Comments on the Ladder of Love passage, Diotima speaking, in Plato's Symposium.
I will be using the Jowett translation in these comments. This, of course, is limiting, since there are more recent translations and since a better commentary would rely on the Greek. Another factor in these comments is that I am responding here to student questions and have been influenced in some instances by these questions themselves. So I thank my students for their contributions.
"But I will
do my utmost to inform you, and do you follow if you can. For he who
would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit
beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright,
to love one such form only-out of that he should create fair thoughts;
The translation here is a bit odd since "visit beautiful forms" really means visit and be attracted to beautiful young men. Who is "the instructor"? Presumably it is someone like Diotima to Plato: the person who teaches him or her the art of love. But why is guiding a person right a matter of focusing on one form (one physical look of a beloved person) rather than on something else? This is a difficult question. My feeling is that Plato thought that the erotic force is a strong motivator that lies behind many or even most of our efforts in life. It may be surprising to think of Plato as holding to a kind of materialistic position here, one that Freud, for example, would not reject. But I think that in general we over-idealize Plato. For example, in Book X of the Republic few notice that God the creator of the first bed is eventually replaced by the expert in the use of the object the essence of which we are seeking.
Note also that the pursuit of this one person helps the lover "create fair thoughts." I think this means that the lover engages with the beloved in conversations much like Socratic dialogue and that many of the thoughts generated in this are beautiful. One wonders whether Socrates can be serious about that since most of the thoughts in a dialogue, i.e. most of the definitions, are refuted by Socrates...and this, surely, would not be an indication of their being beautiful. It is likely that the "fair thoughts" are thoughts about beauty rather than, strictly, beautiful themselves.
Some students wonder whether attraction to someone's body is the same as being in love with them. Surely not. But if one is in love then the object of love is beautiful. Plato does not work this out but there must be a lower level attraction and physical beauty that does not involve love. Love, for Plato, comes with deep conversation with the beloved.
"and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is
akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general
is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the
beauty in every form is and the same!"
There is a nice video about Derrida in which he discusses the nature of love. His discussion can be seen as an attack on Plato's theory of love and beauty, especially against this point that when we love correctly we see every form as the same. As Derrida suggests, it is the unique individual we love. Plato also seems here to jump quickly from all beauty being akin to all beauty being the same. The first is much more plausible than the second. But, for Plato, for two things to be akin they must be the same insofar as they partake in that Form.
And when he perceives this he
will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and
deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms;
One of my students asks "Is Diotima's theory of beauty strictly linear? Do people always need to literally be attracted to [one person's] physical form in order to achieve the next level?" The student also asked whether one can regress, i.e. be attracted to a mind and then later on only to the physical form. I think it is in fact linear and that Diotima/Plato is intentional about the sequence. Yes, of course, regression is possible. Plato discusses regression from the ideal society in the Republic.
"Violent love of the one" may seem strange, and yet the Greeks thought of romantic sexual love as violent or at least "mad." This is what we today refer to as "falling in love" or being obsessed by love. Acts of jealous violence show how love of the extreme romantic sort can turn sour.
in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is
more honourable than the beauty of the outward form.
Of course we contemporary anti-dualists have a problem with this. It presupposes that the mind is radically separate from outward form. And yet what we call "mind" in the beloved is ultimately to be found in our experience of the beloved, in her gestures, her spoken thoughts, her kind acts, and so forth.
Many of my students have suggested that you can be attracted to the mind first and then the body. I think so, and not only that, but I think that Diotima, Socrates and Plato would have allowed for this. Plato has Socrates seemingly fall in love with Theaetetus in the dialogue of that name even though he is considered physically unattractive.
It might be best, when pursuing the ladder of love (assuming that the pursuit is legitimate) to oscillate between the beloved in physical aspect and the beloved in mental aspect: abstracting the physical or the mental from the whole person may itself be a hindrance to advances in love.
So that if a
virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to
love and tend him, and will search out and bring to the birth thoughts
which may improve the young,
You can fall in love with someone who is not physically beautiful. The subject of this sentence (as always, at least in this translation) is unclear. But note again that the path to Beauty is by way of the kind of conversation that brings to birth thoughts (here, the metaphor of generation comes in again) and that these thoughts are specifically those that will improve the young (especially, in this case, the younger beloved.)
until he is compelled to contemplate
and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that
the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty
is a trifle;
It seems strange to many of my students that the next stage of the ladder of love is love of institutions and laws. One could say that the movement is from one to many to one's country in general. Love of country is a common enough idea. Then one can quickly realize that it is the institutions and laws that makes one's country well-ordered, although they are not perhaps what makes it lovable. Still, for Plato, these would be the same. Today we are often skeptical of laws and institutions, for example as merely uploading class dominance. Still the idea of a well-ordered society is something to consider.
and after laws and institutions he will go on to the
The love of knowledge (or of wisdom) seems the natural next step, especially for Plato. Of course, I, a professor, can identify with this easily. Others might focus on their love of a profession or craft.
that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in
love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a
slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating
the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts
and notions in boundless love of wisdom;
For Plato, a free man, someone not a "servant," is going to be someone other than Ion in the Ion who only loves Homer. The free man will not be narrow-minded in his appreciation. He/she will contemplate the "vast sea of beauty" and also, in doing so, will create "fair and noble thoughts" by way of his "love of wisdom" i.e. his philosophy. So the two are closely connected: contemplation of beauty and love of philosophy.
until on that shore he grows
and waxes strong,
The image is carried through. The lover is on the shore viewing the vast sea, and also the lover "grows and waxes strong."
and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single
science, which is the science of beauty everywhere.
The idea of a vision being revealed is central to the entire quest. So it seems strange to us today to see this in terms of a "single science." How can a single science be the result of a vision. Not only is there a vast sea of beauty but there is a science which studies it? This of course would be what we today call Aesthetics. Aesthetics studies the vast sea of beauty.
To this I will
proceed; please to give me your very best attention:
"He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who
has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when
he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous
beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a
nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying,
or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and
foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place
fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul,
as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face
or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of
speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example,
in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but
beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without
diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the
ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.
This nature of wondrous beauty which is perceived suddenly is like the Parmenidean One: everlasting, not growing or decaying. A student asked me whether Plato had any influences in this theory, and the answer is (beyond of course Socrates and Diotima) Parmenides. Also the beauty of this thing, Beauty itself, is not relative to person, point of view, place or time. This is an attack on all theories that beauty is subjective.
Also it is is not to be found in the things we think to find beauty, i.e. in imitations of face, hands, body, or in forms of speech or knowledge. Indeed it is not to be found in any particular being. This is because it is, again, "absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting." And yet it is "imparted" to the beauties of all other things. The latter beauties always grow and always perish.
He who from
these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive
that beauty, is not far from the end.
Diotima speaks of "true love" and one wonders whether this refers to the eternal Form of Love. But then how can Love be a Form if it is not divine, but just is a lover of the divine. What would the final definition of love be? It seems that Diotima does not even care. What she does, instead, is to provide a process for achieving apprehension of Beauty. True Love may just be what comes at the end of the ladder of love.
Is it being implied here that perceiving absolute Beauty is not really the end?
Some of my students have asked how one knows that one has reached the end of the ladder of love. This is a good question. There might, after all, be a false ending of the quest. So, "you just know" might not be an adequate answer.
And the true order of going,
or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the
beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty,
using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from
two to all fair forms,
Diotima here repeats the steps. But she also varies this. For example beginning with the beauties of the earth is beginning in a much broader place than beginning with the particular look of a beloved person. Many students are concerned that one must start with sexual love, with lust. This is not necessarily the case, as can be seen in this comment about "beauties of earth." Another factor in this is that Diotima is now speaking of two species of love, not several. So there is an implicit dualism here. The lower beauties are things to begin with. The upper beauty is Beauty itself. The "beauties of earth" seems to refer to the process of going from one to two to all fair forms, i.e. all beautiful appearances on the earth.
and from fair forms to fair practices, and
from fair practices to fair notions,
Again, there is big distinction between this and the earlier version of the ladder (if we are to accept Jowett's translation...which is always my proviso). Beautiful practices and notions are not exactly the same as beautiful institutions and science: here too the category is more general, and therefore, in a way, more acceptable.
until from fair notions he arrives
at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence
of beauty is.
I wonder whether arriving at the notion of absolute beauty is the same as knowing the essence of beauty. Probably is.
This, my dear Socrates," said the stranger of Mantineia,
"is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation
of beauty absolute;
Most people will balk at this. After all, there are many other choices in life. Who really devotes him or herself to contemplation of absolute beauty? In what sense can this really be the way man should live? Perhaps Socrates was doing this when he was transfixed in the doorway before coming to the Symposium. But even he did not devote his entire life to such contemplation. So it seems to be an unreasonable demand. Is it a symbol for the entire pursuit of beauty? I could see saying that the goal of life is to pursue beauty both through making aspects of the world more beautiful and through seeing the beauty in things, all of which cannot happen unless one grasps the essence of beauty.
a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see
not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and
youths, whose presence now entrances you;
Protagoras had said that man is the measure of all things. Here the question rather is how one measures beauty, or rather determines that something is beautiful and to what extent. This list, of gold, garments and beautiful youths is a list of things commonly said to be beautiful, things that also entrance, and yet these things are beautiful in a superficial way.
and you and many a one would
be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without
meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at them
and to be with them.
This of course is a description of a lover, who is "mad" in a certain way. It is interesting that the lover is willing to sacrifice some material goods, meat and drink, for this thing which is less direct and more contemplative, i.e. looking at the beautiful beloved, and being with them, which also requires that one is involved in conversation with the beloved.
But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty-the
divine beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with
the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human
As previously mentioned, it might seem wiser then to avoid these colors and vanities and seek the divine beauty directly. Why is there even a ladder of love? Why start with what is already polluted?
-thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple
True beauty replaces the beloved boy as something to hold converse with and something to look at. But converse and communion imply something mutual. What can we offer Beauty itself?
Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty
with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images
of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a
Bringing forth realities based on having taken hold of a reality: this would mean creating beautiful things in this world.
and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become
the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be
an ignoble life?"
What are the beautiful things brought forth. They constitute true virtue. This "true virtue" is not necessarily moral virtue or just moral virtue: it is excellent generally.
Contrary to most religions, here the only immortality available to man is this one in which the seeker becomes "friend of God" leading the noble life, a life in which true virtue is constantly created out of apprehension, contemplation and creation of beautiful things. An afterlife is not at issue here. Virtue in the context of love and beauty might be a matter of actualizing one's excellence through seeking out and finding the essences of things.