Plato, Persons, and the Ascent to the Highest Good

My colleague Eric Silverman hosted me in his Plato class at Christopher Newport University this last Wednesday, where I delivered a guest lecture (video available here)-- with much contribution from his student's questions, objections, puzzles, and discussion -- ostensibly focused on Diotima's speech (in Socrates' speech) nested in the very heart of Plato's dialogue, the Symposium -- but actually taking the opportunity to work out and talk about a few parts of one of my own projects concerned with Plato.

plato symposium highest good form god ascent love desire personality person
That dialogue is, and will ever remain, a central work in the history and discipline of philosophy.  It has inspired commentators, appropriators, perhaps even what might be called imitators down throughout the ages.  Its depiction of philosophy, indeed of many types of activity and inquiry, as fundamentally erotic will ever seduce new students to read it through and then return to explore its fascinating passages, and will draw back old friends and lovers, professors whose copies of it bear wear as signs of diligent study -- or even as the guide with whom I first traversed the dialogue in Greek with called it, an inability to put the book away because every time one opens it, in turn it opens in the reader's mind new, gnawing, aching questions.

The Symposium is also -- and this comes through to some extent even through the stuffy English translations we inflict on undergraduates -- one of the finest works of Western literature.  Plato displays his nearly incomparable mastery of the very imitative arts, poetry not as divine inspiration but as ceaseless craft, though situating the discussion several levels down within the narrative, then recounting a series of speeches on love. These are very different in the styles by which they reproduce those characteristic of modes of language of Plato's time -- the conservative lawmaker proposing changes (Pausanius), the Gorgian master of inventive rhetoric (Agathon, whose party it is), the comedian (Aristophanes), the doctor imposing a physicalist understanding on love (Eryximachus, about whose speech, I recently posted an old paper) -- and then the centerpiece speech, all their dross burned away,  incorporates, interweaves, and burnishes to a blinding shine all their golden strands.

An opportunity to converse with eager, well-prepared, quick thinking students about a thinker and text right at the core of Western philosophy and to explore some facets of its most central moment with them is one I do not get everyday, and which I grasped when offered with just as much resolution as gratitude.

The Good in Theistic Platonism

Somewhere along the line in my formation and career, some time ago, I recognized -- though I struggled against this as well! -- my own philosophical temperament and direction to fall within the broad spectrum of what is most adequately termed Christian Platonism.  There are challenging problems and thorny issues to be tackled for anyone working within that multifarious and immeasurably rich tradition -- and the invitation to give this talk also offered me the chance -- unforeseen by my host and his intellectual charges -- to start work in earnest on one set of those problems and issues:  puzzles concerned with the highest good and personality.

My own view -- one easily adopted after, and profiting from, centuries of much deeper, more incisive scholars speculating about and meditating upon the central ideas of the Symposium, on the fundamental ideas, experiences, ascensional path of life, and erotic object revealed but not entirely or even in some respects adequately worked out in that dialogue -- is that there are tensions in Plato's writings, and in its undergirding and engaging thought, that remain unreconciled in his work.

It is also my view that certain of these tensions were only adequately articulated, made more pressing and perplexing, and then fully worked through via the dynamically developed  interplay of revealed monotheist religion (Judaism and Christianity) with ancient philosophy in early Christian philosophy.  Since my goal was not to argue this or even fully explain it in my lecture, nor is it here, and I will simply mention that meditation on the implications of personality or personhood as an attribute of the divine revealed to early Christian philosophers a new and better way of understanding the Platonic Good beyond being, one which Plato could presumably have reasoned out but in fact did not.

What About Plato's Own View?

So, returning to the question I was setting before Silverman's students, the issue of the day was this:  Does the Platonic ascent to the highest good, as Socrates (or Plato, or Diotima) lays it out in the Symposium, require stripping away personality as one ascends?  In order to know and to enjoy the highest good, must one move away from the individual, the material, the narrational and historical, the relational, the personal, the what-makes-me-me and what-makes-you-you?  Is the enjoyment a state in which personality, personhood is at best something superfluous?  After all, it does seem very clear that the Form of the Good (or the Beautiful) is itself impersonal, beyond personality, personhood, equally enjoyable by all and any who ascend to it.

As I told Eric's students, what I was up to in asking them these questions formed part of a larger project, one in which I want to problematize the fairly standard picture of the ascent to and enjoyment of the highest good (and even the goods just below it) in Plato's philosophy.  This might take the form of just an article, or it might eventually lead into a (hopefully) thin book -- that's the beauty of research and scholarship in the humanities:  unlike the social sciences we do not just begin with a hypothesis and then start thinking of how to test it "scientifically," but start digging and see where the phenomena leads us, what it opens and offers to us, what it cajolingly suggests as objects or even just clues to follow out by further study. 

Four Parts to the Project

In its present form, this project consists of four parts -- and, with a jokingly intertextual Tolkien reference, I might call them Up the Ladder and Back Again.  First, there's getting very clear about precisely what the ascent -- from the love of or desire of a single body all the way through intermediary objects to the highest good -- consists in.

Second, after thinking about what that highest good is like, what the progressive stages have demanded of its seeker, what process of turning the soul away from particular objects and personal idiosyncrasies has engaged a human subject more and more with the universal, the eternal -- after mulling over the image of enjoyment that strikes our minds when we first (or perhaps for the tenth time) read through the Symposium  (and through the other canonical Platonic texts that narrate similar ascents to the Forms and even to the Form of the Good) -- we have to actually look closely at what Plato says about the condition of those fortunate enough to be in such enjoyment.  We have to ask whether there remains any element of the personal.  Even more we have to ask whether this element of personal life and interaction is something merely not incompatible with the enjoyment or whether it is an essential moment of Plato's characterization.

Third, stepping back down the ladder, we turn to scrutinize, to (using that so common Socratic locution) scope out (skopein) the higher intermediary rungs, those higher than the beautiful souls:  knowledges (epistemai, but really the level of the Forms , or the virtues) and laws or institutions (nomoi).  If we read more attentively in the Symposium, if we fill in gaps in the account by bringing in passages from other Platonic dialogues, if we consider precisely how one is drawn to, fills the eyes of one's mind with, and comes to enjoy the grasp or even possession or sharing of these higher goods and beauties -- those which make souls good and beautiful -- if we do all of this, perhaps we might arrive at the conclusion that personality remains essentially involved at these levels.

Fourth, I think there might be something to be gained by reading into the Symposium account of beauties of body and soul, and the friendships and loves arising from, pursuing, shaping, celebrating, or even agonizing over (e.g. in Alcibiades' case!) beautiful bodies and souls, the many available examples peppering the narrative or dramatic structures of so many of the other dialogues.  I would like to strike on these cords so that they resound at the same time as the main melody, coloring our tonal perception of it.  At this level, of course, there is no question of whether personality is essentially involved or not.  But, I want to bring back something often left out when we think about the Platonic ascent, casting our mental gaze upwards at the intelligible analogue to the dazzling sun, and that is that in the Symposium account these persons, the relationships of love or friendship, are essential, necessary preconditions and prefigurations of the ascent.

The Ascent to the Highest Good

What I led Eric Silverman's class through was just the first and a portion of the second part -- only so much to be accomplished in 50 minutes after all.  And, since I don't presume my readers to have read or have perfect recall of precisely what the ascent to the Form of the Good looks like, before just mentioning a bit about the second part, here's a fairly common (though admittedly a bit Oxfordy, and at some points dubiously rendering) translation of several key passages:
And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.

This, my dear Socrates. . . is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible—you only want to look at them and to be with them.
But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty--the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life—thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine?
These passages actually come after the fuller, more detailed depiction of the ascent.  First comes disciplining the love of beautiful bodies:
[H]e who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only--out of that he should create fair thoughts;  and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is and the same!  And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms
The next rung on the ladder moves us from the body to the soul:
in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. So that if a virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to love and tend him. . .
The ascent now proceeds in its next two steps by looking to what generates beautiful souls:
until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle;  and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution. . . .
Finally, he will grasp the beauty and goodness lying beyond all particularity (even that of universals):
a nature of wondrous beauty . . . a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another . . . . or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven, or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.
Now, it is very easy, even natural, to be led into thinking that this enjoyment is a singular absorption of the knower in the known, the lover in the loved (which is the eminently lovable), the soul (which for Plato is, yes, clearly the real person) rapturously contemplating the Form of the Good.  There is no need for other people.  Indeed they would only be a distraction, would they not?  That is a question I answered in the lecture (again available in video here), and to which I'll devote an additional blog post next week -- a question answered negatively, if you want to be be exact, but actually in the positive:  the enjoyment of the highest good does involve other persons, and relationship with them, and Plato's own texts bear this out.