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The Symposium

Plato

204d - 209e

201d - 204c

210a - 212c

Summary

Next, Diotima asks Socrates why Love is love of beautiful things or of good things. Socrates replies that Love wants these things to become his own so that he will be happy. Diotima has Socrates agree that everyone always wants good things and happiness to be theirs forever. In that case, everyone would be a lover, but we only call certain people lovers. The reason is that, while everyone is in love, we only call a certain class of those in love "lovers." This is similar to the fact that while everyone who creates composes something, we would only call those who create music "composers."

So while love constitutes a desire for all kinds of good things and happiness, those who are money-makers, athletes, or philosophers are not normally called "lovers." Diotima dismisses the idea (that was put forth by Aristophanes) that lovers are in search of their other half, claiming instead that lovers love what is good. We would be willing to have limbs amputated if we thought they were diseased and bad, suggesting that we only want to be attached to what is good. Socrates and Diotima agree that love is the desire to have the good forever.

Diotima's next move is to ask in what way people pursue love. She cryptically claims that Love's function is "giving birth in beauty both in body and in mind." All people, she asserts, are pregnant in body and mind and naturally want to give birth when they reach a certain age. Sex is one means of giving birth, and it is through reproduction that we achieve immortality. This process is divine and therefore beautiful. Beauty is the goddess that presides over birth, allowing pregnant creatures to become pregnant and give birth when they are in contact with something beautiful. Thus, the object of love is not beauty, but reproduction in birth and beauty. Since love is the desire to have the good forever, we must desire immortality as well as the good, and in reproduction we come closest to immortality. All mortal things desire reproduction, and we see this even in birds and animals: they seek partners desperately, and will protect their young with their lives.

Diotima points out that though we talk about the "same person," we are not the same at all throughout our lives. Our body changes, as does our mind and our knowledge so that in old age we are nothing like what we were when we were young. We maintain ourselves in existence by replacing the old with the new, and so reproduction is just one further way of extending our lives.

Similarly, Diotima sees a drive for immortality in our search for honor. She suggests that Alcestis and Achilles would not have died for their lovers had they not known their heroism would be immortalized.

There are two ways men can become pregnant: in body and mind. Those who are pregnant in body seek out women with whom they can reproduce and create a bodily heir. Those who are pregnant in mind bring forth not bodies, but wisdom and other virtues. Thus, a man pregnant in mind will seek out one who is beautiful in mind as well as in body. The bond created between a man and a boy with whom he shares his wisdom is far stronger than a familial bond since ideas are more immortal than people. We worship poets like Homer and Hesiod and lawmakers like Lycurgus and Solon for the immortal "children" they have created from their minds.

Commentary

This section clarifies the motive behind Plato's surprising choice of a woman to carry forth the truth about Love. Until now, the discussion has been purely between men, and the women in the room are sent away by Eryximachus at the beginning of the dialogue. Further, many of the speakers have disparaged the rationality of women, and their ability either for intelligent discourse or for love. In bringing in a woman's voice in Diotima, Plato can be seen as removing many of the gendered biases in the speeches that have preceded Socrates. Diotima sees all love as focused on pregnancy and reproduction, but we should also note that she uses both words in an androgynous way. While love can be expressed through sexual reproduction between men and women which results in a woman's pregnancy and childbirth, love can also be expressed through the reproduction of ideas where we become pregnant with the thoughts we have and must give birth to them, sharing them with others.

Diotima's discussion of pregnancy can be confusing as she jumps back and forth between speaking of pregnancy and reproduction in the straightforwardly literal way that we normally understand those words and speaking of them in a metaphorical manner. Reproduction for Diotima can be sexual reproduction, though it can also be the cellular reproduction by which our body constantly renews itself, or the reproduction of ideas whereby we pass thoughts on from one person to the next. Similarly with pregnancy, she does not mean the term simply in its literal sense, but uses it to refer to any state of being where we are swelled up and must release something. Thus, we can be pregnant with ideas or pregnant with desire as well as pregnant with a baby.

While Diotima identifies pregnancy and reproduction as the way in which love is pursued, she identifies Love himself as a desire for happiness. Happiness for the Greeks was considered an end in itself, and much of Greek ethical thought is based around this idea. We might complain that once again the scope of the term "love" is being inflated so as to include all kinds of desire that we would not normally call "love." As was mentioned in the commentary to section 6, the Greek word eros can mean both love in the strict sense and desire in a broader sense, so the scope of the word is unclear by its very nature. However, Diotima is quite careful in pointing out the distinction between love as the word is commonly used and the more general desire for happiness and beauty. She says that while Love extends over the more general term, we normally only use it to denote a very specific kind of love, similar to the way we use "composer" only to denote those who compose music. As we have seen, she uses "pregnant" and "reproduction" as well as "love" in a broader sense than we are used to.

Diotima's speech can be read as containing subtle rebukes for all the speakers heretofore. We have already seen how Socrates first demolishes Agathon through dialogue and then points out that Agathon identifies Love with the loved one rather than with the lover. We can also find an improvement upon Phaedrus, where Diotima speaks of the courage of Alcestis and Achilles. Both of these characters were used by Phaedrus as exemplars of love because they were willing to do anything for their lovers. Diotima refines the example, pointing out that their willingness to die comes from a desire to be immortalized for their bravery.

We also find a refinement of Pausanias' distinction between Heavenly and Common Love. Pausanias speaks of Heavenly Love as existing when a man gives a boy education and when the boy gives him sexual gratification in return. Diotima removes the sexual element from this relationship (further suggesting the androgynous nature of the love she advocates) suggesting that men should get not sexual gratification but rather the gratification of sharing their ideas with others. While two men cannot sexually reproduce, they can reproduce by passing their ideas down to one another. Diotima values this kind of reproduction over sexual reproduction because ideas last longer and are more valuable overall than individuals. Thus the distinction between Heavenly and Common Love becomes one between reproduction of the mind and reproduction of the body.

Diotima's observation that Love is a relational property might be seen as a refinement on Eryximachus' claim that Love mediates between opposites, reconciling them into harmony. We have also seen how she revises Aristophanes' myth by suggesting that love is not directed at what is one's own, at one's other half, so much as it is directed at what is good.

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