Love is for Plato the personification of the true philosopher. Induction in love denotes the course towards the attainment unto the Forms.

Love before Plato

"Eros" in ancient Greek maintains its primary meaning of sexual impulse - it does not denote a disposition or a sentiment, but an impetus towards an object of desire. In that sense it is employed in Hesiod's Theogony as a primordial and unborn god who begets nothing but mediates for the generation of others. A similar role is assigned to love in other pre-philosophic cosmogonies, such as those of Ferekides and Acusilaus, or in the various versions of the Orphic cosmogony. In searching for precursors of his own efficient cause, Aristotle associates the love of Hesiod with the cursory appearance of the same god in Parmenides, as well as with Empedocles' "friendship" which is a cosmic force for the unification of the things that belong to the same kind. Thus, Aristotle crystalizes the function that love held in Presocratic thought: love is the personification of the force, or the cause that moves the beings of the universe.

What is the Platonic Love

The philosophical conceptualization of love begins with Plato and goes all the way up the long platonic tradition. The philosopher devotes two of his finest dialogues to love (Symposium and Phaedrus) - not to mention that the motif of philosophical love permeates his corpus from the early Charmides up to the latter 7th Letter.

In the philosophy of Plato, the role of the moving cosmic force will be assigned to the soul. To love Plato will assign a different and unprecedented role: the most powerful and complex of the human desires operates as an exceptional inherent ally in our course to true philosophy. The drive of love begins as an irrational passion, but is susceptible to transformation in some kind of divine madness that drives man towards his unity with the Forms. Love has, for Plato, something philosophical: in the same way that the philosopher hovers between wisdom and ignorance, love, by nature unsatisfied, is a daemon swinging between need and fulfilment.

Symposium

In the Symposium, Socrates recounts to his banqueters what he learned about love by the priestess Diotima. On her account, Love is a daemon, the son of Poros (= way, resource) and Penia (= poverty). Love derived his contradictory nature from his originators. Its hybrid nature defines its relation to knowledge and wisdom: love dwells in between wisdom and ignorance. Gods do not philosophize for they are holding knowledge; laymen do not philosophize either for they are unaware of their ignorance. Only those philosophize who have become aware of the value and beauty of wisdom without however being wise. Therefore, love who is a pursuer of the beautiful, tends towards wisdom - "Love must be a philosopher" (204b).

The object of love is beauty, and specifically "giving birth in beauty" (206b). Love's aim is to reach immortality: material immortality through the sexual reproduction, and spiritual immortality through the production of intellectual works that claim their share in eternity.

Plato lays out a course in love which ascends successively from the drive towards a beautiful body, to the drive towards all beautiful bodies, to the drive towards the beautiful souls, to the drive towards the beautiful productions and disciplines unto the understanding that the ultimate object of love is the absolutely Beautiful, the Form of Beauty.

"The man who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for all his earlier labors […] [That Beautiful is] itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change. So when someone rises by these stages, through loving boys correctly, and begins to see this beauty, he has almost grasped his goal" (Symposium 210e-211b).

The fact that the Symposium is a masterpiece is due to Diotima's story as well as to another invention: the sudden arrival of Alcibiades, and the encomium he puts together for Socrates. The drunken Alcibiades recounts his own loving experience with Socrates. His narrative is both provocative and exhilarating. Its most intriguing point is the identification of Socrates with love - that is, with the "philosopher-love" that Socrates just mentioned in his speech (cf., Symposium 204b). Socrates, as we see him in Alcibiades' praise, is the personification of love and philosophy.

Phaedrus

In Plato's subsequent dialogue Phaedrus, the human soul is conceived as a composite unity. It consists of dissimilar parts whose harmony is not always assured. Accordingly, the impulse of love becomes complex and contrasting. The "appetitive" part of the soul drifts in the bodily contact with the object of love, while the "rational" part makes it for the spiritual contact. Plato accepts that an internal conflict between the weak flesh and the noble aim is possible. The philosophical love is introduced as an exclusively spiritual impulse and contact between men of varied ages, levels of maturity and wisdom. The current belief about the meaning of "platonic love" should be imputed on the Phaedrus.

The advantaged relation between love and beauty -which is revealed in the loving drive towards every beautiful form or instance- opens up a worldly perspective unto the Forms. Plato admits that in the world of the livings "justice and self-control do not shine out through their images down here, and neither do the other objects of the soul’s admiration". Among the Forms "beauty alone has this privilege, to be the most clearly visible and the most loved" (Phaedrus 250b-e) - and it is the divine madness of love that can drive us unto it.

Love and philosophical education

 In the Phaedrus, Plato gives us the full picture of his conception of true philosophy. Philosophy is defined as a "lesson", as a teaching process between a master and a disciple. Philosophic discourse is the active exchange between a teacher and a student, which aims at shaping the "ethos" of the student and cultivating his soul.

It now comes across why love is Plato's favoured metaphor with regard to the nature of philosophy. As it is with philosophy being an active process of learning between two unequal parts, love is the human exchange that bears the greatest similarity to that ideal. Just like a lover who is incessantly trying to take hold of his loving object, without ever succeeding, the philosopher is always thirsty for true knowledge. Like Socrates, the philosopher is looking for the appropriate young souls that will be fertilized with his words.

Plato dwells on the role of the lover-teacher, but not so much on that of the beloved-student, perhaps on account of the ambiguity of the former's motive. By means of obtaining the loving object, the platonic lover aims at the intellectual production which will grant him a share in eternity. Similarly, the platonic philosopher has realized that philosophy is not a solitary occupation, but a creative dialogue with young and privileged individuals. The philosophical discourse will be inscribed in their souls, where also new ideas will flourish; ideas that might gradually lead to the true knowledge of beings. This interest must have been the reason behind Plato's decision to found the Academy, an institution where teachers and students, senior and junior disciples of philosophy existed together.

Author: Vasilis Kalfas
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Kraut, R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, 1992.
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