Now that they’ve dealt with Love’s origin and birth and Love’s love of beautiful things, Diotima turns to the question of what exactly the lover of beautiful or good things desires. Socrates says that the lover desires that these things become his own. Diotima then asks what the lover gets when beautiful or good things become his own. Socrates replies that the lover will be happy.
In Greek philosophy, happiness is seen as the goal of human life, and it’s not so much a subjective feeling as it is a condition of life—a state of being that’s associated with virtue.
Diotima addresses the idea that lovers are people who are seeking their other halves. She rejects the idea that people are simply attached to their own characteristics; after all, people are willing to have their own diseased limbs amputated. She argues that, instead, the only object of people’s love is what is good—moreover, they want to have it forever. Love, then, “is the desire to have the good forever.”
If this is love’s goal, Diotima goes on, then in what way must people pursue it? In other words, what is love’s function? Socrates says he doesn’t know. Diotima explains, “Love’s function is giving birth in beauty both in body and in mind.” Socrates is baffled. Diotima clarifies: “All human beings are pregnant in body and in mind.” In adulthood, they naturally desire to give birth. Even sexual intercourse is a kind of “birth.”
Socrates continues to occupy the place of the learner in his dialogue with Diotima. His bafflement shows that Diotima is getting into the more esoteric, challenging, and novel developments in Plato’s thought, especially regarding sexuality and reproduction.
Diotima explains that the object of love isn’t simply beauty, but “reproduction and birth in beauty.” Reproduction is the object of love because it’s “the closest mortals can come to being permanently alive and immortal.” If the desire of love is to have the good always, then we must desire immortality along with the good; hence, immortality is the object of love.
Diotima’s explanation harkens back to Aristophanes’s point that intercourse is humans’ attempt to regain their primordial wholeness, but she takes it further: through reproduction, humans desire to create something new and eternally lasting that will outlive their own mortal lives.
Diotima and Socrates discuss the ways of love among animals as well as humans. All mortal things continually change over time, Diotima explains, and all desire to leave behind another thing of the same type before they die. This is how mortal things share in immortality, and it’s why all creatures are so eager to procreate and then to preserve the lives of their offspring. This enthusiasm to achieve immortality is love.
The immortality being discussed is not immortality of the soul—an idea that emerges more prominently in other works of Plato’s—but rather immortality through reproduction, that is, passing on one’s life to future generations.
Diotima goes on to explain that men who are “pregnant in body” are drawn towards women. They try to obtain immortality for themselves and “what they take to be happiness forever” by having children. However, there are also men who are “pregnant in mind,” and these are pregnant with “what it is suitable for a mind to bear and bring to birth”—that is, wisdom and other virtues.
Diotima suggests that while biological reproduction can lead to a kind of immortality and a certain degree of happiness, it’s inferior to the “mental” pregnancy and fathering of wisdom that other men achieve. Again, this point suggests that women’s involvement in philosophical matters is inherently limited.
Diotima says that when a man who is “pregnant” in this way from his youth reaches adulthood, he’s attracted to another beautiful mind, which he can educate. When he forms such a relationship, he’s finally able to give birth to the “child” he’s been gestating for a long time. He and his lover share in bringing up the child they’ve produced in this way.
When Diotima describes this type of homoerotic relationship as grounded in the pursuit of virtue, she recalls Pausanias’s earlier discussion of “heavenly” love, in which it’s okay for a boyfriend to sexually gratify his lover as long as they’re both concerned for the boy’s development of virtue. In this case, however, there’s no mention of sexual gratification whatsoever.
Diotima says that men who’ve created and raised a “child” in this way enjoy a closer bond than parents do, because their child is “more beautiful and more immortal.” People praise poets such as Homer and Hesiod because of the “children” they’ve left behind, “which provide them with immortal fame and remembrance by being immortal themselves.” She offers a few other examples from Greek legend and history, claiming that human children never win such honor and fame for their parents.
Diotima builds her argument that reproduction through virtues, such as poetry and laws that benefit whole societies, is superior to reproduction through biological children because it creates things that truly endure for generations. Women are only able to participate in biological reproduction, so according to Diotima, their experience of love will always be inferior to men’s.