Thursday 1/30

Love in Ancient Philosophy III





Quiz Questions

  • How does Socrates refute Agathon's claims about love?
  • Why do we seek beautiful lovers, according to Diotima?
  • Why do we seek to procreate, according to Diotima?
  • What becomes of Pausanius' distinction between Heavenly Aphrodite and Earthly Aphrodite in Socrates' speech?


Today we concluded our discussion of Aristophanes' speech in "Symposium" and moved on to much more comprehensive discussion of the docrtrine of platonic forms which in many respects grounds Diotima's instruction of Socrates on the nature of love (which, recall, he recounts by way of giving his speech on love).

Please review the handout I put together to try to better explain the famous 'divided line'--that is, the central metaphysical and epistemological claims of Platonic philosophy.

To be sure, the handout is at best a gloss of some extremely subtle philosophical issues. In that regard it cannot help but be a failure, as any "boiling-down" of substantial philosophical problems or positions would be. In my defense, this is a course on the philosophy of love and sex. Although we must preface our discussion of Diotima's speech in terms of Plato's account of the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics) and how we might have knowledge of it (epistemology) to make any progress, we have at best a very, very crude picture.

That said, and in light of the propositions described in the handout, two particularly important claims emerge from Diotima's instruction.

1. We desire sex and seek procreation because it is the closest we can come to achieving immortality and thus partake of the eternality of the forms.

2. We desire the beautiful and love them because we are inevitably drawn by the reflection their beauty casts of the perfection of the forms.

Thus love is our being led, whether we know it or not, to the eternal, unchanging perfection of the forms and ultimately the illumination of the Good (which is also the Beautiful, and the True).

Note that this is not to minimize or denigrate the loves of our short and imperfect (embodied) lives. For Socrates it is all the more reason to revel in them. But ultimately all love leads us, like moths to the flame, to apprehend the Good. We can be led unwittingly, as presumably most are, or we can be led knowingly, as Socrates was.

Now as we will shortly see, Socrates' speech in the Symposium sets the stage for much of the western history of the philosophy of love and many of our contemporary views on love and sex, and not always for the better, I might add.

This, I think, is why Alcibiades' speech is so important. For suppose the Symposium ended with Socrates' speech about his instruction on the nature of love by Diotima. Our understanding of love would be something sterile and instrumental. It draws us towards the Good and the Beautiful and their eternality through the goodness and beauty we find in others and, with them, our own modest shot at immortality. We would be left with the startling conclusion that those we love aren't ultimately what matters to us. And, to be sure, many of those who came after Plato took exactly this lesson from him, as we shall see. Their mistake, however, is to forget Alcibiades, the besotted, drunken lover.

I submit that one way of reading Alcibiades' coda to the Symposium is Plato's way of reminding us of the essential humanity of love. Those we love are not merely instruments of our souls' deepest desires, they are themselves reflections of the very perfections we seek. It is thus not that Plato scorns love or wishes us to scorn it. Rather, let us celebrate love for what our capacity to love shows about ourselves and what we mean to each other. The negative light in which Pausanius and, after him, Eryximachus, cast Earthly Aphrodite is, I submit, finally rejected when Plato brings the Symposium to a close with Alcibiades' speech.

Put another way, the distinction between higher love (Heavenly Aphrodite) and lower love (Earthly Aphrodite) Pausanius draws is amplified and translated into something very different by Socrates via Diotima's teaching. Higher love is an entirely intellectual desire for the rational apprehension of the forms and specifically The Beautiful (= The Good) as they exist beyond heaven in hyperouranos. All human love, then, is seen as a kind of lower love. As we will later find, this split sets love on a trajectory which is not always happy.

Calling merely human love "lower" should not, however, be taken as a denigration of it. It is, as I suggested, difficult to read Alcibiades speech without reflecting on the noble humanity it expresses.

We concluded our all too brief examination of the Symposium by compiling the puzzles I've been pointing out along the way:

1. Why all the layers of narrative at the very start of the dialogue?

2. What was Socrates doing on the neighbor's porch?

3. Why does Socrates, who according to the Oracle at Delphi is the wisest man of all for being the only one to know that he does not know, confess to knowing about one thing, love?

4. Why does Plato have Socrates' speech consist of a report on his instruction on love by a woman, Diotima?

5. What is the point of Alcibiades speech?

You should at this point be able to comment intelligently on each of these points, which does not of course entail that you should regurgitate how I approach answering these questions. My understanding is at best a work in progress where this text in philosophy is concerned.

Next time we turn to Phaedrus to discuss why the non-lover is better than the lover(!) and examine Socrates' faux improvement on Lysias' speech (and his eventual repudiation of same!)