Diotima says that perhaps even Socrates could “be initiated in the rites of love I’ve described so far,” but the purpose of those rites is to reach “the final vision of the mysteries,” and she’s not sure he could manage it. Nonetheless, she begins to explain what these higher rites entail. First, when a man is young, he should be drawn toward beautiful bodies. He should first love just one body and “produce beautiful discourses” within that relationship.
Thus begins Diotima’s description of a “ladder of ascent” toward the good. She describes this metaphorical ladder as a new set of religious mysteries like those that Greeks would have practiced at Delphi, where the prophetess Pythia resided and uttered oracles. Diotima, in effect, is a new prophetess for these new rites.
Next, Diotima explains, a man should realize that the beauty of one body is closely related to the beauty of another. This should lead him to become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and he will reject his former passion for just one body. After that, he should begin to value the beauty of minds above the beauty of bodies. As he observes more and more beauty in abstract things like practices and laws, he’ll begin to see various types of beauty as closely related to one another and to realize that the beauty of bodies is petty by comparison.
Diotima proceeds up the rungs of the “ladder,” showing how love for one type of beauty gradually gives rise, step by step, to more expansive perspectives on beauty. In particular, love for bodies should give way to love for minds and an appreciation for the interrelation of types of beauty.
After he has begun to see the beauty in practices, Diotima says, a man should start to see the beauty in forms of knowledge. As he learns to look at beauty in general, he should become less and less attached to particular instances of beauty. When this happens, “he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it he’ll give birth…to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas.” He’ll then begin to catch sight of a special kind of knowledge.
Once he is established in love for minds and practices, a man will begin to appreciate beauty in general rather than specific beauties. He will be able to give great discourses at this point. However, it isn’t the final step—Diotima suggests that there is an element of divinity at play here that goes beyond the mortal acts described so far.
Diotima, reaching the pinnacle of her “ladder,” explains that a man will now “reach the goal of love’s ways.” He will realize that “beauty always is, and doesn’t come into being or cease.” Such beauty is not beautiful relative to anything else, and it doesn’t appear in any specific form—it “[appears] as in itself and by itself, always single in form; all other beautiful things share its character.” Even when these other beautiful things change or cease to be, beauty itself does not change.
Diotima is describing Plato’s teaching on the Form of Beauty. This Form is unchanging, stable, perceived by the mind rather than by the senses, and distinct from those particular things that share in its character.
Once someone has progressed through these stages and caught sight of beauty’s ultimate form, Diotima explains, he’s close to attaining his goal. She summarizes once again the ladder of ascent from love of particular beauties to love of beauty in general: the lover of beauty “should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning…[to] that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself.”
Diotima sums up what she’s just taught Socrates, thereby underlining Plato’s own perspective on the pursuit of beauty. This pursuit necessarily starts with something specific, but it must gradually become capable of seeing the beautiful beyond specific instances, until one is able to see and love beauty in its singular simplicity.
Diotima tells Socrates that this is the form of human life that ought to be lived: “gazing on beauty itself.” In their current state, lovers tend to become so wrapped up in their boyfriends that they focus on their desire to be with them forever. But it’s only after such lovers look beyond the trappings of physical beauty and gaze on beauty itself that they’re able to give birth not just to “images of virtue…but to true virtue.” Once he’s given birth to and raised true virtue, a man “has the chance of becoming loved by the gods, and immortal.”
The ascent to true virtue doesn’t seem to be attainable by just anyone. It requires an extensive process of purification from the trappings of the senses. As long as one remains attached to mere “images of beauty” instead of the Form of beauty itself, it’s impossible to produce the kind of virtue that leads to immortality. The restraint that Diotima describes here echoes the party attendees’ earlier descriptions of Socrates as sober and uninterested in frivolous pursuits.
Socrates wraps up what Diotima taught him and so concludes his speech. He says that he’s convinced of Diotima’s teaching, and that there is no better partner in the ascent to immortality than Love. He tries to convince others of the same, and he praises Love at every opportunity.
Whereas Socrates had occupied the role of the learner in his dialogue with Diotima, now he returns to the role of guide, urging others toward Diotima’s ladder. His eulogy of Love has ventured far beyond any of the other speakers’s offerings in its philosophical sophistication.