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Diotima: Honored by Zeus (and Socrates)

Page history last edited by Laurissa Wolfram 14 years, 9 months ago

Created by: Laurissa Wolfram




Diotima: Honored by Zeus (and Socrates)





Diotima of Mantinea – though her actual existence is debated – played a key role in Plato’s Symposium.  Her ideas, which are shared by Socrates at a party, are the origin of what is known as “platonic love”[2]








Diotima in Symposium


Written around 385 B.C., Symposium is Plato’s account of a feast, held by the poet Agathon in Athens.  In attendance are such great minds as Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Socrates, and Alcibiades, so it is no surprise that as the wine begins to flow (the meaning of “symposium” is, indeed, “a wine-drinking party,”) the men begin to engage various philosophical discussions.  The topic of love soon comes into debate, and each man gives a speech, presenting his own views.



When it comes Socrates’ turn to speak, he tells his fellow party-goers that all he has learned about love comes from the wisdom of Diotima, a “woman. . . wise in this and many other things” [2]. It was Diotima, he claims, who taught him as a young man “the philosophy of love” [2]. He then begins to recount Diotima’s ideas and views of love:


  • Love is neither fair nor good
  •  The parents of love are lack and poverty
  •  Love is not delicate but beggarly and harsh[2]
  •  Our concepts of love transform as we age:
    •  We first are attracted to the physical beauty of youth
    •  Then we progress to see the beauty in all bodies
    •  Next, we are able to look beyond the physical and see the beauty of the soul
    •  Then we see the beauty of laws
    •  Finally, we become aware of the beauty of ideas[3]
  •  It is better for men and boys to give birth to ideas than children[2].
  •  Physical love is second to spiritual love because the goal of spiritual love is to give birth to ideas[2].
  •  Women are able to create and reproduce human life through the body, while men must create through the faculties of the mind through the form of art[6].




Rhetorical Value of Diotima


Whether she is real or not, Socrates builds a strong argument by using the story of Diotima to explain his views of love.  Although she is a woman, and as such, is not of very high esteem in ancient Greek society, Socrates portrays her as a seer or prophetess – a highly respected position of religious authority.  This is reinforced by the fact that Socrates praises her of saving Athens from a plague[1].   Additionally, even the meaning of her name, “honored by Zeus,” gives Diotima an added quality of authority, which transfers to Socrates as he passes along her wisdom.   




Existence of Diotima: Real or Fiction


There has been much debate over whether or not Diotima was an actual historical figure or a creation of Socrates’ imagination.  It has been thought that Plato based Diotima on Aspasia, a woman who garnered great admiration from Plato for her mental fortitude[2].  However, others argue that it was not characteristic of Plato to create name, making it highly possible that Diotima was, indeed, real[2].



Another (and much more heated) argument on the reality of Diotima asserts that Diotima’s existence was made fictitious by contemporary historians as an attempt to discredit her intellectual authority because she was a woman[4]. 






1.  Corrigan, Kevin, and Elena Corrigan. Plato's dialectic at play: argument, structure, and myth in the Symposium. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 2004. 


2.  "Diotima of Mantinea." Wikipedia. 2009.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diotima_of_Mantinea>.


3.  "Diotima of Mantinea: Greek Priestess and Teacher of Socrates." The Window: Philosophy on the Internet. 2000. Trinity College Philosophy Department, Web. <http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/phil/philo/about.html>. 


4.  George, Lynda. "Gender Equity: In Search of Diotima's Place With the Ancient Philosophers." Forum of Public Policy (Summer 07): [no pagination] <http://www.forumonpublicpolicy.com/archivesum07/george.pdf>. 


5.  Shield-wall Books. "Diotima of Mantinea." History of Women: Wonderful, Wanton, and Wild Women of History. 2008.<http://historyandwomen.blogspot.com/2008/08/diotima-of-mantinea-c-400.html>.


6.    VanHeest , Nancy. "Feminism and Plato." John Greenfelder. Sullivan Homepage: Powell Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Elon University. 1999. Sull, Web. <http://facstaff.elon.edu/sullivan/femplato.htm>.


Comments (3)

K. Gonzales said

at 10:40 pm on Sep 28, 2009

Great entry. I find it really interesting, and certainly dissapointing, that there's not much more scholarly research avaliable on Diotima's life and theory. I know most historical accounts of women have been largely ignored, or erased from history, but I'd love to read what else would have been avaliable about her. How did you decide to chose her as a topic?

Chad Williams said

at 11:10 pm on Sep 28, 2009

Laurissa Wolfram said

at 11:34 pm on Sep 28, 2009

Yes, it was rather frustrating to see that there wasn't much information on her! I guess I was just attracted to the fact that we may never really know if she really existed or not. I'm always up for a good conspiracy theory, and when I read about the controversy over whether or not she was "fictionalized" because contemporary male researchers wanted to discount her as a philosopher... well, I was hooked! Sounds like the starting point of what could potentially become a really cheesy movie.

Thanks for the link, Chad! I'll look it over.

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