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The Platonic Ladder

Clouds with light aboveNot everyone who stumbles upon Critical Pages is familiar with the Platonic Ladder which we mentioned in an earlier post. That’s been made clear to us. Thank you, all.

The Platonic Ladder is one of Plato’s cool concepts. You can read about it in his Symposium, but to make life easier we’ll give you a brief summary along with some quotes from Plato himself.

Plato tells us that we can and should begin by loving “the beauties of the body.”  We’ll  skip what beautiful bodies Plato had in mind.  The important thing  is that loving a beautiful body is natural and easy to do. It’s the lowest rung on the ladder.

To get to the second rung you “must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other.” Soon, says Plato, you will “be the lover of every lovely body.” You do this, says Plato, in order to see that the single body you loved first isn’t all that unique.

Frankly, we at Critical Pages have our doubts about that second rung. But let’s continue up the ladder.  You “must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul.” (Maybe you can see what we’re climbing toward.) The person who continues to climb upward, “wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish.” Soon the climber will discover that “every kind of beauty is akin to every other, and he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.”

That’s a big achievement, because at that point you’ll see the beauty in many things, even in institutions and abstractions like, say, human rights and justice. (Plato doesn’t actually say human rights and justice, but that’s close enough.) To quote him again, “Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung–that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself–until at last he comes to know what beauty is.”

That’s how it goes upward. You start by a natural love for the beauties of flesh and end up loving pure beauty, truth and goodness. That’s the Platonic Ladder. We’ve tried climbing it many times. And it’s good to try, even if you get no further than the first or second rung.

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