How does Diotima’s theory of eros from the Symposium account for Ovid’s personal experience of love in The Amores?

In this essay, I will first offer my interpretation of Diotima’s conception of love. I will do this by trying to build a cohesive theory, free from self-contradictions, and with as few axioms as possible, from Diotima’s statements and arguments. In order to further enrich it, I will bring from the Republic the division of the soul into three parts (the calculating part, the spirited part and the appetitive part) and the 4 virtues of the soul (wisdom, moderation, justice, courage).  Afterwards, I will use this newly acquired erotic lens to analyze Ovid, and see where his personal experience of love in The Amores fits within Diotima’s expanded theory.

The source of eros is the desire that all living things have for immortality (Symposium, 207A – 208B). All living things can partake in the immortal only by engendering (207 D), and thus they naturally strive and desire to engender. Even ourselves, we are not made of the same constant things over time, but parts of our body are constantly coming into being and perishing. Our body changes over time. The only way for our current body to partake in the future body is to engender it (207 D). The same applies to our soul, and for example its “ways, character, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears” (207 E). Some of them might seem the same over the course of our lives, but they never are (207 E). The only way for them to also be present when we are old, is if somehow there are created new copies of them. There are two kinds of engendering that living beings are capable of: through body and through soul (208 E, 209 A). The beasts can give birth only through body, whereas humans can give birth in both the body and the in the soul.

Diotima details and gives examples of what exactly she means by giving birth through body: “Now there are those who are pregnant in terms of their bodies’, she said,’ and they turn rather to women and are erotic in this way, furnishing for themselves through the procreation of children immortality, remembrance, and happiness (as they believe) for all future time” (208 E). But Diotima argues indirectly and directly against this. Those who give birth through body might be deceived, if they only base their beliefs on opinion rather than knowledge. An argument I would also raise against trying to achieve immortality through body is the gradual loss of any individual identity – over the long term, any recognizable trace of the original individual (be it bodily features, or grand-grand-grand-…-grand children remembering him as their ancestor) will be lost and assimilated into the species as a whole. But Diotima seals the argument with an empirical observation – there are no shrines to commemorate people who just give birth to children (209 E). Thus, giving birth through body is ineffective. If one wants to partake in immortality, he must seek to give birth through soul.

The second option, giving birth through soul, is the one that Diotima argues for. The soul is able to bear and to give birth to virtue (of which prudence is singled out among others) (209 A). The general examples she gives are poets and all the craftsmen who are said to be inventors and procreators (209 A). More specific examples would be: Homer and Hesiod through their poetic works (209 D), or Lycurgus and Solon though their laws (209 D). What survives over time, and allows them to partake in immortality, is the virtue they have engendered (instantiated in some form in their intellectual works). To understand how comprehensive this notion of “giving birth to virtue is”, one should consider the example of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. What survives through the ages, and confers them immortality, is the virtue they have engendered there, which we admire and built shrines to. We don’t remember their individual names, their dreams and ambitions, their daily struggles, or most of what we would call their personal identity – but we do remember the virtue (the courage) they have given birth there by defending the narrow pass against overwhelming odds.

Before going further, it is worth exploring what beauty is in Diotima’s account of eros. As Diotima says, eros is not a desire for beauty, but a desire to engender and to bring to birth in the beautiful (206 E). One can only give birth in the beautiful (206C), and thus if one wants to be immortal or to partake in it, since he can only do so by engendering in body or in soul, one needs to seek the beautiful. Thus beauty is not the ultimate end or eros, but the means to that end. If you choose to give birth in body, then beauty is the appropriate environment in which to give birth to children (for example: a healthy fertile wife, or a husband with the skills and resources necessary to support the child). If you choose to give birth in soul, beauty is the appropriate environment in which to give birth to virtue (a love interest for inspiration if you are a poet like Ovid for example, or a person with whom to discuss about “what sort a good man must be and what he must practice” (209 C), etc.) 1.

But again, giving birth through soul will not mean that one necessarily will be able to completely partake into immortality, although it is better for that purpose than giving birth in body. Furthermore, even if you choose to give birth through soul to virtue, some ways are better than others at helping you partake more in immortality. Diotima singles out prudence out of all the other virtues, and includes within it “moderation and justice”, which for her mean the “the arranging and ordering of the affairs of cities and households” (211 B). In order to fully account for the choice of these three cardinal virtues, and why moderation and justice arise from prudence, and in order to extract all the nuances from it, it is necessary at this point to bring in some notions from Plato’s The Republic.

The definitions of moderation and justice arose in The Republic after long and thoughtful deliberation (which requires the possession of some degree of prudence) about “the arranging and ordering of the affairs of cities and households”. Moderation is an agreement of all the parts of the soul that the calculating part is the one that rules, and they should not try to overturn it (The Republic, 442 c). Justice for the soul is when each part minds its own business and does what it’s appropriate for it (The Republic, 441 e). Since moderation implies that the calculating part 2 should rule, and justice that the calculating part should concern itself with discerning the truth, the need for somebody to have a prudent soul is only reinforced by these two virtues, and we can see in The Republic that a man whose soul is ruled properly by the calculating part is referred to as a “prudent man” (The Republic 583 a, b). But why is giving birth to prudence, and from it to moderation and justice so important for Diotima? Because without prudence, moderation, justice and as I will argue in the next paragraph, courage, one will not be able to ascend the ladder of love and give birth to true virtue, so that he may become as immortal as a person can be.

Without prudence, he will not be aware of these qualities (moderation, justice and courage) that his soul should possess. Without justice in his soul, since the calculating part would not be concerned with the truth, which is its proper business, a man hearing about the ladder of love would not acknowledge its importance. Without moderation in his soul, he will not decide to follow it, unless it benefits his desires or his spirited part somehow, which is unlikely 3. Even if he understands its importance, and decides to follow it, his spirited part (his will) must be able to implement his decision over his desires, and keep him going on the ladder of love. Thus, he needs courage, since courage means that “his spirited part preserves, through pains and pleasures, what has been proclaimed by the speeches about that which is terrible and that which is not” (The Republic, 442 c).

Once a man has moderation, justice and courage, and he starts following the steps detailed in Diotima’s ladder of love, he still needs wisdom (as a part of prudence) in order to get to the top. Thus, in order for a person to acknowledge the ladder’s existence, decide to follow it, have the willpower to do so and the intelligence necessary to reach its end (beauty itself), one must already have a soul in some kind of virtuous state. The lover need not posses true virtue (since that’s part of what he is aiming for by climbing the ladder), but he does need to posses moderation, justice, courage and wisdom, at least as the logical concepts defined in The Republic. Thus, in order to reach true beauty and true virtue, it is not enough for his soul to give birth to virtue, but he must also apply it to himself and embody it. This is also one of the possible reasons why along each step of the ladder of love, the lover must give speeches. In each of the beautiful environments in which he is operating at a given moment, he is able to engender speeches of virtue that, if needed, he will apply to himself so that he may ascend to the next step.

Now let’s turn our attention to the ladder of love. Since eros arises from the desire for immortality, but humans are not necessarily aware of this and experience it most commonly, initially, as a desire for a person they consider beautiful, it is necessary to orient this desire properly to satisfy its original purpose. If one is to love correctly, according to Diotima, then he must be “guided” this way (210 A): he must first love a beautiful body, then be made to realize that what he is looking for is a characteristic of bodies in general, and thus love beautiful bodies in general, then move on to the abstract plane and love beautiful souls, after which he must see that he does not love a specific mind, but certain beautiful patterns that pertain to many minds, and thus he will turn his love towards beautiful pursuits and laws, then to the beauty of sciences, and by giving birth in “ungrudging philosophy” to many beautiful speeches and thoughts, he will discern a “certain philosophical science”, through which he will be able to reach beauty itself (210, 211). Once he reaches beauty itself he can use that environment to give birth to and cherish true virtue (212 A), and “if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well” (212 A).

This should give us a sufficient account of Diotima’s theory of eros in order to approach and to analyze Ovid’s amorous pursuits and experiences. There is of course much more to be discussed about Diotima’s account of eros, which is why I wrote in the notes (1, 2) at the end of this essay a few interesting threads of thought that emerge from this particular interpretation of her speech. Now, let’s turn our attention to Ovid.

The first thing that stands out in Ovid’s The Amores is his capitulation to his desires:

“Yes, that must be it: heart skewered / by shafts of desire, the raging Beast, passion, out at prowl in my breast. Shall I give in? To resist might just bank up the furnace – All right, I give in. A well-squared load lies light.” (Book 1, Poem 2)

It seems to have been a quick surrender, without any part of the soul really protesting against it. It is interesting to see that the reasons for why he did so he mentions only after the fact, which might suggest a rationalization of his actions:

“All right, I give in. A well-squared load lies light. Flourish a torch, it burns fiercer. I know, I’ve seen it. Stop the Motion, and pouf! It’s out. Yoke-shy rebellious oxen collect more blows and curses Than a team that’s inured to the plough. Your restive horns earns a wolf-curb, his mouth’s all bruises; A harness-broken nag scarcely feels the reins. It’s the same with Love. Play stubborn, you get a far more thorough Going-over than those who admit they’re hooked. So I’m coming clean, Cupid: here I am, your latest victim, Hands raised in surrender. Do what you like with me.” (Book 1, Poem 2)

The comparisons he makes with the oxen suggest a kind of inescapable slavery that love imposes over him. Since he cannot escape it, all he can do in this condition is to try to satisfy his master, so that he will endure less suffering at its expense. Ovid’s rationalization ends with an unconditional surrender, showing that he has absolutely no power over his conqueror, love, and thus no possibility to negotiate for better terms with him.

Thus we can see that in his soul, the desiring part rules over the calculating part and the spirited part. This characteristic he shares with most people, as the vast majority of people are ruled by their desires, without philosophizing too deeply about their natures, or trying to constantly select and prune which desires to follow and which ones suppress. Most people fall in love, marry, and have children, without asking themselves if this is the true and original purpose of their eros. Ovid too is interested in the opposite sex and bodily pleasures, and does not philosophize too deeply about why that is so, but submits to it and describes the experience to the best of his poetic experience. Even if he does not philosophize, and his calculating part does not rule, he is an intelligent man – he is aware of his fundamental desire for immortality, and he considers his poetic ability to earn immortality as the most important power that he has. Let’s look at some of his poems that show exactly this:

“What I seek is perennial fame, Undying world-wide remembrance. While Ida and Tenedos Still stand, while Simois still runs swift to the sea,

Old Homer will Live. While clustering grapes still ripen And wheat still falls to the scythe Hesiod’s works will be studies. The verse of Callimachus –

[…]

So when the final flames have devoured my body, I shall Survive, and my better part live on” (Book 1, Poem 15)

First of all we can see in the last two verses his clear desire for immortality and his belief that he can obtain it for the parts of himself that are more important (his “better part”). As for the first verses of the quote, they help us distinguish exactly what kind of immortality he is hoping for. We can see here that he is going for the same kind of immortality that is presented in Diotima’s speech, by giving birth through soul, and he even mentions the exact same poets as role models: Homer and Hesiod. Thus, through his works, Ovid hopes to gain “perennial fame” and “undying world-wide remembrance”. It is not a coincidence that in Ovid, who is a man with a very active and fiery eros, this desire for giving birth to immortal works is so strong, since both come from the same desire for immortality that Ovid’s mortal nature has. It is worth nothing that Ovid’s approach has succeeded to some degree, as we are still discussing and reading him in the present day.

But what exactly is he trying to pass on in his works? What kind of virtue is he giving birth to?

“In love for the very first time. May some fellow-sufferer, Perusing my anatomy of desire, See his own passion reflected there, cry in amazement:

‘Who told this scribbler about my private affairs?’” (Book 2, Poem 1)

What he is doing in The Amores is giving a first person subjective account of how he deals with his own eros. It is worth noting that he is not only passing down his virtue (excellence) in love in his poems, but also the eros that he embodied. If somebody reads Ovid’s poems, and if that person’s soul has a similar arrangement to Ovid’s, and if he finds examples of virtue (judged by the criteria of his own soul) in Ovid’s account, then he too might adopt Ovid’s view and approach to love.  An analogy to this would be somebody with a philosophical nature, who reads the Diotima’s speech, and finds the arguments there, or at least the general picture presented to be something attuned and in concordance with his soul, will adopt the conception of eros presented by Diotima 4. Thus, it is not only Ovid’s virtue that gets passed down by his works, but also his eros.

The desire for immortality deserves further analysis, which we can do by looking at this another poem of Ovid:

“What have I got on my side, then? Poetic genius, sweetheart, Divine inspiration. And love. I’m yours to command –

[…]

Besides, when you give me yourself, what you’ll be providing Is creative material. My art will rise to the theme And immortalize you. Look, why do you think we remember The swan-upping of Leda, or Io’s life as a cow,

Or poor virgin Europa whisked off overseas, clutching That so-called bull by the – horn? Through poems, of course. So you and I, love, will enjoy the same world-wide publicity, And our names will be linked, for ever, with the gods” (Book 1, Poem 3)

Here we can see first of all what Ovid is bringing to the table in his relationships. He offers to immortalize his beloved, by giving birth in soul to his poems. According to Diotima, that is a very good deal for the beloved, since all mortal beings desperately seek to partake in some form of immortality. Unfortunately for Ovid, not all women choose to seek their immortality through giving birth in soul, and furthermore, not all women are in tune enough with their desires to realize what the primary cause of their eros is. Thus, even though, according to Diotima, he offers exactly what they seek, he will still face rejections. We can see the mentality of a person who does not understand the value of earning immortality through poetry in Dipsas’ (the procuress’) speech:

“This poet of yours, now, what does he give you, except his latest Verses? Find the right lover, you’d scoop the pool. Why isn’t he richer? The patron god of poets Wears gold, plays a gilded lyre. Look, dear, stop worshipping genius, try generosity” (The Amores, Book 1)

We can see exemplified in Dipsas an epitome of a money-loving soul, who does not seem to follow through and ask the question: well, what exactly do we need this money for? Is it not to satisfy some desires? If desires can give rise to other desires, what are the primary desires that I am trying to satisfy? If so, am I actually approaching it correctly? And so on and so forth. In short, she is clearly not a philosopher, and according to Socrates’ account in the ninth book of The Republic, not in a position to decide what values should rule one’s life, since her soul is by no means moderate or just.

But what about Ovid’s soul? What can we say about it from what we have discovered so far in his poems? Well, his soul seems to be most akin with to a desire-driven kind of soul. The calculating part in him clearly does not rule, since as we have seen earlier it has surrendered to serve his desires. The spirited part of his soul has also been won over his desires. We can see this in the twelfth poem of book 2:

“A wreath for my brows, a wreath of triumphal laurel! Victory – Corinna is here, in my arms, Despite the united united efforts of husband, door, and porter […]

What did my generalship win? Some town with crumbling defences And a shallow moat? Oh no, I captured a girl! When Troy fell at last, after that ten-year struggle, How much of the credit went to the High Command,

And how much to the troops? There’s no army to share my glory,

The credit is mine alone, I’m a one-man band,

Commander, cavalry, infantry, standard-bearer, announcing With one voice: Objective achieved. What’s more, mere luck played no part at all in my triumph: Unswerving perseverance did the trick. […]

You could say I’m Cupid’s conscript, called up, like so many others,

For front-line service – but no shedding of blood.”

The whole poem is framed as his obtaining a glorious victory in the front-line service of Cupid. Thus his love exploits seem to appeal to his spirited part of the soul, which rejoices in glory (“A wreath for my brows, a wreath of triumphal laurel!”, “my glory”, “my triumph”), victory (“Victory – Corinna is here, in my arms”, “What did my generalship win?”) and mastery (“Objective achieved”, “What’s more, mere luck played no part at all in my triumph: / unswerving perseverance did the trick”) 5. What we can see here happening in this poem is how the spirited part of one’s soul can be taken over and seduced by the desiring part, and distanced from the calculating part. If it is by following the desires that the spirited part gets what it wants, why should it stand alongside the calculating part and rule and deny the desires?

Thus Ovid’s soul is unjust, since each part does not mind its own business. The spirited part is standing alongside the desires and helping them rule over the soul, and the desires are thus made masters of his soul. The calculating part also does not seem to be seriously concerned with discerning the truth, and expresses a preference for being deceived if reality is too harsh to accept (“Lay them all, but allay my suspicions, leave me / In ignorance, let me cling / To my foolish illusions”, Book 3, Poem 14). Furthermore, not only is his soul unjust, but it is also immoderate, since the parts of the soul do not all recognize that reason should rule. Since his soul is immoderate and unjust, as we would expect, he does not seem to be following the steps detailed in Diotima’s speech in the ladder of love section. Rather he is stuck in loving all beautiful women, and not ascending further than that. He is in accordance with Diotima in his attempts to seek immortality by giving birth in soul to poetic works, but since he is nowhere near beauty itself, he cannot exemplify true virtue in his works 6. I see this inability of his to engender true virtue as leading to three possible outcomes for him, regarding his desire for immortality, depending on whether definite truths can be reached or not, and on how humans will advance intellectually in the future.

Diotima herself is not necessarily convinced that one can reach definite truths, since at the end of the first account of the ladder of love, she says the lover “must come close to touching the perfect end” (211 B), and only after in the second summarized account of the ladder of love that she gives the lover seems to be able to get to beauty itself (211 C). Thus it is worth considering for both Diotima and Ovid what happens if beauty itself cannot be reached, and thus true virtue cannot be engendered. In that case everybody will be stuck into opining about things, never being able to really know the true nature of objects and desires. Ovid, as an opiner himself, might be able to strike a chord with readers for centuries.

On the other hand, if the ladder of love can be followed until the end, and true virtue engendered, than Ovid is in trouble. It is possible that over time society will advance and change its conceptions of love to a more refined understanding, and thus at best people would read Ovid as a curious example of a “caveman” kind of love, and at worst he would be forgotten. His solution out of this (though unlikely to come from himself) would be to start arranging his soul properly, into a moderate and just state, and after developing the other relevant virtues, start walking that hard path to beauty itself.

The third option that must be considered is that true beauty and virtue can be reached, but society in general will never do so. Humans might not necessarily keep on advancing intellectually on the right path. It doesn’t matter if you engender true virtue, if there is nobody out there to recognize it and carry your offspring further. Here Ovid has an advantage over a follower of Diotima when it comes to attaining immortality, in that his understanding and conception of virtue is one that is shared if not by the majority of people, at least by a significant number. On the other hand, a follower of Diotima might be able to correct for this, and instead of choosing to engender true virtue, he might just use his knowledge to engender the most popular with the people virtue possible.

In short, I would say that even though a follower of Diotima’s ladder of love need not be necessarily as successful in achieving immortality as Ovid, he would be able to succeed in attaining immortality on the same level as Ovid by engendering popular virtue, and might be even better at doing so because of his general dedication to knowledge, which would enable him to have insight into human nature and what kinds of works the masses read and transmit to further generations. And furthermore, if he is successful in his intellectual pursuits, and if it is possible, he also has a fair chance at engendering true virtue, something that Ovid would not be able to do, and thus he could get as close to immortality as a human being can.

Bibliography

  • Symposium, Plato, translated by Seth Benardete, The University of Chicago Press (2001)
  • The Republic, Plato, translated by Allan Bloom, second edition, Basic Books (1968)
  • The Amores, Ovid, translated by Peter Green, Penguin Classics (1982)

[1] Giving absolute definitive examples of a beautiful environment in which to give birth to virtue is problematic, because the notions of beauty and virtue are different depending on where on the path to true beauty and true virtue you are. I have offered the example of a poet and a curious inquisitive person, since both are also given in Diotima’s speech when she’s describing who engenders virtue and how they do so (Symposium, 209), and they are probably based on the best notions of virtue and beauty that she was operating with at that time.
[2] One of the possible divisions of the soul offered in The Republic by Socrates, and the one most used throughout the book, is into the following three parts: the calculative part (reason), the spirited part, and the appetitive part (desires). For a detailed description see 436a – 441c and 580d – 592b.
[3] Why would there be a need for the lover to be guided properly, as Diotima says, if people of all types of souls, would just naturally stumble upon this ladder of love progression in love? Furthermore, empirical observation seems to suggest that most people do not naturally follow the progression presented in the ladder of love section of Diotima’s speech, since most people do not seem to be consciously striving to understand beauty itself, so that they may engender true virtue.
[4] Here I must credit my interlocutor, Maria Androushko, with coming up with the idea that people who give birth in ideas can also pass on their eros, along with their virtue, over the course of time.
[5] The Republic, 581 a: “ ’And what about this? Don’t we, of course, say that the spirited part is always wholly set on mastery, victory, and good reputation?’/ ‘Quite so.’ ”
[6] It might be possible that he would just give birth to true virtue by sheer luck, without conscious intention – but this is highly improbable.
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