Eros, Plato, and The Red Chamber Dream

Plato’s Symposium, an explication of desire in the form of a panegyric to the god Eros, may be taken as the quintessential classical Occidental text on the erotic. Eros (the god) generally represents what we casually understand as the entity sustaining erotic or physical love. However Plato offers a hierarchy of desire beginning with base eros, simple physical (and selfish) gratification, culminating with a praise of Beauty in its formal aspect.(1)

As a general outline toward an erotic aesthetic, Symposium is well known, even if certain typically less thought about aspects of the story ought to be considered more integral. At least if we are to presume, and we must, that Plato was not arbitrary in is his project. First we understand the dialog’s political aspect which need not concern us here, along with social and religious aspects that do.(2)

Detail of Tibetan Buddhist thanka.
Detail of Tibetan Buddhist thanka.

Symposium’s social theme turns on the banquet’s setting (and seating); that is, the participant’s status or rank to each other (including those who do not participate), while the dialog’s religious theme turns on the very topic of discussion, the evening’s theme, praise of the god Eros.(3) It is a vertical ascent via speech towards a higher (from physical to mental) erotic knowledge of the true object of desire, which turns out to be the eternal form of the Good. How such a thing may be grasped in knowledge is left for Socrates to explain. Yet, strictly speaking, its explication flows not from Socrates, but rather the character Diotima, priestess of Zeus. Although Diotima is not present, her enigmatic character is principal to the dialog, and in order to grasp how remarkable her non-presence is, one ought to consider the number of women with speaking roles in the extant Platonic dialogs. It is through Diotima’s speech that we learn the nature of desire, and it is through her that we may later compare and contrast Plato’s Occidental teaching with a complimentary Oriental oneperhaps loosely but maybe not, given by Diotima’s Easternfacing spiritual sister, the Goddess of Disenchantment from the classical Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber.

We rightly ask why Plato used a woman to present a doctrine of eros, or desire. For obvious reasons, not the least being that women manifest in men the strongest most immediate level of desire. But in Plato’s exploration of desire, Agathon’s banquet is distinct for there being a lack of women. In Symposium the only reference to women as women occurs when Agathon’s maids of entertainment, flute girls, are sent away to serve other household women apart from men, or to simply amuse themselves. This abandonment allows men to properly discuss the nature of Eros.

Unlike today, sexual discussion in the presence of women was one time deemed immoral, and in any case it was presumed that serious conversation was by nature a masculine affair. Thus, Plato’s introduction of Diotima is an almost revolutionary literary device. Indeed, strictly speaking, when it is his turn to speak, Socrates does not offer a speech praising Eros at all. Instead, he offers what he himself was taught. Socrates’ speech is not his own, but rather Diotima’s. And in contrast to what went before, Socrates offers more than a simple speech. What Socrates instead reveals is no less than a prolegomenon to his own initiation into the erotic arts. It is an esoteric teaching, different from all that went before, including those given by the inspired poets, Aristophanes and Agathon. The priestess schools Socrates by way of an oral teaching, discursive in the Socratic manner, but what Plato does not tell, nor is it hinted, is whether Diotima’s teaching went beyond mere intellectual, discursive didacticism. If her initiation was more, and one guesses that it most likely was, it would necessarily have had to have come before any higher order teaching, due to the nature of the erotic hierarchy laid forth by Diotima, and shown by the order of Symposium’s speeches.

As we know from reading, in order to enlighten a rather young and ignorant Socrates, Diotima easily uncovers the being of Eros identifying him [Eros] as neither human nor heavenly, but rather daemonic—existing halfway between the two realms of mortal and divine being. The gods have no desire, otherwise they would be lacking. Men are desirous, but have no clear conception of what it is they truly want. Thus it is that through Eros, which ought to be the right application of desire (represented by Socrates’ way), an individual can approach immortality, sempiternal good. On a radical level, and without even knowing it consciously, the City becomes immortal by way of progeny resulting from citizen’s fulfillment (albeit a temporary fulfillment) of base erotic desire.(4)

We now turn to the Far East, and the explication of eros/desire within the 18th Century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber [红楼梦, Hong Lou Meng].(5) Authorship of Dream is attributed to Cao Xueqin, although the novel was never published during his lifetime. Consisting of 80 chapters said to be from Cao’s brush, and another 40 pulled together from Cao’s notes by Gao E, a literary agent, definitive authorship is debated, but this need not concern us here. Dream is a rather long novel running about two thousand English word pages, mostly telling the story of two related aristocratic families and their degeneration into moral decrepitude, social ostracism and fiscal bankruptcy. Irony and humor abound interspersed with the tragic. On a macro level the two families descend into debauchery resulting from a surfeit of material things (money and power), while on the individual level the chief character, Jia Baoye, ascends to enlightenment by way of traditional (Buddhist/Taoist) ascesis.

A depiction of Plato's Symposium.
A depiction of Plato’s Symposium.

Chapter Five contains the book’s key, and the starting point to understanding an Oriental (Far Eastern) notion of desire. Here, adolescent Jia Baoye, who has yet to awaken to sexual desire, falls asleep in a non-blood relative’s chamber (the mysterious and erotic Qin Keqing), and while dreaming is transported to the immortal realm ruled by the Goddess of Disenchantment. Upon arriving at the entrance gate Baoye reads two inscriptions, ‘When false is taken for true, true becomes false; if non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.Perplexed he enters fairyland, reading on another archway, ‘Firm as earth and lofty as heaven, passion from time immemorial knows no end. While pondering the idea of eternal desire an evil spirit enters into his heart. In order to understand how this could be we turn to an earlier section.

Chapter Two contains a myth explaining the ubiquitous presence of good and evil, the former embodying both pure intelligence and order, its opposite manifesting disorder, cruelty and perversity. In times of peace and prosperity good essence abounds, overflowing from the hearts of men and finding crystallization externally within “sweet dew and gentle breezes.” Its opposite, evil essence, congeals “deep into caverns and the bowels of the earth.” Unable to coexist in nature, the two essences permeate into unsuspecting humans, and depending upon their degree of admixture, a man may be either good, bad, or somewhere in-between. An in-between born into a noble family likely becomes a noble eccentric. Born into a poor family, he may become a high-minded scholar or even a recluse. Baoye is an example of the former. Without knowledge (that is, lacking a detailed understanding of Confucian ethics learnt by rote scholarly tutelage) Baoye is susceptible to a certain amount of “evil essence.” This is not to say that Baoye was a fool, or lacking potential. Indeed, when reading the Registers of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling, the book of his clan’s fortunes, he is stopped midway as the Goddess, “knowing his high natural endowments and quick intelligence feared the secrets of Heaven might be divulged.(6)

Next we are told why Baoye has been transported to fairy-land. Disenchantment explains how she recently came upon his deceased ancestors, the two Dukes of Ningguo and Rongguo, both complaining over the downfall of their great houses. They worry how their family’s luck has run out, and now there is no one left to show Baoye the correct way. Thus did the two plead with Disenchantment. In sympathy over their request she brought Baoye to her realm in order that he, “taste the illusion of carnal delight so that later he may perchance awaken to the truth.” Similar to Plato’s pre and postSymposium festivities, special wine is served but, unlike the Symposium, maidens sing a set of nine newly composed tunes under the common title The Dream of Red Mansions. For his part, “Baoye cold see no merit in these disjointed and cryptic songs, but the plaintive music intoxicated his senses.”

A painting by Qing Dynasty artist Sun Wen depicting a scene from the Dream of the Red Chamber.
A painting by Qing Dynasty artist Sun Wen depicting a scene from the Dream of the Red Chamber.

Once the feast is cleared Disenchantment, not unlike Diotima over Socrates, begins Baoye’s initiation into the erotic. Echoing Symposium’s early arguments she warns, “All dissolute wretches since ancient times have drawn a distinction between love of beauty and carnal desire, between love and lust, so as to gloss over their immorality.” However contra Plato she adds, “Love of beauty leads to lust, and desire even more so.” And, “in principle all lust (desire) is the same, but it has different connotations.” Disenchantment explains how there are creatures steeped in “fleshly lust.” Likewise are certain ones possessed of “lust of the mind.” To conclude her teaching she pairs Baoye with her younger fairy-sister in order that they may consummate a sexual union. The purport: To simply let you know that after you have proved for yourself the illusory nature of pleasure in fairy-land, you should realize the vanity of love in your own dusty world. From this day on you must understand and mend your ways, giving your mind to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, and devoting yourself to the betterment of society.” We now have descended from the divine esoteric to the inspired exoteric.

The question, of course, is where it all leads. At the end of the novel Baoye achieves the three ways. He passes the Imperial exams as a high Confucian scholar, but abandons it all, wandering off in the snow with two companions, a Taoist Priest and Buddhist monk. For him, both desires of the flesh and mind are finished. Perhaps it is not wrong to conclude that unlike the Platonic transformation, where the highest desire leads to something positive, formal Beauty, Eastern teaching moves beyond this, beyond all aspects of desire altogether, whether it takes the form of body or mind. This notion is sometimes rather fancifully called, but never truly known in words, as achieving the void of the Vulture Peak.


(1) In spite of feeling the need to apologize for his “man centered point of view,” motorcycle mechanic and sometimes writer Mathew Crawford sums it nicely in his article, Plutarch on Philosophic Eros and Married Life, “In the Platonic portrayal of Socrates we are given to understand that philosophy is a way of life centered on friendship, and that it is the most erotic way of life. If the need to know is what is most characteristically human, then such philosophical eros would be the privileged form of Eros. Yet in Socrates’ relations with Alcibiades in particular, we see that it is a life from which the aphrodisiac must be excluded; sexual consummation is incompatible with philosophic ascent. [from Nature, Woman, and the Art of Politics, ed. Eduardo Velásquez (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 116]

(2) The presence of Alcibiades both as an historical character and as the representation of Dionysius highlights the political and religious together. Here we cite his association in the intrigue known as the “Profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries.” For an interesting spin on this historical event, perhaps fanciful, but interesting nevertheless, compare Leo Strauss, On Plato’s Symposium, University of Chicago Press, 2001 pp 14-15.

(3) The order of the guest seating/speaking arrangements is significant. Recall that Aristophanes was scheduled to speak prior to Eryximachus, but the order was interrupted due to an “illness” which led to some humorous exchange between the two. This reversal deserves important consideration which cannot be discussed in our present context.

(4) Diotima presents a complete refutation of base (or even higher) pederasty, which love is argued in the early parts of the dialog. From selfish desire, through legalistic interpretations, up through bodily and spiritual development, love eventually assumes an aesthetic or inspired manifestation derived from the divine influence of two Muses, common Polyhymnia and heavenly Urania. We may want to compare the two Muses with the Goddess Disenchantment and her younger sister, who schooled Jia Baoye in both base and higher erotic arts.

(5) The book’s pinyin title, Hong Lou Meng, literally Red Chamber (House) Dream, suggests the inner chambers where women and girls reside apart from a larger society.  It also refers to the Ning and Rong mansions, which take up city blocks, but whose occupants live in an unreal world.  Finally, it refers to Jia Baoyu’s visit to the spiritual realm above the “Sphere of Parting Sorrow in the Sea of Brimming Grief” where he wanders through the gates of the “Illusory Land of the Great Void.”   There he is allowed to read (but does not understand) the Registers of the Twelve Beauties of Jingling, books in which the fates of his Red Chamber companions are recorded.

(6) Again, compare the jealousy of Disenchantment’s closely guarded secrets to the Alcibiades/Socrates scandal over the profanation of mysteries.

michael-presleyMichael Presley currently lives with his left foot in China, his right in the American South, but both firmly planted in the fertile ground of the Kali Yuga.

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