On Women, Beauty and Love -- again; part 3


[Bernini - detail from The Ecstasy of St. Theresa]

‘Do you want, then, to live happily and wisely? Attach your heart only to imperishable beauty.'


~Rousseau, Emile

So what does Diotima say?

Diotima begins her account of erôs with a mythic description of Erôs the spirit which serves as an insightful allegory of love. Erôs is the child of Poverty and Resource, conceived during the celebration of the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, and he embodies his contradictory lineage as well as his love of beauty. Erôs is by nature the spirit of desire, he is the spirit who has his being from being in between wealth and poverty, immortality and mortality, wisdom and ignorance. Love is by nature an admixture of opposing qualities, and as such seems to be the manifestation of perpetually unsatisfied desire. Diotima makes this clear in her description of Love’s place between wisdom and ignorance,
Those who love wisdom fall in between those two extremes [the wise and the ignorant]. And Love is one of them, because he is in love with what is beautiful, and wisdom is extremely beautiful. It follows that Love must be a lover of wisdom and, as such, is in between being wise and being ignorant.

Since no one would ever desire that which they already possess, Love, as a lover of the beautiful and thus of wisdom, must fall somewhere in between wisdom and ignorance, understanding that he desires wisdom without ever being capable of attaining it. Diotima is here assuming the same thing that Aristophanes assumed, that love desires that which it lacks.

It is important to see that Diotima is trying to establish an argument for the most excellent sort of love -- this will, if it is to be coherent with the Platonic philosophy, be the sort of love which is closest to the divine, closest to the mind, furthest from the mortal, furthest from the body. Love must be able to approach the Good, which must be Beautiful in this philosophy.

Diotima describes the process of love as 'The love of some [person/thing/Form].' There is a Lover and there is the Beloved -- one is active, the other passive, and Love is the force which motivates the Lover to maintain the activity of Loving.

Diotima describes the process of love as the process of coming to more excellent knowledge of beauty, progressing from the love of beauty in particular instances to the love of Beauty-itself. The lover begins by loving all instances of material beauty, the beauty of bodies. He will then progress to the love of a single beautiful body, and in this love, realize that,

the beauty of any one body is brother to the beauty of any other and that if he is to pursue beauty of form he’d be very foolish not to think that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same.

The lover will continue to progress, coming to realize next that the beauty of minds is superior to the beauty of bodies, and then to an appreciation for the beauty of all activities, laws and kinds of knowledge. At this penultimate rung of the ladder,

The 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, having grown and been strengthened there, he catches sight of such knowledge, and it is the knowledge of such beauty …The man ... who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is now coming to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for all his earlier labors.

The lover can here gaze upon the goal of all his loving and learning, the form of Beauty-itself, which is imperishable, unchanging, and completely perfect in beauty. Beauty-itself doesn't come to be, it doesn't perish, it doesn't change. It is. And it is an Ideal -- it is intimately tied into Goodness and Virtue and thus the Beautiful is the object of Knowledge.

Diotima’s description of the process of love is the process of moving ever closer to contemplation of Beauty-itself. This contemplation is the most excellent form of love, and it is only attainable after a long and arduous development of proper loving and knowing. Diotima says that it is in this state of contemplating and loving that one should live their life. Love is the force that motivates understanding and gives birth to understanding and wisdom. Love is the desire for Beauty-itself, for something divine and virtuous, and thus love is the only force which can effectively catalyze the lowly mortal philosopher. A sort of Philosopher's Stone perhaps -- the only thing capable of transforming the mortal into the immortal.

But how is this a picture of something good? How does this allegory work? It works by identifying beauty with perfection; it works by identifying the beloved with the passive medium for some external process of purification and ascension; it works by identifying love as a force which motivates only in the presence of some lack, by identifying love as a force which seeks, when most excellent, to reach beyond the mortal to the immortal.

And so? These are lovely myths, no? They are powerful myths, no? Aristophanes tells us that lovers will complete one another. Diotima tells us that lovers reach beyond -- that they attach their hearts to imperishable beauty, in Rousseau's words. And just as Aristophanes' myth has been taken up by writers and artists and lovers, so too has Diotima's myth. And the dangers inherent in the original myth have been exacerbated in the consequent adaptations.

I turn to Lucrezia Marinella next (tomorrow) to show one very dangerous (if unintentional) consequence of this myth's power.