I am taking a brief blog hiatus.
“On The Importance Of Larry Flynt” (probably three parts) will return, soon. It’s an important entry, but I am working on a couple of things that prevent me from lucidly flushing out the ideas.
I am also setting an intention: to juggle multiple projects at one time, including writing blog entries while hacking away at other projects. Not this week, however.
Plato’s Symposium comes to mind this morning, so I offer the following.
It differs from most of Plato’s works, as it’s not a study in the Socratic method. In the dialogues, Socrates usually engages a question and answer dialectic; in the Symposium, Plato credits a woman for Socrates’ ideas of love. Not just a woman, but a priestess. Not just a priestess, but a teacher of mysteries, i.e., a mystic. What’s presented is essentially revelatory and authoritative.
In this all male gathering pontificating on love, desire, and eroticism, Plato introduces a woman mystic to give the final word on love — she is the teacher’s teacher. Though Plato transcribes his teacher’s teaching to Athens’ most honorable citizens throughout his dialogues, in the Symposium, Socrates appears merely as Diotema’s student in love’s mysteries.
There’s an interesting tension in the work — the piece of literature that inspired me to major in philosophy. I use the word “inspire,” deliberately, because it’s anathema in a discipline rife with logic and reason, and dialectical inquiry. Yet, in this dialogue, Socrates learns from a woman priestess, who teaches him with a comic tenor that Plato usually casts between Socrates and his students. In the Symposium, Socrates emerges as the dumb and fumbling student, and it’s Diotema who is given authoritative center stage.
This tension is huge for an Athenian audience. By most accounts, Athenian democracy was much harsher on women than in other Greek states: women did not own property or vote. That Plato vis-à-vis Socrates hands over this topic to a woman speaks volumes. Arguably, and I believe this is the work’s most important subtext, surreptitiously introduced, love’s nature and responsibilities are the most important questions that we’ll grapple with while we live: it’s from our understanding of love that our other personal and public inquires — intimate relations, normative values, ethics, morality, justice, social governing — issue from, and within which they must find their resolution.
The dialogue lays out the soul’s progression into love’s mysteries. More important, it lays out Plato’s theory of forms, a cornerstone of Platonic philosophy.
Diotema, not Socrates, is the origin of origins for this theory.
In overly simple terms, the soul’s desire towards the beautiful proceeds as follows:
Physical beauty: love of bodies as ends, pleasure, sex, marriage, domestic comfort, and material acquisition are portrayed as the most vulgar, these souls are living on the material plane.
Next, beauty of body and soul: love of the spiritual, brings civilization into being, transcends carnality. (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 comes to mind, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments, love is not love which alters when it alteration finds . . .”.) This love still differentiates within knowledge, culture, society’s formal structures, however.
Finally, love of the beautiful and the good: the love of wisdom. True immortality through possession of the Forms, beyond all material considerations. The ground of being, beyond being, “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 . . .” (Jowett translation).
This reality, or realities, exist beyond time and space, and, therefore, beyond opinions, ideas, judgements. It’s beautiful and good in itself, not because we judge it so, but because it is.
The “I Am” behind appearances.
Centuries later, Nietzsche took Plato’s (i.e., Diotema’s) idea to task, and rightfully so. Via Platonism and ad hoc political appropriation, the bifurcation of the spiritual and the material profoundly influenced Christianity and its correlative doctrinal morality. Dogma in ideology, in religion, in thought becomes a waste product when one projects one’s own learned ideas of the good onto the world. However, I would argue that the ground of being described by Diotema is beyond good and evil, to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase.
Precisely because it’s been freed of materiality, it’s beyond judgement. Diotema’s soliloquy doesn’t resonate with the Christian morality that Nietzsche took issue with, but with the visions characterizing the quintessential mystical experience, for example, Meister Eckhart , St. Teresa of Ávila, Rumi, Hafiz, and on and on.
Our best mystics are frequently branded as heretics by orthodoxy for precisely this reason: they see beyond learned ideas of sacred and profane, good and evil, moral and immoral.
Diotema’s revelation possesses none of the dogma that Nietzsche takes issue with; rather, she describes that beyond time and space, beyond our restrictive limited imaginings. Here’s a twist: despite Nietzsche’s objections, Diotema gives no answers. Logic, reason, dialectic, have nothing to do with life’s most pressing intellectual inquiries; it’s love’s vision that governs our undefined and uncertain course, while we experience this life, as we too briefly live it.
So I offer an alternative reading: while Athens’ leaders sit around bantering about the basis of life and civilization, Plato simply describes Diotema telling Socrates “there are no answers, for those who see the beauty behind everything, in the moment that it presents itself. Only love is real, all else is illusion.”
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.”