Socrates begins his second speech. He opens by saying that it isn’t true that “one should rather grant favors to the one not in love, on the grounds that the first is mad, while the second is sane.” That might be true, if madness were simply a bad thing; however, “the greatest of goods come to us through madness, provided that it is bestowed by divine gift.”
Socrates completely changes course in this speech. He overturns the basis of Lysias’s argument and that of his own earlier speech, arguing that madness of a certain kind is actually desirable, even divine.
Socrates explains that the prophetess at Delphi, for instance, can only serve Greece when she’s mad, not when she’s sane. In fact, the ancients referred to the prophetic arts as “manic,” “thinking madness a fine thing when it comes by divine dispensation.” The Muses represent another type of divine madness, inspiring poetry that educates many generations, whereas if someone thinks that mere expertise will make him a good poet, his poetry will be “eclipsed by that of the mad.”
Socrates begins building a case for how madness can be a good thing when it’s divinely given; among other things, it gives birth to prophecy and art. His comments about expertise also gesture toward his later argument that mastery of skills alone isn’t sufficient to make someone a good speaker or writer.
In addition to the aforementioned types of madness, love is “sent from the gods to help lover and beloved.” This kind of madness brings about the greatest good fortune, and, Socrates adds, “the proof will be disbelieved by the clever, believed by the wise.” In order to understand this, he goes on, it’s first necessary to understand the nature of the soul.
Love, too, is a good kind of god-sent madness. Socrates’s words echo earlier remarks to the effect that the self-identified “clever” and “wise” don’t always understand what’s best for them. His explanation of the goodness of love will proceed from an understanding of the human soul.
Socrates asserts that “all soul is immortal.” He explains that souls never stop moving, are not moved by anything else, and cause other things to move. This makes a soul a “first principle,” something that never comes into being or perishes, but causes other things to come into being.
Socrates’s philosophical idea of the “first principle” boils down to something that is self-propelled and isn’t created or caused by anything else. Something that meets these characteristics, in his view, is necessarily immortal.
Socrates says that explaining what kind of thing the soul is would be far too difficult for human capacities, but it is possible to talk about what the soul resembles. He describes the soul as the “power of a winged team of horses and their charioteer.” The gods’ horses and charioteer are of good stock; in humans’ case, however, there is one good horse and one bad one, making it difficult to drive one’s chariot.
Socrates goes on to explain why some creatures are mortal and some immortal. He says that perfectly winged souls fly above the heavens and govern the cosmos, but imperfectly winged souls sink to the earth and inhabit mortal bodies. He then explains how some souls come to lose their wings. The wings, whose job is to lift the soul up to the heavens where the gods reside, are nourished by everything beautiful, wise, and good, while the opposite kinds of things cause wings to wither and perish.
Socrates continues his explanation of the nature of the soul in support of his argument in favor of love. While souls properly belong among the gods, their “wings” aren’t always in fit shape to carry them there.
Socrates explains that when the gods travel to the summit of heaven, they have an easy journey because their “chariots” are well balanced. Souls, however, have a difficult time, because their “bad horse” constantly drags them back toward earth, if it is not well trained. Immortal souls are able to attain the summit and gaze upon the region above the heavens, which is “observable … by intellect” alone.
Souls’ lowlier desires constantly incline them back toward earthly things, making it difficult for them to glimpse the reality beyond, which can’t be perceived by the senses.
Mortal souls that best follow the gods, continues Socrates, manage to control their horses just well enough to catch a glimpse of heavenly reality. Others have a turbulent flight and see some heavenly things, but not others. The rest, jostling together beneath the heavens, end up becoming maimed, even breaking their wings. The latter, despite great effort, catch no vision and “afterwards feed on what only appears to nourish them.”
All mortal souls have a difficult journey toward the heavens’ summit, and many won’t make it. Even those who attain the heights only see a little bit of what the gods and immortal souls see. Most souls have such a violent struggle during their course of life that they satisfy themselves with things that don’t nourish their “wings,” and their struggle is made that much harder.
Socrates explains that the soul that is able to glimpse the most during its journey gets to be planted in the seed of a man who will become a philosopher during the soul’s next journey around the heavens. Souls that see less are planted in the seed of people who will occupy various other stations in life, from kings to doctors to poets, descending all the way down to demagogues and tyrants. For most souls, it takes 10,000 years to return to the summit of heaven, with the exception of the philosopher; if he chooses the philosophical life three times in a row, it will only take him 3,000 years to return.
Socrates is not necessarily offering what he understands to be a literal account of reincarnation, though his account has been understood in that way. More than anything, he’s trying to convey the sheer difficulty of attaining true wisdom through philosophy, and how rare it is for people to follow a course of life that leads them there.
Socrates explains that the reason a philosopher’s thought more easily becomes “winged” is because, through memory, he is closer to those things that make the gods divine. His condition is thus one of “possession,” and the masses don’t understand this, thinking him disturbed.
Because a philosopher would have had a more prolonged flight above the heavens than the average person and remembers that journey more clearly, he is more attuned to heavenly things and less attuned to everyday concerns, making people think he is crazy.
Socrates sums up this final and best kind of madness as “the madness of the man who, on seeing beauty here on earth, and being reminded of true beauty, becomes winged and, fluttering with eagerness to fly upwards but unable to leave the ground, looking upwards like a bird, [takes] no heed of the things below.” These souls are called lovers of beauty, and there are few such souls in the world.
Socrates begins to connect his discussion of madness more directly to love once again. Because of the way he’s described madness, and the eccentricity of those who care about divine things, one gets the sense that his view of love will subvert expectations, too.
Socrates elaborates that when souls received their “final initiation” in the heavens, they saw simple, unchanging truth in the company of the gods. Now, souls are “imprisoned” in bodies, and those who were “initiated” a long time ago or have been corrupted tend to gaze on earthly beauties, forgetting the heavenly “namesake” that lies beyond. Recently initiated souls, however, experience a “shudder” of recognition when they get glimpses of godlike beauty on earth, and their dormant wings are nourished. The painful, exhilarating experience of alternately pining for and finding relief in the presence of beauty is what is called “love.”
The difference between those who remember heavenly beauty and those who don’t, Socrates explains, is that those who’ve forgotten think that earthly beauty is all there is, while those who remember it—at least in part—go through an alternately tormenting and joyful experience of longing and striving toward that heavenly beauty. The human body, although it’s an important tool in this process, is felt to be a trap and an impediment compared to the glory of the heavens.
Depending on which god a lover followed in his travels among the heavens, Socrates explains, he will tend to seek out and encourage similar characteristics in a beloved—for instance, followers of Zeus will prefer the philosophically-inclined, followers of Ares gravitate toward belligerence, and followers of Hera look for someone who’s regal.
Those who followed a particular god in the heavens will tend to both imitate that god in earthly life and be drawn to others who exhibit similar characteristics; they will try to bring out those traits even more strongly in the beloved, drawing him, too, closer to the divine. Zeus refers to the king of the Gods, Hera to his wife, and Ares to the Greek god of war.
Socrates next returns to the image of the good and bad horse and describes their respective behavior in connection to love. When the “charioteer” catches sight of a beloved, the good horse shows restraint, but the bad horse immediately desires sex. The lover, when reminded of the beauty and self-control he witnessed in heaven, pulls back on the reins of both horses, but this only inflames the desires of the bad horse. The charioteer must exert great energy to repeatedly subdue the bad horse until, finally, the horse is tamed and cowers at the sight of the beloved. At this point, the soul of the lover is able to follow the beloved “in reverence and awe.”
Socrates makes clear that the kind of lover-beloved relationship he has been describing doesn’t (or shouldn’t) include sexual indulgence. However, the lover must harshly restrain his desires, and this requires repeated practice and the recollection of heavenly beauty in order to be successful.
Even if the beloved was initially prejudiced against the idea of accepting a lover, he will be overawed by the goodwill of his “divinely possessed” new friend. Gradually, Socrates says, the wings of both lover and beloved are nourished by the beauty each sees in the other through their interactions. If both succeed in continuing to restrain their licentious horse, “drawing them to a well-ordered life, and to philosophy, they pass their life here in blessedness and harmony,” and after they die, their souls become “winged and light”—they’re on their way to reaching the summit of heaven and observing ultimate beauty again. By contrast, if someone pursues a “coarser” way of life that’s driven by honor instead of wisdom, he will give in to his bad horse at some point out of carelessness, and his friendship with his lover will never be as soul-nourishing as that of the philosopher; he won’t gain his wings.
Socrates explains how a friendship marked by restraint and mutual cherishing of beauty nourishes the “wings” of both lover and beloved, leading to philosophically-inclined lives and the hope of seeing the summit of heaven once again. Thus, wrestling one’s sexual desires into submission is an essential part of the journey back to heaven. This can’t occur if someone enters a relationship with someone who isn’t in love with him.
Socrates concludes his speech by again contrasting the divine blessings that accompany friendship with a lover and the “good sense” and “miserly benefits” that come with acquaintance with one who’s not in love. He ends with a prayer to the gods, commending this speech to them and again asking forgiveness for what came before, and also asking that Lysias, too, will be turned toward philosophy.