One of the Symposium’s most interesting features is the fact that earthly indulgence—a drinking party characterized by erotic overtones—provides the setting for philosophical contemplation. But embedded in the very structure of Plato’s dialogue is a gradual progression from more worldly conceptions of love to more exalted ones—a progression that’s echoed by Diotima’s higher mysteries at the end of Socrates’s speech, when she describes a ladder of progress to immortality. By structuring the work around ascending forms of love, Plato argues that immortality, only achievable through philosophy’s continual quest for truth, is the overarching goal of human life, though not every human being will choose to pursue it.
Most of the symposium guests view love as something that’s oriented toward mortal life in some way. For example, Phaedrus, the first speaker, argues that love shames men into courageously sacrificing their lives for one another, marshaling homoeroticism as a militarily useful phenomenon—that is, something that could be helpful in mortal wars that take place in this life. Eryximachus, a doctor, argues that love is bound up with the Greek medical practice of harmonizing discordant elements and can be observed throughout the natural world, not just in human beings. By coupling love with medicine and nature, Eryximachus squarely positions love as something worldly. Even Aristophanes argues that love is an urge to discover and unite with the “other half” from whom one was separated in his or her preexistent state. Like Phaedrus and Eryximachus, Aristophanes conceives of love as a worldly and human phenomenon.
However, Socrates’s speech presents a contrasting perspective. Through the discussion he presents between his teacher Socrates and the prophetess Diotima, Plato argues that the object of love isn’t simply to possess the good, but to “[give] birth in beauty both in body and in mind,” meaning that one gradually ascends, through philosophy, to a vision of the ultimate, eternal Form of beauty.
When Socrates objects that only a prophet can understand such things, Diotima explains that “All human beings are pregnant in body and in mind, and when we reach a degree of adulthood we naturally desire to give birth…sexual intercourse between men and women is a kind of birth.” Intercourse and reproduction seem to be the closest that mortal human beings can get to permanence and immortality, so it’s understandable that human beings naturally desire such an experience.
Though having biological children is viewed by many people as a satisfactory way of achieving immortality, Diotima argues that philosophically inclined men have a better, more enduring option: philosophical discourse. Male partners who engage in such progress toward wisdom together “have a much closer partnership with each other and a stronger bond of friendship than parents have, because the children of their partnership are more beautiful and more immortal…People look enviously at Homer and Hesiod and other good poets, because of the kind of children they have left behind them, which provide them with immortal fame and remembrance by being immortal themselves.” In other words, because philosophical discourse produces intellectual “children” like virtue and wisdom—exemplified in the enduring cultural productions of poets like Homer and Hesiod—the “parents” of such offspring enjoy a partnership that transcends the physical, and their offspring far outlive any biological children.
Ultimately, any man who loves wisdom should progress toward this latter kind of “childbirth,” and Diotima prescribes a specific series of steps to get there—a ladder toward the eternal Form of beauty. Even if he loves one human body at first, a man should eventually progress toward loving the beauty of all bodies, and from there to the recognition that minds are even more valuable than bodies. As he values intellectual discourse more and more, a man will observe the interrelations between every kind of beauty: “Looking now at beauty in general and not just at individual instances, he will no longer be slavishly attached to the beauty…of any particular person at all… 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.” Thus, having gazed upon the ultimate Form of beauty, which lasts forever, a man will have overcome all those earthbound forms of love with which the average person satisfies himself.
Plato’s argument, presented in Socrates’s speech, dramatically overturns all the concepts of love that have come before it, commending a view of happiness that doesn’t readily appeal to most people. This tension is illustrated by the ambivalent figure of Alcibiades, for example, who responds to the external beauty of Socrates’s words but persists in pining for earthly satisfactions. By using the conventional classical Greek event of the symposium and the puzzling figure of Socrates to demonstrate his view, Plato suggests that his own age wasn’t prepared to receive such a lofty approach to beauty—but that such a quest for immortality is worth the effort, outshining any worldly benefits of love or misguided fixation on earthly offspring.
The Ascent to Immortality ThemeTracker
The Ascent to Immortality Quotes in The Symposium
So it seems to me, Phaedrus, that Love is himself supreme in beauty and excellence and is responsible for similar qualities in others. […] Love drains us of estrangement and fills us with familiarity, causing us to come together in all shared gatherings like this, and acting as our leader in festival, chorus and sacrifice. He includes mildness and excludes wildness. He is generous of goodwill and ungenerous of ill-will. He is gracious and kindly; gazed on by the wise, admired by the gods; craved by those denied him, treasured by those enjoying him; father of luxury, elegance, delicacy, grace, desire, longing […] For the whole company of gods and humans, most beautiful and best of leaders; every man should follow him singing beautiful hymns of praise, sharing the song he sings to charm the mind of every god and human.
‘Now try to tell me about love’, he said. ‘Is Love love of nothing or something?’
‘Of something, undoubtedly!’
‘For the moment,’ said Socrates, ‘keep to yourself and bear in mind what love is of. But tell me this much: does Love desire what it is love of or not?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘When he desires and loves, does he have in his possession what he desires and loves or not? […] Think about it,’ Socrates said. ‘Surely it’s not just probable but necessary that desire is directed at something you need and that if you don’t need something you don’t desire it? I feel amazingly certain that it is necessary; what do you think?’
‘I think so too,’ said Agathon.
‘That’s right. Now would anyone who was tall want to be tall or anyone who was strong want to be strong?’
‘That’s impossible, according to what we’ve agreed already.’
‘Yes, because no one is in need of qualities he already has.’
‘Now I’ll let you go. I’ll try to restate for you the account of Love that I once heard from a woman from Mantinea called Diotima. She was wise about this and many other things. On one occasion, she enabled the Athenians to delay the plague for ten years by telling them what sacrifices to make. She is also the one who taught me the ways of Love. I’ll report what she said, using as a basis the conclusions I reached with Agathon, but doing it on my own, as far as I can.
“So how could he be a god if he is not in possession of beautiful and good things?”
“That’s impossible, as it seems.”
“Do you see, then,” she said, “ that you don’t believe Love is a god?”
“But what could Love be?” I said. “A mortal?”
“Far from it.”
“Like those examples discussed earlier,” she said, “he’s between mortal and immortal.”
“What does that make him, Diotima?”
“He is a great spirit, Socrates. Everything classed as a spirit falls between god and human.”
“Because he is the son of Resource and Poverty, Love’s situation is like this. First of all, he’s always poor; far from being sensitive and beautiful, as is commonly supposed, he's tough, with hardened skin, without shoes or home. He always sleeps rough, on the ground, with no bed, lying in doorways and by roads in the open air; sharing his mother’s nature, he always lives in a state of need. On the other hand, taking after his father, he schemes to get hold of beautiful and good things. He’s brave, impetuous and intense; a formidable hunter, always weaving tricks; he desires knowledge and is resourceful in getting it; a lifelong lover of wisdom; clever at using magic, drugs and sophistry.”
“Who are the lovers of wisdom, Diotima,” I asked, “ if they are neither the wise nor the ignorant?”
“Even a child,” she said, “would realize by now that it is those who fall between these two, and that Love is one of them. 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. Again the reason for this is his origin: his father is wise and resourceful while his mother has neither quality. So this is the nature of the spirit of Love, my dear Socrates. But it’s not at all surprising that you took the view of Love you did. To judge from what you said, I think you saw Love as the object of love instead of the lover: that’s why you imagined that Love is totally beautiful. But in fact beauty, elegance, perfection and blessedness are characteristic of the object that deserves to be loved, while the lover has a quite different character, which I have described.”
“The idea has been put forward,” she said, “that lovers are people who are looking for their own other halves. But my view is that love is directed neither at their half nor their whole unless, my friend, that turns out to be good. After all, people are even prepared to have their own feet or hands amputated if they think that those parts of themselves are diseased. I don’t think that each of us is attached to his own characteristics, unless you’re going to describe the good as ‘his own’ and as ‘what belongs to him,’ and the bad as ‘what does not belong to him.’ The point is that the only object of people’s love is the good — don’t you agree?”
“By Zeus, I do!” I said.
“Men who are pregnant in body,” she said, “are drawn more towards women; they express their love in trying to obtain for themselves immortality and remembrance and what they take to be happiness forever by producing children. Men who are pregnant in mind - there are some,” she said, “who are even more pregnant in their minds than in their bodies, and are pregnant with what it is suitable for a mind to bear and bring to birth. So what is suitable? Wisdom and other kinds of virtue: these are brought to birth by all the poets and by those craftsmen who are said to be innovative.”
People like that have a much closer partnership with each other and a stronger bond of friendship than parents have, because the children of their partnership are more beautiful and more immortal. Everyone would prefer to have children like that rather than human ones. People look enviously at Homer and Hesiod and other good poets, because of the kind of children they have left behind them, which provide them with immortal fame and remembrance by being immortal themselves. Or take,” she said, “the children that Lycurgus left in Sparta to provide security to Sparta and, you might say, to Greece as a whole. Solon is also respected by you Athenians for the laws he fathered; and other men, in very different places, in Greece and other countries, have exhibited many fine achievements and generated virtue of every type. Many cults have been set up to honor these men as a result of children of that kind, but this has never happened as a result of human children.
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.”
After Socrates’ speech, Aristodemus said, while the others congratulated him, Aristophanes was trying to make a point, because Socrates had referred to his speech at some stage. Suddenly, there was a loud noise of knocking at the front door, which sounded like revelers, and they heard the voice of a flute-girl.
‘Slaves, go and see who it is,’ Agathon said. ‘If it’s any of my friends, invite them in; if not, tell them the symposium’s over and we’re just now going to bed.’ Not long after, they heard the voice of Alcibiades in the courtyard; he was very drunk and was shouting loudly, asking where Agathon was and demanding to be brought to him. He was brought in, supported by the flute-girl and some of the other people in his group. He stood by the door, wearing a thick garland of ivy and violets, with masses of ribbons trailing over his head…
“You’ve all shared the madness and Bacchic frenzy of philosophy, and so you will all hear what I have to say … But you, house-slaves, and any other crude uninitiates, put big doors on your ears!
‘So, gentlemen, when the lamp was out and the slaves had left the room, I decided I shouldn’t beat about the bush but tell him openly what I had in mind. I gave him a push and said, “ Socrates, are you asleep?”
“Not at all,” he said.
…“I think,” I said, “you’re the only lover I’ve ever had who’s good enough for me, but you seem to be too shy to talk about it to me. I’ll tell you how I feel about this. I think I’d be very foolish not to gratify you in this … Nothing is more important to me than becoming as good a person as possible, and I don’t think anyone can help me more effectively than you can in reaching this aim. I’d be far more ashamed of what sensible people would think if I failed to gratify someone like you than of what ordinary, foolish people would think if I did.’”