Love #24: Love in a time of plague and war: Socrates and Diotima


"My story is about the priestess Diotima of Mantinea and love in that time of plague and war."

A thrill of anticipation and respect jumped through the guests even though they had been drinking heavily for days.  Socrates himself was still hungover from the previous night. Egged on by a doctor friend, they voted to give away grog for the night or at least until they sobered up a little. 

Slaves slammed shut the doors of the villa against the crowds celebrating in the streets. Instead of grog, the party decided to entertain themselves by talking about love. 

Truth be, Socrates had arrived a bit late and was filling his belly. He only payed half attention to the others, occasionally growling and wondering if anyone would notice him sneaking out to find a flask of red. But, all good things come to an end, and eventually, all the others finished their stories, and they called on Socrates to speak.

Silence fell. For a moment, the revelers were out of earshot, and Socrates started.

"The priestess Diotima, plague and war..."

He paused and leaned towards his host.

"You can easily refute me. But you cannot refute the truth."

He shut his eyes, seeking her memory. Suddenly, he was back there. The war with Sparta was in its second year, and their side was winning. Then Sparta lay siege to Athens. The plague had gnawed at the edges of the city for a decade but had been contained by priests and doctors to the more remote rural areas. When the siege started, refugees rushed into the city for safety, and the plague came with them. In Athens, the plague was devastating. Nothing could stop it once it took root inside the city. No one was safe. For five years, the Gods gave no protection to any within their care. Young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak, died in huge number. In the devastation, law broke down, money worthless, order uncertain and doubt about the Gods spread.

"Diotima and I took solace in each other's company during that time. She instructed me in the art of love. Then she taught me mysteries that went beyond my understanding and which I still cannot comprehend."

Socrates remembered their love talk. In youthful vigor, he had claimed that love was a mighty God and likewise fair. Diotima, a little older and wiser than him, took his arguments, and one by one demolished them, proving that love was neither fair nor good nor Divine. 

Socrates had taken offense at this outcome, "You cannot tell me that love evil and foul."

Diotima cried, "Hush. Just because it is not fair does not mean it is foul. Love is in a mean between those two extremes."

He appealed to the mob, "Love is said by all to be a great God." 

With a smile, Diotima twisted, "Love plays with Gods and mortals alike. But seriously, how can love be acknowledged to be a great God by those who say that it is not a God at all?" 

"And who are they?" he asked. 

"You and I are two of them," she replied. "Let me show you. You acknowledge that the Gods are happy and fair, right?" 

"Certainly," he replied. 

"And, just so I am sure we are in the same bed, you mean by 'the happy', those who are the possessors of things good or fair?" 


"And you will admit that Love is naturally in a state of 'want'. Love desires those good and fair things of which it is in want?" 

"Yes, I do." 

"But how can it be a God if, already being good and fair, it hungers to achieve that state?" 


"Then you see that you also deny the divinity of Love."

Adrift, with his head spinning, Socrates asked Diotima, "Then, what is love?"

Diotima took him in hand and, over time, slowly explained all she knew and all we now accept without knowing. 

She said, "As a priestess, I teach the young in body and mind through experience. And, with love, actual experience is the first and last step many may actually take. But those who hunger for knowledge, like you, may go a little further."

One day she said to him, 'What causes love and its attendant desire?"

He gave her a blank look and she pinched him, ""And do you expect ever to become a master in the art of love, if you do not know this?"

He protested, "I have told you already that my ignorance is the reason why I come to you; for I want a teacher. Tell me then the cause of this and of the other mysteries of love."

She responded, "Love is a gateway to immortality: sex leads to children. Mortal nature seeks as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is attained by generation, because  generation always leaves behind a new existence in the place of the old."

Then she told him, "But it is more than just the joy of heat. Love is spiritual: a fusion of plenty and poverty."

As they played and drank and wondered and enjoyed love she told him: "Love is always plotting against the fair and good; it is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. It is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when it is in plenty, and dead at another moment, and then suddenly alive again." 

In her words, he heard the dim echo of ancient truth, the Homeric and Orphic hymns. Her wisdom was indeed honored by Zeus.

One day she tried to explain to him the relationship between love and beauty. She asked him, "When a man loves the beautiful, what does he desire?"

Socrates answered, "That the beautiful may be his."

She pursued, "But what is given by the possession of beauty?"

Socrates could not answer her.

She smiled, "Let me make the question a little easier. If he who loves the good, what is it then that he loves?"

He replied, "The possession of the good."

She said, "And what does he gain who possesses the good?"

Socrates smiled, "Happiness."

She smiled as well, for he hungered for knowledge, and she continued, "Let us expand the proposition. Do you agree that possession for a single moment is fleeting. Everlasting possession must be the goal. Ok?"


She concluded, "Then love may be described generally as the love of the everlasting possession of the good."

Assured that he might one day understand the depth of her mysteries, Diotima went on to explain many aspects of love, leaving Socrates with puzzles to ponder the rest of his life.

"We start with the simple unthinking pursuit of love, in eagerness and heat. But love extends beyond a single object of lust." 

Diotima traced the path of love as it evolves within a pure heart - representing the path of love as an ascent from, initially, pure physical attraction to, finally, love of divinity. It starts with the love of one body and proceeds to a love of all bodies. At this stage, it slews off the ravages of time and becomes a love of souls rather than flesh. Love of people, in time, becomes deep respect for institutions and the law. Finally, this becomes a hunger for knowledge and the ignition of the spark of creativity. In time, love for love itself becomes possible as a person begins to appreciate the connections between all things and the beauty of the universe. Only then can one touch the divine.

As Socrates was speaking, his reminiscences were interrupted, and Diotima (but not her knowledge) fades back into the past. 

An unruly crowd of soldiers gate-crashed the party. A cask of wine was split open, and the serious discussion faded into vainglorious boasts, loud flute music and a long drunken argument about comic and tragic actors in the theatre.

Copyright Dark Aelf, 2021 

Return to Love (Short Story Series) INDEX 

For all our science, we still do not know what plague entered Athens in 430 BCE and did such damage over such a long period of time. 

The drinking party (symposium) at which Socrates tells his story can be precisely dated by references to events - here shortly after Agathon received a prize 416 BCE. Those involved in the party are interesting historical personages with an interest in religion and love, and at least three were later exiled for dabbling in religious mysteries (specifically the highly secretive Eleusinian mysteries) in a drinking party. And on that point, it is perhaps sensible to reflect on a blunt warning in the Satyricon that... "priests, animated by an hypocritical mania for prophecy, boldly expound mysteries which are too often such to themselves."

This is a difficult piece; my retelling attempts to hint at the depth of their dialogue without leaving us all confused. At root, and looking forward in time, Diotima's philosophy is different and more complex than that seen elsewhere in Plato's stories about Socrates. Some say that the dialogue between Diotima and Socrates contains more wisdom than the story tellers knew or could extract at the time. 

It is different again to the views advanced by Plato. Although the structure of the dialogue shows his hand, the content slips beyond him. In truth, the complexity of the content and its detail, bears the hall marks of the type of cooperative collaborations we see in the modern world - where it is sometimes said that the sum of the parts exceeds the inputs. We should not be surprised if this is the case - Plato describes how the story travels through a number of hands to him - and throughout the original version the Greek constantly emphasizes the second hand nature of the discussions. Lots of subsequent writers lay claim to understanding or developing the piece. It has all been downhill, from Marsilio Ficino's simplistic invention of 'Platonic love' in the Middle Ages to Freud's boast of stealing 'libido' from Plato. However, looking backwards in time, the dialogue echoes the Orphic and Homeric hymns and this may explain why some (including the members of the drinking party) quest here to find traces of the Eleusinian mysteries. Today, the dialogue still lies at the bedrock of our broad conception of love (although it should be noted that the Greek erôs carries stronger connotations of desire and passion than the English love - for which we will simply note "the British" and keep moving).

Like Mary Ellen Waithe, i entertain no doubt about the existence of Diotima, and while i cannot discount the possibility, think it unlikely she is Aspasia, companion to the Greek statesman Pericles. I am led to this conclusion by the language she uses in the dialogue (the language of a practitioner of the mysteries: theômenos ephexês, pros telos êdê iôn and exaiphainês katopsetai) and the ideas advanced, the context of Socrates' story (the complexity of the world view presented including the other personages, their fates and the references to the plague), Lucian's reference to her in The Eunuch (which identifies Diotima, Thargelia, and Aspesia as women philosophers, which may derive from a broader base of contemporary but now lost writings) and other source material in the writing of the ancients.

I have placed this piece within the time of plague because that event is specifically invoked by Socrates. Perhaps the plague prompted Diotima to escape to Athens, or maybe they met during a later campaign. I have settled on the time of plague because of a confusing reference at that point in the dialogue which might suggest a role she had past played in delaying the plague.

I assume that they are lovers, from the flow of the text in Symposium. This is not certain - but, in the same breath, we might accept that she is a competent teacher with access to a coherent set of beliefs tested over time. This was a different time, with a different set of social and religious mores, and I see no value in conflating the story with a discussion of sacred prostitution - context that only open the sores of our own confused societal values.

Copyright Dark Aelf, 2021 

Return to Love (Short Story Series) INDEX

Image: The homestead of the Australian painter Lindsay with Persephone escaping the underworld - another modern echo of this story, and the Eleusinian mysteries.


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