The Nature of Eros

The Speech of Agathon (195a —197e).

This speech marks a turning point in the dialogue. The whole approach to the phenomenon of love shifts its attention from the effects of Eros to the nature (GREEK) of Eros. Agathon points out the need for such a distinction (195a) and with this the criterion for the final speeches is established.

For Agathon, the nature of Love ("Who Love is") is described by saying that it is (a) the most beautiful (GREEK) and (B) the best or most virtuous (GREEK) of the gods (195a). The former attribute involves its being the youngest (195a —c) and most delicate (GREEK?) of the gods(195d —196a). The latter attribute, describing Love’s goodness involves its being just, temperate, brave and skillful (GREEK). This last quality refers to Love’s ability to "compose" all matter of relationships (196e - 197b).

Upon this nature of Love rests its effects. Since Love’s nature is of surpassing beauty and goodness (GREEK), it is the cause (GREEK) of all similar excellences in others (197c).

Interlude: Socrates and Agathon (198a —201c).

Agathon’s speech is greeted with much applause. The interval that follows will allow Socrates to effect a transition between the previous speeches and his own. The interlude has two parts. The first section deals with the manner in which Socrates’ speech will differ from the others (198b —199b), the second takes the form of a critique of Agathon’s thesis (199c — 201c).

With reference to the attributes of the deity, Socrates agrees that Agathon’s speech was indeed beautiful (198b). But the further question to be asked is whether it was a good i.e., correct speech and, as such, a truly beautiful speech (cf Phaedrus 259e). That is to say, can its content hold up to the criterion of truth? It is here that the whole problem of truth and sophistry emerges (198d). The previous speeches all spoke in beautiful and persuasive ways, they all employed the method of the Sophist Gorgias. However, Socrates’ speech will differ insofar as it will involve more than mere praise (GREEK) of Eros, rather, it will attempt to give a true account of Eros (GREEK)(198e — 199a).

Socrates now begins to question the truth of Agathon’s speech. This is done in order to prepare the way for his own discourse on Love. The questioning follows the line of a formal refutation and can be expressed succinctly.

It is true that Agathon’s beginning was excellent. He saw the need to distinguish the descriptions of Love and to begin by understanding Love’s nature or essence (199c). But thereafter the speech ran aground. Agathon failed to see that love, by its very nature, is always a love of something. That is to say, love desires (GREEK) that which it loves. From this it follows that love necessarily lacks (i.e., is not) that which it desires (199d —200b).

Having established that Eros is not the same as its object of desire, Socrates can now refute Agathon’s thesis. For if love is a desire for beauty, then Eros cannot be equated with the beautiful. Furthermore, if that which is good is also beautiful, and love is not the same as the beautiful, then it follows that Eros cannot be equated with the good (201a —c).

At the conclusion of the interlude we are left with the idea that love entails neither the possession of the beautiful nor the possession of the good but involves rather a striving for that which it lacks. With this distinction accomplished, Socrates can begin his speech.

Note: Throughout all of this there has been a play on Agathon’s appearance and name. Agathon is, in fact, a beautiful man and so his speech corresponded to that appearance of beauty. But further, Agathon’s name corresponds to the Greek meaning of "good"(Agathon). Thus, his speech should not only appear beautiful, it should also be good (i.e., truly beautiful).

The Speech of Socrates (201d — 212c).

This speech marks the central moment in the dialogue. It can be divided into two sections; the first deals with the nature of Eros, the second deals with the effects of Eros. The nature or essence of Love is to be seen as a striving based upon a lack. The effect of Love’s activity will be seen to entail a movement upwards which eventually leads to a gazing upon the Forms. [The speech thus contains a discourse on Love and a discourse on the Platonic theory of Forms.]

In general we could say that the discussion of Eros unfolds into a discussion of Eidos. We will be brought to see how Eros is structurally interconnected with the movement upwards culminating in the contemplation of eidos. This "connectedness" will bring into view the unity of the erotic experience with the vision of the forms. Eros will find its highest fulfillment through a spiritual begetting upon the beautiful which leads upwards to the Beautiful itself. The present task of Socrates is to show how this is to be achieved.

Socrates proposes to speak the truth about Love (cf 199b). He does this through the recollection of a dialogue he had had with the priestess Diotima(201d). The speech starts with the results of Socrates’ discourse with Agathon in which the nature of Love is seen to be a striving based upon a lack (201e, cf 201b —d).

Note: Agathon had used the term Ariston for the "good," while Socrates uses the term Agathon.

The Nature of Eros(201e —204c).

The description of Love occurs in four contexts. (1) Eros is described ontologically as being "intermediate." (2) It is described spiritually as a diamon. (3) It is described through its mythic genealogy as the son of Poverty and Resource. Finally (4) it is described with reference to the human condition as being somewhere between wisdom and ignorance.

(1) The nature of Eros begins to unfold with the realization that Love is neither beautiful nor good (201e). But from this it does not follow that love is something ugly or bad (201e). Rather, Diotima instructs, Love is something in between these opposites. Correct opinion (GREEK) without a reason (GREEK), for example, is not full knowledge (GREEK), but it does not follow that it is complete ignorance (GREEK)(202a). A peasant may be correct about the time and place to plant his crops, but he may be unversed as to the exact reasons for doing this. There is an important sense in which he is correct about what he is doing, though he may not possess a full knowledge of the agricultural facts. So Eros, like the peasant’s opinion, is to be conceived as somehow in between a complete knowledge and an empty ignorance. Eros is intermediate (202b).

(2) Now this notion of "being intermediate" casts light on the spiritual nature of Eros. Love is not properly speaking, a god (GREEK)[If Love were a god, then it would be both good and beautiful since the possession of these attributes belong to the very nature of a deity. Yet these attributes are precisely what Love lacks and what Love strives for. Hence, Eros is not a god.]

But, as we have seen, it does not necessarily follow that Eros must collapse into its opposite. Rather, as an intermediate, it is in between gods and mortals (GREEK). To this sphere belongs the nature of a diamon (GREEK), which is the very image of something intermediate and, as such, Eros is most appropriately to be conceived of as a diamon (202c —e).

(3) This level of Eros on the divine scale leads Diotima to relate the mythos concerning the birth of Love. On the occasion of the birth of Aphrodite, a banquet was given. This brought the god Resource (GREEK) and later the goddess Poverty (GREEK)(203b). During the course of the drinking Poverty seduced Resource and conceived Eros. In this manner Eros partakes of the Natures of its parents; from Poverty it has a need, a lack and from Resource it has cunning and intelligence. Thus Eros, insofar as it is poor, experiences a lack within itself. Most specifically, Love lacks (i.e., is not) beauty and goodness. But insofar as it is intelligent and resourceful, it is constantly striving after and seeking such beauty and goodness (203d). Hence the mythic dimension of Eros mirrors its nature as a striving based on lack.

(4) Diotima now shifts the locus of the discussion from the heavens to the human condition. Eros is to be seen as involved in that which is in between wisdom and ignorance. This is not a matter for the gods, since they possess wisdom (e.g., a knowledge of the Good and the Beautiful)(203e). But very few, if any, mortals have ever attained wisdom. Most men are ignorant and, further, ignorant of their ignorance (204a). However, some mortals are aware of their ignorance. That is to say, some mortals experience a lack within themselves (e.g., they are aware that they do not know Beauty and Goodness). On the basis of this lack, these mortals also experience a desire to gain such wisdom. They strive for wisdom and are called lovers of wisdom (204b).

With this we have a reformulation of the dual notion of Socratic Ignorance and Socratic Wisdom from within the perspective of Eros. Eros becomes expressive of that human condition that is aware of itself and strives towards wisdom from an awareness of a lack within itself. Note that it is here that the very structure of Eros involves a provocation upwards (towards the object of its desire) and as such involves a tendency towards the Forms. In this manner the erotic experience leads to the notion of eidos. How this takes place is shown in the second part of the speech.

The effects of Eros(204d — 212a).

The activity of Eros, or what Buchner calls Eros werk, can be discussed in three stages. (1) Eros is involved in people seeking to possess that which is good forever. (2) This involves the activity of begetting upon the beautiful with a view towards immortality. (3) The purest form of immortality is to be found in the contemplation of Eidos(and the activity of Eros can lead to this contemplation).

(1) The nature of Love has been seen to be something intermediate. It has the character of a striving based upon a lack. This striving, from the perspective of Eros, has a direction toward beauty (GREEK)(204d). Diotima now asks Socrates, what will one have to eventually possesses beautiful things? At this, Socrates is confused. Diotima replaces the notion of beauty with the notion of the good (GREEK) and Socrates answers that they who possess the good are happy (GREEK)(204e). Thus people desire the good because it will grant them happiness or well being (205a).

The discussion has evolved to the point where we are brought to see how a lover of beautiful things or, more clearly, a lover of good things, desires them ultimately for his happiness. Here Diotima has brought together the notions of the Good (mortals desire this) and Happiness (mortals desire this good for their happiness). The issue is extended further with the introduction of the "forever" (GREEK)(206a).

To anticipate the significance of this, we should note that for happiness to be truly real, it must possess the eternal(i.e. ,the immortal). Mortals can achieve this both in the earthly and transcendent sense. The former involves the begetting of children. The latter involves a begetting in the soul which strives for the Forms. Only in this last case do mortals find true happiness. Diotima now begins to describe this process.

(2) The question can be posed: How do mortals, through Eros, pursue the good in order to secure their happiness? The answer initially provided shows that mortals seek to secure the object of their happiness through begetting or giving birth (GREEK) upon beautiful things, both in the physical and spiritual sense (206b). Now, this answer places a perspective upon the role of the beautiful. The beautiful is that upon which love grows (206e). In this sense, the beautiful becomes a necessary condition for begetting (206c). But this seems to imply that love is not, strictly speaking, a love of the beautiful (206e). Rather, the beautiful (in the earthly sense) is that which assists Eros in striving after its proper object viz., the good and the eternal (immortal). For we only achieve happiness when we possess the good forever. Now one such path towards this is through an erotic begetting upon the beautiful. In this sense, the beautiful becomes the medium which enables man to find a passage beyond the temporal limits of finite sensibility. Erotic engendering upon the beautiful allows us to yearn for immortality and thus fulfill our wish to possess the good forever (207a).

Eros strives for the twofold objects of immortality and the good and it does so through the beautiful (207a). This erotic activity can take place either within the body or within the soul. In the former case we have temporal duration through family genesis or popular fame. But in the latter case we can give birth to "fairer and more deathless children" (cf 209).

Diotima now describes how mortals strive for immortality. In all begetting and bringing forth upon the beautiful there is a kind of making or poiesis ("poetry" in the wide sense of "creating"). In this genesis (GREEK) there is a movement beyond the temporal cycle of birth and decay (207d). Such a movement can occur in three kinds of poiesis: (1) Natural poiesis through sexual procreation, (2) poiesis in the city through the attainment of heroic fame and finally, and (3) poiesis in the soul through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge.

The first description is naturalistic. Mortals "by nature" seek immortality and this can be seen in the world of animals where Eros leads to procreation (207b). All animals (mortals included) seek through sexual reproduction to partake of immortality by producing a lineage which is beyond their own bodily existence (207b — d).

This drive can also be seen in the human desire for fame (208c). Here mortals will risk their lives in courageous deeds if, by so doing, they achieve a deathless memory for valor amongst the citizens of the city. Such, in fact, has been the case with Alcestis, Achilles and Codrus (208d).

But perhaps the highest and most successful movement beyond the temporal cycle can be seen in those who conceive that which is proper to the soul and bring forth virtue (GREEK)(209a). These soon become pregnant and desire to beget(209b). In this state they will seek out a beautiful one of like manner and take this other’s virtuous education in their hands (209c). Here one can bring forth his conception, his fairer and more deathless children. Examples of this can be found in Homer, Hesoid, Lycurous and Solon (209d —e).

Such bringing forth within the soul, Diotima intimates, is of the highest achievement. How so? What movements are necessary to cultivate this erotic activity? The answer to this is to be found in a certain kind of erotic training of the soul (compare with Phaedrus).

(3) Diotima tells the young Socrates that she is now about to initiate him into this erotica (GREEK), and even more, into the highest mysteries (GREEK) entailed by Eros(210a). The stages one must go through, if one is to "proceed rightly," are fivefold. We are to begin with particular sensible images of beauty and end with an intellectual gaze upon the Beautiful itself.

Accordingly, the first stage most properly begins with the love of a single beautiful body (GREEK)(210a). Here the lover engages in beautiful discourse (GREEK) which leads both to see how beauty exists in all beautiful bodies. The second stage thus entails a movement beyond the particular bodily instance of beauty to an erotic appreciation of all beautiful bodies (GREEK)(210b). The next advance upwards perceives the beautiful soul (GREEK) as a purer instance of beauty and thus a more worthy quest for the activity of the lover (210b).

At the fourth level Diotima moves beyond the sphere of erotic action towards the sphere of erotic knowledge. When one contemplates the beauty present in laws and daily pursuits (GREEK?) one is propelled into the various branches of knowledge and comes to see the beauty of knowledge (GREEK)(210c). Here the movement upwards quickly advances, since this love of knowledge will eventually lead to a "single kind" of knowledge which is a love of wisdom (GREEK) and which constitutes the final stage of the ascent (210d).

This love of wisdom, when connected with the activity of Eros, strives to grasp the beautiful in a manner far beyond the previous stages. It is not concerned with any earthly manifestation of beauty, whether this be in bodies, souls or science, but rather the nature of the Beautiful Itself (GREEK). This is the final goal (GREEK) of erotic activity (210e). The stages of the ascent have allowed a bringing forth upon the beautiful (qua means) which eventually leads to a transcendent gasp of the Beautiful Itself (qua end). It is here that we have arrived at the Forms, for we are comprehending the idea (GREEK) of the Beautiful (212a).

Diotima describes the nature of this From as ever existent (GREEK?), neither coming into being nor passing out of being, hence beyond the world of Change and Becoming (211a). It is eternal and timeless, self-subsistent and independent (211b). It is that which "in-forms" all particular instances of beauty while remaining distinct from those instances (211b).

Thus through the intellectual contemplation of the Beautiful itself one can, as far as is granted to mortals, participate in an "immortal realm" and achieve that highest good afforded to man(212a). Socrates completes his recollection and concludes by telling Phaedrus and the others that Eros is mankind’s greatest helper insofar as careful attention to erotic activity can lead us upwards to the realm of the Forms (212b).

Note: Note that the beautiful, as it is used here, refers to the sensible manifestation of the Beautiful Itself. It is upon this mode of presentation that Eros engenders and begets. As such, the beautiful here acts as a medium for erotic activity. But, as we have seen in the (GREEK?), this mode of presentation contains within itself a provocation beyond itself insofar as it is the visible manifestation of the eidos of the Beautiful. This indicates that the end (purpose, goal) of erotic activity is to gaze upon and intellectually possess the Beautiful qua Form. Thus, the ultimate goal of the activity of Eros is a transcendent "possession" of the eidos of Beauty (of 210e-211d) but the means toward this involves an engendering upon the visible modes of beauty.

The Speech of Alcibiades: Eulogy to Socrates (212d —222c).

No sooner had Socrates finished his praise of Love, then there occurred a loud and unruly noise at the door (212e). A drunken Alcibiades enters, surrounded by a flute girl and several revelers (212d). What is the significance of this kind of entrance and what does it portend?

The music and intoxication that now appear in the dialogue mark the re-emergence of Dionysus, a god most appropriate to the frenzy of Eros. After being banished with the flute girl (GREEK?) in favor of an Apollinian discourse on Love, this god of wine returns triumphant in the person of Alcibiades("very drunken and bawling loud"212d).

After some bantering about, Alcibiades proposes that his speech be a public praise (GREEK) of Socrates (214d). He chooses to compare Socrates with two images (GREEK) viz., the satyr Marsyas and the Silenus statues (215a —b). The satyr Marsyas was famous for the seductive quality of his flute-playing. This image conveys the enchanting power of Socrates’ speech-making for, like Marsyas’ flute, it has the capability of captiviating the listener (215c —e). Socratic logos, Alcibiades implies, has a certain erotic possibility, for when one listens to it he is drawn to the speaker in a most unusual way (216a —c).

The second image refers to the little figurines that were made in the market place. They were plain and simple on the outside, but when opened up they had carvings of divinities on the inside. So too with Socrates. While he appears poor and ignorant on the outside, he is wealthy and wise i.e., divine-like, on the inside (216d).

Now it was these qualities of Socrates that had such a seductive power over Alcibiades and it was for these reasons that Alcibiades, "being bitten" by "philosophical speeches" (GREEK) (218a), sought again and again to entice the sexual favors of Socrates (217b — 219c). But the life of Socrates was different from that of most men, as if he were capable of being in this world while dwelling in a more ephemeral realm. The deeds of endurance, meditation, and bravery that Alcibiades goes on to describe serve to highten the sense of Socrates’ utter uniqueness (219e —221c).

The praise ends by reverting back to the Silenus-figure and the image of the life of Socrates that shows an inner richness and grace far beyond the ordinary. And the highest wealth that is to be found in Socrates is in his speech (GREEK), through which the unfolding of philosophical dialectic takes place (222a).

After the Alcibiadian eulogy, the symposium quickly gives itself over to the effects of bacchus, with a great crowd of revelers finally bringing full chaos to the feast (223b). We are left with one last scene. It is early morning and only Agathon, Aristophanes and Socrates remain drinking and talking. Socrates is asking them if it is possible for a single person to have the knowledge to write both tragedies and comedies (223d). But the listeners eventually succumb to the wine and fall asleep, leaving Socrates to rise and continue his day like any other.

Note: The reference, of course, is to Plato himself and his ability to write both comedy (e.g., the Symposium) and tragedy (e.g., the Apology).

With this, the path of the erotic dialogues has been completed. We are finally brought to see, with sufficient clarity, the connection between Eros and eidos. In the Phaedrus we have seen how the Form of the Beautiful, through its visible manifestation in beautiful bodies, arouses Eros and provokes the lover upwards toward an eventual recollection of the eidos of Beauty. So too in the Symposium, the activity of Eros provokes the lover to engender upon beautiful things until he moves himself beyond the earthly manifestations of beauty and contemplates the eidos of Beauty. In both dialogues we note the importance of this work of Eros in creating, within mortals, the ascent necessary for comprehension of Platonic Forms (and eo ipso Platonic philosophy).

 

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©Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon