Monday, May 28, 2012

Plato's Ladder of Love

It is telling that when Plato finally wants to get down to brass tacks in his Symposium on Love, on Eros, he finally calls in a woman, the divine Diotima.  Apparently it's all very well for the lads, from Phaedrus to Pausanias, to Eryximachus to comic playwright Aristophanes and the noble tragedian Agathon to discourse on Love, and it's all very well for Socrates to demolish Agathon's soaring prose in his usual manner.  But Diotima is needed to give Love a feminine flourish and teach Socrates a thing or two about Love.

Even the pedophiliac Greeks seem to think that a woman needs to be called in to get to the heart of Love, and so Socrates recalls a conversation on Love with Diotima of Mantinea.  And Diotima leads Socrates up the Ladder of Love.

Yes, she says, you start with your love of a single beautiful boy, on the bottom rung of the ladder, and make beautiful speeches to his beautiful body.  But you'd have to be pretty dull not to realize that if one body can be beautiful then it is a single step upwards to realize that another can also be beautiful.  And if two bodies are beautiful then it is merely a single step upwards to "become a lover of all beautiful bodies."

But if bodies are beautiful, surely beautiful souls are even more valuable, and you will step up and seek to make the souls of young men better.  To do this you will be forced to "gaze at the beauty of activities and laws" and begin to think that "the beauty of bodies is a thing of small importance."

But customs and laws are one thing; it is merely a step up to move on to appreciate the "beauty of knowledge" and learn to give "many gloriously beautiful speeches, in unstinting love of wisdom."  So here we are back at the philosophy ranch boosting the glories of philosophy and philosophers.

Then at last you can take the final step up and view the Form of beauty.  It is not beauty in contrast to ugliness, or beautiful body parts, or speeches or knowledge or indeed instantiated in any Thing, but "learning of this Beauty, so that in the end you comes to know just what it is to be beautiful."  It is to "see the Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality."  And thus, "looking at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen" you can give birth not to "images of virtue" but "true virtue" itself.
The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true irtue and nourished it, and if any human beling could become immortal, it would be he.
So much for that.  The next moment everything gets thrown into turmoil when the turbulent rich kid Alcibiades turns up at the gate, drunk as a lord. 

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