(in the clip above you’ll find an audio version of the post below)


This is the second part of a series about what philosophy is. The first part examined the history of the ancient Greek term for wisdom, sophia, the reasons for the emergence of the sophists and the beginning of the story of Socrates. The second part will go into who the philosopher is, according to Plato’s Symposium.

The Symposium: the philosopher as a lover of wisdom

In the Symposium by Plato, arguably the first philosophical treatise on love in the Western tradition, we learn more about who the philosopher is held to be.

Being written in ancient Greek we encounter a typical problem when it comes to translation. Plato deftly uses a number of distinct Greek terms having to do with what is good, beautiful, fine, worthy, excellent, virtuous and noble. Even the ancient Greek word eros (έρως), which translators usually translate as “love” has nuances that are lost in translation, especially given Greek has multiple words for love1, not to mention Plato’s attempt to give an alternative definition of his own to that term during the Symposium.

Thus, it is unfortunately impossible to have a one-to-one translation between his ancient Greek terms and English terms. To make matters even worse, Plato often plays with words and exploits linguistic similarities for various purposes. To give a characteristic example, consider this excerpt:

“The only thing I say I know,” Socrates tells us in the Symposium, “is the art of love (ta erôtika) (177d8–9). Taken literally, it is an incredible claim. Are we really to believe that the man who affirms when on trial for his life that he knows himself to be wise “in neither a great nor a small way” (Apology 21b4–5) knows the art of love? In fact, the claim is a nontrivial play on words facilitated by the fact that the noun erôs (“love”) and the verb erôtan (“to ask questions”) sound as if they are etymologically connected — a connection explicitly exploited in the Cratylus (398c5-e5). Socrates knows about the art of love in that — but just insofar as — he knows how to ask questions, how to converse elenctically.”2

Such difficulties and discrepancies when it comes to translation are to be expected. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a solid summary of the problem with respect to Plato and a Greek term, kalon (καλόν) that is going to be used extensively in the Symposium:

“The study of Plato’s account of beauty must begin with one pronounced warning about terminology. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates to the English “beautiful,” so that not everything Plato says about a kalon thing will belong in a summary of his aesthetic theories.
Readers can take this distinction between the Greek and English terms too far. It is more tempting to argue against equating words from different languages than to insist on treating them interchangeably. And the discussion bears more on assessments of Platonic ethical theory, which draws on what may appear to be aesthetic approbation more than modern ethics does, than on whatever subject may fairly be called Plato’s aesthetics.
But even given these qualifications the reader should know how to tell what is beautiful from what is kalon. To begin with the two terms are commonly applied to different items. They have overlapping but distinct ranges of application. A passage in Plato may speak of a face or body that someone finds kalon, or for that matter a statue, a spoon, a tree, or a grassy place to rest (Phaedrus 230b). Then “beautiful” makes a natural equivalent to the Greek adjective, certainly sounding less stilted than the alternatives. Even here, however, it is telling that Plato far more often uses kalon for a face or body than for works of art and natural scenery. As far as unambiguous beauties are concerned, he has a smaller set in mind than we do (Kosman 2010).
More typically kalon appears in contexts to which “beautiful” would fit awkwardly or not at all. For both Plato and Aristotle —and in many respects for Greek popular morality— kalon has a particular role to play as ethical approbation, not by meaning the same thing that agathon “good” means, but as a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” often and more loosely “admirable.” The compound kalos k’agathos, the aristocratic ideal, is all-round praise, not “beautiful and good” as its compounds would translate separately but closer to “splendid and upright.” Here kalon is entirely an ethical term. Calling virtue beautiful feels misplaced in modern terms, or even perverse; calling wisdom beautiful, as the Symposium does (204b), will sound like an outright mistake (Kosman 2010, 348–350). Because kalon does not always apply when “beautiful” does, and conversely much can be kalon that no one calls beautiful, translators may use other words. One rightly popular choice is “fine,” which applies to most things labeled kalon and also appropriate to ethical and aesthetic contexts (so Woodruff 1983). There are fine suits and string quartets but also fine displays of courage. Of course we have fine sunsets and fine dining as well, this word being even broader than kalon; that is not to mention fine points or fine print. And whereas people ordinarily ask what beauty really consists in, so that a conversation on the topic might actually have taken place, it is hard to imagine worrying over “what the fine is” or “what is really fine.”3

It is thus imperative to keep that in mind when reading Plato in translation and especially in the context of the Symposium. Most translations use the words beauty or beautiful to translate kalon, so I will follow general consensus in the translations I cite. However, I strongly feel this sometimes diminishes the ethical dimension inherent in the meaning of kalon, while unduly emphasizing the aesthetic dimension of the term. Plato, untroubled by worries about English translations, mainly used the word kalon in the Symposium, masterfully playing with both the ethical and the aesthetic dimensions of the term and choosing it to describe what it is that the lover seeks. So whenever you feel the terms beauty or beautiful to appear ill-suited in certain parts of the text recall the multiple meanings of kalon to clear your confusion or, ideally, learn ancient Greek and enjoy the original.

The Symposium describes a banquet held to honor Agathon, an Athenian tragic poet who just won a dramatic competition. The subject of conversation ends up being the subject of love (specifically eros in Greek, usually personified as a deity), with each guest invited to talk about its nature and attributes.
When it’s the turn of Socrates to speak, in contrast to what the previous guests have asserted, he goes on to suggest that Love is neither beautiful nor good through a typical question and answer session with Agathon:

– “Now try to tell me about love,” he said. “Is Love the love of nothing or of something?”
– “Of something, surely!”
– “Then keep this object of love in mind, and remember what it is. But tell me this much: does Love desire that of which it is the love, or not?”
– “Certainly,” he said.
– “At the time he desires and loves something, does he actually have what he desires and loves at that time, or doesn’t he?”
– “He doesn’t. At least, that wouldn’t be likely,” he said.
– “Instead of what’s likely,” said Socrates, “ask yourself whether it’s necessary that this be so: a thing that desires desires something of which it is in need; otherwise, if it were not in need, it would not desire it. I can’t tell you, Agathon, how strongly it strikes me that this is necessary. But how about you?”
– “I think so too.”
– “Good. Now then, would someone who is tall, want to be tall? Or someone who is strong want to be strong?”
– “Impossible, on the basis of what we’ve agreed.”
– “Presumably because no one is in need of those things he already has.”
– “True.”
– “But maybe a strong man could want to be strong,” said Socrates, “or a fast one fast, or a healthy one healthy: in cases like these, you might think people really do want to be things they already are and do want to have qualities they already have—I bring them up so they won’t deceive us. But in these cases, Agathon, if you stop to think about them, you will see that these people are what they are at the present time, whether they want to be or not, by a logical necessity. And who, may I ask, would ever bother to desire what’s necessary in any event? But when someone says ‘I am healthy, but that’s just what I want to be,’ or ‘I am rich, but that’s just what I want to be,’ or ‘I desire the very things that I have,’ let us say to him: ‘You already have riches and health and strength in your possession, my man, what you want is to possess these things in time to come, since in the present, whether you want to or not, you have them. Whenever you say, I desire what I already have, ask yourself whether you don’t mean this: I want the things I have now to be mine in the future as well.’ Wouldn’t he agree?”
According to Aristodemus, Agathon said that he would.
– So Socrates said, “Then this is what it is to love something which is not at hand, which the lover does not have: it is to desire the preservation of what he now has in time to come, so that he will have it then.”
– “Quite so,” he said.
– “So such a man or anyone else who has a desire desires what is not at hand and not present, what he does not have, and what he is not, and that of which he is in need; for such are the objects of desire and love.”
– “Certainly,” he said.
– “Come, then,” said Socrates. “Let us review the points on which we’ve agreed. Aren’t they, first, that Love is the love of something, and, second, that he loves things of which he has a present need?”
– “Yes,” he said.
– “Now, remember, in addition to these points, what you said in your speech about what it is that Love loves. If you like, I’ll remind you. I think you said something like this: that the gods’ quarrels were settled by love of beautiful things, for there is no love of ugly ones. Didn’t you say something like that?”
– “I did,” said Agathon.
– “And that’s a suitable thing to say, my friend,” said Socrates. “But if this is so, wouldn’t Love have to be a desire for beauty, and never for ugliness?”
– He agreed.
– “And we also agreed that he loves just what he needs and does not have.”
– “Yes,” he said.
– “So Love needs beauty, then, and does not have it.”
– “Necessarily,” he said.
– “So! If something needs beauty and has got no beauty at all, would you still say that it is beautiful?”
– “Certainly not.”
– “Then do you still agree that Love is beautiful, if those things are so?”
– Then Agathon said, “It turns out, Socrates, I didn’t know what I was talking about in that speech.”
– “It was a beautiful speech, anyway, Agathon,” said Socrates. “Now take it a little further. Don’t you think that good things are always beautiful as well?”
– “I do.”
– “Then if Love needs beautiful things, and if all good things are beautiful, he will need good things too.”
– “As for me, Socrates,” he said, “I am unable to contradict you. Let it be as you say.”4

So after Socrates has Agathon admit that Love is not beautiful or good but desires the good and the beautiful, he goes on to recount how Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea, did exactly what Socrates just did to Agathon. When Socrates asked whether Love, who was neither beautiful nor good, was instead ugly and bad, Diotima reproached him by pointing out that something that isn’t beautiful doesn’t need to be ugly just like someone who isn’t wise isn’t necessarily ignorant. Socrates was puzzled. If something isn’t beautiful or ugly, good or bad, wise or ignorant, what is it? Diotima responds that it’s something in between:

– Haven’t you found out yet that there’s something in between wisdom and ignorance?”
– “What’s that?”
– “It’s judging things correctly without being able to give a reason. Surely you see that this is not the same as knowing—for how could knowledge be unreasoning? And it’s not ignorance either—for how could what hits the truth be ignorance? Correct judgment, of course, has this character: it is in between understanding and ignorance.”
– “True,” said I, “as you say.”
– “Then don’t force whatever is not beautiful to be ugly, or whatever is not good to be bad. It’s the same with Love: when you agree he is neither good nor beautiful, you need not think he is ugly and bad; he could be something in between,” she said.5

Socrates then goes on to remark, that despite what was being said, surely Love was a great god. Diotima disagrees and goes on to give a mythical account of the genesis of Love that explains its attributes. Love was conceived during the celebration for the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. Because of that he is destined to be in love with beauty. But as the son between Poros (meaning resource in ancient Greek) and Penia (meaning poverty) he finds himself in a peculiar predicament. His lineage makes him endlessly resourceful, brave and intense in his pursuits, however, anything he finds slips away, so that he never manages to get rich but nor is he ever left without any resources. 6

Diotima argues Love can’t be a god, since loving beauty, he lacks it, while the gods possess it and have no desire for it. Wisdom being one of the most beautiful things, Love must also be a lover of wisdom. The gods and ignorant people do not love wisdom, because the former possess it while the latter think they already have it. Love is in between those two extremes. He is not ignorant, since he is aware of his lack of knowledge, but he is neither wise since he desires wisdom rather than possesses it. Love, is a philosopher. But in contrast to mortal philosophers, he is neither a mortal nor a god but a great spirit (daemon7) whose function is to be the messenger between the mortal and the divine.8

Diotima claims Socrates mistook Love’s characteristics because he confused being loved with being a lover.9

If the point of love is to possess beauty and wisdom, in short the good, it begs the question as to what does that produce. At that point10 we receive the characteristic ancient Greek answer: eudaimonia11, which has no equivalent English word and loses a lot of its meaning when it is translated as mere happiness. Eudaimonia is considered to be the final state12, something that is not a means to something else but an end in itself, to borrow a classic Aristotelian way of describing it.

Diotima and Socrates go on to agree that this desire for eudaimonia is a kind of love common to humanity13, which raises the point as to why don’t we describe everyone as being in love, Diotima claiming that this is because we give different names to the various way people choose to pursue this common goal.14

Moreover, in contrast to what Aristophanes had suggested earlier during the banquet15, people are not seeking their other half, for if they found it but wasn’t good they wouldn’t want it just like people are willing to chop off a diseased limb even though it’s theirs. What people are looking for is to possess the good forever.16

The object of love being agreed upon, the discussion continues as to how lovers pursue it. They come to the conclusion that they do so by giving birth in beauty whether in body or soul.17

Diotima claims all of us are pregnant either in body or soul and when the right time comes we want to give birth, but we don’t want to give birth in anything ugly but only in something beautiful. That’s because reproduction, being the only kind of immortality humans are capable of, is considered divine, and the divine is in harmony with beauty not with ugliness18. That’s why whenever “persons draw near to beauty, they become gentle and joyfully disposed and give birth and reproduce.”19

To reproduce in beauty is the only way mortals can achieve the good forever, the only kind of immortality available to them. This explains for Diotima, the lengths people go to protect their young or seek honor that will result in lasting glory.20

People who are pregnant in body seek to make families and secure a kind of immortality through childbirth. But people who are pregnant in soul, whether poets, philosophers, statesmen or craftsmen, give birth to what is fitting for a soul to bear and give birth to: wisdom and the rest of virtue, the proper ordering of cities and households considered to be the most beautiful part of wisdom.21

People pregnant in soul are drawn to reproduce and beget ideas with different kinds of beauty, and according to Diotima there is an order of rank with respect to the kinds of beauty, which one ought to follow if they are to reach the final and highest mystery of love:

“A lover who goes about this matter correctly must begin in his youth to devote himself to beautiful bodies. First, if the leader [the leader: Love] leads aright, he should love one body and beget beautiful ideas there; then he should realize that the beauty of any one body is brother to the beauty of any other and that if he is to pursue beauty of form he’d be very foolish not to think that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. When he grasps this, he must become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and he must think that this wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it.
“After this he must think that the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies, so that if someone is decent in his soul, even though he is scarcely blooming in his body, our lover must be content to love and care for him and to seek to give birth to such ideas as will make young men better. The result is that our lover will be forced to gaze at the beauty of activities and laws and to see that all this is akin to itself, with the result that he will think that the beauty of bodies is a thing of no importance. After customs he must move on to various kinds of knowledge. The result is that he will see the beauty of knowledge and be looking mainly not at beauty in a single example…but the lover is turned to the great sea of beauty, and, gazing upon this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom, until, having grown and been strengthened there, he catches sight of such knowledge, and it is the knowledge of such beauty […]
This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful.”22

One clear suggestion in this passage is that the proper ascent of love is from the particular to the universal, from the material to the ideal, from the mutable to the immutable, from the relative to the absolute, from the finite to the eternal, from matter to form.

This explains the description of ultimate beauty:

“First, it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another; nor is it beautiful here but ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change.”23

Finally, Diotima concludes with describing how it would be if someone managed to perceive that kind of beauty (kalon):

“But how would it be, in our view,” she said, “if someone got to see the Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality, but if he could see the divine Beauty itself in its one form? Do you think it would be a poor life for a human being to look there and to behold it by that which he ought, and to be with it? Or haven’t you remembered,” she said, “that in that life alone, when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen—only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue (because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (because he is in touch with the true Beauty). The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.”24

This is the apotheosis of a specific kind of knowledge in relation to human life. This kind of knowledge would allow man to give birth to true virtue, become loved by the gods, and perhaps immortal.

At this point it is essential to remember the point made about translation earlier: in the above passages Plato is primarily using the word kalon. To know what is good in all realms, ethical, aesthetic, political etc. is the enabler of virtue. The love of the philosopher, therefore, is directed to knowing what is of value. Not only being able to discriminate what is good but to be with it, in other words, to be good, beautiful, just and noble.

What we discover in the Symposium is the philosopher being revealed as partaking in an activity that is between the divine and the mortal. Τhe identities of Love and the philosopher find a point of contact, through which Plato pays tribute to his teacher Socrates who exemplifies the characteristics of a philosopher:

“We recognize beneath the features of Eros not only the philosopher but Socrates, who, like senseless [ignorant] people, seemed not to know anything – but who was nevertheless aware of not knowing anything. He was therefore different from senseless people by virtue of the fact that, being conscious of his lack of knowledge, he desired to know…Socrates, or the philosopher, is thus Eros: although deprived of wisdom, beauty, and the good, he desires and loves wisdom, beauty, and the good. He is Eros, which means that he is desire – not a passive and nostalgic desire, but desire which is impetuous, and worthy of Eros, the “dangerous hunter.”25

The philosopher in the Symposium is not an ascetic living in solitude trying to eliminate desire. On the contrary he is blessed with a great passion that instead of extirpating he attempts to faithfully follow the vision afforded through it, which leads to nothing short of the transformation of oneself and the sublimation of the objects of desire:

[the condition of the philosopher is]…a strange, contradictory condition of inner lack of balance, for the lover is torn between his desire for carnal union with the object of his love and his yearning for the transcendent beauty which attracts him through the beloved object. The philosopher will therefore attempt to sublimate his love, by trying to improve the object of his love…his love will give him spiritual fruitfulness, which will manifest itself in the practice of philosophical discourse. Here we can discern the presence in Plato of an element which is not reducible to discursive rationality. It is the heritage of Socratism, or the educative power of loving presence. “We learn only from people we love.”26
According to Diotima in the Symposium, the experience of love, under the effect of the unconscious attraction of the Form of beauty, rises from the beauty within bodies to that which is in souls. It then proceeds to the beauty within actions and the sciences, until it achieves the sudden vision of a wonderful, eternal beauty. This vision is analogous to that enjoyed by people initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis; it transcends all enunciation and discursivity, but engenders virtue within the soul. Philosophy then becomes the lived experience of a presence. From the experience of the presence of a beloved being, we rise to the experience of a transcendent presence.
We said above that for Plato, knowledge is never purely theoretical. It is the transformation of our being; it is virtue. And now we can say that it is also affectivity. Whitehead’s saying could be applied to Plato: “Concepts are always dressed in emotions.” Science – even geometry – is knowledge which engages the entire soul and is always linked to Eros, desire, yearning, and choice. “The idea of pure knowledge, or of pure understanding;’ said Whitehead, “was completely foreign to Plato’s thought. The age of the Professors had not yet come.”27

What we discover in Plato’s Symposium, is that philosophy was not seen as disinterested research or conceptual analysis but as a passionate pursuit for wisdom, sharing something of the divine.

But what does a philosopher do exactly? What is it that we learn from a philosopher and how? What are some more concrete results or effects that philosophy has on philosophers and the people around them? Who does philosophy and with who is it to be done with?

These are some of the questions that we’ll explore in the next part of this series.