Diotima, in Plato’s Symposium, says that love is our way of participating in immortality, for those in love give birth in beauty. Explaining herself to Socrates, Diotima says, “And in that way everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been” (208b). We achieve immortality, Diotima suggests, not by living eternally but rather by leaving something of ourselves behind in something new. In this way the people that we were are manifest in the present activity of giving birth to something that will only be fully known in the future. So, she suggests, all of time is reconciled and made one. That Socrates finds her account unsatisfying is evident in his response, for when he questions her if this is true, he describes her affirmative answer by saying, “And in the manner of a perfect sophist she said, ‘Be sure of it, Socrates”(208c).
For Socrates many things are probably missing from Diotima’s pat response: that this is the only form of immortality available to individuals, or that our purpose of loving is multiplying ourselves rather than willing the good of a beloved, or even just Diotima’s absolute certainty about something for which she cannot have complete knowledge, for instance. One thing, however, is particularly striking in what Diotima’s explicitly says in this passage. While she goes on to describe our activity as re-producing in beauty, here she highlights that in place of that which grows old, dies or is forgotten, we create something that is new to take its place (207d-208b). The new object or person or thought seems to be the same as the previous, but is, at the same time, different. This tension, between recollecting and reproducing what has already existed versus creating something brand new, lies at the heart of understanding the nature of love and thus of justice.
Platonic dialogues are their most mysterious and beautiful when they seem to travel at warp speed away from the characters in conversation, sometimes without even their noticing, to reveal the metaphysical realm to which they strive. In these moments the question at the heart of all conversations seems to be about the possible reconciliation between the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the immortal, the human and the divine. When the dialogues end in aporia, not finding a resolution to the question they had been working through, it might seem as though such a reconciliation is in fact impossible. If we cannot determine the nature of courage, for instance, how could we possible understand, let alone be reconciled, to the nature of the gods?
And yet, even these moments speak to the wonder made possible in the world. For as the dialogue drifts off into silence, we, like Socrates at the beginning of the Symposium, are given the opportunity to be ‘caught’ up in the wonder of a world that invites such questions and, in so doing, leave us understanding (even if only) that if such seemingly small questions have infinite possible answers, how much greater, is the final Good to which these question reach. Further, we also know, that in many cases, this aporia, this not knowing, is only partial. For in those very dialogues, answers to the questions asked are given and that when pieces together, we can perceive something of the whole even if the particular interlocutors are too involved to notice the metaphysical landscape opening up around them.
All of which is to say that what sometimes seems as the highest question of the dialogues, the whether and the how of a reconciliation between the universal and the particular, the immortal and the mortal, is, in light of the world around us, not really in question. Everything around us invites us to “recollect” truly is and to know that all of our activity is a kind of reproduction of the good that we strive to know, and which, in its own manifestation in the world and ourselves, reminds us that we too might be re-collected.
When seen in this light, the greater question of the dialogue and for us seems to be how might similar reconciliations occur in and through the world. We might wonder why the divine would have much to do with wretched creatures such as ourselves. But if we, like Plato, understand the nature of the divine as the Good, then it’s not hard to see that such goodness would be extended to the least among us not because of our natures, but because of its. The more difficult problem is how individuals as selfish and self absorbed as we normally are might be made to extend a similar goodness or even merely justice to those who we believe have wronged us or who are just in the way of our satisfaction.
Plato’s dialogue about the nature of love is set just prior to Socrates’s execution at the hand of Athens. And during his defence he felt it necessary to answer not only the charges explicitly brought against him, but also those that echoed from the play, The Clouds, written by Aristophanes in which he is a character shown to be corrupting the youth. Further, the conversation recounted in the dialogue happens in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, a thirty year war that devastated much of Greece and saw the end of Athenian greatness. Alcibiades, of course, is instrumental in Athens defeat, for he betrays his city, his friends and, of course, Socrates, by switching to the side of the Spartans. Of course, both Aristophanes and Alcibiades (at least for a moment) are present with Socrates this night while they discuss the nature of love.
Despite Socrates’s earnest engagement with Aristophanes, Alcibiades and the city of Athens, he is unable to broach a reconciliation. To be re-conciled suggests that two parts, now asunder, had at one point been joined as one. Aristophanes’s mythic people in the Symposium are a symbolic image of this. For having been one, Aristophanes says we are all now two, or, more properly, halves, and we each seek to be re-conciled to our other half. This of course is one of the great metaphysical mysteries of the Platonic dialogues and much of ology wherein the end that we seek is also our beginning and the act of going home is an act of being re-collected as well as our own recollection. The image suggests that we all even if unconsciously seek a good that we have alway known, for at one point we were “joined” to it. The trick is for reconciliation then is remembering what this good actually is so that we might more effectively strive towards it.
Aristophanes’s image, though, points to a new tension. For surely it would not be satisfying, not just if reconciliation, either with the One or with one of the many, meant that in coming together, our individual selves are dissolved for the sake of creating a new, “more complete,” whole. Alcibiades’s desire to conquer Socrates is of this kind of reconciliation. Socrates is to give in and become one with Alcibiades. Put differently, he is to become Alcibiades. Similarity, Athens, also not able to conquer Socrates, rather than find a way to live with him as he is, destroys him and achieves “reconciliation” for itself. The western world has been party to many such “reconciliations” in the past.
Socrates thus holds himself apart. He does not give into Alcibiades nor to Athens. He knows that for reconciliation to be true and just it must take up and honour what is particular and true and good in each of the parties at hand. The image of Socrates is thus one of constant dialogue. He seeks to know the other, whether it is the Good or one of the many goods, and in so doing, better know himself. The fine distinctions drawn in the dialogues are reminders of the many and intricate ways which we are different. That in the midst of these distinctions the metaphysical realm around the interlocutors opens up, reveals that these differences all speak to something essential about the nature of that which is good in itself. In honouring what makes us particular, we honour the good and and just.
Diotima says that by means of love we participate in immortality by reproducing in beauty something which is new but which appears to be the same as what had been before. Socrates says that this a fine piece of rhetoric or sophistry on her part. In the very least, Socrates’s complaint has to do with the fine distinctions that Diotima quickly covers over, for she moves from this declaration to describing one of the most beautiful image of the dialogue, the ascent up the ladder of love, wherein we are moved to be reconciled, if only momentarily, with the Beautiful and Good itself. Diotima is a sophist because she does not take up the difficulty of properly loving the particular world around us. Yet, her description does suggest something about the nature of this struggle.
In properly loving others, we create something “new.” It is not as Alcibiades suggests that the beloved is absorbed by the lover. Instead, in the communion between lovers, a third object, idea or being is re-produced. It is not, a Diotima suggests the product of merely the lover, but of the lover and the beloved. In that which is re-created particular elements from both parties are present. And so the production is in fact a re-production. Yet, because they are now joined together by means of love, these parts work together to create a new whole.
While children are the easiest way to understand this account, the context of the dialogue is explicitly political. And Plato asks us to wonder about the ways by which Athens and Sparta, Athens and Alcibiades, Athens and Socrates might be reconciled, such that the good of each is honoured and new alliance or friendship formed. Importantly, his query is of the things that even in his time are already past. Athens has been destroyed by Sparta, Socrates destroyed by Athens and Alcibiades destroyed by himself. Plato then asks this question of us not for the sake of himself or the people and city he loves, but for our sakes – so that we might find ways in the future to draw together the many and particular elements of ourselves that are good and form a new whole that speaks to our origin and end in a Good of which all of these particular moments are held both together and apart so that nothing might be lost.