Eros Term Paper

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Trinity College

Ancient Greek Philosophy

Paper 2-Platonic Dialogues

October 7, 1997

The nature of a thing called love has perplexed and confounded humans for

thousand of years. Even Socrates himself, believed by many to be among the greatest

thinkers of civilization as we know it, entertained the notion of Eros. In several of the

Platonic Dialogues, we find wise Socrates satisfying his contemporary audiences'

questions regarding Eros, and in doing so, draws countless parallels to other aspects of

being. In this respect, Socrates not only speaks of Eros, but raises numerous questions

regarding his unclear and often contradictory views of life. Yet upon very close scrutiny,

a select few of these dialogues, including the Symposium and the Phaedrus, render

possible answers to a small number of questions Plato raises, and yield tremendous

insight into the mind of a literary and philosophical genius who so often allowed that his

own intellect be clandestine.

In the Symposium, Eros is identified as the desire to create and produce "in

beauty" with the hope of attaining immortality. The process of giving birth is used by

Diotima as a metaphor for this procreation, and a distinction is made between a

pregnancy of the soul and a pregnancy of the body. While pregnancy of the body

produces human offspring, a pregnant soul gives birth to "what is appropriate for the


Good senses and the rest of virtue, of which all poets are

procreators...But much the most important and most beautiful

aspect of good that which deals with the regulations

of cities and households, the name of which is judiciousness

and justice.(209a)

Diotima suggests that the offspring of the soul are somewhat superior to those of the

body in the context of love, for the beautiful works made by the soul have the capacity to

be truly immortal.(209d)

This idea lends itself to one of the ideas presented in the Phaedrus. Socrates

declares that the soul is itself immortal for it the product of change itself. He says that

since the soul changes itself, it never stops changing, and that which changes eternally "is

the source and origin of change for all the things that change." (245c) And since the

origin of a thing cannot come from an origin, "the origin of change must be change

itself." (245d) The words "change itself" implies the "form" of change. Socrates

concludes by stating that "since what is changed by itself has been shown to be immortal,

one is not ashamed to say that this very characteristic constitutes the essence and

definition of the soul." It seems that Socrates qualifies the soul and the form or change

as conjoined. This implies that the form of the soul is created from the form of change,

or that every soul is a form in and of itself. Socrates is clearly making some sort of

distinction between the form of a soul and the rest of the forms. The distinction seems

to rely somewhat on that fact that the soul is in itself immortal. Thus the form of a soul,

which is by very nature of forms part divine and immortal, is portrayed as divinity which

has by some misfortune, lost a portion of its divine power.

From the passage quoted from 209a, we may also infer that the "form" or good

sense is judiciousness. It may also be a partial explanation regarding Socrates belief that

the work of the poets is inspired by the gods. "I soon recognized that they do not make

what they make by wisdom, but by some sort of nature and while inspired, like diviners

and those who delivers oracles."(Apology, 22b-c) As he will explain in the Phaedrus,

only the soul may be close to the gods.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates defines the soul as a flying object, which in its state of

perfection(thus the "form" of the soul) has wings which allow the soul to partake of the

universe in its entirety (246c) Subjection to those things not in accordance with the

divine may injure or destroy the wings of a soul, and thus cause said soul to "fall." (246d)

This type of injury makes following the gods on the circular journey to the dwelling place

of the forms difficult. In this section, Socrates takes great pains to accentuate the fact that

only the souls of the gods may partake fully in "that place beyond the heavens," for only

the perfect souls of the divine have the ability to make the journey. In this place, the

intellect, which Socrates identifies as the "pilot of the soul," may visually see the forms

as they really are. Other souls may follow at some proximity to the gods and have the

chance to see the forms, but only briefly. Others may only witness some of the forms,

and those souls which have the most difficulties might not have the opportunity to

witness the forms at all.(248a)

Socrates continues along this line of discussion as he proceeds to explain the way

the fallen souls are assigned to earthly bodies. His formula, which Socrates attributes to

the goddess of destiny, raises an interesting point concerning what Socrates believed to

be a good and worthy life. He says:

...the one[soul] who has seen the most is implanted in a

seed that will become a man who is a friend of wisdom or

of beauty or else someone devoted to the Muses and the

affairs of love. The implanted in the seed of a

law-abiding king or a military commander; the third in that

of a politician, a manager, or a businessman; the fourth in that

of an althelete...or someone who cures the ills of the body; the

fifth will lead a life involved with prophecy...the sixth the life of

a poet or some else involved with the imitative arts...the

seventh that of that of an artisan or farmer; for the eighth that

of a Sophist...; for the ninth that of a tyrant...(248d-e)

This is little more than a blue-print for the hierarchy of society, which fits nicely with

what we know of Plato and Socrates from the other dialogues. Sophists, according to this

plan, are allotted the souls just a step up from those given to the tyrants. Similarly, even

the kings receive souls slightly less perfect than those given to the "friends of wisdom."

Interestingly, Plato makes a point to describe the journey for the lesser souls.

They are carried around beneath it[the region of the forms]

trampling and jostleing one another as each tries to get ahead.

So, there is great clamor and conflict, and much sweating...

and many break their wing-feathers. Despite much effort,

all these finish the journey without being initiated into the vision

of what is, and afterward they feed on mere opinion.(248b)

"Mere opinion" is to say that the knowledge held and professed by such souls is not of

true understanding, but is instead the product of conjecture.

From Diotima's speech in the Symposium, the reader may gain terrific

understanding of what Socrates believed a life should be. "Here is the life, Socrates my

friend...that a human being should live-studying the beautiful itself."(211d) A good life

is one of contemplation of the forms. Although it is nearly impossible for any human

being to understand or see the forms for what they truly are, an entire life spent in

examination, in a quest to discover understanding of the form, is not life wasted. The

person who would finally gain this knowledge would gain immortality, for then and only

then could a person's soul give birth to true virtue, rather than an imitation of what virtue

really is. (211e-212a)

One might infer from all of this that Socrates entire life was spent in a desperate

search for that very thing which he himself believed to be quite unattainable. He

wandered and questioned every aspect of life, seemingly in an attempt to uncover some

hidden answer, some definite truth. Rarely if ever in these dialogues, however, do we see

any closure to his discussions. Though he often proves others wrong in their ideas, he is

usually left in examination, forever drawn to an impasse which is overtly and perhaps

actually insurmountable. One may question why such a wise man would spend his entire

life walking down a path which would lead, if anywhere, in circles. Perhaps he thought

himself to be the one mortal being with the capability of understanding the

incomprehensible. Or perhaps there is no need for speculation.

In order to properly grasp the concept being presented to us, we must try to take a

step back and reduce Plato's assertion to their most basic and simple forms. We might

begin with Eros, as defined by Diotima. Love is the desire to create and produce in

beauty. This desire is caused by the human wish for immortality. Immortality may be

gained by giving birth through the soul, for the soul is immortal because it is the product

of change itself, an eternal entity. The ultimate goal of Eros is to witness the form of

beauty, and to do this one must be able recall the vision from the time when his soul

journeyed to the land of the forms. Only some of the souls make the journey to see the

forms, and the best of these are given to, in Socrates words, "a man who is a friend of

wisdom." (248d) The translation of the word "philosophy" literally means love(philia) of


In asserting that only the divine may see the forms for what they truly are, and

following that by saying the only people who have any hopes of recollecting their own

soul's brief vision of the forms are the philosophers, the inference is quite clear.

We must also note that in the very beginning of the Symposium, Socrates claims to know

the ways of love.(177d) In order to know love, one must have the ability to recall the

visions of his soul and is thus "initiated." "When a man deals correctly with

remembrances of this sort, he is always initiated perfectly into the mysteries, and he

alone really becomes perfect."(249c) Since Socrates claims only the souls of the

philosophers actually experience enough of the forms to recall them, the assertion here is

that not only are philosophers privy to the most nearly perfect souls, but are also the only

humans who may regain winged souls and attain perfection. If Socrates knows love as he

claims to, than he has been initiated into the actions of love, and if this is true he is

perfect and truly a friend of the gods. Thus philosophers, especially Socrates and Plato,

are above all others in society in that they are the closest to both perfection and divinity.

Since in the time of Socrates, kings were thought to have close relations with the deities,

these ideas would have been used in defense of the Republic's Philosopher-King concept.

One may question what Plato was trying to express in his use of multiple frames

of reference, especially in the Symposium, or moreover, whose ideas were actually

expressed in the Platonic Dialogues. The question of whose words these actually were is

completely irrelevant, especially in with regard to the Symposium and the Phaedrus. No

matter who said it, the message behind the words remains clear and the fact is, both

Socrates and Plato were philosophers. This sentiment would apply equally as much to

one as to the other. Interestingly, though he claims to know nothing, Soctrates always

manages to turn an arguement in the direction of his own affairs and in proof of his own

sentiments. From the ideas presented in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, it is easy to

understand why Socrates felt the way he did about life, and why his views were so

obviously deontological(The Crito). Obviously, if Socrates spent his entire life in

contemplation of the forms, and thus believd himself to be initated into the actvities of

love, he would have had no need to worry about his life on this realm, or where his

winged-soul would journey after his bodily death.

Aren't you aware, that only there with it, when a person sees

the beautiful in the only way it can be seen, will he ever be able

to give birth, not to imitations of virtue...but to true virtue,

because he would be taking hold of what is true? By giving birth

to true virtue and nourishing it, he would be able to become a

friend of the gods, and if any human being could become immortal,

he would...(211e-212a)


Plato, Plato's Erotic Dialogues(translated by William S. Cobb). Albany: State University

of New York Press, 1993

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