1. We now get Diotima’s famous ladder, a
story about how a man progresses in wisdom.
First, led by Love, he meets a person with a beautiful body and begets
ideas in the presence of that person.
Second, he looks around and finds that there are more people who
are beautiful. And bodily beauty is the same, in whomever it might be
found, and hence he loves all beautiful bodies.
This seems wrong. One person may have beautiful hair and another
beautiful lips. Surely their beauty is not the same!
This objection seems insufficient. For then it is not the person as
a whole who is beautiful, but the hair or lips. And maybe the beauty
of the hair and the beauty of the lips is the same?
Is the beauty any different in different people, or is it simply
exhibited differently? I can have two ten dollar bills or one twenty
dollar bills. It is the same amount of money in either case. It is exhibited
But surely there are different kinds of beauty. The beauty
of a man is one thing and that of a woman is a different thing. A
beautiful man may be beautiful through a severity of features while a beautiful
woman may be beautiful through softness of features. One woman might be
beautiful through her great classical symmetry and harmony of features, and
another through the uniqueness of her face. Is the beauty the same
in all of these cases?
Well, presumably, in all cases it is beauty. There has to
be something they have in common, since otherwise we couldn’t use the same word
“beauty” in all the cases, except the way the word “bank” is used to cover the
side of a river and a financial institution.
Third, he progresses to look at the beauty of souls, of
activities and laws.
Fourth, he sees the beauty in knowledge. He sees beauty now not in
one example, but in many things. In mathematics, in astronomy, and so
on. “[T]he lover is turned to the great sea of beauty, and, gazing upon
this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in
unstinting love of wisdom, until…” (210D)
Fifth, until he sees something that does not change, that isn’t
beautiful only in one respect and not another, or in one relation or not
another, or here but not there. This beauty is not bodily or just in one
kind of knowledge. He started with loving boys, and now has come to…
“this very Beauty” (211C). This is Beauty Itself. The Form of
Question: What do you give birth to in the presence of this
Beauty? (Some of the other things? Beautiful customs and souls and
all forms of knowledge?)
2. Why is
this framed in the speech of Diotima rather than directly of Socrates?
didn’t actually hold these views: they are Plato’s. This is probably
even as a character in a dialogue could not say these things himself
because they are so out of character. Socrates’s most basic
commitment is to knowing nothing but that he knows nothing. How,
then, could he know about how this ladder of knowledge of beauty
goes? It can only be an opinion. It is offered without proof,
as something to inspire the reader to climb.
enters. He accuses Socrates of many things, including the terrible
accusation of being hubristic, of being full of himself and thinking
himself superior. This no doubt comes from the fact that Socrates at
least knows he knows nothing, and he keeps on showing other people that they
know less than he does—they don’t even know this! He seems to accuse
Socrates of pretending to ignorance only on the surface, but in fact having
lots of knowledge. We know Socrates had various views such as that virtue
was good. But perhaps Socrates would say these were opinion, not knowledge.
Opinion is something one does not understand fully and cannot give a proof of
or defend fully in argumentation.
- The obvious
source of Alcibiades’ unhappiness is his failure to get Socrates to become
his lover. Wrestling together in the gymnasium naked (the
“gymnasium” is by definition the place for nakedness) didn’t work, nor
even embracing Socrates’s bare flesh. Alcibiades at one point says
that the most important thing to him is becoming the best man he can.
(218D.) But this may be a part of his seduction. Anyway,
Socrates upbraids him: A swap of sex for knowledge is unfair, because
knowledge is worth a lot more!
shows great chastity and courage. He speaks in plain ways
(221E)—unlike the sophists. He uses homely examples.
- Socrates is
both lover and beloved. He loves wisdom, and becomes beautiful
insofar as he loves wisdom. He is not beautiful all the way
through. For instance, he doesn’t have the beauty of possessing
wisdom, he claims humbly.
4. But there
is a nagging question. What is this Beauty?
5. So when I love my wife, I ultimately
love her because she exemplifies the Form of Beauty, the Form of Goodness—it is
the same Form probably. At the same time, I want to exemplify the Form of
Goodness. One of the characteristics of goodness is eternity. Thus,
I want to possess eternity. I do this by reproducing together with my
wife, thereby achieving an eternity of descendants. In doing so, I come
to possess more good in myself: I achieve the good of eternity, not just in
soul, but in body.
that is not all. I also engage in philosophical conversation with my
wife. Therefore, she helps me to possess not just that aspect of
goodness which eternity is, but also that aspect of goodness which
knowledge of the Forms is. I talk with her about Beauty, Goodness,
Truth, and the like, and thereby gain more knowledge of the Forms of
Beauty, Goodness and Truth.
- But in all
these cases, there is something more important than my wife: the Form that
she exemplifies. It is only because she participates in the Form of
Goodness, the Form of Beauty, that she can help me reproduce myself
physically and that she can help reproduce in me the knowledge of the
Forms. Thus, we have a deep question about Plato’s theory of love:
Do I really love my wife or do I love the Form of Beauty or Goodness that
she participates in? Do I love her for her being herself, or for
having the qualities of beauty and goodness? We should mull on this
This is a different sort of dialogue from the Symposium. Whereas
in the Symposium we learn Plato’s views about love, we don’t directly
learn anything in the Lysis. It is an aporetic dialogue, in
that it ends in aporia, a puzzle, an inability to find a way
forward. But something is established: we learn that we do not
know what friendship is. The aporetic dialogues like the Lysis
give one a very good picture of the activity of Socrates rather than the
thought of his student Plato. This is what Socrates did: he went around
and chatted until people learned that they didn’t know.
- Whereas the
Symposium was about erotic love, the Lysis seems to be
focused on friendship, philia.
philosophical puzzle is of figuring out who counts as whose friend.
The setting is also interesting, however. Hippothales was making a
fool of himself over Lysis with whom he was in love. He would tell
him all kinds of stories from history and write poetry. Socrates is
going to show him how he should proceed with his beloved Lysis. He
should engage in philosophical conversation with Lysis, since it is in
this way that Lysis will best benefit, and of course if one loves someone,
one wants him to benefit.
interesting remark along the way: 207c: the possessions of friends are
held in common.
- We try out
a number of different accounts.
- The lover
(non-sexual) is the friend of the beloved. The hater is the enemy of
One can be an enemy of someone who is a friend of one.
- The beloved
is the friend of the lover.
- Note: The
difficulty here is that love, philia, seems to be an
asymmetric relation whereas friends, philoi, are mutual. We
also try out two other options. If one is a friend only where both
love, we have the problem that the parent is a friend to the infant even
when the infant is too young to love the parent back. But again,
surely, we don’t have friendship where there is no love at all.
- We leave
this issue alone now.
7. Next we
look at an old principle, that like is a friend to like
- This makes
sense. Good people are friends of good people, after all.
- We start
with the following criticism. Two evil people can be enemies, even
though they are alike in that they are both evil.
we’re told, evil is unstable. So they don’t stay like for very
long, and one in a sense isn’t even like oneself: at time t0
one isn’t like one is at t1, if one is evil.
- So we
leave this criticism alone.
- We need to
make the like-loves-like theory more precise. It’s not that one has
to be alike in every way to love someone. Rather, I think the
point is this. When two people are friends, there is a reason
why they are friends. The reason for the friendship is some aspect
of likeness. For instance, the reason for the friendship may be that
both are good.
- But now we
have a more serious problem. “Is there any good or harm that a like
thing can do to a like thing, which it cannot also do to itself?”
(214e-215a) The point is that to the extent that two things are
alike, neither can help the other.
- If you
want help with your French homework, and my knowledge of French is
exactly like yours, then I will be of no help. I can only be of
help if there is a difference between us.
imagine now two individuals who are exactly alike. They could still
help each other. For instance, one could scratch the other’s
- Or one
could help the other carry the sofa.
answers probably don’t defend Plato’s argument successfully. However,
there is something that survives the objections: One only loves someone
because one lacks something the other has (a bit of strength, the
ability to scratch your back). So, how can a good person love a
good person because of the goodness in both? Insofar as both are
good, neither lacks anything the other has.
- Of course
one might contend that a good person loves another good person not
because the other is good but, say, because the other is helpful, or
tall, or nice. But these are all forms of goodness or are thought
to be such: we only love the tall person because she is tall if we
think tallness is good (for the purpose at hand).
- But this
shows something else. A good person could love another good person
if their goodnesses don’t match up—if one lacks a form of goodness
the other has. Even if so, Plato’s argument against the
like-loves-like theory succeeds. The reason for the friendship is
not just a likeness but a difference.
suggests that complementarity is important for friendship.
- There is a
variant of this argument, attacking not just the like-loves-like theory
but the more specific good-loves-good theory. When Plato talks of
someone being good, or someone to the extent that she is good, he is
probably talking of her being in a good state, not just her being a
good person. There are many ways of not being a good state.
One might be a murderer; one might have a head-ache; one might
be an ignoramus; one might be lacking a leg. Plato thinks the
most important are the moral and sapiential qualities here, but the others
enter in as well. Now, insofar as you are in a good state, you don’t
lack anything. It is because you are in a bad state that you
lack things. E.g., because you are sick, which is not a good state
to be in, or because you are vicious, or because you are penniless.
But if insofar as you are good—i.e., in a good state—you do not have
needs, it cannot be that you are in a friendship just because of your
goodness. It’s got to be because of something else—because of a
lack, an evil, it seems.
- Again we
see a link between love—this time philia, not erôs—and need.
One benefits through friendship. But to benefit, one must lack that
through which one benefits.
8. We now get
an official definition (219B): “That which is neither good nor evil is a friend
to good on account of an evil to which it is an enemy, for the sake of a good
to which it is a friend?”
- One problem
that Socrates doesn’t explore enough is that this is not mutual, in the
way friendship is supposed to be. But perhaps this can be
solved. Think of the friendship between a physician and a
dentist. The dentist is sick; the physician has bad
teeth. Each as an individual is neutral, though is good as
a physician or as a dentist. Each suffers from an evil
present in her. And each appreciates a good in the other for the sake
of a good, namely the good of health or of good teeth. It’s just
that the good each appreciates in the other is a different
good. We get complementarity.
Socrates presents a regress problem. Our official definition of
friendship has two goods. There is that good person or thing
we are friendly to, say the physician or the art of medicine. And
there is that because of which we are friends to him, namely a
different good we are friendly to, in this case the good of health.
Thus, we are friendly to the physician because we are friendly to
health. But this leads to an infinite regress. We are friendly
to health because we are friendly, say, to long life. We are
friendly to long life because we are friendly to the things we can do in
life, say. Etc. Socrates insists we cannot have such an
infinite regress. Rather, we’ve got to come to some good to which we
are friendly for its own sake, rather than for the sake of anything
- We get a
nice illustration of this. A man loves his son above
everything. His son has drunk hemlock. The man thinks wine
will cure this. So, he is friendly to a cup, on account of the wine
he will put in it, and he is friendly to the wine on account of the son to
whom it will restore health.
whenever we are friendly towards something, we are friendly towards it on
account of something that we value ultimately, something in which
the series of things we are friendly towards terminates. But then it
is that final thing, whatever it might be, which is the real
reason for our friendship, and is the thing towards which we are really
- This is
intuitively right. If I am only friendly to the physician because of
health, then it is health, not the physician, who is really my
friend. Or suppose that I am friendly to someone for selfish
reasons, because I hope to get some money or pleasure out of them.
Then, she is not really a friend—the money or the pleasure are more truly
my friend. Assuming I want the money or pleasure for my own sake,
then even the money and the pleasure are not really my friend: the real
friend there is I. We might well say about such a person: “He
did not really love Francine: the only person he really loves is he
now refines his official definition. Do we actually need sickness
to love the physician? We have a desire for health. Imagine all
sickness disappeared from the world, but everything else stayed. Well,
the desire for health would stay. And we would still be friendly to
health. Thus, the reason for friendship is not an evil such as sickness,
but a desire for a good.
But what is it that one desires? Socrates thinks we desire that
which naturally belongs to us human beings. Our desires are for what is a
part of being a human being but is lacking in us. But the beloved
must have it. So, there must be a commonality between us and our friends.
But if there is such commonality, then we will be loved in return.
Why? Imagine someone else has something we want: e.g.,
wisdom. Now, wisdom is something human, in the sense of being the sort of
thing that makes up a full and complete human being. So we have a
commonality with the beloved. Even if the beloved is, say, a goddess, she
still has something in common with us: she has wisdom which we lack, but which
is a human thing, i.e., a thing a human at least can have. But
this commonality need not mean the goddess returns our love. For it is
not commonality alone which is the cause of friendship. Rather, it
is commonality and one person having what the other lacks. But the
goddess, we might suppose, does not lack anything that belongs to us.
Moreover, this commonality means that we are back to the idea that evil
people love evil people, because they have something in common.
But does evil belong naturally to a person?
One might even say in favor of this theory that it nicely allows
for both similarity and difference, getting around the earlier criticisms of
the like-loves-like theory. For instance, if I love you for your ability to
help me with my French homework, I love you for something natural to human
beings—a highly developed ability to learn languages—for something that by
nature belongs to me, even though I do not in fact currently have it. Or,
if it’s awkward or un-platonic to say that the ability belongs naturally to me
when I don’t have it, I can say that the appropriateness of learning languages
belongs to me…
gives up, expressing puzzlement that we haven’t been able to figure out what
friendship is even though we think we are friends. This is
interesting. Is Socrates suggesting that until we know what friendship
is, we are not really capable of being in a friendship, and so we only think
we are friends? Or is he pointing to the strangeness of us being
friends and not knowing what friendship is?