Plato’s Symposium–What is Love?

Phaedrus: (178a-180c)

Love is the oldest god and of the greatest blessing. Love would be a primary benefit to a man seeking to live a good life. It would be painful to be seen by his beloved doing a dishonorable thing. Therefore, Love inspires the greatest bravery–if only an army could be comprised of lovers anxious to be seen virtuous by their beloved. One looks to arete to inspire one’s lover.

Pausanias: (180c-185e)

It’s not that simple, as there exists more than one love. We must therefore clarify which love is to be praised. Pausanias says there are at least two forms of love, one common and one heavenly. Attraction of the soul leads to development of the soul. Not every love is right and deserving of praise, only love that directs us to love in the right way.

Eryximachus: (185e-186b)

Love influences not only human souls in response to physical beauty, he has influence on all other things and on their response as well. Love pervades the bodies of all animals and all that is produced in the earth, which means that Love pervades virtually everything that exists. As a physician, he posits that a great doctor is one who brings harmony among things in the body. Love provides for reconciliation of opposites. For example medicine or music must operate within their function in harmony with other parts of the body or other notes and instruments in a chamber.

Aristophanes: (189d-194e)

People look for their like matches. Originally people were round creatures with two bodies in one, four arms and legs as well as two sets of anatomy: male/female, male/male, female/female. They offended the gods, so Zeus split them in half. After this, the two parts longed for each other and tried to come back together. Heterosexual or homosexual proclivities were determined by one’s original anatomical makeup before being separated.

Agathon: (194e-197e)

Previous comments are illustrating the good things of which love is the source, but what is the nature of love itself that causes these positive attributes? Love must do no injustice to either god or man. Love cannot act by force: force and Love have nothing to do with each other. Love possesses self control in addition to justice. Self control means overcoming pleasures and desires: no pleasure is stronger than Love. So pleasures are overcome by love.

A person cannot impart to others that which he does not have himself. From love of the beautiful every good thing for god and men has come into existence. “Love is not only supreme in beauty and goodness himself, but is also the source of beauty and goodness in all other things” (197d-197b).


Diotima dialogue:

  • Is love a love of something or a love of nothing?
  • Does love desire that thing which he is love of, or not?
  • Does he desire and love it when he has in his possession that thing which he desires and loves, or when he does not have it?
  • Desire/love that which we lack and that which is beautiful. Love is lacking in what is beautiful, and what is good is beautiful; love is also lacking in what is good.

Love is neither mortal, nor a god, but an in-between spirit. Like that which is between wisdom and ignorance is correct belief. One might have a correct believe without having a reason for it. It can’t be ‘knowing’ if lacking in ‘reason’. And it can’t be ignorance if it is correct–it is a middle state. Such is love between man and god. Love is an intermediary that binds the two together into one entity.

Love is love of the good. Love cannot be directed toward the other half of a body unless that other half is good. Are people not perfectly willing to amputate part of their own body if these parts are diseased? What people love is the good. People feel that the good should be theirs and always theirs. So, “Love is the desire to possess the good always” (205e-206a).

But then the object of love is not simply the beautiful. “It is procreating and giving birth in the beautiful.” (206c-e) This process goes through a “stairway of love”.

The process:

Step 1. “A person who would set out on this path in the right way must begin in youth by directing his attention to beautiful bodies, and first of all, if his guide is leading him aright, he should fall in love with the body of one individual only, and there procreate beautiful discourse” (210a).

Step 2. “Then he will realize himself that the beauty of any one body is closely akin to that of any other body, and that if what is beautiful in form (eidos) is to be pursued it is folly not to regard the beauty in all bodies as one and the same. When he has understood this he should slacken his intense passion for one body, despising it and considering it a small thing, and become a lover of all beautiful bodies” (210a-210b).

Step 3. “After this he will realize that the beauty in souls is more to be prized than that in the body. If therefore someone’s soul is good even if his physical attraction is slight, that will be enough for him, and he will love and care for that person, and seek out and give birth to the kind of discourse that will make young men better people. As a consequence he will be compelled to contemplate the beautiful as it exists in human practices and laws, to see that the beauty of it all is of one kind, and to realize that what is beautiful in a body is trivial by comparison” (210b-c).

Step 4. “After this his guide must lead him to contemplate knowledge in its various branches, so that he can see beauty there too, and looking at what is now a wide range of beauty he is no longer slavishly content with the beauty of any one particular thing, such as the beauty of a young boy or some other person, or of one particular practice, and will not become petty and small-minded through this kind of servitude. Instead he will turn towards the vast sea of the beautiful and while contemplating it  he will give birth to many beautiful, indeed magnificent, discourses and thoughts in a boundless love of wisdom until there, strengthened and invigorated, he discerns a unique kind of knowledge (episteme), which is knowledge of a beauty whose nature I will now describe” (210c-e).

Step 5. “Anyone who has been guided to this point in the study of love and has been contemplating beautiful things in the correct way in the right sequence, will suddenly perceive, as he now approaches the end of his study, a beauty that is marvelous in its nature-the very thing, Socrates, for the sake of which all the earlier labors were undertaken. What he sees is, in the first place, eternal, it does not come into being or perish, nor does it grow or waste away. Secondly it is not beautiful in one respect and ugly in another, or beautiful at one time and not at another, or beautiful by one standard and ugly by another, or beautiful in one place and ugly in another because it is beautiful to some people but ugly to others. Nor, again, will the beautiful appear to him as a face is beautiful or hands or any other part of the body, nor like a discourse or a branch of knowledge or anything that exists in some other thing, whether in a loving creature or in the earth or the sky or anything else. It exists on its own, single in substance and everlasting. All other beautiful things partake of it, but in such a way that when they come into being or die the beautiful itself does not become greater or less in any respect, or undergo any change” (210-211b).

Summary of the 5 steps–Ascent of Love

“Now, whenever someone starts to ascend from the things of this world through loving boys in the right way, and begins to discern that beauty, he is almost in reach of the goal. And the correct way for him to go, or be led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beautiful things in this world, and using these as steps, to climb ever upwards for the sake of that other beauty, going from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from beautiful practices to beautiful kinds of knowledge, and from beautiful kinds of knowledge finally to that particular knowledge which is knowledge solely of the beautiful itself, so that at last he may know what the beautiful itself really is” (211c-d).


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