Plato's Ladder of Love

I thought I would begin this blog and video series with the philosophy of love and beauty as described in Plato’s Symposium.

Here Socrates makes an impassioned speech in favor romantic love or Eros in the voice of one of his teachers, the priestess Diotima. He goes into great detail explaining one of her seminal philosophies, the ladder of love. More than just the inspiration for a tender ballad by the 1950s doo-wop group, the Flamingos, the ladder of love illustrates the ascent of the human lover from pure lust to the contemplation of divine beauty itself. Referred to here as the Form of Beauty, this mental state is described as “an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades.”

According to the priestess, in order to gain access to this heavenly realm, one must first actively engage with five ascending aspects or levels of love. As a side note, Mary Magdalene also describes an eerily similar ascent of the soul in the Gospel of Mary, if you are interested.

So, the first rung on Diotima’s ladder is a love for one particular body. Here, she essentially describes puppy love. It is the first awakening of desire and attraction. However, she does not discount this lust, arguing that it is the catalyst, gateway to the divine, and entirely necessary step in the soul’s evolutionary process.

Following the desire for an individual’s physique, the second rung centers upon the realization that many bodies are beautiful. It is at this stage that we develop our “types,” including specific facial features, hair colors, and body types. We come to see that many people possess this type of beauty.

Making the monumental leap from the purely physical to the emotional, the third rung on the ladder is the love of beautiful souls. In this phase, the lover awakens to the moral beauty in a person and begins to desire a deep spiritual connection. While physical desire may still be at play here, it is not the be all and end all, but simply one aspect of a multi-dimensional bond. Again, Plato did not wish us to abandon our lovers but abandon the limited scope we see them in. It is from this rung on the ladder that we witness the seeds of Platonic love and the cult of the 11th-century troubadours.

First rising to prominence in the royal courts of France, these lyrical poets would often pen wildly romantic verses for their lady loves. However, they would never engage in romantic or sexual relationships with these women. Instead, they resided in the realm of idealized infatuation, the intoxicating first blushes of a romance before reality sets in. Believing this to be the best stage of love, the troubadours refused to taint this perfect image with something flawed and real.

Ascending even further on the ladder, the fourth rung on the ladder comprises a love of beautiful laws and institutions. Here, the lover develops a passion for democracy and a society rooted in justice and equality as well as in community in a legal and societal sense.

The fifth rung expresses a desire for the beauty of knowledge and philosophical wisdom that helped inform and create the beautiful laws, souls, and bodies of earlier stages.

Once the lover has achieved this lofty realm of thought, they can then begin to comprehend the final stage, this all-encompassing sea of beauty, a love for all of creation. According to Diotima, the Form of Beauty is the origin of our being. Our souls remember and sometimes ache for our spiritual home, this pure love and bliss. This is why we are drawn to beauty and begin our ascent in the first place.

One way to think about the ladder is to imagine it as the human body with the chakras or energy centers mirroring the rungs. With the lower chakras dealing with earthly pleasure, the middle ones dealing with feelings of connection, and the top ones assigned to the divine, let us stand tall and embrace all versions of our love.

Or perhaps another way is to see the rungs is like the notes of a musical scale composing a sublime symphony.

Here the Ladder of Love offers us a possible road map to the divine while arguing that desire is the driving force behind it all. It teaches us that romantic love is a glimpse of eternal splendor.

Treat each other well! Lots of love to all!