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Plato On Friendship, Love, And Sex

Read an excerpt from my new book, 'Plato: Letters to my Son'

"One of the best things about being a philosopher is that, of all people, the philosopher has, if not the most friends, then at least the most profound friendships. When I look back over my life, even if I try not to, I think first and foremost of my friends: Socrates who gave me my freedom, Amniceris who bought it back, Timaeus who haunted it, and the several others who furnished it and made it my home. People have different reasons for living: some people live to amass money or honours; others to collect dogs or horses; and yet others, perhaps the majority, to while away their time on this earth. I have lived in search of the god in other men, in the belief, nay, the conviction, that there is far more to be had in a single real friend than in all the riches of Artaxerxes. 

In my Lysis, I sought in vain to define friendship. The closest I came is to say that the cause of friendship is desire, since he who desires, desires that of which he is in want, and that of which he is in want is that which is dear to him. Having failed to define friendship, I resorted instead to painting a picture of it. In the Phaedrus, Socrates and a young Phaedrus enjoy their time together by engaging in earnest philosophical conversation. By exercising and building upon reason, the pair are not only furthering each other’s understanding, but also revealing themselves—both to each other and to themselves—and transforming a life of companionship into a life of joint contemplation of those things that are most true and hence most beautiful and most dependable. By seeking to get to the bottom of things, real friends bring each other ever closer to the truth, and, in so doing, earn each other’s respect and admiration and deepen their bond. The truth is one, and the closer they bring themselves to it, the more they find themselves in agreement. This is why, with the passing of time, the best of friends can be said to have all things in common.

In the Lysis, I staged Socrates discussing friendship with a pair of youths called Lysis and Menexenus. Notice that, by discussing friendship with them as he does, Socrates is also in the process of befriending the youths. He befriends them not with the pleasant banter, gossipy chitchat, or small kindnesses with which most people befriend one another, but with the sort of philosophical debate that is the hallmark of the deepest and most meaningful friendships. If friendship ultimately escapes definition, then this is because, like philosophy itself, friendship is not so much a thing-in-itself as it is a process for becoming. True friends seek together to live truer, fuller lives by relating to each other authentically and by teaching each other about the limitations of their beliefs and the defects in their character, which are a far greater source of error than mere rational confusion. Just as philosophy leads to friendship, so friendship leads to philosophy, for philosophy and friendship are aspects of one and the same impulse, one and the same love: the love that seeks to know. 

Unlike some other philosophers, I am not especially keen to distinguish friendship from erotic love. In fact, I believe that the best kind of friendship is that which lovers might develop for each other. It is a philia that is born out of erôs and that in turn feeds back into erôs to strengthen and develop it. Like philosophy itself, erôs aims at transcending human existence, at connecting it with the eternal and infinite, and thereby at achieving the only true species of immortality that is open to us as human beings. Not only does philia strengthen and develop erôs, but it also transforms it from a lust for possession into a shared desire for a higher level of understanding of the self, the other, and the universe; in short, it transforms erôs from a lust for possession into an impulse for philosophy. This opens up a blissful life of shared understanding in which desire, friendship, and philosophy are in perfect resonance with one another.

I recently heard of a young woman who, one night, under her bedclothes, noiselessly took out her eyes with a spoon. As she felt no pain and did not scream, she was not discovered until the following morning, lying face up and wide-awake amongst her bloody bedclothes. I do not doubt that uncontrolled madness is the most dreadful curse of all; but if our portion of madness can be channelled or contained, it becomes the source of our greatest blessings. There are four forms of contained madness, prophecy from Apollo, holy prayers and mystic rites from Dionysus, poetry from the muses, and—the highest form—love from Aphrodite and Eros. The madness of love arises from seeing the beauty of the earth and being reminded of pure, universal beauty. Unfortunately, most earthly souls are so corrupted by the body that they lose all memory for the universals. When their eyes open onto the beauty of the earth, they are merely given over to pleasure, and, like brutish beasts, rush on to enjoy and beget. In contrast, the earthly soul that is able to remember true, universal beauty, and so to feel true love, gazes upon the face of his beloved and reverences it as an expression of the divine—of temperance, justice, and knowledge absolute. As his eyes catch those of his beloved, a shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration. The parts of his soul out of which the wings once grew, and which had hitherto been closed and rigid, begin to melt open, and small wings begin to swell and grow from the root upwards. Like a teething child whose gums are all aching and itching, that is exactly how his soul feels when it begins to grow wings. It swells up and aches and tingles as it grows them. The lover feels the utmost joy when he is with his beloved and the most intense longing when they are separated. When they are separated, the parts out of which the wings are sprouting begin to dry out and close up, and the lover’s pain is such that he prizes his beloved above all else, utterly unable to think a bad thought about him, let alone to forsake or betray him. The lover whose soul was once the follower of Zeus amongst all the other gods seeks out a beloved who shares in his god’s philosophical and imperial nature, and then does all he can to confirm this nature in him. Thus, the desire of the divinely inspired lover can only be fair and blissful to the beloved. In time, the beloved, who is no ordinary fool, comes to understand that his divinely inspired lover can bring him more than all his other friends and kinsmen put together, and that neither human discipline nor divine inspiration could have offered him any greater blessing. 

If love is not of nothing, then it is of something, and if it is of something, then it is of something that is desired, and therefore of something that is not possessed. This something that love desires but does not possess consists of extremely good and extremely beautiful things, and especially of wisdom, which is the most beautiful and best of all things. If love desires but does not possess good and beautiful things, then love cannot, as most people think, be a god. Love is in truth the child of Poverty and Invention, always in need but always resourceful. He is not a god but a daimon that intermediates between gods and men. As such, he is neither mortal nor immortal, neither wise nor ignorant, but a lover of wisdom. No one who is wise wants to become wise, just as no one who is ignorant wants to become wise. For herein lies the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nonetheless satisfied with himself, and has no want for that which he cannot imagine. The aim of loving good and beautiful things is to possess them, because the possession of good and beautiful things is happiness, and happiness is the end of all human activity and, more than that, the end of all human longing.

I discovered the proper way to learn to love beauty from Socrates, who himself discovered it from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea. A youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares its beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. Later, in loving all beautiful bodies, he begins to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body, and learns to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once he has transcended the physical, he comes to find that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. At last, he is able to experience Beauty itself, which far surpasses any of its several apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue itself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods. This is why love is so important, and why it deserves so much praise."

Neel's new novel, Plato: Letters to my Son, has just been published.

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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