Socrates and the Ladder of Love

Sermon by John Lauritsen

UU Meeting House, Provincetown, 9 September 2001

    Today we're going to go back to the past — to Athens in the Age of Pericles, the 5th century BC. It has been said that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. His works are all in the form of dialogues, in which he himself never appears. This detaches him from the ideas he presents, forcing his readers to think for themselves. Rather than laying down doctrines or systems, Plato inculcates a desire to know the truth — truth that is often hidden behind traditions, conventions, and facile assumptions. And he demonstrates a way to uncover the truth — through the dialectic, which is a form of questioning, or cross-examination.

    The most beautiful and perfect of Plato's dialogues, and the most entertaining, is the one on Love, known in English as The Symposium or The Banquet. It takes place at an all-male dinner party in 416 BC. The host is Agathon, a beautiful young man of about 30. The guests decide that, rather than just getting drunk, they will hold a speech contest, in which each of them delivers an oration in praise of Eros, the god of Love.

    The first speaker, Phaedrus, praises Love as a mighty deity, among the oldest of the gods, who divinely inspires lovers towards virtue, deterring them through shame from that which is disgraceful and inspiring them through love of glory to honorable deeds. Like the other speakers, Phaedrus concentrates on love between males (or what I'll simply call “male love”). He declares that:

“Should one who loves be discovered in any dishonourable action, or tamely enduring insult through cowardice, he would feel more anguish and shame if observed by the object of his passion, than if he were observed by his father or his companions, or any other person.[All translations are by Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Banquet.]

    The next speech, by Pausanias, pays tribute to the Greek institution of paiderasteia — the mentoring relationship between a teen-aged boy and a somewhat older man. Pausanias postulates that there is not just one god of Love, but two: There is the Pandemian (or common) Love, who presides over ordinary relationships, as well as “transient and fortuitous connexions”, which is to say, sex for the sake of sex. The other god of Love, the Uranian (or heavenly) Love, is concerned with higher things: 

“This is that Love who attends on the Uranian deity, and is Uranian; the author of innumerable benefits both to the state and to individuals, and by the necessity of whose influences both the lover and the beloved are disciplined into the zeal of virtue.”

    Pausanias analyzes the legal situation. In Athens and other Greek cities, it was understood, accepted and legal that the relationship between youth and man could include sex. He contrasts the situation in places that are “subject to the Barbarians”, meaning the Persians and other non-Greeks, where “not only this species of love, but philosophy and the practice of the gymnastic exercises, are represented as dishonourable by the tyrannical governments under which the barbarians live.”  For Pausanias, freedom for males to love each other was as much a part of the Greek way, as was the freedom to think independently and the freedom to exercise the body. He declares vehemently:

“Wherever, therefore, it is declared dishonourable in any case to serve and benefit lovers, that law is a mark of the depravity of the legislator, and avarice and tyranny of the rulers, and the cowardice of those who are ruled.”

    The next in turn to speak is Aristophanes, the great comic playwright, but he has a hiccup, and yields his place to Eryximachus, a physician. Though his speech is brief, Eryximachus covers a lot of ground; he touches upon medicine, music, gymnastics, agriculture, and religion. He concedes that it is all right to experience the lower or Pandemian love, but only “to derive pleasure from it without indulging to excess”. This is an expression of the Greek ideal, “moderation in everything”.

    Now Aristophanes is ready. Following the advice of Eryximachus, he has cured his hiccup by tickling his nose with a feather and sneezing. He tells a wild fable of how human beings were originally double what we are now. They had four arms and legs, two faces fixed upon a round neck, and so on. These creatures, our ancestors, had “aspiring thoughts” and they “levied war against the gods”, in punishment for which the Father of the Gods split them in two. Since that time all of us have been smitten with a desire for wholeness — to find and merge forever with our “other half”.

    Originally, Aristophanes relates, there were three sexes: an all-male sex, an all-female sex, and a hermaphrodite sex. Men who are half of the original, double, all-male sex, are gay men, lovers of other males. Women who are half of the original, double all-female sex are lesbians. And those who are half of the original, hermaphrodite sex?  They, of course, are heterosexual men and women. Thus, Aristophanes anticipates the concept of “sexual orientation”. He makes the point that men and women who are lovers of their own kind may still marry and have children — not because they really want to, but from duty.

    The next speech is from the beautiful Agathon, host of the party. Highly poetical, even flowery, it is a parody of rhetorical styles,  As Agathon puts it, his speech is “partly composed, of thoughtless and playful fancies, and partly of serious ones.”  In other words, he is camping. But, camp notwithstanding, the language is beautiful, and some of the insights are deep — for example: “Love divests us of all alienation from each other” and “gathers us together in social meetings, dances, sacrifices and feasts.”  This almost anticipates our UU affirmation: “Love is the spirit of this church.”

    When Agathon finishes speaking, the stage is set for Socrates, who immediately begins to cross-examine him. Agathon is a good sport as Socrates draws a series of concessions from him, which lead to the conclusion that Love is the desire for things that are not possessed — and therefore, Love himself cannot be beautiful or even good. As Agathon has become a bit flustered, Socrates suddenly turns the tables on himself by recalling how Diotima, a wise woman and prophet, taught him “the science of things relating to Love”. From this point on, it is Diotima who is in charge — cross-examining Socrates and sometimes playfully chiding him for his slowness in grasping her ideas.

    The interchange between Socrates and Diotima is the most brilliant dialectic in all of Plato. I'll try to summarize their ideas, but bear in mind that the process by which the ideas emerge is as important as the ideas themselves.

    Since Love is desire for things not possessed, Love cannot be beautiful or good, but this does not mean he is ugly and evil. Rather, he is something in-between. Love, according to Diotima, is not a god, but neither is he mortal; he is a great Daemon, intermediate between what is divine and what is human. And, as an intermediate being, his power and nature is to “interpret and communicate between divine and human things”.

    Love is a philosopher, who seeks wisdom. The gods are already wise, and the ignorant have no desire to acquire wisdom. But “Love is of necessity a philosopher, philosophy being an intermediate state between ignorance and wisdom.”

“Love then, is collectively the desire in men that good should be for ever present to them.”  But human beings are mortal, and change is eternal. All things die away, as others come into being. And so, at the heart of Love is generation: “Love is the desire of generation in the beautiful, both with relation to the body and the soul.”  Love is “the desire for immortality ... a tendency towards eternity”.

    Men and women “whose bodies alone are pregnant with this principle of immortality” seek “happiness and immortality and an enduring remembrance” through the production of children.

“But they whose souls are far more pregnant than their bodies, conceive and produce that which is more suitable to the soul” — art, poetry, science. If such a person meets “a beautiful, generous and gentle soul”, he then “undertakes to educate this object of his love” in wisdom and virtue.

    Lover and pupil ascend the Ladder of Love, which by steps leads from the love of beautiful bodies to the love of all physical beauty, to beautiful habits and institutions, to beautiful doctrines, and eventually to “supreme beauty itself”, at which point they are practically in outer space:

(Diotima speaking) “What, then, shall we imagine to be the aspect of the supreme beauty itself, simple, pure, uncontaminated with the intermixture of human flesh and colours, and all other idle and unreal shapes attendant on mortality.”

    Socrates has hardly finished speaking, when there is a loud knocking at the door, and amidst noise and commotion there staggers in Alcibiades, who is roaring drunk. The guests ask him to join them, and to take part in the speech contest. He agrees to do his best, notwithstanding his present condition, but only if he can speak in praise of Socrates, his former lover.

    Alcibiades and Socrates were one of the oddest couples in history. Alcibiades was famous for his beauty; he was known throughout Antiquity as “Alcibiades the Beautiful”. Socrates was renowned for his ugliness. Alcibiades was from the high aristocracy, rich and powerful. Socrates was a poor man. When Alcibiades was a youth, he could have had any man in Greece for his lover, but he chose Socrates, the Philosopher.

    With the speech of Alcibiades, we go from theory to practice. He speaks from the heart, with humor, vivid narrative, and magnificent prose-poetry. It is the most wonderful eulogy in literature.

    After Alcibiades has finished talking, the party breaks up. Some of the guests go home, others fall asleep, and a few, including Socrates, continue talking until sunrise.

    And that, in a nutshell, is Plato's Dialogue on Love. Is there a moral here?  Perhaps that there are many aspects to Love. That Love should lead to higher things. And the core lesson of Plato, that we approach truth through questioning. And now, let us be silent together.


The Banquet. By Plato. Translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Foreword by John Lauritsen, Editor. Pagan Press, Provincetown 2001.

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