Pregnant Men on Ladders:
Comic Elements in Plato's Symposium

Elizabeth Belfiore

University of Minnesota

            In Plato's Symposium, Alcibiades compares Socrates to the hollow statues of ridiculous and hubristic sileni that open up to reveal images of the gods. Socrates' words, he says, resemble the man. On the outside, they are like the skin of a hubristic satyr, but on the inside they are most divine and contain the most images of virtue.  In this paper, I argue that, just as Alcibiades' image invites us to "open up" Socrates' words and deeds, so Socrates' great speech itself, and the other claims made by the philosopher within the dialogue, encourage  the reader to examine critically the ideas presented in this speech.  I focus in particular on two elements in the speech attributed to Diotima that are especially noteworthy for their combination of the ridiculous with serious ideas: the metaphor of the pregnant lover and that of the ladder of eros.

            According to Diotima, all people, both men and women, are pregnant in body and soul. That man who is pregnant in soul searches for a beloved, and, consorting with him, "gives birth to and generates that with which he has long been pregnant" (209c2-3).  As many scholars have shown, this metaphor has a serious philosophical function within Diotima's account of the activities of the soul in seeking and creating spiritual beauty.  Nevertheless, Diotima uses a very strange and comic metaphor, that does not fit the basic facts of biology.  Moreover, there are good reasons for believing that Socrates' audience would have found the idea of male pregnancy absurd and even offensive. In Euripides' Bacchae (286-97), Teiresias asks Pentheus if he laughs  at the story of the "double birth" of Dionysus, to whom Zeus gave birth after sewing the fetus into his thigh.  Moreover, to suggest that a man in a homosexual relationship was pregnant was a serious insult, attributing to him the disgraceful,  passive, feminine role in intercourse.  According to Plutarch (Amatorius 768F), the tyrant Periander was killed by his beloved after Periander asked him, "Are you pregnant yet?" Diotima's idea that it is the erastes who is pregnant is even more offensive, for it casts in a ridiculous and humiliating light the active partner in the relationship that is idealized by all of the symposiasts, and by Diotima herself.  Moreover, the metaphor might be taken as specifically ridiculing Pausanias and his eromenos Agathon, the tragedian who might be said to be "pregnant" with poetry, like Homer, Hesiod, and the other  "good poets" (poiêtas . . . agathous), mentioned by Diotima.

            In another passage (210a-212a), Diotima uses the metaphor of the ladder  to characterize the ascent from lower to higher objects of eros. This passage raises many important philosophical issues about the nature of desire, and about metaphysics and epistemology. Here also, however, the text gives us good reasons for being cautious in affirming that  the ideas expressed in this passage represent the sincerely held beliefs of Socrates or of Plato.  For one thing, the comic image of male pregnancy is retained throughout, from the lowest to the highest level. Diotima's language even suggests that, at the highest rung of the ladder,  the lover has sexual intercourse with the highest form of beauty.  If this literal interpretation is rejected as absurd, what is it that is supposed to happen at the top of the ascent? The sexual imagery is also puzzling at the lower rungs of the ladder, where Diotima states that the lover must become "a lover of all beautiful bodies."   If she is advising the lover to become sexually promiscuous, the Socrates of the Symposium does not appear to have followed her advice.

            Why might Plato have constructed the most important speech of his major character in this way? The speech as a whole stimulates the reader to seek the truth, while realizing that neither Socrates nor Diotima gives it to us in a neat package of "teachings." What the speech does make clear is that we will not find the wisdom we seek as long as we share the lack of learning (amathia) exhibited by the first five speakers, who believe that they have no need to seek wisdom because they already possess it. To make progress we must, instead, become philosophers, like Diotima's Eros, who knows that he lacks wisdom, and for this very reason, desires to acquire it.

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