The teleology of the ascent in Plato's Symposium.
Diotima's speech in the Symposium contains a distinctive picture of actions being performed for the sake of an end. In the ascent passage (Symp 210a-212a), she describes the progressive stages of love for beauty. The lover/philosopher expands and redirects his love for beauty by moving from love for beautiful bodies through love for beautiful souls, practices, and sciences before arriving at insight into the form of beauty. This ascent exhibits a teleological structure, since the earlier stages of the ascent occur for the sake of the final vision. Diotima (1) introduces the vision of the form of beauty as the stage which completes a life spent in philosophy, the erotic pursuit of wisdom:
For whoever has been led correctly up to this point in matters of love, by beholding beautiful things in order and correctly, is coming now to the final end of loving [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], and suddenly he will catch sight of something amazingly beautiful in its nature; it is for the sake of this, Socrates, that all his earlier labors took place [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.].... (Symp 210e2-6) (2)
When Diotima describes the process of drawing closer to the highest beauty, she again emphasizes the teleological structure of the ascent:
When someone rises up from these earlier loves, through loving boys correctly, and begins to see that beauty, then he has almost reached the end [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. For this is what it is to proceed correctly in love, or be led by another: starting from those beautiful things one goes always upwards for the sake of that beauty [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.].... (211b5-c2)
The vision of the form of beauty is the highest point of the ascent in part because it is the end of what comes before. It is that for the sake of which all else in the ascent is done.
In this essay I try to provoke a sense of puzzlement over the issue of how the earlier actions of the ascent are for the sake of the final vision by criticizing several received interpretations of the teleological structure of the ascent. The simplest way to explain the fact that an action is performed for the sake of an end, by showing that the action was chosen with the intention of achieving or promoting that end, will not apply in this case. The lover is not aware of the form of beauty before the final stage of the ascent, and cannot seek to achieve the vision as a goal. The sense in which the earlier stages of the ascent are for the sake of the final vision cannot be a matter of intending that end or choosing previous stages of the ascent as means to the final vision. A different sort of teleology is in play: when an action or sequence of actions brings about some result in virtue of performing a function, and when bringing about that result serves as a criterion for evaluating performances of that function, then the action or sequence of actions is performed for the sake of that result. Within this version of teleology it is not necessary that the result or end of these actions be foreseen or intended. If this is so, then all actions and stages of a human life can be unified by being performed for the sake of a single end and can be open for evaluation without having this unity imposed on them by explicit processes of practical deliberation. In more extravagant language, at times the ends of our lives outrun our ability to grasp and understand them.
2 Against Received Interpretations of Teleology in the Ascent
The claim that the penultimate stages of the ascent are performed for the sake of the vision of the form of beauty has been explained in two ways by previous commentators. First, Gregory Vlastos understands this claim to mean that whatever we love should be loved only for its beautiful and valuable qualities, qualities which have their exemplary instantiation in the form of beauty. The form of beauty answers best to the desires which are first directed, or rather misdirected, at individual humans:
When [Plato] speaks of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] for a person for the sake of the Idea, we can give a good sense to this at first sight puzzling notion, a sense in which it is true. It is a fact that much erotic attachment, perhaps most of it, is not directed to an individual in the proper sense of the word--to the integral and irreplaceable existent that bears that person's name--but to a complex of qualities, answering to the lover's sense of beauty, which he locates for a time truly or falsely in that person. (3)
Vlastos later spells out the conclusion he finds in Diotima's speech, a conclusion suggested by this understanding of loving persons for the sake of the form of beauty: 'What we are to love in persons is the "image" of the Idea in them. We are to love the persons so far, and only insofar, as they are good and beautiful.' (4) On this reading, the form provides a regulative ideal by being the most worthy object of love and by specifying the degree to which other objects should be loved. But while the form of beauty may perform these offices within the ascent passage and within a general theory of forms, its doing so does not explain how the act of loving beautiful bodies and persons is something done for the sake of the vision of the form. To do an action for the sake of an end suggests that in the best case the action promotes the end and is oriented toward it, and not just that the end provides the standard for evaluation of the action. Vlastos' reading of the teleology of the ascent recognizes only the latter aspect. On his view, the ascent passage teaches that love for individual human beings as anything more than complexes of beautiful and good qualities is a distraction from or impediment to the vision of the form, rather than being oriented towards the vision. This aspect of Vlastos' reading has met with forceful criticism, and it would be preferable to give an account of the teleology of the ascent which does not imply that love for humans in their individuality is a competitor to the vision of the form of beauty. (5)
A second explanation of the teleological structure of the ascent is provided by Martha Nussbaum in The Fragility of Goodness. In her view, the ascent passage describes a lover who opts for the vision of the form of beauty in preference to loving contingent human beings. Diotima praises the vision of the form of beauty in order to persuade her audience, Socrates in the Symposium and us its readers, to make the same choice of the life of philosophic contemplation over a life of attachment to frail human beings. Desire for the way of life connected to contemplation of the form is part of what motivates the ascent to the form:
Such a life [one dominated by erotic love for persons] is not 'livable'; we must find another way. Instead of flesh and all that mortal rubbish, an immortal object must, and therefore can, be found. Instead of painful yearning for a single body and spirit, a blissful contemplative completeness. It is, we see, the old familiar eros, that longing for an end to longing, that motivates us here to ascend to a world in which erotic activity, as we know it, will not exist. (6)
For Nussbaum, an essential part of what motivates the lover's ascent is an awareness of the form and its attributes of eternity and sufficiency. The lover ascends with the goal of achieving the vision of the form.
But this cannot be the way in which the lover's actions are for the sake of the vision. He cannot choose at previous stages of the ascent with the intention of arriving at the vision because the lover does not know or believe anything about the form as he moves through the stages leading up to the vision. He begins to see the form only when all the previous stages are complete, after he has arrived at the beauty of the sciences (210c6). He finishes the ascent by understanding the form, and at all stages between the first and the last the lover was occupied by beautiful bodies or a beautiful soul or practices or sciences (211c38). The one form of beauty does not appear as an object of pursuit or desire until the top of the ascent is reached. The sudden advent of the vision and its transforming effect require that it be the revelation of an astonishing beauty, one that the lover has never seen before. To the extent that the vision of the form is a discovery, an encounter with a hitherto unencountered realm of being, it cannot be an object of pursuit which the lover has in mind as he chooses to make the ascent. As a result, the lover does not move through the ascent with an awareness of the final vision as his goal. Any interpretation such as Nussbaum's which assumes that a conception of the form motivates the ascent cannot explain the fact that all the stages prior to the vision of the form are for the sake of this vision. (7)
3 Eros for the Sake of Immortality: A First Look at Diotiman Teleology
To understand better what Diotima means by claiming that all stages of the ascent are for the sake of the vision of the form of beauty, let us start with an earlier example of teleology in her speech. She makes the counterintuitive statement at 206e2 that eros is not of the beautiful, as one might expect. Instead it is of generation and giving birth in the beautiful. All humans are pregnant in body and in soul, and the desire for beauty triggers the process of bringing new offspring to light through generation and giving birth. This process is a divine affair, as it allows for a limited kind of immortality to stand amidst the ceaseless coming and going of mortal nature (206c6-8). When humans and indeed all animals are erotically inclined, the cause of this is the fact that 'mortal nature seeks as far as possible to exist forever and to be immortal' (207d1-2). Eros provides for the continued existence of the self through its offspring and thus operates for the sake of immortality (208b5).
These statements suggest at first that Diotima has simply changed the topic of her speech from eros to something else when she says that eros is eros of giving birth. If a lover is asked what he loves, rarely if ever will the answer be that he loves the process of generating new offspring or that he is in love with immortality. But by understanding giving birth in the beautiful in terms of the notion of function, we can give a more defensible sense to her words. After Diotima tells Socrates at 205a-6a that eros aims at obtaining beautiful and good things forever and so has the task of winning eternal happiness, she investigates the process and manner of action which allows lovers to pursue this end: '"Since this is what love always is," she said, "in what way and in what action would the drive and striving of those who follow it be called love? What is this function ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) (8)?"' (206b1-3) Her answer, giving birth in the beautiful, identifies the characteristic activity or function by which eros pursues its lofty end of possessing the good forever. Reaching this end requires becoming immortal, and for a mortal being the only way to achieve a qualified form of immortality is to leave behind offspring which will replace that being and preserve it into the future: 'For by the same argument as the one earlier, mortal nature seeks as far as possible to exist always and to be immortal. It is capable of this only by coming to be ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), which always leaves behind another new being in place of the old ... ' (207c9-d3). Giving birth is the particular sort of coming to be which eros accomplishes and thus produces a human version of immortality.
If giving birth in the beautiful is the characteristic activity by which eros produces a qualified form of immortality, then this activity fits neatly the criteria for being a function which are set out more explicitly in Book I of the Republic. In the course of an argument for the superiority of the life of a just man over that of an unjust, Socrates says that the function ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) of a thing x is that task which only x can do or which x does especially well. For instance, the function of the eye in humans is to see because it is only with the eyes that we can see. If more than one thing can perform a certain task or produce a certain result, often the function of securing that result belongs to one thing in particular, the one which performs that task best. The function of a pruning-knife is to cut slips from a vine, not because it is the only thing which can perform this task, but because it does the job better than a dagger or a scythe (R 352d-3a). Giving birth in the beautiful is the function of eros because it is that activity or process at which eros excels relative to other desires. Bodily reproduction is typically secured for those who are pregnant in body by erotic desire for bodily beauty, while the task of reproducing at the level of soul is best performed, Diotima claims, under the influence of erotic desire for beauty of soul. Her model for pregnancy and reproduction at the level of soul is the common pattern of a lover-beloved relationship between an older and a younger man. As she reworks this pattern, the lover desires the beauty of soul of the beloved and is stimulated to create virtue, wisdom, and political and artistic innovations (209a-e). This creativity at the level of the soul is the basis for Diotima's praise of the right sort of lover-beloved relationship: 'As a result such men share much more in common than those who have children with each other, and they have a firmer friendship, because they have a share in more beautiful and immortal offspring' (209c5-7). Giving birth in the beautiful, whether at the level of body or of soul, allows the lover to gain a tenuous grasp on immortality in a way that no other activity does, and so it qualifies as the function of eros.
If the function of eros is giving birth in the beautiful, then we can gain insight into the grounds for her claim that eros operates for the sake of immortality. The lover's delight in beauty is not simply a brute fact, but is something explained by the fact that he is pregnant. His love and erotic desire for beauty is explained partly by the fact that this love creates offspring and produces a human version of immortality. In producing 'children' in an extended sense, whether it be speeches about virtue or works of art or political innovations, the lover carries out the function of eros, giving birth in the beautiful. Those ways of giving birth in the beautiful which lead to a greater share of immortality--creating virtue or poetry or political institutions rather than human children--are better performances of the function of eros. If success in performing the function of eros is a matter of producing more rather than less immortality, then the point of that function must be to create immortality. In other words, love of beauty as expressed in the function of eros operates for the sake of immortality. Yet the lover need not intend that his actions promote his immortality. He may simply fall in love with a beautiful person, an event that typically happens without any planning at all, give birth to new offspring, and thus gain a new purchase on the immortality that is love's end. The lover would then act for the sake of an end without ever forming the intention to act so as to promote this end.
4 The Path of the Ascent
With this sketch of Diotiman teleology in place, we can turn to a more detailed exposition of the ascent passage in order to explain how the earlier stages of the ascent take place for the sake of an end that is not a goal. The lover begins by loving one body, an erotic attraction which inspires him to create beautiful speeches [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]], presumably poetic compositions praising the beauty of his beloved (210a4-8). Under the guidance of an unnamed teacher in the ways of love, he generalizes his love for bodily beauty by coming to love all beautiful bodies. This generalization of eros accompanies the understanding that bodily beauty in all its instances is related, so that it is foolish to focus on one body above others (a8-b5). This does not mean that love for individual humans is forbidden; instead, love focused on one person takes place at the next stage of the ascent: 'After this he must think that the beauty found in souls is more to be honored than that in bodies, so that if there is someone decent in soul, even if he has only a little bodily beauty, that is enough to love and care for him and to seek to give birth to such ideas as will make young men better ...' (210 b6-c3). This move to love for beauty of soul is followed by an awareness of the beauty of customs and laws, which again is followed by an awareness of the beauty of the different kinds of knowledge (210 c3-7). At this level the lover is able to see beauty in all the different objects of knowledge, and thus 'turned toward the great sea of beauty,' he gives birth a third time by creating beautiful ideas and theories [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], d4-6]. The vision of the form of beauty follows this third instance of giving birth in the beautiful. The form is described as a divine beauty, one that amazes the lover on first catching sight of it. It is beautiful without qualification, since it cannot be said to be beautiful in one respect and ugly in another respect, and so differs from all lesser instances of beauty.
Interpreters of this passage have struggled with a range of questions stemming from Diotima's strategy of generalizing the scope of eros within a single species of beauty and across species of beauty. Why is it rational to treat all physical beauty as akin, so that preference for one instance of bodily beauty over another is a sign of foolishness? In what sense is this a development of one desire, eros, so that the lover is motivated by the same desire in pursuing bodily beauty, the beauty of soul, knowledge, and the form of beauty? (9) These questions suggest areas where Diotima's presentation of eros cuts across our understanding of love. Instead of trying to minimize these differences, I propose to explain the problematic structure of the ascent as an aspect of the presentation of a series of actions oriented toward an end that is only imperfectly understood, if it is understood at all, before the final stage of the ascent.
Seen in this light, the ascent is not structured so as to reflect the ordinary development of erotic desire. It may be that most of Diotima's audience, both within the dialogue and without it, in Plato's time and in ours, would not follow the particular course set down in the ascent. That course is set by a series of decisions to seek beauty under particular aspects, a series of decisions which unwittingly prepare the way for the vision of the form of beauty. The lover pursues all beautiful bodies equally, reasoning that a person drawn to beauty of form should enjoy it wherever it is found. This generalization of erotic desire allows the lover to appreciate the beauty that is common to a wide range of particular instances, an ability that will later be employed in the appreciation of the one form of beauty that stands behind all particular instances of beauty. He cares for a beloved who is beautiful in soul after turning away from physical beauty. This will allow the lover to respond to the immaterial form. Finally, the lover pursues the beauty that is revealed by the sciences, and thus develops the capacity to be drawn to the form of beauty, an object of knowledge. These penultimate stages of the ascent are present, not because Diotima expects that all members of her audience will want to or be able to repeat them, but because they develop the capacities needed to achieve the vision of the form of beauty. Each experience of beauty has value in itself independently of what it produces, but in addition the earlier stages of the ascent have value by developing the capacities needed to rise to the vision of the form. The earlier experiences of beauty were not chosen with the intention of bringing about the vision of the form, but their value depends in part on their helping to bring about this result. When Diotima says that the earlier stages of the ascent were performed for the sake of the final vision of the form, we can understand her words in light of these facts.
One crucial issue must be faced directly. Among the instances of beauty which the lover desires at earlier stages of the ascent are beautiful human beings. Eros directs the lover to pursue one beautiful body at the first stage (210a5-8), to widen the scope of his desire to include all beautiful bodies (b4-6), and to appreciate the beauty of souls, so that he will care for a beautiful soul even if it is connected with just a little bodily beauty. In company with this beautiful soul he will give birth to speeches on moral topics (b6-c2). This recapitulation of the pattern of spiritual pregnancy and creation fostered by love between two humans forms one of the first steps on the ladder of the ascent, and therefore Diotima is committed to the claim that this form of love between humans is also something that is done for the sake of the final vision of the form of beauty.
At first this claim will make Diotiman love seem quite distant from love as we know it. She describes the lover as directed toward an end greater than both the lover and the beloved. But if love is the experience of finding another person fascinatingly beautiful and engrossing; if love induces a kind of tunnel vision whereby the lover has eyes only for the beloved; if love drives the lover to sacrifice all that he has and is in order to draw closer to the beloved; then love for another human being will prevent the lover from looking beyond the beloved to any higher end. But the particular quality of Diotima's teleology allows her to avoid contradicting these basic intuitions about love. When she claims that love for a beautiful human being operates for the sake of the final vision of the form of beauty, she need not mean that the lover intends to achieve the final vision or looks to any goal beyond the beloved. At this stage of the ascent, the lover may be completely infatuated with the beauty of soul of his beloved and may think only of him. That this happens for the sake of the final vision does not imply that the lover intends to achieve the vision by means of his relation with the beloved; it implies rather that carrying out the function of eros with his human beloved moves the lover to the next higher stage of the ascent and ultimately up to the final vision. That love has a further end beyond the beloved says nothing against the lover having a single-minded attachment to the beloved.
Besides asserting that the ascent involves a series of experiences of beauty, including the beauty of human beings, Diotima also treats it as a progressive development of the moral faculties of the lover. The status of the vision of the form of beauty as the end of the ascent rests also upon the fact that access to the form works a moral change in the lover and stimulates him to create true virtue. Love for bodily beauty leads to poetic compositions praising the beloved, while love for beauty of soul inspires speeches that are meant to improve the character of the young. The vision of the form leads to giving birth to virtue itself, presumably in the lover and in those humans he loves. The lover becomes worthy of friendship with the divine in contrast to those who create only images of virtue since they have beheld only images of beauty (212a5-6). Although Plato does not describe in detail the contrast between these images of virtue and the true virtue of the lover, we can supply here the contrast Socrates draws in the Phaedo between the slavish virtue of those who serve the body and the virtue of the philosopher. A man who is in thrall to his bodily desires can possess only an imitation of courage which consists in confronting danger out of fear of some greater danger and only a false temperance which allows him to master some of his bodily desires in order to serve a more pressing bodily desire (Phaedo, 68d-9b). By contrast, the philosopher who is a lover of wisdom (66e3, 68a6) will be most ready to restrain his bodily desires and will not fear physical dangers, since he longs to be separated from his body. As this passage indicates, the contrast between images of virtue and true virtue involves different ways of performing virtuous actions. A person who has not achieved full virtue will perform the virtuous action only under duress and as a means to some further end; the one who possesses true virtue performs virtuous actions gladly and sees them as noble or fine. As Aristotle puts it in the Nicomachean Ethics, virtuous actions are done for the sake of what is noble or beautiful ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], EN 1115b12-13, 23-4). The lover who has seen the form of beauty and gives birth to true virtue instead of images of virtue has moved beyond the appearance of virtue to the real thing.
This provides another sense to the claim that the earlier stages of the ascent are oriented toward the final stage as their end. The development of virtuous character involved in the ascent will involve a shift from viewing virtuous actions as necessary but undesirable to viewing them as worth pursuing for their own sake. This acquired capacity to see virtuous actions as admirable and valuable in themselves comes only at the end of the process of moral development, and it will often bring with it a particular way of viewing earlier stages of moral development. These earlier stages comprise the images of virtue which precede the achievement of true virtue through the vision of the form of beauty. They were necessary for the attainment of full virtue and contributed to the development of virtue, since we learn to be virtuous by performing the actions of a virtuous person in an imperfect way. From the standpoint of the end of the ascent, the lover will see the value of his first approaches to virtue as consisting partly in their contribution to his fuller possession and steadier grasp of true virtue. So the earlier stages of moral development were for the sake of the subsequent creation of virtue achieved in the vision of the form of beauty. This is so even though the lover could not understand at those earlier stages of moral development the real worth of virtuous action and could not link virtuous actions with the vision of the form of beauty. At that time he only possessed the image of virtue and so could not make the moral evaluations which are an essential part of virtuous character.
Described in this way, the ascent passage contains a version of teleology that is distinct from the standard models of teleology. The most familiar account of actions being performed for the sake of an end treats actions as having ends in virtue of their being chosen with the intention of achieving their respective end(s). This account of actions and their ends can be termed agency-centered teleology; it tells us that an action is for the sake of an end only if the agent has an awareness of the end as his goal and acts in a way that shows an awareness of how his actions promote that goal. (10) Because Diotima makes eros the driving force in the ascent, agency-centered teleology cannot be the key to understanding how the final vision is the end of the ascent. Eros directs us to ends which need not be intended as ends. The final vision is a central case of this, since the lover does not plan or intend to achieve the vision in the prior stages of the ascent.
The teleology of natural substances as described by Aristotle also fails to capture the specific character of the ascent. Natural teleology is present when the processes of growth and development of organisms occur for the sake of the mature state of flourishing of the organism. The functions of parts of organisms as they produce effects conducive to the flourishing of those organisms also exhibit natural teleology. (11) A frog develops from an egg into a tadpole for the sake of becoming a mature frog. The frog's heart has the function of pumping blood, and it performs this function for the sake of the animal's blood circulation, which is necessary for its survival and flourishing. The notion of function which forms part of natural teleology helps to illuminate certain aspects of the ascent; as we have seen, eros in Diotima's speech is assigned a function, giving birth in the beautiful, the performance of which helps the lover to progress along the ascent. However, the similarity between natural teleology and the teleology of the ascent is limited. The ascent includes actions, beliefs, and desires conditioned by beliefs and evaluations in a way that is not present in natural teleology. As the lover moves up the ascent, he changes his estimation of what is beautiful and how best to find beauty. Although he begins by loving the bodily beauty of one person, he comes to believe that all beauty is akin, so that an exclusive attachment to one body is left behind (210b). Similarly, he comes to believe that beauty of soul is more worthy of his attention than physical beauty, and then expands the focus of his desire for beauty to take in customs, laws, and sciences (210b-c). These developments in the lover's erotic desire indicate that he is capable of choosing between different possible objects of desire, so that he plays a positive role in shaping the course of his erotic life. This makes the ascent quite different from the developmental stages in the life of a frog, none of which the frog chooses for himself or has any say in shaping. Similarly, the parts of organisms have their functions independently of the choices of those organisms. Eros in the ascent passage is different; its operations at all stages are intimately connected with what a person believes is beautiful and how the person chooses to react to that beauty.
Another proposal for construing the teleology of the ascent might draw on the fact that the lover is guided in the course of the ascent by an unnamed educator, rather as Socrates is guided by Diotima. The lover is compelled to behold the beauty of customs and laws after arriving at the level of beauty of soul (210c3) and later Diotima says that he will behold the form as a result of having been properly educated in matters of love (210e2-3). Such passages might indicate that the lover acts for the sake of the final vision because his teacher knows that his actions will eventually lead to the vision. Frisbee Sheffield describes the lover as engaged from the beginning of the ascent in an intellectual search for beauty: he reflects on the common characteristic shared by beautiful bodies as a way of finding the nature of beauty, he has some awareness of the value of this reflective activity, and he values wisdom as one of the most beautiful things. She is aware that this reading ascribes a high level of philosophical sophistication to someone who is still young at the beginning of the ascent (210a5). To mitigate this implausibility she locates the sophistication in the guide: 'it seems reasonable to assume that it is the guide more experienced in "erotic matters" who holds such views.' (12) This proposal should be rejected because it does not do justice to the way in which the ascent arises out of the internal progression of erotic desire in the lover. If the teacher imparts teleology to the ascent by guiding the lover towards the form and thus providing him with a goal, then we must suppose that the student first loves one beautiful body and composes poetry for his beloved, finds beauty in all bodies, and then comes to love beauty of soul as part of a concerted effort inspired by a third party to arrive at the vision of the form of beauty. This runs contrary to the idea that erotic desire between humans is an immediate response to the beauty and goodness of the beloved and does not arise from the desire for some further goal which the lover pursues through his relationship with the beloved. Love for a human being may of course lead to larger goods and such goods may be part of the end or purpose of love between humans, but the sense in which these goods are ends of love cannot be a matter of intending to love the person as a means to a further end or a matter of following a plan supplied by an outside party. The information provided by the text, which tells us only that the lover is led and educated in some way and not that the lover is given a preview of coming attractions, does not justify us in saddling Diotima with such a counter-intuitive view of personal love.
A fourth proposal for explicating the teleology of the ascent would allow that the different stages of the ascent are not accompanied by a fully formed and conscious intention to achieve the vision of the form as a goal. However, the lover may have an imperfect but significant understanding of the form by desiring beauty in particular at all stages of the ascent. Since the form of beauty is the most impressive and satisfying beautiful thing to behold, the lover has in an extended sense been aiming all along at the vision of the form. This proposal may take a slightly different form: the lover all along desires immortality and seeks this as his goal, and since this immortality is in fact best achieved in the vision of the form, the lover all along has been seeking the vision of the form.
We typically recognize what we desire and why we desire those persons or things only to a limited degree, and through a series of actions such as those set forth in the ascent we gain greater insight into what it is we desire. We can describe this growth in insight as a matter of learning more about what we really desired all along. The form of beauty is what the lover desired all along if it best fulfills the desires for beauty and immortality which have motivated him from the start. This is true, but it does not suffice to explain why actions at the preliminary stages of the ascent are performed for the sake of the vision of the form. Diotima does not say only that the lover's desire is best fulfilled by a single object, so that in an extended sense all actions motivated by this desire aim at this single object. This claim would be compatible with actions at the early stages of the ascent being hindrances to achieving the vision of the form of beauty. For instance, Diotima says that the lover will come to view his earlier infatuation with one beloved as a sign of slavishness. Such a desire is, in the extended sense under examination, best fulfilled by the vision of the form of beauty. But this does not yet justify us in saying that the actions motivated by this desire are done for the sake of the vision of the form of beauty. The fact that a desire for beauty or immortality motivated the lover to perform a series of actions, and that this desire is fulfilled in the best way when it takes a particular object, does not suffice to establish that these actions are performed for the sake of this best fulfillment of desire. A good deal more needs to be said, for instance that the actions motivated by this desire promote the achievement of this best object rather than work against it.
5 A Formal Analysis of the Teleology of the Ascent
One could dispute the claim that the ascent passage does put forward a version of teleology distinct from agency-centered and natural teleology by arguing that either the earlier stages of the ascent are for the sake of the final vision along the lines of agency-centered teleology or natural teleology, or those earlier stages in fact are not for the sake of the final vision in any real sense. To establish that the earlier stages of the ascent are for the sake of the vision of the form of beauty, it is not enough to observe that these earlier stages of the ascent helped to bring about the vision of the form. Suppose that a man is wandering through an unexplored wilderness while prospecting for gold and stumbles upon a previously unknown and majestically beautiful landscape. He is enraptured by the vision of this beauty, realizes that the gold he has been searching for is mere trash in comparison, and lives a better life as a result. In such a case, the man's action of searching for gold in the wilderness helped bring about his experience of beauty and the moral change it works in him. But no matter how beautiful the sight is and how transforming its effect on the man, his searching for gold was not done for the sake of the sight of beauty, since his intentions were fixed on the goal of finding gold and not on the experience of beauty. The same applies to the idea that the earlier stages of the ascent occur for the sake of the final vision where achieving this vision is not intended as a goal. Since we are not dealing here with one of the accepted brands of teleology, any claim to see one event or action happening for the sake of another is make-believe.
To meet this objection, I propose to formulate general characteristics of the teleological relation of being for the sake of an end that is asserted to hold between the earlier stages of the ascent and the final vision. The goal will be to formulate a set of conditions which are necessary and jointly sufficient for an action or set of actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] to be for the sake of an end E without the action(s) being chosen with the intention of achieving that end. The actions in question need not be actions inspired by specifically erotic desire, though the sort of actions described in the ascent passage will be central cases of this relation of being for the sake of an end.
In any genuine case of teleology, where actions or events are for the sake of an end, a particular sort of relation holds between the end and that which is for the sake of the end. Describing this relation accurately requires the use of causal and normative or evaluative concepts. The end is something good, the actions or events make a causal contribution to that end, and in some way the actions or events happen as they do because of the end to which they contribute. (13) Whether the goodness of the end plays an important explanatory role in natural teleology is a matter of controversy, but in all species of teleology the end must help to explain that which produces it. (14) Our task is to formulate general conditions for the teleological relation exemplified by the ascent which allow it to conform to this pattern. To begin, consider the following three conditions:
[C.sub.1] Actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] are of lesser value than E.
[C.sub.2] Actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] causally contribute to the obtaining of E.
[C.sub.3] The value of actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] derives in part from their making a causal contribution to the obtaining of E.
These three conditions would be satisfied by the actions of loving beautiful human beings and devoting oneself to beautiful sciences and by their result, the final vision of the form of beauty. The earlier stages help bring about the final vision, an event whose value overshadows their own. Part of the value of these earlier stages consists in their contributing to the final vision. (15)
These three conditions still allow any sequence of actions which by chance produce an event of greater value than those actions to be done for the sake of that chance event. This is seen in the case of the gold prospector who unintentionally happens upon a scene of great beauty. To rule out this sort of chance production of a valuable result, conditions must be added which utilize the notion of a function. A central feature of this notion in Plato's writings is the linkage between the thing's function and the thing's ability to accomplish a particular valuable result. As discussed in section III, the function of a thing is the characteristic activity which only that thing performs or which it performs better than any other thing. Performing a function typically produces some valuable effect, an effect which is either constituted by the performance of the function or is produced as a separate result. There is an intimate connection between a thing with a function and the limited range of effects it brings about in virtue of performing that function, between eyes and seeing or between pruning-knives and cutting slips from a vine. We evaluate good and bad performances of this function by their relative efficacy in bringing about this result. Contemporary discussions of the function of biological traits have made this point from a different angle. The function of the heart in organisms is to pump blood, an activity that causes circulation of the blood. The heart can have any number of effects on the world as it performs its function, such as the effect of producing the sounds of a beating heart, or even in exceptional circumstances the effect of causing blood to spurt from a severed artery. The fact that the heart's beating can at times bring about such undesirable results is not relevant to an evaluation of the heart's performance of its function; only the heart's ability to circulate blood is relevant to such an evaluation. (16)
These remarks on the notion of a function suggest a revision of the second condition above and the addition of a fourth condition. The resulting set of conditions is as follows:
[C.sub.1] Actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] are of lesser value than E.
[C.sub.2]' Actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] causally contribute to the obtaining of E in virtue of their performing the function F.
[C.sub.3] The value of actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] derives in part from their making a causal contribution to the obtaining of E.
[C.sub.4] Actions [A.sub.1], [A.sub.2], ..., [A.sub.N] perform the function F in the best way only if they causally contribute to the obtaining of E.
The revised second condition requires that actions not only produce the end in question but do so by performing a function belonging to the agent of those actions. In the case of the ascent passage, this will be the function of eros, giving birth in the beautiful. Actions which perform a function have characteristic or typical results; in the case of actions in the ascent, the final vision is one of those results. The fourth condition draws upon the fact that we can evaluate performances of a function by their efficacy in producing a particular result. For Diotima the best way to perform the function of eros is the life of philosophic activity that culminates in the vision of the form of beauty. This is the best way of performing the function of eros because it brings us to the most intense awareness of beauty and because it allows us to produce true virtue, the most lasting and beautiful offspring. No other way of life achieves the vision of the form of beauty, so for Diotima this achievement is a necessary feature of the best way of performing the function of eros.
The claim that the philosophic life is the best way of giving birth in the beautiful is a strong one, and it is not the goal of this essay to defend it. Certainly poets and politicians, as well as parents of human children, will have something to say about which way of giving birth in the beautiful is best. What is important at this point is not the priority of the philosophic life but the idea that achieving a certain result provides a criterion for evaluating different ways of performing a function. Diotima distinguishes different ways of giving birth in the beautiful, from bodily reproduction to the lives of poetry and politics to the life of philosophy, and evaluates them as more or less valuable in helping lovers gain their common goal, the eternal possession of the good. She sees all instances of giving birth in the beautiful as valuable, but she thinks that the life of philosophy exhibited in the ascent passage is the life that is happiest for a human being. This is because it leads to the vision of the form of beauty and the creation of true virtue.
With this new set of conditions, we can understand why actions at the earlier stage of the ascent occur for the sake of the final vision. Those actions bring about the final vision not by chance but in virtue of their being performances of the function of eros. These actions taken together constitute a way of life which is said to be as good as any other way of life in virtue of its achieving the vision of the form. If we do require of the best performances of a certain type of activity that they bring about some result, then we must think that these performances are incomplete or could be improved if they fail to produce that result. If producing that result were beside the point of those activities, or a happy accident which is only fortuitously connected to those activities, we would not require the best performance of those activities to produce that result. So if it is a genuine requirement of the best performances of a function that they produce a particular result, and we are evaluating these performances qua performances of a particular function, then it is achieving this result which gives to those activities their full value and worth. Since the full value of the early stages of the ascent, considered as performances of the function of eros, depends on achieving the vision of the form of beauty, we can say that achieving this result is part of the point of going through those early stages and performing that function.
An analogy with an instance of natural teleology may help to make this point. The function of the eye in humans is to see, but obviously humans exhibit different degrees of accomplishment in performing this function. We evaluate some of these ways as better performances of the function of seeing than others. Most humans can distinguish the color red from the color green by sight, while some cannot. If the former group of humans perform the function of seeing in a better way than the latter group, this means that a necessary condition for humans to perform the function of seeing in the best way is distinguishing by sight between the color red and the color green. Any human who sees but is color-blind with regard to red and green has an incomplete sense of sight; his sight would be better if he were able to distinguish between red and green. This indicates that part of what sight is for in human beings is the accomplishment of being able to see the difference in color between red and green things. Keeping in mind the differences between natural teleology and the sort of teleology present in the ascent passage, similar observations can be made in both cases. The earlier stages of the ascent have value in themselves, but their status as the best way of giving birth in the beautiful, better than the sort of giving birth practiced by the poet and the politician, also depends on their leading up to and causing the vision of the form of beauty. Because the ascent is evaluated as the best way of giving birth in the beautiful in virtue of its contributing to this result, this result is that for the sake of which the ascent is performed.
Seen in this way, the lover's achieving the vision of the form of beautiful is different from the gold prospector arriving at moral transformation. In the case of the ascent, the vision of the form is the end of all that precedes it because it is required for the best performance of the function of eros. The gold prospector arrives at a better way of living, but this is only a happy accident arising from searching for gold. We do not evaluate acts of gold prospecting by asking whether such actions have led to moral improvement; that is not what we can legitimately expect from such actions. It is not required for the best performance of a gold prospector's function that he come to see the relative unimportance of wealth. As a result, we have good reason to believe that the sort of developmental pattern exhibited in the ascent passage differs from cases like the gold prospector where the appearance of actions occurring for the sake of an end is only an illusion.
The Final End of a Life and Practical Deliberation
The special character of the teleology employed in the ascent passage lies in the fact that the actions of a human life are oriented toward a particular end, the contemplation of the form of beauty, even though the agent of these actions need not be aware of that end as his goal. An appreciation of the teleology of the ascent widens the range of options open to us when we consider what it would be for a life to have a single determinate end. It may seem that if all actions in a human life are oriented toward a single end, our success as rational beings is a matter of identifying that one highest good and making our choices with that highest good in mind as the goal to be achieved by our actions. So Aristotle advises us in the Eudemian Ethics (1214b6-11):
Everyone who can live according to his own choice should adopt some goal for the fine life, whether it be honour or reputation or wealth or cultivation--an aim that he will have in view in all his actions; for, not to have ordered one's life in relation to some end is a mark of extreme folly. (17)
John Cooper attributes to Aristotle the view that 'there is, or ought to be, in each person's practical thinking just one such ultimate end--in effect, a grand end which constitutes the agent's conception of what sort of life is best.' (18) This understanding of the role of practical deliberation in a human life has drawn criticism both as an interpretation of Aristotle's intentions and as a requirement of reason. (19) But apart from the textual issue of whether Aristotle should be interpreted as holding the grand-end view of practical deliberation is the prior question of whether having a grand end in one's life requires one to practice the sort of practical deliberation that starts from a grand end and structures the actions that make up a life by pursuing that end as a goal. The ascent passage supports a negative answer to this question; the lover of the ascent acts for the sake of a single end, philosophical contemplation of the form of beauty, but he need not take this end as his goal. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the grand-end model of practical rationality, they do not attach automatically to the claim that a good human life is one that has a single end. The lover's actions in the ascent are all done for the sake of the vision of the form of beauty, a quite determinate end, but these actions do not betray adherence to any overarching model of practical rationality. The ascent passage depicts the existence of a single determinate end for a broad range of human desires for beauty and goodness and describes a life as happy which develops in stages for the sake of that one end. Yet it does not require humans to think and choose in terms of promoting that final end before it is reached.
(1) In this paper I wish to set aside the issue of whether Diotima's views are the same as or significantly different from Plato's. It is likely that Diotima does not represent Plato's beliefs perfectly. Socrates' description of Diotima as teaching like a 'perfect sophist' at 208c should alert us to some difference between the Mantinean prophetess and the author of the Symposium. For lack of space, I also do not wish to address here the question of why Plato would put these views in the mouth of this particular fictional character (as I take Diotima to be). The ideas presented in Diotima's speech about how a human life can develop for the sake of a final end deserve careful study on their own, regardless of who should be identified as affirming those views. I attempt here to provide that study while being aware that a large and fascinating range of issues remains untouched: Plato's use of fictional characters, the dramatic interplay between characters, and the tension between characters and their author.
(2) All translations from the Symposium are mine and are based on Burnet's text in the Oxford Classical Texts series. Here and elsewhere [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] is translated as 'end' rather than 'goal', since the latter introduces unwanted suggestions of conscious intentions or plans to achieve an end.
(3) Gregory Vlastos, 'The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato', in Platonic Studies, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1981), 28. Hereafter referred to as Vlastos, 'Individual'.
(4) Vlastos, 'Individual', 31
(5) Vlastos' claim that the individual is not an object of love in the ascent passage is criticized by Aryeh Kosman, 'Platonic Love', in W. H. Werkmeister, ed., Facets of Plato's Philosophy, Phronesis Supplement 2, (Assen: Van Gorcum 1976) 53-69, and by Anthony Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press 1989), 45-54.
(6) Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (New York: Cambridge University Press 1986), 183
(7) Other commentators give little guidance on the particular issue that is being raised, namely the nature of the relation by which the prior stages are oriented towards an end that has not yet arrived. Frisbee Sheffield discusses teleology in connection with the function of eros, giving birth in the beautiful, but does not focus on this issue in her review of the ascent passage. She is aware that the ascent follows a definite order on the way to the form of beauty, but she explains the lover's orientation towards the form as resulting from his tutelage by a more experienced guide and educator rather than as stemming from the development of erotic desire. See Sheffield, Plato's Symposium: the Ethics of Desire (New York: Oxford University Press 2006), 101-10 and 113-20. Kurt Sier gives a prominent place to teleology as a leading theme of his book on Diotima's speech, but the sort of teleological relation he envisions holding between actions and their ends is essentially the same as Nussbaum's. His concluding remarks, offered under the title 'Philosophy and Teleology', describe a teleology of action according to which humans are encouraged to reflect on their own state of need, to form correct judgments concerning intended objects of desire, and to attain a conception of their goals. 'Mit der Selbstreflexion verknupft ist ein richtiges Urteil ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) uber die intendierten Objekte und ein Vorbegriff von den antizipierten Zielen,' Kurt Sier, Die Rede der Diotima (Stuttgart: Teubner 1997), 293.
(8) The translation of these two questions at 206b1-3 follows that of Christopher Gill in Plato, Symposium (New York: Penguin Putnam 1999), who renders the questions as follows: '"In what way and in what type of action must people pursue this goal, if the enthusiasm and intensity they show in this pursuit is to be called love? What function does love really have: can you tell me?" ' The second question apparently restates the first, and so in asking for a specification of an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Diotima is asking about the distinctive way of acting that both pursues happiness and is rightly termed eros. As the lines following 206b1-3 indicate, she is asking how eros operates in order to reach the end of happiness. Her description of giving birth in the beautiful in these lines is a description of what eros does by way of achieving its purpose and so is a description of its characteristic activity or function. I owe thanks to David Sedley for comments on the translation of this passage.
(9) Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle, 36 articulates this problem clearly: 'If we take [the lover's] ascent to be strictly a scala amoris, through a succession of objects with which he is literally in love, then familiarity should not blind us to its boldness, nay bizarrerie.'
(10) The terminology and underlying concepts used here to describe agency-centered teleology are taken from Andre Ariew, 'Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments', in Andre Ariew, Robert Cummins, and Mark Perlman, eds., Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology (New York: Oxford University Press 2002) 7-32, and from David Charles, 'Teleological Causation in the Physics', in Lindsay Judson, ed., Aristotle's 'Physics': A Collection of Essays (New York: Oxford University Press 1995) 101-28, hereafter referred to as Charles, 'Teleological Causation'.
(11) See Charles, 'Teleological Causation', 115.
(12) Sheffield, Plato's Symposium, 118-19
(13) This general account of teleological relations draws upon the account given by Andrew Woodfield, Teleology (New York: Cambridge University Press 1976), 205-8. Woodfield summarizes his standard analysis of teleology as follows: 'X does/has A because A [right arrow] F and F is good' (208). The goodness in question need not be moral; it could be the survival of an organism or the efficiency of a motor.
(14) See Allen Gotthelf, 'The Place of the Good in Aristotle's Natural Teleology', in J. J. Cleary and D. C. Shartin, eds., Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 4 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America 1988) 113-35 for a defense of the claim that the goodness of the end does not play a central explanatory role in natural teleology.
(15) These first three conditions on the relation between the earlier stages of the ascent and the final vision echo the conditions laid down by Richard Kraut in his description of the for-the-sake-of relation in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. He speaks of an activity A being for the sake of an end B just in case A produces or causes B, B is more valuable than A, and B provides a norm for evaluating performances of A; see Richard Kraut, Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1989), 200-1. I avoid speaking of norms in relation to the ascent passage, since this encourages the dubious idea that what is presented in the ascent passage is a general model for rational or ethical behavior. Also, the particularities of the ascent passage require an analysis more complicated than that provided by Kraut's elegant three conditions.
(16) Competing theories of function are set out by Larry Wright, 'Functions', Philosophical Review 82 (1973) 139-68 and Robert Cummins, 'Functional Analysis', Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975) 741-65. Despite the differences between Wright's etiological account of functions, according to which a function is defined partly by the role of its effects in the evolutionary history of a biological trait, and Cummins' propensity account, according to which a function is defined in terms of its present disposition to contribute to a containing system's operations, both accounts distinguish between the broad class of the effects of a trait and the narrower class of those effects it has which are central to its function. On this point see Valerie Gray Hardcastle, 'On the Normativity of Functions', in Ariew, Cummins, and Perlman, eds., Functions (New York: Oxford University Press 2002), 144-56.
(17) Translation by Michael Woods in Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics, Books I, II, and VIII, tr. Michael Woods (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1982).
(18) John Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1975), 59
(19) Sarah Broadie argues that Aristotle cannot have held this view, since it would require us to think and act in ways that are foreign to the moral life of ordinary human beings. See Sarah Broadie, Ethics With Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press 1991), 200.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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