Plato’s Symposium, penned around 385 B.C.E., is a timeless philosophical dialogue that explores the multifaceted concept of love, or Eros, through a series of speeches delivered by different characters at a banquet. Situated within this framework, The Ladder of Love speech, attributed to the fictional character Diotima but spoken by Socrates, unveils a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of love that transcends mere physical attraction.
Diotima guides us through a philosophical ascent, from loving individual beauty to a profound appreciation of Beauty itself, an eternal and unchangeable form.
Even 2,500 years after its conception, this allegorical progression resonates with contemporary readers as it encapsulates not only a profound philosophical inquiry but also a universal human experience.
The Ladder of Love serves as a timeless guide to love’s potential to elevate the soul, offering profound insights into relationships, self-improvement, and spiritual growth. It remains a masterful testament to the enduring relevance and wisdom of ancient thought in understanding human love and longing.
Here is the speech in full, followed by some reflection questions to bring it alive with respect to your own relationship(s):
The Ladder of Love
Into these things of love, perhaps even you may be initiated. But I do not know whether you can grasp the rites and revelations for the sake of which these actually exist if you pursue them correctly. Well, I will speak of them and spare no effort; try to follow if you can.
A person who proceeds rightly to love must begin while still young by going to beautiful forms. First, if guided rightly, they must love one single form and beget beautiful discourses; next, recognize that the beauty on any form is akin to that on any other form. Realizing this, they are constituted a lover of all beautiful forms, relaxing this vehemence for one, looking down on it as of small importance.
After this, they must come to believe that beauty in souls is more to be valued than that in the body, so that even if someone’s soul has but a slight bloom, it suffices. They will love and care and seek those discourses that will make the young better, in order to contemplate what is beautiful in practices and laws and to see that it is all akin to itself. They will believe bodily beauty to be a small thing.
After practices, the guide must lead them to various branches of knowledge, to see their beauty too, and, looking now to the beautiful in its multitude, no longer delight like a slave in the beauty of a single thing. Rather, having turned toward the ocean of the beautiful and contemplating it, they will beget many beautiful and imposing discourses and thoughts in ungrudging love of wisdom, until, having grown strong, they behold knowledge of a certain kind of beauty.
The Ascent to Beauty Itself
The one seeking love, educated in these matters and beholding beautiful things rightly, will then, suddenly, see something marvelous, beautiful in nature: it is that for the sake of which all previous labours existed. First, it ever is and neither comes to be nor perishes, nor has growth nor diminution. Again, it is not beautiful in one respect but ugly in another, nor beautiful at one time but not at another. It exists in itself alone, forever, while all other things are beautiful by sharing in that.
But when someone, ascending from things here through the right love, begins to see the Beautiful, they would pretty well touch the end. For this is the right way to proceed in matters of love, to ascend ever upward for the sake of that, the Beautiful. Using the steps of a ladder, from one to two, from beautiful forms to beautiful practices, to beautiful studies, one arrives in the end at the study of the Beautiful itself.
It is there, dear reader, that human life is to be lived: in contemplating the Beautiful itself. If ever you see it, it will not seem to you as gold or raiment or beautiful forms. What then do we suppose it would be like if it were possible to see the Beautiful itself, pure, unmixed, not full of human flesh and colours, but if one could behold the divine Beauty itself, single in nature?
It is there, if anywhere, that a person can look and contemplate that with true vision, and to be with it, and to beget true virtue. In begetting true virtue and nurturing it, one becomes dear to the divine, and if anyone among people is immortal, they are too.
These then are the things that were said, and I am persuaded. Being persuaded, I try to persuade others that one would not easily find a better partner for our human nature than Love. Therefore I say that every person should honour Love, and I praise the power and courage of Love. Consider this speech an encomium to Love, or name it what you please.
1. Ascending Beyond Surface Beauty:
- What initially drew you together? What deeper values continue to connect you?
- How can you nurture and celebrate those deeper connections?
- How do your personalities and patterns interact? What challenges and strengths do they create?
- What steps could you take to understand and accept each other’s unique personality traits?
- Can you identify moments when these patterns have emerged in your communication?
- How might you work together to build understanding and create more positive ways of interacting?
- What are the enduring qualities and commitments that define your relationship?
- How can you honor and celebrate those foundational aspects, especially in times of conflict or annoyance?