Plato: The Symposium and the Ladder of Love

 

The Symposium is a dialogue dedicated to beauty and love. Entering the conversation on love, the playwright, Aristophanes, describes a mythic age. He tells us of creatures that have two sets of legs, two sets of arms, and two heads. They were complete creatures completely in love from head to heart. Hubristically, they believed they belonged atop Mount Olympus, amongst the gods who watched and waited. Love lifted them aloft as they longed for that place so gentle and soft. Zeus then planned to put a stop to their faction actions. He hurled flashes of lightning and the beings came crashing down the dusty mountain top. There the creatures lay, separated and devastated, and ever since they’ve been looking for their other half. Looking down upon them, they hear peels of thunder as Zeus threatens them that if they ever so try that again he wouldn’t abstain from dividing them once again. It was hubristic was it not, to climb atop heaven’s mountain top?

***

             That night Daealus entered a dream world of a flashbulb memory stuck in his mind. He was looking in third person at two people in a crucial time. It was the moment a woman across the table, looked downward, and the man focused in on her soft lips. 

She bravely said, “I am seeing somebody else,” as her tears hit the table top. 

It was as if time stood still for that man with no gust. He unconsciously stood up, walked outside to his car, closed the door, put it into gear, and mechanically–as if it was in stop motion, skipping frames–drove on without emotion. When he finally arrived home his mind, wrecked and reaped, hit a brick wall. He stood there in his kitchen with a heart sinking. He put his white knuckles on the countertop, and his body and heart leaned forward. Then it hit him. He understood what had just happened. He lost his best friend. He had a performance breakdown, his heart was so wound he couldn’t sit down. He looked through his glossy eyes with a pained chest because his heart was in arrest. Daedalus dreamt of this man walking through time, and whether it be a lonely toothbrush, or a brunette walking by whose hair had brushed him, memories of this woman would always press on his heart and head. Then lightning cracked and the dream cut over to her vantage point. After he had left to get into his car she stood up, with her heart jumping to her throat, watched as he drove off. She sat down on her couch, and with a hurt heart she covered her face, burying it with her hands and t shirt.

***

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and give them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive and contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor. But the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice.”

“That’s beautiful, John. The creative imagination that captures the hearts and minds give birth to ideas, and whoever so listens are their students. The great souled teacher can reach generations, whereas parents are limited to procreation.”

“Yes Daniel. One can reach many more minds by the way of ideas, and let’s pause and reflect on a quote by Isocrates, who was an acquaintance of Socrates. He was a great rhetorician and oratory was his mission. In his work Panegyricus he writes:

Our city has so far surpassed other men in thought and speech that students of Athens have become the teachers of others, and the city has made the name “Greek” seem to be not that of a people but of a way of thinking; and people are called Greeks because they share in our education (paideusis) rather than in our birth.” (Isocrates, Panegyricus 50)

“So to be Greek, Daniel asked, is no longer to share their blood, but to share their culture?”

“Yes. They were rich in soul, and gave birth to beautiful works that last and have gone largely unsurpassed. A long-lasting memory is their legacy. They’re teeming with teachings. But let us continue on to the height of the dialogue now, where Diotima tells Socrates of the ladder of love that lifts us above. She tells Socrates: 

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; 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 be not to recognizing that the beauty in every form is one and the same! 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; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honorable than the beauty of the outward form.

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 the personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty…

He who has been instructed this far in the things of Love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and secession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty.

…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 upward for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This, my dear Socrates, said the stranger if Mantinea, is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute.

What do you think of this speech?” John Asked

“Lovely.”

John laughs, “Nice, but you have to give me a little more than that. What of the ladder of love given to us by the mysterious woman of Mantinea, named Diotima?” 

“Beautiful. I thought the stages were anything but trite, because they seemed movingly right. To see the beauty in one body, then in two bodies, then in the beauty of what makes them both beautiful, which would be the very form of beauty. Then he will abate the beautiful forlorn forms for the beauty of the mind. Then to laws and institution, and then he will see as one beauty, until he comes to knowledge and the sciences so he may see their beauty, too. Then he will be led aloft in due succession, says Diotima, until one comes to Beauty’s final recognition, a wondrous beauty–Beauty absolute.”

“You certainly paid attention but how was your retention? Tell me more of what was mentioned”

“Might I mention how it was a mysteriously, lovely lady who is leading him aloft? I believe Socrates fell in love with this woman, and it was her that gave him the means to rise above the swelter and welter with this ladder of love, much like Ariadne who gave Theseus the means to lead his way out of his own labyrinth. Maybe what’s needed to get out of these caves are intelligence and knowledge found within wisdom, but the motivation that drives them is love. The means to attain the golden cord and the ladder depicted here was given to us by love. Here, love is represented by Princess Ariadne and Diotima. Love is our means to escape. It moves and drives us because it’s so desirous. The ultimate philosopher knows not the difference between the Beautiful and the True, and is driven to towards them by love.”

“Indeed, like Theseus’ labyrinth, Plato’s winged chariot, and the allegory of the cave, each story has some exit available to the dilemma. Maybe love is a means to pull that golden cord of reason, to escape the cave, to flutter one’s wings skyward, and finally to climb the ladder of love towards the heavens, which is where true beauty resides, which is what our aim was always intended for. However, some believe suffering the means to get restless enough to finally leave the world of habit and sloth behind, and to get out of a bind. This was Nietzsche’s belief.” John then asked, “What of this true beauty?”

“True beauty is undying and unchanging, eternal and fixed, and this Ladder of Love tends to be the bridge to this Beauty, but to climb it one needs the requisite knowledge and intelligence.”

**A word on beauty for my readers. I’ve been asked to define beauty. I believe beauty is the harmony between the sensed, the felt, the thought, and the known; it’s the utter integration of the cognitive, affective, perceived, and moral. Now, what is truly undying is abstract and relational, and the only example we have of that is mathematical. So it’s in the symmetry and harmony of the dimensions human can come to grips with that we come to find beauty. There are many dimensions to human life: The familial, the political, the civil, the aesthetic, the rational, the affective, the moral, it’s about getting the blend just right. We’ll always struggle with proportionality. Perfectionism is the Greek way of life, and they set forth this mode of living, of trying to find a balance, harmony, aptness, a kind of hand in glove fitness with the proportions. Leonardo Da Vinci himself said he tried to find the Greek pure symmetry his entire life, and felt as though he never found it. What was it about the Greeks that they were able to achieve it? It’s because in their works there was a humanistic quality of their art and architecture. You never seen a roman sculpture of a maiden holding flowers or of a young boy picking a thorn or pebble out his foot. It’s about the struggles we face, it’s utter humanizing and humanistic. Sure they did do many works dedicated to their gods but they were just greater beings than ourselves that shared the same human faults of power and temptation, but they always kept in their mind their own mortality, because the Greeks knew their reign wouldn’t last forever. There is a debate between romantic beauty and classical beauty. I’ve stated the difference in the Romantic Rebellion posts.

 

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