The story so far:
SOCRATES: My dialogue with you, my friend, has given me more food for thought, I am afraid, than I can process in a single discourse. In addition, I am already at a disadvantage, since I have to compete against your excellent delivery just moments ago. Important questions are bound to be left unanswered and my lack of talent will not allow my speech to worthily stand next to yours. Like a snail chasing after a grasshopper I will proceed, nevertheless.
My speech will address two questions that, like seeds, our dear friend Aristophanes has planted in my mind. First of all, if possible, what is the benefit in the perpetual contemplation of beauty for those who seek to live a beautiful life? Does the objective remain the same if one wishes to remain active in the world, while actively seeking and observing virtue? Second of all, what kind of master is needed to guide someone towards this kind of beauty? Or, more precisely, is it even possible to arrive at the ultimate object of love through the guidance of a master?
Let me see, Aristophanes, my friend, you mentioned a Piraean in your speech, did you not? I thought you did, your mention brought to mind a gathering that happened not too long ago. I was on my way to your character’s birthplace, but wound up at a gathering with Cephalus , whom I hadn’t seen for a while. There were debates and a series of speeches delivered. I would like to describe one dialogue in particular. As fate would have it, it provides a good introduction to the first question in this speech.
The dialogue involves a hypothetical cave. Human beings are born into chains inside this cave, they eat and sleep in the same place and never have direct exposure to light. They only see shadows projected through a lantern. What would happen if one of these humans went outside of the cave and saw the light, if he saw the possibility of a life without chains? He would see the most beautiful things in what we free men take for granted. It would be overwhelming.
The leap is similar to the leap made at the last step in Diotima’s method, when the student falls in love with the form of eternal, unchangeable, beauty. As Diotima told me, the student would leave behind everything in the world that is trivial and living in complete infatuation with the beauty in front of him, similar to the way a lover looks upon his beloved. If we only think of the sheer pleasure of laying eyes on somebody we love, we would see clearly the benefit of being able to see that beauty in something eternal. Being eternally in love with something unchanging—I can not think of a better offer. We must ask, however, what the role of that deep contemplation is in an active civic life.
First, it must be clear to everybody that the contemplation of beauty in itself is not a passive endeavor. It is not a contemplation that takes place in the eyes, like when one enjoys a beautiful scene in one of Agathon’s tragedies. It takes place in the mind, or as Diotima called it, the eyes of the mind, while the individual’s life still goes on.
As I stand here before you, picture in your mind—as hard as it may be—a young Socrates. I have reached that point in my life when a young man first becomes inspired by Eros. It is my first day at the gymnasium, there is one other boy there doing his exercises, he catches my fancy. Since I am young inexperienced, I believe that the beauty I see in the body of my now beloved is unique. In my mind, the intensity of that feeling will not be satisfied without possession or contemplation of my boy. This intense feeling becomes a cause of great distress because the boy that has caught my fancy has something else in his.
This is the first and necessary step in my teacher’s method. There is no guidance, nor can there be guidance, nor is it necessary, the fact is that Eros strikes with its bow and that is that. Without this erotic drive there can be no method. But the power of Eros needs must be channeled properly.
Young Socrates has right opinion; he knows he is observing beauty; but is not able to describe what it is about the object of his desire that makes it beautiful. A lot of men and women experience love in this way; when it strikes them, they remain at the stage where the beauty in the object of their love is indescribable and unique to them.
It is obvious, at this point, that I need a teacher and I get one soon enough. In the same way that my beloved caught my fancy, my young charms have caught the eyes of someone else, someone much older and far wiser than me and my beloved. He takes an interest in making me adept in the ways of love.
‘Socrates’ he says ‘what is it about that boy that has caught your fancy? It seems like you are neglecting the form of your exercises because your eyes are watching his.’
‘What can I say? He is beautiful to me.’
‘I am well aware of that I want to know is what makes him beautiful to you, is it his arms, His legs, eyes, what?’
‘I cannot say, I am drawn to his entire being it seems. It is making me anxious, I long for him.’
‘Ah! The plight of young lovers! But tell me, Socrates, where is this entire being you speak of, is it something that can be seen or pointed at?’
‘I cannot explain it in better terms, the way that he shows up to me attracts me like no other. It is as if I am in the presence of beauty.’
‘I understand you, Socrates, but you still have not answered my question: is this being you speak of something one can point at?’
‘No, I guess not’
‘Is is possible, then, that that which you see in the boy is perhaps not something entirely in him? That that something you see is bigger than the boy you love, and not contained entirely by him?’
‘I am intrigued, but your words make very little sense to me. The fire I feel inside already has a direction. What does it matter what the source is? The fact is, I desire his beauty and my desire draws me to him. It seems like everything else is just redundant chatter.’
‘Socrates, do not be so quick to dismiss the possibility of a greater beauty. Think, what if the beauty you see in the boy could be multiplied tenfold, or a hundredfold?’
‘My friend, that sounds impossible, but you have caught my fancy.’
‘I am glad you have given me a piece of your mind Socrates, you are a very astute youth…’
These kinds of conversations continue for a long period. With every encounter, I become more mature. As I mature, I begin to understand what my teacher means by multiplying my boy’s beauty tenfold; I realize the beauty in my beloved is not unique.
‘My master,’ I say ‘I went through something today that reminded me of the conversation we had when we first met. Today at the gymnasium I felt like someone that visits a rose garden after thinking the rose they own is unique in the world. I saw the same beauty I saw in my beloved, not long ago, not just in another boy, but in several athletes in the gym.’
‘That is strange Socrates, I can perfectly recall that, not long ago, you insisted in the unique beauty of your boy and said that everything else was idle chatter.’
‘That is true, master and I feel ashamed for such a rash dismissal. Regardless, I would like for you to help me understand what is happening.’
‘Well, let us take a look at your experience. Has the love you felt for that youth at the gymnasium the other day faded into nothing?’
‘I would not say that it faded into nothing. In fact, if I were to see him once again right now, I would see the same beauty that I saw in him that day. However, I no longer feel that desperation; that severe longing; that passion, that desire to possess his body at once.’
‘Would you say, then, that the love you felt that fateful day remains, but it is the passion—I could not think of a better word myself—that has faded?’
‘Yes, I suppose that being able to see the wider range of beauty in the bodies of those other boys made me realize that beauty it is not only impossible for one body to contain beauty, but that it is impossible to possess it. When I think of the beauty I see in my boy I want to share this view of a wider perception of beauty I am experiencing. It is a different kind of love.’
‘Let us not rush into conclusions young Socrates’ Says my master, ‘you just told me yourself that the same love you felt that day is still in you but that the passion has been appeased. I think you are in the process of harnessing that passion, I doubt it has gone away. I do not think it is a different kind of love. However, I do think your understanding has changed.’
‘I think you are right master. However, I do not understand what you mean by harnessing.’
‘It is simple Socrates; I am saying that you are learning to make use of your strong feelings. In the same way that a lumberjack makes use of an ember for heat, without letting it burn down his household.’
‘I think I understand what you mean, I have just never thought of love as something that could be harnessed.’
‘I am aware of that Socrates; if I remember correctly, you told me when we met your love already had a direction. As you continue in your pursuit of love, you will not only learn how to harness the erotic drive, but will realize that harnessing love has larger potential than anything else that can be harnessed. It can even arrive you at that place that all souls seek.’
‘What is that place, master?’
Our young Socrates is fascinated, but remains a bit incredulous. He understands the concept of sublimating love to develop a wider sensibility for beauty, but does not yet see the ‘larger potential’ my master was speaking of.
The next step in will be the biggest and hardest one in becoming acquainted with the ways of love. The most guidance is required here. The boy at this point has a broad knowledge of beauty as seen through the eyes. He is now not only able to see the same kind of beauty exuded by his beloved’s eyes in the eyes of others, but if he channels his erotic drive in the right way, that is, learns to commune properly with the objects of his desire, he will have a realization. He will realize that the framework of beauty is not limited to the eyes. He will, hopefully at some point, find that what keeps him attached to a certain person is not desire for possession of their beauty. It is beauty’s ability to inspire the production of more beautiful things. This, my friends, is our boy’s first acquaintance with the beauty of the mind.
— At this point, according to what Aristodemus told me, a voice from the place where the uninvited gang was heard. Dumbfounded by the sudden interruption, Socrates stopped his speech and looked around for the source of that voice. It was a familiar voice and it must have brought to Socrates’ mind a very recent incident. When he turned towards the band’s corner, he saw a familiar angry face. Socrates grew more dumbstruck; he was so concentrated in his own discourse and his communion with his friends that he had failed to notice the gentlemen sitting in the same room. His lover was unusually aggressive. What followed was a very memorable confrontation.—