Why Socrates believed that sexual desire is the first step towards enlightenment

This piece first appeared in The Idler Magazine.

The wisest person he ever met – during a long life encircling luminaries such as Pericles and Sophocles, Aspasia and Protagoras – was a humble temple prostitute. Diotima of Mantinea showed Socrates of Athens more about the tricky dynamics of desire and love, insight and revelation than the greatest politicians, poets or sophists. The experience took him quite by surprise. He was already known as impeccable when it came to deploying logic; as an irritating genius at winning arguments. And yet, rational dexterity was a poor substitute for the erotic arts demonstrated to him by this adept, the courtesan priestess.

According to Plato, in his dialogue the Symposium, it is her we must thank for disclosing the height, depth and breadth of things to the prophet of western philosophy. Without her careful instruction along the paths of longing, the tradition that subsequently fired Augustine and Ficino, Hypatia and Iris Murdoch might never have been born. Another follower, William Blake, was to describe it as the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom. This almost forgotten woman stands behind her now axial protégé. Who was she? What, by Zeus, did she teach?

Scholars today doubt whether she existed: doubting is their dismal science. And it seems simply unlikely that she should be the one individual in Plato’s dialogues who was not based upon an historical character, especially when she was so key. I suspect the doubt speaks of more than just professional skepticism. It tells of an inability, now, to imagine what a courtesan could have offered a philosopher, or more generally what philosophy has to do with Eros. You can sense that lack when many modern philosophers speak. They positively value dispassion as they coolly unpick ethical issues. Their “love” is telling you that it’s all about reason and intuition can’t be true. Hence the widespread assumption that philosophy is “harsh and crabbed”, to quote Milton.

Diotima means one who honours God, or one who is in the service of the gods. That’s another reason modern philosophy forgets her, as if philosophy is the opposite of theology, and reason undoes spirituality. The implication is that it would be a retrograde step to ask after the sacred hetaira who stands at philosophy’s origin – quite as odd as resurrecting Thomas Aquinas’ fascination with angels or Giordano Bruno’s interest in magic. Oh that we could bring back the angels and the magic too.

Now, there was a bawdy side to temple prostitution. When Socrates tells his fellow symposiasts, with whom he has gathered to talk about love, that he must defer to “the one who taught me the rites of eros”, they have a chuckle. But through the sniggers emerges a high calling.

Take the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One of its main centres was in Corinth, at the midpoint between Mantinea and Athens. A fragment of Pindar celebrates the priestesses: “Guest-loving girls! Servants of Peitho in wealthy Korinthos! Ye that burn the golden tears of fresh frankincense, full often soaring upward in your souls unto Aphrodite.” These women are guest-loving and soul-soaring. One led to the other. They would dedicate themselves for a period of time to serve in the temple, shaving their heads as a sign of their vocation. Incidentally, this detail explains why, four centuries later, Saint Paul told the women in the young Corinthian church to cover their heads. It was not to demean them. He wanted to ensure that any passerby wouldn’t spot the women from the temple for whom the arrival of Christianity had sparked interest in a different set of secrets: the Christian mysteries. If all heads were covered, none of Aphrodite’s shaved heads could be seen.

It might further have been the case that many of the women in this early church modeled themselves on the priestesses. That might explain why Paul’s famous letter to the Corinthians contains his best words on love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Such insights might have been the steady convictions of the women of Aphrodite. Paul learnt from them.

Socrates learnt from Diotima too. The first lesson was that conventional stuff on Eros, the sanctioned creeds, is at best misleading and at worst wrong. Take Hesiod, author of the revered texts Works and Days and Theogony. They were as close as ancient Greek religion got to scriptures. Hesiod’s description of Eros is quoted by one of the earlier speakers in the Symposium. “Love is a great god,” Phaedrus opines, “wonderful in many ways to gods and men, and most marvelous of all is the way he came into being.” If that sounds like a formal encomium, and a bit hifalutin, that’s precisely what it sounded like to Diotima too. Predictable. It’s the kind of speech parroted by individuals who have read about love, but don’t know of love. It’s wrong because the rendition makes safe, and so neuters, the potential of the god’s powerful embrace. It’s a bit like the difference between describing moonlight as reflected sunlight, which is empirically correct, and describing it as an eternal pearl that can be bathed in, like a diamond-bright cloud. That’s what Dante Alighieri wrote. It’s clear which is more penetrating and so, by Diotima’s measure, conveys more truth.

Lesson two can follow once conventional pieties have been set aside. The ground is tilled for fresh perceptions to sprout in the soul. That said, Socrates tells his friends that Diotima was not sure he was ready. She was onto a second preparatory step that an initiating priestess would have spotted.

It’s one thing to question what you have taken to be the case. It’s another thing entirely to be ready to adopt what’s different. Our known knowns are sticky. The paradigm shift of experience that was Diotima’s potential gift requires not only a capacity to tolerate uncertainty and to trust an unknown other. It needs the individual themself to be ready to change. The insight is in Dante too. He had to travel through hell, to know his pride; and then purgatory, to know its effects, before his “Diotima”, the beloved Beatrice, could show him what lay across the threshold of heaven. The soul must undergo a journey, a making ready.

The author Jennifer Nash writes about this shift following a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Compelled to set out by an inner force she at first did not understand, the trip was initially disorientating. In her memoir, On Pilgrimage, she describes feeling like a demented dog being dragged along a path. But her inner world cleared. “Then gradually it dawned on me, that some sort of intellectual pride held me back from the only possible conclusion. It is not enough to seek and care; to pay lip service to all manner of ideals. Real witness is what counts. Recognising that truth is hidden.”

Anselm of Canterbury appreciated the same dynamic: “For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand.” A receptive quality of mind is key. That’s doubly hard to cultivate today when, post-enlightenment, we treat knowledge as an accomplishment and possession that exists only inside academic heads.

Diotima looked again at Socrates with her penetrating eyes. She decided he was educable. She presented her mysteries to him in two groups – mysteries meaning that which is known by direct experience, Nash’s “real witness”. The first, lower mysteries she felt he would grasp. After all, they arise from a direct experience everyone has: falling in love.

What’s that like, she asked? Wanting what’s beautiful and good, replied Socrates. To fall in love is to believe you have discovered who or what you need to be happy. It’s “love’s young dream”, as the phrase goes. But what does that tell you about Eros, Diotima continued? Socrates was not sure. Eros does not have what he seeks. He desires what he lacks with the unquenchable energy of a great spirit, she said.

To put it differently, love is dangerous. The shadow of love’s dream is a nightmare because if someone does not get what they want, they will try to take what they want. And if they cannot take what they want? Think of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Better to be dead than to live with the heartache. When you fall in love – when you are seized by Eros – all your energies are re-orientated towards gaining your beloved. Unsatisfied, the longing will not let you go.

Sexual passion is, in a way, the main issue for Diotima. Her central priestly concern is to direct it aright in others, so they become capable of soul-soaring too. As Iris Murdoch explained, we are born with it pulsing through us. We’ve no more choice in the matter than the need to breath. The question is what next?

Diotima knew that many become stuck at love’s first stirrings. They fall in love with falling in love, or bodies become a preoccupation. Others manage to redirect the dissatisfaction a little onto alternative promises of beauty. Celebrity has the allure of beauty, though its often skin deep. Money can make a life beautiful, on the outside.

More hopeful is the most common sublimation that is also quite remarkable when you think about it. Lovers, who at first wanted only to have each other, find their love spilling over. They develop a desire for children. This is the “moreness” of love, Diotima explains, the realisation that your own life is too small. Sacrificing something of yourself to that more is the reason bearing children can be such a profound delight and, more generally, generates the joy of creativity inspired by the presence of beauty. Walt Whitman called it “the procreant urge of the world,” noting in his poem ‘The Base of All Metaphysics’ that “underneath Socrates” was “the attraction of friend to friend, Of the well-married husband and wife – of children and parents, Of city for city, and land for land.” It’s an attractively expansive vision of love and its possibilities.

These are the lower mysteries. If they seem obvious, remember how much can go wrong. And it’s reflecting on that which leads to the higher mysteries. Again, Diotima pauses. You could probably come to be initiated into these rites of love, she says to Socrates. I won’t stint any effort, and you must try to follow if you can.

The higher mysteries require another step-change. The difficulty with that was identified by Ficino, the Renaissance philosopher who brought Plato back into the west. The lower mysteries, of children and parents and city and land, are powerfully fecund because they are attached to “propagating one’s own perfection,” he noted – the best thing in us. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the philosopher who wants to continue on love’s path must now be prepared to loosen those ties. It’s a shift of perceptive from the human to include the divine, not to leave this world behind, but rather to become a lover of the transcendent that rests in it, Blake’s “heaven in a wild flower” and “eternity in an hour”.

Diotima tries to convey the subtlety of this vision to her student: “You see, the person who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature.” There’s a moment of conversion. The moonlight is no longer just sunlight but a pearl. The wild flower shares in heaven; eternity is felt through the passage of time.

It’s a perennial theme in wisdom traditions. Jesus called it the kingdom of God. The Buddha, the uncreated that emerges when the transient world clears. The Bhagavad Gita simply, That.

From then on, the individual will not much think of measuring beauty in the old ways – by gold, or clothing, or sexual vitality. They’re not against such things. They’re indifferent. Now, they know something immortal, and become immortal insofar as any human being can be. That’s Diotima’s promise.

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