Victor Nuovo: A platonic digression

Editor’s note: This is the 31st in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.

After reviewing the previous essay, I realized that my account of the philosophical background of American Transcendentalism was incomplete. Its historical roots reach back in history well beyond Kant, to Greek antiquity. If we can believe Plato, Socrates was the first transcendental philosopher, and on his own account, he was taught by a woman, Diotima, a prophetess from the Greek city of Mantinea. To learn about this, one must read Plato’s Symposium. This will not be an unpleasant digression. Indeed, I can think of no other book, past or present, that is more delightful, inspiring, transforming, transfiguring.

“Symposium” is a Greek noun; it denotes a banquet that usually ended in a drinking contest. Plato’s Symposium depicts a gathering of aristocratic men during a holiday festival. They had feasted the day before and were hung over. One of the group, Eryximachus, a physician, remarks that excess drinking is harmful and suggests an alternative: an evening of discourse; each member of the party shall deliver a speech honoring Eros, the god of love, who of all the gods is the most neglected and yet the most worthy of our affection. This was agreed. The remainder of the Symposium consists of six speeches celebrating Love. Socrates is the last to speak and most of the remainder of this essay will be a summary of what he said.

This is not to say that the other speeches are not worth reading. They are all delightful. One in particular, by Aristophanes, is especially memorable. He begins with a narrative of the first human beings; they had spherical bodies, two heads, four arms, and four legs — bodies well suited for acrobatics and somersaulting and looking in both directions, which facilitated their movement. Some of them were male, others female, and still others androgynous. They were a haughty race, and the gods, offended by their pride and arrogance, and tiring of their insolence, punished them by slicing them in two; each half was left with one head, which the gods turned around, so that they would thereafter look down on their shame; and they were made to fear that if they did not learn humility, the gods would repeat the process. Aristophanes describes love as the longing for one’s other half, for wholeness; the object of that sexual desire depends on whether one’s original state was male, female, or binary. Commentators on the Symposium, have observed the irony of this speech. Aristophanes was a famed comic playwright, and his speech, although comic, reveals a serious passion deep in the recesses of the soul. Of course, his speech is a product of the art of Plato.

Socrates’ speech is a narrative of what he learned from the prophetess Diotima. He tells how she began by cross-examining him in a manner reminiscent of Socratic questioning. The outcome was to convince Socrates that Eros, or Love, was not a god. But neither was he a mere mortal. Rather, Love is something in between, a daimon or spirit, dwelling in the soul, the cause of all desire, longing, and aspiration. To be spiritual is to be possessed, driven by a longing for something that transcends physical pleasure; it is to be in a state of being between mortality and immortality, a mortal longing for what is immortal, eternal, and for what is truly noble and good, for source of all value. Spirit resides in every human soul, and it is most manifest in engendering, giving birth, bringing forth new life with which comes expectation and hope. Socrates learns that pregnancy is not a condition of a one gender only; it inhabits both. Without it there would be no human creativity.

Diotima tells Socrates that every human being is pregnant “in body and soul: and on reaching a certain age our nature yearns to beget.” The conjunction of man and woman is a begetting for both. It is a divine affair, this engendering and bringing to birth, an immortal element in the creature that is mortal. It is beauty that drives this yearning, this passion to beget. Beauty “presides over birth as Fate and Midwife; and when the pregnant approaches the beautiful it is endowed with grace and gladness, and the soul overflows in begetting and bringing forth.” It cohabits with the beautiful and gives birth.

Diotima remarks that the human soul, unlike the divine, is driven by desire to give birth, because it is mortal, because only by engendering another life does life continue — she suggests that animals feel this too. But to accomplish this, the mind must transcend its mere mortal vision of physical things to encounter beauty itself, pure, unalloyed, and infinitely productive; and not only this, but also what is good, radiant, and of infinite promise. This transcending of the mind is not a flight into abstraction, away from mere sense, from what we see and feel and touch, from all that is concrete. What she imagined to be the eternal form of beauty was rich and full and fulfilling, encompassing the fairest, the finest, and the noblest of things. No artist can be without this vision, which is beauty “existing by itself, in singleness of form, eternally itself,” for it is the fountain of all creativity, in art and much more.

Plato gives this idea of the beautiful and the good a novel political turn. Love is the desire to engender something that is not only beautiful to the senses, but also noble and good, which is elevating to the mind; something that will overcome the deficiencies and uncertainties of the human condition. And this is best exemplified in the creation of a civil society, and of the institutions of government, and its laws. This alone is sufficient to free us from the limitations and infirmities of our frail human nature.

Now a civil society flourishes only if its members are virtuous. Our worst deficiencies arise not from our mortality, but from our immorality, from meanness of spirit, selfishness, envy, willfulness, and willful ignorance. To overcome this, we must transcend ourselves, and it is only by this means we become truly social beings, ever engendering more noble laws, ever refining our institutions ensuring that are accommodating to all, and above all just. To be a citizen is to be a participant in an ongoing creation and celebration of life.

Postscript: Everyone should read Plato’s Symposium. It is very readable and there are many good translations of Plato’s Symposium. Consult your local bookseller.

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