There has always been a close relationship between aesthetics and the theory of love, although one would not notice it by looking at any of the major aesthetics journals. If aesthetics has a lot to do with love insofar as the object of love is often said to be so because beautiful, then perhaps there can be some fruitful interaction between the two theories. In fact, the first great Western work on love, Plato's Symposium, is also the first great Western work on beauty. I have posted on this previously, but will now take a somewhat different angle. Here I will argue (let's just say it is a working hypothesis) that Plato is essentially right about love and beauty if, and I suppose this is a big if, we make one crucial modification to the theory. Previously I have argued that one has to interpret the greater mysteries in terms of the lesser mysteries of love, and I am going to stick by that, but now I will argue that there is a fundamental rightness in the greater mysteries if, again, one makes this rather major modification. I think, and this is purely hypothetical, that the modification can be based on Plato's view about the doctrine of recollection as it is put by Diotima when she describes the lesser mysteries. This, by the way, will make the new theory of love on offer (1) not dualistic and (2) consistent with a Nietzschean way of seeing things, which will be much to the surprise of followers of the orthodox understanding of Plato. So here is the theory. The fundamental problem with the ladder of love is Diotima's (I will use her name from now on, although we have no idea whether the theory is hers, Socrates', Plato's, or something that developed through all three...for now, it doesn't matter) insistence that the lower rungs of the ladder of love need to be cast away once one has reached Beauty itself. First, that is simply inconsistent, since just before grasping Beauty itself, on the penultimate rung of the ladder, the philosopher is viewing the vast sea of beauty, in a sense seeing beauty in all things. This achievement cannot be consistent with dumping the beauties and the types of love he or she appreciated prior to ascending the ladder! So my proposal is to replace the ladder of love with a circle of love, a circle that must be cycled through to gain a full appreciation of love, but in which there is no one privileged position. (This comes out of my previously developed theory of the circle of appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature.) The circle will be conceived as something more like a spiral, however (just to complicate things a bit) in that, although there is backward tracking or cycling back, we will not ignore the element of advancement and growth that enters into Diotima's theory. The cycle theory will be paralleled by a circle of beauty as the object of love. That is, whatever is said about the nature of love can be transferred over to the nature of beauty itself and vice versa. Following Diotima (and here I will be using the Jowett translation) the ladder of love is temporal in that one begins in youth with visiting "beautiful forms" loving one such form only, if, interestingly (and I will say more about this later), one is guided correctly by one's instructor. Beautiful thoughts are then created out of that interchange. After that comes an awareness of the similarity between beautiful forms, including of course, beautiful bodies. The intuition is that, once beauty of form in general is observed, the beauty in every form is perceived as "one in the same." This, as many philosophers have observed, is problematic, since, although I am aware that in saying my beloved is beautiful I am insisting that she shares this predicate with others called beautiful, I am also aware of her unique beauty, and so here beauty is not one in the same. I will have more to say about the concept of "same" later. A deeper problem is that the lover will "despise and deem a small thing" the beauty of the original one loved. The sentence is interesting since Diotima indicates that to make this move (or as a consequence of it) "he will abate his violent love of the one": it is perhaps the violence of the original love that makes it problematic and worthy of rejection? But let's say that the love of the one other, both in body and soul, is soft and gentle? If so, then there would be no need to reject it. Alternatively, one might want to give credit to both violent and gentle moments in the cycle of love: I won't have anything to say about that here. My point is a question to Diotima: why can't the lover cycle back from love of bodies and forms in general to achieve an enhanced appreciation of his or her original love and, indeed, the unique aspects of his/her beauty as well as the general aspects, or on top of them.
Diotima continues to the next stage: the lover moves on to appreciate the beauty of the mind, and to see this as "more honorable than the beauty of the outward form." A revision here is needed, but not an unreasonable one. When we love, say a wife or girlfriend, the external beauty is enhanced by recognition of internal beauty, and perhaps internal beauty is also enhanced by external beauty. There is a cycling between the two. Surely Diotima/Socrates/Plato could have seen that. The beauty of the mind is only more honorable insofar as it can be artificially abstracted from the beauty of the body. If I see a face animated in conversation and the face is seen as beautiful I cannot even separate the animated face from the physical face, and it would be absurd to say that the true face is the one at sleep or in death. So what sense does it even make to say that the beauty of mind is "more honorable" than that of the body it animates? Is there even a beautiful mind independent of its manifestations in the body? Diotima correctly situates this question in terms of the relation between lover and beloved in that the lover will take the virtuous soul of a beloved who is not physically beautiful and be "content to love and tend him" insofar as he will bring out thoughts which may improve him. This very process that leads to the next stage, since these thoughts are already social insofar as they are between lover and beloved. It is from here that we move on to a larger social stage which is that of thoughts about institutions and laws. Yet the the cycle view is relevant here too, since to speak of my beloved as having a beautiful soul is to speak of that soul in action, the most relevant action being the conversations we (she and I) have about things we value, including movies, art, poetry, literature, politics, family, nature, virtue, disapproval of vice, and of course our love itself. Love between the lover and the beloved is nourished by their mutual love of other things, i.e. in institutions, laws, and the creative arts. Moreover, earlier in the dialogue Diotima herself had closely associated the creative arts with the creation of institutions and laws, both as being examples of the higher pregnancy of ideas.
Jowett's translation does not make clear whether it is the lover or the beloved who comes again to see that the beauty of the institutions and laws belong to "one family" and yet this more general appreciation of beauty can happen to both. The problem is that this is associated with her notion that "personal beauty is a trifle." It isn't, and cannot be, since personal beauty is enhanced by this process that comes out of the shared life of the lover and beloved or out of the shared life of close friends.
Then there is the next move up the ladder of love to "the sciences" which, of course, includes all objects of study and skill, including all of the ones that are taught in the university, and not, not only all of what we would call the sciences but also all of the arts (let's not worry about here Plato's negative attitude about the imitative arts). To see their beauty, says Diotima, means that one is not "like a servant" in only focusing on the beauty of one person or institution and serving that one person or institution like a slave. This is a worthwhile warning and one should take into account that not all movements in the cycle of love are conducive to either autonomy or liberality. At the same time, a cycle view which calls on the lover to always cycle back to the particular from the general with a recognition that due attention to each enhances each, leads to a fuller and more adequate account of love and also of beauty. Becoming less "narrow-minded," as Diotima encourages us to be, is not inconsistent with continuing recognition of both the physical and mental beauty of the beloved, not inconsistent with that being enhanced by way of the greater knowledge achieved in studying the sciences and a very inclusive and liberal way. A shared love of the liberal arts is not necessarily inconsistent, and may well help form, a good marriage.
And then the next stage is "contemplating the vast sea of beauty" which is to say, I think, seeing beauty not only in officially recognized objects of beauty but in many many other places as well, in the way a flaneur does when roaming the streets of the city, or in the way John Muir did when roaming the Sierra wilds, and so we find, and here, remember, the relation between the lover and the beloved is still central, that "he [the lover] will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in the boundless love of wisdom" since wouldn't he also be creating these thoughts and notions also in his or her friends and lovers too?
The penultimate stage in Diotima's ladder recognizes the revelation of "a single science...of beauty everywhere" which then, Diotima calls on Socrates to understand by paying the closest attention. So bear in mind that the student of love must follow "due order and succession." And yet, I argue, this due order and succession should not have to require, contra Diotima, that there is no cycling through that order and no return to love of the individual or the particular thing, or even of such things of everyday life as clothes and food.
The end of this process is perceiving "a nature of wondrous beauty" which is seen as the ultimate end or purpose of the entire project. Yes, but the nature of wondrous beauty contains all of the things previously loved and thought to be beautiful. At this point Diotima (we might as well say Plato here since this is Plato's theory of Forms) describes the realm that is "everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning" and also not relative to the individual or the society.
On one level I do not think there there is a thing of that sort to be seen in the way that we see other things, but one can speak of an aspect of something experienced as beautiful as being as if eternal and unchanging, as if non-relative. Diotima herself used this idea when talking in the lesser mysteries about the immortality available to humans where what appears to be the same is really new and where succession preserves mortal things "not absolutely the same, but by sustitution" which she thinks "partakes of immortality."
The cycle view can have a place for this as a "moment": an idealist moment, one that can enhance the entire experience by informing it with something ideal insofar as it partakes of immortality in this way. On this view "beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting" is not just by itself because, after all, it is"imparted to the very-growing and perishing beautiful of all other things" and thus is related to all other things in this way, and depends on that relation for its very being.
Diotima thinks that perceiving this beauty is "not far from the end" which is interesting since one would think that this is the end, but we will see that she herself will express something similar to the cycle view by the end of her speech (which is also the end of the speech of Socrates in the dialogue). She then reviews the ladder of love and the proper sequence where the ascent is all "under the influence of true love." Well yes, but is it just an ascent? Plato himself, in the Republic, speaks of the philosopher entering back into the cave. Heraclitus has said that the path up and the path down are the same, a similar point. The modification I propose is to be carried out here. Diotima speaks of the true order as beginning "from the beauties of earth and" mounting upwards "for the sake of that other beauty." But isn't the mounting to that other beauty also equally for the sake of the beauties of the earth? i.e. for their enhancement as well? The sequence she describes here is from forms to practices to notions to absolute beauty, but I have argued that it is also one in which forms are only what they are because of their relation to practices and practices are only what they are because of their dynamic relations with forms, and both are only what they are because of their relations to notions, and notions are only what they are because they are premised by a search for the ideal, which then in turn informs the entire cycle, and is itself given life by its relation to particular forms.
So Diotima says that the life, above all others, that man should live is one of "contemplation of beauty absolute" which I think is true IF such contemplation is understood as mindful (in the Buddhist sense, possibly) attention to each of the stages and moments of the cycle of beauty insofar as each stage implicates all of the others: beauty absolute just is the possibility of this achievement, it is an ideal that cycling through the circle of love strives to achieve, an not an actual describable thing.
Thus Diotima in the end gets it all wrong when she thinks appreciation of beauty absolute is "not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you [the young Socrates]": rather it is being after these things in the course of life's going on through stages as richer and deeper in meaning on each swing through the cycle. The great poets have always seen this, and yet Diotima somehow misses it (Nietzsche was somewhat right about Socrates' incapacity to grasp the Dionysian here). It isn't just a choice, as Diotima holds, between seeing and conversing with boys with which one is so obsessed as not to eat or drink and the alternative of just contemplating an absolute beauty unrelated to that experience or anything else. If beauty absolute is really unrelated to that then why does Diotima demand that lovers begin at the initial stage of infatuation? There is an inconsistency where the lack of relation depends on a deep relation, where our understanding of enchantment with beauty itself and absolute depends on our experience of, although ultimately followed by rejection of, sexual enchantment. So all this talk of being clogged with "the pollutions of mortality" is a mistake, as Nietzsche and Dewey would have observed.
Ironically, Diotima herself recognizes a kind of cycle at play here since she concludes that in beholding true beauty "with the eye of the mind" one will be able to "bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities" which means bringing forth and nurturing true virtue and which also means becoming immortal "if mortal man may" a reference which takes us back to her theory of human immortality based on similarity and substitution, not on the sameness only available to the gods: again, the lesser mysteries, especially the passage on recollection, is key to the greater mysteries. Indeed, let me suggest that the lesser mystery just is the truth of the cycle theory: recollection is rebirth through substitution, a cycle of rebirth where we constantly recreate ourselves and thus achieve whatever immortality is available to man.