Erotic Ascent in Plato’s Symposium

December 21, 2013

Diotima bust

I have thoroughly enjoyed Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2009 [1994]). He has also translated Republic, Timaeus, Gorgias, Phaedrus, and others, plus works from Euripides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plutarch, Plotinus, et alia. He conveys a charm and wit that I have not found in other translators — though I’ll leave it to the experts in Attic Greek to judge — and his annotations are often humorous. His introductory essay to Symposium, which should be read only after reading the dialog itself, is a fine probing of the text: appropriately cautious yet confident in his vast knowledge of Plato’s corpus.

Socrates’ speech about ἔρως is a retelling of insights given to him by Diotima, a female philosopher and seer. The argument is full of twists and turns, not easy to reconstruct. Plato is figuring how ἔρως — érōs, trans. “love” — remains continuous throughout the person’s ascent to the highest form of love, which is love of absolute beauty, not merely particular instances here below. We begin with the ἔρως felt toward a particular object of our desires, as in our desire for sexual consummation with a beautiful person. There is a lack within ourselves, which is why Love cannot be identified with the absolute (or God) according to Plato — since God does not lack anything. The precise nature of this lack is a bit obscure. Love (ἔρως) is not pursuing beauty for the sake of beauty per se but for the sake of happiness, which Plato elsewhere (Republic most famously) connects with absolute Goodness. Yet, what makes us happy? In Symposium, Plato connects our ἔρως with our desire for immortality, which compels us to procreate and thereby extend ourselves. Likewise, we want to “possess” the objects of our desire because we want the true object — happiness — to endure forever. So, this is why philosophy is better than sex (!) because we can “procreate” that which never perishes: virtue or goodness. Thus, Socrates rejects the sexual advances of his attractive male students, because he wants to procreate wisdom with them, thereby bringing them to a higher stage of eternal beatitude.

The “erotic” is never denigrated. Sexual desire and its consummation participate in the beauty that leads us to absolute beauty or goodness. The erotic impulse is not to be rejected or repressed but transferred to a greater and more expansive apprehension of beauty. At least, that is how Waterfield interprets it:

The temptation to talk about the ascent in terms of sublimation of erotic impulses has proved too strong for some post-Freudian commentators, but it is entirely inappropriate. Diotima is not talking about the unconscious repression of instinctive energy, but the conscious transcendence of it. Whatever precisely Freud meant by the term ‘sublimation’ (he changed his mind a number of times about it), it seems to involve a blockage of the erotic impulse; in Diotima’s speech, on the other hand, érōs is never blocked, even though it may be transferred on to different objects. Even here there is a difference between Plato and Freud: the new objects of érōs in Freudian sublimation are less satisfactory than the objects the person really desires; for Diotima, however, the further up the ladder of love one ascends, the more fulfilling the objects are. Finally, although it is clear that the passion of érōs is preserved throughout the ascent, it is not clear that the sexual element is, except as a metaphor (as in Eryximachus’ speech); for Freud, however, sublimated desires remained essentially sexual. [p. xxxi]

So, the “sexual element” is important at the early stages of our apprehension of beauty and desire for happiness, though it is not clear whether this persists — once our “eros” is directed toward the purer and enduring beauty of absolute goodness. Given that Plato elsewhere conceives of material reality as a lower “impression” of the eternal “forms,” it seems that Plato’s ideal is a transcendence beyond all sexual desire, even if he does not denigrate its importance in one’s ascent. The problem with an “erotic impulse” that never matures, remaining at the lower level of particular goods, is that it wants to unite with transience, instead of using this impulse to lead beyond transience.

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Image: A bust of Diotima at the University of Western Australia. Click to enlarge.

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2 Responses to “Erotic Ascent in Plato’s Symposium”

  1. The Symposium is a dialogue I’m not very familiar with past a brief discussion in my philosophy class, but clearly that needs to change.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I had never read it either — despite being a philosophy minor in college. We read Phaedo, Republic, and Trial of Socrates. Yet Symposium appears to have had great influence upon subsequent Platonist/Neo-Platonist developments, especially of what I remember in Plotinus’ Enneads, and in Christian spirituality.

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