by Adina Bezerita
Adina Bezerita is an Oxford-Cambridge philosopher and scholar who works on interdisciplinary topics in ancient wisdom relevant to contemporary thought and applicable across the liberal arts and sciences.
In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima of Mantinea teaches Socrates by illustrating a prism of spectral perspectives that can be discerned in personal experience. Her pedagogic style explores the deepest mystery in the soul in relation to the highest knowledge of the cosmos. She claims that the human being inhabits a space between two or more totally different realms. Could it be the case that Diotima, in the 5th century BCE, anticipated a method for validating experiences and perceptions? After all, she uses the allegorical example of the ladder of love to encourage an intellectual ascent to true vision, ‘virtue’, that leads to “immortality”. Love, for Diotima is a daīmon, the genius of the soul, a guardian and messenger between the divine and human beings.
For her, opposites or contrasts are harmonised only when understood by the practice of philosophy to ‘know the Self’ (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). To know the Self is to know reality, as Plato and his predecessors postulated. Diotima demonstrates the arduous progress of embodiment of the primordial Logos (akin to John 1:1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος) in One Self, then in relationship with the other. You would have to read the whole dialogue to see the process of self-transformation according to her teachings and then to wonder if it applies to your own life? She warns Socrates that he, or any pilgrim, may not be prepared to grasp her lessons, for they do not merely entail an intellectual training, but a complete metamorphosis.
In modern references, such a metanoia (change of heart and mind) could be envisioned like a quantum leap through a wormhole from one reality to another. Early in 2023
I proposed to artist Casiana Vasiliu, from Transylvania, Romania, to try to render Diotima and her advice, framed at the nexus of the quadrivium (astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music). After careful considerations, Casiana developed her drawing, which she titled: The Mystery of Diotima. You can see it published in association with this article. This demanding project was a product of hundreds of hours over an intense two-month period, having called forth undivided focus and attention from the artist. As a tutor, I sought to encourage originality while offering a reliable and consistent support system. A collaborative balance was key to achieve the ideal result.
Briefly stated, among many evocative symbolisms evident to the observer, Casiana included a thought-provoking double portal, centred on a gap in the fabric of the space-time continuum. If you study the digital-painting, you will see a totality of Being, similar to a solar eclipse, that bends the light of everything in the visible range, to reveal a hidden passage-way that leads to a singularity, a ‘big bang’ to an apophatic domain. What happens on the other side? Roger Penrose’s Noble Prize lecture in 2020, casually suggests a series of ‘big bangs’ interwoven in a megaverse. He sometimes credits Plato in respect to cosmological connections (1997, 18-19). Furthermore, Diotima might argue that the unfolding universe acts on the same forces, eternal laws mirrored in the human soul. With the help of technology, we have come to realise or to add on to what our forebears already predicted.
In any event, every individual needs to seek and to find out for themselves the meaning of the personal or trans-personal unwritten mystery at play (Cornford 1950). Casiana strategically placed an astronomically-informed question mark in the picture. Our depiction attempts to also portray the reverse process of the universe being born from no-thing. The audience can trace an emanation from a first cause, a transcendent One, that somehow creates multiplicity. Notice that we are combining visual art, precision in narrative and a critical engagement among disciplines in order to convey a greater significance onto the whole. Recent translations have indicated that in the initial Greek language, the One, according to the Parmenides, associates with Self in the first hypothesis (137b). That One Self (ἑνὸς αὐτοῦ) is an irreducible unifier. In other words, scholars are on the verge of new discoveries in Western texts, beginning to examine that which was long familiar to Eastern philosophies, the Self.
Could it be that the artist herself communed or conjoined with unseen supra-rational principles, then she gradually grounded their expression in the sphere of observation by her illustration? Is it the case that when our eyes behold this drawing our gaze is steadily transported to another dimension? Our inspiration gently whirls upward, ascending on hidden numinous threads linked to the origin of creation. We might recall here, the mythological Fates or Moirai (Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos), who weave and spin the strands of destiny into the web of life. Plato himself seemed to have been elevated to a superior plane of existence when remembering the words of Diotima, as told by Socrates. When he composes his literary dialogue, he suddenly bursts into dithyrambs, in the rhythmic manner of his heartbeat, paraphrased below:
There will only befall one, in seeing Beauty-- by that through which reality alone can be seen, to give birth to it. One should give birth, not to an image of virtue, but to virtue itself, since virtue is truth. And in giving birth to true virtue, then nurturing it, one will surely become friend with the divine, and attain immortality, if anyone ever does. Symposium (212a)
Therefore, we may ask: what is it about Diotima to able to midwife the soul of the other “to give birth to true virtue” and to philosophy? Only after I had written down this question, I read that Thomas Taylor (1758-1835), an English Platonist and translator, inquired similarly: “what must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful”, the true and the good itself (1969, 154)? Clearly, Diotima and her wisdom (σοφία) set a precedent in the world. She is responsible for initiating both Socrates and Plato into the noble art of ‘philo-sophy’ (love of wisdom), whilst being held in the highest esteem privately and publicly by both of them. Her intervention activated their genius and enabled these men to cross the threshold of awareness to new horizons. She set an unforgettable example for what it is like to cherish feminine wisdom in oneself and by the other(s).
In a recent book, The Great Lady (2023), Margaret Barker employs the method of “text-archaeology” to investigate certain censors that edited out wisdom, Sophia, whenever she appeared personified as feminine in historical intellectual lineages. While Margaret looks at biblical or theological personages, she nevertheless alludes to the general problem for driving out or ignoring a higher reason, whenever presented by feminine figures. Perhaps, in the long-run, this also applies to Diotima? Why is it that nowadays we do not hear much about her? Has she been cast to oblivion, by intention or by unawareness? As Barker suggests, however, we can detect the workings of Sophia in anyone whose educational ingenuity reflects on training the mind ‘how to think’ by using comparisons, analogies, parallel structures and by rationally navigating the premises of cause and effect (2023, 25).
In conclusion, whenever we encounter these sublime methods, we are implicitly reminded of Sophia, as seen in Casiana’s Diotima. This art piece retrieves ancient wisdom and establishes its relevance in the present, re-introducing it to current and upcoming generations. Diotima gave us a hint to the solution of the conjunction of seemingly irreconcilable perspectives. The paradoxical correlation between the noetic and the affective stems from Diotima’s influences that can be tracked from classical antiquity all the way to Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists, which was further assimilated in select Christian thought. Though it may seem like an oxymoron, Diotima invokes a divine feeling (παθὼν τὰ θεῖα), as a mean to integrate intelligible qualities in personal experience, which can be recognised in innovative approaches today. Diotima then and now provides what contemporary theories seek, a union of contraries, an important aspect in the advancement of knowledge, which should always be relative to the Self.
Last, but not least, we invite you to explore and to consider the art forms in The Mystery of Diotima with the following poem in mind.
If true love calls you
to the eternal flame
after a while
that kept you drifting in the dark
may disappear. . .
and you will begin to see
new forms of Being
born from non-Being
by threads of the Logos
Allen, Reginald E. Plato's Euthyphro and the Earlier Theory of Forms. London: Routledge, 2013.
Barker, Margaret. The Great Lady. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2023.
Cornford, F. M. The Unwritten Philosophy and Other Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.
Penrose, Roger. "On Understanding Understanding." International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, No. 11:1 (1997): 7-20.
Plato. Parmenides. Translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.
—. Parmenides. Translated by Juan Balboa. San Jacinto: Lulu Press, 2018.
—. Timaeus. Translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.
Taylor, Thomas. Thomas Taylor the Platonist. Edited by Kathleen Raine, & George Mills Harper. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1969.
Casiana Vasiliu is a polyvalent artist whose visionary works combine aspects in multimedia and technology at the cross-section of multiple disciplines, to present innovative projects that inspire reflection and social engagement.