Since I reread this recently, and Valentine’s Day is approaching, I thought that this would be the perfect subject for this week. Plato’s Symposium is the great philosopher’s exploration of romantic and erotic love.
The setting is a drinking party attended by many of the prominent men of Athens, including Socrates. At the gathering, each man makes a speech in honor of the God of Love. The individual discourses seem to present different, and sometimes varied views on the subject.
Each speech can be analyzed as its own mini dissertation on the nature of these varieties of love. Perhaps all of the addresses combined can be viewed as kind of grand unified theory on the issue. Though some of the presentations seem to be in parts contradictory, I get some sense that Plato is implying that these incongruities might be illusionary, as they are just different ways at looking at the same problem.
I will focus on Socrates’s declamation here. Curiously, Socrates does not elucidate his own original opinions. Instead he uses his opportunity to expound on the teachings of a wise-women that he knew called Diotima. Diotima’s philosophy on Eros expands on what I would call the “Socratic World View” developed in many of Plato’s works. This is the belief system that most abstract concepts are actually things called “Forms”. Forms exist on some higher plane of reality. Every object that exists in the everyday world that exhibits some aspect of a Form, is somehow tied into the perfect Form, that once again, exists in a different continuum.
For instance, “Good” is a Form. If a person can be said to be a “good” human being, then it stands to reason that the person has some “good” in them. That person is only manifesting, or channeling, a piece of an image of the perfect Form of “Good” that exists on the higher plain of existence. Of course I am over-simplifying, one needs to study many of the dialogs to obtain a true understanding.
Beauty is also a Form. Diotima views the manifestation of love in its initial stages as a person striving for perpetual beauty. The only way that the beauty found in life can be sustained forever is through the act of reproduction. Thus is the sexual act and ensuing pregnancy borne out of erotic love. Love is just an attempt at capturing the Form of beauty for all of time, through a lover’s children and subsequent decedents.
Diotima further contends that romantic love between a man and a woman is not the ideal way to achieve this perpetual beauty. Instead, the better path starts with attempting to obtain a clear view of Beauty in its pure and perfect Form. Once someone does this, the person can achieve a kind of elevated existence and achieve greatness through noble and beneficial acts. These acts and great achievements will live on in the memories of future generations and be the ultimate route to the immortality of beauty, and hence the ultimate achievement of love. Again, I over-simplify.
It is interesting that Plato ascribes this theory to Diotima. A cursory Google search indicates that there is uncertainty and disagreement in regards to the question of weather she was a real person or just a fiction created by Plato. Over the years I have read just about all the important works by Plato, and I believe that Diotima is the only instance where a women was portrayed as an credible and intelligent person, much less a sagacious philosopher.
In regards to women in general, Plato exhibits seems to exhibit major inconsistencies. In many of the Dialogs, he describes females in a very misogynistic fashion. He often portrays women as inferior, and at times he even criticizes men for having what he perceives to be feminine traits.
In the Republic and a few other works however, Plato does an about face, and proposes what for the time was a revolutionary philosophy. Here, he admits that in most important abilities, the sexes are equal. He goes on to advocate that women be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. It seems likely to me that Plato’s opinion changed over time (it seems as if that these opinions swayed back and forth, as some of the derogatory writings were preceded by the Republic) Perhaps part of these changes in opinion can be ascribed his association with the real Diotima or with similar women who helped inspire her character.
Not only does Plato portray Diotima as an intelligent, accomplished and wise philosopher, but he also uses her opinions to add a significant extension to his ubiquitous theory of Forms. Diotima’s beliefs also represent a key component in Plato’s philosophic thinking on the subject of love. This thinking has been enormously influential to Western Culture and has resounded down the centuries. Thus, on the subject of love and its metaphysical implications, the character of Diotima, whether a fiction or based on real women, has contributed to Western thinking in an essential way.