What is Love? This ancient question concerns all living souls. In this age of moral chaos love seems to be in the belly of the beholder. Most people reduce love to the phenomenological level. Although some do still hold the abstract notion of love in the mind, fewer still see love as universal law of the heart. The circle that encompasses the modernist’s definition of love has widened so dramatically as to include in the sphere of “things I love” many dishonorable things. Falling into that increasingly meaningless category of “love” are obsession, lust, attraction, possession, violence, pedophilia, bestiality and all manner of perversion. The so-called “hook up culture” of the university campus manifests the deepest and most tragic misunderstanding of love. In the same vein, the perversion of the “no strings attached” mindset has done great damage to healthy relationships in contemporary society. The idea of love is reduced to animal physicality, to pleasure and to the impulse to engage in relationships for selfish gratification.
Conversely, the metaphysical definition of love has diminished so dramatically, that it is hardly a consideration anymore, to the modernist, who has no use for it. No one looks at the universal Law of the heart; most use their appetites to guide their preconceived notions of love.
Plato’s Symposium shows both sides of this coin. He demonstrates by his interaction with the men at the party how easy it is to misunderstand love. As usual, he uses Socrates (with Diotima) to straighten it all out.
In the beginning of the Symposium, which is a “drinking together”, the dialogue revolves around the defining as well as the praising of the god Eros. In the Symposium there are three acts called agons, sparring matches, resembling the same drama we see today. The first is between Phaedras, the aspiring tragic poet, and Pausanius; the second between the set of rivals Eryximachus, a physician, and Aristophanes, a comic dramatist; the third between Agathon and Socrates. Throughout the work, Plato produces a satirical portrait of the narcissistic and flamboyantly stylish Agathon and crafts the perfect foil for him in the person of the studiously plain and unfashionable Socrates. This sets up the substance over style triumph illustrated by the allegory of the cave which caps off the Symposium by shining true light on the subject of love.
After all the drama and chaos of the three agons, we get to the truth that the Symposium is a rhetorical debate. We learn that the plain spoken Socrates is more effective in his use of image, metaphor, allegory, and irony over pure figures of speech and flowery language used by some of the other characters. In other words, speech that is of flowery appeal to the listener is the method represented by Agathon, while speaking the plain and unadorned truth is that employed by Socrates.
For the substance of this counterpoint, Socrates goes to Diotima of Mantinea, and learns from her the true meaning of love – the origin of Platonic love. Diotima means “honored by Zeus”, and she is an ancient philosopher and priestess. She contributes to the proper definition of love by giving a brief genealogy of the concept. She states that Love is the son of resource and need, a means of rising to contemplation of the Divine. Diotima tells Socrates that “the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies” (210c), furthering the point that these men view love in an erotic manner of physical beauty rather than the correct and ordered way of viewing the beauty of the soul. Diotima makes an interesting analogy of one being pregnant in soul:
“When someone has been pregnant with these [Virtues] in his soul from early youth, while he is still a virgin, and, having arrived at the proper age, desires to beget and give birth, he too will certainly go about seeking the beauty in which he would beget; for he will never beget in anything ugly…when he makes contact with someone beautiful and keeps company with him, he conceives and gives birth to what he has been carrying inside him for ages” (209b-c). This insinuates that the people have metaphorically given birth to such virtues, which “provide [the] parents with immortal glory and remembrance” (209d).
To convey the complicated realities of love, Diotima developed the idea of a ladder of love where the spiritual ranks higher than the physical, and the universal ranks above the particular. The ladder refers to a series of steps required to attain a beautiful soul. It begins with the most basic and widely accepted act of loving things for the sake of aesthetics, and ends with an examination of the Form of Beauty. By learning of this True Beauty, one comes to know just what it is to be beautiful. This is to see the Beautiful itself, absolute, untainted, genuine, not diseased by any nonsense of humanity. For Plato generally, this occurs by looking at the thing (Beauty) in the only way that Beauty can be seen in essence.
As we return to the finale of the Symposium, the young and handsome Alcibiades makes clear in his comparison of Socrates with the popular household figurines of Silenus, truth and inner beauty are ultimately superior – and more erotic –to false brilliance and superficial attractiveness. Diotima basically turns the men’s idea of love upside down to reveal the true nature of love, which is a desire for perpetual possession of the Good and the Beautiful.
Plato is masterful as he uses his five interlocutors along with Socrates and Diotima to try to give all the angles to the difficulty in understanding Love. He employs: Phaedrus to express the truth that love ennobles both lover and beloved; Pausanias to discuss the distinctions between profane and sacred love; Eryximachus to make the argument that true love is a biochemical balance that yields peace of mind. Then Aristophanes offers his mythology that love involves a primitive urge for wholeness and we are completed when we find our lover.
Finally, Socrates gives a dynamic portrayal of the brilliant counterpoint Agathon, such as to illustrate that the misunderstandings concerning love can be attributed to judging by appearances and not substance. And then Socrates recounts his instruction by the wise Diotima and everything gets put into its proper order.
Plato corrects all the misapprehensions about the nature of Eros, while at the same time outlining the nature of error in thinking. As it turns out, Diotima teaches Socrates that each point of emphasis offered by the previous contributors is in fact a component of Eros properly understood, but only a component. She unifies them and adds the rest. The other men have taken a part of the truth and presented it as if it were the whole truth. The surrogation of part for whole thus turned that part of a truth into such an error that all actions based on those thoughts end wholly disordered.
Diotima turns the popular understanding of the order of love rightside-up and makes it clear that physical attraction is the lowest and least lasting, while love guided by the reasoning of mind is much higher. She then explains the indescribable love of enduring things.
Plato drives Socrates’ wisdom derived from Diotima home in the final dialogue with Alcibiades where we learn that contrary to popular thought, Socrates is in fact in possession of a well ordered understanding of love. Alcibiades cannot understand why his good looks and charm did not attract Socrates and he is finally told by Socrates that Alcibiades wanted to trade something tawdry and cheap, namely his good looks, for something beautiful and lasting, namely, Socrates’ wisdom. When Alcibiades is perplexed, Socrates explains “judgment begins when eyesight starts to fail.” And this accentuates the idea that our five senses as the primary source of knowing will fail us every time.
What is Love? According to Diotima it is an aspiration for self-immortalization and for everlasting ownership of the Good and Beautiful. The superficiality of our age makes an encounter with authentic love increasingly difficult. We would be wise to try to recover a deeper understanding of love illustrated in Plato’s Symposium.