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Plato on True Love

Plato's account of true love is still the most subtle and beautiful there is.

[Article updated on 7 September 2017]


Papyrus of Plato's Phaedrus

Source: Wikicommons

He whom love touches not walks in darkness. —Plato

Whereas Aristotle is not nearly as interested in erotic love (erôs) as he is in friendship (philia), for Plato the best kind of friendship is that which lovers can have for each other. It is a philia that is born out of erôs, and that in turn feeds back into erôs to strengthen and to 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 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, philia transforms erôs from a lust for possession into an impulse for philosophy.

As Nietzsche put it in his book of 1882, The Gay Science,

Here and there on earth we may encounter a kind of continuation of love in which this possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for possession—a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them. But who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its right name is friendship.

In other words, if erotic love can be transformed into the best kind of friendship, then it can open up a blissful life of shared understanding in which desire, friendship, and philosophy are in perfect resonance with one another.

Plato’s theory of love is fleshed out in the Phaedrus and the Symposium. Like many Greeks of his era and social position, Plato is most interested in the same-sex desire that can exist between an older and a younger man, but there is no reason to suppose that his theory of love does not also apply to other kinds of erotic relationship.

That having been said, Plato distinguishes the kind of love that can give rise to philia from a baser kind of love that is enjoyed by those who are more given to the body than to the soul. Rather than underpin the search for truth, this baser kind of love is almost designed to impede it, and calls into my mind the song of Fanny Crowne in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel of 1932, Brave New World.

In this song, Fanny Crowne compares love to soma, a hallucinogenic drug that has been engineered to take users on enjoyable, hangover-free ‘holidays’, and that is described as having ‘all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol [but] none of their defects’.

Hug me till you drug me, honey; Kiss me till I’m in a coma:
Hug me, honey, snugly bunny; Love’s as good as soma.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that, although madness can be an illness, it can also be the source of man’s greatest blessings. There are four forms of such ‘divine 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 true, universal beauty. Unfortunately, most earthly souls are so corrupted by the body, ‘that living tomb which we carry about’, that they lose all memory for the universals. When their eyes fall upon the beauty of the earth, they are merely given over to pleasure, and ‘like a brutish beast’ 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 the soul out of which the wings 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 child whose teeth are just starting to grow in, and its gums are all aching and itching—that is exactly how the 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 lover’s wings are growing begin to dry out and close up, and the pain is such that he prizes his beloved above all else, utterly unable to think a bad thought about him, let alone to betray or forsake him.

The lover whose soul was once the follower of Zeus among 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 common fool, comes to realize that his divinely inspired lover is worth more to him than all his other friends and kinsmen put together, and that neither human discipline nor divine inspiration could have offered him any greater blessing.

Thus great are the heavenly blessings which the friendship of a lover will confer upon you ... Whereas the attachment of the non-lover, which is alloyed with a worldly prudence and has worldly and niggardly ways of doling out benefits, will breed in your soul those vulgar qualities which the populace applaud, will send you bowling round the earth during a period of nine thousand years, and leave you a fool in the world below.

There is in terms of the ideas covered quite a lot of overlap between the Phaedrus and the Symposium. However, whereas in the Phaedrus Plato emphasizes the relationship that love has to the divine and hence to the eternal and infinite, in the Symposium he emphasizes more the relationship that it has to the practice of philosophy, the search for happiness, and the contemplation of truth.

In the Symposium, Socrates argues that, 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. He then relates a conversation that he once had with a priestess called Diotima of Mantinea, from whom he learned the art of love. Diotima (‘honoured by the gods’) told him that the something that love desires but does not possess consists of extremely beautiful and extremely good things, and particularly of wisdom, which is both extremely beautiful and extremely good.

Love, said Diotima, must not be confused with the object of love, which, in contrast to love itself, is perfectly beautiful and perfectly good. If love desires but does not possess beautiful and good things, then love cannot, as most people think, be a god. Love is in truth the child of Poverty and Resource, always in need, but always inventive. He is not a god but a great spirit (daimon) 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, so too no one who is ignorant wants to become wise. ‘For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has no desire for that of which he feels no want.’

The aim of loving beautiful and good things is to possess them, because the possession of beautiful and good things is happiness, and happiness is an end-in-itself.

Diotima then told Socrates of 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 other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, he learns 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.

Once he has transcended the physical, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, he is able to experience beauty itself, rather than the various apparitions of beauty. 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.

For Aristotle, happiness involves the exercise of reason because the capacity to reason is the distinctive function of human beings. However, it could be argued that the distinctive function of human beings is not the capacity to reason but the capacity to form meaningful, loving relationships.

Plato reconciles these positions by blending desire, friendship, and philosophy into a single total experience that transcends and transforms human existence and that connects it with the timeless and universal truths of the eternal and infinite. For Plato, truth and authenticity are a higher value than either reason or love, which aim at them, and a higher value even than happiness, which is merely the manifestation of their presence.

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

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