Socrates was married. We know that from several sources. Socrates had more than one child. That is also mentioned in several sources (re: The Apology of Socrates). Yet, when Socrates is moved to talk about love, he quotes, not his wife or another male philosopher, but Diotima of Matinea. Unfortunately for the reader, the definition for love is never truly nailed down by the interlocutors, left confidently by Socrates as a painted canvas of wispy, enduring, natural/divine yearnings.
Socrates understood explicitly…
To our detriment, he fails to transfer that knowledge to us.
Years, maybe decades, after their initial encounters, it was obvious Socrates’ interaction with Diotima had been a deep and permanent one. Female philosophers were exceedingly rare, back in the day, and to have a man like Socrates quote a female during a male drinking party would have been “interesting” to the listeners.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
I was talking with a friend the other day. I can’t remember which friend or which day because my interest in the topic of philosophy, like a mild poison, sometimes blinds me to such details (re: Phaedo). We allowed the discussion to lead us in which ever direction it wanted while noting, in passing, points of interest and new conversational landmarks, if any were spotted. As many of my serious exchanges go, eventually we were lead to Plato and Socrates.
Plato, of course, is the author of so many dialogs that are, individually and collectively, intricate and mind blowing works. His teacher, Socrates, chose not to write anything down in books or treatises (re: Phaedrus), but did teach Plato much of what he knew, as is assumed by many.
As the source of such wonder and knowledge, one might ask, who taught Socrates what he knew?
One of Socrates’ Teachers
If we believe Plato’s (and other’s) account…Socrates was originally a natural philosopher or, as we would say today, a scientist (re: Aristophanes’ The Clouds). He was known to investigate things “above the clouds and below the earth” in his efforts to find Truth. At the bottom of his search for Truth was his need to know how to live rightly. Socrates was guided by the question, “How are we to live?”
At some point in Socrates’ life, he comes into contact with Diotima, one of the few female philosophers in the Platonic corpus (re: Symposium).
The above facts are recounted in one of Plato’s dialog on Love called…well… The Symposium (which is the bookend writing for The Republic…which mentions husbands and wives, but not love, interestingly enough…There is another dialog written on love, The Lysis, but it’s focus is friendship and love). In the Symposium several men at a drinking party have a contest to define love…but each attempt fails because it is from their own very specific perspective. For example, the doctor defines it in terms of the body, the comedic poet in terms of ultimate success in man challenging the gods, and the tragic poet in terms of futility against the gods.
When it is Socrates’ turn to speak, he claims that Diotima had show him the true meaning of love. According to her, love was a way to contemplate the divine. For example, one may become linked in with a beautiful person, or soul, or both and fall completely in love. Because man is a rational creature, the mind, despite the intense emotion, gravitates toward the nature of this emotion toward that old “friend”. Especially if the love is forbidden, contemplation quickly turns to the nature of this madness, love, and the nature of the person being loved. The person and the emotion are separated. When love is divorced from the person and thought of independent of a vehicle or carrier of love, that, says Diotima, is when the mind can turn to the Divine.
Even erotic (ie. Eros… longing, not just sexual, you dirty birdies) attraction can lead the mind from the low to the high. With the guide of reason even the lowly sexual desires can lead to high minded thinking and reasoning. Without the guide of reason… well compare what happens, for example, at the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on one hand and The Tempest on the other. The missing element in one play was a careful guiding hand.
As in all of his dialogs, Plato writes to several audiences simultaneously. You have to pay attention to the setting, what is said, what is not said… to every sentence and the layers of meaning they create to really get what Plato is trying to hint at.
Such is the case with his definition of love.
In the Symposium there are seven major participants and, therefore, seven definitions of love. The first few definitions are really bad definitions as they are limited by the speaker. The doctor, Eryximachus, for example, can only talk about love as a function of the body and nothing more. But the praises and definitinos of love get more and more complex until we end up with the final speaker on the nature of love…Socrates.
Socrates, however, doesn’t define love. He tells a story of our female philosopher. He lets her define it for him. She teaches him about love and he remembers years and, even, decades later.
Why does Plato do this?
We must turn our attention to Diotima, her characteristics, and her function as a knower in the dialog.
Piecing together a few brief experiences and descriptions of this character, we find a tantalizing puzzle. The following is my own interpretation based on the limited exposure we have to Diotima provided by Socrates and nothing more:
She seems to have a very strong personality and is sure of herself. This is likely the reason the head strong (younger) Socrates stays to listen to her and seeks to understand her completely. She sees or has seen something that he has difficulty wrapping his mind around. He is eager to see what she sees. As a rational, science minded man concerned with inanimate things, Socrates is new to the concept of true and deep love that lifts one’s eyes beyond the physical. Even the concept of the Divine might have been foreign to him at this point in life. She is also described as incredibly beautiful, but, as we see in the latter parts of the Symposium, Socrates isn’t simply attracted to physical beauty (Alcibiades attests to this when he breaks into the party, already drunk himself, and wondering why Socrates never “loved” him…Alcibiades was always described as a very attractive person). Socrates appreciates beauty, but sharp wit, sharp humor, and intellectual capacity is more akin to the beauty Socrates seeks out. Further, as a “seer”, Diotima’s eyes were particularly of interest for our philosopher. She could see things that were beyond the scientists’ universe and that puzzled Socrates. As a matter of fact, Diotima is credited with the change in focus that Socrates had from “out there” to “in here”. After his encounter with Diotima, Socrates begins to understand that the Truth cannot be systematized or be put into a formula. He turns, then, to the Truth’s shadows…human opinions. Socrates intimates that we all see/experience a different sliver or facet of the Truth, so if enough facets were put together we could get a clearer picture of his main concern, the right way to live. Finally, there is an easiness to her approach to philosophy that catches Socrates off guard. There is a joy to her practice of philosophy that, if you’ve ever talked to any philosophy major, doesn’t come naturally to most people who dabble in philosophy.
To an extent, and this is my guess, Diotima seems to “be” what Socrates (at that time) was “trying to be”. She was a natural while he had to work, wonder, and contemplate. Love, then, might be similar. Diotima’s love covered all of the ground from the lowly physical to the Divine… it was a catalyst to compel people to reach for new heights. It was a vehicle used to carry (inspire) anything to higher ground. Socrates’ love was likely grounded in the physical because he was a natural philosopher (again, a scientist). His chance meeting with her certainly changed that assumption since he was still thinking and talking about her and her views years later.
The lesson Socrates might have learned is that the danger in trying to question/investigate love (philosophical or otherwise) too much is that you unravel a solid unified tapestry into its individual pieces…then wonder where it disappeared to.