The Magazine

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
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The heart of Strauss’s lectures on the Symposium is a careful commentary on Plato’s dialogue, and the dialogue is a subtle and comprehensive exploration of the amazingly varied topic of eros, or love, in all its complexity. Strauss intends to direct our attention to eros as Plato portrays it and, therefore, to eros itself. Among Strauss’s most novel, telling, and helpful observations is his statement that eros is of special importance because it is "somehow" Plato’s contention that eros is "the nature of man and, in a way, the nature of the whole." That is, love is not chiefly a matter of passion, friendship, or attraction—to either physical or moral beauty. These phenomena must be accounted for by eros, and Plato displays them in his characters and in what they say. Indeed, Strauss claims that Plato’s dialogues make evident his superiority to his great rivals in wisdom, the poets, precisely because he is able "by virtue of [his] deeper understanding of the principles" to make transparent in men "the manifestation of the principles."

Because eros is so comprehensive, it must also "somehow" be the foundation of politics. Yet as Strauss points out, politics’ characteristic passion is spiritedness—and spiritedness, together with the anger and the severity associated with it, seems to be in tension with love. Strauss carefully considers this tension throughout his Symposium lectures, exploring, for example, the dual origin of the gods—both in the the love of beauty and as agents of avenging justice. The tension of love and politics can be understood better if we see that although each of Plato’s dialogues stands alone, nonetheless "every dialogue is connected with every other dialogue but sometimes in a very indirect way." The Laws, obviously about politics, is "the only dialogue which begins with the word god," but the apparently apolitical Symposium is the only dialogue whose explicit theme is a god—namely, eros.

From the third chapter to the book’s conclusion, Strauss’s method is to explicate the Symposium’s six speeches about love (together with the dialogue’s seventh speech, Alcibiades’ concluding encomium to Socrates), and to relate the speeches to each speaker’s character and desires. The summaries Strauss offers of his own previous discussions, together with his colloquies with students, enable us to see him develop his thought. "I am not only willing but eager to learn that I am wrong," he says at one point. Nonetheless, the overall impression is one of striking mastery and consistency from beginning to end.

Strauss argues that the Symposium’s speeches are ordered in an ascent. The first three fail to praise love itself (the task that the first speaker, Phaedrus, had given the party). Instead, they "subject eros to something outside" or alien to it: the beloved’s selfish gain, moral virtue, science, or art. Strauss brings out his conclusions with convincing subtlety, finding the central nerve in each speech. Especially revealing is his analysis of the speech by the physician Eryximachus. "The background of this speech is the philosophy of Empedocles," and it is "as far as my knowledge goes the only document in a philosophic text prior to Plato where the notion of science for the sake of power, the famous Baconian formula, is somehow approached." Eryximachus’ view of love is one in which "there is no hierarchy, and the distinction between good and bad must come from a subjective point of view." The speech proves to be a central ancient text for exploring in advance what would come to reality in modern times with the dominance of technology.

Indeed, the Symposium as a whole is a partial antidote to submission to technology’s dominance. What technological manipulation is able to create is necessarily limited and directed by the nature of passion and reason—and by the objects of passion and reason as we understand and experience those objects in the world. We may change the means by which we experience. We may even try to eliminate human experience altogether. But we cannot change the meanings and possible fulfillments inherent in our actions. And when we ignore what is inherent—when we have a distorted understanding of the intricacy of human experience—what we create is frighteningly narrow and often monstrous. In opposition to all this, the Symposium shows us the openness of love to what is good, and it is therefore an indispensable guide in our technological age.

Strauss’s discussion of the final four speeches begins with an extraordinary analysis of the argument Aristophanes offers in the dialogue. Aristophanes gives a brilliant account of love as two halves of an original unity searching for each other, and Strauss shows how profoundly that image brings out the nature of love’s rebellious power and its tension with convention, divine law, or "civilization," without which men "cannot become men."