Erotic Philosophy as Ritual in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus

A common theme underlies two of Plato’s dialogues on love and desire: the divine. The Symposium depicts Socrates and company paying homage to Love at the request of Phaedrus during a ritualistic drinking ceremony. The partiers give speeches concerning the origins, meanings, and effects of eros (love, desire). Socrates’ speech provides a structured picture of eros as a mechanism for ascending to the highest form of Beauty, thereby attaining happiness. In Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus embark on a small, but inspiring journey outside the walls of Athens. Upon entering the bucolic setting, the interlocutors sense the presence of gods and nymphs. Reflecting this sentiment, Socrates relates a speech on love that resembles the inspired madness characteristic of contact with the divine. Mirroring their respective settings and contexts, the dialogues’ images of love differ in metaphysical structure, but remain subtly consistent in their acknowledging something beyond the realm of worldly desires. Absolute Beauty resides at the core of these speeches, beckoning the select, proper lover to strive for the good as a means of achieving the divine. Socrates’ speeches in the Symposium and Phaedrus present philosophy as a set of esoteric rites and practices that, when applied to eros, enables the practitioner to attain the transcendent dimension of the Forms. In this sense, Plato’s dialogues provide a consistent view of eros as opening a path to knowledge of ultimate, divine Reality.

Despite the orgiastic occasion and ubiquity of alcohol, the Symposium’s events follow a regimented structure. The symposiasts begin with a ceremonious bathing and subsequent meal (Symposium, 175a-c). After consuming their food, “they poured a libation to the god [Dionysus], sang a hymn, and—in short—followed the whole ritual (176a). Officially a celebration of Agathon’s successful drama, the party shapes into a tribute to Love. Phaedrus appeals to his peers, explaining a conspicuous lack of praise for Love in popular poetry and the need for a proper eulogy for the god (177a-178a). Though Plato glosses over “the whole ritual”, one gleans that the symposiasts comply with the conventions and rites indicative of Athenian nomos (especially piety) as they engage in every step of the symposium and their respective speeches. Even the speeches’ order is determined, as Eryximachus says, “I propose that each of us give as good a speech in praise of Love as he is capable of giving, in proper order from left to right” (177d). This highly structured and ritualistic setting sheds light onto an important aspect of Socrates’ depiction of eros and its relationship to the truth as divine.

Last among the scheduled speechmakers in the Symposium, Socrates gives a contrastive account of eros. He expresses ironic ignorance about the nature of giving praise, saying, “In my foolishness, I thought you should tell the truth about whatever you praise, that this should be your basis, and that from this a speaker should select the most beautiful truths and arrange them most suitably” (198d). He proceeds to engage Agathon in an elenctic discussion that strips Love of his godly status (199d). Introducing the character, Diotima, who shows Socrates the error of his monochromic ways, he explains that Love is a messenger-spirit between the gods and humans. Born to Poverty and Resource, Love treads between the two extremes, scheming after the beautiful and good, hunting for intelligence, and loving wisdom (202c-203e). Socrates’ speech, still one among the ritualistic praises of the divine at the symposium, becomes a eulogy to philosophy, or the pursuit of the truth. Socrates inserts a wedge between his speech and the others, holding the truth as the venerable method of praise, and eros remains the subject of that tribute, but only insofar as the latter takes the correct, exclusive form.

Diotima lays out a hierarchical structure by which the adept lover gains proximity to absolute Beauty. She explains to Socrates that all living things share common love, which wants reproduction and birth in beauty (208b). This is to say that living creatures, possessing a zeal for divine immortality, reproduce, prolonging their existence. But there are two kinds of pregnancy: those pregnant of body and those of soul (208e). The latter type has the potential, according to Diotima, to transcend to knowledge of Beauty and gain awareness reminiscent of the divine (210a-211d). Diotima provides clear instructions for the adept lover—the one pregnant of soul—to achieve the ascent. Beginning with admiration for a single beautiful boy, the lover, with a rare sense of intellectual agency, recognizes the beauty of all beautiful bodies. This recognition requires the lover to neglect the lower, single beautiful body. The lover follows a similar pattern of recognition and neglect, admiring souls, laws, and the sea of beautiful objects, finally arriving at the summit. On top, the lover learns “of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful” (211c). This repetitive process—acknowledging a greater object of beauty and neglecting the lesser object—resembles a kind of ritualistic aspect of philosophy applied to eros. In order to ascend, one must be of the rare soul-oriented sort that chooses truth and higher beauty over physical intercourse or glory. Feeding on what is “fit” for the soul (209a), the adept lover observes the rites of philosophy, or truth. Diotima tells Socrates, “Even you, Socrates, could probably come to be initiated into these rites of love. But as for the purpose of these rites when they are done correctly—that is the final and highest mystery, and I don’t know if you are capable of it” (210a). Love merely provides one with a crucial choice—a test for the rare, philosophical person: ascend the hierarchical ladder through performing the correct rites, or remain a common lover of bodies and glory. The former choice leads to enlightenment and knowledge of Reality, and the latter is the beaten path of ignorance.

The Phaedrus takes the reader, along with Socrates and Phaedrus, on a promenade in the country. Plato sets the dialogue outside of Athens, and therefore outside the structural nomos indicative of the Symposium. Plato employs this scene to write about the more chaotic, disorderly, even violent, aspects of love. Yet, the notion of the divine still frames the dialogue’s discussion. Socrates tells Phaedrus, “There’s something really divine about this place, so don’t be surprised if I’m quite taken by the Nymphs’ madness as I go on with the speech” (Phaedrus, 238c-d). Referenced throughout the dialogue, divinely inspired madness underlies Phaedrus’ notion of eros. Socrates’ second speech makes clear the merits of this particular kind of madness as he states, “in fact the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god” (244a-b). He proceeds to list the achievements wrought by divine madness, establishing its utilitarian significance: it accounts for divine prophecy, alleviation from “plagues of trouble”, and the continuation of the Bacchic tradition of poetry and song, so crucial to Athenian education (244b-245a). Unlike the Symposium, this dialogue sets up the discussion of eros as an uncontrollable spark of insanity. Similar to the previous dialogue, however, the Phaedrus presents an image of love as a mechanism for attaining knowledge of Reality. It is merely the most accessible means by which the adept lover—not the common one—achieves happiness (250d).

Describing eros as divinely inspired madness, Socrates carves out a structurally different path to the divine Forms than one observes in the Symposium. He introduces the immortality and tripartite structure of all souls (246a). Souls are comprised of a charioteer, a white (honorable) horse, and a black (dishonorable) horse. Before entering the prison-like body of a human, souls roam freely about in heaven, latching onto admirable gods as they attempt to glimpse absolute Knowledge (246b-250c). Only by taming the black horse, prone to acting upon primal desire, does a soul ascend high enough to apprehend an image of Reality. Losing this image corresponds to a loss of one’s wings, and a descent back into the realm of bodies. This is where eros comes into play. The face of a beautiful boy shocks the adept lover (here, depicted as the soul recently exposed to the Forms) into a nostalgic memory of past contact with divine Reality. Upon glimpsing the beloved’s beauty, the lover is awe-struck and exhibits various examples of insanity, like the inner violence between his charioteer and black horse (253d-254e), sweating and a high fever (251b), and a dumfounded gaze toward heavenly beauty (251c). Only the worthy soul (i.e., that which recently met with the image of Reality) will refuse to act upon profane, violent passions other, common souls feel towards a beloved. Applying repetitive, ritualistic philosophy, the adept lover, again, achieves contact with the divine.

Available to every soul in its common form, eros plays a specific, esoteric function for the philosopher. In the Phaedrus, the ritualistic practice of philosophy is present in the nostalgic process of recalling the soul’s past knowledge. Socrates explains that, because of this process, “it is fair that only a philosopher’s mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine” (249c). The adept lover must hold fast to divine Reality, taming the soul’s black horse through iterated acts of violence (254e) and actively working to remain within close proximity of absolute Beauty during and between various reincarnations (248c). This is purely the task of the philosopher, and is instigated by divinely inspired madness during life. All human souls have, at one point, caught a glimpse of Reality, but not every soul is reminded of its Beauty on Earth as easily as the philosopher in the presence of a beloved (250a). It is unclear in the Phaedrus whether humans willingly choose to follow philosophical love, or whether it is reserved for the select few, for Socrates has only those souls befriended by Zeus succeed in the path to enlightenment (250b). The philosophical lover seeks to proselytize and shape the beloved into the image and character of Zeus, but never consummates the relationship, for the regimen of philosophy maintains order over the affair (253a-256a). Philosophy, requiring the lover’s full devotion (to maintain an image of Reality), repetitive action (in training the black horse), and abstinence (from sexual intercourse), takes the form of ritualistic practice. When applied to eros, philosophy enables a select few to transcend the realm of worldly pleasures and achieve a higher level of knowledge.

Though Plato paints two distinct structural images of eros in the Symposium and Phaedrus, he maintains a uniform view of its essential function. Love is a common phenomenon in its profane, sexual form. In the Symposium, it is evident as love of everything in the ascent short of absolute Beauty. The Phaedrus portrays a similar image, but includes a crucial aspect of nostalgia for a past contact with the Beautiful that distinguishes profane from sacred lovers. This is not to say that Plato has Socrates condemn those who consummate their love or admire only souls and conventions, but he undoubtedly places the eros of philosophy above that of the layperson. In both dialogues, the adept lover, breaking from the common notions of love, engages in ritualistic practices of philosophy that are reminiscent of attempts to make contact with the divine. Employing repetitive, perhaps metaphorical, methods like self-flagellation, deep concentration, abstinence, and a sturdy gaze towards the heavens, the philosopher distinguishes herself from the unordained person. Though riddled with discussions of the gods and piety, these two dialogues impart a notion of the truth implied in the Forms as the Supreme Being, and the philosopher as the righteous saint.

Cooper, John. Plato: Complete Works. “Symposium” 457-505, and “Phaedrus” 506-556.

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