Plato’s Symposium: the Issue of Love

The issue of Love has been perplexing human minds for centuries onward. The complexity of the origins, the nature and the essence of Love constitute an eternal mystery, the cognition of which was endeavored already by philosophers of the ancient world. Plato in his dialogue Symposium undertakes an attempt to analyze the phenomenon of Love from different positions, voiced by prominent people of the time — Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon, — as well as summarized and further developed by Socrates, who assumedly accounts for the words of Diotima, a female seer teaching to him the philosophy of Love. The fact of introducing a woman into a discussion led primarily by men and to the glory of men, is significant in itself: refuting the Athenian male sexism, Plato attributes the account of such typically female metaphor as ‘pregnancy and birth’ to the woman herself, thus creating a more trustworthy source of wisdom, backed by the mysterious status of oracle Diotima possesses (as stated by Cobb in his comment on Symposium 71). In an exciting dialogue, she questions her disciple’s standard views of Love and provides detailed and reasoned answers to the major questions concerning the phenomenon of Love — such as its nature and birth, its use, the manner of its pursuit and the cause of Love — coming to a more and more elaborate definition of Love after considering each issue.

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Socrates starts his speech at the symposium by setting the premises of his forthcoming ideas in a dialogue with Agathon, addressing a number of questions as for the essence of Love. Referring to Agathon’s earlier words, Socrates points out that Love is always of something, and that something is beautiful; what Love desires, it does not have, therefore no one is in possession of what one needs; as a conclusion, Love is the Love of beautiful which people do not possess (Plato 199d—201a). As Love is of beauty and not of ugliness, Love needs beauty — but does not have it; therefore, Love is not beautiful (Plato 201a—b). And as beautiful equals to good, Love is also Love of good; thus, Love is the need of good things (Plato 2001c). Having determined this, Socrates goes on to speak of his discourse with Diotima, retelling the insights she gave to him into the mystery of Love.

Counterfeiting the traditional views on Love, voiced by the previous orators, Socrates cites Diotima, who claims that Love is neither beautiful, not ugly, neither good, nor bad — it is a means between those opposites (Plato 201e—202b). As there are intermediate cases between ignorant and wise people — those striving for knowledge — so there is Love, which embodies the pursuit of virtue, an act of self-improvement. Opposing the ideas of the previous speakers, Diotima rejects the divine nature of Love — as it is neither good, nor beautiful, nor immortal — and voices the opinion that Love is “a spirit between the god and the mortal”, a messenger between the two, conveying all the divination between them (Plato 202e—203b). Controverting Phaedrus’ uncertainty about Love’s parents, Diotima names those to be two opposites, Poros (Plenty) and Penia (Poverty), whose union provided Love with such of its characteristics as duality:

“In the first place he is always poor…, and he is far from being delicate and beautiful…; instead he is tough and shriveled, and shoeless, and homeless…, having his mother’s nature, always living with Need. But on his father’s side he is a schemer after the beautiful and the good; he is brave, and impetuous, and intense…, resourceful in his pursuit of intelligence, a lover of wisdom through all his life, a genius with enchantments…” (Plato 203d)

Since Love is a messenger between opposites and seeker of beautiful, and since beautiful is good and good is wise, Love appears also as a philosopher or lover of wisdom — a quality inalienable from Love, as it is an in-between for ignorance and wisdom (Plato 204b).

In so far as Love strives for beautiful, and beautiful is good, and possession of good brings happiness, the ultimate use of Love, according to Diotima, is striving for happiness (Plato 204d—205d). Producing a link to Aristophanes’ idea about ‘split halves’, Diotima states that “a lover does not seek the half of the whole, unless … it turns out to be good as well” (Plato 205e). Thus people in their love strive not simply for any half, but for a virtuous one, cutting off any detrimental parts.

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Moreover, in striving for the good, man wants to possess it eternally; therefore, Love can be described as a want of eternity or immortality (Plato 205c). Diotima exemplifies the purpose of love in the need for procreation in order to confer the existing beauty to further generations. The principle of immortality is the one that drives people to take as much effort as possible in order to remain in the world either in the form of offspring or, as a higher form of existence, in the form of fame, ideas and memories. Agreeing with Eryximachus on the point that the pursuit of eternity is characteristic not only of humans, but of all living beings on earth, Diotima spreads the idea of birth and pregnancy from physical sphere into that of intellect. Poets and artists, all who are worthy of the title of ‘creator’, bear the children of their souls in forms of intellectual creations, as well as secure their eternal existence in minds and souls of their disciples. And here one may remember Pausanius’ ideas on honorable love of men, uniting not in body but in spirit and mind, and conferring their love as knowledge and ability to see the beauty of the universe. Claiming beauty of the mind to be higher than that of body, Diotima provides a hierarchy of forms of Love: from that of body, to mind, to laws and institutions, to sciences, and as a result — to universal beauty. Such is the purpose of Love: to achieve universal harmony and to learn to see absolute beauty in the whole world through the multiple manifestations of it.

In all the diversity of Love aspects mentioned by Diotima, one seems to have been left out, and that is the aspect of sacrifice. Love demands undivided attention to the object of love, and this cannot but result in other possible objects of love being neglected. If for instance, one sets up one’s mind on dedicating life to love of music, that is music and only which one should worship and spend all the time and thoughts on. Dissolving completely in the object of love results in neglecting oneself and giving up any possible outward distractions, which could have otherwise become one’s objects of love. This is the drama and the ethical dilemma of Love, which true Love, however, resolves easily, as it desires nothing else but eternal celebration of its sole object.

As it appears from Socrates’ speech in Symposium, Love is a complex phenomenon, possessing a unique double nature and characterized by a trait of transition from one state to another in pursuit of beauty, goodness and happiness which may take different forms according to the level Love is realized at.

Works Cited

Plato. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamass and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1989.

Plato. The Symposium; and, The Phaedrus: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues. Trans. and ed. William S. Cobb. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Outline

Introduction

Thesis: Love is a complex phenomenon requiring a detailed analysis all its aspects

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Body Paragraph I

  • Transition/Opening Sentence: finding the essence of Love
  • Detail 1: Love is of unpossessed beauty
  • Detail 2: Love is not beautiful
  • Detail 3: Love is the need of good things

Body Paragraph II

  • Transition/Opening Sentence: Love is a means between the opposites
  • Detail 1: Love is a pursuit of virtue
  • Detail 2: the double nature of Love due to its parents
  • Detail 3: Love is an in-between for ignorance and wisdom

Body Paragraph III

  • Transition/Opening Sentence: Love is a pursuit of eternal happiness
  • Detail 1: the pursuit is only of the good and virtuous
  • Detail 2: possession of happiness should be eternal
  • Detail 3: the principle of immortality characteristic of every living being
  • Detail 4: Love for intellectual beauty as a higher form of Love
  • Detail 5: absolute beauty as the purpose of Love

Body Paragraph IV

  • Transition/Opening Sentence: the aspect of sacrifice overlooked by Diotima
  • Detail 1: Love as undivided attention to its object
  • Detail 2: dissolving in the object of Love forces one to neglect other possible objects of Love
  • Detail 3: easy solution of the dilemma in frames of true Love

Conclusion

Reconfirmed Thesis: Love possesses a unique double nature and is characterized by a trait of transition from one state to another in pursuit of beauty, goodness and happiness.

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Paperroni. 2021. "Plato’s Symposium: the Issue of Love." November 3, 2021. https://paperroni.com/platos-symposium-the-issue-of-love/.

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