What does “Diotima’s Ladder” mean?

The Symposium is one of Plato’s liveliest dialogues, with each person at the ‘drinking party’ (that’s what ‘symposium’ meant) giving their own speech in praise of Eros, the god of love. Of course, everyone gets it wrong but Socrates. He claims that love is desire, which happens when you lack something. You can’t want what you already have.

But why do we praise love, then? At the end of his speech he relates a story about a discussion he had as a young man with a woman named Diotima, who sets him straight on what love really is…desire for permanent possession of the Good. A more literal translation would be: Desire to possess the good forever. We want pure never-ending happiness.

The problem is, most of us don’t know the Good or the Beautiful. We know ‘goods,’ we know what we like. Pizza, almond croissants, the feeling of a good scratch in that difficult-to-reach spot between the shoulder blades. You know. Things. Now.

Diotima says all of these desires that fall short of the Good and Beautiful are really a yearning for immortality manifesting itself in various lower forms, some of which are better—or more permanent—than others.

The ladder of love is a continuum of desires, all of which “partake” in the Beautiful. Nothing in the visible world can be entirely beautiful all the time, since these things undergo change and decay, and even at their best just aren’t quite perfect. Still, these things have aspects of the beautiful, and through them we learn to desire beauty itself.

Each kind of love is given a place as a rung on the ladder. So that desire to have heterosexual relations—which here amounts to procreation or continuation of your seed—is lower than, say, homosexual relations between people who want to cultivate an educational relationship. Growing ideas is a more elevated pursuit than making babies. Ideas partake in the Beautiful and the Good even more than our ability to create life because they’re more permanent, not subject to the decay of the flesh.

Desire begins when we see a beautiful body or bodies, which may be mixed with beautiful mind and minds. We may see beauty in glory, fame, understanding of institutions, justice, knowledge, and, of course, the Beautiful itself and the Good itself. The love ladder is more complex and nuanced than this, and there’s a great deal of psychology at work here. But this is the basic idea of what’s meant by “Diotima’s Ladder.”

P.S.

If you want to know what the Beautiful itself is, join the club. Philosophers have been grappling with the question since Plato put it out there. Most seem to agree that the Good and the Beautiful can be equated with God, which we can say is synonymous with Reason and Being. (I’m interpreting here, applying what I’ve read from Plato’s Timaeus.)

The important thing is that Plato didn’t think of The Good as something apart from the Beautiful. This has astonishing implications. Ethics and aesthetics join together in harmony. The harmonious soul is one that doesn’t ignore desires, but deals with every aspect of life, including confused emotions, in just the right way. It turns out that the right thing to do is also the thing that will make you ultimately and profoundly happy.

Go ahead and chew on that for a while.

 

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13 thoughts on “What does “Diotima’s Ladder” mean?

  1. I like the Golden Rule concept: ‘do to others what you’d like them to do to you.’ I believe this was understood in Socrates’ time and even pre-dated those times? Its interesting that all world religions have basically the same idea.

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  2. I’ve never read Plato’s symposium, but I love the republic. The way he describes the five souls as the five forms of government is perfect. I’m a huge fan of Plato as well. I’m actually planning on starting a “political theory session” on my blog, starting with Plato. It’s amazing how many people haven’t read Plato and the other philosophers. Let me know if you’d like to help me with it – your knowledge would be an honor to have on my site.
    You’ve got a great site, I’ll be coming back to visit often.

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      • Sorry I’m getting back to this comment so late, but I was thinking about writing on the different political ideas/concepts out there and analyzing them either from the perspective of a particular author or the term itself using different perspectives to weigh the pros and cons.
        For example, the other day a discussion broke out in one of my posts in which this person wanted to create an anarchist state as a way to combat corruption and the biased media. Yet what he was describing it was more a libertarian form of government without the government.
        So, for cases like that one I think it’s a good idea to educate the people.
        What do you think?

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        • Well I could write about the four types of government in Plato’s Republic, if that’s what you’d like. There’s some controversy amongst academics over what exactly was intended in the Republic…whether it was meant to be a political work at all, or whether Plato was really anti-democratic. In any case, if you’re after clear definitions, I think it’s a good idea. He defined the forms in a purer way than we do. So a lot of times when people describe democracy or anarchy, for instance, they are referring to a mixed form of government. And certainly, when talking about democracy, they’re talking about representative democracy, not what Plato experienced.

          Should I create a draft post just explaining this part?

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    • Haha, nice try! Diotima pointed out to Socrates that “those whose creative urge is physical tend to turn to women and pursue Eros by this route. The production of children gains them, as they imagine, immortality and a name and happiness for themselves, for all time. In others the impulse is mental or spiritual—people who are creative mentally, much more than physically. They produce what you would expect the mind to conceive and produce.” (208-209).

      Later when she talks about a young man and his education, she never mentions a woman, but instead a “mentor” and this mentor’s gender is explicitly male.

      Now, theoretically, we might say a hetero relationship could be considered equal if they produce thoughts instead of babies together. And if we compare this relationship to a homosexual one which never goes beyond the physical, the hetero would be higher.

      But I think Plato is throughly inside his time here. Women were not educated, so the likelihood of finding a woman with whom a man could produce “thought babies” was pretty slim. On the other hand, it’s likely that he admitted a few women into his academy, so I’m sure he’d be willing to make the exception above. 🙂

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  3. So. Strangeness. I lurk at InfiniteFreeTime and also comment there sometimes. Have been doing that for most of a year. Your conversation on the book nerd post over there today caught me, and I had to come and take a look. Then I see you’ve been nominated for an award by the Leather Library — another blog I have been following for most of a year.

    You have a new follower, and his name is me 🙂

    Sadly, I don’t know Plato all that well, but I do know him well enough to get what you are saying here. That yearning for immortality manifested in various lower forms is quite a powerful thing.

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    • Thanks for following! Yes, I got to know Steven at the Leather Library and I’m coming out with a Sci-Fi series there, “Notes from a Sci-Fi Newbie”. This book, Anathem, is my third in the series (yeah, I know it’s Fantasy or “Speculative Fiction” rather than Sci-Fi, but whatever). It looks like it’s going to take a while before I get to review it.

      Glad you enjoyed the Plato discussion here. And thanks again for following! Look forward to hearing from you.

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  4. Pingback: The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel | Diotima's Ladder

  5. Years ago, after attending yet another one-person drinking party, I asked myself: “What the hell is wrong with me? What do I want? Cuz this ain’t it.” I woke up at the bottom of a ladder, and looked up red-eyed and bleary to see what was on rungs.

    I looked up and saw Ecstasy, and above it were Compassion and Awe. I tried climbing, because really, I was sitting in a pool of my own vomit after all my symposiums.

    Later, I looked at those 28 rungs (which I called Living Values,) and saw that they were “essences of being” I wanted to experience. I wanted to know myself as practicing them, as “being” them. But how would my consciousness know what it practiced? What was it separate from, so as to witness its own motion? What was it relating to, in order to feel and be Awareness and Honesty and Choice? It was only possible for me to be these things “in relationship.” What was I relating to?

    Not culture.

    I don’t think “The Good” is separate from “The Beautiful.” We just get used to thinking of things that way, because we live in a culture of superficial scientific materialism. Everyone around us is watching shadows on a wall of a cave on a flatscreen TV. If we try to relate only to those shadows, we live in the social Matrix of a single culture and time.

    If we relate to the “Good” life by watching digits of a bank account, and “Beautiful” can be seen on a face in a book, we will certainly also see the shadows on the wall lift us above their heads. Is that enough? We sit behind bars we cannot smell or taste or touch. Does not seeing them make us free? If we can relate to something higher, we start to see beauty in the essence of life beyond lifestyle, and character beyond the skin.

    Is God what is “higher”? A king of Kings? Elvis? Do we relate to our own “soul”? Reason might be able to get us closer to these answers, but only by presenting a Zeno’s paradox of progressively less-silly questions.

    Let’s try not to box-in the Universe with words. Or limit God or the Tao with cages of our own language and perception. If we let our consciousness relate to “the other and outside” we can climb up.

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