Plato’s Symposium

Plato developed a two layer view of reality, the world of Becoming and the world of Being. The world of Becoming is the physical world we percieve through our senses. This world is always in movement, always changing. The world of Being is the world of forms, or ideas. It is absolute, independent, and transcendent. It never changes and yet causes the essential nature of things we percieve in the world of Becoming. Though Plato was sometimes vague about the exact relationship between the two worlds, he has suggested two ways in which they may interact. Objects in the material world may be only imperfect copies or imitations of the ideal, and objects may participate in the formness they are representing.

The Symposium has suggested to me that Plato may have arrived at a new understanding of the relationship between the two worlds when dealing with the particular form of Man. In the Symposium, Plato seems to have reasoned out an internal mechanism through which men may make their way through the world of Becoming to the world of Being. He shows how, through the most mysterious and powerful medium of love, men may eventually arrive at the Highest Good, an intuitive and mystical state of consciousness. As Diotema says, only in such an experience is ultimate meaning found for human beings.

I think it's interesting to note Diotema's argument takes place solely within the framework of Socrates' memory: She is one more step removed, by space and time, from the reality of Agathon's party and, by analogy, her argument is that much more evolved beyond the arguments that have gone before. Her dialogue with Socrates about the nature of love seems to be in three parts. In the first part, Diotema establishes the concept of duality in differentiating between the mortal and divine and claims love is an informing spirit, and a bridge, between the two worlds. She does this by agreeing with Socrates that love is a lover of beautiful things, and since one does not pursue that which one already has, love cannot be divine because gods already possess the good and the beautiful. Diotema then relates the parable of poverty and plenty, emphasizing love's dual nature; it springs from need and lack but has the possiblity of eliciting from human beings endurance and great achievement. She relates this concept to the personal by saying a philosopher, like love, is a mean between the opposites of wisdom and ignorance, and concludes love is a philosopher. Just as philosophy is a quest between what is and wha

Though this first part seems to be the bulk of Diotema's argument, Socrates questions its usefullness, so Diotema moves from her more abstract argument, and restates her points in the second part, relying on particulars and analogy. She helps Socrates clarify that those who pursue the good through love can eventually gain happiness, the point of fulfillment where desire and need are satisfied. This endpoint is the ideal, the essence of the good, and she alludes to the philosopher again when she reiterates that though there are many avenues of this pursuit, only one of these will help one gain the ideal. They then agree that love is the love of having the good (the ideal) for oneself always. Diotema claims the process of pursuing the good is by creation through both body and soul. The desire to create (or procreate) is a divine urge in a mortal creature, stimulated by any contact with beautiful things and deadened when one encounters ugliness. Whether one creates in the body by having children, or in the soul by creating works of art and philosophy, here Diotema again emphasizes the duality of the mortal and the divine, and restates the point that love is not an end in itself, but is for 'birthing' in the beautiful; it is a process and a bridge between the two worlds, a gateway toward attaining immortality.

She discounts the other avenues of pursuing the good by saying that any love that does not include the desire for the eternal will not be the love of having the good for oneself always.

In the third part of Diotema's argument, which Socrates tells us takes place at a later date than the preceding discussions, Diotema draws distinctions between the two roads to immortality, somewhat dismissing the pursuit of immortality through procreation in the body as she discusses the mating urges of the animal world, and concentrates on the process of soul growth. This part really comes to the heart of Socrates' mystical viewpoint and relates very clearly to his Divided Line. Diotema says the process is like the ascent of a staircase, in which one moves from the love of one beautiful body to the love of two, until one loves beautiful bodies in general. Here, one arrives at the point where one can see the same beauty (the divine spark), in essence, in every person. Then, one pursues Beauty in practices and accumulation of knowledge, arriving at last at the perfect learning which is that of Beauty itself, which can only be percieved with the mind. Diotema makes the wonderful statement that this contemplation of Beauty (the Good) itself is the only thing that makes life worth living for men. Touching the apex of Socrates' Divided Line is the only true and worthwhile experience, far beyond the value of wealth and sensuous pleasures, for here one touches the ultimate reality, God, and becomes, in a sense, divine oneself. Socrates' first statement following Diotema's conclusion is notable when he says, «One could not find a better helper for human nature than love.» Here, Socrates demonstrates understanding, at last, of the true role of love in human life, as a helper and bridge, by eliciting desire through the awareness of lack and by identifying with our hereditary connection and remembrance of fullfillment, from the world of Becoming back to the world of Being.

Plato's Symposium follows the form of the Divided Line. If the preceding discussion between Diotema and Socrates includes the intuitional knowledge about the true nature of love and its place in human existence, knowledge obtained at the top, then the arguments preceding reflect the ascent from Becoming to Being in refining one's understanding of what love is, and the events following reflect a descent back into the mortal world. Phaidros delivers the first argument, stating the most obvious facts about love: That love is a great god, that it is one of the most powerful forces driving men's actions, and a superior romance is one in which one lover is willing to die for the other. However, Phaidros stays in the lower realm of personal and physical love and makes the mistake of, in Diotema's words, taking «one kind of love, and giving it the name of the whole, love.»

Pausanias goes beyond Phaidros' one-dimensional praise and introduces the idea of dualism. One type of love is «common», based on sensuality, works at random, and produces children, the other love is «heavenly», based on companionship, involves mental and soul oriented pursuits, and produces virtue. Conscious choice, rather than happenstance, plays a great part in «heavenly» love. Pausanias claims this love should be encouraged and relates its pursuit to the health of society, and says it can only become ugly if exploitation is a motive of the lover. However, Pausanias does not discriminate between the physical and spiritual aspects of «heavenly» love, claiming this love itself is so good it's ennobling. Though he has brought out one of Diotema's major points, the idea of duality in love, Pausanias' analysis is much less exact than Diotema's and he fails to see the limitations inherent in physicality.

Eryximachos compliments Pausanias on his explanation of the dual nature of love, and argues for a balance between the two, claiming both are required for a peaceful existence. Here, Eryximachos has vaguely introduced Diotema's idea of a «bridge» between two differing states, but the physical aspects of love are still not clearly separated from the spiritual aspects and Eryximachos, in a kind of empirical zeal, equates one kind of love with illness.

Aristophenes relates the power of love to the human pursuit of wholeness by introducing a myth, like the myth of the Fall, in which humans were divided into male and female. This is a different level of loving in which two come together to become one, to find union in body and soul. Aristophenes is suggesting the possibilities of human love in that the desire for unity with another is symbolic of the desire of unity with the essence of the good, or God. He agrees with Diotema that unity itself is a good, but Aristophenes fails to point out that unity should be ultimately with the essence of Beauty, unity with another human being is just an experience on the way.

Agathon addresses this weakness in Arisophenes' argument when he points out that love is the way by which all things are made or created. When humans are motivated by love, they create in many ways besides the physical, indeed all creations are made by love. Agathon has hit upon one of Diotema's final points, that love is a creative force, it is an avenue through which we manifest our own potential, and help others to manifest theirs.

Each speaker leading up to Diotema's argument unveils one layer of what love is and what it can be, Pausanias introduces dualism, Eyximachos introduces balance, Aristophenes emphasizes physical unity, and Agathon speaks of creative unity, but it is up to Diotema to tie all these elements together and then take us to the top by showing that though all these are forms of love, true happiness lies in the contemplation of the essence of Beauty (or the Good) itself, which can be known only by the mind, and which is the final goal of the human experience of love.

The introduction of Alcibiades is the first step down from Diotema's and Socrates' dialogue. Alcibiades, a former lover of Socrates, is symbolic, when he and Socrates were friends, of the type of relationship described by Agathon. We learn theirs was a friendship based on pursuits of virtue and knowledge, and thanks to Socrates' restraint, physicality was absent. Then, Socrates warns Agathon that Aclibiades wants them to quarrel, and there seems to be a suggestion of a physical, love relationship between Agathon and Socrates. The descent is completed when the party concludes the evening with drinking, many leave, and we are told Socrates spends the rest of the night talking with Aristophenes and Agathon. These two finally also fall asleep and Socrates leaves and goes about his day as usual. So on the way down the Divided Line, the dialogue moves from trying to understand the essential nature of love to trying tounderstand certain kinds of love to practicing love in its various forms.

I was very struck by Agathon's desire to benefit from Socrates' wisdom through physical contact. Can I get what you have by touching you, or looking at you? Is it transmitted through the senses? Of course the answer is no because wisdom exists on a plane beyond the physical. Plato's Symposium reveals love, like wisdom, to be a dynamic, a flow of energy that operates throughout all the levels of human awareness, uniting and transcending or fragmenting and descending as it flows. There are latent possibilities in different kinds of love to either pull us up to Socrates' unified and ultimate good in the world of Being, or to pull us down into a dense, fragmented experience of the forms. When Diotema asks Socrates what is it that one desires when one loves, the answer is immortality, union with the eternal, and though we see divinity in all of life, it is contained in various forms which can often corrupt of distort it, as well as accurately reflect it. This is the human condition and dilemma.

Humans have a dual nature, existing in matter with the potential of the divine. We are a microcosm within the macrocosm. Love exemplifies this longing to realize the divine within us and to help others realize their potential, as well. Love helps us to find a relationship between the two worlds we live in. Employing Diotema's process of ascent, it is a movement upward to a finer and finer sense of what love is, and as we ascend we come closer to God through love's prompting our own abilities to create, first on the physical plane, then on correspondingly finer planes in the creation of works of art, which can range from a piece of literature, to a relationship, to ourselves. Love relationships have a special potential in developing spirituality, for in searching for and recognizing the divine within the beloved, one discovers the divine in oneself, and comes to recognize that, in all its forms, divinity is one and the same. Here, love can lift one up and love's beauty lies in its ability to do this for human beings. It is a process, not an end in itself, in which humans can touch the divine and in this state of perception the mystical experience takes place, a union of the human spirit with God. I agree with Diotema that this experience is ultimately the most meaningful of human experiences, purest and most refined in quality, and love, in all it's various forms, can help one get there, again and again.

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