So far, we have seen that for Plato desire is always involved in human knowing. We have also seen that a desire for knowledge is provoked initially by desire for beauty. Several dialogues show that this is in the first place characteristically the physical beauty of a human other. It is clear that human erotic desire, and of course most often the eros of male for male, is crucial for Plato's account of human understanding. But does this mean that he is not interested in the biologically and often culturally unavoidable link between desire and giving birth present in human heterosexuality?
The answer to this question may lie in the Symposium. If Plato clarifies the nature of knowledge by showing its link to desire, he seeks to clarify the nature of desire by showing its link to birth, or to the phenomenon of "emergence." But this second clarification redounds dramatically upon the first. It might seem that the ideal goal of recollection is to leave behind the "triggers" as so many temporarily necessary instruments, and gradually to abandon desire in the intensified serenity of contemplation. Even if the exigency of the triggers suggests that the theory of recollection requires a certain positive validation of time, the latter is still to be left behind, and the trope of this dismissal is the idea of a pre-historic eternal past for which one forsakes both the present and the future. This is how Kierkegaard read, respectfully, the Socratic theory, contrasting retrospective recollection with forwards repetition, where the latter, in looking to the future eschaton, establishes an ideal consistency not through melancholic recovery of the lost, but rather through sustained commitments through time forming a kind of liturgical patterning (Kierkegaard 1985).
However, as Jean-Louis Chrétien (2002) and others have argued, something akin to Kierkegaardian repetition is already envisaged by Plato. This is particularly shown in the Symposium. If it were the case that desire were only a kind of melancholic lack, then desire would be asymptotically banished the more recollection was engaged. The model for this manner of relating desire to knowledge is a certain conception of inter-human love. For this conception, one desires the other and then this desire is satisfied by her presence, and the fullness of this presence. Desire in this way is consummated, satisfied and vanishes. But is desire only desire to know or desire to "meet" (in every sense)? Is desire only desire for knowledge or desire for social and physical intercourse with the other? Is it only, as in either of these cases, desire for a withheld but nonetheless given distance? But in that case, what about desire to do something or make something or bring something about? Sometimes, one is not certain quite what one is desirous to bring to fruition; in fact (echoing the Meno's problematic in another mode), this is perhaps always the case, because if one knew entirely the lineaments of the thing one desired to bring about, it would already be actualized and the desire would be superfluous.
One can complicate this question. Is desire to bring something about not also involved in the desire to know and the desire to meet the other? Do our souls merely look at knowledge, or do they also repeat it in bringing it forth? And is the meeting of the other only a mutual gaze or does something "happen" between the two? Is the meeting also an upshot? If the answer in both cases is yes, then desire is not in time asymptotically left behind; instead, if the more we know the Forms of truth, the more we give rise to the emergence of truth in the temporal future, then as long as we are alive in time, the vision of truth replenishes our desire. Likewise, the encounter with the other is needed not merely as the occasion for a recalling, but more radically as the seed of a new vision of the eternal which can only be nourished in just this soil.
This perspective would mean that the eternal is invoked not merely as a past that we can never fully recover but as always radically present to us in a way that we are not entirely aware of (though forgotten, it is also radically "unforgettable," as Chrétien puts it), but also as a future which we can never fully anticipate (a hope for the "unhoped for," as Chrétien says).
But in the Symposium, Plato offers just such a perspective which is complementary to his teaching on recollection. Desire does not just recall the absolute past; it also gives rise to, causes to emerge, the unreachable future. In this dialogue, he names eros the daimonic metaxu, the "between" (which he only otherwise alludes to in the Philebus), thereby revealing another dimension of his religious vision (Plato 1925a: 202a-e).
The Symposium shows that because we must reach forwards as well as backwards, we do not tend to cancel eros in favor of the primordial, but rather, at least in time, remain within the metaxu, in the midst of desire to which we must return if we wish to know and to encounter the truth.
How does Plato indicate this doctrine? First of all, through Socrates, he refuses the idea that love is a goddess and insists instead that it is a daimon. Perhaps one should take this religious assertion quite literally; perhaps it is an intrinsic aspect of Plato's philosophical treatment of love. This is in part confirmed by the association he sets up between a pre-philosophical, merely eulogistic treatment of love, and the view that love is a goddess. If love is a goddess, then she is ineffable and given and must be contemplated and praised.
Five different eulogies are given: by Phaedrus, Pausanius, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon. In the first, love is seen as the unbegotten oldest goddess who motivates lovers to form the ideal city of devoted affines. In the second, love is seen as both the lustful earthly Aphrodite and the refined heavenly Aphrodite; the latter should be followed and this permits, as in Athens, persuasion of the beloved, in contrast to Western civic forcing of the beloved and oriental tyrannic denial of free wooing. In the third, a medical account by the physician Eryximachus, love is seen somewhat pre-socratically as a binding physical force. In the fourth, love is seen as a consequence of the primordial splitting of either male or else female or yet again hermaphroditic individuals, to produce respectively true males and females who are homoerotic, and heterosexuals whose attachment to their own sex is ambivalent. In the fifth (the exact opposite of the first view), love is seen as the youngest divinity, who gives rise to peace and harmony after an earlier reign of blind necessity which produced an agonistic cosmos.
Just as in the case of the rhapsode and the non-philosophic men of virtue, Socrates does not explicitly deny the truth of these eulogies. Indeed, it is arguable that he himself offers a synthesis of their respective emphases. For Socrates, following the same order: (1) love is unbegotten since it is the daimonic metaxu and love exists in multiple affinities (see Desmond 1995); (2) we should indeed follow a higher eros (though he is a daimon and not a goddess) and the civilized Athenian codes of courtship; (3) eros is also a cosmic binding force; (4) homoeroticism is higher than heteroeroticism; (5) love is not really eldest since it mediates the divinities and in this sense is "younger" than them.
Socrates' account of love is not a eulogy, but an exercise in dialectics. However, unlike the eulogists, who seem to lay claim to direct musical inspiration, Socrates provides mediated cultic credentials for his claims. Once more, he invokes a meeting with a teacher: this time, the prophetess Diotima, whom he says taught him the art of dialectics, although she is also presented without qualm as a magician who held the plague away from Athens for ten years by propitiatory sacrifice. (Perhaps we must hermeneutically assume that "doing dialectics" and "performing magic" were for Plato in some kind of natural alignment, unless there is evidence to the contrary.) At the same time as teaching Socrates dialectics, Diotima also taught him that love is a daimon and that it is productive. One must assume, then, that there is an intimate connection between three things: Diotima's unusual (for Plato) femaleness; dialectics; and the "female" view of desire as substantive rather than as a lack: a kind of pregnancy which brings to birth. This may well imply that knowledge is something produced through desire as well as something longed-for and recollected through ardor.
Instead of eulogy, Socrates offers a dialectic of love which remains nonetheless to some extent a eulogy and a "mythos" of love, for Socrates offers his own personification of eros and a narrative account of its origin. There is, however, an important match between the dialectical argumentative form of Socrates' discourse and the substance of what his discourse is about, namely love. First of all, the idea that love is a daimon that mediates between the higher and the lower corresponds with the idea of a dialectical and contemplative ascent. Marcel Detienne has shown how the Pythagorean/Platonic tradition inherited an ancient form of religiosity which concerned the "voyaging" of the soul to transworldly regions rather than the official Greek civic cults (Detienne 1963). Secondly, whereas the eulogists present love in "spatial" terms as a given state of affairs, Socrates stresses that desire is a movement and a striving, and points out that for this reason it is involved in all human practical and theoretical activities and not just in the field of "romance" as we might now designate it. Thus, if the Meno deals with knowledge and virtue in terms of desire, the Symposium refers desire to knowledge and to virtue.
In Socrates' myth of eros, love was born at the same time as the goddess Aphrodite and this ensures the occult bond between love and beauty. However, love itself is not a goddess but a daimon who hovers "between" beauty and ugliness, good and bad, gods and mortals. As belonging to the realm of the metaxu, love also belongs properly to orthos doxa and not to heavenly episteme. It is to do with the lure towards the Forms. However, it is also linked with bringing to birth a life that expresses the truth of the Forms. It is important that love is not primordial and ungenerated, as for Phaedrus in the first eulogy. Love itself is brought to birth, love itself emerges and is therefore not just a "given," nor something drawn towards another given. Rather, it is itself an emerging event. As something born, it does nevertheless emerge from lack and need, and indeed Socrates points up this deficient, possibly tragic and "ugly" dimension of love in opposition to his interlocutors. He indicates a certain alliance of love with time and becoming. However, for Socrates this alliance has also another positive and creative dimension. If love is the child of its mother, "lack" (here the associations are with the womb and also with the fertile ignorance taught by Diotima, into which Socrates has been "initiated") is also the child of its father "resource." In accordance with aspects of Greek biology, the positive aspects of giving birth are associated by Plato with the male part, just as later in the dialogue he speaks of the consummation of male heterosexual love as itself a giving birth and realization of a "pregnancy." The same thing applies analogically to male homoerotic love (the Greeks arguably did not have the concept of this as "sexual," even though it could be physical), where in a higher spiritual sense, something is conceived and delivered. As also the child of resource, desire is not simply lacking the other, but rather is lacking what it can itself bring into being through its own powers (one could compare the emphases of Deleuze and Guattari at this juncture).
Eros is therefore dynamic. It responds to the other but also generates itself. It constantly "dies and rises." It is not simply provoked by the presence of the beautiful, as if this were something love merely pursued; rather, to love is to "bring forth upon the beautiful, both in body and in the soul" (Plato 1925a: 206e). So although love is instigated by the beautiful, it also further emerges in conjunction with the beautiful, repeating in time the birth of the daimon eros. To love the beautiful is always already to copulate with the beautiful and to engender a child. Diotima famously speaks of an erotic ascent: one must begin with desire of a beautiful body; ascend to love of all physical beauty; then to the spiritual beauty of souls and institutions and finally to the eternal beauty of truth (Plato 1925a: 210a-e). This can sound as if finite beauties are mere occasions and instruments to be left behind. However, this would be to read the Symposium only in terms of the "backwards recollection" of the Meno. To the contrary, in this dialogue, worldly beauty does not just remind us of the spiritual; it causes us to become conjoined with it and engender both new physical realities in time and new psychic realities which also emerge into being for us through the course of time, since for Plato our soul (unlike for Plotinus later) lies for now within time. One can suggest that the "occasions" for bringing to birth remain necessary (since we do not arrive at a full episteme of the Forms) and must constantly be returned to. This reading would align the Symposium with the Phaedrus where it is said that erotic alliances on earth remain even in heaven. Since, one can infer, eros even as a heavenly reality is generated on a transcendent occasion, all earthly occasions and births are finally gathered up into this transcendental event.
In the Symposium, Plato does not see the satisfaction of desire as merely the possession of the object of desire. Rather, he sees it also as the "end" of a "travail," the delivery of an expression of self that was always bursting to come forth but could only do so by way of the other "on the body of the beautiful" (Plato 1925a: 206c). This event is an expression of knowledge and of wisdom. Because it can only emerge by way of the other, it is also the emergence of a third thing that could only arise by way of a relational conjunction. This moves beyond the finality of the circuit of reciprocity. What any two desire in desiring a union is not merely this union, but always also the fruit of this union in whatever sense, something that is both them and neither of them: a baby, a work of practice or understanding, a new ethos that others may also inhabit. In this way, for Plato, desire welds together inseparably both erotic gift-exchange, and the "agapeic" offering of a new gift to "anyone" that does not return to the givers in any ordinary fashion.
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