The following was submitted for a final paper in my Greek Literature Seminar at University last semester. Yes, I got an A on the paper xd. For those who’ve never read Symposium – the book is one of Plato’s greatest dialogues, written on the topic of love. Diotima, the subject of this essay, is a wise woman who taught Socrates all he knew about the “art of love.” The structure of Diotima’s exposition in Symposium is dialectal – she speaks back and forth with Socrates about love. Thus, Socrates’ and Diotima’s opinions clash throughout her speech.
Despite Diotima’s description of love appearing relatively complex, it can be described as polemical, speaking against prevailing notions of love. Following a brief definition of Love as a spirit, the first polemic deals largely with a genetic account of Love as such, Diotima speaking against love’s alleged beauty by defining it as an offspring of resourcefulness and poverty (Symposium, 203C-203E). Later polemics endeavor to discover the nature of love in relation to desire (Symposium, 204E-205A) as well as its teleological (Symposium, 206E-207A) and processual (Symposium, 210A-210B) relations to beauty. Throughout these accounts, however, what precisely is the factor which Diotima utilizes to differentiate her notions of love from those supplied by Socrates and, consequently, the other interlocuters in participating in the symposium? In this paper, critical activity will be defined as Diotima’s means of differentiation, love subsequently being defined as an active process whereby man engages in criticism of himself and his environment as opposed to merely incurring a passive ontological disposition, a claim demonstrated in Diotima’s performance of the process.
As the name implies, Diotima’s genetic account of “Love” attempts first and foremost to provide an origin for it as an entity, the account thus serving as a direct answer to Socrates’ question in 203E regarding Love’s parentage. Indeed, a prima facie reading of passages 203C-203E appears to give credence to the claim that Love’s almost mythological origin appears to merely account for “Love” as a “‘great spirit,’” a “‘messenger…shuttle[ing] back and forth between’” men and the gods and consequently being born of the latter (Symposium, 202E, 203C). However, Diotima’s remark that the spiritual “‘conveys’” things from men to the gods, and from gods to men, thus implies a degree to which man himself is in participation with the spiritual, especially concerning outward actions such as “‘enchantment, prophecy, and sorcery,’” (Symposium, 203A). As a result, Love constitutes a spirit with which man is in “‘conversation,’” and in which he actively participates, denoting that the genetic account of Love provided by Diotima speaks not merely of Love as an entity, but of Love as a something which constitutes an outwardly visible disposition in man such as those present in the aforementioned religious ecstasies (Symposium, 203A).
The account itself proceeds in this vein, Love being defined as the offspring of a personification of “resourcefulness,” Poros, and of “poverty,” Penia (Symposium, 203C). Consequently, though Love the spirit is merely accounted for as an offspring of Poros and Penia, man’s participation in that spirit, that is, love as man experiences it and his conceptualization of it as such, is implicitly defined as the offspring of “resourcefulness,” or “way,” and “poverty,” love’s very definition thus relying on the semantic context of Poros and Penia. Indeed, as Love the spirit is hereafter described, Diotima ascribes qualities to it which entail further semantic implications. Due to Penia, Love is “‘always poor’” and “‘always living with Need,’” yet, simultaneously, due to Poros and its birth on Aphrodite’s birthday, it is a “‘schemer after the beautiful and the good…always weaving snares,’” (Symposium, 203D). Herein, all qualities ascribed to love as a consequence of “poverty” are entirely passive and dispositional – Love’s being “‘poor,’” “‘tough,’” “‘shriveled’” “‘shoeless,’” and “‘homeless,’” all relating qualities “Love” as an entity and love as a concept do not actively engage with, but passively “are,” (Symposium, 203D). Conversely, all qualities ascribed to love as a consequence of “way,” unlike those of “poverty,” distinctly relate to activity, or “doing,” a “schemer” being one who performs schemes, for instance. Other adjectives are applied to Love similarly, Love’s being “brave” implying that it is engaged actively in bravery and his being “’impetuous’” acting as a descriptor of his manner of action, that it acts rashly (Symposium, 203D). Taken as a whole, therefore, the dichotomy between Poros and Penia which exists for Love as an entity and the dichotomy between “way” and “poverty” which exists for love as a concept is fundamentally one which relates a unity between two distinct aspects of love’s nature, “being” and “doing.” As a polemic, the account thus serves to counter Socrates’ notion of Love presented in 201E which describes him as a “‘great god and that…belongs to beautiful things,’” a notion which both misunderstands Love’s aspects of being and fails to entirely account for Love’s aspects of doing, as a beautiful thing need not seek the beautiful. Furthermore, in giving an exposition of love’s composition while simultaneously engaging with Socrates’ questioning and counterpoints, Diotima herself represents a model figure instantiating both the doing and being aspects of love, at once maintaining a disposition towards “the beautiful and the good” while expressing and engaging with them.
Following this genetic account, Diotima concludes that love can be defined as “‘wanting to possess the good forever,’” with “‘eagerness and zeal,’” a definition relating corollaries which, when taken in isolation, entirely contradict her genetic account (Symposium, 206B). For instance, an isolated reading may understand “‘wanting to possess the good’” as a merely passive disposition, one which excludes Diotima’s active aspects of love. However, in light of the statement that Love is “‘always living with Need,’” (Symposium, 203D) and that “‘possessing the good forever’” constitutes the “‘object of love,’” the “‘eagerness and zeal’” of love are not to be merely understood as the entirety of love, but those “being” aspects of love which enable the fulfillment of the “doing” aspect, the acquisition of love’s object (Symposium, 206B). Just as activity differentiated Diotima’s definition of love from that of Socrates, so too does activity, furthermore, differentiate Diotima’s account of love’s object. For Socrates, the object of love is the possession of “‘beautiful things’” such that one will acquire happiness, a mere state of being (Symposium, 204E-205A). For Diotima, however, love’s object is not merely had in beautiful things but beautiful action, “‘reproduction and birth in beauty,’” via conversation, thus reiterating love’s compositional structure (Symposium, 206E).
On this account, Diotima also separates her end-based, teleological description of love from that of Socrates by calling on a degree of criticism which he does not, his teleology amounting to little more than happiness as a direct consequence of the acquisition of good things, as “there’s no need to ask further,” beyond them (Symposium, 205A). Because the object of love for Diotima rests in conversation, the lover finds himself in a position to distinguish between the beautiful and the ugly, both of soul and of body, such that he may find in his beloved a man worthy of education in critical distinctions regarding what is and is not virtuous, moderate, and just (Symposium, 209A-209C). In this manner, the active process of reproduction is simultaneously a critical process, one whereby the lover not only criticizes prospective beloveds, but one wherein the lover criticizes and analyzes “‘ideas and arguments’” (Symposium, 209A-209C). Uniquely, it is this precise process which Diotima herself has engaged Socrates with since the beginning of their discourse in 210D, her giving birth to ideas “fitting for a soul to bear,” through her exposition of beauty. (Symposium, 209D). As a consequence of Diotima’s active, critical questioning of Socrates throughout their dialogue, the education that she speaks of in 209D is not only manifest but is the very process by which the concepts of the process itself are communicated. Within the context of Symposium’s greater frame-narrative, Diotima’s argument that the reproducers in beauty “‘remember that beauty,’” “‘whether they are together or apart’” is also confirmed, as Socrates calls on Diotima’s arguments to further instruct others in the exact manner she instructed him (Symposium, 209C).
In contradiction to Socrates’ initial statements regarding love’s possession of beautiful things, Diotima’s final, processual elucidation of love separates itself by heightening the unity of criticism and activity she has already alluded to. Whereas the initial critical aspects were described as analytical, the processual description of love endeavors to facilitate the exact opposite – critical analysis for the sake of synthesis. Herein, an object higher than reproduction is had, the lover being expected to recognize beauty as he presently experiences it, such as the beauty which exists via the production of ideas with one beautiful body, and to recognize thereafter that beauty is simultaneously present in other forms, such as other bodies (Symposium, 210B). Finally, the lover is expected to critically synthesize these two abstractions in the realization that said beauties are “one in the same,” the ultimate result of this process being the knowledge of “just what it is to be beautiful,” (Symposium, 210B, 211D). Thus, not only is one tasked with the maintenance of the critical, analytical activity of reproduction in beauty with others, but he is simultaneously tasked with the critical, synthetic activity of attaining beauty in itself by critiquing and adjusting his own conceptions of beauty. As a result, both a descriptive and a normative evolution take place within the lover in his understanding of beauty, him both redefining the term gradually while considering himself “‘very foolish’” if he should fail to do so (Symposium, 210B). Following this process, the lover’s notion of what ought to be considered beautiful becomes elevated, the lover no longer “‘measure[ing] beauty by gold or clothing’” or other trifling matters he may have considered prior (Symposium, 210B, 211D). Thus, Diotima’s processual account distinguishes her love from that of Socrates by means of a higher end, that of beauty itself, by calling the lover to be consistently engaged in the critical work of ascent until the perfect, “‘absolute, pure, unmixed…divine,’” form of beauty itself is had, Socrates merely calling for possession beautiful and good things (Symposium, 211E). Furthermore, from a meta-analytical perspective, Diotima’s instruction of Socrates appears to engage in the beginning steps of the very ascent she discusses, her drawing Socrates from false notions of love and beauty to the true pursuit of both.
Within all four accounts of Diotima’s exposition of love, the notion of critical activity continuously serves as the means by which she articulates love and, consequently, performs the very acts she discusses. The initial genetic-semantic account of love, in articulating a key distinction between love’s being and doing aspects, enabled Diotima to draw Socrates from his notion of love as beautiful to something in need of beauty, this distinction enabling her to further draw him to the critical, active pursuit of reproduction in beauty and, thereafter, the pursuit of beauty itself. Thus, as a consequence of the argumentative structure that Diotima employed in educating Socrates, not only has she initiated the ascent to beauty’s form in Socrates, but she enabled Socrates to do the same to his own set of interlocutors, enabling Plato to do the same to the readers of Symposium, and so ad infinitum.