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The Ancient Story at the Origin of Modern Romantic Love

The famous "Ladder of Love" is the crowning glory of Plato’s Symposium.

Key points

  • At a drinking party immortalized by Plato, Socrates gives a speech in praise of love.
  • In this speech, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with a mysterious priestess called Diotima, who taught him the art of love.
  • Diotima's conception of love as a vehicle of virtue and redemption played an important part in the construction of modern romantic love.
Wikimedia Commons/Public domain/Anselm Feuerbach
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain/Anselm Feuerbach

Plato’s Symposium is set in 416 BCE at a drinking party held by the playwright Agathon to celebrate his victory at the Lenaia festival. Most of the guests have a hangover from the previous night’s revels, and all agree to curtail the drinking in favour of conversation. Since the young Phaedrus has been lamenting that Eros (the god of love) is not sufficiently praised, the physician Eryximachus suggests that each person, from left to right starting with Phaedrus, make a speech in praise of Love.

The Ladder of Love

After Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and the host, Agathon, it is the turn of Socrates to speak. Socrates slips into elenchus mode and gets Agathon to agree that if love is not of nothing, then it must be of something, and if it is of something, then it must be of something that is desired, and therefore of something that is lacking.

Socrates then relates a conversation that he once had with a mysterious priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who, he says, taught him the art of love. This Diotima (the name means, “Honoured by the gods”) told him that the something that Love lacks and desires consists of beautiful and good things, and especially of wisdom, which is both extremely good and extremely beautiful.

If Love lacks and desires beautiful and good things, and if all the gods are good and beautiful, Love cannot, as most people think, be a god. In truth, Love is the child of Poverty and Resource, always in need but always inventive. He is not a god, but a great spirit who intermediates between gods and men. As such, he is neither mortal nor immortal, neither wise nor ignorant, but a lover of wisdom [philosophos].

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 nevertheless satisfied with himself…” The aim of loving beautiful and good things is to possess them, because the possession of good and beautiful things is called happiness, and happiness is an end in itself.

Wild animals enter into a state of love because they seek to reproduce and make themselves immortal. People too seek to make themselves immortal, and are prepared to take great risks, even to die, to attain fame and honour. Some people are pregnant in body and beget children who will preserve their memory, but a few are pregnant in soul and instead beget wisdom and virtue. As their children are more beautiful and more immortal, people who are pregnant in soul have more to share with one another, and a stronger bond of friendship between them.

Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting glory?

Diotima then told Socrates the proper way to learn to love beauty:

A youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with every other beautiful body, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth begins to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul, regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body.

Having thus transcended the physical, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty.

Finally, on the highest rung of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue herself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods.

This is why love is so important, and why it deserves so much praise.

How the Ladder of Love changed love

Before Plato, and for a long time after, people did, of course, fall in love, but they did not believe that this love might in some sense save them, as we tend to today. When, in the Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or exalting. In the Odyssey, Penelope’s commitment to Odysseus is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. Other, less influential models of love in antiquity include the “perfect friendship” of Plato’s student Aristotle and the naturalism of the Roman poets Lucretius and Ovid.

On the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the Jewish and Christian models of love evolved alongside the Greco-Roman ones. In the Old Testament, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand. The Sacrifice of Isaac highlights that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love.

The New Testament, in contrast to the Old, elevates love into the supreme virtue. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption. One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies. It is a far cry from the law of retaliation of the Old Testament: “…thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…”

Even so, the Bible, which is almost 800,000 words long, contains not a single modern love story. Its greatest human love stories are between two women and two men: Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan.

Jesus may have spoken Greek and might have come under the direct or indirect influence of Platonism. But even if he did not, the later Church sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy—and Christian love, more properly called charity, and originally directed at God, began to blur with something much more individualistic.

The blending of Christian love with Platonism prepared the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in 11th century Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married or otherwise unattainable lady, often of a superior rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to higher virtue. For the first time, love did not ultimately aim at, or depend on, God—and the Church duly condemned courtly love as a heresy. In a radical cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve turned from devilish temptress to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God.

The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348, but prepared the ground for the modern conception of romantic love.

Read my related articles, A Short History of Love and The Hidden Woman Behind Socrates.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (forthcoming).

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