At the end of the Symposium, Alcibiades bursts in and drunkenly declares his love for Socrates. To him, Socrates is both the beautiful and the good. Alcibiades, however, doesn’t understand the poetry of love. He seeks the good for his own sake, not for the sake of his beloved. And, if Socrates were indeed the beautiful and good, this would make some sense. After all what does the good in and of itself require from slovenly fools like us?
Conversely, we might ask, just as Alcibiades asks when he considers Socrates’s rejection of his advances, what reason would that that is wholly good and beautiful, be attracted to slovenly fools like us? As Alcibiades says, Socrates’s attitude towards him makes him so ashamed of himself he sometimes thinks his life is not worth living.
Socrates, however, while quite beautiful and quite good is neither. He holds Alcibiades at bay not because he lacks love for him, but because he knows that giving into Alcibiades’s desire would be dangerous for Alcibiades. Having satiated his physical need for Socrates, Alcibiades would no longer perceive him as in any way superior. He would have, as it were, consumed the good.
The poetry of Alcibiades life is essentially tragic. He desires the good not for the sake of the good he might then will and reflect, but rather as a way of demonstrating his own superiority to it. As he says of Socrates, sometimes he thinks he’d be happier if Socrates were dead.
In a different way we might think that Socrates’s life is tragic as well. Through the speech of Diotima, he describes himself when describing the nature of love, for he, like love, is shoeless, dirty and poor, always scheming after wisdom. Socrates is the consummate lover, always willing the good of those he meets.
Who though is there who is sufficiently wise and good to love Socrates as he needs to be loved, in the way that he loves others? At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates stops suddenly, lost in thought. He has been caught by wonder, transfixed as it were by the good and the beautiful. Aristodemus tells Agathon that this is Socrates’s habit – to be caught in wonder.
Alcibiades believes that Socrates does not love him because Alcibiades is not good enough – slovenly fool that he is. Yet we know that this is not true. He loves Alcibiades even when Alcibiades is betraying him. Further, while Socrates is quite beautiful and quite good, in comparison to the beautiful and the good, he too must appear as a slovenly fool. However, he is habitually caught by the good and the beautiful, drawn into wonder.
Love, we are to understand, is a kind of poetry or creating. From the Republic, we know that the greatest of poets is the good itself – for it is the source of the natural world and everything and everyone it. Our world is an act of poetry, a recreation in beauty.
Like Socrates, who does not dismiss Alcibiades because of his deficiencies, the good does not turn its back on Socrates. Instead, it is present in all that sees and everyone he meets, encouraging him (and of course us) to become better and more beautiful.