All You Need Is Love
A new book on Plato's Symposium by Leo Strauss!
Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By MARK BLITZ
Agathon, whose victorious tragedy the banquet or "symposium" is celebrating, offers the next opinion about love, one that appears to be completely different from Aristophanes’ view: For Agathon, love is love of the beautiful. Then Socrates gives his own speech, in the form of a dialogue with the prophetess Diotima. Strauss orients his discussion of their conversation around the varied ways in which Diotima subtly connects and differentiates love of one’s own from love of the beautiful. Love is not always love of one’s own, for when we love something noble or beautiful we often forget or even sacrifice ourselves. This duality is at play in parents’ love of their children, in poets’ love of fame through beautiful works, and in philosophers’ love of truth.
Strauss patiently brings out Diotima’s argument that love is, finally, love of the good—more, of "the good being one’s own forever." Love is, as it were, between men and gods, between the mortal and the immortal. The view that love is of the truly good therefore comprehends, and surpasses, the opinions of both Aristophanes and Agathon. In sexual desire for the young and beautiful, for example, beauty is "a means, a decoy." As "a reflection of the mortal in the immortal," beauty is a condition for one’s own "sempiternal possession of the good," namely, "giving birth to offspring."
In the lectures on the Symposium, Strauss summarizes Plato’s understanding of love when he answers a student’s question by extemporaneously observing, "There is a love of the beautiful which is really self-forgetting and which is, in a way, of higher nobility than that love which is not self-forgetting." And yet, Strauss notes, even that selfless love of the beautiful is not the highest form of love—for "the remarkable fact is this: On the highest level, self-forgetting is not possible. Love of the truth is higher than love of beauty, and love of the truth, if it is anything, is something you want to possess. This can be absent in love of the beautiful. That is what Plato means. There is that strange kinship between the highest and the lowest."
The Symposium’s final long speech belongs to Alcibiades, and in his analysis, Strauss brings to a head a topic that has been central throughout the lectures: Socrates himself. Strauss makes clear how Socrates is characterized by a hubris, an insolence that is connected to his famous irony. He indicates how Socrates’ thought and eros has a special purity "directed toward the beautiful, not toward immortality" although "he becomes immortal, perhaps...by generating genuine virtue." And finally Strauss explores whether Socrates’ refusal to write is a consequence of this purity or a deficiency in his spiritedness. What was Socrates missing that his students Plato and Xenophon enjoyed?
Given his concerns, it should not be surprising that the problem of Socrates became an ever more explicit theme in Leo Strauss’s writings during the last decade of his life. This book on the Symposium is a remarkable addition to that remarkable body of work.
Mark Blitz is Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and chairman of the department of government at Claremont McKenna College.