Note 2: The striking similarities and compatibility of Diotima’s erotic theory with contemporary evolutionary psychology approach to understanding human behavior and desires

Though this is a tangential topic to this essay, and a subject that one can write an entire essay about, it is worth drawing attention to the similarities that Diotima’s theory has to the modern evolutionary approach to psychology. For Diotima, the core desire that gives rise to the phenomenon of eros is the desire for immortality. This is something that all animals and humans have, and for humans it seems to seep into every action they do: “but I believe that all do all things for the sake of immortal virtue and a famous reputation of that sort; and the better they are, so much the more is it thus; for they love the immortal” (Symposium, 208 D)

The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is that life evolved from basic units that had the tendency to survive as long as possible by engendering copies of themselves. For humans and animals, the basic units that seek immortality are genes. Thus, whatever behavior in a human would encourage the survival of some genes it carries (whether by helping itself, helping other people and animals who share those genes, or by reproducing and thus ensuring further survival of those genes, etc.) is the expected more probable behavior. For example, the genes make the human that carries them more often than not seek an environment in which he can engender further copies of them. Here also in evolutionary psychology we can make the same connection to beauty that Plato makes. We would expect that humans would consider environments suitable to survival and reproduction more beautiful and desirable, since there they can engender copies of their genes, and help them partake in immortality. That’s exactly what studies seem to show across human cultures (see for example paintings of fertile African savannahs that are considered beautiful across most human cultures, and not by coincidence it is a place very suitable for survival and reproduction of humans)1.

Another similarity is the concept of giving birth through body and giving birth through ideas. For most animals the evolutionary basic element is the bodily gene. But since humans have developed intellection, there is now a new kind of entity that can survive and reproduce in us. Those are ideas. An idea can come into being, and then continue to exist by moving from person to person. There is also a kind of evolutionary pressure on ideas. Some fade away after days, others survive for millennia. There is a whole theory about this, and I think Richard Dawkins is the first to write about them, coining the term meme.

This are just some surface thoughts, but my intuition is that the similarities run very deep, since both have the same core principle at work – immortality, and partaking in that through engendering.


[1] This topic is discussed in more detail (and with numerous references to studies) in Denis Dutton’s essay on Aesthetic Universals in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (2002). It can be found online at: http://www.denisdutton.com/universals.htm
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Note 1: The definitions of eros in Diotima’s speech

Diotima initially describes Eros as a daemon. He is described as an intermediary between the divine (immortal) and the mortal plane. He is the son of Penia (Poverty) and Poros (Resource). He is always poor, and in need of something. He is interested in capturing the beautiful and the good. Among his attributes that we can recognize later of importance are him being: courageous (since he could not proceed on the ladder of love without courage), philosophizing through all his life (again, we can see this happening when the lover is guided properly on how to love), between wisdom and lack of understanding (thus having a desire to philosophize). This Eros, the daemon, is a description, an image of the lover.

At 205 D, under my interpretation, Diotima changes from discussing the lover (Eros) to discussing the love that the lover has (eros) for the beautiful and the good. Here we are offered two definitions for eros.

One is a general definition that applies to most humans: “In brief, eros is the whole desire of good things and of being happy,” (205 D). People approach this in many different ways, like “money-making, love of gymnastics, or philosophy” (205 D). But we do not call them lovers, unless they apply themselves earnestly to a single one.  We can see this happening for example in the ninth book of The Republic, where depending on which part rules a person’s soul, if it has a clear dominion over him and makes him earnestly apply himself to the interests of that part of the soul, we call him a lover of wisdom, lover of honor, or lover of money.

The second definition is at 206 E: “eros is of the good’s being one’s own always”. This seems to be a lot more abstract than the love most people have in day to day life. People have an eros for another person, or they have an eros for an object or an activity in general – but for the good itself? In my first Symposium essay, I argued in detail that this definition is compatible with the first one, and it follows logically from it if one has a philosophically predisposed soul (with a calculating part minding its own business, and wise enough, to ask questions and follow through with their logic).

A person wants good things and to be happy. But what exactly are good things? What makes a thing good? What is this attribute of goodness that good things partake in? What is the good? If a person wants to have good things, then he must be in possession of knowledge of the good. But is this knowledge something that can be obtained once, and then discarded? No. It must stay with the person always, so that he may continuously and constantly distinguish what these good things are. Thus one wants to own the good, always.

Another distinct approach to understanding how one can arrive at this second, more particular, definition of eros, is that since eros actually is caused by the desire for immortality, and the best way to satisfy it is to give birth to true virtue, in addition of beauty itself, a person must also have knowledge of the good itself. For how can a person know truly “what sort the good man must be and what he must practice” (virtue, 209 C), without knowing what the good itself is?

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