Climbing Diotima’s Ladder of Love
Plato’s Symposium is the quintessential text in the philosophy of love, and one of the central metaphysical ideas in it is Diotima’s ladder of love. Diotima — being a teacher to the Athenian philosopher, Socrates — according to Socrates, was wise beyond comprehension with regards to the ideas of love and beauty. She was unsurpassed in the uniqueness which she brought to the table in the questions of “what is love” and “what is beauty.”
For it is rather easy to be unwise with regards to these ideas. Superficiality is the norm as such: what makes us think it is not the norm when discussing matters of love and beauty? Such complicated notions cannot be commonplace thought of in their most profound manifestations when ideas which are far shallower — yet, still in their own way, profound — are thought of in quite frivolous fashions.
The Symposium is structured as a series of speeches regarding the nature of love, and the one directly prior to Socrates’ — in which Socrates’ incarnates the wisdom of Diotima — by Aristophanes (the famous comic playwright) is quite well thought out, and literarily beautiful. It pulls at the heart-strings. Are we not simply separated from our other half before being born, wandering this life to reunite with it?
To take the metaphysics of such a proposition in fully is to really feel good about what love is. “Ah. But there is someone out there for me! I simply haven’t found them yet! My life isn’t lonely. Someone else out there is likewise alone, and it is because I am alone too. I will find them!” And in fully accepting such a metaphysical proposition, there seems to be a sort of depth to the notion of finding your other half. For single people, the thought of being single for most is generally speaking a lonely thought, precisely because there is the chance that there is someone out there for you. Such a metaphysic — or, more precisely, ontological orientation (i.e., the notion of another half, for both single and coupled people, is a way of being-in-the-world) — can serve to buttress the misery of being alone. “It’s okay. One day I’ll find someone. There’s someone out there for everyone” is generally the antithesis notion against the barrage of, “I’ll never find someone, and I’ll be alone forever,” which is the perfectly natural reaction to being single.
But, despite the literary beauty of Plato’s exegesis of Aristophanes’ lovely speech — so deeply beautiful and influential that we see it present now in the idea of “soul-mates,” which is an ever-pervasive idea in the domains of pop-psychology, new-age spiritualism, and even the mainstream media (often, utilized as a line in television and movie scripts) — , its metaphysics are the metaphysics of rose-colored glasses and unrealistic expectations. And indeed, these spectacles survey such expectations through the lens of double standards: “I will find my soulmate, and they will be perfect! But all of these other couples are folly! Look how imperfect their relationships are. They aren’t with their soulmate. They’re lying to themselves!” Cynicism towards others, while fanciful optimism with regards to oneself, is the result of the idea of “soulmates.” The double-standard here, insofar as one buys into Aristophanes’ myth, makes sense, however. No couple is perfect for one another. If one is single, one has an impartial and visceral understanding of this — one merely needs to look at couples they know to see this in plain view. And if one believes in soulmates, the obvious conclusion is that these couples simply are not two halves refinding one another.
Such a way of perceiving love fundamentally ends up being toxic for those who buy into it. As, on the one hand, the aforementioned condemnatory nature of such individuals towards other couples. To judge other couples for not being perfect, candidly speaking, is condescending. More straightforwardly, though, Aristophanian love becomes toxic because of the unrealistic expectations it sets. Indeed, Diotima points out in the Symposium that there very well might be a metaphysic of finding your other half. But, wisely, she points out, “what if this other half is terrible?” Just because you were one with this person in a previous life doesn’t mean that such unity was a good thing. Indeed, perhaps many people have found their other half. Let’s say that, hypothetically, the vast majority of all married couples have found their other half. We know that nearly half of these marriages end in divorce, and many that do not are simply unhappy. And of those that are not necessarily unhappy, one thing is clear: they are imperfect.
Such imperfection is quite all right — indeed, anything approximating perfection ought to be looked upon with deep suspicion. But satisfactoriness with imperfection is the exact antithesis to the notion of finding one’s soulmate. Indeed, finding one’s soulmate is to approach romance with the deeply unrealistic expectation of perfection. At bottom, this is a recipe for loneliness and sure-fire route to annoying those that you attempt to date.
Socrates’ speech on love, in which he embodies Diotima, illustrates a far deeper conception of love. One that transcends — though still includes — that of the romantic. And one that is simply not idealistic in its conceptualization.
In the preceding speeches, there is a profound amount of praise for love. Indeed, the Symposium can almost be seen as an idolatrous drinking ritual. Love is all that is good, beautiful, and wise, and all that is not bad, ugly and ignorant, by the standards of the speeches prior to Socrates’. And, fundamentally, some of the ways in which this idolization of love is described is quite astute. For instance, “love, who is a poet, makes poets of those who are in love.” In essence, the idea is that love can only create good things, for love, as such is the highest good. Diotima’s conception of love and beauty doesn’t align with this, and I think wisely so.
Love quite readily produces ugly things. As Nietzsche pointed out, “what is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” Given love’s amoral nature, ugly, bad, and ignorant occurrences inevitably spring forth from love. For instance, take the phenomenon of the devouring mother from archetypal psychology. This is the archetype of the mother — though, when put into practice, can, of course, be enacted by the father — who simply loves their children too much. We can see this archetype in Stephen King’s It with Sonia Kaspbrak. Over-protective, overbearing, and all-consuming. But it is out of love, at bottom. However, this gets into the crux of one of Diotima’s important ideas on the driving force of love: the desire for immortality. Although Plato would probably not endorse this view, it is the case that an essential characteristic of being a human is the implicit knowledge of our highly probable finitude. Diotima certainly seemed to think this. As did Socrates,
Let us reflect in this way, too, that there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place. (Apology 40b-c)
Such an implicit understanding of our extremely probable finite time, we have the love impulse, which seeks for some way to make us immortal in a manner that isn’t akin to theological immortality (i.e., the survival of consciousness after dying). The first and easiest example is procreation: your genetics are surviving past your life, and the memory of your guardianship in your offspring lives on insofar as they do. And too with your surname. The point of Diotima’s conceptualization of love is that it is not limited to romance. Shakespeare loved writing, and he is arguably more immortal in a non-theological manner than anyone who has ever lived. And so too the overbearing parent: the overbearing parent is the parent who is so afraid of the concept of finitude and mortality — due to their loneliness in the present — that they simply love their children far too much. Such love is ugly, in the sense that it can only serve to produce a dependent child who will struggle to fend for themselves more than they needed to — sometimes to the point of never growing out of dependency.
I digress, but only slightly. The point of the above illustration is to show that love is not what the idealists make of it. Love is not — indeed, cannot — be pure beauty, goodness, and wisdom, as love simply produces ugly things. So too, it cannot be pure ugliness, badness, and ignorance, for love absolutely produces beautiful things. Hence, Diotima’s placing of love a mean between positive and negative — a quite Aristotelian manner of characterization, I might add.
Love is any longing for the good. Hence, love can only exist on a continuum. It will never be static. The being of love is always in flux. Insofar as one is longing for the good, one will inevitably suffer, self-sacrifice, feel ecstasy, and embrace beauty. The common misconception is that when we are suffering and self-sacrificing, that is no longer love: but such negative events are just as indicative of love as beauty and ecstasy.
All of this, however, partakes in a larger ontological concept: the eternal form of love, or, love-itself. All we have been discussing are particular instances of love, and all of these instances partake in some greater — truer — notion of love, according to Plato. The form of love is something that is both post and pre-linguistic. Due to its scope, and all that falls under its horizon, it is simply too vast to describe using ordinary language. Hence, as Wittgenstein pointed out, it is in the domain of the “mystical.” The phenomenology of the eternal form of love is mystical in the Wittgensteinian sense of that word.
The world and life are one. (5.621 Tractatus)
The world is independent of my will. (6.373 Tractatus)
All propositions are of equal value. (6.4 Tractatus)
If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. (6.4311 Tractatus)
The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole. The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical feeling. (6.45 Tractatus)
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical. (6.522 Tractatus)
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (7 Tractatus)
Quickly, one will ask: how can we experience love as such? The above quotes from Wittgenstein are far from ordinary: indeed, they’re bizarre. We know of love in its average everyday manifestations. Love is so ready at hand for most of us that we take it for granted. How, then, can one experience love in a manner that is inexpressible, whereby all propositions are of equal value (propositions being both linguistic and regarding the logical structures of reality), the experience of the world is of a species of eternity, all of which being so profound that one must be silent, as, one simply cannot speak?
Diotima’s ladder of love, as it is ordinarily phrased, is Diotima’s explanation of the route to such an experience. It is a process, like any other meaningful experience. And this process is a linear one, whereby one starts off from a place of superficiality, and gradually ends up at a place of higher significance, truth, goodness, and beauty.
Before contemplating and unpacking Diotima’s ladder, I must speak briefly on the scholarly interpretation of this ladder, as it is divided into two classes. Both of which have merit and are worth discussing, because this ladder has patently profound philosophical and spiritual significance. On the one hand, many scholars seem to think that as one traverses this ladder, the prior steps and the significance of them are simply tossed away. On the other, there is a school of thought that states that as the ladder is climbed, the previous steps are not tossed out, but they are received with a greater understanding of these steps, and in turn, will not seek perfection in these steps. The latter group of thought seems to me to be a better way of thinking about Diotima’s ladder. For, while we can reach the eternal form of love, we cannot stay there forever — or even for long periods of time for that matter. We live in the world of the steps prior to the form of love. Hence, in encountering the form of love, learn to make the lower rungs of the ladder pristine and non-idealistic all the same. To go with the scholarly view of tossing out the lower parts of Diotima’s ladder would be to say, “now that you know love’s eternal form, do away with contemplating bodies, souls, institutions, and knowledge.” That’s an absurd and impractical manner of living. We live in a world of bodies, souls (i.e., minds/personalities), institutions, and knowledge, whether we like it or not. Given this, we ought to make the best of that world by loving it in a manner that is informed by our experience of the eternal form of love. It is not a matter of tossing away each step: but rather, when one reaches each step, deeply contemplating them, only to bracket the others to return to, to deal with just as seriously. Climbing the ladder is simply increasing gradations of complexity, rather than meaning. There’s deep meaning at all of the stages, and one of the purposes of the final stage is to solidify this fact.
The first stage is the contemplation and love of a particular body. This is the visceral — almost, endocrinological — attraction to a particular body. Such love is the essence of youth. In our early lives, we are psycho-spiritually on all fours — though, some of the more eccentric among us were literally on all fours — in the presence of the beautiful body of another person and this — almost worship — makes us love this person. Fundamentally, this sort of love derives from a place of poverty: self-poverty. Especially in our youth, we are acutely aware of our bodily imperfection; hence, when we see a beautiful body, such an observation strikes us almost a judgment on the adequacy of our own bodies. Such a judgment leads to desire, not only for that person romantically but also to resemble that person, so as to no longer be judged by their beautiful physicality.
Bodily beauty, however, is fleeting by its very nature. The reason for this is because there are many beautiful bodies. One needs to only walk around a large city for about five or ten minutes to prove this fact. In contemplating this fact, one loves the beauty in all beautiful bodies: this, fundamentally, amounts to all bodies. And in doing so, one learns to love the differences between bodies and how they vary in their beauty in their uniqueness.
Given that all bodies are beautiful, one puts aside the fact of bodies and their beauty — at least momentarily — and moves on to the beauty of souls. Now, by “soul,” I simply mean a person’s mind, personality, and being. The way in which a person is — how they orient themselves in the world — is what I mean by soul. The rational, emotional, appetitive, and spiritual composition of a person is their soul. Philosophers of the early modern period thought the same as the word “mind.” In any case, love of souls is placed higher onto the ladder than the love of bodies, because souls are far more complex and widely-variable than bodies are. Give yourself as an example: you know many people, but when you think about how they are different, do thoughts of bodily features or personality features arise first? Or, more precisely, which of the two can you speak at greater lengths about, while still leaving a lot to be said? It’s unquestionable that the soul of someone is more complex than their body. In this complexity, we can only be in awe at the vastness. How can one person be so beautiful, ugly, spiritual, and superficial all at once? There’s almost a sense of absurdity — strangeness, more precisely — in it, but, as Nietzsche rightly pointed out:
This is what happens to us in music: First, one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to· isolate it and delimit it as a separate life. Then it requires some exertion and goodwill to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity. Finally, there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing; and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it. But that is what happens to us not only in music. That is how we have learned to have all things that we now love. In the end, we are always rewarded for our goodwill, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange: gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way; for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned. (The Gay Science §334)
Really, this strangeness with reference to one person is when we say that we love them. It is who they are (sind [sein]), that we love. This isn’t exclusive to romance, of course. I love my partner, but for different reasons and in differing levels of intensity, I also love my friends and family. We can get to a point where we love all souls in this manner, as beauty resides in all souls to some degree. For all souls are indeed very strange.
When one is able to love all souls, this branches out into the love of all institutions; these are the institutions which were invented by beautiful souls. Those institutions, which promote the flourishing of souls and the flourishing of the planet they reside on, are those who are most intensely loved. And in this love, we come to understand the fact that institutions are a combination of order and chaos, whereby the former is what we love, and the latter is what we wish to pass into the former, by utilizing our understanding as a means to change chaos into something better. We can take the institution of the United States, for instance. It is lovely, as it comes with many freedoms. But, it is not lovely in the sense that there is mass inequality. Love of this institution entails understanding both of these facts, so as to incorporate the former towards remedying the latter.
The love of institutions passes onto the love of knowledge — some translations say the love of “science.” When one looks out into the world, one can simply see a vast landscape of new things to know. Knowledge is an intrinsically good thing, whereby ignorance is an intrinsically bad thing. The former, in its vastness, is a percept one cannot help but love. Given that what is true is equivalent to “the good,” according to Plato, and all that one can actually desire is the good, knowledge is readily loved. But, knowledge is so complex that the prior steps are required before truly being capable of loving it. Knowing that there are all sorts of knowledge to be acquired can only begin by knowing particulars. Likewise, in loving these particulars, one is working towards loving knowledge in general. One might encounter this upon entering university. Philosophy students often express this: that a degree in philosophy is one where you are exposed to radically different ideas left and right for four years straight, only to be left to think for yourself, is quite often met with a response of love for knowledge in general.
The love of knowledge is what is last before the love of love-itself (the form of love) or beauty itself, depending on the translation. One needs to only refer back to Wittgenstein’s notion of the mystical to understand what the form of love feels like experience-wise. Yet, I cannot help but see how difficult it might be for one to believe this ladder is possible to climb. Indeed, upon reading the Symposium, I believed it was all metaphysical garble. That was until I squarely collided with Diotima’s ladder through the use of psilocybin mushrooms.
I had been preparing to do mushrooms for a few weeks. My interest was on the “heroic dose” as the late Terrence McKenna described it. A heroic dose is generally considered 5 grams of dried mushrooms or more. Prior to this experience, I had done mushrooms twice before at lower dosages. These experiences shaped my life in a profound way, but there was an allure to the heroic dose. The possibility of experiences like encountering other entities or another world were some of the tempting concepts McKenna had attributed to heroic dosages. The prime interest of mine was simple: there are vast expanses of consciousness, many of which will never be reachable by most people, let alone most people without drugs; I simply would like to see some of these expanses for myself. I knew they existed from my previous experiences, but they were dim.
The day came: my girlfriend, Jean, was my trip sitter and I took all 5 grams of the mushrooms early in the morning. The power of the substance came on rather quickly, and it lasted about five to six hours. Fundamentally, this experience was tantamount to climbing Diotima’s ladder, but in a non-linear manner. Non-linear in the sense that while I inevitably ended up at the eternal form of love, I traversed the steps that are preliminary to it in an unorthodox fashion. Given the dream-like manner of exiting a psilocybin experience — whereby memory is extremely skewed — the ordering of events is going to be somewhat dramatized for the sake of coherency. Despite this, all that will be enumerated was absolutely representative of my experience. What precipitated my climbing of Diotima’s ladder was the presence of Jean.
Jean is someone who I have a strong amount of love for. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that I have never felt this amount of love for a single person in my entire life. Her “soul” and her body are what I perceive to be beautiful. Simply looking at her, feeling her and being with her at that moment, flooded me with feelings of joy, love, compassion, gratitude, desire, and euphoria. It was an affective mode of what can be linguistically expressed as follows, “here is this woman, who loves you dearly, treats you well and is a genuinely good person. That such a person exists makes the world a better place and your world a better place. Not only this, but your union with this person adds more goodness to the world. Look at how much both of you simply light up in one another’s presence. You and Jean are participating in adding more goodness to the world. There isn’t any hurt here. In a world full of hurt, an absence of it is a magnificent anomaly worth celebrating. How wonderful!” In a sense, merely being in the presence of another body and soul brought about the inexpressible — indeed, I could not speak, I could only stare in awe at the inexpressible. Picture all of the love you could possibly experience in a lifetime compressed into a moment. Picture all of the gratitude you could possibly experience compressed into a moment. Picture all of the joy you could possibly experience compressed into a moment. In simply seeing Jean, such a moment was palpable. Jean’s presence, and the aforementioned feelings towards her, which her presence brought about, precipitated the following cascade.
The feeling I had towards Jean was a feeling that certainly persisted throughout the experience but fluctuated with other comparable and interrelated ones. I still find it striking that the beauty of a single person could be the catalyst for this. For many moments, I was filled with overwhelming joy at the fact that I take care of my body, I do not have any addictions or abusive drug habits, that I really do try my best to be a good person and that I really care about philosophy, science and the pursuit of knowledge. In retrospect, by Diotima’s mode of reasoning, these are the ways in which I fundamentally attempt to salvage the feeling of immortality. And in these moments of profound gratitude, I almost felt immortal. This seems to me to be no mistake. In doing all of these things, my motivation is absolutely love. Hence, in some way, I am attempting to give rise to the immortal impulse, which is an essential element of being alive. I put my best foot forward in all of my endeavors because deep down, I know I will die, and I want to leave some sort of legacy behind, even if it is simply a good memory of me.
At many points throughout the trip, I reflected upon humanity in the manner of what the Buddhists call Metta:
May everyone be happy and safe, and may all hearts be filled with joy.
May all beings live in security and in peace — beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, invisible or visible, near or far away, already born, or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquillity.
Let no one do harm to anyone. Let no one put the life of anyone in danger. Let no one, out of anger or ill will, wish anyone any harm. (Metta Sutta)
The starting point of these feelings was with reference to Jean. I simply wished her nothing but happiness, joy, safety, peace, and to suffer less. But when I began to think about all of the beings in existence, I could not help but hope the same for them too. It was an unegoistic feeling of universal love. Where, of course, I wish for my girlfriend to flourish and not suffer, but so too with everyone. The former is, and always will be, more of an acute desire of mine than the latter, but under the influence of psilocybin, the latter became far more intense then I realized was even possible. Indeed, I’ve written in the past about the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s ideas regarding the impossibility of large-scale empathy — and in turn, how empathy alone should not be the driving force of morality. Under normal circumstances, I essentially agreed with Bloom. However, via psilocybin, I was capable of something akin to Metta. And in light of this, I have reconsidered the role of large-scale empathy in the space of morality. What this amounts to thus far, is simply that we can only think about others in this large-scale manner in the abstract: such abstractions ought to mapped onto individuals, and then redistributed as far and wide as possible, with greater and lesser degrees of intensity. To give an example, Jean almost served as an example of this for me. Minus the deep romance and deep friendship, the way I felt towards Jean was something I simply wanted for everyone: joy, peace of mind, wisdom, and hope for the best. This way of thinking, I believe, doesn’t require a dose of psychedelics to manifest. Simply sit down and think of someone you love, and hope the best for them. Then, think about everyone else on earth: you really do want similar things for everyone.
Mixed in with this, I had a deep appreciation and love for science, philosophy, and reason. For most of the trip, I sat across from my desk, upon which books of science, philosophy, and classic literature rest. Likewise, I have a painting of Friedrich Nietzsche above my desk. I was simply in awe at how good it is that science and its methods exist, and so too with philosophy, art, and literature. It was truly a love for the institutions which are tiered towards the culmination of knowledge and the acquisition of truth.
Finally, and most importantly, for many long spans of time during this experience, I simply was no longer there. In referring back to Wittgenstein, the world and life (or, my sense of myself) became one thing. Ordinarily, sense data in our day to day experience is intrinsically tied to concepts, and these concepts are ordinarily perceived as independent from one another. For instance, there is the concept of the computer, which is used for typing, or the concept of the pressure of my body against the chair I am sitting in, which might register in my mind as “pain” or “comfort” depending on how I am sitting. All of these concepts melted into one interdependent phenomenon, rendering each of these concepts null. There was no space between my sense of self and the interdependence of being. When I looked out into the world, it was simply impossible to focus on “one thing” because all things were blended together into a microcosm. “I am my world. (The microcosm).” (Tractatus 5.63) There wasn’t any difference between what I ordinarily would consider my “self” and the world in which it is ordinarily found. It was sheer beauty, sheer awe, sheer gratitude, sheer joy, and sheer wisdom all in one experience.
He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This, my dear Socrates,” said the stranger of Mantineia, “is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty-the divine beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life-thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life? (Symposium)
What was striking is that this state of being felt as if it was the arche of motives. Where, if I am acting and it is out of love, its place of origin is from this state of oneness, total beauty, total beauty, and total awe. Perhaps this says more about consciousness than it does about love-itself. That, our fundamental positive state-of-consciousness is love — for, love is what allows us to transcend ourselves, and as such a precursor, self-transcendence inevitably leads back to love. We begin from a state of being motivated by love, only to be brought to a place of greater love. In a sense, this is the trajectory of the mature person in the world. Where you begin to act because you love something or someone — even yourself — and such actions lead to a cascade of actions, all the while, love is consistently present. There is no desire without love and vice-versa. And in the case of my psilocybin trip, it began with one person and manifested into the love of love itself — or, the visceral and potent encounter with being-itself.