A Woman to Know: Diotima of Mantinea

This, my dear Socrates, is that life above all others which man should live, in contemplation of beauty absolute. — Diotima

(image via The University of Western Australia)


What little we know of Diotima, a seer and philosopher living in ancient Athens, we know from Plato. In "Symposium," one of his seminal works, he calls Diotima his "instructress in love."

“According to Diotima, Love is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire," he wrote. "Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty." From his conversations with Diotima, Plato learned about the concept of friendly love, "Platonic love."

But for centuries after its publication, scholars doubted Diotima's actual existence. Even though Plato never used fake names elsewhere in "Symposium," and in all his other works he refers to contemporary figures who actually lived, historians presumed Plato must have made her up as a composite fictional character, one who represented his own inner dialogue about Love and Life. Because, they assumed, no woman of the time could have been so wise, or so respected.

Just think about that for a second.

Rather than reading Plato's words and determining that Plato was indeed talking about a real woman who was a real philosopher -- who was real -- it felt less fantastical to record that Plato made her up.

Less fantastical.

I'm done here.

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