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date: 19 March 2019

Plato on Love

Abstract and Keywords

Eros and Philia are the two Greek words, which can be translated as love in English. This article focuses on the idea that Plato weaves around the emotion of love. On the one hand, there is the verb philein and its cognates (philia is the noun, philos the adjective)—a word we use all the time when we talk about philanthropy, philosophy, philharmonic, and the like. On the other hand, “to love” is also the proper translation of the verb eran. Eros is the name of this psychological force, erastês designates a lover, and erômenos is the one who is loved. Erôs is characterized here as a desire. That does not mean that whenever someone wants something, he loves it. The relationship goes in the other direction: whenever someone loves, he wants. This thesis says nothing about what kind of desire one has, when one loves. It may be a desire that Plato would locate in the appetitive part of the soul, but it need not be. The word Plato most often uses for desire in the passage examined in this article, as so often, is epithumia. But an epithumia can be any sort of desire—it is not necessarily an “appetitive” desire for food, drink or sex.

Keywords: love, eros, philiea, philanthropy, philosophy, philharmonic, eran, erastes

1. Erôs and Philia

Two families of Greek words, each with its distinctive semantic content, can properly be translated as “love.” On the one hand, there is the verb philein and its cognates (philia is the noun, philos the adjective)—a word we use all the time when we talk about philanthropy, philosophy, philharmonic, and the like. On the other hand, “to love” is also the proper translation of the verb eran (erôs is the name of this psychological force, erastês designates a lover, and erômenos is the one who is loved). Those Greek terms are of course no less familiar to us than the “phil…” family: from them we have “erotic,” “erogenous zones,” and so on. Although our terms “erotic” and “sexual” are by no means interchangeable (a depiction of sexual organs, for example, need not be erotic), no discussion of the place of eros in human life could possibly ignore sexual desire and sexual activity. Similarly, Greek texts that concern erôs—the subject of Plato's Symposium, and one of the central topics of Phaedrus—must address themselves to sexuality, though they can encompass far more than that. Erôs, unlike philia, picks out a type of desire that drives people, under certain conditions, to physical contact—to touch, to kiss, to embrace, to “make love”—and also to think obsessively of the person who is loved and to be filled with longing when he or she is absent.

But philia is not necessarily low in affect. Although it can be applied to nearly any group of cooperative associates, it is the word that would most naturally be used to name the strong feeling and close relationship that exists among family members and also among close friends, whether or not they are sexually attracted to each other. To call two people philoi is to suggest neither that there is nor that there is not an erotic component to their relationship.

(p. 287)

So there is no semantic oddity in the thesis, which Plato endorses (sec. 4 below), that there is philia in the best kind of erotic relationship. He does not single out sexless relationships for special commendation—although we will see how such a misreading of his thought might arise. To call a friendly relationship that is devoid of sexual attraction or interaction “Platonic,” as we often do, is therefore to misrepresent him. On the contrary, he is especially interested in sexually charged relationships and is aware of their potential to do great good—though also great harm. One of his principal motives, in writing about erôs, is to teach us how to make that distinction.

For the best and fullest discussion of philia in antiquity, we should turn not to Plato but to Books VIII and IX of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But there is a remarkable gap in those books: Aristotle sees no need to say much about erôs, for he assumes that his theory of philia can be applied to those bound together by sexual love no less than to those who are “just friends.” He remarks at one point that when philia is strong, it can be felt toward only a few people, and then he adds that erôs is an extreme form of philia, because it is felt toward one person (IX.10 1171a10–12). The sexuality of erôs (as opposed to its intensity and narrow focus) has little interest for him, as a philosophical writer.

We would have to say the same about Plato, had he written only Lysis, but not Symposium and Phaedrus, for there is hardly a word about erôs in this short work (widely assumed to have been composed before the other two). Instead, it searches but does not find a proper account of philia. The problems it raises about that notion have nothing to do with erôs but apply to all philoi whatsoever—whether or not their relationship is erotic. But Plato, unlike Aristotle, is fascinated by erôs. He considers it a subject from which philosophers have a great deal to learn and upon which philosophy can cast much light. His greatest contributions to the study of intimate human relationships, which are contained in Symposium and Phaedrus, have to do with erôs and with philia only insofar as erotic relationships should involve philia as well. He does not have, as Aristotle does, a robust and systematic theory about philia in its own right. Instead, he offers us, in his Lysis, a series of puzzles about philia; and then, in Symposium and Phaedrus, a series of contrasting speeches about erôs. The heart of his theory of intimacy, affection, and sexuality lies in those speeches.1

Every Platonic dialogue presents its own riches and difficulties of interpretation. Readers of his Symposium cannot be criticized for paying special attention to the speech delivered by Socrates (that is the approach I adopt here), for it is reasonable to suppose that this is the most important segment of the dialogue—the one that contains the correct theory of love, which Plato himself accepts and recommends to his readers. That supposition can be supported by the fact that the (p. 288) speech within that speech—particularly the ascent to the form of beauty described by Diotima—fits hand in glove with the metaphysical scheme propounded in such other dialogues as Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Republic. The middle books of Republic are an especially close match to the ascent Diotima prescribes in Symposium, for there too we are told about the process by which a philosopher‐in‐training will be led to a great discovery: the form of the good. But however important the speech of Socrates is for an understanding of Symposium, Plato must want his readers to pay careful attention to the other speeches as well—to see how they bear on each other, complementing each other in some respects but conflicting in others. Similarly, although the party‐crashing of Alcibiades adds immeasurably to the dramatic impact and comedy of the dialogue, we must ask ourselves what that denouement has to do with the content of the other speeches. Can it be that Plato gives the final word to Alcibiades because his encomium contains some corrective to what has gone before? The problem of understanding Symposium as a philosophical work is in part a problem of seeing how all of its material hangs together.

Phaedrus creates rather different obstacles. It seems to be a work about two subjects—love and rhetoric—and yet it contains a theory of composition that insists that every discourse must contain an organic unity, each part contributing to a larger organizational plan (264c). Plato is apparently prodding his readers to ask themselves what the principle of organization of this dialogue is. In this essay, I must bypass that question and so give short shrift to Phaedrus (though see secs. 9 and 10) in order to concentrate on Diotima's speech.

2. Erôs and Desire

The centrality of Diotima's ascent (210a–212b) in the scheme of Symposium is undeniable, but some of the ideas it contains cannot be understood on their own, since they build on earlier material. For our purposes, the best place to begin an examination of this dialogue (if that is the right word for it) is the passage in which Socrates, by cross‐examining Agathon (199e–201c), shows that there is a close connection between erôs, desire, need, and futurity. More precisely, when someone loves (erai), there is something or someone he wants and, therefore, something or someone he needs and lacks. Plato realizes that this thesis requires defense, and so he has Socrates show Agathon that apparent counterexamples to it can be redescribed in ways that make them conform to it. We say: “I want to be healthy, and I have what I want.” But can we really mean what this seems to mean? If I already am healthy at the present time, what would be the point of wanting to be healthy at the present time? A desire is a motivator; its role is to move us to do something. Properly understood, then, when someone who already is healthy says, “I want to be healthy,” he should be taken to mean that he wants to continue to be healthy. He wants to have his health in the future, but that is something that he does not yet have. He lacks and needs future health.

(p. 289)

Erôs is characterized here as a desire. That does not mean that whenever someone wants something, he loves it. The relationship goes in the other direction: whenever someone loves, he wants. This thesis says nothing about what kind of desire one has, when one loves. It may be a desire that Plato would locate in the appetitive part of the soul, but it need not be. The word Plato most often uses for desire in this passage, as so often, is epithumia. But an epithumia can be any sort of desire—it is not necessarily an “appetitive” desire for food, drink, or sex.2

Plato might be accused of making a mistake here: people can want things that have nothing to do with themselves, and so desiring is not the same thing as needing and lacking. Suppose I want someone else's needs to be fulfilled. That does not show that I have a need or a lack. If I act on my desire, that is not because I need or lack something but because someone else does.

Perhaps this criticism of Plato can be sustained. But even if it can, it does not reveal a defect in his conception of erôs. Whether or not there are desires that reflect no need or deficiency in the subject, what matters to Plato, in Symposium and Phaedrus, is the distinctive psychological phenomenon that goes by the name of erôs. He can insist that this type of desire always arises out of the subject's needs, even if he were to concede that other desires might not.

3. Birth in Beauty

Let us pick up the thread of the conversation several pages later, where Diotima, in her cross‐examination of Socrates, insists on a connection between erôs and good. Up to that point, it is assumed that the object at which erôs is directed is beautiful—or, at any rate, is taken by the lover to be beautiful. Agathon claimed in his speech that love is never of ugliness but always of beauty (197b), and that assumption is allowed to stand in Socrates' conversation with him (201a–b). But then Diotima asks Socrates a series of questions about the relationship between erôs and good, and this interchange eventually leads to the thesis that “erôs is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a11–12).3 Is Plato here inviting us to infer that because (p. 290) goodness is the object of love, beauty is not—that beauty has no bearing on erôs? That would be too great an about‐face.

It is more plausible to take him to mean that the relation between love and beauty is not quite as simple as Agathon and Socrates had been assuming (206e2–3). The object of one's desire, when one loves, is always something that is good—but it is never claimed, during the remainder of the dialogue, that it must be something beautiful or taken to be such. Diotima insists (204e–205d) that each person's desire for the goods that he equates with happiness (the ultimate object of desire: 205a1–3) should be classified as erôs, and that since everyone wants happiness, everyone should be classified as a lover, despite the fact that this term (erastês) and its cognates are normally reserved for only one kind of love—the kind that consists in “making love” (as we would put it). Diotima is complaining that ordinary ways of using erôs and related terms are arbitrary and should therefore be reformed. Someone who loves money, or wisdom, or sports is no less a lover (erastês) than someone who seeks sexual intercourse, even though that term is normally reserved for lovers in the conventional sense (205d). The Greeks use philein rather than eran to talk about the love of philosophy (philosophia) or sport (philogumnastia), but Diotima sees no reason to avoid the semantic field of erôs to describe our passion for these activities.

Presumably, then, she would also say that it is arbitrary to deny that a parent is an erastês of his children or to insist that his feeling for them is philia but not erôs. That would not commit her to saying that parents should have sex with their children but only that erôs and kindred terms should be applied more broadly than common usage allows. Note that since Diotima drops Agathon's idea that the object of erôs must be taken to be beautiful (206e2–3), she would not be forced to concede that in having erôs for their children, parents find them beautiful, alluring, or attractive.

The thesis that “erôs is wanting to possess the good forever” is obviously an extension of the point Socrates makes in his discussion with Agathon. What someone who loves health desires is not that he be healthy now but that he be healthy in the future. If health is part of his conception of happiness, surely he will want to be healthy not just for some short period of time but for a very long one—in fact, indefinitely into the future. Being mortal, he cannot have his health for as long as he would like, and so his love of health leads to the pursuit of some approximation to his possessing health eternally. This is the thought process that lies behind Diotima's thesis that every lover seeks “birth in beauty”4 (206b7–8)—the striking formula by means of which she allows beauty to be readmitted to the theory of love. She draws on the assumption that as sexual beings we cannot help being responsive to beauty (206c–d) and that the outcome of this responsiveness, (p. 291) in sexual intercourse and pregnancy, is the production of a new generation that extends the lives and often the projects of its forebears.

She then (208e–209e) broadens the basic ideas of her theory by elaborating on the notion that someone can be pregnant in soul and not merely in body. Someone who loves wisdom and justice, for example, cannot possess these qualities forever, but even so he can get closer to this goal by inculcating them, through reasoning and education (209b–c), in the next generation, which will, in turn, reproduce its virtues in others. In this way, one can come as close as mortality allows to the eternal possession of what one takes to be good. But, Diotima insists, one cannot do this in the absence of a sense of beauty (209b). Just as the desire for sexual intercourse is aroused by the sight of physical beauty, so the desire to give birth to discourse in the education of a younger person is aroused by some perceived beauty in that person's soul.

She even applies her theory to animal reproduction: erôs exists among these winged and many‐footed creatures as well (207a–d). She is not merely making the obvious point that they copulate. Rather, her idea is that for them sexual activity serves a purpose that they know nothing about: the production of a new generation and, therefore, membership in a chain that extends without end into the future. She might even be assuming that they too are responsive to beauty—if her statement that “it is impossible to beget in ugliness, but only in beauty” (206c4–5) is meant to be exceptionless. Animals do not have a conception of happiness or good, but if the thesis that “erôs is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a11–12) is meant to apply to them as well, then the good that they want forever must be life itself.

What of human beings who are not pregnant in soul but only in body? Is Diotima saying that the function—whether acknowledged or not—of their sexual intercourse, like that of all animals, is the eternal possession of life itself? Perhaps, but she must also make room in her theory for the fact that nearly all parents want to transmit their values to their children. If what they love (and what they therefore wish they could have forever) is not merely life but also money or health or sports, then they will do what they can to reproduce the love of these goals in their children. To have a simulacrum of life forever merely requires being part of an unending generative chain, but human beings can, in a way, also have health or wealth forever by giving to their children a passion for these goals and the resources needed for sustaining them. There is no reason, in fact, why Diotima should deny that ordinary parents (pregnant in body but not soul) might also love justice and virtue in general and try to possess these goods eternally by engendering this love in their children.

She also mentions a way of eternally possessing the good that bypasses sexual reproduction but falls short of the pregnancy of soul that issues in reasoned education. The great heroes of the past, she claims, sought honor and glory for their acts of courage and wanted to possess these goods forever (208c–e). They do not give birth to flesh‐and‐blood children or to reasoned discourse but, rather, to beautiful deeds, and if these are celebrated by poets whose words live on, then the (p. 292) fame they seek will live forever, as will the reputation of the poets who memorialize those deeds (209d). We seem to have here a threefold division that corresponds to the tripartition of the soul (into appetite, spirit, and reason) in Plato's Republic: appetitive people seek such low‐level goods as eternal life, or eternal wealth, or eternal physical well‐being; those who love honor in battle or a reputation for excellence—goods that Plato associates with the spirited part of the soul—can possess these goods eternally by being the subjects or creators of song; but the best sorts of people employ philosophical methods of reasoning to pass along a full understanding of what is good.

4. Self and Others

Erôs, so conceived, is necessarily self‐involved. Even when it is directed at another person, it nonetheless expresses a desire for the lover's own good. The self‐involvement of erôs is implicit in the thesis that to love is to want to possess the good forever; for that must be taken to mean that to love is to want oneself to possess the good forever. But it must be emphasized that, according to Diotima, the self that is involved in all love is not genuinely single because it is ever‐changing: the stuff of the body is constantly being replenished; new desires, beliefs, and habits replace old ones; and even knowledge depends on fresh memories (207d–208a). When the present self plans for the satisfaction of its desires, it is already reaching out to something that is merely similar to rather than identical to what it is now.

That, Diotima, claims, is why all living things care for their offspring (208b). An animal, she notes (207b), will die for her young out of erôs, and in doing so it obeys the law of nature that whatever ages seeks to replace itself with younger versions of itself (208b). Love of life (one's own life, that is) lies behind efforts to preserve not only one's own body and soul but also the lives of one's offspring. Similarly, if one loves justice—that is, if one wants it to be the case that one possesses this good forever—then one will not only see to it that one's future soul possesses this good but also look for ways in which other people who bear some similarity to oneself and will take one's place also possess this good. If one propagates what one loves by having and raising a family (that is, if one is pregnant in body but not soul), one will try to inculcate a love of justice in one's children. But Diotima claims that there is a superior way of wanting to possess the virtues eternally. Some are pregnant in soul rather than body; in other words, they have within them notions about justice that they want to expose to the light of public discourse, in the hope that they can create just conditions for others who will outlive them. There is something self‐involved even in that moral drive, because its beneficiaries are thought of as extensions of the self and not utterly alien to it.

Diotima's conception of erôs is a far cry from the self‐forgetting kind of love that cares only for others and is devoid of all thought of oneself—the kind that does (p. 293) not care whether it is I who helps others but only that they be helped by someone. That selflessness, whether praiseworthy or not, is rare among human beings and therefore accounts for very little of the good that they have achieved. By contrast, erôs as Diotima conceives it—a complex combination of self‐involving and other‐regarding motives—has great motive power and has achieved more impressive results. Although Diotima does not propose that we regard all humans as members of a single family, her theory of erôs does rest on the idea that some sense of likeness to others (and not only to blood relations) elicits a willingness to forego comforts, resources, and even life itself.

The idea that all human beings, when they reach a certain age, are pregnant in one way or another, either in body or soul, contains the suggestion that we all are overfull with self‐love—in other words, that our love for something within us eventually leads to our dedication to something outside us, as pregnancy leads to the birth of a new individual who receives its mother's loving care. Here too, as in her reflections on the continuity of body and soul, Diotima finds a form of self‐involvement in the love of other people. Her tacit assumption is that a mother loves her child because that child was once inside her. When she likens a poet's songs or a statesman's laws to their children (209d–e), she is drawing on the idea that those products were once inside their minds and is suggesting that they are loved at least partly for that reason.

But the main idea that she is driving at when she uses the metaphor of the pregnant soul is that the best form of love among two human beings is one in which there is reasoned discussion about sophrosunê (moderation) and justice—and presumably all of the other topics that Socrates loved to discuss (209a). In such a relationship, the erastês gives birth to ideas that have been within him for a long time by finding someone capable of philosophical discussion—someone who, in this sense, has a beautiful soul. Their relationship will be all the more intense if the erômenos is also physically attractive, although it is not necessary that he be so (209b). What they produce in their philosophical discussions, if it is nurtured well, will itself become a thing of beauty, for if a poem can be beautiful so too can other forms of discourse when the ideas in them fit together harmoniously. Diotima claims that the relationship between these two—the philosophical erastês and his erômenos—is a firmer love (here her word is philia) than parents have, because they have far more in common with each other than those whose only bond is their joint production of children (209c). It is important not to lose sight of the fact that these two philosophers love each other—far more so than many other couples do—and not only their discursive offspring, however beautiful their jointly produced philosophical theory may be. In this respect, at least, Diotima's theory of love has become familiar and widely accepted: couples who talk to each other about serious matters and arrive at a meeting of minds enjoy a better form of love than do those whose relationship rests on nothing but the physical attraction that initially brought them together and their responsibilities as parents.

Diotima briefly indicates, at one point, that the well‐nurtured offspring of this philosophical couple has more to be said in its favor than its beauty and the way in (p. 294) which it binds them together. When she starts to explain the notion of the soul's pregnancy, she says that the offspring that it is most fitting for a soul to produce is wisdom and that by far the greatest and most beautiful form of wisdom is the one that organizes the affairs of cities and households—namely, justice and moderation (209a). This suggests that the beautiful product that arises from the discussions of a philosophical couple is not merely of interest and value to them—rather, it can also benefit the entire political community. The way in which two people love each other matters to everyone else, not only when the offspring of such love is a child who will enter the political community and affect it for better or worse but also when the offspring is a theory about how the community should arrange its affairs. Presumably, one of Diotima's reasons for claiming that this product of a pregnant soul is most beautiful by far is precisely the potential it has for improving the life of the whole city. Of course, the philosophical couple is unlikely to have had this motive for establishing their relationship. But Diotima's reason for thinking so highly of their bond has to do, in part, with the great good it can do for others, not only for them.

The communal benefits of the love felt by a male couple is a theme that enters Plato's Symposium almost from the start. It plays an important role in Phaedrus's encomium to Erôs (178d–179a); although it drops out of sight for a while, it returns in Diotima's speech, and she continues to dwell on it when she includes such civic founders as Lycourgos and Solon among her examples of individuals who love the products of their own minds (209d–e). We are briefly reminded once again of the connection between erôs and politics when Diotima describes the ascent to the form of beauty: the beauty of laws is one of the steps of her ladder, and that connection cannot be far from the reader's mind when Alcibiades crashes the party. It cannot be an accident that Plato chooses to bring the Symposium to a close by bringing on stage a political figure and that the theme of that last speech is the failure of his erotic pursuit of Socrates. Plato is perhaps suggesting that Alcibiades' failure to understand what erôs is and how to be an erastês is connected in some way to his larger failure in the political arena. I return to Alcibiades below (sec. 9).

5. Aristophanes and Diotima

The conception of erôs contained in the speech of Aristophanes (189d–193d) is, in some respects, the converse of the one that Diotima proposes. She conceives of the erastês as overfull—as containing within himself so much that he must, with the help of another, get it outside of himself. The additional life within him is reasoned discourse that can benefit another person of the right sort—the erômenos whose soul is beautiful—but, as we just noticed, it can be of value to the entire community as well. Throughout the duration of the relationship of these two friends, (p. 295) each continues to have a mind of his own; that, surely, is what enables their discussions to be worthwhile and capable of leading to a beautiful product. By contrast, Aristophanes takes love to be nothing but an effort to overcome the burdens of distinctness and separation. It is a sense of isolation that drives distinct individuals to want to meld into one and to do nothing for each other but embrace. For them, fusion, not sexual satisfaction, is the goal of physical contact; the satiation of their sexual desires happens to serve a useful purpose, in that it temporarily induces them to separate and attend to their quotidian tasks (191c). Their desire to eliminate all physical distance between themselves is an expression of a deeper longing to be melded into one body with one soul. This is the opposite of the Socratic inquiry that Diotima assumes will take place when the erastês educates his erômenos; it is the unexamined life par excellence—the life of someone who wants nothing more than to lose his mind and to become one with the person he loves. Remarkably, the simple point that offspring of some sort—flesh‐and‐blood children, or psychological transformation—is the product of love is a matter of no significance for Aristophanes. He entirely ignores the political implications of his conception of erôs.

The Aristophanic lover is seeking one person in particular: the one to whom he was once joined. But, of course, neither Aristophanes nor anyone else believes that each of us was once literally joined to another half. When his allegory is interpreted, it must be taken to mean that although we long to be joined to some one person, there is no way to articulate why we long for fusion with precisely this person and no other. We just have a strong sense that this is the right person for us, and our longing to become one with him or her is a brute force that can have no justification.

But the unique appropriateness of the object of love is not an idea for which Diotima has any use. What a lover teeming with ideas is looking for is someone who can help nurture those ideas and turn them into something substantial, and beauty of soul consists in those qualities of mind that make someone a good conversational partner in this endeavor. A lover should have no trouble articulating the features of the person to whom he is drawn and whom he finds attractive. (Admittedly, he has nothing to say about why he finds certain bodies beautiful: he simply does.) Nothing Diotima says suggests that for each of us there is one uniquely appropriate partner in love. In fact, the multiplicity of suitable objects of affection is already implicit in Socrates' idea that to want something is to want all of the many future replacements for one's present self to have it. The “wide sea” of objects of love then becomes one of the themes of Diotima's description of the ascent to the form of beauty (210d4). If there is anything in her speech that provides an analogue to the one object of love that an Aristophanic lover seeks, it is the form of beauty. The Phaedrus has a great deal to say about the way in which erôs reunifies us with the forms that we observed when, in a previous life, we were able to see them far more clearly than we can now. So, some truth can be salvaged from Aristophanes' speech, but it must be transformed almost beyond recognition before Diotima can accept it.

(p. 296) 6. The Ascent to Beauty

We are now ready to examine the final stage of Diotima's presentation, in which she describes a series of steps by which a lover‐in‐training is educated and brought to the recognition of an “amazing beauty” and thereby to the achievement of the “goal” of his erotic education (210e4–5). At that highest point of the ascent, the lover arrives at an understanding of what beauty is (211c8–d1). That should be taken to mean that he can articulate and defend a theory that explains what makes all beautiful things beautiful. But Plato's way of talking about this unchanging object and its location at the pinnacle of a series of objects, each of which is beautiful, implies that the unchanging entity about which the fully educated lover achieves an understanding is itself a supremely beautiful object. It is pure, unmixed, divine, uniform, and devoid of the great silliness that mars the beauty of human things; their beauty is a mere image of its true beauty (211e–212a). All of this suggests that the form of beauty, untainted by any imperfection, has a beauty that surpasses the sullied or short‐lived appeal of all else. That is why the life of the lover who reaches this stage is greatly enhanced, so much so that it becomes godlike (212a). Not only can the lover explain why imperfectly beautiful things are beautiful; he has gazed on the greatest beauty of all.

The first step of this staircase (epanabasmos: 211e3) is to love one body and, in doing so, to beget beautiful ideas (logoi). The next step is to generalize—to recognize that there are many other beautiful bodies as well and that there is something identical in the beauty of them all (210a–b). The outcome of this second stage will be that the lover‐in‐training's extreme fascination with the single body that occupied his attention during the first stage will diminish, and he will realize that this was a small thing (210b). Diotima does not say, in her all too brief description of the first stage, what the learner's words will be about or what their purpose is. Are they simply the lover's verbal depiction of the beauty of the person whose form he finds so alluring? Another question we wish Diotima had answered is how the transition from loving just one body to loving many is to be brought about by the teacher who is guiding this process (mentioned at 211c1). How does that guide induce the lover‐in‐training to broaden the field of things he loves? And what transpires between the lover and the one he loves (and later with the many)? We are perhaps given some help by an idea Socrates expresses in the Republic: an erotically inclined man will be attracted to many different physical types and not only to a few (474d–e). Presumably, then, Plato thinks it will not be difficult, at least for someone who has a receptivity to physical beauty, to see what is alluring in bodies of different types and to put his appreciation of each type into words. The more difficult task that must be accomplished, to arrive at the second stage, is to describe what all of these kindred kinds of physical beauty have in common. That, of course, is a project akin to the one pursued in several of Plato's shorter ethical dialogues. Even if it is easy for someone to appreciate the allure of many different beautiful bodies, it is a task for philosophy to put into words the common element in them all.

(p. 297)

Diotima never claims that the lover who has moved from the first to the second stage is no longer a lover of bodies. On the contrary, she says that he becomes “a lover of all beautiful bodies” (210a4–5). Presumably, that means that he recognizes and enjoys the perception of the beauty of any body that is beautiful. It is not the thing that all beautiful bodies have in common—the property they share—that is loved, but those concrete bodies themselves. Physical beauty is not to be treated as something that is entirely without value.5 Rather, what occurs when the lover moves beyond the first stage of the ascent is a diminution in his extreme concentration on one body. He has become a lover of many things and is no longer transfixed by any one of them. He now sees how defective his initial response to beauty was because it excluded so much. These points are important to recognize because doing so keeps us from mistakenly supposing that in the ascent to the form of beauty the lover, as he moves from each stage to the next, stops loving and finding beautiful what he appreciated at some earlier stage. What the lover constantly learns as he ascends is that his outlook at each earlier stage was defective because it included too little. So, when he reaches the final stage and recognizes the greatest beauty of all, he does not stop thinking that other things—including bodies—are beautiful as well and responding affectively to their attractiveness. Their beauty may be small by comparison with that of the form of beauty, but they nonetheless participate in its beauty and because of that participation they too have some degree of beauty, however small.

Having arrived at stage two, the lover‐in‐training now moves up to a new ontological level by turning his attention to the beauty that a soul can have—a beauty that he should recognize to be superior to that of the body (210b). Here again Diotima tells us less than we would like to know. How precisely is this recognition achieved? Perhaps she is assuming that since the lover‐in‐training has been admitted to the mysteries of love because of his suitability he has the philosophical talent and character that will make it possible for an experienced guide to show him, through philosophical discussion, that having a well‐ordered soul is far more important than having a good‐looking body. It is better to have the virtues of the soul than those of the body—but best to have both kinds. Someone who can be persuaded of that can also be brought to place the beauty of a virtuous person in a higher order than the beauty of an alluring body.

Diotima does not explicitly say that the student of erôs will go through soul‐loving stages that recapitulate the numerical difference between body‐loving stages, but that is clearly what she has in mind. Having passed through stages one and two, the next step is to fix one's attention on one soul, to care for that one individual, and to give birth to the kind of discourse that can educate young minds (210c). Diotima then describes a number of other items—practices, laws, types of (p. 298) knowledge—whose beauty the lover‐in‐training will come to appreciate. Just as he was able to say what made all beautiful bodies alike in their beauty, so too with these noncorporeal objects of appreciation. During these stages, the student of love is engaged in the study of politics; that is what is implied by Diotima's reference to practices and laws. He is not becoming a lover of many actual souls, for very few of the people he encounters will have beautiful souls, but he is inquiring into the ways in which the lives of all citizens might be improved, and in this respect he is recapitulating the transition he has already made—a transition from one to many.

In effect, the lover‐in‐training is becoming a student of political philosophy. Diotima calls him a philosopher when she refers to the “many beautiful words and thoughts” that he will beget in his unstinting love of wisdom (philosophia: 210d5–6). Significantly, she never speaks of the lover‐in‐training who has reached the stage of political theorizing as someone who undergoes a loss of enthusiasm for the one beautiful soul with whom he discusses practices, customs, and branches of knowledge. She never hints that there is any defect in remaining, at every subsequent stage of the ascent, an erastês of one and only one soul—namely, the erômenos whom the lover fills with beautiful discourses about political matters. She criticizes Socrates (presumably she does not know him very well) and others for their obsessive desire to look at and be with young boys, and she associates this with a fascination with gold and clothing (211d), but in doing so she is merely elaborating on her earlier critique of overvaluing the beauty of bodies. A beautiful soul, she implies, cannot be loved to excess—so long as one goes about loving that person in the right way.

Since Diotima claims that the form of beauty is the most beautiful object there can be, it might be inferred that the lover‐in‐training, having beheld that magnificent sight, has nothing further to do as a lover beyond continuing to savor his understanding of that supreme object. But that cannot be what she means, because it is a consequence of her theory of love that the earlier discourses constructed by the lover‐in‐training and his efforts to educate his erômenos were defective and therefore need to be improved. After all, this erastês did not know at those less than ultimate stages of the ascent what beauty is; his search for it was as yet incomplete. With his new understanding of beauty, he can now construct more beautiful discourses, and these will do a better job of explaining what makes laws well designed, which practices should be adopted, and which branches of knowledge should be studied.

That is what Diotima implies when she says, at the end of her speech, that someone who has seen the form of beauty will “beget not images of virtue…but true things” (212a3–4). There are more children, composed of words, to be nurtured. Surely the erastês, having seen and understood the form of beauty, will want to engage in conversations with his erômenos that will bring him to the same vision of beauty itself that he, the erastês, has had. The notional children they nurture together, as they reexamine laws and other social institutions in the light shed by the form of beauty, will be even finer than their earlier offspring, and because they now have all the more to share with each other their friendship will be even more (p. 299) firmly established than it was before (209c). It is implicit in Diotima's allusion to the “true things” begotten through the vision of beauty itself that the ascent to that form is at the same time an intensification of the love that exists between two individuals. And yet it remains a love that can benefit others as well, because what these two have collaboratively achieved is an understanding of laws and institutions that will, under favorable circumstances, lead to the improvement of civic life.

The ideal relationship, then, is one in which two people care for and are friends to each other; one in which they are receptive to much of the beauty of the world, ranging from the beauty of human bodies to the beauty of beauty itself; and one in which they work out, with well‐crafted words, ways in which the world can be made more just. This is not a relationship that must be devoid of sexual allure; on the contrary, Diotima makes it clear that responsiveness to physical attraction is always a welcome (though not a necessary) component of such relationships (209b). The Phaedrus tells us a great deal about the struggles a lover must endure to prevent sexual allure from playing too large a role in a good erotic relationship. The Symposium's ladder of love affirms that human beings cannot learn how to handle their sexuality except by going through a period in which they are overly responsive to the erotic enticements of a beautiful body. It is left to the Phaedrus, however, to depict the psychological conflict that must take place in all of us as we learn through our mistakes to control our response to sexually attractive people.

7. Equal Relationships: Diotima Transformed

Diotima's conception of ideal erôs is, no doubt, far too narrow. The model she proposes is the relationship of a homosexual male couple in which one (the erastês) is the more active and older partner, and the other (the erômenos) is reactive, younger, and in some way beautiful. Only one of them—the erastês—is pregnant with ideas; the physical appearance of only one of them—the erômenos—is a matter of significance (the erastês can be ugly, as Socrates is ugly). It is assumed that one of them (the erastês) is far older than the other and that he plays the role of educator, whereas the other plays the role of a student. What of women? What of heterosexual couples? What of equal relationships among people of roughly the same experience and education? The speech of Aristophanes, to its credit, is more inclusive and egalitarian: it applies to every sexual proclivity, and the lovers who seek reunification, each being the other's halved counterpart, are equals—equal in their need to lose their parthood and their ability to repair that loss.

Diotima's assumption that erastês and erômenos are male is probably a mere convenience of exposition. By choosing a woman to be the expositor of this theory (p. 300) of love (a woman who may have been his own invention6), Plato in effect acknowledges that women can be experts in this area. And since he sees they can be experts, he must have realized that two women, no less than two men, can enter into ideal relationships. But the male‐female sexual relationships with which Plato was familiar were, for the most part, marriages. A man typically sought a marriage partner not to have conversations in which he could unburden his mind and pour out his ideas but to have children. It is only to be expected, then, that Plato's template for ideal erotic relationships should be the erastês-erômenos institution with which all of the dialogue's symposiasts were at home and with which all of Plato's contemporary readers were familiar.

Nonetheless, it may seem that Diotima's theory requires there to be a significant difference in age, and therefore in experience and education, between the two partners. That is because she assumes that erôs leads us to have an effect on the world that will still be in place after we die—it inevitably leads, in other words, to an attempt to influence the younger generation in some way, either by bringing children into existence or by educating a young mind. A lover wants to possess justice (for example) as far into the future as possible. He cannot possess it forever, but he can create discourses that lead a young person to become just; and as each new generation adds another link to the chain, the lover does, by way of approximation, possess justice eternally. So it might seem that it is essential to Diotima's way of thinking about ideal erôs that it be a relationship between people who are a generation apart, and that will inevitably be a relationship between people who are unequal in education and experience. Those may indeed be very good relationships, perhaps even very good erotic relationships. But surely they are not the only good kind.

In fact, however, all the ingredients that Diotima claims are present in ideal erotic relationships can exist in a heterosexual couple of the same age. Consider this contemporary scenario: a man and a woman of roughly equal age (and therefore equal education and experience) fall in love, their relationship is sustained by their conversations about the most serious matters, and they have children because they are eager to nurture and educate people who will make their world more just. They are, to use Diotima's metaphor, pregnant in both body and soul; that is, they have ideas about how the world should be improved, and they want to put those ideas into effect by bringing up their children in a certain way. This relationship differs from the ideal erotic relationship Diotima explicitly describes in only one important respect: for her, there is a division of labor between heterosexual and homosexual love; the former ensures that there will always be a (p. 301) fresh generation, and the latter ensures that some of the members of each new generation will be well educated. But there is no reason propagation and education cannot be tasks performed by the same couple. That, in fact, is a model of a good erotic relationship that has become prevalent in our society. By rearranging the several ingredients of Diotima's theory, but without altering what is most fundamental in it, we emerge with an ideal of eros that is now widely taken for granted.

If we go a step further, and think of God as occupying a similar role to the one played by the form of beauty (which is, after all, a divine thing), the resemblance between her ideal and one that has become familiar to us is even greater. The ideal erotic couple, in that case, would be two equal human beings searching together for a way of extending their love of justice into the future, educating their children to be just and treasuring that additional bond between them, arriving at a fuller appreciation of the beauty of divine existence, and using their enhanced understanding of God to improve their efforts to comprehend and improve the world.

8. The Love of Individuals

There is another way in which the Aristophanic ideal may seem, at first sight, more appealing than Diotima's. Each half of an Aristophanic couple loves and is loved as an individual. For each of them, no one else but his (or her) other half will do. A loves B not because B plays some role in his life that another person might play equally well or better. It was from B and B alone that A was severed, and so A's relationship with no other person can fill A's need for completion. It is a need that can be completed only by reunification with a particular individual, not by a person of a certain type.

That may seem appealing, but, at the same time, the Aristophanic ideal is burdened by its commitment to the thesis that for each of us there is one and only one other person who can give us what we seek when we look for someone to love and by whom we will be loved. It is far more plausible to suppose (as many people do) that each of us needs a good match and that, although some matches are better than others, no one person is a uniquely best match. It is hard to believe that for each person there is only one other person in the world who is right as a lover.

For Aristophanes, the mythical history of our relationships explains why we each seek one and only one person who will meet our erotic needs. A was once united with B; it was that past state of affairs that accounts for what each is doing, as he or she searches for love. By contrast, Diotima's model can acknowledge the importance of facts about what has actually transpired between a couple. Once a good relationship has been established, a couple nurtures notional children together, and that shared experience is what ties them together so firmly in their friendship (209c). Although Diotima does not point this out, it is obviously true of each lover that there is only one person with whom he has had these fine (p. 302) discussions and produced these fine children. At this point in their relationship, then, A will care for B and B for A in a different way from that in which each cares about anyone else. If B dies, A will feel the loss of this particular sexual and conversational partner; he will not treat this death in the same way that he reacts to the death of just any human being. If A meets someone even more beautiful in soul and body than B, he will not think about ending his relationship with B, because he is not in the business of loving the most beautiful person he can find. It is B whom he loves, and although he can say what it is about B that he finds so appealing, he is not trying to become the lover of every person who has those qualities or with the person who most fully exemplifies them.

We can find confirmation in his Phaedrus that Plato thinks of the best erotic relationships as ones that continue throughout a person's life and even beyond. The couple that is most fully in control of their sexual appetites remains intact even after each has died. Even the second‐best sort of relationship, in which the partners are ruled by the spirited part of the soul rather than reason, is one of lifelong fidelity (256a–d). It would be appropriate, then, to say that such lovers as these love each other “as individuals.” What each loves is that other individual human being and no other; they do not treat each other as dispensable instruments by which they achieve their goals. And yet there is no illusion, in these relationships, that before each met the other, there was one and only one person who would have been right. Diotima's model of love is able to avoid falling into the trap that undermines Aristophanes' theory: its commitment to a single right lover, one's other half. At the same time, because it recognizes the importance of the history of a relationship, the kind of love it admires can be described as the love of individuals “as individuals.”7

9. Bad Erôs

Diotima says nothing that even suggests that erôs can be a destructive force in human relationships—a desire that leads both lovers and those they love to great harm—and yet we know that Plato was fully aware of this possibility. The tyrannical soul Socrates describes in Book IX of Republic is ruled by the erôs that resides in the lowest part of the soul, and he is a model of everything we should not be. In Phaedrus, Socrates says that lovers recapitulate in their earthly existence the character of the god with whom they traveled when they were disembodied. Someone who served Ares (the god of war), for example, will become murderous when he thinks he is being wronged by his erômenos and will be ready (p. 303) to kill himself or his boyfriend (256c). Phaedrus offers a sketch of a theory of love that recognizes the duality of erôs. It holds that a proper dialectical treatment of this subject must use a system of divisions that contrasts sinister (a word whose Latin counterpart means “left‐handed”) forms of love with those that are “right‐handed” and divine (266a). Here Socrates characterizes his first speech (about why one should succumb to a nonlover) as an exercise in the service of left‐handed love, and his second speech (depicting the charioteer and his two horses) as the praise of correct love. Returning to the Symposium, we note that several of its speakers make a distinction between a good and a bad form of erôs (180d–181d, 186a–c), although others (Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Agathon) do not. So Plato was reflecting on this distinction when he composed this dialogue. But, curiously, Diotima does not mention it. What are we to make of that?

The distinction she draws between those who are pregnant in soul and those who are pregnant in body does not seem to be a division between good and bad forms of love. It is better to be pregnant in soul, she holds; but that does not show that being pregnant in body—conceiving and giving birth to children—is bad. The erôs in animals drives them to procreate, and no one could plausibly believe that they go astray in doing so. It would be equally absurd to hold that no human being should engage in sexual intercourse or have children, and there is no evidence that Plato disagrees.

Another possibility that should be considered is this: since “erôs is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a11–12), perhaps good forms of human love are those that are based on an understanding—or, at any rate, a true belief—about what is good; and bad forms are those that are false. This proposal is acceptable, I believe, but it does not go far enough. What needs to be added is that Symposium contains a paradigm of bad erôs: that paradigm, I suggest, is Alcibiades. He is Plato's way of portraying, in this dialogue, how badly one can go astray when one's sexual desires are allied with deeply mistaken assumptions about how one should one lead one's life. Not all mistakes about what is good are equally harmful. For example, someone who thinks that well‐being consists in physical health and tries to possess this good far into the future by having healthy children and teaching them to love health is not someone whom Plato wishes to assign to the lowest depths of human misery; nor would anyone say that it is erôs that has led such a person astray. There are far worse lives, and Socrates claims in Republic that erôs can lead us to those depths. This is what has happened to the tyrannical man. He allows the sexual waywardness that is a potential source of misery within all human beings (Rep. 571b–572b) to become the leading element in his psychology. His appetite for sex is what shapes his conception of what is worth pursuing, and the results are disastrous. Alcibiades, as portrayed in the Symposium, is not at this pitch of depravity, but he is the vehicle that Plato uses, in this dialogue, for showing the reader how badly erôs can disfigure us. Diotima's theory of love is not in error, but it is radically incomplete; it must be supplemented by a portrayal of what erôs looks like when it goes badly astray.

Plato sometimes uses erôs to name the desire that impels us toward sexual activity. When he divides the soul into three parts in the Republic, for example, he (p. 304) describes the lowest (appetitive) part as the one by which one loves (erai), is hungry, and is thirsty (439d6). Here erôs is simply the brute desire to have sex, an instinctive conative force that inheres in our nature no less than thirst and hunger. One would be missing a fundamental component of Plato's psychological outlook if one failed to notice the persistence with which he emphasizes that this desire is an extremely dangerous feature of the appetitive part of the soul—far more so than our desire to eat and drink. That is the lesson he clearly means to convey in his portrait of the tyrannical man. But we should not overlook the warnings that his Symposium and Phaedrus also issue regarding the destructive potential of erôs. What he is suggesting, in these two dialogues, is that human relations inevitably become poisoned when they are dominated by the desire for sexual satisfaction. His Symposium is by no means a bouquet laid at the feet of Love: the duality of erôs is never far from Plato's mind, as the entrance of Alcibiades makes clear.

Before we consider this episode in greater detail, and before we examine as well Plato's warning, in Phaedrus, about the duality of erôs, we should linger a bit longer on the tyrannical man portrayed in Republic. Can we apply to him the two formulae Diotima proposes: that love is a desire for the eternal possession of good, and that its goal is to give birth in beauty? What is the good that the tyrant wants forever, and in what way does he seek birth in beauty? How these questions are to be answered is by no means certain, but perhaps Diotima's theory and Socrates' portrait of the tyrant can be fit together in this way: As noted above (sec. 2), Diotima applies her theory to animals no less than to human beings. Something in them makes them have sex, although they, of course, have no idea what goal that instinct serves. Something in them wants to replicate life forever by producing copies of itself, and the copulation of animals is its modus operandi. We can reasonably take Plato to be suggesting, in his portrait of the tyrannical man, that his sexual drive, like that of any brute, aims at the replication of his life. The tyrannical man almost certainly does not think of himself as having sex because he wants to live forever, but the impulse to which he gives free rein is a generative force that has eternal life as its goal. He seeks to give birth in beauty: that formula applies to him because his sexual appetite, like everyone else's, is attentive to visual cues and responds to alluring bodies. That does not mean that he wants to have children and raise a family; rather, he sets aside whatever sexual inhibitions most people have and promiscuously chases after young girls and boys, taking every possible opportunity to bed attractive young things (574b–c). It might be asked: Why is it that the sexual instinct of animals leads not only to copulation but also to self‐sacrifice, whereas the tyrannical man presumably would not lift a finger for any babies he happens to produce? Plato can reply that human beings are influenced by all sorts of notions about what is worth pursuing, whereas the child‐oriented instincts of animals do not have to compete with ideas in their heads, since they have none. Whatever feelings a tyrannical man might have for his offspring can be overpowered by his belief that to be a real man is to move on to the next erotic episode.

Alcibiades does not have every feature that Socrates ascribes to the tyrannical man in Republic, but there are some similarities. He is presented as a party‐crasher, (p. 305) a drunk, a man in love with flute girls, men, and boys; and all of Plato's contemporary readers would have present to their minds, when they read the Symposium, the notoriety Alcibiades achieved as a man in love with power, an untrustworthy traitor to Athens, and a suspected mutilator of religious statues. “Does a drunken man have, in a way, a tyrannical mind?” Socrates asks in Republic (573b9–c1), and Adeimantus answers affirmatively. A few lines later (d2–5), Socrates notes the tyrannical mind's love of feasts, revelries, girlfriends, and things of that sort. When Alcibiades first notices Socrates, he immediately becomes jealous and angry, because he sees Socrates reclining next to Agathon (213c). Socrates reacts to Alcibiades' outburst by expressing his fear of the violence that may be done to him (213d). He asks Agathon to protect him, because Alcibiades is full of verbal abuse and can scarcely keep his hands off him: “If he tries to use force, keep him away, because I am very much afraid of his madness and his philerastia” (213d5–6). Philerastia combines both Greek words for love: it is love of love. Alcibiades, in other words, makes sexual love his favorite pastime. The madness Socrates refers to here is by no means the divine sort of madness praised in the Phaedrus—the beauty‐inspired ecstasy that is under the control of philosophical reason and is expressed by indifference to wealth and other ordinary human concerns (249d, 251e). Alcibiades' madness is that of the violent tyrant who tries to rule over not only human beings but gods as well (Republic 573c)—an apt description for a powerful politician who dares to mutilate religious statues.

The encomium of Socrates given by Alcibiades allows Plato's readers to see that someone can be both an erastês and an erômenos. No one has more beauty of soul than Socrates, and that is why Alcibiades loves him; and yet he is no merely passive object of sexual interest but an active lover—that is why Alcibiades expects Socrates to make sexual advances toward him. What he discovers is that as an active lover Socrates is highly selective and controlled, allowing himself not the slightest physical expression of affection when such expression would be inappropriate. Plato's dialogues by no means present Socrates as a man who is indifferent to the physical allure of beautiful young men (see, for example, Charmides 153e–154d). His refusal even to touch or embrace Alcibiades (217a–219e), despite Alcibiades' best efforts to seduce him, does not arise out of insensitivity to physical allure or a commitment to the avoidance of every physical expression of sexual desire. His second speech in Phaedrus acknowledges with approval a lover's longing for physical contact and never says a word in criticism of the lover's kisses and embraces (255e). The bad horse's desire for homosexual copulation must be restrained (253d–254e), but physical expression that falls short of that is accepted as normal and harmless.

So, we must regard Socrates' coldness toward Alcibiades as a refusal to become entangled in the sexual contract that Alcibiades implicitly proposes. Alcibiades assumes that Socrates, lover of attractive young men that he is, wants to penetrate him and that, in exchange for such intercourse, Socrates will pour his wisdom into him. Those assumptions are a colossal misunderstanding of what Socratic wisdom is and how those who love and are loved by Socrates can benefit from it. (The (p. 306) whimsical suggestion that wisdom might flow through physical contiguity, made earlier by Agathon at 175c–d, is a close cousin of Alcibiades' idea that Socratic wisdom might come easily to him, in exchange for sex. A more distant cousin is the hero worship of those who tell the tale of that marvelous night in 416 b.c.—Apollodorus and Aristodemus: they hang on every word Socrates uttered, as though that will bring them understanding.)

The speech of Alcibiades is Plato's device for holding up to our eyes an especially pernicious form of bad erôs. When sexual attraction and activity is treated as a mere means to a further end, a chip that can be traded in exchange for something else one wants, the soul becomes corrupted. Symposium implies that the public offenses of which Alcibiades was guilty are akin to his private waywardness. A man who would trade sexual penetration for wisdom thinks of human relationships in purely instrumental terms, and little can be expected of a political leader who uses others as stepping‐stones to success. At the same time, we cannot help finding something good in Alcibiades. After all, it is wisdom that he seeks from sex with Socrates, and he has enough sense to recognize how remarkable a human being Socrates is and to pay him fitting tribute. He is not the complete tyrant. But Plato's goal, in writing this portion of Symposium, is not to show Alcibiades in a good light but to pursue the apologetic agenda of his Apology and Crito. In effect, he tells the reader: yes, it is true that Socrates loved Alcibiades, but this was a love that came close to making Alcibiades a better person; and it was a love that refused to treat sex as an item to be traded in exchange for a successful career.

10. Seduction in the Phaedrus, Homosexual Intercourse in the Laws

Although we have to do some thinking to see that the gap created by Diotima's omission of a discussion of bad erôs is filled by Alcibiades, the Phaedrus directly confronts us with bad erôs. It creates the category of “left‐handed love” and makes this one of its major themes. Plato's way of handling the dangers of sexuality in this dialogue is in line with the approach he takes in his Symposium. “Left‐handed” erôs is at play in the speech of Lysias and the first speech of Socrates, for each of these discourses is a device by which a man tries to persuade a boy to prefer being sexually penetrated by him to having intercourse with someone who, because of his passionate longing, is a genuine erastês. These speeches propose a cold‐hearted exchange: here are the many benefits you will receive from me, because I am a calculating person who would not profit from harming you; in exchange for what I can give to you, all that I ask is that you give me your sexual favors. The trade being proposed is, in this way, rather like the transaction that Alcibiades thinks Socrates is willing to enter with him.

(p. 307)

Although Phaedrus treats the theme of a sexual contract at far greater length than does Symposium, it does not say, in so many words, what is objectionable about such an exchange of benefits. But it can safely be assumed that Plato expects his readers to find the speech of Lysias a mere piece of cleverness (227c) rather than a truly convincing demonstration that boys should have sex with men who do not love them. Phaedrus is not presented as someone whose sexual attitudes have changed as a result of his admiration for Lysias; rather, Phaedrus admires the speech of Lysias because of its audacious advocacy of a paradoxical thesis that most people would consider shameful. The nonlover who claims that he will confer great benefits merely in exchange for sexual satisfaction is simply not to be believed. He offers no reason to suppose that he has any genuine concern for the well‐being of the boy he is trying to seduce. Nothing about the boy attracts him but his physical beauty, which excites the nonlover's desire to have an orgasm with the boy's aid (although he would never express himself so indelicately). Would any father want his son to have sex with someone like that? The nonlover of Phaedrus's speech is transparently a sex‐starved and clever manipulator.

This feature of the dialogue goes a long way toward explaining why Socrates assumes, in his second speech, that the charioteer must restrain the bad horse's eagerness to jump all over the erômenos. How are an erômenos and his father to be assured that an erastês really does take the boy's well‐being to heart and is not merely making fine speeches in order to relieve his sexual urges? If the lover claims that he has something to teach the boy, that he is offering a boy a philosophical exploration of the most serious matters, that the boy's beauty reminds him of the beauty of the forms he once saw in a previous life, he will not be taken seriously if at the same time he is trying to devise ways to get the boy into bed. It will be difficult to tell him apart from someone who is merely saying these things for the purpose of sexual satisfaction.

Elsewhere, Plato offers other reasons for refraining from homosexual copulation. The speakers of Laws agree that in the well‐governed city for which they are drafting legislation, such intercourse, though allowed elsewhere, will be banned. Why so? The dialogue's principal speaker, an unnamed visitor from Athens, says that the pleasures of male‐male and female‐female intercourse are “contrary to nature” (636c6), and this is supported, at a later point, with the claim (one that we now know to be false) that homosexual intercourse is not found among animals (836c). It is difficult to believe, however, that this point by itself carried a great deal of weight with Plato, for nowhere else does he claim that human beings should take animal behavior as a model for their own way of life. It is more likely that what carries most weight for Plato is the assumption that organs should not be used to defeat the purpose for which they are suited by their nature. The production of sperm, we are told in Laws (838e–839b) has a generative purpose, and male homosexual intercourse wastes the reproductive potential and weakens the affective ties among husbands and wives. Plato elsewhere rejects the idea that the only sexual intercourse that should be permitted is procreative, for he has Socrates say in the (p. 308) Republic that couples who are past their fertile years may have sexual relations more or less as they please (461b–c).

It is certainly possible that these ideas are at work in Phaedrus, for in Socrates' second speech the erastês whose disembodied vision of the forms is long past or obscured is likely to “pursue pleasure that is contrary to nature” (251a1), and the context indicates that this is the pleasure of homosexual copulation. But Plato cannot believe that those words by themselves convey a convincing argument for restraint from homosexual intercourse. Rather, the dramatic structure of Phaedrus indicates that such restraint is to be practiced because of the way it secures the friendship between erastês and erômenos. The first two speeches of the dialogue (that of Phaedrus and that of Socrates) are intended to show us how suspicious anyone will be if he claims to be a friend and an educator but, at the same time, pursues sex as a quid pro quo. The argumentative strategy of the dialogue is to show the value of homosexual restraint by presenting it as a safeguard against misunderstanding the motives that lie behind a sexual but not merely sexual relationship. Just as a professional teacher might accept a rule that forbids sexual relations with students, Socrates insists that the highest erotic ideal is one in which the complete physical expression of erôs is foresworn. But it should not be forgotten how lenient he is when he discusses those devoted homosexual couples who are occasionally mastered by their desire for genital intercourse (Phaedrus 256b–e).

11. Final Thoughts

Cephalus, the first interlocutor Socrates examines in Plato's Republic, says that he agrees with Sophocles about one of the great benefits of old age: released from the tyranny of sexual desire, one can at last find peace and freedom (329b–c). Plato, I believe, has some sympathy for this attitude. At any rate, he has Socrates endorse the idea that there is something inherently transgressive in human sexuality. In the dreams of even the best of us, lawless sexual urges—to have intercourse with one's mother, or with gods or beasts or any human being—make themselves manifest (571a–572b). But Plato's recognition of the dark side of human sexuality, which emerges most fully in his portrait of the tyrannical soul, does not blind him to its great value. Without it, there would no future generations, and our deep longing to perpetuate ourselves by making a long‐lasting difference in the world—by having children, or transmitting our conception of the good, or both—would be fruitless. Furthermore, receptivity to the sexual allure of the human body is one of the modes by which we take pleasure in the beauty of the physical world. That beauty is not as great as the beauty of souls (which, in turn, pales in comparison with the beauty of the form of beauty), but that does not mean that it would be best for us to (p. 309) be indifferent to it. If old man Cephalus is no longer an erastês of all beautiful bodies, that has to be counted as one of the ways in which old age is a period of decline. For the beauty of the human form is one of the ways in which the sensible world offers us reminders of beauty itself.

Plato is perfectly aware that genital intercourse can be intensely pleasant (Philebus 45d–e), but he does not take the pleasantness of an experience, in isolation from its cause or object, to be a point in its favor. It is good pleasure—pleasure that it is good for someone to feel—that we should seek (Gorgias 495d–499d), and so the intensity of pleasure that can be achieved in genital intercourse is not by itself a reason for engaging in this practice. Plato's denial that every pleasure is good simply because it is a pleasure may be defensible, but even if it is, we should recognize a blind spot in his thinking about sexuality. He recognizes that such gestures as embracing and kissing are appropriate expressions of one person's sexual interest in and love of another (Phaedrus 255e–256a); these are things we naturally do, when we are responsive as lovers to another person's physical attraction, and it would be insane to suppose that these expressions of erôs are always to be suppressed. Sexual intercourse is a more intense way in which erôs is naturally expressed, and Plato knows how strongly we desire it. But he cannot bring himself to believe that because of the greater pleasure it gives sexual intercourse in a homosexual couple can be a fuller expression of affection than kissing and embracing, and that when it carries with it this meaning it is welcome and healthy. What lies behind his disapproval, I have suggested, is his fear that nonprocreative intercourse compromises the trust and affection that people should have for each other: it leads each partner in an erotic relationship to suspect that everything he receives from the other is a mere means to the relief of imperious sexual urges.

We must not take Plato to suppose that we should treat other human beings, beautiful in body or soul or both, as mere stepping‐stones on the way to the vision of beauty itself. The best sort of lover is someone who is bursting with ideas about how to improve human life. Because he cannot fully understand or develop those ideas on his own, he needs a conversational partner who will help him nurture those inchoate theories. That he needs a partner in order to fulfill his need to give birth to a better world does not show that it is only his needs that matter to him. In the best kinds of erôs, self‐regard and dedication to others mutually reinforce each other; in the worst kinds, a lover destroys himself as he goes about destroying others.

Above all, Plato insists that the erotic tendencies of human beings—their sexual appetites, their yearning for immortality through propagation, their receptivity to beauty—need to be educated, because they will never lead to anything of great value if they are put in the service of mistaken conceptions of what is truly good and truly beautiful. The desire to change the world so as to invest the future with something of ourselves will merely replicate and rearrange its defective furniture if it is allied to common misunderstandings of what is genuinely good for human beings. Love needs to be turned into something more than an inarticulate yearning for a sexual life partner or a procreative force. It needs to become (p. 310) something better than the intense alliance of two people who care not at all for the larger world—or even for their own families (Phaedrus 252a)—but only for their own togetherness and satisfaction. For that to happen on a grand scale, Plato believes, we will need a new kind of political community.8


Ferrari, G. R. F. Listening to the Cicadas: A Study in Plato's Phaedrus (Cambridge, 1987).Find this resource:

Griswold, C. Self‐Knowledge in Plato's Phaedrus (New Haven, Conn., 1986).Find this resource:

Halperin, D. “Why Is Diotima a Woman?” One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York, 1990), 113–51.Find this resource:

Hunter, R. Plato's Symposium (Oxford, 2004).Find this resource:

Irwin, T. Plato's Ethics (New York, 1995).Find this resource:

Lorenz, H. “The Analysis of the Soul in Plato's Republic,” in G. Santas (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic (Malden, Maine, 2006), 146–65.Find this resource:

Nails, D. The People of Plato (Indianapolis, 2002).Find this resource:

Nehamas, A., and P. Woodruff (trans.) Plato, Symposium (Indianapolis, 1989).Find this resource:

Nussbaum, M. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1986).Find this resource:

Penner, T., and C. Rowe. Plato's Lysis (Cambridge, 2005).Find this resource:

Vlastos, G. “The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato,” Platonic Studies (Princeton, N.J., 1973), 3–42.Find this resource:

Waterfield, R. (trans.) Plato, Symposium (Oxford, 1994).Find this resource:


(1.) For further study of the speeches of these two dialogues, I recommend G. R. F. Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas: A Study in Plato's Phaedrus (Cambridge, 1987); C. Griswold, Self‐Knowledge in Plato's Phaedrus (New Haven, Conn., 1986); and R. Hunter, Plato's Symposium (Oxford, 2004). Valuable discussions of both works are presented by T. Irwin, Plato's Ethics (New York, 1995), 298–317; and M. Nussbaum The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1986), 165–233. A comprehensive treatment of Lysis is offered by T. Penner and C. Rowe, Plato's Lysis (Cambridge, 2005).

(2.) See, for example, Republic 431d1, 554e1, 580d7, 587b1–4. Plato's division of the soul into three parts (reason, spirit, appetite) is most fully presented and defended in Republic 435e–441c, but, to understand what spirit and appetite are, it is important to read his critique of defective political regimes and their corresponding character types in 545a–580a. His conception of the rational part of the soul and the values with which it is associated are contained in his depiction of philosophical training in Books VI and VII. A helpful introduction to this subject is provided by H. Lorenz, “The Analysis of the Soul in Plato's Republic,” in G. Santas (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic (Malden, Maine, 2006), 146–65.

(3.) There is no word corresponding to “wanting” in the Greek text, and so a translation that mirrors only what is on the page would be “erôs is of the good to be one's own forever.” But the insertion of “wanting” is justified by the context. See 204d5, where one of Plato's several terms for “want” (erai) is used to express a similar idea, and the conversation then moves back and forth between this and several other such terms (bouletai at 205a3, epithumia at 205d2). I am grateful to Tushar Irani for discussion of these passages.

(4.) The Greek term translated “birth,” tokos, applies both to a process and its product: that is, both to giving birth and to the child. Diotima immediately explains herself by ascribing to all human beings a desire to go through the process (tiktein, 206c4), but she also uses her theory to explain our love of children, both those made of flesh and blood and those composed of ideas (see, e.g., 208b and 209c–d).

(5.) Though some translations unfortunately imply as much. Thus the generally excellent translation by A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, Plato, Symposium (Indianapolis, 1989), has Diotima say at 210c5–6 that the ascending lover thinks that “the beauty of bodies is of no importance.” So too R. Waterfield's translation, Plato, Symposium (Oxford, 1994): “he comes to regard physical beauty as unimportant.” The Greek, smikron ti—“something small”—does not imply that the lover's estimation of physical beauty sinks to zero. He never becomes completely indifferent to physical beauty.

(6.) As D. Nails, The People of Plato (Indianapolis, 2002), 138, notes: “All extant later references to Diotima are derived from Plato.” But Nails is noncommittal about whether Diotima is a Platonic invention. If she is not modeled on a real person, she would be a rarity in Plato, because nearly every named character in his dialogues is a representation of someone he knew. (Callicles of the Gorgias is, like Diotima, a difficult case; here too scholars disagree about whether he is a Platonic invention.) For reflections on Plato's choice of a female expert on erotics, see D. Halperin, “Why Is Diotima a Woman?” One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York, 1990), 113–51.

(7.) In this section, my thoughts have been shaped by reflection on G. Vlastos, “The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato,” Platonic Studies (Princeton, N.J., 1973), 3–42, a great essay with which I profoundly disagree.

(8.) For their comments on an earlier draft of this essay, I am grateful to Elizabeth Asmis, Gail Fine, Tushar Iranai, and Gabriel Richardson Lear.