Socrates turns from his dialogue with Agathon to an account of Love he received from a wise woman called Diotima of Mantinea. He says that he had once had a dialogue with Diotima in which he made some of the same claims Agathon just made—that Love is himself beautiful and good. Diotima responded to his claim by proving the opposite.
Diotima is a prophetess figure invented by Socrates. Picturing a woman as the embodiment of wisdom is counter-cultural on Socrates’s part, especially given how women have been described as irrational earlier in this very text. However, it’s also notable that Diotima is not a mortal woman; her status as a prophetess suggests that regular women still can’t compare with men intellectually. The structure of the coming dialogue with Diotima allows Socrates to put himself in the place of the learner and bring his audience along with him.
If Love isn’t beautiful, Socrates asks, then does that mean that Love is necessarily ugly? Diotima calls this idea blasphemous. She points out that there’s something between wisdom and ignorance—it’s “having right opinions without being able to give reasons for having them.” Likewise, it’s possible to find an in-between state between good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
Diotima’s teaching on the existence of intermediate states is critical for the development of her view of love.
Diotima next demonstrates that Love isn’t actually a great god. This is shown by the fact that gods are happy by virtue of possessing good and beautiful things, but as they’ve already discussed, Love desires and needs good and beautiful things rather than already having them. When Socrates demands to know what sort of being Love could then be, Diotima explains that he’s a great spirit—daimon in Greek—which falls between god and mortal. These beings convey messages between gods and humans, convey prayers and sacrifices from humans to gods, and convey commands and gifts from gods to humans.
Diotima builds on the points they’ve already established about Love in order to show that Love can’t be a god. The Greek term daimon refers to a being that’s of a higher order than humans, yet lower than the gods, anticipating the intermediate role that Love will soon play in the discussion and setting up the idea of a link between mortality and immortality.
Love is one of many different such daimones, or spirits. When Socrates asks about Love’s origin, Diotima tells him a myth. After the birth of Aphrodite, the other gods, including Resource, were having a feast. Poverty was begging by the gate, and when she saw that Resource had fallen into a drunken sleep in the garden, she decided to have a child by him. So she slept with Resource, became pregnant, and gave birth to Love.
Like Aristophanes did earlier, Diotima makes up an explanatory tale. In this case, the conception of Love by Poverty and Resource illustrates that within Love is found both need and the means to satisfy that need.
As the son of Resource and Poverty, Diotima explains, Love is always poor. Far from being beautiful, “he's tough, with hardened skin, without shoes or home.” He sleeps out in the open. Taking after his mother, Poverty, Love is always in a state of need. Taking after his father, Resource, he bravely “schemes to get hold of beautiful and good things.” He’s “resourceful in getting…knowledge” and “a lifelong lover of wisdom.” Love, Diotima sums up, is neither mortal nor immortal. He’s also neither wholly without resources nor truly rich, and he’s in between wisdom and ignorance.
Socrates wonders who “lovers of wisdom” can be, if they’re neither wise nor ignorant. Diotima explains that it’s simply someone, like Love, who falls between wisdom and ignorance: “Wisdom is one of the most beautiful things, and Love is love of beauty. So Love must necessarily be a lover of wisdom; and as a lover of wisdom he falls between wisdom and ignorance.” She adds that Socrates had been thinking of Love as the object of the lover, but now he must see that wisdom and similar characteristics are themselves worthy of being loved, while the lover has a different character.
Diotima here returns to a critique of Agathon’s argument (that love possesses in itself all good qualities), as well as Aristophanes’s argument that love seeks after its own qualities. In contrast to earlier speakers, as well, she identifies Love with the questing lover. Love, while ardent, has a needy and seeking character.