This is a bit of an unorthodox reading of the Symposium, so students beware: your teachers may not like this. But I also think it is true. The Symposium is not what it seems to be. Diotima takes us down a rosy path, or rather the endpoint is not the end. There is a myth at the center of the Symposium, and perhaps a secret truth. The secret truth is to be found in something somewhat more mundane than one would think. The unorthodox reading, in short, is that the lesser mysteries of love are actually the deeper mysteries, or at least the lesser mysteries are key to understanding the deeper mysteries. This reading is partly inspired by Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche well saw that the Apollonian world of Forms, what we find at the end of the ladder of love in the Symposium, is a myth. This is not to say that it is not valuable. Ultimately, the point of the story is not, as it may seem to most readers, the static world of Forms, but rather the dynamic path of the seeker, the philosopher, the lover of beauty...a path that leads us, it is true, to the mythology-like realm of Forms, a clever replacement for the Olympian world of the gods, but then back down into the world that Socrates only superficially denigrates. This deep reading of the dialogue goes radically against the usual surface reading. Hence my strategy is deconstructive in the tradition of Derrida. But don't worry I have no intention to talk about Derrida here or use any of his more explicit ideas.
So, let us look first at the lesser mysteries of Diotima. She informs us that the nature of love is the "everlasting possession of the good" or more circularly "love of the everlasting possession of the good." This comes after a significant expansion of the notion of poetry, interestingly similar to recent efforts to expand the notions of art and aesthetics. I believe that this expansion is no accident. i.e. that this is not a randomly chosen example, but that it points to a close connection between the theory of love/beauty to be offered and a theory of creative art that is implicit and that is much more positive towards the arts than the one presented famously in Book X of the Republic.
Diotima then tells us that the object of love is the beautiful. This introduction of the beautiful marks this discussion as a cornerstone document for aesthetics, which studies aesthetic properties, beauty being the most famous and perhaps the most important. In particular, as Socrates agrees, what is loved is possession of the beautiful, i.e. "that the beautiful be his [the lover's]." Now when a person loves the good (which Diotima seems to assume is ontologically equivalent to the beautiful) he or she wishes to possess the good, which means that he/she wishes to gain something, which it turns out is happiness, i.e. the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things. (No surprise here...rather surprising only in that it is such a mundane comment coming from Plato.) All men desire this.
Diotima's illustration to explain this, which is more than just an illustration, is that poetry, which was generally considered to be a matter of creative making in ancient Greece, is now defined, very broadly, as "all creation or passage of non-being into being" thus equating poetry with any making at all (indeed, any change!), and yet she then says "and the processes of all art are creative; and the masters of arts are all poets or makers," even though they are not actually called poets, that term usually limited to people who produce music and rhymed verse. The idea is to recognize that there is an important sense in which all makers are, or at least can be, creative in the way poets are. People usually take Plato to be using this as a way to once again denigrate poetry, but I think he (and Diotima) more importantly is upgrading the other forms of making, the practices of everyday life, which are now seen as aesthetic in the strong sense that they participate in this overall process called the love of beauty. In short, poetry is no longer the key example of poetic making.
Diotima uses this extension of the concept of poetry to set up a similar point for love, that love is much broader than we think, where all desire for the good and for happiness is "only the great and subtle power of love" and lovers are not then limited to romantic lovers. Rather, the class of lovers is extended to include various other paths, including those of money-making and gymnastics, as well as philosophy. That is, even money-making, gymnastics and philosophy can be forms of creative making. All of these involve love. What humans love, once again, is everlasting possession of the good, and all of their activities, whether money-making, gymnastics, or philosophy are directed to that. All of these activities are ultimate directed to aesthetic ends.
Then Diotima takes us to another level: "the object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul." This is perhaps the key to the entire dialogue. The object of love is not beauty itself so much as that which can come out of the love of beauty, i.e. the births and the creative discoveries. This is the dynamic soul, the lack of static end point, that is essential to the dialogue, and which is somewhat occluded by a shallow reading of the passages on the ladder of love at the end of Diotima's speech.
But we need to understand what is meant by "everlasting" and it turns out that this is radically other than everlasting presence in the everlasting unchanging world of the Forms. That's a nice myth for beginners in the art of philosophy and the love of beauty. But the true story is to be found earlier. "There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation" says Diotima, and this procreation is "in beauty" and is a "divine thing." Socrates was accused, says the Apology, of introducing new divine things which were perhaps not actually divinities: this is why he died, since although in the Apology, he insists that divine things must be divinities or children of divinities, there is an irony in the pronouncement, since divine things could just replace divinities and children of divinities. These divine things are precisely things of the a non-divine world. They are, in short, things that can be considered "divine" in an atheistic sense of the word. The divine as traditionally conceived, as a world of eternal things, is not a realm of procreation, since change is contrary to such a realm. So we find something in our world, i.e. procreation, which is to say both conception and generation, which makes up "an immortal principle in the mortal creature" says Diotima.
Diotima begins with bodily procreation, but what she says about it can also be applied to the non-bodily sort: she says, personifying the conceiving power within each of us, that "when approaching beauty, the conceiving power is propitious, and diffusive, and benign, and begets and bears fruit; at the sign of ugliness she frowns and contracts and has a sense of pain, and turns away, and shrivels up, and not without a pang refrains from conception." The easy interpretation, the first level, would be that we are talking about a heterosexual male who is sexually excited by a woman of great physical beauty but runs when confronted with her ugly counterpart. But something else is meant. We have a specific process in mind which is best understood in terms of how it would be applied to creativity in non-sexual productive friendship and also in creative making described broadly under the concept of poetry earlier expanded. So when Diotima says "when the hour of conception arrives, and the teeming nature is full, there is such a flutter and ecstasy about beauty whose approach is the alleviation of the pain of travail" she is talking about the creative process. Beauty is necessarily connected with the creative birth of a virtue, discovery or idea. We all know about the moment of ecstasy that comes with inspiration: we are prepared to conceive, and yet the process of creative making is painful since contrary to conventions and habit, it is not the easy path, and yet again it is alleviated by the presence of beauty, where the object of one's creative activities, the thing coming to birth shines with beauty. Diotima insists again, to stress the point, "love is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only" but "love of generation and the birth in beauty." Beauty pervades creative making. Moreover, this generation to the mortal creature is "a sort of eternity and immortality." It is, indeed, from the atheist perspective, all the immortality we are going to get...and it is enough too, since the other immortality is little more than a destructive illusion (one that Diotima and Socrates never saw, but Freud, Marx and Nietzsche did). It is important that the next passage is one in which Diotima explains her ideas in terms of procreation amongst animals. She at least dimly (perhaps unconsciously) recognizes what Dewey saw clearly that man in an animal interacting with his environment.
The explanation of why generation gives us immortality that follows is central to understanding the truth about love and beauty that Diotima is trying to teach the dim young Socrates. She says, and mark the end of the quote, "the mortal nature is seeking as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is only to be attained by generation, because generation always leaves behind a new existence in the place of the old." Immortality in our world, the only world there is, happens by way of the new thing generated by love (in beauty which replaces the old. Moreover this is explained in terms of the fact that in life the same individual is the result of succession, "not absolute unity" (take that! Descartes). Even though we are "called the same" there is a "perpetual process of loss and reparation" in which all parts of us, skin, hair, etc., are changing. She insists that this is also true for the soul and most notably for knowledge since "not only do the sciences in general spring up and decay, so that in respect of them we are never the same; but each of them individually experiences a like change." At this point Plato reintroduces the doctrine of recollection which he had explored in the Meno and the Phaedo. Here it has a specific use: the word "recollection" means the "departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all moral things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind - unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another." So the mortal takes part in immortality by way of a series of substitutions by which the illusion of sameness is achieved and maintained. Moreover, this is in, and by way of, moments of beauty associated with procreation and hence with love. Socrates asks if this is true and Diotima gives, as evidence, something very different but interestingly related: the quest for the immortality of fame. Someone, after all, can have the somewhat delusive unity achieved through "recollection" without being concerned at all with creative making or fame, or vice versa, pursuing fame with no interest in the kind of unity of knowledge called "recollection," that is, if we were to interpret "recollection" in a flat-footed way. But let's not. Diotima explains the search for fame in terms of the desire to leave behind a reputation, a name, that is eternal. If the memory of our virtues is passed down we are immortal in some sense. But there is a deeper story here, and we understand it further from the next paragraph, when we find that souls that are pregnant and "mean who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies" conceive "wisdom and virtue in general" which Diotima immediately and at first associates with "poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor." So the expanded notion of the poet appears again at this critical juncture! This of course is quite contrary to what is said of the poet literally speaking in the Republic or in Ion, although Ion also tells another story at another level as I have argued in other posts. Of course Diotima then insists that the greater wisdom is to be found in "ordering states and families." That does fit the vision of the Republic. But it is followed by something that seems right our of Phaedrus and has to do with the lover/beloved relationship in philosophical friendship. I will stop here, and in the next revised version of this post I hope to explain the role of this friendship and how the lesser mysteries illuminate the true meaning of the ladder of love which reaches beyond Beauty itself to that which is generated from grasping Beauty.