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§ iv. Socrates and Diotima.

To Socrates it falls to deliver the last of the encomia on Eros. This is no mere accident, but artistically contrived in order to indicate the relative importance of his encomium as the climax of the series. In form and content, as well as in extent, it holds the highest place, although to its speaker is assigned the ἐσχάτη κλίνη.

(A) The substance and form of Socrates' λόγοι.

a The encomium proper is preceded by a preliminary dialectical discussion with Agathon, the object of which is to clear the ground of some popular misconceptions of the nature of Eros. The notion of Eros, it is shown, is equivalent to that of Desire (ἔρως=τὸ ἐπιθυμοῦν) —a quality, not a person. And the object of this Desire is the beautiful (τὸ καλόν), as had been asserted by Agathon (201 A—B). That Socrates refuses to embark on an eulogistic description of Eros without this preliminary analysis of the meaning of the name serves, at the start, to differentiate his treatment of the theme from that of all the preceding speakers: it is, in fact, an object-lesson in method, an assertion of the Platonic principle that dialectic must form the basis of rhetoric, and that argument founded on untested assumptions is valueless.

b The speech proper begins with a mythological derivation of Eros, in which his conflicting attributes as a δαίμων—a being midway between gods and men—are accounted for by his parentage. Eros is at once poor, with the poverty of Desire which lacks its object, and rich, with the vigour with which Desire strives after its object. And in all its features the Eros of Socrates and Diotima stands in marked contrast to the Eros of conventional poetry and art, the divine Eros of Agathon.

Eros is defined as Desire and as Daemon; and, in the next place, its potency1 is shown to lie in the striving after the everlasting possession of happiness. But Eros implies also propagation in the sphere of beauty. It is the impulse towards immortality—the impulse displayed alike by animals and by men, the ground of parental love towards both physical and mental (φιλοτιμία) offspring.

But when we arrive at this point, the question suggests itself as to how, more precisely, these different determinations of Eros are related to one another. What is the link between Eros defined as “the desire for the abiding possession of the good” and Eros defined as “the desire for procreation in the beautiful”? The former conception involves a desire for abiding existence, in other words for immortality, inasmuch as the existence of the possessor is a necessary condition of possession; while the latter also involves a similar desire, inasmuch as procreation is the one means by which racial immortality can be secured. Thus the link between the two conceptions of Eros is to be found in the implicit notion common to both that Eros is the striving after immortality or self-perpetuation. But there is another point to be borne in mind in order to grasp clearly the connexion of the argument. The beautiful includes the good (τἀγαθὰ καλά 201 C); so that the desire for the good is already, implicitly, a desire for the beautiful (and vice versa).

Thus the main results of the argument so far are these: Eros is the striving after the lasting possession of the Good, and thereby after immortality; but immortality can be secured only through procreation (τόκος), and the act of procreation requires as its condition the presence of Beauty. We are, therefore, led on to an examination of the nature of Beauty, and it is shown that beauty is manifested in a variety of forms, physical, moral and mental—beauty of body, of soul, of arts and sciences, culminating in the arch-science and the Idea of absolute Beauty. Accordingly the Erastes must proceed in upward course2 from grade to grade of these various forms of beauty till he finally reaches the summit, the Idea. On the level of each grade, moreover, he is moved by the erotic impulse not merely to apprehend the καλόν presented and to appreciate it, but also to reproduce it in another: there are two moments in each such experience, that of “conception” (κύησις) or inward apprehension, and that of “delivery” (τόκος) or outward reproduction.

The emphasis here laid on the notion of reproduction and delivery (τίκτειν, γεννᾶν), as applied to the intellectual sphere, deserves special notice. The work of the intelligence, according to the Socratic method, is not carried on in solitary silence but requires the presence of a second mind, an interlocutor, an answerer of questions. For the correct method of testing hypotheses and searching out truth is the conversational method, “dialectic,” in which mind cooperates with mind. The practical illustration of this is to be seen in Socrates himself, the pursuer of beautiful youths who delights in converse with them and, warmed by the stimulus of their beauty, λόγους τοιούτους τίκτει οἵτινες ποιήσουσι βελτίους τοὺς νέους (210 C).

c As the conception of Eros as a striving after the Ideal pursued not in isolation but in spiritual fellowship (κοινωνία) constitutes the core of the Socratic exposition, so the form of that exposition is so contrived as to give appropriate expression to this central conception. It commences with a piece of dialectic—the conversation between Socrates and Agathon. Agathon is the embodiment of that κάλλος which here stimulates the ἐραστής in his search for truth: it is in Agathon's soul (ἐν καλῷ) that Socrates deposits the fruits of his pregnant mind. In much, too, of the exposition of Diotima the semblance, at least, of intellectual κοινωνία is retained, illustrating the speaker's principle of philosophic co-operation. Thus the speech as a whole may be regarded simply as a Platonic dialogue in miniature, which differs from the average dialogue mainly in the fact that the chief speaker and guiding spirit is not Socrates but another, and that other a woman. If asked for a reason why Socrates here is not the questioner but the answerer, a sufficient motive may be found in the desire to represent him as a man of social tact. Socrates begins by exposing the ignorance of Agathon: next he makes the amend honourable by explaining that he had formerly shared that ignorance, until instructed by Diotima3.

(B) Diotima and her philosophy.

(1) Diotima. Diotima is a fictitious personage. Plato, no doubt purposely, avoids putting his exposition of Eros into the mouth of any historical person: to do so would be to imply that the theory conveyed is not original but derived. It is only for purposes of literary art that Diotima here supplants the Platonic Socrates: she is presented, by a fiction, as his instructor, whereas in facts he merely gives utterance to his own thoughts. These thoughts, however, and this theory are, by means of this fiction, represented as partaking of the nature of divine revelation; since in Diotima of Mantinea we find a combination of two significant names. The description γυνὴ Μαντινική inevitably implies the “mantic” art, which deals with the converse between men and gods of which τὸ δαιμόνιον, and therefore the Eros-daemon, is the mediating agent (202 E); while the name Διοτίμα, “She that has honour from Zeus,” suggests the possession of highest wisdom and authority. This is made clear by the rôle assigned to Zeus and his servants in the Phaedrus: μὲν δὴ μέγας ἡγεμὼν ἐν οὐρανῷ Ζεὺς...πρῶτος πορεύεται, κτλ. (246 E); οἱ μὲν δὴ οὖν Διὸς δῖόν τινα εἶναι ζητοῦσι τὴν ψυχὴν τὸν ὑφ᾽ αὑτῶν ἐρώμενον: σκοποῦσιν οὖν εἰ φιλόσοφός τε καὶ ἡγεμονικὸς τὴν φύσιν καὶ...πᾶν ποιοῦσιν ὅπως τοιοῦτος ἔσται, κτλ. (252 E ff.). The characteristics of Zeus, namely guiding power (ἡγεμονία) and wisdom (σοφία), attach also to his ὀπαδοί: consistently with this Diotima is σοφή (201 D), and “hegemonic” as pointing out the ὀρθὴ ὁδός to her pupil, and guiding him along it in a masterful manner (210 A ff., 211 B ff.)4.

In the person of Diotima, “the wise woman,” Plato offers us—in Mr Stewart's phrase—“a study in the prophetic temperament5”; she represents, that is to say, the mystical element in Platonism, and her discourse is a blend of allegory, philosophy, and myth. As a whole it is philosophical: the allegory we find in the imaginative account of the parentage and nature of Eros, as son of Poros and Penia; the mythical element appears in the concluding portion, in so far as it “sets forth in impassioned imaginative language the Transcendental Idea of the Soul6.” And as in the allegory the setting is derived from current religious tradition, so in the myth the language is suggested by the enthusiastic cult of the Orphics. It may be well to examine somewhat more closely the doctrine of the prophetess on these various sides.

(2) Diotima's allegory. The first point to notice is the artistic motive for introducing an allegory. It is intended to balance at once the traditional derivations of the God Eros in the earlier speeches, and the grotesque myth of Aristophanes. Socrates can match his rivals in imagination and inventive fancy. It also serves the purpose of putting into a concrete picture those characteristic features of the love-impulse which are subsequently developed in an abstract form. And, thirdly, the concrete picture of Eros thus presented allows us to study more clearly the features in which Socrates, as described by Alcibiades, resembles Eros and embodies the ideal of the philosophic character.

In the allegory the qualities which characterise Eros are fancifully deduced from an origin which is related in the authoritative manner of an ancient theogony. The parents of Eros are Poros and Penia. Poros is clearly intended to be regarded as a God (203 B οἱ θεοί, οἵ τε ἄλλοι καὶ ...Πόρος): he attends the celestial banquet and drinks nectar like the rest. The nature of Penia is less clearly stated: she cannot be a divine being according to the description of the divine nature as εὐδαίμων and possessing τἀγαθὰ καὶ καλά given in the context preceding (202 C ff.); and the list of the qualities which she hands down to her son Eros shows that she is in all respects the very antithesis of Poros. We must conclude, therefore, that as Poros is the source of the divine side of the nature of Eros, so Penia is the source of the anti-divine side; and from the description of Eros as δαίμων, combined with the definition of τὸ δαιμόνιον as μεταξὺ θεοῦ τε καὶ θνητοῦ (202 E), we are justified in identifying this anti-divine side with mortality, and in regarding Πενία as a personification of θνητὴ φύσις7. It is interesting here to notice that Penia had already been personified by Aristophanes in his Plutus, and personified as one member of an antithesis8.

In the description of Poros, the father of Eros, it is significant that he is stated to be the son of Μῆτις. The idea of Plenty (Πόρος) had already been personified by Alcman, whether or not the Scholiast ad loc. is correct in identifying that Poros with the Hesiodic Chaos. And the idea of Wisdom (Μῆτις) also had played a part, as a personified being, in the speculations of the theogonists. For it seems, at least, probable that the Orphic theologians had already in Plato's time evolved the equation Phanes=Ericapaeus=Metis9, and that here as elsewhere in the language of Diotima there lie allusions to the doctrines of that school of mystics.

Of the incidental details of the allegory, such as “the garden of Zeus” where the intercourse between Penia and Poros took place and the intoxication of Poros which led up to that intercourse, the Neoplatonic commentators, as is their wont, have much to say. But we may more discreetly follow Zeller and Stallbaum in regarding such details as merely put in for purposes of literary effect, to fill up and round off the story. Poros could never have fallen a victim to the charms of Penia, since she had none; nor could Penia ever have hoped to win over Poros by persuasion or force, he being endowed with the strength and wisdom of a god. Obviously, therefore, the god must be tricked and his senses blinded—as in the case of the sleeping Samson or of the intoxicated Noah—that the woman might work her will upon him. Nor need we look for any mystical significance in τοῦ Διὸς κῆπος. The celestial banquet would naturally be held in the halls of the King of the gods; that a king's palace should have a park or garden attached is not extraordinary; nor is it more strange that one of the banqueters, when overcome with the potent wine of the gods, should seek retirement in a secluded corner of the garden to sleep off the effects of his revels.

More important than these details is the statement that the celestial banquet was held in celebration of the birth of Aphrodite, so that the begetting of Eros synchronized with the birthday of that goddess. The narrative itself explains the reason of this synchronism: it is intended to account for the fact that Eros is the “attendant and minister” of Aphrodite. Plotinus identifies Aphrodite with “the soul,” or more definitely with “the soul of Zeus” (Zeus himself being νοῦς), but it seems clear from Plato's language that she is rather the personification of beauty (Ἀφροδίτης καλῆς οὔσης 203 C).

As regards the list of opposite qualities which Eros derives from his parents, given in 203 C—E, there are two points which should be especially observed. In the first place, all these qualities, as so derived, are to be regarded not as merely accidental but inborn (φύσει) and forming part of the essential nature of Eros. And secondly, each of these characteristics of Eros, both on the side of his wealth and on the side of his poverty, has its counterpart—as will be shown presently10—in the characteristics of Socrates, the historical embodiment of Eros.

Lastly, we should notice the emphasis laid on the fluctuating character of Eros, whose existence is a continual ebb and flow, from plenitude to vacuity, from birth to death. By this is symbolised the experience of the φιλόκαλος and the φιλόσοφος, who by a law of their nature are incapable of remaining satisfied for long with the temporal objects of their desire and are moved by a divine discontent to seek continually for new sources of gratification. This law of love, by which τὸ ποριζόμενον ἀεὶ ὑπεκρεῖ, is parallel to the law of mortal existence by which τὰ μὲν (ἀεὶ) γίγνεται, τὰ δὲ ἀπόλλυται (207 D ff.)—a law which controls not merely the physical life but also the mental life (ἐπιθυμίαι, ἐπιστῆμαι, etc.)11. Accordingly, the Eros-daemon is neither mortal nor immortal in nature (πέφυκεν 203 E), neither wise nor foolish, but a combination of these opposites—σοφὸσ-ἀμαθής and θνητὸσ-ἀθάνατος— and it is in virtue of this combination that the most characteristic title of Eros is φιλόσοφος (which implies also φιλ-αθανασία).

(3) Diotima's Philosophy. The philosophic interest of the remainder of Diotima's discourse (from 204 A to its end) lies mainly in the relations it affirms to exist between Eros and certain leading concepts, viz. the Good, Beauty and Immortality.

a The Problem of Immortality. Enough has been said already as to determination of these various concepts as expounded in the earlier part of the discourse (up to 209 E). But the concluding section, in which “the final mysteries” (τὰ τέλεα καὶ ἐποπτικά) are set forth, calls for further investigation. We have already learnt that Eros is “the desire for procreation in the sphere of the beautiful with a view to achieving immortality”; and we have found also that, so far, all the efforts of Eros to achieve this end have been crowned with very imperfect success. Neither by way of the body, nor by way of the mind, can “the mortal nature” succeed, through procreation, in attaining anything better than a posthumous permanence and an immortality by proxy. We have to enquire, therefore, whether any better result can be reached when Eros pursues the ὀρθὴ ὁδός under the guidance of the inspired παιδαγωγός. The process that goes on during this educational progress is similar in the main to what has been already described. Beauty is discovered under various forms, and the vision of beauty leads to procreation; and procreation is followed by a search for fresh beauty. But there are two new points to observe in the description of the process. First, the systematic method and regularity of procedure, by which it advances from the more material to the less material objects in graduated ascent. And secondly, the part played throughout this progress by the activity of the intellect (νοῦς), which discerns the one in the many and performs acts of identification (210 B) and generalisation (210 C). Thus, the whole process is, in a word, a system of intellectual training in the art of dialectic, in so far as it concerns τὸ καλόν. And the end to which it leads is the vision of and converse with Ideal Beauty, followed by the procreation of veritable virtue. It is to be observed that this is expressly stated to be not only the final stage in the progress of Eros but the most perfect state attainable on earth by man (τὸ τέλος 211 B, ἐνταῦθα τοῦ βίου βιωτὸν ἀνθρώπῳ 211 D, τεκόντι...ὑπάρχει θεοφιλεῖ γενέσθαι 212 A). But the question remains, does the attainment of this state convey also personal immortality? It must be granted that this question is answered by Plato, as Horn points out, somewhat ambiguously, “To the man who beholds the Beautiful and thereby is delivered of true ἀρετή it is given to become θεοφιλής and to become ἀθάνατος—to him εἴπερ τῳ ἄλλῳ ἀνθρώπων”: but in this last if-clause there still lies a possible ground for doubt12. We cannot gain full assurance on the point from this sentence taken by itself; we must supplement it either by other indications derived from other parts of Diotima's argument, or by statements made by Plato outside the Symposium. Now it may be taken as certain—from passages in the Phaedrus, Phaedo and Republic —that personal immortality was a doctrine held and taught by Plato. It is natural, therefore, to expect that this doctrine will be also taught in the Symposium; or, at least, that the teaching of the Symposium will not contravene this doctrine. And this is, I believe, the case, in spite of a certain oracular obscurity which veils the clearness of the teaching. When we recal the statement that the generic Eros, as inherent in the individual, aims at the “everlasting possession” of the good as its τέλος, and when we are told that the ἐρωτικὸσ-φιλόσοφος at the end of his progress arrives at the “possession” (κτῆμα) of that specific form of Good which is Beauty, and finds in it his τέλος, and when emphasis is laid on the everlastingness (ἀεὶ ὄν) of that possession, then it is reasonable to suppose that the ἀθανασία of the ἐρωτικός who has reached this goal and achieved this possession is implied. It is to be noticed, further, that the phrase here used is no longer μετέχει τοῦ ἀθανάτου nor ἀθανατώτερός ἐστι but ἀθάνατος ἐγένετο. Nor does the language of the clause εἴπερ τῳ ἄλλῳ necessarily convey any real doubt: “he, if any man” may be simply an equivalent for “he above all,” “he most certainly13.” The point of this saving clause may rather be this. The complete philosopher achieves his vision of eternal Beauty by means of νοῦς (or αὐτὴ ψυχή), as the proper organ ὁρατὸν τὸ καλόν (212 A): it is in virtue of the possession of that immortal object that he himself is immortalised: and accordingly immortality accrues to him not qua ἄνθρωπος so much as qua νοητικὸς or λογικός. In other words, while in so far as he is an ἄνθρωπος, a ζῷον, a ὅλον compounded of two diverse elements body and soul, the philosopher is not entirely ἀθάνατος but still subject to the sway of sad mortality, yet in so far as he is a philosopher, a purely rational soul, grasping eternal objects, he is immortal. If we choose to press the meaning of the clauses in question, such would seem to be their most probable significance14.

Another criticism of this passage suggested by Horn is this. If it be true that the philosopher, or ἐρωτικός, does at this final stage attain to immortality, this does not involve the truth of the doctrine of immortality in general, but rather implies that men as such are not immortal and that immortality is the exceptional endowment of a few. Here again we must recal the distinction between ἄνθρωπος and pure ψυχή and νοῦς. The soul as immortal is concerned with the objects of immortal life15. In so far as it has drunk of the waters of Lethe and forgotten those objects, in so far as it is engrossed in the world of sense, it has practically lost its hold on immortality, and no longer possesses any guarantee of its own permanence. Although it may remain, in a latent way, in age-long identity, it cannot be self-consciously immortal when divorced from a perception of the eternally self-identical objects. If we may assume that Plato looked at the question from this point of view it becomes intelligible that he might refuse to predicate immortality of a soul that seems so entirely “of the earth, earthy” that the noëtic element in it remains wholly in abeyance.

All that has been said, however, does not alter the fact that individual and personal immortality, in our ordinary sense, is nowhere directly proved nor even expressly stated in a clear and definite way in the Symposium. All that is clearly shown is the fact of posthumous survival and influence. That Plato regarded this athanasia of personal δύναμις as an athanasia of personal οὐσία, and identified “Fortwirken” with “Fortleben,” has been suggested by Horn, as an explanation of the “ganz neue Begriff der Unsterblichkeit” which, as he contends, is propounded in this dialogue. But it is certainly a rash proceeding to go thus to the Sophist—an evidently late dialogue—for an elucidation of the problem. A sufficient elucidation, as has been suggested, lies much nearer to hand, in the doctrine of the Phaedo and Phaedrus. It is merely perverse to attempt to isolate the doctrine of the Symposium from that of its natural fellows, or to assume that the teaching of Diotima is intended to be a complete exposition of the subject of immortality. “Plato,” we do well to remember, “is not bound to say all he knows in every dialogue”; and if, in the Symposium, he treats the subject from the point of view of the facts and possibilities of our earthly life, this must not be taken to imply that he has forgotten or surrendered the other point of view in which the soul is naturally immortal and possesses pre-existence as well as after-existence.

b The Problem of Beauty. A further point of interest in the latter section of this discourse is the different value attached to τὸ καλόν in the highest grade of love's progress as compared with the lower grades. In the latter it appeared as merely a means to τόκος and thereby to ἀθανασία; whereas in the former it seems to constitute in itself the final end. Horn, who notices this apparent reversal of the relations between these two concepts, explains it as due to the fact that in the highest grade Eros is supplanted by Dialectic, or “the philosophic impulse,” which alone gives cognition of the Idea. But if this be so, how are we to account for the use of the term τεκόντι in the concluding sentence, where the attainment of ἀθανασία is described as having for its pre-condition not merely τὸ ὁρᾶν but τὸ τεκεῖν? This is precisely parallel to the language elsewhere used of the action of Eros in the lower grades, and precludes the supposition that Eros ceases to be operant on the highest grade. The truth is rather that, in this final stage, the Eros that is operant is the Eros of pure νοῦς— enthusiastic and prolific intellection, “the passion of the reason.” And the fact that τὸ καλόν in this stage is no longer subordinated to ἀθανασία as means to end of desire is to be explained by the fact that this ultimate κάλλος being Ideal is ἀθάνατον in itself, so that he who gains it thereby gains ἀθανασία.

That there are difficulties and obscurities of detail in this exposition of the concepts we have been considering may be freely admitted. But the line of doctrine, in its general trend, is clear enough, and quite in harmony with the main features of Platonic doctrine as expounded in other dialogues of the same (middle) period. Nor must the interpreter of the dialogue lose sight of the fact that he is dealing here not with the precise phrases of a professor of formal logic but with the inspired utterances of a prophetess, not with the dialectic of a Parmenides but with the hierophantic dogmata of the Symposium.

c Eros as Philosophy. The fact that Socrates himself is evidently presented in the dialogue as at once the exemplar of Philosophy and the living embodiment of Eros might be sufficient to indicate that the most essential result of the Socratic discussion of Eros is to show its ultimate identity with “the philosophic impulse.” Since, however, this identification has been sometimes denied, it may be well to indicate more particularly how far this leading idea as to the nature of Eros influences the whole trend of the discussion. We notice, to begin with, the stress laid on the midway condition of Eros, as son of Poros and Penia, between wisdom and ignorance, in virtue of which he is essentially a philosopher (φρονήσεως ἐπιθυμητὴς...φιλοσοφεῖ 203 D ff.). We notice next how the children of the soul (λόγοι περὶ ἀρετῆς) are pronounced superior in beauty to the children of the body (209 C), and σοφία, we know, is one form of ἀρετή. Then, in the concluding section (210 A ff.) we find it expressly stated that κάλλος attaches to ἐπιστῆμαι (210 C), and that φιλοσοφία itself is the sphere in which the production of καλοὶ λόγοι is occasioned by the sight of τὸ πολὺ πέλαγος τοῦ καλοῦ. Thus it is clearly implied throughout the discussion that σοφία, as the highest division of ἀρετή (being the specific ἀρετή of νοῦς), is the highest and most essential form of τὸ ἀγαθόν for man; whence it follows that, if Eros be defined as “the craving for the good,” this implies in the first place the “craving for σοφία,” which is but another way of stating “the philosophic impulse,” or in a word φιλοσοφία.

It must not be supposed, however, that in virtue of this identification the love-impulse (Eros) is narrowed and devitalised. For φιλοσοφία is not merely a matter of book-study, it is also a method of life and a system of education. In reaching the ultimate goal, which is the union of the finite with the infinite in the comprehension of the Idea, the man who is driven by the spirit of Eros passes through all the possible grades of experience in which Beauty plays a part; and from social and intellectual intercourse and study of every kind he enriches his soul. He does not begin and end with what is abstract and spiritual—with pure intellection; nor does he begin and end with the lust after sensual beauty: like the Eros-daemon who is his genius, the true Erastes is οὔτε θηρίον οὔτε θεός, and his life is an anabasis from the concrete and the particular becauties of sense to the larger and more spiritual beauties of the mind.

Thus in its actual manifestation in life the Eros-impulse is far reaching. And, as already noticed, it is essentially propagative. The philosopher is not only a student, he is also, by the necessity of his nature, a teacher. This is a point of much importance in the eyes of Plato, the Head of the Academy: philosophy must be cultivated in a school of philosophy.

The significance of Eros, as thus conceived, has been finely expressed by Jowett (Plato I. p. 532): “(Diotima) has taught him (Socr.) that love is another aspect of philosophy. The same want in the human soul which is satisfied in the vulgar by the procreation of children, may become the highest aspiration of intellectual desire. As the Christian might speak of hungering and thirsting after righteousness; or of divine loves under the figure of human (cp. Eph. v. 32); as the mediaeval saint might speak of the ‘fruitio Dei’; as Dante saw all things contained in his love of Beatrice, so Plato would have us absorb all other loves and desires in the love of knowledge. Here is the beginning of Neoplatonism, or rather, perhaps, a proof (of which there are many) that the so-called mysticism of the East was not strange to the Greek of the fifth century before Christ. The first tumult of the affections was not wholly subdued; there were longings of a creature ‘moving about in worlds not realised,’ which no art could satisfy. To most men reason and passion appear to be antagonistic both in idea and fact. The union of the greatest comprehension of knowledge and the burning intensity of love is a contradiction in nature, which may have existed in a far-off primeval age in the mind of some Hebrew prophet or other Eastern sage, but has now become an imagination only. Yet this ‘passion of the reason’ is the theme of the Symposium of Plato16.”

d Eros as Religion. We thus see how to “the prophetic temperament” passion becomes blended with reason, and cognition with emotion. We have seen also how this passion of the intellect is regarded as essentially expansive and propagative. We have next to notice more particularly the point already suggested in the words quoted from Jowett—how, namely, this blend of passion and reason is accompanied by the further quality of religious emotion and awe. We are already prepared for finding our theme pass definitely into the atmosphere of religion not only by the fact that the instructress is herself a religious person bearing a significant name, but also by the semi-divine origin and by the mediatorial rôle ascribed to Eros. When we come, then, to “the greater mysteries” we find the passion of the intellect passing into a still higher feeling of the kind described by the Psalmist as “thirst for God.” This change of atmosphere results from the new vision of the goal of Eros, no longer identified with any earthly object but with the celestial and divine Idea (αὐτοκαλόν). Thus the pursuit of beauty becomes in the truest sense a religious exercise, the efforts spent on beauty become genuine devotions, and the honours paid to beauty veritable oblations. By thus carrying up with her to the highest region of spiritual emotion both erotic passion and intellectual aspiration, Diotima justifies her character as a prophetess of the most high Zeus; while at the same time we find, in this theological passage of the Socratic λόγοι, the doctrine necessary at once to balance and to correct the passages in the previous λόγοι which had magnified Eros as an object of religious worship, a great and beneficent deity.

This side of Diotima's philosophising, which brings into full light what we may call as we please either the erotic aspect of religion or the religious aspect of Eros, might be illustrated abundantly both from the writers of romantic love-poetry and from the religious mystics. To a few such illustrations from obvious English sources I here confine myself. Sir Thos. Browne is platonizing when he writes (Rel. Med.) “All that is truly amiable is of God, or as it were a divided piece of him that retains a reflex or shadow of himself.” Very similar is the thought expressed by Emerson in the words, “Into every beautiful object there enters something immeasurable and divine”; and again, “all high beauty has a moral element in it.” Emerson, too, supplies us with a description that might fitly be applied to the Socratic λόγοι of the Symposium, and indeed to Plato generally in his prophetic moods, when he defines “what is best in literature” to be “the affirming, prophesying, spermatic words of man-making poets.” To Sir Thos. Browne we may turn again, if we desire an illustration of that mental phase, so vividly portrayed by Diotima, in which enjoyment of the things eternal is mingled with contempt of things temporal. “If any have been so happy”—so runs the twice-repeated sentence—“as truly to understand Christian annihilation, ecstasies, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes with them” (Hydriotaphia, ad fin.). A similar phase of feeling is eloquently voiced by Spenser more than once in his “Hymns.” Read, for instance, the concluding stanzas of the “Hymne of Heavenly Love” which tell of the fruits of devotion to the “loving Lord”:—

“Then shalt thou feele thy spirit so possest, And ravisht with devouring great desire Of his deare self... That in no earthly thing thou shalt delight, But in his sweet and amiable sight.

“Thenceforth all worlds desire will in thee dye, And all earthes glorie, on which men do gaze, Seeme durt and drosse in thy pure-sighted eye, Compar'd to that celestiall beauties blaze,...

“Then shall thy ravisht soule inspired bee With heavenly thoughts farre above humane skil, And thy bright radiant eyes shall plainely see Th' Idee of his pure glorie present still Before thy face, that all thy spirits shall fill With sweete enragement of celestiall love, Kindled through sight of those faire things above.”

From Plato, too, Spenser borrows the idea of the soul's “anabasis” through lower grades of beauty to “the most faire, whereto they all do strive,” which he celebrates in his “Hymne of Heavenly Beautie.” A few lines of quotation must here suffice:

“Beginning then below, with th' easie vew Of this base world, subject to fleshly eye, From thence to mount aloft, by order dew, To contemplation of th' immortall sky....

“Thence gathering plumes of perfect speculation, To impe the wings of thy high flying mynd, Mount up aloft through heavenly contemplation, From this darke world, whose damps the soule do blynd, And, like the native brood of Eagles kynd, On that bright Sunne of Glorie fixe thine eyes, Clear'd from grosse mists of fraile infirmities.”

These few “modern instances” may be sufficient to indicate in brief how the doctrines of Plato, and of the Symposium in special, have permeated the mind of Europe.

The doctrine of love in its highest grades is delivered, as we have seen, by the prophetess in language savouring of “the mysteries,” language appropriate to express a mystical revelation.

On the mind of a sympathetic reader, sensitive to literary nuances, Plato produces something of the effect of the mystic φέγγος by his τὸ πολὺ πέλαγος τοῦ καλοῦ and his ἐξαίφνης κατόψεταί τι θαυμαστὸν κτλ. Such phrases stir and transport one as “in the Spirit on the Lord's day” to heavenly places “which eye hath not seen nor ear heard”; they awake in us emotions similar to those which the first reading of Homer evoked in Keats:

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes He stared at the Pacific...Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

1 I.e. its generic notion (εἶναι, τὸ κεφάλαιον 205 D) as distinguished from the specific limitation (καλεῖσθαι 205 C, 206 B) to sex-love. See W. Gilbert in Philologus LXVIII. 1, pp. 52 ff.

2 It is interesting to observe how Emerson makes use of this Platonic “anabasis” when he writes:—“There is a climbing scale of culture...up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect.”

3 Cp. Jowett (Plato I. p. 527): “As at a banquet good manners would not allow him (Socr.) to win a victory either over his host or any of the guests, the superiority which he gains over Agathon is ingeniously represented as having been already gained over himself by her. The artifice has the further advantage of maintaining his accustomed profession of ignorance (cp. Menex. 236 fol.).”

4 Gomperz's suggestion (G.T. II. p. 396) that “the chief object of this etherealized affection” which Plato had in mind when “in the teaching (of Diotima) he gave utterance to his own deepest feeling and most intimate experience” was Dion of Syracuse would supply, if admitted, a further significance to the name Diotima.

5 J. A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato, p. 428.

6 J. A. Stewart, loc. cit.

7 So Plotinus is not far astray when he equates πενία with ὕλη, matter, potency (Enn. III. p. 299 F).

8 Cp. Plato's Πόρος)(Πενία with Ar.'s Πλοῦτος)(Πενία: also the description of πτωχεία as intermediate between πλοῦτος and πενία in Plut. 552 with the description of Eros as intermediate between πόρος and πενία in Symp. 203 E (οὔτε ἀπορεῖ Ἔρως οὔτε πλουτεῖ). Cp. also Plut. 80 ff. (Πλοῦτος...αὐχμῶν βαδίζεις) with Symp. 203 C (Ἔρως αὐχμηρός). The date of the Plutus is probably 388 B.C. Such pairs of opposites were common in earlier speculation. Cp. Spenser, “Hymn in Honour of Love”:— “When thy great mother Venus first thee bare, Begot of Plentie and of Penurie.”

9 Plato's mention of a single parent of Poros is in accordance with the Orphic notion of Phanes-Metis as bisexed.

10 See § vi. 3.

11 For an expansion in English of this thought see Spenser's “Two Cantos of Mutabilitie” (F. Q. VII.).

12 See F. Horn, Platonstud. pp. 276 ff. Horn also criticises the phrase ἀθάνατος γενέσθαι: “die Unsterblichkeit im eigentlichen Sinne des Wortes...kann nicht erworben werden. Der Mensch kann nur unsterblich sein oder es nicht sein, er kann aber nicht unsterblich werden.” But what Plato means by ἀθάν. γενέσθαι is to regain the life of the soul in its divine purity—the result of right education, as a κάθαρσις or μελέτη θανάτου. See J. Adam, R. T. G. pp. 383 ff. It seems quite certain that Plato—whether or not in earnest with his various attempts to prove it—did believe in personal immortality, and would assent to the dictum of Sir Thos. Browne, “There is surely a piece of divinity in us, something that was before the elements, and owes no homage unto the sun.”

13 See my note ad loc. It is to be noticed that similar expressions are used in a similar context in Phaedrus 253 A (ἐφαπτόμενοι (θεοῦ)...καθ᾽ ὅσον δυνατὸν θεοῦ ἀνθρώπῳ μετασχεῖν): Tim. 90 B, C. Cp. θεῖος ὤν 209 B, θεῖον καλόν 211 E, θεοφιλεῖ 212 A. That the Idea (τἀγαθόν) is οἰκεῖον to the Soul seems implied by 205 E.

14 For this notion of immortality by “communion” or “participation” in the divine life as Platonic, see the passages cited in the last note, also Theaet. 176 A. Cp. also the Orphic idea of the mystic as ἔνθεος, “God-possessed.” This idea of supersession of personality by divinity (“not I but Christ that dwelleth in me”) is a regular feature of all mystic religion.

15 In other words, ἀθανασία may be used not simply of quantity but of quality of existence. This is probably the case in 212 A: “immortality” is rather “eternal life” than “everlastingness,” as connoting “heavenliness” or the kind of life that is proper to divinities. So, as the “spark divine” in man is the νοῦς, ἀθανασία is practically equivalent to pure νόησις. On the other hand, in the earlier parts of the discourse the word denotes only duration (ἀθάνατον εἶναι=ἀεὶ εἶναι).

16 See also J. Adam, Religious Teachers of Greece, pp. 396 f.

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  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Plato, Symposium, 203c
    • Plato, Symposium, 204a
    • Plato, Symposium, 209e
    • Plato, Symposium, 211b
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (8):
    • Plato, Theaetetus, 176a
    • Plato, Phaedrus, 253a
    • Plato, Symposium, 203c
    • Plato, Symposium, 203e
    • Plato, Symposium, 205e
    • Plato, Symposium, 206b
    • Plato, Symposium, 212a
    • Plato, Timaeus, 90b
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