As 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)).
The title of the essay Über die Diotima (hereafter, the ‘Essay’ (translation here (pp400-419))) by Friedrich Schlegel (hereafter, ‘Friedrich’) suggests it is focused on Plato’s portrayal of Diotima in the Symposium. That portrayal, though, is but a starting point for Friedrich, who attempts to demonstrate that Diotima was a particular type of woman he associates with other ancient Greek women, including Sappho. The Essay is ostensibly of little relevance today, largely because knowledge of ancient Greece has evolved substantially since Friedrich’s time. In particular, a compelling case has been made that far from being related to ancient Greek women, Diotima is a fictional figure used by Plato “to vanquish Sappho” (Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, p193).
Yet, the Diotima Friedrich principally had in mind was not the one in Plato’s Symposium, but rather Caroline Schelling (hereafter ‘Caroline’), who was–for a time–his sister in law. On the third anniversary of his meeting Caroline he wrote a letter to her, reminding her of that anniversary and thanking her “for everything you have done for me and my development” (Caroline was almost a decade older than Friedrich, who was then in his early 20s, and yet to establish a name for himself as a scholar). Towards the end of his letter he asks her to read the Essay “once more and mark in pencil those passages in which you believe a small change might be necessary.” While his ‘once more’ suggests Caroline had previously given him input, the fact that in a letter to her from almost a year earlier Frederick refers to her, somewhat flirtatiously, as the “independent Diotima” relative to her ‘god’ (Frederick’s brother, August) confirms his identification of her with the subject of the Essay.Continue reading “The German Diotima by Stuart Dean”