally have no access, a perfect Form of a tea-cup which defines the character of all actually existing tea-cups. It is a kind of master copy, the formal condition that makes every individual tea-cup possible. It is a universal principle that makes things exist the way they do. When we perceive a beautiful object, its beauty comes from its participation in the Form.
Plato therefore thinks that beauty is an objective property. Its Form exists as a thing in itself, independent of any human onlooker or the objects that partake of it. The instances of beauty we see around us are shadowy and corruptible approximations of a perfect original.
In The Symposium, Plato brings us to the Forms via Love: Diotima describes begetting in beauty as the object of Love. By ascending the ladder towards knowledge of the Forms, we gradually realise that beautiful particulars are merely instances of a greater, universal beauty from which they take their being. This search for wisdom takes us from the changeable physical realm to the realm of ideas and spirit. Human beings live amongst the rough and tumble of everyday things, and we cannot sense the Forms with our eyes or other organs, only with our souls. To know the Forms is the true object of knowledge, and to know them demands a long and rigorous philosophical struggle. It is not accidental that Diotima’s voice is the most distant in the dialogue, reported at several removes: Us > Plato > Apollodorus > Aristodemus > Socrates > Diotima. It is as if Plato is trying to emphasise the difficulty of penetrating the veils of obscurity behind which absolute beauty lies. Even his ideal philosopher, Socrates, never claims to have knowledge of the Forms, and most of us only ever seek wisdom without attaining it. As W. Hamilton points out in the Introduction to his translation:
If man possessed [wisdom] he would no longer be man; if he had no yearning for it he would be merely animal.
At first glance, Plato’s theory has some justification. There must indeed be something that thousands of diverse tea-cups have in common that makes them tea-cups rather than beer-glasses or vacuum cleaners, and this something must be an abstraction that is not physically to hand or expressible in a single object. Physical objects are constantly changing, seen in different kinds of light, suffering wear and tear, put to improbable uses, etc. They are unreliable and ephemeral, and we may struggle to find a common reference point for their succession of states. How reassuring, then, is the stability of perfect, unchanging Forms, like great anchors securing a ship to shore. They are a solution to the problem of universals.
In the dialogue Parmenides, Plato has the old philosopher Parmenides grill a young Socrates on a series of difficulties with the theory of Forms. What things have a Form: objects, concepts, human-made things? What about nasty, undignified things like mud? How do instances partake of them? If Forms and instances are from different realms, how do they relate to each other? The inexperienced Socrates struggles to defend himself, yet despite this self-criticism Plato does not abandon his theory. He thinks there must be answers, and the Parmenides simply lays out the challenges for later Platonists to wrestle with.
But the criticisms are powerful. To be anachronistic, are there perfect eternal Forms of custard creams, iPhones or coat-hangers? How could there be an eternal Form of anything that is human-made, given that we now know human beings evolved relatively recently? Has there been a Form of custard creams, existing for all eternity, just waiting for us to evolve so we might finally make individual custard creams? Who made that Form? Presumably it was not ‘made’ at all, because that would mean there must have been a time before it was made, and the Form would thus not be eternal. The issue of eternity is also thorny: we know that the world around us is constantly changing, becoming and passing away. Evolution is a good example of this. How are we to understand a dynamic, sensuous reality through Forms that last forever and never change?
Biased towards intellect and philosophy over the world of the senses, Plato made the mistake of abstracting the universal qualities of objects and declaring these abstractions more real than the objects themselves. There is no good reason to do this. Abstraction is a useful function of consciousness, no more, and consciousness arises from matter, not the other way around. The fact is, we have collected vast evidence for the reality of the physical world; we have none whatsoever for the existence of ideal Forms. We may build a coherent argument for their existence, but we can never prove it. This is powerful grounds for favouring the primacy of matter over the primacy of ideas.
Accordingly, idealism is rare in modern philosophy.
If there is no good reason to believe in Forms, then there is no good reason to believe in a Form of beauty; and without the Form of beauty, the argument of The Symposium breaks down. The ladder has nowhere to take us, and we are dumped back among the dirt, the bodies, the perishable stuff of the reality we can see and measure and sense directly, forced to think again.
In The Symposium Plato never defines what beauty is, only some properties of its Form. But we know from other works that there is a hierarchy to the Forms, with the Form of Good the most powerful. The close connection of beauty and goodness was to prove popular with Neoplatonists (e.g. Proclus, Plotinus) and Christians (e.g. St Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius). Plato’s idealism, if problematic today, posed no difficulty for religious philosophy. The ladder of Love was taken up by the early Church Fathers, who recast it in Christian terms. In the Renaissance, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino revived Platonism through translations and treatises. His commentary on The Symposium, De Amore, Christianised its ideas and invented our modern notion of ‘Platonic love’ as a sexless, spiritual relationship. More recently, we can see The Symposium’s influence on such diverse thinkers as Shelley, Hölderlin, Tolstoy, Freud and Lacan4.
Plato’s Symposium is of the greatest historical and cultural interest. However, it has limited usefulness for the modern aesthetician who is trying to understand what happens when we make and experience art and beauty.
The BBC released a nice video illustrating Diotima’s ladder:
1. How accurately Plato’s character Socrates represents the method and views of the historical Socrates is a debate in itself. There is no evidence that Diotima, the real star of the dialogue though not present at the party, was a real person.
2. Gregory Vlastos, ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’, in Platonic Studies (1973).
3. Some philosophers argue that since the Forms or Ideas really exist for Plato, and are more real than than the world we can see, strictly they are not abstractions (we might call them ‘paradigms’ instead) and that Plato is therefore technically not an idealist. I would call him idealist because he thinks true reality can only be approached through thought. But ultimately it is just a label.
4. For a survey of The Symposium’s influence see chapter 4 of Thomas Cooksey, Plato’s Symposium: A Reader’s Guide (2010).