Sunday, November 28, 2010

Plato's Symposium: love and beauty as image and argument, part 1

In his long note here, Steve Wagner emphasizes the complexities of the Symposium and Phaedrus, the dialogues on love. Conjuring dazzling images, the Symposium invokes stories which are subtle and different from those of the Meno and the Republic. These are, once again, not only a long meditated accompaniment to argument – words written on the soul, as the Philebus suggests - but also a pointing to the uniqueness of Socrates, in perhaps the most unusual, concatenated imagery in Plato,* and to a hidden character of some of the argument for Plato’s students. In this post and the following one, I will explore three such images.

The first speakers have been praising love as a god, except notably Aristophanes in a tale to which I will return. In a brief and dazzling passage of argument. Socrates asks Agathon (his name means the good – most obviously, defending a conventional sense of the good, acclaimed by the many), the winner of the public drama contest which has preceded the party, whether love is not desire for the beautiful and good (and hence neither beautiful nor good since one does not desire what one already is or has). In another sense of the good, being inclined to argue about truth or learn from Socrates rather than running away from or trying to murder him (other interlocutors like Thrasymachus, Euthyphro, Anytus, Meno), Agathon agrees, noting truly, that he did not understand what he was speaking of. It is not Socrates, says Socrates, who is hard to disagree with, but the truth.

This resonant argument has a deeper point, however. One of the charges against Socrates is that he does not believe in the gods of Athens. Eros is, by acclaim of the speakers, a god. But Socrates’s argument and the story he then tells reveals that Eros is no god.** Socrates suggests that he was taught about the things of love by Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea whose name means the honor of the god. Once having held the view of the earlier speakers that Eros is a god, the bumbling interlocutor, a young Socrates, is conjured by the older, knowing Socrates.*** Parallel to what the older Socrates shows Agathon, Diotima shows the young Socrates that Eros is not a god. She thus bears the aslant responsibility, in Socrates’s telling, for his doubt of the Athenian gods. This is a charge for which Socrates, legally speaking, would be convicted and put to death. Though Socrates doubts stories about the Athenian gods, however, note that, contra Leo Strauss, Plato never shows that Socrates doubts the god (or daimon or inner voice). Socrates is inspired by Apollo and the Pythia in the Apology (the Pythia is of course a woman), and even Diotima…

What is Eros then? A great spirit [daimon megas], a powerful creature between mortal and immortal. The words, perhaps also of Socrates (one might substitute the idea of the good or the beautiful for the gods], are worth attending:

[Diotima:] “Interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one. Through it are conveyed all divination and priestcraft concerning sacrifice and ritual and incantations and all foretelling and sorcery. God with man does not mingle; but the spiritual is the means of all society and converse of men with gods and of gods with men, whether waking or asleep.” (202e-203a)

Of what parentage, Socrates asks? And here Diotima tells the wonderful story of misery (Penia) who has nothing and resource (Poros), son of cunning, who has ever masterful designs and strategies to achieve what he seeks. At the birth of Aphrodite, Poros is drunk on nectar and goes to lie down in the garden of Zeus. Penia who is begging suddenly realizes that she can conceive a child with Poros, and lies down beside him. The child Eros (love) is conceived on the birthday of Aphrodite, a beautiful woman (a woman tells this story, but one must recall Socrates himself in the image of midwife of ideas; he is “manly” in the Greek idiom and feminine***). Eros combines endless absence and yearning for the beautiful and the good and endless resource in seeking it. Eros’s aim is to achieve beauty and also wisdom; in fact, the ideas of beauty, the good and wisdom are pretty much interchangeable for Socrates and Plato, though obscure. Socrates is himself conjured metaphorically in Diotima’s tale as a creature of eros, one passionately hungry for knowledge and seeking, ever poor (knowing that he knows little, has a merely human wisdom) and ever resourceful.

Socrates is barefoot, out of doors, unclad and almost a beggar (lives through abstinence and the largesse of the aristocratic boys who follow him – as a kind of philosopher “king” in Athens as Eva Brann suggests, owning nothing and much honored by his followers – see here). And he is ever resourceful in seeking. In the play of the Symposium, Apollodorus’s, the speaker’s, name means the gift of Apollo. But he is an ironic gift, scorning his companions and himself, seeking only to listen to the questioning of Socrates, as if Socrates were truly the gift of the god. His name recalls the saying of the Pythia - spokeswoman of Apollo - in the Apology to Socrates’s student Chaerophon that Socrates is wisest of them all, which Socrates, disbelieving, tests by questioning the reputedly wise. The Symposium’s story of eros and what is beautiful (to kalon) told by Apollodorus is muted or faint; the tale of a remembered tale, memories of someone’s else’s memories of speeches at a long ago drinking party. For Apollodorus reports the story told by Aristodemus, Socrates’s small, barefoot lover, who was present. Not everyone perhaps – not Aristodemus, not Apollodorus - has Socrates’s fabulous memory for argument, his resistance (see Phaedrus, 275d-277e) to writing things down. Potential philosophers, Plato warns here, might miss something in the tale unless they pay attention; there is more to it, perhaps, than surface arguments. The dazzling images might provide a clue.

Socrates brings Aristodemus uninvited to the drinking party at Ariston’s house. But Socrates stands outside in a trance. Aristodemus has clumsily to explain his presence, is welcomed by the host Agathon, and then sent back to find Socrates. So something is left outside the speeches, something will have to be found…At the end, Alcibiades tells of Socrates meditating a whole day by himself while camped as a soldier. Now Socrates, also perhaps a great spirit, does not get drunk, no matter how much he drinks, is in the idiom of book 1 of the Laws about drinking-parties perfectly trustworthy or honorable or awake, and talks all the others in the dialogue to sleep - the last are Aristophanes and Agathon - sees them comfortable in the dawn, goes about his daily affairs, and, finally, goes home the next evening to sleep himself. He is awake through the dialogue and the night. But his arguments to Agathon and his speech, let alone his brief coquettng with Alcibiades, are but a small part of what he thinks. In addition, here is the metaphor, also in the Meno, of awakeness when others are sleeping, visions when others are apparently but not really awake (the cave). See here. The trance captures Socrates’s participation in the Mysteries; it also indicates Socrates’ novel ascent or descent through questioning to become more awake (not having taken opium or getting drunk). It even conjures Socrates’s own drinking party, the Pheado in which he drinks the hemlock. Socrates is unique among men, says Alcibiades; he has no analogue historically. Socrates, too, is a great spirit (a daimon), like eros.

In the affairs of love, says Diotima, one first sees a beautiful boy. One is to be amused here by the woman espousing, following the psychology of Socrates, “boy-love” (as Montesquieu puts it, if triangles were to imagine gods, they would have three sides). But it is also significant that it is she who teaches Socrates philosophically. This, more than admission to the guardians in the Republic, highlights the philosophical capacities of women.

Where Siddhartha, Socrates's contemporary, saw 800 miles away the transient beauty of sleeping girls and engaged on his journey to come to terms with suffering, Socrates, from the same starting point, makes a different move. The beauty, Diotima says, belongs to all beautiful boys. But it is separable, exists apart. One learns the story of beautiful (and good) things from examples, but Diotima and Socrates go on to the idea of beauty, to beauty pure and unalloyed. Here again from another angle, another peak of argument, is a vision of the idea of the good, a sun in the noetic universe (the Republic) parallel to the visible sun, once again, a hint of what may be sought through questioning. Diotima’s is a story about an idea; she does not give this idea. For beauty is the end point of long study, many days of meditation, what Socrates hungers after, what the students in Plato’s Academy, take years, if they do, to get. Diotima warns Socrates as the Republic’s Socrates warns Glaucon that he is but at a beginning:

“[Diotima:] Into these love-matters even you, Socrates, might by chance be initiated; but I doubt if you could approach the rites and rituals to which these, for the properly instructed, are merely the avenue. However I will speak of them, she said, and will not withhold my best efforts; only you on your part must try your best to follow.” Symposium, 210a

And here she sketches an ascent of knowledge for Socrates from particular beautiful boys to the vast ocean of the idea itself, “pure and unalloyed”:

“He who would proceed rightly in this business must not merely begin from his youth to encounter beautiful bodies. In the first place, indeed if his conductor [Diotima, philosophy, eros] guides him rightly, he must be in love with one particular body and engender beautiful converse therein; but next he must remark how the beauty attached to this or that body is cognate to that which is attached to any other, and that if he means to pursue the form of beauty, it is folly not to regard as one and the same the beauty that belongs to all; and so, having grasped this truth, he must make himself a lover of all beautiful bodies, and slacken the stress of his feeling for one by dismissing it and counting it a trifle. But his next advance will be to set a higher value on the beauty of souls than on that of the body, so that however little the grace that may bloom in any likely soul it shall suffice him for loving and caring, and for bringing forth and soliciting such converse as will tend to the betterment of the young; and that finally he may be constrained to contemplate the beautiful as appearing in our observances and our laws, and to behold it all bound together in kinship and so estimate the body’s beauty but a slight affair.”

Note how the eros of Aristophanes which I will discuss in the next post, the eros of Alcibiades for Socrates (for this body, this spirit), has slipped away in Diotima’s discussion. One seeks the beautiful, with Socrates, going to drink the hemlock, with a less passionate love of particulars, an eye for the intricacy and beauty of the whole.

“From observances he should be led on to the branches of knowledge [years of study in the Academy] that there also he may behold a province of beauty and by looking thus on beauty in the mass may escape from the mean, meticulous slavery of a single instance, where he must center all his care, like a lackey, upon the beauty of a particular child or man or single observance; and turning rather towards the main ocean of the beautiful may by contemplations of this bring forth in all their splendor many beautiful fruits of discourse and meditation in a rich crop of philosophy; until with the strength and increase there acquired, he descries a certain single knowledge connected with a beauty which has yet to be told.” (210c-e)

The ocean of the beautiful – who fully understands this? The not so far told beauty – and this? The promise of the journey is a richness which is but hinted at, including in the description of “a wondrous vision” of that which never comes to be nor perishes, neither waxes nor wanes, a singularity of form that all particular beauties share in and lose. (211a-212b) One might easily read over, let slip this gesture, but it is instead, Plato/Socrates/Diotima suggest, something to concentrate on, cleave to, with the passion of eros.

*The divided line and the many caves of the Republic are perhaps comparable.

**In resonant, semester-long lectures on the Symposium edited and published by his fine student Seth Benardete, Leo Strauss stresses this point.

***Socrates fells his opponents not by arms but by questioning, in what might be called a Taoist or eastern martial arts way, using their – seeming - strengths to throw them, with perhaps some element of the feminine in it. Diotima's image of males, too, being pregnant with ideas of immortality, feminizes "manliness."

****Socrates knows many things. Yet he says that he is wise only in that he does not know and knows that he does not know. One could take this last, self-refuting phrase, superficially, as expressing mere ignorance. But the sense in which Socrates does not know is complicated. What he does not know is what the ideas of the good or beauty are or what mortality means (at the least, he cannot express these things easily to others). In Plato, this signals the need of years of study at the Academy or of his texts, questioning beyond their surface.

****Socrates smooths the way with his audience with a dark joke. Diotima is so skilled a prophet that she postpones the plague in Athens for 10 years. That is hardly a gift, as Thucydides tells us, since the plague ravages Athens at the worst time. H/t Arlene Saxonhouse. It comes just after Pericles’ patriotic funeral oration, making many still healthy Athenians live for the moment, self-seeking, unable to fight. Marking the beginning of imperial decline that comes even from Pericles’ justified pride, the plague sounds the theme of Thucydides’ History.

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