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.”
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.