Plato’s Diotima as a Symptom of Psychosis by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoAs I mentioned in my January 30, 2016 post, Grace Jantzen in Foundations of Violence makes a compelling case that Diotima is a fictional figure.  She does not, however, adequately distinguish her from the poetizing female figures Parmenides and Boethius portray as instructing them in their respective works.  If nothing else, the quality of the poetry of Parmenides and Boethius betrays the influence of a very real woman: Sappho.

By contrast, Plato essentially portrays Diotima as the personification of his philosophy–his metaphysics–and it is hard to believe there was such an ancient Greek woman.  Although the term ‘metaphysics’ derives from a neologism coined in Greek centuries after Plato and Aristotle lived, its meaning (‘beyond’ (meta) the ‘natural,’ or ‘embodied’ world (physics)) appropriately characterizes what Diotima and hence Plato’s philosophy is all about.  A key passage is where she characterizes the most intense love as “gazing at and being with” the beloved, without even the need to “eat or drink.”  That leads her to ask rhetorically whether it would not be best to gaze at what is not “infected” by flesh and blood (Symposium (211 d-e)).

Philosophy, Albrecht Dürer (1502)(Die Bayerische Staatsbiliothek)

Philosophy, Albrecht Dürer (1502)(Die Bayerische Staatsbiliothek)

There is no precedent or parallel for what Diotima says in what is known of ancient Greek goddess worship, that is, what actual ancient Greek women believed and practiced.  Such worship emphasized (i) the priority of personal experience, (ii) the unique importance of each and every sense, including sexual feelings, and thus the entire body, to appreciating fully the significance of such experience and (iii) the interrelationship of different forms of communicating (participating in) such experience through poetry, dance, music, the visual arts and even the culinary arts.

 While such worship also correctly recognized humans reproduce by the equal contribution of the male and female “seeds” (the “two seed theory”), nevertheless it recognized the unique importance of women with respect to what today would be a sophisticated medical practice comprised of various specialties (as discussed in my 11/5/2015 post on Phaenarete).

By contrast, Diotima’s portrayal of the true lover as not needing to “eat or drink” essentially echoes what is attributed to Socrates by Plato regarding the philosopher ignoring “eating and drinking” (Phaedo, 64d).  Her disparagement of physical love is consistent with Plato’s misogynistic characterization of women as a subaltern species of humanity (discussed in my 6/22/2014 post), who epitomize how mere matter (feminine in Greek as in Latin, matter is a derivative of mater) can never adequately reproduce the ostensibly masculine ideal.  Hence, seemingly ex nihilo appeared the “single seed” theory of human reproduction of Plato’s student Aristotle (discussed in my 5/3/2014 post), which also effectively justified men taking exclusive control of the practice of medicine away from women.

The abrupt and comprehensive reversal that Diotima thus constitutes from what is known of what real Greek women such as her putative contemporary Phaenarete believed and practiced is inexplicable.  Therefore, it would seem that whoever coined the term metaphysics to characterize Plato’s philosophy had a motive analogous to that of Plato in portraying Diotima as he does.  For absent at least the semblance of the logical progression to which metaphysics seems to refer, or the endorsement of Greek female spirituality that Diotima ostensibly provides, Plato comes across as just plain crazy.  Diotima is a symptom of his psychosis.    

Appreciating the implications of his psychosis requires, as a threshold matter, a consideration of three interrelated issues.  First, because Plato’s influence began at a formative point in human history, his psychosis has by now been incorporated in varying degrees into a wide range of secular and religious beliefs and practices in such a manner that many do not even know it is there.  Second, as is the case with many mental diseases, those suffering from this psychosis may be reluctant to recognize it or the need to do something about it.  Third, given the nature of this psychosis, which consistent with Jantzen’s thesis, can be characterized as necrophilia or the love of violence, resistance to its identification, not to mention its eradication, is likely to be violent.

These considerations might well lead to the conclusion reached by Heidegger late in his life: “only a god can save us.” He seems to have begun to realize just how “disastrous” the influence of Plato’s metaphysics has been in 1926 after he was sent a copy of the Schellings’ Freedom Essay (for details on that Essay see my 4/6/2016 post).  While that essay turned his attention towards pre-Platonic thought, he failed to appreciate the relevance of goddess worship to it.  If he had appreciated its relevance, then given his influence at the time, perhaps the trajectory Germany was then on might have changed.  In any case, had he ultimately appreciated its relevance he would have at least concluded that “only a goddess can save us.”

Goddess worship, however, was not and is not about passively awaiting a metaphysical apocalypse.  It is not about being there but being here (cf. Arendt, haecceitas, Vita Activa).  Vital to that way of being is tasting–eating and drinking–exactly what Diotima denied was of importance.  Confirmation that taste may be essential to being if not holy, at least healthy (cf. heilig in German), comes from recent neuroscientific research.  For details see Gordon Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy, ‘Why Taste Matters,’ pp165-241.  It is notable that Shepherd feels the need to present this as a “new science” that refutes what “[m]ost people” think (p.3 & 12).  In doing so he unwittingly demonstrates the insidious way Plato’s metaphysics, as represented by Diotima’s psychotic disdain for food and drink, has been incorporated for so long and to such a degree that most people are unaware of ‘her’ presence.

The ignorance of the importance of taste seems to have resulted in the hypertrophy (psychologically at least) of the senses of sight and sound (the two senses Plato grudgingly respected relative to the others (Phaedo, 65b)).  An obvious example of this is modern computer technology, which is literally, and in many ways figuratively, tasteless. Both as compensation for and as a distraction from its tastelessness those profiteering off it present each new enhancement in the technology of video and audio stimulation as if one’s life depended on it.  Yet, to the extent such technology draws one into the necropolis that is its virtual reality the more one becomes dead to the real world.  How this relates to Diotima is, to paraphrase Sappho (S.16), ‘easy to demonstrate’: are not the almost exclusively female virtual voices of technology her daughters?

Stuart WordPress photoStuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future:

Categories: Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Textual Interpretation, Violence, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Glad to see Diotima deconstructed again. As I have said in all my recent books, the philosophy attributed to her is not only anti-body and anti-nature, it is “matricidal” insofar as it is based in the assertion that life in the body that comes through the body of a woman and ends in death “just isn’t good enough.” The longing for rebirth or life after death is a denial of the gift of birth. Jantzen said this too when she advocated for a theology that affirms natality or birth (into the body). Of course it was Rosemary Radford Ruether who first criticized the classical dualisms formulated by Plato and Platonists.

    I like what you say about taste. Eating and drinking, in other words, feasting, is a major part of most indigenous/traditional religions.The feast is a thanksgiving for the generosity and bounty of Mother Earth. Judaism remembers this in the Sabbath and Passover meals, albeit while denying that mothers and the Mother are the source and Source of life. Christianity pays lip service to what once may have been a love feast in early Christianity, when it serves up a small piece of bread and only a small sip of wine, which it understands as transformed into or symbolizing the body of Christ. The original message of giving thanks to the Mother for the gift of life is de-formed through a focus on sin and a longing for immortal life. Siggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

    And yes, advocates of Platonic dualism are split in two, denying the body that is the source and locus of their thinking, and treating women who are identified with the body as mere servants of the rational souls and minds of men. Don’t get me started!


    • Thank you Carol. I hope to write more on how early Greek goddess worship (and salvation) related and relates to diet (which I had touched upon in my posts last summer on the meal preparation narrated in Moretum). “Lip service”–well put–aspects of a truly celebratory meal were absorbed by each of the Middle Eastern Monotheisms practiced today but spoiled by subordination to metaphysics.


  2. Thank you.


  3. Love what you say about taste, restoring the full meaning literal and figurative to the word. Makes sense, too, that the basis of western philosophy may be psychosis! Thanks for this post!


    • Thank you Elizabeth. I hope to write more on taste and diet and how both relate to ‘elemental’ theory (ie what you meditate upon in Elements Are Us).


  4. Thanks, Stuart, for your posts at FAR, I always find them interesting, and helpful, but I am going to argue with you here. You say, “Plato comes across as just plain crazy. Diotima is a symptom of his psychosis.”

    We could work on the fictional character of Diotima also as a personification of her name which means literally, “Honored by Zeus” — and who was not only a philosopher but supposedly also a priestess.

    But maybe, perhaps, and more likely, because imagined by him as a character, she is actually in some way Plato himself. And you may be suggesting exactly that, when you say she is his psychosis. But what does that mean? Psychosis refers to a “loss of contact with reality.” But many novelists and artists have to imagine playing many parts. Imagination often takes us on trips abroad, but that doesn’t mean that we are involved in a psychosis either. We have to let Plato be creative, and highly imaginative, that’s my point, and without judging him as psychotic.


    • Thank you for your comment Sarah. If Diotima had not been interpreted as a historical figure representing early Greek female spirituality it would not matter whether she was but a figment of Plato’s creativity. I would not want to let the irresolvable issue of whether Plato himself was crazy (as I think) distract attention from the fact that by interpreting him and his Diotima as logical ‘sane’ philosophy Western culture itself now suffers from what is in effect a psychosis. Jantzen specifically calls the violence Plato’s nihilism legitimizes ‘necrophilia’ (relying in part on Freud and Foucault).


    • Thanks Stuart. I know few people who are into Plato, honestly. But when I was young. I learned a lot from his concept of archetypes, and the need to “understand the language of forms,” as he says. And that helped me with my understanding of still life and abstract art when I was in art school. And later I developed a huge love of traditional, geometric quilt designs.

      The so-called modernist movement in the early 20th century was spirited by Zen, which was inspired also by abstracting the images and working with the essentials of forms. And that continues on, as regards expressing the harmony and perfection of beauty in this world, whether in pictures, or pottery, or poetry, or these days, photography. Georgia O’Keeffe was called the “Mother of American Modernism,” and when you look at her artwork, you see Plato’s “language of forms,” that simplicity he speaks of, always so superb in the arts.


      • I see (I think) what you are getting at regarding Plato’s relevance to aesthetics. I am not through with Caroline Schelling and her aesthetic theory, which she says “has nothing to do with metaphysics” (and would seem therefore to be hostile to Platonic aesthetics) so I may follow up on how that.


  5. Dear Stuart,

    I like reading your articles but I was rather surprised by this one on Diotima. In 1994, I published an essay on Diotima arguing that in all likelihood Diotima was probably based on a real woman. I took my argument from the metaphors used by Socrates to describe his ideas, which are so firmly rooted in the female body. They seem an unlikely set of metaphors to come from Socrates, suggesting instead that Diotima, whoever she was, was the source of the metaphors.

    In case you are interested you can find it here:
    Susan Hawthorne. 1994. Diotima Speaks through the Body. In Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Essays in Plato and Aristotle, Bat-Ami Bar On (ed), State University of New York Press, Albany.

    Best wishes,


  6. Susan, It is interesting that Diotima uses metaphors from birth and the female body in her discussion. I am wondering if this could be appropriation from Socrates’midwife mother? I still find Diotima’s speech to be the epitome of what Rosemary Ruether called classical dualism, what Jantzen calls necrophilia, and what I called matricide. Diotima uses metaphors of birth to speak of a world beyond change. For me the longing for a world without change and without death is a fundamental philosophical error. Many traditions use the metaphor of rebirth, derived from birth, and use forms of cleansing with water probably derived from amniotic fluid, to symbolize rebirth. Yet rebirth into a realm without change is a denial of value to birth, or so it would seem to me.


    • Yes, I see your point. My main argument in this paper was to make classicists think about the radical idea that Diotima was a real woman. I wrote the article in 1982. I certainly could not find anyone to publish it and was lucky to here about the proposed collection it ended up in (in 1994). I think Diotima needs to be thought about much more because women are said to be incapable of philosophical thought. I compare her (in a poem I wrote) to Gargi from India.

      I haven’t really answered your question, but will think more on it.


      • I agree it could have been appropriation of knowledge Socrates picked up from his mother. It doesn’t change my argument about women philosophising. I am not bothered if we disagree with the ideas.

        I meant to write ‘hear’ above not ‘here’.


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