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The Sting of the Gadfly:  Beauty, Tyranny, and Philosophy

  •  Submitted: 4.04.06 

"As he became but seldom in his dreams, so he comes to be forever as in a waking nightmare under the sway of a despotic Eros."

 Republic 9.574e2-4


The speech given by Socrates' Diotima in the Symposium seems to carry with it the suggestion that no account of Eros can be complete without some discussion of its object, namely, what is beautiful or noble (tÕ kalÒn).  The error of Agathon and the speakers who precede him lies in identifying Eros with its object and claiming that Eros is beautiful.  But, vital to understanding the nature of Eros as the distinction between it and its object proves to be, it may be just as vital to consider the strong, perhaps inextricable, connection between the two when examining Eros' effect on the soul.  What does Diotima's speech have to say about the place of tÕ kallÕj in Socrates account of the tyrannical soul in Book IX of the Republic?  Could it be that tÕ kallÕj itself is a tyrant?  If so, what sort of individual is subject to its despotism?

                Insofar as human action is not without motivation but directed toward some end, we can characterize tÕ kalÕn as a kind of imperative of the soul, just as we might call ¹ sof…a an imperative – indeed the ruling imperative – of the philosophical soul.  The latter is, speaking more precisely, the external or objective end toward which the ruling desire of the philosophical soul is directed; as such, it is the grounds on which all the philosopher's value judgments are made and that for whose ultimate sake the philosopher qua philosopher does anything.  In the sense, then, that tÕ kalÕn is the objective end toward which the tyrannical man does anything, we can say that since Eros is the tyrant of the tyrannical soul, so is its object tÕ kalÕn by extension.

                Speaking in this manner, we must admit that, according to Diotima, the objective end of the tyrant is also that of the philosopher.  For, as she says, the fact that "wisdom is among the most beautiful things" implies that "Eros is a philosopher" (204b2-4).[1]  We may wonder, therefore, whether beauty's rule over the philosophical soul is essentially tyrannical; in any case, we may say for the moment that it appears absolute.  And why should we expect otherwise?  If tÕ kalÕn exists "by itself with itself, eternally single in form" (211b2), and our experiences of the several instances of tÕ kalÒn – corporeal, epitedeumatic (if I may appropriate the term), and intellectual – share an essential grounding in a single, primary aesthetic reality – if, in other words, that in us which lusts after physical intimacy, that which feels moral sentiments, and that which thinks through things and apprehends knowledge all share a single end, how could we experience that end as anything but a sovereign ruler of all our desires?

                Considerations such as these suggest that beauty's supremacy may well be universal, and Diotima seems to agree.  "All men do all things," she says, "for the sake of undying excellence and such a vision of glory[2], and the better they are, the more they will do; for they lust after immortality" (208d6-e1).  By her own formulation, immortality as such cannot be the object of Eros.  She cannot correctly claim that, since "it is necessary, from what has been agreed, to desire immortality along with good, if Eros is a desire for the good to be forever its own" (207a1-3), the object of Eros is not beauty but reproduction.  For here immortality is desirable only as an instrumental good; no one who possessed neither anything good nor even the hope of laying hold of anything good would desire to live forever.  Rather, we long for immortality in order to possess something good forever, and that good, for which every man longs, is tÕ kalÒn.


Agathon's guests are still applauding Socrates' recitation of Diotima's speech when Alcibiades, the tyrannical man par excellence, is carried reeling drunk into the house.  Seeing Socrates, he flies into a fit of jealous rage, and Socrates explains his jealousy to the other guests by claiming to be in love with him.  Yet Alcibiades' speech details his own failed attempts to seduce Socrates into the role of ™rast»j, indicating that it is in fact Alcibiades who is in love with Socrates and pursues him as a lover does his beloved.  Alcibiades' drunkenness, inability to control his passions, and apparently utter subjugation to Eros beg comparison with Socrates' definition of the tyrannical man.[1]  The peculiar relationship between these two characters affords us the opportunity to reflect on the respective natures of the tyrant and the philosopher, attempt to come to terms with the difference between them, and, hopefully, ascertain whether one or both of them experiences tÕ kallÕj as a tyrant.

                Alcibiades appears to long for beauty in the manner defined by Diotima at 206a9:  his is fundamentally a longing to possess.  He understands what it is to be beautiful – to have a beautiful body – and, thanks to his encounters with Socrates, what it is to lack a higher, more enduring, more essential beauty.  His response to this experience of emptiness is to covet the beauty he sees in Socrates.  Tyrannical men are "always masters or slaves" (Republic 9.576a4-5), and this is true in Alcibiades' case because he conceives tÕ kallÕj as a possession and a mark of distinction or rank.  Nobility entitles one to enslave one's inferiors.  Hence he asks Socrates to be his teacher – to help him attain the highest virtue possible in exchange for whatever he has to offer – and casts the teacher-pupil relationship as a master-slave relationship which correlates, in the sphere of erotic love, to the relationship of a beloved to a lover, respectively (not, as we might expect, vice versa).

                This is not the image we are given of Socrates' desire; from a certain standpoint, we are hard-pressed to understand the philosopher in terms of possession and mastery.  Once Diotima turns to the highest and final erotic mystery, she describes an ascent to knowledge that is, at bottom, contemplative.  We might on this account be tempted to say that while the tyrant longs to hold onto some beautiful thing, the philosopher wishes rather to behold what it is to be beautiful.  The latter, once his desire is satisfied, appears less like an animal lost in post-coital bliss than like a mystic transfixed at the sight of something otherworldly which to possess is inconceivable, but communion with which is the highest expression of the lover's will.

                But Diotima denies us this liberty.  She does not speak of the tyrant's desire as essentially distinct from the philosopher's.  Her definition of Eros – the longing to possess the good forever – is not, in her mind, at odds with any point in her description of the erotic mysteries.  The initiate "comes to know what beauty itself is" (211c7-d1), which knowledge is the most beautiful thing that men can possess.  Only with this knowledge can one beget true virtue, only contemplating beauty can one hope for immortality, and, in the light of tÕ kalÕn itself, every particular entity that partakes of tÕ kalÕn appears too much bound up with "human flesh and human complexion, and the rest of mortality's great nonsense" to be of any worth (211e2-3).  The subjective end toward which every man's Eros is directed is possession; in the philosopher's case, the particular objective end is knowledge.

Thus far we have found the same Eros to be, without exception, the ruler of the human soul and by extension its object tÕ kalÕn the ruling imperative guiding every man's actions.  We may now turn to the question of whether this imperative is a tyrant of the soul – whether, in other words, humanity is enslaved to this end.  One way of approaching this question is to determine whether, were we to give an account of its reign, that account would resemble Socrates' description of Eros in the Republic.

Since tÕ kalÕn seems unique among imperatives in that it is felt to be inherently good, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that it emerges as a prost£thj among them (just as Eros is the prost£thj of the soul's desires[2]).  But it secures its power by purging the soul of all opposing imperatives:  every desire directed toward an ignoble end is suppressed by shame.  Hence shame, directed by law and reason, becomes the bodyguard of tÕ kallÕj and enables it to institute what we may justly call a reign of terror.  What is shameful is to be feared, exiled, eradicated – shamelessness and savagery terrify.  Each of us, then, appears subject to a tyrannical drive toward beauty and nobility; our value judgments, our moral codes, our most honored and honorable drives are the dictates of that tyrant.

How credible is this account?  Socrates begins his treatment of the tyrannical man with the claim that in every man there exist certain drives – he calls them par£nomoi, meaning "contrary to law" or perhaps even "unnatural" (9.571b3-4) – that are awakened during sleep such that even the better, more temperate of men may well find their dreams replete with depravity.  These desires are in most of us "checked [or pruned] both by laws and by the better desires in accord with reason" (9.571b4-5); the lawful man must retain conscious control over himself such that he does not even feel his basest passions and pleasures.  It is not as though these lawless drives acted in harmony with reason or submitted willingly to its authority, nor is it that nobler men are entirely without such appetites.  The supremacy of tÕ kalÕn as an imperative relies upon the soul's hostile stance toward some of its desires such that the soul is purged of them.


The philosopher, then, is a lawful tyrant; the tyrant, a lawless philosopher.  How the tyrant comes to be lawless, why Eros "dorufore‹tai . . . ØpÕ man…aj"[1] (Republic 573a8) is not clear from Socrates' treatment of the tyrant in the Republic, but a few enticing suggestions appear in Alcibiades' soliloquy.  Not only does Alcibiades place himself on the same order as the material possessions at his disposal, telling Socrates:  "'I were certainly led without understanding[2] not to offer you gladly both this [i.e., myself as rèmenoj] and, if you should require, anything else either from among my possessions or from among my friends''" (218c6-d1).  He even goes so far, when the possessions in question are immaterial qualities, as to identify with them and evaluate himself according to them.  Socrates is his "only worthy lover" (218c5) because he possesses a beauty of which Alcibiades is incapable – hence his shame.  One has nobility or goodness – one is noble or good, or one is not.  Why else should the tyrant feel privation so acutely, desire so intensely, and nurture a desire so intimately bound to shame?  Why else should he lose himself in revelry[3] if not to smother shame in overstimulation?  "I skulk behind (drapeteÚw[4]) him," he says of Socrates, "and flee him, and whenever I see him, I am ashamed at the things to which we have both agreed [namely, the vanity of Alcibiades' lifestyle]" (216b5-6).  Whom does this tyrannical man flee but the personification of that reason which indicts him, that nobility which lies beyond him?

What truly distinguishes the tyrannical man is his refusal to suppress his shameful desires, his flight from that part of himself which is capable of feeling shame.  He longs – as, it seems, do we all – for tÕ kalÕn in direct proportion to his self-loathing (which is to say, his self-love), yet he will not restrain what is loathsome in his soul.  Because he must therefore flee the very object of his erotic desire, that desire, linked with a perverse self-absorption, drives him mad.

                How far does the tyrant's self-absorption extend?  Does it render him utterly incapable of viewing beauty itself by itself as an end – can he, after all, desire nothing but to contemplate his own beauty once he has acquired it?  Alcibiades does not, on this account, have any interest in knowledge for its own sake but, instead, for the sake of the excellence it can engender in him.  His claim that "for me, nothing is more important than for me to come to be whatever way is best [i.e., "morally supreme," as it were]" (218d1-2) is telling here, as is his frequent use of emphatic first person pronouns throughout his soliloquy.  Nothing objective at all can supercede him in his own hierarchy of values.  He is obsessed with the state of his own soul, desiring nothing more than to find it beautiful.

                But does there exist a man who can give external direction to Eros – do any man's feelings for his beloved amount to anything but the impulse to fulfill some need within himself?  Diotima's initiate into the erotic mysteries appears to be our sole viable candidate.  Of his experience with tÕ kalÕn she uses terms not of possession but of perception, not of grasping but of touching, not of command but of true communion.  Moreover, although Eros has up to this point led him as a kind of sunergÒj, a "fellow-worker" or "colleague" (212b3), through the successive degrees of initiation, it is noticeably absent from the process' culmination.  Yet the initiate has not necessarily come to possess any of the beautiful things that have commanded his attention and desire; he has not fulfilled, but has transcended, Eros.  Thus he succeeds where Alcibiades fails in that he overcomes self-absorption.  Beauty demands of the initiate the sacrifice of self.

                Erotics so conceived cannot, in the strictest sense, be called philosophy, however – not if by "philosophy" we mean "the love of wisdom" such that we can call Eros a "philosopher."  For the subjective end of this philosopher is contemplation; or, put differently, this philosopher longs to possess the power to contemplate.[5]  But, in the image of the mystery cult, the lower-grade initiate to which the philosopher must correspond has not yet been adequately prepared even to lay eyes upon the ultimate mystery.  The ™rast»j, led rightly, finds his desire directed toward numerous instances of beauty while never regarding beauty itself as an object of desire.  Almost unconsciously, he must overcome desire by means of desire.  Likewise, we might say, he who enters into the enraptured state of contemplation cannot have been a philosopher but an initiate into the mysteries of wisdom.

                Saying that the philosopher is a lawful tyrant, we seem to have hit upon a fundamental paradox of philosophy.  Whoever desires tÕ kalÕn (or ¹ sof…a, or anything susceptible to or involving pure contemplation) will find himself unable to move beyond himself – which is to say, beyond his desire.  One must rather be seduced unawares into understanding, drawn into it by degrees, keeping one's Eros (a subordinate, an instrument misdirected toward some lower conscious end) as a sunergÕj until the last.  Over any who is not so initiated – those underreachers who lust continually after beautiful things as well as the overreaching aesthete whom we call "philosopher" – tÕ kallÕj reigns as a true tyrant.  All of us who remain ignorant of beauty's essence do all things for the sake of grasping what is beautiful for ourselves, and the better we are – the more purely, directly, intensely we feel the maddening sting of Eros – the more we are willing to do.

Foot notes:

Section 1. 

[1] This translation and those that follow are my own.  Since I intend to deal specifically with the implications of Socrates' and Diotima's arguments regarding Eros and beauty/nobility, I have attempted to render the Greek text (for which I follow R.G. Bury's edition of the Symposium and J. Adam's of the Republic) as literally as possible.

[2] The phrase "such a vision of glory" renders "toiaÚthj dÒxhj eÙkleoàj," which expression, taken in context, suggests to my mind the idea that men desire excellence or virtue (¢ret») precisely because they have an "expectation" or "fancy" (dÒxa) that fame, a substitute for immortality, will be their reward.

Section 2.

[1] See Republic 9.573b7-c1.

[2] See Republic 9.572e6-3a2; cf. also 8.565d1-3.

Section 3.

[1] A dorufÒroj is the bodyguard of a sovereign.  Hence this question amounts to asking why madness (man…a) ought to assume a role so crucial to the survival and reign of Eros in the tyrannical soul as the role of the tyrant's bodyguard.  (Earlier, of course, we saw this role being filled by shame.)

[2] "p£nu ¢nÒhton ¹goàmai":  cf. Diotima's characterization of Eros as "Ð ¹goÚmenoj" and her claim that this leader must "lead rightly" if one is to behold true beauty (210a6).  The irony here lies in the implication that Alcibiades is certainly led without understanding into his desperate attachment to Socrates, but this very parallel does seem to provide further evidence of the kinship between initiate and tyrant. 

[3] See Republic 9.573d2-5.

[4] The verb drapeteÚein derives from Ð drapšthj, the term for a runaway slave.  The image here is of a slave fleeing his rightful master, hence of Alcibiades fleeing reason and law.

[5] In Greek, "tÕ qewre‹n œcein."

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