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‘ONLY IN THE CONTEMPLATION OF

BEAUTY IS HUMAN LIFE WORTH LIVING’


PLATO, SYMPOSIUM 211d
Alexander Nehamas

Socrates’ speech in praise of erōs in the Symposium (201d–212c) is perhaps one of


the most influential passages Plato ever composed.1 It is also one of the most
discussed, and any attempt to add to the huge literature that surrounds it needs
some justification. My reason for returning to it is not so much a desire to offer
yet another interpretation of what Plato really meant to say about the relationship
between erōs and its inherent attraction to to kalon, which I will translate as
‘beauty’. What I would like to try to do is to see how much of what Plato says
here can be read not just as an inspired (and inspiring) flight of the imagination
but also as something we can actually believe—a solid, knowing and accurate
description of the phenomenology of love and beauty.

nnnnnnnnnn

In the closing parts of his speech, Socrates (claiming to be repeating the words of
Diotima, a holy woman with prophetic abilities) describes a complex hierarchy of
different levels of love and lovers (207c ff.). At the lowest stage, he locates men
who are attracted primarily to the beauty of the human body—these are, he says,
lovers of women and their union with beauty results in the generation of
children. The second stage includes men who are drawn more to the beauty of
the human soul than they are to the human body and turn to paederasty. These
lovers themselves are of two kinds. There are, first, those who are in pursuit of
fame and who, in love with a particular boy, are inspired to create poetry or
legislation which benefits both their lover and their city as a whole—theirs,
Socrates says, is an intellectual rather than a biological progeny. But there are also
those who are moved by a passion for wisdom and whose intercourse with
beauty results in a life devoted to philosophy, which constitutes and produces the
greatest benefits of which human beings are capable. Within that last class, there
is another complex hierarchy, beginning once again with love of the physical
beauty of one boy and gradually rising through love of the beauty of the soul, of
laws and institutions and of the sciences until it turns into love of the Form, the
nature or essence of beauty itself, which turns out to have been the real object of
erōs all along.
But if every lover is ultimately drawn to the Form of beauty, which is glimpsed
obscurely through everything else in the world that is to some degree beautiful, it

European Journal of Philosophy 15:1 ISSN 0966-8373 pp. 1–18 r 2007 The Author. Journal compilation r Blackwell
Publishing Ltd. 2007, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
2 Alexander Nehamas

would seem that nothing that lies below the Form in Plato’s ladder of love (not to
mention the objects of the lower kinds of erōs) is ever actually loved—at least not,
as we often like to say today, ‘for itself’ and not for the hint of the Form, the trace
of real beauty, we can discern within it. That might explain why, as many of his
readers have thought, Plato appears to write that when a lover realises that one
kind of beauty is higher than another (as the beauty of the human body in
general, say, is higher than the beauty of a single one, 210b3–6) he gives up the
lower for the higher kind without a second thought. As far as the lover is
concerned, nothing has changed: although that can’t be any comfort to the boy he
leaves behind, his view is that the only thing he has ever loved is beauty—the
beauty he first found in the boy and now discerns in something else. But that is a
cold and cruel kind of love, especially when one abandons another human being
for an abstract, unfeeling object. It was exactly that thought which prompted
Gregory Vlastos to criticise Plato for failing to see that love is first and foremost
the love of individuals, and the questions Vlastos raised have ever since been
central to the interpretation of the Symposium.2
Vlastos attributes to Plato the view that ‘what we are to love in persons is the
‘image’ of the Idea in them’ (Vlastos 1981: 31). We love them, that is, only to the
extent that they are good and beautiful but since none of us is perfectly good or
beautiful, love cannot be directed at us, blemishes and all: ‘The individual, in the
uniqueness and integrity of his or her individuality, will never be the object of our
love’ (Vlastos 1981: 31). Human imperfection, though, would imply that if I love
you for your virtues I cannot love you for yourself only if Plato also believed that
if I love you for your goodness, your beauty or, for that matter, for your yellow
hair what I really love is not you but your goodness, your beauty or your yellow
hair instead. Plato may well have thought so, but we cannot just assume that he
did: many people, and even some philosophers, believe that we love people for
particular reasons without feeling that we do not therefore love them for
themselves.3 The issue is complex and the question remains open: we may love
the image of the Form in a person without, for that reason, loving the Form of
which it is the image and not the person who bears it.
Perhaps, though, that reason is inherent in Plato’s conception of the
philosopher’s ascent, which Vlastos describes as follows:

Persons evoke erōs if they have beautiful bodies, minds, or dispositions.


But so do quite impersonal objects—social or political programs, literary
compositions, scientific theories, philosophical systems and, best of all,
the Idea of Beauty itself. As objects of Platonic love all these are not only
as good as persons, but distinctly better. Plato signifies their superiority
by placing them in the higher reaches of that escalated figure that marks
the lover’s progress, relegating love of persons to its lower levels.
(Vlastos 1981: 26)

That is true: Plato considers the love of individuals inferior to the love of abstract
programs or theories and their love, in turn, inferior to the love of beauty itself.

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 3

But that is not to say that those who stop at the lower reaches of the scala amoris
do not love the person or the institution that inspires them. Even if the love of
‘impersonal objects’ cancels attachments to particular individuals, all that follows
is that a life devoted to politics (nomoi kai epitēdeumata) or learning (mathēmata) is
better, more valuable and, in the end, happier and more fulfilled than the private
lives of most of the people in the world. That would not have been news to
Plato’s Greek audience (although his reasons for thinking so certainly were). Nor
is Plato the only philosopher, in Greece or anywhere else, to have thought that
purely private lives of no distinction are of little value, and to rank the value of
different human lives on a hierarchical scale, with private lives at its lowest end.
Nietzsche was after something similar when he wrote, ‘To live alone one must be
a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both—a
philosopher’.4 Plato may consider love of the individual as the lowest level in the
philosopher’s ascent to the Form, but does not, just for that reason, deny that
individuals can be truly loved. He only claims, rightly or wrongly, that life is at
its best when it is devoted to something else instead.
The Form of Beauty, then, may be more beautiful than everything else and the
intensity of the true philosopher’s love may dwarf our everyday feelings, but
since erōs is essentially the desire for beauty, and erōs is certainly felt by everyone,
beauty is not the exclusive property of the Form. It is, as both everyday
experience and the Symposium itself tell us, a feature of the world around us. The
philosophic lover does not reject the beauty of what he leaves behind as he rises
toward the Form. Although he discovers beauties that exceed anything he has
already seen, the beauty of what he leaves behind does not disappear; only its
brilliance diminishes, as the moon’s radiance wanes in the light of the sun.
When, having first been attracted by the beauty of a particular boy, the lover
first discerns the beauty that is common to all bodies, Diotima says, he must ‘look
down’ on his passion for one and think little of it.5 Doesn’t he then cease to find
the boy that started him on his way beautiful? No—because it is, without a doubt,
the intensity of his passion for the boy and not the boy (nor perhaps even the
passion) itself, from which he must turn away.6 That is, in fact, exactly what an
important passage in the Republic (474c–475e), whose relevance to this issue has
not been sufficiently noticed, suggests. Socrates here is trying to explain what a
philosopher—a notion that is being introduced here for the first time—is and
why philosophers are ideally suited to rule in the perfect city. He begins by
describing Glaucon, with whom he is talking at this time, as ‘a lover of boys, an
erotic man’ (philopais kai erōtikos). Men like Glaucon, he continues, always have a
reason for finding every boy of the right age attractive: a snub nose is pert, a
hooked nose regal, one that falls in-between is perfectly proportioned; dark boys
are manly, pale ones are children of the gods and as for being ‘honey-yellow’, the
word speaks for itself. Socrates may be speaking tongue-in-cheek here, but his
point is serious: those who love the beauty of boys in general love the beauty of
every individual beautiful boy; whether ‘true’ love is or is not exclusive in the
manner that is canonical in our days is simply not an issue. And his point is
serious because it allows him to introduce the idea that a lover of boys, like a

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4 Alexander Nehamas

lover of wine, of honour, of sights and sounds or a lover of wisdom (especially


wisdom)—a philopais, a philoinos, a philotimos, a philotheamōn, a philēkoos or, finally
and most important, a philosophos—is in love with everything, and neglects
nothing, that belongs, so to speak, to the ‘field’ to which his desire is directed: the
philosopher is a lover of all wisdom.
The lover of bodily beauty, then, does not abandon the boy who first sparked
his desire—he loves all boys, as much as . . . Don Giovanni, who also has a
different reason in each case, loves every woman! Nothing could be more
surprising than this extraordinary convergence between Mozart’s rogue and
Plato’s philosopher, unless it is the fact that Socrates’ introduction of philosophy
in the Republic and perhaps into Western thought as well is the actual source of
Leporello’s Catalogue of his master’s conquests in Don Giovanni! The connection
is established through Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, where Socrates’ joke has
already been given a heterosexual spin, through Molière, who translated
Lucretius into Latin and inserted it in The Misanthrope, and Lorenzo da Ponte,
Mozart’s librettist, who derived the text for Don Giovanni from Molière.7
We should not allow this connection, however, to mislead us into thinking that
Socrates is advocating a betrayal of the boy with whom the philosophic lover
begins his ascent. Here I must disagree with A.W. Price, who thinks that at this
stage the lover ‘is at least unfaithful to [the boy] and may desert him
altogether’—although Price does not believe that the betrayal is sexual: ‘What
is envisaged is not precisely sexual promiscuity: the lover was aim-inhibited (as
Freud would say) from the beginning, for his attachment to one body only
produced words (210a7–8). Hence the only Don Juanism in question is one of
attraction, not of gratification’.8 Price finds such ‘promiscuity’ in Socrates’ own
susceptibility to beauty as Alcibiades describes it in his own speech in the
Symposium: ‘He’s crazy about beautiful boys; he constantly follows them around
in a perpetual daze’ (216d2–3). Yet even if we could describe Socrates as a lover of
all bodies, his passion has nothing of infidelity: he never abandons one youth for
another.9 The fact is that the second stage of the ascent makes contemporary
readers uneasy, for we assume that people who love more than one ‘body’ must
do so for selfish and exploitative reasons: so strongly are our intuitions shaped
through the values of monogamy. There is then a strong temptation either to
minimise the sexual contact involved or to convince ourselves that the lover is no
longer interested in any particular body but only in body in the abstract—not a
promising sexual object.10 But instead of thinking of the lover seducing as many
beautiful boys as possible, we would do better to imagine him ‘giving birth to
beautiful logoi’ with as many beautiful boys as possible. Instead of suspecting
that seeing the beauty of the body leads him to betray his rightful lover (and, of
course all the others as well), we would do better to insist that as long as he is
wrapped up in one boy only he is depriving others of his advice. Unlike its
modern readers, the Symposium pays no serious attention to the question whether
the lover has sex with some, with most or even with all of them. Nothing, in any
case, prevents a lover from continuing to have a favorite while seeking the
company of other young men; Socrates is constantly in pursuit of the young

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 5

(though in his case, as we have seen, sex is not what he is after) but Alcibiades—
we know from the Symposium (213b–d), the Protagoras (309a–b) and the Gorgias
(481d)—continues to have a special place in his life.
Nothing Plato has said so far implies that the philosophic lover discards the
objects he meets on his way as he continues his ascent. That is as it should be.
Although, for example, I consider Dostoevsky a far greater writer than Ian
Rankin, I do not for that reason dislike Rankin’s mysteries—nor did I, once I read
Dostoevsky, stop reading mystery novels altogether. Although at moments Plato
may have believed that it was wrong of me not to have done so, nowhere in the
Symposium does he even suggest that it is wrong to love the lesser mysteries—
only that those who do are not as happy as those who are devoted, say, to Crime
and Punishment. As the Phaedo might have put it, the beauty the lover leaves
behind neither withdraws nor is annihilated when a greater one emerges beyond
it (102d–e).
Plato never even suggests that the lover who realises that the beauty of soul is
‘more valuable’ (210b7) than the body’s also realises that he was wrong to have
valued bodily beauty in the first place. Vlastos implies that he does: ‘At the next
level, higher in value and still more energizing, [Plato] puts the love of mind for
mind, expecting it to prove so much more intense than skin-love that merely
physical beauty will now strike the lover as a ‘‘small’’, contemptible, thing’.11
‘Contemptible’, though, is in my opinion much too strong as a translation of
‘smikron’, which is much closer to ‘negligible’ or ‘unimportant’.12 I know what it
is to feel that to have loved some particular person was a mistake: that is not the
feeling Plato attributes to the philosophic lover. In any case, the passage 210c5–6,
to which Vlastos refers here, applies not to ‘the love of mind’ (the soul) but only
to a higher stage of the ascent—to lovers who have already discerned the beauty
of laws and institutions. Only then does sex become at most of secondary
importance to the philosophic lover (though it is not yet completely abandoned—
that, as we shall see, occurs only at a still higher level of the ascent). The ‘love of
mind for mind’ is much more intimately tied to what Vlastos contemptuously
dismisses as ‘skin-love’.
More generally, the Symposium does not distinguish between the ‘physical’ and
the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘mental’ nearly as starkly as we are often tempted to think. It
is not even clear whether the desire to have children is absent from anyone, even
from the most perfect philosopher. We can see this from the way in which
Socrates tells us Diotima showed him that, however different their particular
focus, all lovers are united by their desire to possess the beautiful (that is how erōs
has been defined; see, e.g., 204d3) or, more precisely, by their desire ‘to give birth
in beauty’ (206b, 207e). Every human being, she said, is pregnant both in body
and in soul and wanting to give birth is part of our nature. It is important that
Plato uses that expression, because it allows him to hold that neither pursuing
fame (‘the lower mysteries’ of erōs) nor pursuing wisdom (‘the higher mysteries’)
excludes the desire to have children of the most ordinary sort. How could he
have thought that it does when Socrates, his model of the philosopher in the
Symposium, was known to have had two sons with Xanthippe (and perhaps, if

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6 Alexander Nehamas

Diogenes Laertius is to be trusted, another son with Myrto, the daughter of


Aristides the Just)?13 Giving birth, Diotima continues, is only possible in the
presence of beauty and it is the only way in which mortal beings, which are in
continuous change both in body and soul, unlike immortal things, which remain
forever unchangingly the same, can approach immortality: for in giving birth
they leave behind something that, being like them, perpetuates them. Biological
reproduction is the easiest and least admirable way of self-perpetuation and
clearly the most common path to it.
Some people, though, are pregnant in their soul even more than in their body.14
Their desire for immortality manifests itself as a thirst for ‘immortal virtue and
fame’ (208d). These people turn to paederasty15 and, in the company of a
beautiful boy (beautiful, Plato implies, in both body and soul), produce beautiful
logoi concerning virtue, especially the wisdom and temperance that are necessary
for life in society. These are the children they are happiest to leave behind—‘more
beautiful and more divine’, than any biological offspring and clearly preferable to
them. The greatest instances of such logoi are the legacies of the great poets and
legislators, which serve to improve both cities and citizens and win immortal
fame and glory for their creators (209d). And above them, as we shall see in more
detail in a moment, there are those who, striving directly for wisdom with no
concern for fame or reputation and in the presence of Beauty itself, give birth to
the most beautiful and most virtuous achievement of which human beings are
capable.
Plato is not thinking in a vacuum. The motives of the three kinds lovers he
introduces in the Symposium are the motives he distinguishes when he ‘divides’
the human soul in the Republic (434d ff.). Lovers of the beauty of the body are
primarily motivated, like the class of artisans in the Republic, by their souls’
appetitive desires. These are desires for, among other things, food, sex and shelter
and they are common to, though not primary in, every human being—Plato does
not believe that philosophers, say, leave them behind.16 Other desires, though, are
not as widely shared and they are definitely not as strong in all as they are in
some. In the Republic, these are, on the one hand, the desires of the thumos, the
second (sometimes called the ‘spirited’) part of the soul, which loves victory and
honor.17 These are just the motives that emerge in Socrates’ description of the
‘lower mysteries’ in the Symposium, aiming at glory and fame. The third class of
desires, on the other hand, belong to that part of the soul that aims at knowledge
of the truth and loves learning and wisdom.18 These, of course, are the desires
that move the philosophic lover, who is enthralled by the beauty of knowledge
and virtue. Each part of the soul, the Republic tells us, has its own appropriate
pleasure (581c) and each, we learn from the Symposium, has its own appropriate
erōs. But since the pleasures of the soul, despite the fact that they differ
immensely in degree, are still for all that pleasures, so the beauty of the objects of
erōs, however humble in comparison to the beauty of the Form of Beauty itself, is
still the same sort of beauty and, however dimly, a reflection the Form’s light.19
The Form of beauty, then, may be the final, the highest, the purest and the
most beautiful object of erōs, but that does not imply that nothing else is beautiful.

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 7

Every lover loves beauty and secures some sort of immortality through it. The
difference is one of degree, the philosophers’ vision imparting beauty and
goodness to every one of their actions and, by permeating every single aspect of
their life, imbuing it completely with happiness.
Plato establishes the connection between beauty, goodness and happiness by
means of one of the most radical and difficult steps in his gradual but startling
transformation of erōs from an urge for reproduction to the practice of
philosophy: his shift from considering erōs as a desire to possess beautiful things
to the desire to create them. The transformation comes when Socrates introduces
the idea that erōs is primarily a desire to give birth and reproduce in beauty,
which we have already discussed. It is that idea which allows Plato eventually to
argue that the philosopher, who gives birth in beauty itself ‘does not give birth to
images, since he is not in touch with an image, but to true virtue, since he is in
touch with the truth’. And it such offspring that make the philosopher truly dear
to the gods and bring him as close to immortality as it is possible for a human
being to come (212a). Needless to say, difficult questions surround the connection
between beauty and goodness—the conviction that if you love someone you will
never do them (or yourself) harm, which is so crucial to Plato (204d–205b); but his
transformation of erōs from possession to production, from desiring something
external to bringing forth something from within, is no less baffling and
obscure.20
To begin with, the very idea of possessing the object of one’s love, with which
Socrates begins his account of erõs (200a ff.) is suspect. It calls to mind a wish to
dominate, exploit and manipulate, a lack of respect and regard that reinforces
commonplaces about the ‘acquisitiveness’ and ‘egocentricity’ of Greek ethical
thought. The desire to possess, one might say more generally, belongs to the
consumer, not the lover; it reveals not love but its absence. How can we possibly
want to own, and thus be free to use, what we value (as we say) for itself, not as a
means but as an end? What would in that case distinguish us from the perverse
character whose anatomy is given in John Fowles’ novel, The Collector?
Possession, though, is not identical with ownership—or, if it is, it is ownership
of a different kind: I may possess something as a detachable piece of property,
losing which will have no effect on who I am, or as a genuine part of myself,
which I can’t lose without undergoing a serious change of my own.21 To possess
something as love requires—a person or a work of art I want to treat not merely
as a means but also as an end in itself—I must want possession to be a mutual
affair: I want it to be mine as much as I want to be its own as well. To treat
something as a means is to take my desires as given and expect it to satisfy them:
I don’t expect that what I want and value will change as a result of our interaction
except accidentally—certainly not as a result of any desires or values it happens
to have. But when I treat something as an end, I am willing to reconsider my
desires and values as a result of taking its own desires and values into account.
I treat it with respect. And I also make myself vulnerable to it—vulnerable in that
I am allowing it to steer me in new directions I might not even have conceived
without it. That is an essentially prospective commitment—a guess at the future

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8 Alexander Nehamas

and it expresses a desire not only to spend part of my life in the company of the
object of my love but also an urge to get to know it better and see how it is likely
to affect me (and how, in turn, I can affect it) best. And so the pursuit of
knowledge is always an element of love and an attendant of beauty. For the god
Erōs, Plato says, was conceived the day Aphrodite was born, and was himself
born to follow and serve her; that’s why he is ‘by nature’ a lover of beauty (203c).
Erōs is always of beauty, never of ugliness (201a); no one can ever give birth in
anything ugly, only in things of beauty (206c). It is, in fact, impossible to love
something that strikes one as ugly (though others may find it so). I only know of
one instance where such a case is possibly being envisaged: Shakespeare’s Dark
Lady sonnets, which just for that reason have caused no end of trouble to their
readers.22
To love someone—not as a Christian loves God’s children23—is inseparable
from finding them beautiful. Love has already died when one day I am no longer
moved by my lover’s beauty, when I can look at her face dispassionately and
measure, so to speak, the quality of her features. Love can survive the most bitter
hatred—Catullus knew that24—but cannot live a moment with ugliness: hate is
not its opposite; indifference is.25 I don’t have in mind what is often called ‘inner’
beauty, assumed to be separate from the ‘external’ or the ‘physical’. Beauty is
always manifested in a lover’s appearance, and we are only making things easy
for ourselves when we say that some people love each other not for their looks
but for their kindness, their sensitivity or their intelligence instead. If, indeed, we
love people on account of their features, the psychological, mental and moral
qualities that may attract us to them are always apparent in their face and
bearing, literally in how they look to us. The ‘inner’ cannot be separated from the
‘outer’, as Isabel Allende’s memoir, Paula, so powerfully illustrates.26 It is the
same with Emma Bovary. When she finds herself interested once again in her sad
and mediocre husband because he expects to perform an operation that will
make him famous and give them the life she has always dreamed of, she notices,
‘with some surprise, that his teeth were not at all unsightly’. When, naturally,
Charles botches the operation, Emma is bitterly disappointed and as a result
‘everything about him exasperated her now, his face, his clothes, what he did not
say, his entire being, his very existence’.27
It was one of Plato’s most startling and original insights to see that love impels
forward while beauty beckons—in space, toward another object, in time, toward
the future.
But since it is impossible to know in advance what beauty promises to yield,
when I act on what is no more than a promise of something valuable but still
unknown I am taking a serious risk, for I don’t now know how I will change as a
result and whether the change will be for the better or for the worse. And so part
of what I undertake when I try to make something mine is to come to know it as
well as I can, in order to understand what it is and see how it will affect me and
what it will be able to give me. To love something is always, in part, to try to
understand what makes it beautiful, what drew me and, as long as I still love it,
continues to draw me toward it.

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 9

Consider, in the first instance, a work of art. To be overwhelmed by the beauty


of In Search of Lost Time, as I am, is not simply to experience certain feelings in
reading it. It is also to be willing, literally, to devote part of my life to it—not just
to read it (although that will certainly be part of it) but also to come to know it
better, to understand it, to see what Proust accomplishes in this work. For that,
I need to learn (as I have tried to do) about Proust more generally, about the
social, cultural and political situation in Paris between the end of the 19th century
and the first years of the 20th, to improve my French, to understand more about
the Dreyfus affair, antisemitism and homosexuality, about the history of the
French novel and the novel more generally, including its social origins, to look
at Vermeer, to listen to Debussy and much else besides. That, in turn, is not
only a matter of sitting alone in my study. It involves meeting people I would
have not met before, learning things I would not have otherwise learnt, traveling
to new places—spending part of my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined
without having been led to them by Proust. All that belongs to my love for the
novel, which is inseparable from my effort to understand it and, in fact, to see it
as no one else has ever seen it before—that is what ‘making it mine’ finally comes
to. In other words, my love for the novel is necessarily expressed in an urge to
interpret it and to continue to do so as long as it attracts me, as long as I still feel
that there is more to it than I have seen so far. And as long as I am still trying to
interpret it, the more various the things to which I will relate it in order to
understand it, to see how it accomplishes something that nothing else had
accomplished before.
There is, in other words, no difference between delving more deeply into the
novel and wandering more widely into the rest of the world—the more I bring to
my understanding of the novel, the more the things in the world to which I relate
it, the better I can see how it is different from and how it resembles them and
recognise its specific accomplishment, the features that distinguish it from
everything else. The better, that is, I come to see how it is in itself, in its own right.
To the extent that being involved with it has changed my life, that book has come
to possess me; to the extent that I have found something new and unusual in it, I
have made it mine; and, to that extent, I have become new and unusual myself.
The same is true of love for persons. When I want to make someone I love
mine I also want her to want to make me her own as well. I am willing to allow
her characteristics, many of which I don’t yet know, influence who I will be and I
want her to let features of mine help shape her future. More important—and here
the risk seems greatest—I am willing for us to influence each other by means of
characteristics that do not yet exist but will come into being only as a result of our
interaction. How can anyone know where such a process is likely to lead?
The kinds of things we love—persons and objects both—and our reasons for
loving them and finding them beautiful determine and, express, a large part of
our character. To find something beautiful, I have been saying, involves the sense
that life will be more worthwhile if that beautiful object were to become part of it.
But I have said nothing about what makes life worthwhile and unlike Plato, who
thinks that this is in all cases moral virtue, I don’t even think that there is

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10 Alexander Nehamas

anything both general and informative to say about it. The best I can do, which is
also to beg every question, is to say that in the ideal case the various paths we
have followed through life on account of the things we have loved and what we
have come to understand about them will gradually transform us too into
something that no one has seen before and that is itself worthy of love, attention
and admiration in its own right—into something beautiful.
The possibility that the pursuit of beauty may lead to its creation is one of the
most important truths that motivate Plato’s identification of erõs with the desire
to give birth in beauty—both with a reaction to something that already exists and
with the urge to bring something new into the world. And since he thinks that
beauty and goodness are so closely connected, he is not nearly as troubled by the
risks inherent in that pursuit as I am. For me, though, there is no guarantee that
the things I find beautiful will lead me either to a good or a successful life. And
even if they do, it will always be possible to say that instead of immersing myself
in Plato or Proust I should have worked for Oxfam instead. Yet here, too, the
problems persist: how do I know what that would have led to in the long run—
what, for example, if I had ended up embezzling their funds?
In any event, wherever love and beauty are present there is also the effort to
understand what we love or, what comes to the same thing, to understand why
we love it. As long as love persists, no answer will ever be complete; as long as
something still strikes me as beautiful, the sense that there is something about it
that is still worth coming to know and celebrate—that there is more to love—
remains. That is why judgments of beauty are always at least partly prospective
and why the most beautiful things always seem inexhaustible.
This forward-looking element in the perception of beauty, the sense that
beautiful things are constantly drawing us further, is one of the great revelations
of the Symposium. I have described the movement—the beckoning of beauty, the
impetus of love—both as an absorbed immersion in the beautiful object itself and,
simultaneously, as an expanding vision of the world to which it belongs. Plato
describes it as an ascent. Does that ascent leave the object with which it begins
behind? Does beauty, in drawing us further, also draw us away from what
sparked its pursuit?
The path to the Form, Socrates says, begins with the beauty of a particular boy
in whose company a man gives birth to beautiful logoi (210a4–9). These logoi—to
repeat: pieces of advice, accounts, arguments, poems, laws, and their results—are
to Plato’s scheme what new understandings and interpretations as well as their
consequences are to mine, except that Plato is convinced that as a result of their
interaction both lovers change for the better. If the lover has a bent for
philosophy, there comes a point when he realises ‘that the beauty of any one body
is sibling to the beauty of any other and that . . . the beauty of all bodies is one and
the same’ (210a8–b3). How he comes to that realisation is not something Plato
explains—we can only guess. One guess, then, is the following. Pressed forward
by erōs, which, like every desire, is directed at what is not already possessed
(199e–201c), the philosophic lover tries to make the boy’s beauty more completely
his. But what distinguishes the philosophic lover from the lovers of the lower

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 11

mysteries, who desire glory and fame, is that for him the desire to possess beauty
is inseparable from the desire to understand it, to understand, that is, why he
loves it, what makes it beautiful. And what he finds, for Platonic reasons we may
leave aside for now, is that what makes this boy’s body beautiful, and explains
why he loves him, is what makes all beautiful bodies beautiful, what they all
have in common. He now becomes a lover of all beautiful bodies (210b)—he
surrounds himself with beautiful boys, though he remains, as far as I can tell, in
the company of the first: his contempt for the ‘wild gaping after just one’ may be
prompted simply by the realisation that being concerned with the first boy does
not exclude being concerned with others as well, not that being concerned with
others excludes being concerned with the first. The image of an older man
surrounded by and always in pursuit of beautiful boys—recall what we know of
Socrates in this connection!—is much more satisfying than the image of one who,
after spending time with a particular boy, abandons boys altogether for the
impersonal feature their bodies have in common.28
The process continues. A still more philosophic lover will now understand
that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body (210b–c). Two
things are worth noting here. First, since the lover is still focused on an
individual, it is reasonable to think that his focus was also on individuals when,
at the previous stage, he turned to the beauty of the body in general. Second,
bodily beauty remains relevant. The lover will be happy with a boy whose soul is
beautiful ‘even if he is only slightly blooming in his body’. The qualification is
concessive but positive. Plato has no sympathy for the commonplace of the
beautiful soul trapped in a wizened body: the external and the internal interact.
Like everything else in the world, he writes in the Republic (401a), bodies can be
graceful or inelegant, shapely or unshapely; inelegance and lack of rhythm or
harmony are indications of an evil character while their opposites are indications
of a character that is temperate and good.
Once again, Plato does not say what leads the lover to that realisation. We
must guess once again. My own tentative guess, which takes a cue from the
connection between bodily and psychic beauty we were just discussing, is that
since the beauty of soul or character, as I suggested earlier, is manifested in the
body, it affects the lover’s perception and allows him to find the person he loves
not only, say, wise, sensitive or kind but also good-looking. In addition to the
passage above, a view of that sort may be suggested by the statement that while a
good body does not affect the quality of the soul a good soul renders the body as
good as it can be (Rep. 403d) and an aside to the effect that it is not possible to
cure the body if something is wrong with it without curing the soul (156e–157a).
Although the evidence for that guess is slight, it has one great advantage: it
allows the same reasoning to apply to the soul that earlier applied to the body.
Just as the lover was led to the beauty of body in general by asking what makes
one body beautiful, so now he is led to the soul by asking what makes the body in
general beautiful, the soul providing an explanation for the beauty of body in
general. That, incidentally, is also Plotinus’ view of the relationship between the
beauty of the body and the beauty of the soul: ‘It is the soul’, he writes, ‘that

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12 Alexander Nehamas

makes every body that is called ‘beautiful’ what it is’.29 The questions continue:
What makes the soul beautiful? The lover, in the company of the boys his love
aims to improve, realises that the greatest effect is due to law and custom, to
occupations and institutions—in a word, to the culture within which human
beings are born and grow. Beautiful souls are the products of beautiful cultures,
whose own beauty, too, is all of one and the same kind (210c). At that point—and
at that point only—the lover comes to think that the beauty of the body is not
only inferior to the beauty of the soul but of little importance overall. And now
the philosophical question can be asked again: when are laws and institutions
beautiful? What makes them so? When, as Plato sees it, do they lead unerringly
to virtue and the good life? The answer is, when they have been established not
haphazardly and as tradition would have them but on the basis of knowledge (or
science: epistēmē, 210c–d)—precisely the knowledge for which Socrates had been
searching in Plato’s elenctic dialogues and the structure of which the Republic
articulates in such grand detail.
It is now, as the lover is looking at the beauty of the sciences, that he sees a
great expanse, a great ‘sea of beauty’ and stops caring for the beauty that is
present in one thing only. Is Plato here, in marking a turn toward the Forms,
which are the objects of knowledge and responsible for its own beauty, also
turning away from any attachment to individuals? Yes, but only in part. He
writes that the lover is no longer moved by ‘the beauty of a single thing, satisfied
like a menial servant (oiketēs) with the beauty of a boy, a man or a single kind of
behavior, contemptible like a slave (douleuōn) and of no consequence’ (210d). His
language, which recalls Pausanias’ earlier description of the lover’s imploring for
a boy’s favors, eager ‘to provide services (douleias) even a slave (doulos) would
refuse’ (183a), seems to me to suggest at least that at this stage (but no earlier) the
lover is no longer interested in sex and perhaps that he no longer has a special
relationship with any particular boy. But we have no reason for thinking that the
lover is no longer interested in interacting with the beautiful boys who have
become his companions or in expanding his circle—exactly like Socrates, who,
Alcibiades will soon be telling the company, ‘is crazy (erōtikōs diakeitai) about
beautiful boys and constantly follows them around in a perpetual daze’ (216d).
The ‘gloriously beautiful’ logoi to which this truly philosophical lover gives birth
(210d) are not first reached by him in isolation and only then (contingently, so to
speak) communicated to others. Although, like everyone else, the philosopher
needs time alone for his studies, surely part of his activity consists of his
dialectical interaction with his circle. Becoming aware that they are beautiful for
the same reason that so many other things in the world are beautiful, allowing his
love to encompass everything that manifests, to some degree, the intelligible
order of the Forms, need not in any way interfere with his concern for them.
The philosopher does not pay for the expansion of his vision with a counter-
vailing blindness.30
On the contrary, he finally grasps the cause of the beauty of the Forms—the
Form of beauty itself—which is also the ultimate cause of the beauty of absolutely
everything in the world; in a serious sense, as the philosopher gains a vision of

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 13

the Form of beauty, he falls in love with the world itself. That is the beauty the
contemplation of which is the only thing that makes human life worth living, if
anything does (211d1–2). It is the contemplation that is characteristic of the
philosopher who understands that the world is organised in the best and most
beautiful way possible—the contemplation that, instead of being purely abstract
and theoretical, enables him to give birth to virtue itself and become dear to the
gods and so vitally important to his fellow human beings that he comes as close
to being immortal as any human being ever does (211e–212a). His are the best
children a human being can have.
Plato’s account is based on a metaphysics according to which—in line with
the principle that the cause is greater than its effect, which implies, as Aristotle
says, that fire is the hottest thing of all since it is the cause of the heat of
everything else31—what explains the beauty of something is more beautiful than
the object whose beauty it explains. Add to that the idea that beauty and
goodness are, if not identical, essentially related to each other, and the success of
erotic attraction (at least when it is, by Plato’s standards, correctly pursued) is
guaranteed. In the presence of the greatest beauty, which is also the greatest
goodness, the philosopher has the best and most beautiful life a human being
can have. The philosopher’s ascent is a continuing effort to understand the
beauty of the objects of erōs, an effort to determine what accounts for it. It is
inseparable from the production of the most beautiful and good logoi, which
are the other side of his vision and as crucial to its perfection as that vision
itself.
This movement, this constant going forward with questions that are not yet
answered and which Plato was the first to describe, is in my opinion absolutely
essential to love. Divorced from Plato’s metaphysics, it need not be seen as an
ascent toward objects of greater value. I think it is sparked by feeling that there is
more to the beautiful things we love than we have seen so far and kindled by the
desire to come to know them better. But for me beauty, which depends not only
on the features of the object of love but also on who it is that loves it, has no
essential connection to virtue. Although I expect that a beautiful thing will
somehow make my life better, I have no guarantee that I am right. That can be
determined only in the course of time—if my interaction with it and how I have
changed as a result prove to have been themselves worthwhile. But what is and
what is not worthwhile, what valuable or harmful, is known only in retrospect
and sometimes provokes intractable disagreement. You think the person I have
spent my life with has sucked out all that was once good in me, that my friend
has debauched me, that television has corrupted my standard of taste. I feel
perfectly happy and justified (I wish it was as simple as that) and sometimes we
simply have to leave the matter there.
Has television corrupted me? Well, I think that it has enabled me to produce
some decent philosophy. But for you my idea that your contempt of television is a
version of Plato’s rejection of Homer and Aeschylus is as repulsive as television
itself and my essay on the genius of St. Elsewhere is a disgrace. How are we to
decide? How can I decide, for that matter? Before I was attracted to television,

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14 Alexander Nehamas

I found it despicable; I looked at those who enjoyed it with a mixture of pity and
scorn. Now I am finally able to see its good points—or am I? I believe that, other
things being equal, I am now better off than I was then. But how can I tell, since,
along with a taste for television I have also developed standards of judgment
which, from the point of view of my earlier self, are depraved and corrupt? By
my earlier standards, I am now depraved, corrupt and miserable although I don’t
know it. By those I currently accept, my earlier standards were silly, prejudiced
and deprived me of great beauty. Which standards are right?
Plato, for whom no disagreement is ultimately intractable, answers: the
standards of philosophy, the only standards that establish when a life has been
worthwhile. And what they say is that life is worth living only in the
contemplation of beauty, which manifests itself in giving birth to kaloi logoi, the
beautiful accounts and actions that promote virtue and happiness.
Whether or not one accepts this Platonic commitment, what he calls the
contemplation (theasthai) of beauty is not at any stage a passive affair; it requires
the creation of something beautiful. And that is exactly what I was driving at
earlier when I said that we are constantly trying to see what we love in new ways
that are distinctly our own. Those who succeed, especially if their various
interpretations, their logoi, are systematically connected with one another, can
become beautiful in their own right, objects that others may love and may want
to come to know for themselves. Unlike Plato, I don’t believe that the
lover’s beautiful logoi necessarily result in the creation of virtue and for that
reason, although I do agree that they result in the creation of more beauty,
I think that they contain an element of ineliminable risk. But, like him, I am
convinced that beauty is a spur to creation. And, instead of seeing it as an
infallible guide, I prefer to think of it somewhat as Stendhal did: beauty, the
object of love, is ‘only a promise of happiness’, not always fulfilled. Sometimes, it
may be worse when it is, because by then I may have become incapable of seeing
the harm—aesthetic or ethical—it has done me or others. But sometimes its
promise comes true and a new beauty, a new spur to creation, enters the world. It
is in that case that one can say, and say truly, that, quite apart from its moral
worth, one’s life was a life worth living, that one is happy to have become who
one is.
That is in many respects also the view of the Symposium. A beautiful boy and
what love makes him want to do for him set the philosopher on the way to
beauty itself, to the creation of the most beautiful logoi, which constitute the other
face of virtue itself and make them both more beautiful. These logoi give the
philosopher an immortality which has nothing to do with the fame to which the
lower mysteries are directed. It depends only on the inherent quality of his life
and work.
But Plato’s stunning vision has reached us because the Symposium has been
drawing swarms of interpreters, all of them eager to find something that is purely
their own and put their own stamp upon it. Socrates, whose logoi it describes, and
Plato, whose logos it is, are no less famous than Homer or Hesiod, Lycurgus or
Solon (209d–e), partly because the Symposium has proved inexhaustible. Perhaps

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 15

the life the Symposium honours is not the best life there is, because there is no best
human life, and perhaps it is not the only good human life, which is why Homer,
for one, stands by Plato’s side today. But if to be beautiful is to provoke the
creation of beauty, the proliferation of beautiful logoi, then, whether or not it has
ever led any of its readers to virtue, little can be compared to the beauty of the
Symposium. It has proved to be an offspring of which Plato can rightly be proud.

Alexander Nehamas
Room 120, 1879 Hall
Princeton University
USA
nehamas@princeton.edu

NOTES
1
This is a revised text of the annual European Journal of Philosophy lecture delivered at
the Humboldt University in Berlin in May of 2006. I am grateful to the editorial board of
the Journal, particularly to Professors Robert Stern and Rolf-Peter Horstmann, for their
invitation and their generous hospitality and to Dr Dina Emundts for overseeing the
practical arrangements. An invitation to give the Gray Lectures at Cambridge University
in April of 2004 was the first cause of these ideas, which are part of a continuing project.
I cannot overstate my indebtedness to the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge and
particularly to Professors Richard Hunter, Malcolm Schofield and David Sedley and Drs
Dominic Scott, Frisbee Sheffield and Robert Wardy. I have presented various versions of
this lecture at several institutions and I have gained much from my discussions there.
2
Vlastos 1981.
3
Brentlinger 1970 and Keller 2000, for example, have denied that loving someone
because of their features implies that love is directed at their features and not at them.
Kolodny 2003 claims that such a ‘quality’ theory of love is to be rejected although he does
not address directly views like Brentlinger’s or Keller’s. See also Velleman 1999: 362–364.
4
Nietzsche 1968: 467.
5
‘When he grasps this, he must become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and he must
think that this wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it’ (210b5–6); cf.
Price 1989: 39.
6
This passage is discussed much less often than it deserves, especially by those who
find in Socrates’ speech an impersonal, almost inhuman sort of love, despite the fact that
most translations I have consulted render the passage correctly. One scholar, however,
translates it ambiguously, allowing such an impersonal reading to insinuate itself in the
readers’s mind as if it was part of Plato’s text and not the product of a wilful interpretation:
the lover, according to Nussbaum 1986: 179, ‘sees that he ‘must set himself up as the lover
of all beautiful bodies, and relax his excessively intense passion for one body, looking
down on that and thinking it of small importance’—leaving it unclear whether ‘that’ and
‘it’ refer to the lover’s passion for one body or that body itself. That makes it easier to
charge the passage, on the assumption that ‘all beauty, qua beauty, is uniform, the same in
kind’, with advising the lover to abandon the beauty of the boy’s body for the beauty of the
body in general and, worse, with ‘making the related the same, the irreplaceable
replaceable’.

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16 Alexander Nehamas
7
Mozart, Don Giovanni, Act I, Scene 4: ‘Nella bionda, egli ha l’usanza/Di lodar la
gentilezza—/Nella bruna, la constanza,/Nella bianca, la dolcezza! [etc.]’. Some may think,
of course, that the Don falsifies his experience simply in order to add more conquests to his
‘list’, but his attitude is in fact much more complex. With a comic twist, he echoes Socrates’
description of Glaucon when he justifies his deceptions by attributing all of them to love:
‘Whoever is faithful to one betrays the others. I, whose emotions encompass all, love them
all without exception’ (II.1). Is he a hypocrite? The difficulty of answering that question is
part of the reason the opera continues to be fascinating. The details of the connection
between Plato and Mozart are as follows: Socrates’ point appears transposed in Lucretius’
De Rerum Natura, IV.1160–1170 (‘nigra melichrus est, inmunda et fetida acosmos [etc.]’), is
used by Molière in The Misanthrope, II. 4 (‘La pâle est aux jasmins en blancheur
comparable; la noire à faire peur, une brune adorable [etc.]’) and is adapted, along with the
Don’s little disquisition on faith and faithlessness in Molière’s Don Juan (I. 217–225), by da
Ponte.
8
Price 1989: 46–47.
9
That is not Socrates’ place on Plato’s ladder of love. Alcibiades’ story about Socrates’
refusal to have sex with him (218d–219d) shows that Socrates, if we are to find a place on
Plato’s ladder for him at all, has reached at least the stage where the beauty of laws and
institutions has become apparent, since only then, as we shall see, do lovers realise ‘that
the beauty of bodies is unimportant, (smikron ti, 210c3–6) and only then do they begin to
give sex a secondary role in their relationships.
10
Price 1989: 47 suggests both responses. Regarding the first, I can’t agree with him
that the lover’s ‘attachment to one body only produced words’—either in the case
of the lovers or fame or in that of the beginning lovers of wisdom. He intimates the second
when he writes, in connection with the passage of the Republic we discussed above,
that ‘the generosity of response [of the philopais] should inspire in a man pregnant in
soul a non-particularised love-poetry inspired by, and intended for, ingenuous youth in
general’.
11
Vlastos 1981: 23.
12
See Liddell and Scott 1968: s.v. mikros, I. 3.
13
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, II. v. 26.
14
One might be tempted to take the idea that everyone is pregnant both in body and
in soul less literally in view of 208e ff., where Plato seems to contrast ‘those who are
pregnant in body’ with ‘those who are pregnant in soul’ (hoi men . . . hoi de). But a glance at
what follows dispels that impression, since when Plato explains who these latter people
are he claims that ‘there surely are those who are even more (eti mallon) pregnant in their
souls than in their bodies’ (209a1–2). The difference remains one in degree.
15
Does this show that every lover who belongs to this second level of erōs is a man?
Perhaps. But one of three examples by means of which Diotima introduces that category
comes from the story of Alcestis, who offered to die in place of her husband, Admetus.
Like Achilles and Codrus (the other two examples) Alcestis sacrifices herself so that ‘the
memory of [her] virtue should be immortal’. On the other hand, everyone to whom Plato
refers as worthy of fame on account of ethical or intellectual accomplishment in what
follows is a man. Perhaps he is making an implicit distinction between courage and the
other ethical virtues.
16
Plato makes explicit provisions for the sexual and reproductive life of the guardians
in the Republic (457b–462a, and note in particular 458c–d). Guardians and philosophers are
temperate but by no means celibate.
17
Philonikon and philotimon, Rep. 581b.

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‘Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living’ 17
18
Philomathes and philosophon, Rep. 581b.
19
Plato may be joking when he calculates that the life of the virtuous king is 729 times
more pleasant than the life of the tyrant (Rep. 587e), but his desire to determine which of
the three kinds of life (each corresponding to the dominance of a different part of the soul)
is most pleasant (576b–588a) implies that the pleasures involved are the same in kind and
differ only in degree. It is also important to note, however, that (as Dominic Scott reminded
me) that erōs in the Republic is by no means unequivocally a good. It is associated with the
lawless and vicious desires Plato discusses in the opening pages of Book VIII and it is so
closely linked to the passions of the tyrannical type of man—the lowest human type in
Plato’s eyes—that it is twice described as ‘erōs tyrannos’—‘erōs the tyrant’ (572e–573e).
Unfortunately, Plato has little to say about this double aspect of the character of erōs, just as
he says nothing about the double aspect of the ‘madness’ (mania) with which he connects
it—vicious here yet one of the gods’ greatest gifts at Phdr. 245b–c.
20
Some of these obscurities are well discussed in Burnyeat 1977.
21
See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Book I, Chapter 16.
22
More on this bald claim and the general model of love and beauty on which it
depends in Nehamas 2007: 53–63.
23
Not even as parents love their children, if the controversial understanding of love in
Frankfurt 2004 is correct.
24
Catullus, Carmina, 85.
25
One peculiar but suggestive asymmetry between love and hate, which suggests that
they are not contraries, is that while it is impossible to fall in love with someone with
whom you have never had any direct contact (which includes letters from or pictures of
that person), simply on information supplied to you by a third party, it is quite possible to
come to hate another through an account of their personality or actions.
26
Allende 1994: 48–49: ‘The first time I saw my Tı́o Ramón, I thought my mother was
playing a joke. That was the prince she had been sighing over? I had never seen such an
ugly man. . . . [T]en years later . . . I was at last able to accept him. He took charge of us
children, just he had promised. . . . He raised us with a firm hand and unfailing good
humor; he set limits and sent clear messages, without sentimental demonstrations,
without compromise. I recognise now that he put up with my contrariness without trying
to buy my esteem or ceding an inch of his authority, until he won me over totally. He is the
only father I have known, and now I think he is really handsome!’.
27
Flaubert 2004: 157, 165.
28
Difficult questions lurk in this area. A lover who stopped here, thinking that
nothing further is needed for explaining the beauty of boys, would be not a philosopher
but what the Republic (474c–480a) describes, in contrast to the philosopher, a ‘lover of
sights’ (philotheamōn). That is presumably because such a man would think that the
explanation for the beauty of other things, if any, would also stop with what is common to
them without trying to connect the two explanations together. In some sense, then, the
beauty that is common to all bodies is perceptible and not the proper province of
philosophy—at this stage, the lover has not yet shown himself to be a philosopher. When
does that happen? The most plausible stage seems to be when the lover leaves ‘laws and
institutions’ behind and turns to the beauty of knowledge (210c–d). At that point, concern
for the body disappears and the term enters this context for the first time: the lover’s
enterprise is described as ‘copious’ (aphthonos) philosophy. But it is only at the very final
stage, when the lover becomes aware of the Form of Beauty, that he also understands the
many ways in which it differs from every other beautiful object and acquires the
knowledge which, less explicitly, Plato attributes to the philosopher in the Republic.

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18 Alexander Nehamas
29
Plotinus Enneads I.6.7.29–30. See the commentary of Kalligas 1994: 272. Plotinus
credits the soul with the beauty of epitēdeumata as well, while for Plato ‘laws and
epitēdeumata’ follow the soul on the next higher step of the ladder of love. I believe the
conflict can be resolved if we understand Plotinus to take that term to refer to behavior or
patterns of behavior, which he considers sensible objects, while Plato understands it in the
sense of custom or institution.
30
The idea that the philosophic lover maintains, like Socrates, his relations with some
individuals is given further support by the statement that what brings the philosopher to
the Form of beauty is ‘the correct practice of paederasty’ (211b), by which, I suspect, Plato
has in mind relationships not exclusively organised around sexuality. In this and several
other points, I have learned much from Price 1989. I may, however, have proved an
unworthy student, since Price thinks that the idea that the lover expands the range of his
purview without any attendant loss, is ‘quite false to the text’ (45).
31
Aristotle, Metaphysics a, 993b23–31. Aristotle uses that example, which he takes
to be obvious to common sense, in order to argue that the principles of being, which
philosophy investigates and are the source of the truth of everything that is, are the truest
things there are.

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