In Symposium 210a-212a, in Socrates’s dialogue with the prophetess Diotima, Diotima describes the stages through which a lover of wisdom must ascend in order to apprehend true Beauty. In short, the ascent, resembling a staircase, goes like this: one “should go from one [body] to two [bodies] 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 [eternal, unchanging] beauty itself.” In other words, one must progress from love for physical things to love for mental things, and from love of particular things to love of universal things in order to arrive at true happiness and wisdom. Some Plato scholars have identified Symposium’s six speeches—those of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates—as roughly approximating the stages of ascent. Though this section of Symposium has traditionally been called “Diotima’s ladder” or the “ladder of ascent,” neither phrase actually appears in the dialogue.
Ladder/Staircase/Ascent Quotes in The Symposium
Looking now at beauty in general and not just at individual instances, he will no longer be slavishly attached to the beauty of a boy, or of any particular person at all, or of a specific practice. Instead of this low and small-minded slavery, he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it he’ll give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas. At last, when he has been developed and strengthened in this way, he catches sight of one special type of knowledge, whose object is the kind of beauty I shall now describe…
“When someone goes up by these stages, through loving boys in the correct way, and begins to catch sight of that beauty, he has come close to reaching the goal. This is the right method of approaching the ways of love or being led by someone else: beginning from these beautiful things always to go up with the aim of reaching that beauty. Like someone using a staircase, he 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. From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is.”