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Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy

Volume 25, Issue 2, Spring 2021

Mary Cunningham
Pages 339-347

Purification in Plato’s Symposium

Scholars often take purification (κάθαρσις) to be a concept that persists the same throughout Plato’s dialogues. Generally, they take it to mean the separation of the soul from the body, picking up on Socrates’s account at Phaedo 67c–d. I do not find that this account of purification endures throughout the dialogues. In this paper, I argue that in Symposium Diotima describes purification differently. I argue that her account of purification emphasizes preparedness for encountering the forms, not the eradication of the corporeal. I present this account in three steps. First, I discuss Diotima’s lower and higher mysteries, focusing on the lower mysteries. Next, I examine Diotima’s use of the Eleusinian mysteries as an analogy for her own mysteries. Here, I overview the historical rites at Agrai and the Eleusinian Mysteria. I argue that, mirroring the Agrai rites, Diotima’s lower mysteries are purificatory, and therefore provide an account of purification. Finally, I explain the account of purification Diotima presents in the lower mysteries as the desire to possess the deathless deathlessly. Diotima’s account of purification is importantly distinct from the Phaedo account. In the former, the separation of the soul from the body is in no way important for purification. We must confront the discrepancies between these accounts and recognize that purification is not a doctrine that persists throughout the dialogues.

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