Permanent Beauty and Becoming Happy in Plato’s Symposium1

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Permanent Beauty and Becoming Happy in Plato’s Symposium1

Gabriel Richardson Lear

Our first encounter with Socrates in the Symposium is bizarre. Aristodemus, surprised to run into Socrates fully bathed and with his sandals on, asks him where he is going “to have made himself so beautiful (kalos)” (174a4, Rowe trans.). Socrates replies that he is on his way to see the lovely Agathon, and so that “he has beautified himself in these ways in order to go, a beauty to a beauty (kalos para kalon)” (174a7–8). Why does Socrates, who in just a few moments will be lost in contemplation out on the front porch, care about being beautiful? His remark to Aristodemus is clearly in some sense ironic, but on the other hand, he really has taken unusual care with his physical appearance. Later, in his encomium to love, he will claim that beauty has this effect on lovers: the beauty of the beloved causes the lover to disdain his former way of life and “give birth” to beautiful “offspring.” Is the image of the squat and snub-nosed Socrates all freshly scrubbed and kitted out a comic foreshadowing, or a debunking, of his serious speech? Does Socrates really believe in the transformative power of beauty?

One of the most alien aspects of Plato’s ethical theory is that it gives a central place to beauty (to kalon) and erotic love. The young guardians in the Republic must develop erôs for the beautiful before they begin their training in philosophy, an erôs first expressed in love for beautiful souls in beautiful bodies (402c–403c). And in the Phaedrus Socrates attributes to beauty the power to awaken the soul’s erotic “madness” and thereby to liberate us from our impure, bodily existence. For some reason, Plato seems to think that receptiveness to and devotion to beauty (including physical beauty) is necessary for a rational grasp of the good and for the virtuous behavior that follows from it. This is bound to strike us as strange. We may be ready to grant that erotic love, and thus physical beauty, is ethically relevant. But why exactly does Plato think they are so ethically important? This is the question I will try to answer here in my interpretation of the Symposium and in particular of Socrates’ speech.

The idea that beauty is central to ethical theory is, as I said, alien to us. So we should not expect an adequate interpretation of the Symposium to show us that this idea is, after all, one we already accept. But neither should we settle for a superficial explanation in which we get the gist, but not the details, of how beauty figures in the virtuous life. This danger is especially acute when we try to interpret Socrates’ speech. He evidently believes that good things are beautiful; and we know from other dialogues that beauty depends on goodness. Thus when he speaks about love as an urge to give birth in beauty, we may be tempted to suppose that this is merely a mysterious way of describing the fact that our desire for the good is focused and made effective when we encounter something in particular that we think is good, as if beauty per se did not really matter in this context. That is to say, we may be tempted to explain the ethical significance of beauty solely by appeal to the fact that, according to Plato, genuinely beautiful things are good. But we should not be too hasty. I do not want to deny that the connection between the beautiful and the good is relevant to the proper interpretation of Socrates’ account of love. Indeed, as we will see, it plays a central role in explaining why lovers want to create beauty. But what is especially interesting about the Symposium is that it draws our attention to the fact that our response to things qua good is not the same as our response to them qua beautiful. Even if, in truth, the class of good things is coextensive with the class of beautiful things; even if a thing’s beauty depends on its goodness, the experience of a thing as good plays a different role in our lives than does the experience of a thing as beautiful. This, I will argue, is something Socrates wants his audience to see. Thus if we adopt the strategy of substituting ‘good’ for ‘beautiful’ in his account of love, we will ignore and leave unexplained his overt and insistent concern with the place of beauty in human life. Perhaps worse, we will flatten out the distinction between the role of good as the object of love and the role of beauty as its midwife, a distinction that Socrates (speaking as Diotima) takes pains to make.

I will argue that, according to Socrates, what grabs the attention of the lover when he experiences someone or something as beautiful is its self-sufficiency and lack of change. That is to say, insofar as things are beautiful, their goodness strikes us as being impervious to the passage of time. The temporal dimension of our experience of beauty has not, to my knowledge, been noticed as being part of Plato’s thought. It is important for two reasons, though. Once we understand it, we can better see why, in his view, we lovers who desire to be happy forever care so much about experiencing and creating beauty. This will be my focus here. But in addition, as I will suggest at the end, it helps us see how Plato can allow for that aspect of the experience of beauty which Kant called disinterestedness, while nevertheless maintaining that the pleasure we take in beauty is deeply interested. Thus, my reading of the Symposium will enrich our understanding of Plato’s conception of beauty and, in my view, make it more plausible.

1. Phaedrus’ speech: a paradigm and two problems

Before turning to Socrates’ speech, let us consider for a moment the first speech of the evening, for in his speech Phaedrus praises love in terms that Socrates will basically accept.2 According to Phaedrus, love “gives people who intend to live in a fine and beautiful way [kalôs] what is necessary to lead them through their whole lives… What is this thing I mean? Shame at shameful and ugly things and ambitious striving3 for fine and beautiful ones (tois kalois). For neither city nor private citizen can achieve great and beautiful [kala] deeds without these things” (178c5-d4). In other words, he describes lovers as responding to the beauty of their beloveds by living and acting in a way that is itself beautiful. It is this power of love to make us creative of beauty that Phaedrus praises. The remainder of the speech is a catalogue of extraordinary feats caused by love—for example, it is none other than love that inspires Homer’s heroes on the field of battle.

There is nothing extraordinary in the paradigm for praising love that Phaedrus introduces.4 In fact, there is such a long tradition of praising love for its creation of beautiful poetry and acts of derring-do that it may to us seem trite. What is more interesting is that Socrates endorses both sides of Phaedrus’ trope. That is to say, he claims both (1) that love is a response to beauty and (2) that love responds by creating beauty. To be sure, Socrates (or Diotima) emphasizes the first half. Lovers of all stripes are able to give birth only in beauty (206c-d, 209b-c) and the steps by which the lover-initiate ascends the ladder of love are all beauties (210e, 211c). But when they encounter beauty, lovers of the lower mysteries give birth to laws, political wisdom, poetry, and glorious deeds of justice, moderation, and the rest of virtue—all of which Socrates calls beautiful (209a6-8, 209d6-e3).5 And since he says that these offspring are more beautiful and immortal than physical, human children (209c6-7), it is reasonable to assume that bodily lovers, too, give birth to beauty, albeit perhaps only to beauty that a mother could see. The situation is the same for the lovers of the higher mysteries. At the first stage, when the lover loves a single beautiful body, he generates beautiful speeches (210a7); when he reaches the “great sea of beauty” he gives birth to “many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts” (210d4-5). At the apex of his journey, the lover grasps the most complete knowledge of the beautiful and gives birth to true virtue. Socrates does not say explicitly that this creation is something beautiful, but since all the earlier offspring were beautiful, and since virtue in general is usually considered to be kalon, it seems reasonable to assume that here, too, Socrates’ lover responds to beauty with beauty. His analysis of love is far more ambitious than anything Phaedrus suggests. Still, it is fair to say that one of the principal tasks of Socrates’ speech is to rethink the way beauty figures in erotic experience while nevertheless remaining true to the widespread intuition that Phaedrus expresses.

Let us return to Phaedrus, however. His speech is obviously a party set-piece (Hunter 2004:38-39 suggests that it may have been prepared in advance), so it may seem churlish to examine it for philosophical coherence. Still, for the philosophically inclined reader the speech raises more questions than it answers. First, Phaedrus takes for granted that lovers are attracted to beautiful people. But given how ethically and politically crucial the effect of love is in his view, we might well find it curious that it is beautiful people who set love in motion. Why is it beauty that has this power? Second, despite what Phaedrus claims, it is far from clear that love as he understands it will characteristically issue in great and beautiful actions. As he sees it, the beneficial power of love is due to the fact that it instills philotimia, love of honor. Lovers are especially ashamed to be caught by their beloved doing something shameful and so, presumably because they would like to be admired, are zealous to perform fine actions on their behalf. But it is hard to see how love of honor can explain lovers’ inclination to take the most fine and beautiful risk of all, the risk of death. How will the lover enjoy the fruits of honor once he’s dead? Oddly, Phaedrus himself opens the door to this objection when he criticizes Orpheus, who dared to enter Hades for the sake of his beloved, but wasn’t willing to go there by the traditional, deadly route. If Orpheus’ love has in fact filled him with love of honor, as Phaedrus’ account requires, then his eagerness to do something fine up to the point of actually being killed seems utterly reasonable. What good will Eurydice’s attentions do him when he’s dead? (Cithara-players aren’t soft (179d4); they’re smart!)

Even leaving aside this extreme case, it is unlikely that philotimia can provide an adequate explanation of the phenomenon Phaedrus invokes it to explain. For honor is a reward not for behavior that genuinely is fine and beautiful, but for behavior conventionally assumed to be fine and beautiful. Thus, if a society admires actions that are not genuinely good, love of honor might in fact drive a Phaedran lover to actions that are shameful and ugly.6 And indeed it soon emerges that even the Athenians encourage lovers to behave in ways whose beauty may be seriously doubted. According to Pausanias, who speaks after Phaedrus, the custom in Athens is for lovers “to beg their beloveds, swear oaths, sleep in doorways, and be willing to submit themselves to forms of slavery that no slave, even, would submit to” (Rowe modified,183a4-7). Pausanias professes to approve of this arrangement, but as he himself says, this is the sort of behavior that the Athenians would typically reproach as obsequious, shameful, and unbecoming a free man (183b1-3). Pausanias claims that the lover’s pandering and making a slave of himself (for the sake of sex, one assumes) is more admirable than comparable behavior for the sake of money (183a2), but it is hard to see why this behavior’s source in erotic desire makes it any better. (It is ironic that Pausanias heightens our uncertainty about whether the connection between love and beautiful action is reliable, for he explicitly claims that he will do a better job than Phaedrus had done of praising love as the cause of fine and beautiful action (180c1-d3; 180e4-181a7).)

Phaedrus’ account of love cannot ultimately be supported, therefore. He cannot explain why it is beauty to which we are especially responsive or why love properly issues in beautiful actions. If, as I said before, Socrates preserves Phaedrus’ idea that love is characterized by and is valuable for its response to and creation of beauty, we ought to wonder whether his explanation fares better. Why is it beauty that elicits this response? And why is it good for us to create something beautiful?

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