Love, Beauty & The Good: Diotima on Tattoos

Diotima of Mantinea

A true Greek Philosopher in her own right

Lately I’ve been reading Plato’s Symposium (AGAIN), specifically looking at Socrates’ speech on love (aka the words of Diotima of Mantinea, priestess and wise woman). As I was lecturing about her philosophy today, I got to wondering how tattoos might fit into her ideas on beauty and The Good. I think her position has something nice to add to the discussion of aesthetics and tattoos, even though it wouldn’t be the strongest support – she never spoke directly about tattoos.

For Diotima, love is a spirit in between Gods and Mortals. Love is neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly, wise nor ignorant, mortal nor immortal; it’s in between things. Love is the desire to have The Good forever, and to be called a lover is to be one who wants to search and possess The Good forever. When we chase The Good, we also desire immortality. There are two ways we can have a type of immortality: through reproduction of ourselves in the form of children (continuing the bloodline we have and imparting knowledge, heritage, etc.) and through the creating of lasting ideas (eg. writing poetry and novels, composing songs, creating inventions, making important speeches or changes, etc.). So, there is pregnancy of body and of mind, in a sense, and in either or both forms of reproduction we come as close to immortality as we mortals can. This also means that men can be pregnant in some way as well – how equal of her!! There are, of course, smaller (daily) ways we strive for a kind of immortality: we replace old knowledge with new, our bodies replace cells, we teach others our ideas to replace their own, etc. Some people even seek immortality in search of honour. The point is, each day we replace the old with the new in some way.

There is ascension in Diotima, from beauty in its particular form to the universal, and eventually leading to The Good. In youth, we begin by being attracted to beautiful bodies, at first one body – probably our own body (self-exploration possibly) and maybe one other person -, we come to make beautiful discourses with this body and we fall in love. A bit later we notice that all bodies are beautiful in some way and we notice it is silly to love one body, so we begin to love all bodies as beautiful things. Then, the next stage is the acknowledgement of beautiful minds, and one can even love a beautiful mind that lacks, in some way or another, a beautiful body. So, if the elephant man has a great mind, you could love him even when his body is …. less than attractive. From this, a person begins to see that there is beauty in all things, not just bodies and minds. Beauty is everywhere. From here, there is the realization that there must be a beauty beyond ourselves and these examples we see are simply examples; there must be an absolute Beauty that all these thing participate in, a perfect, never-fading Beauty. One seeks and contemplates this notion of absolute Beauty, the lover seeks to understand Beauty, and soon the lover is not only a lover of Beauty but a lover of knowledge. In becoming a lover a knowledge, one becomes a lover of The Good. The Good is an end in itself, and is linked to happiness and love, and of course to beauty. Love’s final goal is The Good, and beauty is one step on that path; one seeks the beautiful to have The Good, never vice versa. The Good, for Plato, is the ultimate object of knowledge. The Good makes you feel good (it’s good for the soul too) it’s why you seek it, why you want to obtain it and have it forever. The Good just feels fucking good.

So, this is my train of thought now. There is no justifiable reason that tattoos are not beautiful – the present debate seems more about ‘can tattoos be art’ then the question of ‘are they beautiful’. I dare someone to look at a Chris Garver tattoo and not see the beauty present. And Mr. Kant’s reasons for thinking tattoos are not beautiful art is bad bullshit (I won’t get into this right now). I have looked at every theory of beauty I can find, and nothing I have seen says tattoos cannot be beautiful. That being said, of course I am implying talent on the part of the artist since, if the artist fucks up your tattoo (making a sparrow look more like a blobby cloud or a furry bird of some sort because of ink bleed, etc.) then beauty is completely called into question, and ugly might be the right word. But, if your tattoo artist is talented and he or she inks an exact replica of Botticelli’s Venus on your arm, then there is no reason why it cannot be beautiful (if the painting is deemed beautiful, then the replication of it should be as well for the same reasons … no one seems to argue that beauty comes from the wood or canvas beneath, that the material under the work of art is the source of beauty. That would be seriously fucked up if they did).

Anyway …. so if tattoos are beautiful (and I am saying they are), then Diotima’s ascension should still hold true. In your contemplation and acknowledgement of beautiful bodies, and in this case tattooed bodies, you see beauty – in fact you probably see twofold beauty since the tattoo is beautiful and it’s placement upon that fleshy canvas aids in its beauty, and then of course there is the beautiful body it is inked on. Looking at a beautiful tattoo, or many of them, should also awaken the realization that beauty is in many things and can be expressed in many ways. Then, the rest falls into place – you come to the realization that beauty is bigger than the examples, you think about absolute Beauty, you become the lover of knowledge, and of course in becoming the lover of knowledge and of Beauty, you are the lover of The Good. So, contemplating the beauty of a tattoo is one way a person loves, and loves beauty, and because love is the desire to have The Good forever it follows that the beauty of a tattoo is one step (of many and different kinds) to The Good.

Further, the act of tattooing by the tattoo artist is one way of immortality: the artist, with his or her gift, inks a piece onto a body that lasts a lifetime on the flesh, and for longer in pictures and the memory of others. Your body also becomes part of that artist’s portfolio, and hence part of the artist’s creative life. Tattooing for the artist is a pregnancy of the mind, if you will. The tattoo itself aids in the immortality of the individual which it is inked upon since it makes their body memorable to others and expressive; people will talk about you, your tattoos, and maybe show pictures of you to others. Also, the meaning of that person’s tattoos lasts past their lifetime: that person participated in an act of meaning. Once again, it is a pregnancy of the mind since it was your decision and possibly your idea or design that was inked onto your body. You gave birth to a creation inked on your body. Furthermore, tattoos require touch-ups to keep them looking their best and freshest, and that act is one of immortality. Some people even cover up or reinvent their older ink, and once again this is an act of immortality. We constantly renew and reinvent ourselves, and this is the closest we come to being immortal like the Gods. We all want to be Gods, don’t we?

Diotima says at one point that beauty is the goddess that presides over birth. She meant birth in the sense of physical birth but also creation in general (e.g., birth of a poem or song), and so it is reasonable to think beauty is present at the birth of a tattoo. We do tattoo for reasons of love, for beauty, and to have The Good forever. Inked good is Good, it’s fucking GOOD.

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