Socrates' speech in praise of erōs in the Symposium (201d–212c) is perhaps one of the most influential passages Plato ever composed.1 It is also one of the most discussed, and any attempt to add to the huge literature that surrounds it needs some justification. My reason for returning to it is not so much a desire to offer yet another interpretation of what Plato really meant to say about the relationship between erōs and its inherent attraction to to kalon, which I will translate as ‘beauty’. What I would like to try to do is to see how much of what Plato says here can be read not just as an inspired (and inspiring) flight of the imagination but also as something we can actually believe—a solid, knowing and accurate description of the phenomenology of love and beauty.

In the closing parts of his speech, Socrates (claiming to be repeating the words of Diotima, a holy woman with prophetic abilities) describes a complex hierarchy of different levels of love and lovers (207c ff.). At the lowest stage, he locates men who are attracted primarily to the beauty of the human body—these are, he says, lovers of women and their union with beauty results in the generation of children. The second stage includes men who are drawn more to the beauty of the human soul than they are to the human body and turn to paederasty. These lovers themselves are of two kinds. There are, first, those who are in pursuit of fame and who, in love with a particular boy, are inspired to create poetry or legislation which benefits both their lover and their city as a whole—theirs, Socrates says, is an intellectual rather than a biological progeny. But there are also those who are moved by a passion for wisdom and whose intercourse with beauty results in a life devoted to philosophy, which constitutes and produces the greatest benefits of which human beings are capable. Within that last class, there is another complex hierarchy, beginning once again with love of the physical beauty of one boy and gradually rising through love of the beauty of the soul, of laws and institutions and of the sciences until it turns into love of the Form, the nature or essence of beauty itself, which turns out to have been the real object of erōs all along.

But if every lover is ultimately drawn to the Form of beauty, which is glimpsed obscurely through everything else in the world that is to some degree beautiful, it would seem that nothing that lies below the Form in Plato's ladder of love (not to mention the objects of the lower kinds of erōs) is ever actually loved—at least not, as we often like to say today, ‘for itself’ and not for the hint of the Form, the trace of real beauty, we can discern within it. That might explain why, as many of his readers have thought, Plato appears to write that when a lover realises that one kind of beauty is higher than another (as the beauty of the human body in general, say, is higher than the beauty of a single one, 210b3–6) he gives up the lower for the higher kind without a second thought. As far as the lover is concerned, nothing has changed: although that can't be any comfort to the boy he leaves behind, his view is that the only thing he has ever loved is beauty—the beauty he first found in the boy and now discerns in something else. But that is a cold and cruel kind of love, especially when one abandons another human being for an abstract, unfeeling object. It was exactly that thought which prompted Gregory Vlastos to criticise Plato for failing to see that love is first and foremost the love of individuals, and the questions Vlastos raised have ever since been central to the interpretation of the Symposium.2

Vlastos attributes to Plato the view that ‘what we are to love in persons is the ‘image’ of the Idea in them’ (Vlastos 1981: 31). We love them, that is, only to the extent that they are good and beautiful but since none of us is perfectly good or beautiful, love cannot be directed at us, blemishes and all: ‘The individual, in the uniqueness and integrity of his or her individuality, will never be the object of our love’ (Vlastos 1981: 31). Human imperfection, though, would imply that if I love you for your virtues I cannot love you for yourself only if Plato also believed that if I love you for your goodness, your beauty or, for that matter, for your yellow hair what I really love is not you but your goodness, your beauty or your yellow hair instead. Plato may well have thought so, but we cannot just assume that he did: many people, and even some philosophers, believe that we love people for particular reasons without feeling that we do not therefore love them for themselves.3 The issue is complex and the question remains open: we may love the image of the Form in a person without, for that reason, loving the Form of which it is the image and not the person who bears it.

Perhaps, though, that reason is inherent in Plato's conception of the philosopher's ascent, which Vlastos describes as follows:

Persons evoke erōs if they have beautiful bodies, minds, or dispositions. But so do quite impersonal objects—social or political programs, literary compositions, scientific theories, philosophical systems and, best of all, the Idea of Beauty itself. As objects of Platonic love all these are not only as good as persons, but distinctly better. Plato signifies their superiority by placing them in the higher reaches of that escalated figure that marks the lover's progress, relegating love of persons to its lower levels. (Vlastos 1981: 26)

That is true: Plato considers the love of individuals inferior to the love of abstract programs or theories and their love, in turn, inferior to the love of beauty itself. But that is not to say that those who stop at the lower reaches of the scala amoris do not love the person or the institution that inspires them. Even if the love of ‘impersonal objects’ cancels attachments to particular individuals, all that follows is that a life devoted to politics (nomoi kai epitēdeumata) or learning (mathēmata) is better, more valuable and, in the end, happier and more fulfilled than the private lives of most of the people in the world. That would not have been news to Plato's Greek audience (although his reasons for thinking so certainly were). Nor is Plato the only philosopher, in Greece or anywhere else, to have thought that purely private lives of no distinction are of little value, and to rank the value of different human lives on a hierarchical scale, with private lives at its lowest end. Nietzsche was after something similar when he wrote, ‘To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both—a philosopher’.4 Plato may consider love of the individual as the lowest level in the philosopher's ascent to the Form, but does not, just for that reason, deny that individuals can be truly loved. He only claims, rightly or wrongly, that life is at its best when it is devoted to something else instead.

The Form of Beauty, then, may be more beautiful than everything else and the intensity of the true philosopher's love may dwarf our everyday feelings, but since erōs is essentially the desire for beauty, and erōs is certainly felt by everyone, beauty is not the exclusive property of the Form. It is, as both everyday experience and the Symposium itself tell us, a feature of the world around us. The philosophic lover does not reject the beauty of what he leaves behind as he rises toward the Form. Although he discovers beauties that exceed anything he has already seen, the beauty of what he leaves behind does not disappear; only its brilliance diminishes, as the moon's radiance wanes in the light of the sun.

When, having first been attracted by the beauty of a particular boy, the lover first discerns the beauty that is common to all bodies, Diotima says, he must ‘look down’ on his passion for one and think little of it.5 Doesn't he then cease to find the boy that started him on his way beautiful? No—because it is, without a doubt, the intensity of his passion for the boy and not the boy (nor perhaps even the passion) itself, from which he must turn away.6 That is, in fact, exactly what an important passage in the Republic (474c–475e), whose relevance to this issue has not been sufficiently noticed, suggests. Socrates here is trying to explain what a philosopher—a notion that is being introduced here for the first time—is and why philosophers are ideally suited to rule in the perfect city. He begins by describing Glaucon, with whom he is talking at this time, as ‘a lover of boys, an erotic man’ (philopais kai erōtikos). Men like Glaucon, he continues, always have a reason for finding every boy of the right age attractive: a snub nose is pert, a hooked nose regal, one that falls in-between is perfectly proportioned; dark boys are manly, pale ones are children of the gods and as for being ‘honey-yellow’, the word speaks for itself. Socrates may be speaking tongue-in-cheek here, but his point is serious: those who love the beauty of boys in general love the beauty of every individual beautiful boy; whether ‘true’ love is or is not exclusive in the manner that is canonical in our days is simply not an issue. And his point is serious because it allows him to introduce the idea that a lover of boys, like a lover of wine, of honour, of sights and sounds or a lover of wisdom (especially wisdom)—a philopais, a philoinos, a philotimos, a philotheamōn, a philēkoos or, finally and most important, a philosophos—is in love with everything, and neglects nothing, that belongs, so to speak, to the ‘field’ to which his desire is directed: the philosopher is a lover of all wisdom.

The lover of bodily beauty, then, does not abandon the boy who first sparked his desire—he loves all boys, as much as … Don Giovanni, who also has a different reason in each case, loves every woman! Nothing could be more surprising than this extraordinary convergence between Mozart's rogue and Plato's philosopher, unless it is the fact that Socrates' introduction of philosophy in the Republic and perhaps into Western thought as well is the actual source of Leporello's Catalogue of his master's conquests in Don Giovanni! The connection is established through Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, where Socrates' joke has already been given a heterosexual spin, through Molière, who translated Lucretius into Latin and inserted it in The Misanthrope, and Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's librettist, who derived the text for Don Giovanni from Molière.7

We should not allow this connection, however, to mislead us into thinking that Socrates is advocating a betrayal of the boy with whom the philosophic lover begins his ascent. Here I must disagree with A.W. Price, who thinks that at this stage the lover ‘is at least unfaithful to [the boy] and may desert him altogether’—although Price does not believe that the betrayal is sexual: ‘What is envisaged is not precisely sexual promiscuity: the lover was aim-inhibited (as Freud would say) from the beginning, for his attachment to one body only produced words (210a7–8). Hence the only Don Juanism in question is one of attraction, not of gratification’.8 Price finds such ‘promiscuity’ in Socrates' own susceptibility to beauty as Alcibiades describes it in his own speech in the Symposium: ‘He's crazy about beautiful boys; he constantly follows them around in a perpetual daze’ (216d2–3). Yet even if we could describe Socrates as a lover of all bodies, his passion has nothing of infidelity: he never abandons one youth for another.9 The fact is that the second stage of the ascent makes contemporary readers uneasy, for we assume that people who love more than one ‘body’ must do so for selfish and exploitative reasons: so strongly are our intuitions shaped through the values of monogamy. There is then a strong temptation either to minimise the sexual contact involved or to convince ourselves that the lover is no longer interested in any particular body but only in body in the abstract—not a promising sexual object.10 But instead of thinking of the lover seducing as many beautiful boys as possible, we would do better to imagine him ‘giving birth to beautiful logoi’ with as many beautiful boys as possible. Instead of suspecting that seeing the beauty of the body leads him to betray his rightful lover (and, of course all the others as well), we would do better to insist that as long as he is wrapped up in one boy only he is depriving others of his advice. Unlike its modern readers, the Symposium pays no serious attention to the question whether the lover has sex with some, with most or even with all of them. Nothing, in any case, prevents a lover from continuing to have a favorite while seeking the company of other young men; Socrates is constantly in pursuit of the young (though in his case, as we have seen, sex is not what he is after) but Alcibiades—we know from the Symposium (213b–d), the Protagoras (309a–b) and the Gorgias (481d)—continues to have a special place in his life.

Nothing Plato has said so far implies that the philosophic lover discards the objects he meets on his way as he continues his ascent. That is as it should be. Although, for example, I consider Dostoevsky a far greater writer than Ian Rankin, I do not for that reason dislike Rankin's mysteries—nor did I, once I read Dostoevsky, stop reading mystery novels altogether. Although at moments Plato may have believed that it was wrong of me not to have done so, nowhere in the Symposium does he even suggest that it is wrong to love the lesser mysteries—only that those who do are not as happy as those who are devoted, say, to Crime and Punishment. As the Phaedo might have put it, the beauty the lover leaves behind neither withdraws nor is annihilated when a greater one emerges beyond it (102d–e).

Plato never even suggests that the lover who realises that the beauty of soul is ‘more valuable’ (210b7) than the body's also realises that he was wrong to have valued bodily beauty in the first place. Vlastos implies that he does: ‘At the next level, higher in value and still more energizing, [Plato] puts the love of mind for mind, expecting it to prove so much more intense than skin-love that merely physical beauty will now strike the lover as a “small”, contemptible, thing’.11‘Contemptible’, though, is in my opinion much too strong as a translation of ‘smikron’, which is much closer to ‘negligible’ or ‘unimportant’.12 I know what it is to feel that to have loved some particular person was a mistake: that is not the feeling Plato attributes to the philosophic lover. In any case, the passage 210c5–6, to which Vlastos refers here, applies not to ‘the love of mind’ (the soul) but only to a higher stage of the ascent—to lovers who have already discerned the beauty of laws and institutions. Only then does sex become at most of secondary importance to the philosophic lover (though it is not yet completely abandoned—that, as we shall see, occurs only at a still higher level of the ascent). The ‘love of mind for mind’ is much more intimately tied to what Vlastos contemptuously dismisses as ‘skin-love’.

More generally, the Symposium does not distinguish between the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘mental’ nearly as starkly as we are often tempted to think. It is not even clear whether the desire to have children is absent from anyone, even from the most perfect philosopher. We can see this from the way in which Socrates tells us Diotima showed him that, however different their particular focus, all lovers are united by their desire to possess the beautiful (that is how erōs has been defined; see, e.g., 204d3) or, more precisely, by their desire ‘to give birth in beauty’ (206b, 207e). Every human being, she said, is pregnant both in body and in soul and wanting to give birth is part of our nature. It is important that Plato uses that expression, because it allows him to hold that neither pursuing fame (‘the lower mysteries’ of erōs) nor pursuing wisdom (‘the higher mysteries’) excludes the desire to have children of the most ordinary sort. How could he have thought that it does when Socrates, his model of the philosopher in the Symposium, was known to have had two sons with Xanthippe (and perhaps, if Diogenes Laertius is to be trusted, another son with Myrto, the daughter of Aristides the Just)?13 Giving birth, Diotima continues, is only possible in the presence of beauty and it is the only way in which mortal beings, which are in continuous change both in body and soul, unlike immortal things, which remain forever unchangingly the same, can approach immortality: for in giving birth they leave behind something that, being like them, perpetuates them. Biological reproduction is the easiest and least admirable way of self-perpetuation and clearly the most common path to it.

Some people, though, are pregnant in their soul even more than in their body.14 Their desire for immortality manifests itself as a thirst for ‘immortal virtue and fame’ (208d). These people turn to paederasty15 and, in the company of a beautiful boy (beautiful, Plato implies, in both body and soul), produce beautiful logoi concerning virtue, especially the wisdom and temperance that are necessary for life in society. These are the children they are happiest to leave behind—‘more beautiful and more divine’, than any biological offspring and clearly preferable to them. The greatest instances of such logoi are the legacies of the great poets and legislators, which serve to improve both cities and citizens and win immortal fame and glory for their creators (209d). And above them, as we shall see in more detail in a moment, there are those who, striving directly for wisdom with no concern for fame or reputation and in the presence of Beauty itself, give birth to the most beautiful and most virtuous achievement of which human beings are capable.

Plato is not thinking in a vacuum. The motives of the three kinds lovers he introduces in the Symposium are the motives he distinguishes when he ‘divides’ the human soul in the Republic (434d ff.). Lovers of the beauty of the body are primarily motivated, like the class of artisans in the Republic, by their souls' appetitive desires. These are desires for, among other things, food, sex and shelter and they are common to, though not primary in, every human being—Plato does not believe that philosophers, say, leave them behind.16 Other desires, though, are not as widely shared and they are definitely not as strong in all as they are in some. In the Republic, these are, on the one hand, the desires of the thumos, the second (sometimes called the ‘spirited’) part of the soul, which loves victory and honor.17 These are just the motives that emerge in Socrates' description of the ‘lower mysteries’ in the Symposium, aiming at glory and fame. The third class of desires, on the other hand, belong to that part of the soul that aims at knowledge of the truth and loves learning and wisdom.18 These, of course, are the desires that move the philosophic lover, who is enthralled by the beauty of knowledge and virtue. Each part of the soul, the Republic tells us, has its own appropriate pleasure (581c) and each, we learn from the Symposium, has its own appropriate erōs. But since the pleasures of the soul, despite the fact that they differ immensely in degree, are still for all that pleasures, so the beauty of the objects of erōs, however humble in comparison to the beauty of the Form of Beauty itself, is still the same sort of beauty and, however dimly, a reflection the Form's light.19

The Form of beauty, then, may be the final, the highest, the purest and the most beautiful object of erōs, but that does not imply that nothing else is beautiful. Every lover loves beauty and secures some sort of immortality through it. The difference is one of degree, the philosophers' vision imparting beauty and goodness to every one of their actions and, by permeating every single aspect of their life, imbuing it completely with happiness.

Plato establishes the connection between beauty, goodness and happiness by means of one of the most radical and difficult steps in his gradual but startling transformation of erōs from an urge for reproduction to the practice of philosophy: his shift from considering erōs as a desire to possess beautiful things to the desire to create them. The transformation comes when Socrates introduces the idea that erōs is primarily a desire to give birth and reproduce in beauty, which we have already discussed. It is that idea which allows Plato eventually to argue that the philosopher, who gives birth in beauty itself‘does not give birth to images, since he is not in touch with an image, but to true virtue, since he is in touch with the truth’. And it such offspring that make the philosopher truly dear to the gods and bring him as close to immortality as it is possible for a human being to come (212a). Needless to say, difficult questions surround the connection between beauty and goodness—the conviction that if you love someone you will never do them (or yourself) harm, which is so crucial to Plato (204d–205b); but his transformation of erōs from possession to production, from desiring something external to bringing forth something from within, is no less baffling and obscure.20

To begin with, the very idea of possessing the object of one's love, with which Socrates begins his account of erõs (200a ff.) is suspect. It calls to mind a wish to dominate, exploit and manipulate, a lack of respect and regard that reinforces commonplaces about the ‘acquisitiveness’ and ‘egocentricity’ of Greek ethical thought. The desire to possess, one might say more generally, belongs to the consumer, not the lover; it reveals not love but its absence. How can we possibly want to own, and thus be free to use, what we value (as we say) for itself, not as a means but as an end? What would in that case distinguish us from the perverse character whose anatomy is given in John Fowles' novel, The Collector?

Possession, though, is not identical with ownership—or, if it is, it is ownership of a different kind: I may possess something as a detachable piece of property, losing which will have no effect on who I am, or as a genuine part of myself, which I can't lose without undergoing a serious change of my own.21 To possess something as love requires—a person or a work of art I want to treat not merely as a means but also as an end in itself—I must want possession to be a mutual affair: I want it to be mine as much as I want to be its own as well. To treat something as a means is to take my desires as given and expect it to satisfy them: I don't expect that what I want and value will change as a result of our interaction except accidentally—certainly not as a result of any desires or values it happens to have. But when I treat something as an end, I am willing to reconsider my desires and values as a result of taking its own desires and values into account. I treat it with respect. And I also make myself vulnerable to it—vulnerable in that I am allowing it to steer me in new directions I might not even have conceived without it. That is an essentially prospective commitment—a guess at the future and it expresses a desire not only to spend part of my life in the company of the object of my love but also an urge to get to know it better and see how it is likely to affect me (and how, in turn, I can affect it) best. And so the pursuit of knowledge is always an element of love and an attendant of beauty. For the god Erōs, Plato says, was conceived the day Aphrodite was born, and was himself born to follow and serve her; that's why he is ‘by nature’ a lover of beauty (203c). Erōs is always of beauty, never of ugliness (201a); no one can ever give birth in anything ugly, only in things of beauty (206c). It is, in fact, impossible to love something that strikes one as ugly (though others may find it so). I only know of one instance where such a case is possibly being envisaged: Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets, which just for that reason have caused no end of trouble to their readers.22

To love someone—not as a Christian loves God's children23—is inseparable from finding them beautiful. Love has already died when one day I am no longer moved by my lover's beauty, when I can look at her face dispassionately and measure, so to speak, the quality of her features. Love can survive the most bitter hatred—Catullus knew that24—but cannot live a moment with ugliness: hate is not its opposite; indifference is.25 I don't have in mind what is often called ‘inner’ beauty, assumed to be separate from the ‘external’ or the ‘physical’. Beauty is always manifested in a lover's appearance, and we are only making things easy for ourselves when we say that some people love each other not for their looks but for their kindness, their sensitivity or their intelligence instead. If, indeed, we love people on account of their features, the psychological, mental and moral qualities that may attract us to them are always apparent in their face and bearing, literally in how they look to us. The ‘inner’ cannot be separated from the ‘outer’, as Isabel Allende's memoir, Paula, so powerfully illustrates.26 It is the same with Emma Bovary. When she finds herself interested once again in her sad and mediocre husband because he expects to perform an operation that will make him famous and give them the life she has always dreamed of, she notices, ‘with some surprise, that his teeth were not at all unsightly’. When, naturally, Charles botches the operation, Emma is bitterly disappointed and as a result ‘everything about him exasperated her now, his face, his clothes, what he did not say, his entire being, his very existence’.27

It was one of Plato's most startling and original insights to see that love impels forward while beauty beckons—in space, toward another object, in time, toward the future.

But since it is impossible to know in advance what beauty promises to yield, when I act on what is no more than a promise of something valuable but still unknown I am taking a serious risk, for I don't now know how I will change as a result and whether the change will be for the better or for the worse. And so part of what I undertake when I try to make something mine is to come to know it as well as I can, in order to understand what it is and see how it will affect me and what it will be able to give me. To love something is always, in part, to try to understand what makes it beautiful, what drew me and, as long as I still love it, continues to draw me toward it.

Consider, in the first instance, a work of art. To be overwhelmed by the beauty of In Search of Lost Time, as I am, is not simply to experience certain feelings in reading it. It is also to be willing, literally, to devote part of my life to it—not just to read it (although that will certainly be part of it) but also to come to know it better, to understand it, to see what Proust accomplishes in this work. For that, I need to learn (as I have tried to do) about Proust more generally, about the social, cultural and political situation in Paris between the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, to improve my French, to understand more about the Dreyfus affair, antisemitism and homosexuality, about the history of the French novel and the novel more generally, including its social origins, to look at Vermeer, to listen to Debussy and much else besides. That, in turn, is not only a matter of sitting alone in my study. It involves meeting people I would have not met before, learning things I would not have otherwise learnt, traveling to new places—spending part of my life in ways I couldn't have imagined without having been led to them by Proust. All that belongs to my love for the novel, which is inseparable from my effort to understand it and, in fact, to see it as no one else has ever seen it before—that is what ‘making it mine’ finally comes to. In other words, my love for the novel is necessarily expressed in an urge to interpret it and to continue to do so as long as it attracts me, as long as I still feel that there is more to it than I have seen so far. And as long as I am still trying to interpret it, the more various the things to which I will relate it in order to understand it, to see how it accomplishes something that nothing else had accomplished before.

There is, in other words, no difference between delving more deeply into the novel and wandering more widely into the rest of the world—the more I bring to my understanding of the novel, the more the things in the world to which I relate it, the better I can see how it is different from and how it resembles them and recognise its specific accomplishment, the features that distinguish it from everything else. The better, that is, I come to see how it is in itself, in its own right. To the extent that being involved with it has changed my life, that book has come to possess me; to the extent that I have found something new and unusual in it, I have made it mine; and, to that extent, I have become new and unusual myself.

The same is true of love for persons. When I want to make someone I love mine I also want her to want to make me her own as well. I am willing to allow her characteristics, many of which I don't yet know, influence who I will be and I want her to let features of mine help shape her future. More important—and here the risk seems greatest—I am willing for us to influence each other by means of characteristics that do not yet exist but will come into being only as a result of our interaction. How can anyone know where such a process is likely to lead?

The kinds of things we love—persons and objects both—and our reasons for loving them and finding them beautiful determine and, express, a large part of our character. To find something beautiful, I have been saying, involves the sense that life will be more worthwhile if that beautiful object were to become part of it. But I have said nothing about what makes life worthwhile and unlike Plato, who thinks that this is in all cases moral virtue, I don't even think that there is anything both general and informative to say about it. The best I can do, which is also to beg every question, is to say that in the ideal case the various paths we have followed through life on account of the things we have loved and what we have come to understand about them will gradually transform us too into something that no one has seen before and that is itself worthy of love, attention and admiration in its own right—into something beautiful.

The possibility that the pursuit of beauty may lead to its creation is one of the most important truths that motivate Plato's identification of erõs with the desire to give birth in beauty—both with a reaction to something that already exists and with the urge to bring something new into the world. And since he thinks that beauty and goodness are so closely connected, he is not nearly as troubled by the risks inherent in that pursuit as I am. For me, though, there is no guarantee that the things I find beautiful will lead me either to a good or a successful life. And even if they do, it will always be possible to say that instead of immersing myself in Plato or Proust I should have worked for Oxfam instead. Yet here, too, the problems persist: how do I know what that would have led to in the long run—what, for example, if I had ended up embezzling their funds?

In any event, wherever love and beauty are present there is also the effort to understand what we love or, what comes to the same thing, to understand why we love it. As long as love persists, no answer will ever be complete; as long as something still strikes me as beautiful, the sense that there is something about it that is still worth coming to know and celebrate—that there is more to love—remains. That is why judgments of beauty are always at least partly prospective and why the most beautiful things always seem inexhaustible.

This forward-looking element in the perception of beauty, the sense that beautiful things are constantly drawing us further, is one of the great revelations of the Symposium. I have described the movement—the beckoning of beauty, the impetus of love—both as an absorbed immersion in the beautiful object itself and, simultaneously, as an expanding vision of the world to which it belongs. Plato describes it as an ascent. Does that ascent leave the object with which it begins behind? Does beauty, in drawing us further, also draw us away from what sparked its pursuit?

The path to the Form, Socrates says, begins with the beauty of a particular boy in whose company a man gives birth to beautiful logoi (210a4–9). These logoi—to repeat: pieces of advice, accounts, arguments, poems, laws, and their results—are to Plato's scheme what new understandings and interpretations as well as their consequences are to mine, except that Plato is convinced that as a result of their interaction both lovers change for the better. If the lover has a bent for philosophy, there comes a point when he realises ‘that the beauty of any one body is sibling to the beauty of any other and that … the beauty of all bodies is one and the same’ (210a8–b3). How he comes to that realisation is not something Plato explains—we can only guess. One guess, then, is the following. Pressed forward by erōs, which, like every desire, is directed at what is not already possessed (199e–201c), the philosophic lover tries to make the boy's beauty more completely his. But what distinguishes the philosophic lover from the lovers of the lower mysteries, who desire glory and fame, is that for him the desire to possess beauty is inseparable from the desire to understand it, to understand, that is, why he loves it, what makes it beautiful. And what he finds, for Platonic reasons we may leave aside for now, is that what makes this boy's body beautiful, and explains why he loves him, is what makes all beautiful bodies beautiful, what they all have in common. He now becomes a lover of all beautiful bodies (210b)—he surrounds himself with beautiful boys, though he remains, as far as I can tell, in the company of the first: his contempt for the ‘wild gaping after just one’ may be prompted simply by the realisation that being concerned with the first boy does not exclude being concerned with others as well, not that being concerned with others excludes being concerned with the first. The image of an older man surrounded by and always in pursuit of beautiful boys—recall what we know of Socrates in this connection!—is much more satisfying than the image of one who, after spending time with a particular boy, abandons boys altogether for the impersonal feature their bodies have in common.28

The process continues. A still more philosophic lover will now understand that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body (210b–c). Two things are worth noting here. First, since the lover is still focused on an individual, it is reasonable to think that his focus was also on individuals when, at the previous stage, he turned to the beauty of the body in general. Second, bodily beauty remains relevant. The lover will be happy with a boy whose soul is beautiful ‘even if he is only slightly blooming in his body’. The qualification is concessive but positive. Plato has no sympathy for the commonplace of the beautiful soul trapped in a wizened body: the external and the internal interact. Like everything else in the world, he writes in the Republic (401a), bodies can be graceful or inelegant, shapely or unshapely; inelegance and lack of rhythm or harmony are indications of an evil character while their opposites are indications of a character that is temperate and good.

Once again, Plato does not say what leads the lover to that realisation. We must guess once again. My own tentative guess, which takes a cue from the connection between bodily and psychic beauty we were just discussing, is that since the beauty of soul or character, as I suggested earlier, is manifested in the body, it affects the lover's perception and allows him to find the person he loves not only, say, wise, sensitive or kind but also good-looking. In addition to the passage above, a view of that sort may be suggested by the statement that while a good body does not affect the quality of the soul a good soul renders the body as good as it can be (Rep. 403d) and an aside to the effect that it is not possible to cure the body if something is wrong with it without curing the soul (156e–157a). Although the evidence for that guess is slight, it has one great advantage: it allows the same reasoning to apply to the soul that earlier applied to the body. Just as the lover was led to the beauty of body in general by asking what makes one body beautiful, so now he is led to the soul by asking what makes the body in general beautiful, the soul providing an explanation for the beauty of body in general. That, incidentally, is also Plotinus' view of the relationship between the beauty of the body and the beauty of the soul: ‘It is the soul’, he writes, ‘that makes every body that is called ‘beautiful’ what it is’.29 The questions continue: What makes the soul beautiful? The lover, in the company of the boys his love aims to improve, realises that the greatest effect is due to law and custom, to occupations and institutions—in a word, to the culture within which human beings are born and grow. Beautiful souls are the products of beautiful cultures, whose own beauty, too, is all of one and the same kind (210c). At that point—and at that point only—the lover comes to think that the beauty of the body is not only inferior to the beauty of the soul but of little importance overall. And now the philosophical question can be asked again: when are laws and institutions beautiful? What makes them so? When, as Plato sees it, do they lead unerringly to virtue and the good life? The answer is, when they have been established not haphazardly and as tradition would have them but on the basis of knowledge (or science: epistēmē, 210c–d)—precisely the knowledge for which Socrates had been searching in Plato's elenctic dialogues and the structure of which the Republic articulates in such grand detail.

It is now, as the lover is looking at the beauty of the sciences, that he sees a great expanse, a great ‘sea of beauty’ and stops caring for the beauty that is present in one thing only. Is Plato here, in marking a turn toward the Forms, which are the objects of knowledge and responsible for its own beauty, also turning away from any attachment to individuals? Yes, but only in part. He writes that the lover is no longer moved by ‘the beauty of a single thing, satisfied like a menial servant (oiketēs) with the beauty of a boy, a man or a single kind of behavior, contemptible like a slave (douleuōn) and of no consequence’ (210d). His language, which recalls Pausanias' earlier description of the lover's imploring for a boy's favors, eager ‘to provide services (douleias) even a slave (doulos) would refuse’ (183a), seems to me to suggest at least that at this stage (but no earlier) the lover is no longer interested in sex and perhaps that he no longer has a special relationship with any particular boy. But we have no reason for thinking that the lover is no longer interested in interacting with the beautiful boys who have become his companions or in expanding his circle—exactly like Socrates, who, Alcibiades will soon be telling the company, ‘is crazy (erōtikōs diakeitai) about beautiful boys and constantly follows them around in a perpetual daze’ (216d). The ‘gloriously beautiful’logoi to which this truly philosophical lover gives birth (210d) are not first reached by him in isolation and only then (contingently, so to speak) communicated to others. Although, like everyone else, the philosopher needs time alone for his studies, surely part of his activity consists of his dialectical interaction with his circle. Becoming aware that they are beautiful for the same reason that so many other things in the world are beautiful, allowing his love to encompass everything that manifests, to some degree, the intelligible order of the Forms, need not in any way interfere with his concern for them. The philosopher does not pay for the expansion of his vision with a countervailing blindness.30

On the contrary, he finally grasps the cause of the beauty of the Forms—the Form of beauty itself—which is also the ultimate cause of the beauty of absolutely everything in the world; in a serious sense, as the philosopher gains a vision of the Form of beauty, he falls in love with the world itself. That is the beauty the contemplation of which is the only thing that makes human life worth living, if anything does (211d1–2). It is the contemplation that is characteristic of the philosopher who understands that the world is organised in the best and most beautiful way possible—the contemplation that, instead of being purely abstract and theoretical, enables him to give birth to virtue itself and become dear to the gods and so vitally important to his fellow human beings that he comes as close to being immortal as any human being ever does (211e–212a). His are the best children a human being can have.

Plato's account is based on a metaphysics according to which—in line with the principle that the cause is greater than its effect, which implies, as Aristotle says, that fire is the hottest thing of all since it is the cause of the heat of everything else31—what explains the beauty of something is more beautiful than the object whose beauty it explains. Add to that the idea that beauty and goodness are, if not identical, essentially related to each other, and the success of erotic attraction (at least when it is, by Plato's standards, correctly pursued) is guaranteed. In the presence of the greatest beauty, which is also the greatest goodness, the philosopher has the best and most beautiful life a human being can have. The philosopher's ascent is a continuing effort to understand the beauty of the objects of erōs, an effort to determine what accounts for it. It is inseparable from the production of the most beautiful and good logoi, which are the other side of his vision and as crucial to its perfection as that vision itself.

This movement, this constant going forward with questions that are not yet answered and which Plato was the first to describe, is in my opinion absolutely essential to love. Divorced from Plato's metaphysics, it need not be seen as an ascent toward objects of greater value. I think it is sparked by feeling that there is more to the beautiful things we love than we have seen so far and kindled by the desire to come to know them better. But for me beauty, which depends not only on the features of the object of love but also on who it is that loves it, has no essential connection to virtue. Although I expect that a beautiful thing will somehow make my life better, I have no guarantee that I am right. That can be determined only in the course of time—if my interaction with it and how I have changed as a result prove to have been themselves worthwhile. But what is and what is not worthwhile, what valuable or harmful, is known only in retrospect and sometimes provokes intractable disagreement. You think the person I have spent my life with has sucked out all that was once good in me, that my friend has debauched me, that television has corrupted my standard of taste. I feel perfectly happy and justified (I wish it was as simple as that) and sometimes we simply have to leave the matter there.

Has television corrupted me? Well, I think that it has enabled me to produce some decent philosophy. But for you my idea that your contempt of television is a version of Plato's rejection of Homer and Aeschylus is as repulsive as television itself and my essay on the genius of St. Elsewhere is a disgrace. How are we to decide? How can I decide, for that matter? Before I was attracted to television, I found it despicable; I looked at those who enjoyed it with a mixture of pity and scorn. Now I am finally able to see its good points—or am I? I believe that, other things being equal, I am now better off than I was then. But how can I tell, since, along with a taste for television I have also developed standards of judgment which, from the point of view of my earlier self, are depraved and corrupt? By my earlier standards, I am now depraved, corrupt and miserable although I don't know it. By those I currently accept, my earlier standards were silly, prejudiced and deprived me of great beauty. Which standards are right?

Plato, for whom no disagreement is ultimately intractable, answers: the standards of philosophy, the only standards that establish when a life has been worthwhile. And what they say is that life is worth living only in the contemplation of beauty, which manifests itself in giving birth to kaloi logoi, the beautiful accounts and actions that promote virtue and happiness.

Whether or not one accepts this Platonic commitment, what he calls the contemplation (theasthai) of beauty is not at any stage a passive affair; it requires the creation of something beautiful. And that is exactly what I was driving at earlier when I said that we are constantly trying to see what we love in new ways that are distinctly our own. Those who succeed, especially if their various interpretations, their logoi, are systematically connected with one another, can become beautiful in their own right, objects that others may love and may want to come to know for themselves. Unlike Plato, I don't believe that the lover's beautiful logoi necessarily result in the creation of virtue and for that reason, although I do agree that they result in the creation of more beauty, I think that they contain an element of ineliminable risk. But, like him, I am convinced that beauty is a spur to creation. And, instead of seeing it as an infallible guide, I prefer to think of it somewhat as Stendhal did: beauty, the object of love, is ‘only a promise of happiness’, not always fulfilled. Sometimes, it may be worse when it is, because by then I may have become incapable of seeing the harm—aesthetic or ethical—it has done me or others. But sometimes its promise comes true and a new beauty, a new spur to creation, enters the world. It is in that case that one can say, and say truly, that, quite apart from its moral worth, one's life was a life worth living, that one is happy to have become who one is.

That is in many respects also the view of the Symposium. A beautiful boy and what love makes him want to do for him set the philosopher on the way to beauty itself, to the creation of the most beautiful logoi, which constitute the other face of virtue itself and make them both more beautiful. These logoi give the philosopher an immortality which has nothing to do with the fame to which the lower mysteries are directed. It depends only on the inherent quality of his life and work.

But Plato's stunning vision has reached us because the Symposium has been drawing swarms of interpreters, all of them eager to find something that is purely their own and put their own stamp upon it. Socrates, whose logoi it describes, and Plato, whose logos it is, are no less famous than Homer or Hesiod, Lycurgus or Solon (209d–e), partly because the Symposium has proved inexhaustible. Perhaps the life the Symposium honours is not the best life there is, because there is no best human life, and perhaps it is not the only good human life, which is why Homer, for one, stands by Plato's side today. But if to be beautiful is to provoke the creation of beauty, the proliferation of beautiful logoi, then, whether or not it has ever led any of its readers to virtue, little can be compared to the beauty of the Symposium. It has proved to be an offspring of which Plato can rightly be proud.


  1. 1This is a revised text of the annual European Journal of Philosophy lecture delivered at the Humboldt University in Berlin in May of 2006. I am grateful to the editorial board of the Journal, particularly to Professors Robert Stern and Rolf-Peter Horstmann, for their invitation and their generous hospitality and to Dr Dina Emundts for overseeing the practical arrangements. An invitation to give the Gray Lectures at Cambridge University in April of 2004 was the first cause of these ideas, which are part of a continuing project. I cannot overstate my indebtedness to the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge and particularly to Professors Richard Hunter, Malcolm Schofield and David Sedley and Drs Dominic Scott, Frisbee Sheffield and Robert Wardy. I have presented various versions of this lecture at several institutions and I have gained much from my discussions there.

  2. 2Vlastos 1981.

  3. 3Brentlinger 1970 and Keller 2000, for example, have denied that loving someone because of their features implies that love is directed at their features and not at them. Kolodny 2003 claims that such a ‘quality’ theory of love is to be rejected although he does not address directly views like Brentlinger's or Keller's. See also Velleman 1999: 362–364.

  4. 4Nietzsche 1968: 467.

  5. 5‘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’ (210b5–6); cf. Price 1989: 39.

  6. 6This passage is discussed much less often than it deserves, especially by those who find in Socrates' speech an impersonal, almost inhuman sort of love, despite the fact that most translations I have consulted render the passage correctly. One scholar, however, translates it ambiguously, allowing such an impersonal reading to insinuate itself in the readers's mind as if it was part of Plato's text and not the product of a wilful interpretation: the lover, according to Nussbaum 1986: 179, ‘sees that he ‘must set himself up as the lover of all beautiful bodies, and relax his excessively intense passion for one body, looking down on that and thinking it of small importance’—leaving it unclear whether ‘that’ and ‘it’ refer to the lover's passion for one body or that body itself. That makes it easier to charge the passage, on the assumption that ‘all beauty, qua beauty, is uniform, the same in kind’, with advising the lover to abandon the beauty of the boy's body for the beauty of the body in general and, worse, with ‘making the related the same, the irreplaceable replaceable’.

  7. 7Mozart, Don Giovanni, Act I, Scene 4: ‘Nella bionda, egli ha l'usanza/Di lodar la gentilezza—/Nella bruna, la constanza,/Nella bianca, la dolcezza! [etc.]’. Some may think, of course, that the Don falsifies his experience simply in order to add more conquests to his ‘list’, but his attitude is in fact much more complex. With a comic twist, he echoes Socrates' description of Glaucon when he justifies his deceptions by attributing all of them to love: ‘Whoever is faithful to one betrays the others. I, whose emotions encompass all, love them all without exception’ (II.1). Is he a hypocrite? The difficulty of answering that question is part of the reason the opera continues to be fascinating. The details of the connection between Plato and Mozart are as follows: Socrates' point appears transposed in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, IV.1160–1170 (‘nigra melichrus est, inmunda et fetida acosmos [etc.]’), is used by Molière in The Misanthrope, II. 4 (‘La pâle est aux jasmins en blancheur comparable; la noire à faire peur, une brune adorable [etc.]’) and is adapted, along with the Don's little disquisition on faith and faithlessness in Molière's Don Juan (I. 217–225), by da Ponte.

  8. 8Price 1989: 46–47.

  9. 9That is not Socrates' place on Plato's ladder of love. Alcibiades' story about Socrates' refusal to have sex with him (218d–219d) shows that Socrates, if we are to find a place on Plato's ladder for him at all, has reached at least the stage where the beauty of laws and institutions has become apparent, since only then, as we shall see, do lovers realise ‘that the beauty of bodies is unimportant, (smikron ti, 210c3–6) and only then do they begin to give sex a secondary role in their relationships.

  10. 10Price 1989: 47 suggests both responses. Regarding the first, I can't agree with him that the lover's ‘attachment to one body only produced words’—either in the case of the lovers or fame or in that of the beginning lovers of wisdom. He intimates the second when he writes, in connection with the passage of the Republic we discussed above, that ‘the generosity of response [of the philopais] should inspire in a man pregnant in soul a non-particularised love-poetry inspired by, and intended for, ingenuous youth in general’.

  11. 11Vlastos 1981: 23.

  12. 12See Liddell and Scott 1968: s.v. mikros, I. 3.

  13. 13Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, II. v. 26.

  14. 14One might be tempted to take the idea that everyone is pregnant both in body and in soul less literally in view of 208e ff., where Plato seems to contrast ‘those who are pregnant in body’ with ‘those who are pregnant in soul’ (hoi men … hoi de). But a glance at what follows dispels that impression, since when Plato explains who these latter people are he claims that ‘there surely are those who are even more (eti mallon) pregnant in their souls than in their bodies’ (209a1–2). The difference remains one in degree.

  15. 15Does this show that every lover who belongs to this second level of erōs is a man? Perhaps. But one of three examples by means of which Diotima introduces that category comes from the story of Alcestis, who offered to die in place of her husband, Admetus. Like Achilles and Codrus (the other two examples) Alcestis sacrifices herself so that ‘the memory of [her] virtue should be immortal’. On the other hand, everyone to whom Plato refers as worthy of fame on account of ethical or intellectual accomplishment in what follows is a man. Perhaps he is making an implicit distinction between courage and the other ethical virtues.

  16. 16Plato makes explicit provisions for the sexual and reproductive life of the guardians in the Republic (457b–462a, and note in particular 458c–d). Guardians and philosophers are temperate but by no means celibate.

  17. 17Philonikon and philotimon, Rep. 581b.

  18. 18Philomathes and philosophon, Rep. 581b.

  19. 19Plato may be joking when he calculates that the life of the virtuous king is 729 times more pleasant than the life of the tyrant (Rep. 587e), but his desire to determine which of the three kinds of life (each corresponding to the dominance of a different part of the soul) is most pleasant (576b–588a) implies that the pleasures involved are the same in kind and differ only in degree. It is also important to note, however, that (as Dominic Scott reminded me) that erōs in the Republic is by no means unequivocally a good. It is associated with the lawless and vicious desires Plato discusses in the opening pages of Book VIII and it is so closely linked to the passions of the tyrannical type of man—the lowest human type in Plato's eyes—that it is twice described as ‘erōs tyrannos’—‘erōs the tyrant’ (572e–573e). Unfortunately, Plato has little to say about this double aspect of the character of erōs, just as he says nothing about the double aspect of the ‘madness’ (mania) with which he connects it—vicious here yet one of the gods' greatest gifts at Phdr. 245b–c.

  20. 20Some of these obscurities are well discussed in Burnyeat 1977.

  21. 21See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, Chapter 16.

  22. 22More on this bald claim and the general model of love and beauty on which it depends in Nehamas 2007: 53–63.

  23. 23Not even as parents love their children, if the controversial understanding of love in Frankfurt 2004 is correct.

  24. 24Catullus, Carmina, 85.

  25. 25One peculiar but suggestive asymmetry between love and hate, which suggests that they are not contraries, is that while it is impossible to fall in love with someone with whom you have never had any direct contact (which includes letters from or pictures of that person), simply on information supplied to you by a third party, it is quite possible to come to hate another through an account of their personality or actions.

  26. 26Allende 1994: 48–49: ‘The first time I saw my Tío Ramón, I thought my mother was playing a joke. That was the prince she had been sighing over? I had never seen such an ugly man. … [T]en years later … I was at last able to accept him. He took charge of us children, just he had promised. … He raised us with a firm hand and unfailing good humor; he set limits and sent clear messages, without sentimental demonstrations, without compromise. I recognise now that he put up with my contrariness without trying to buy my esteem or ceding an inch of his authority, until he won me over totally. He is the only father I have known, and now I think he is really handsome!’.

  27. 27Flaubert 2004: 157, 165.

  28. 28Difficult questions lurk in this area. A lover who stopped here, thinking that nothing further is needed for explaining the beauty of boys, would be not a philosopher but what the Republic (474c–480a) describes, in contrast to the philosopher, a ‘lover of sights’ (philotheamōn). That is presumably because such a man would think that the explanation for the beauty of other things, if any, would also stop with what is common to them without trying to connect the two explanations together. In some sense, then, the beauty that is common to all bodies is perceptible and not the proper province of philosophy—at this stage, the lover has not yet shown himself to be a philosopher. When does that happen? The most plausible stage seems to be when the lover leaves ‘laws and institutions’ behind and turns to the beauty of knowledge (210c–d). At that point, concern for the body disappears and the term enters this context for the first time: the lover's enterprise is described as ‘copious’ (aphthonos) philosophy. But it is only at the very final stage, when the lover becomes aware of the Form of Beauty, that he also understands the many ways in which it differs from every other beautiful object and acquires the knowledge which, less explicitly, Plato attributes to the philosopher in the Republic.

  29. 29Plotinus Enneads I.6.7.29–30. See the commentary of Kalligas 1994: 272. Plotinus credits the soul with the beauty of epitēdeumata as well, while for Plato ‘laws and epitēdeumata’ follow the soul on the next higher step of the ladder of love. I believe the conflict can be resolved if we understand Plotinus to take that term to refer to behavior or patterns of behavior, which he considers sensible objects, while Plato understands it in the sense of custom or institution.

  30. 30The idea that the philosophic lover maintains, like Socrates, his relations with some individuals is given further support by the statement that what brings the philosopher to the Form of beauty is ‘the correct practice of paederasty’ (211b), by which, I suspect, Plato has in mind relationships not exclusively organised around sexuality. In this and several other points, I have learned much from Price 1989. I may, however, have proved an unworthy student, since Price thinks that the idea that the lover expands the range of his purview without any attendant loss, is ‘quite false to the text’ (45).

  31. 31Aristotle, Metaphysics a, 993b23–31. Aristotle uses that example, which he takes to be obvious to common sense, in order to argue that the principles of being, which philosophy investigates and are the source of the truth of everything that is, are the truest things there are.