Reaching for Nothing: Love as an Idea in Plato’s Symposium
Plato’s theory of love is one of the great thinkers’ most whimsical and inspiring dialogues. In his discussion regarding love, Plato theorizes that love is ‘neither beautiful nor good.’ Love represents the desire of the human individual to attain true pleasure and authentic happiness by achieving that which is good and beautiful. It is in this endeavor of aiming to achieve this lofty and ultimately immovable virtue that one can find love in terms of the human emotion. Some critics such as Vlatos argue that Platos’s thinking does not accurately account for individual and interpersonal love, finding flaws in Plato’s argument. However, Plato’s definition allows for a more universal perspective of love that takes into both the personal and the existential.
Donald Levy argues that Plato’s portrayal of love accurately encapsulates the full range of love in the human experience. Levy maintains that Plato does not idealize love, but presents the virtue in its true form. Regarding Plato’s dialogue on love, Levy states that, “Those who speak before Socrates mainly share the typical Greek tendency to glorify the instinct of sex rather than its particular objects” (285). The Greeks traditionally viewed the impulse for physical love as reflective of the greater desire to achieve that which is good. However, Socrates advocates for a more nuanced perspective that does not see love in itself as the ultimate good. It is not the acts of love that provide for an individual to reach the virtue of goodness inherent in love. In actuality, it is love itself that allows one to then attempt to strive to achieve the virtue of beauty.
Socrates’ companions, and the ancient Greeks in general, tended to lionize the concept of love. According to Levy, “For them, love is a god whose beauty and goodness they compete with one another in praising” (285). The notion of love, perhaps reasonably so, was highly romanticized and expounded upon by poets and other thinkers. This romanticizing, Plato theorized, distracts from the true nature of love. This general perspective reflects Plato’s desire to arrive at the fundamental underlying truth of objects, theories, and experiences. In order to eradicate and move beyond the romanticized notion of love, one needs to examine what precisely love aims to achieve and how an individual would feel reaching or accomplishing that goal following a hypothetical mastery of love.
The Greeks tend to exaggerate, in Plato and Levy’s view, the role of physical attraction and the act of love in ascribing meaning to the virtue of love itself. Levy argues that, “Even Pausanias, who takes to distinguish noble from base love, claims that ‘it is always honorable to comply with a lover to attain excellence.’ Even if the lover turns out to be bad, it does the boy credit to have been so deceived!” (285). In this sense, Pausanias places the act of love over the ultimate goal of achieving that which is good. Pausanias’ placement of love itself before the greater virtue it sets to achieve is highly concerning for Plato. According to Levy, “It is this almost universally held belief in the intrinsic value of sexual love in which Socrates sets himself from the start” (285). Therefore, Plato casts Socrates’ opinion in stark contrast to those who hold more traditional Greek views on love and the importance of sexual love in evincing the beauty and the good.
Socrates presents a revolutionary view of love that contrasts heavily with the established Greek notion that vaunts sexual love. Levy quotes Socrates: “Love, he says, is neither beautiful nor good. Love cannot be beautiful because it is the desire to possess what is beautiful, and one cannot desire that which one already possesses” (285). Love therefore is tainted with the temporal and earthly reality of aiming to achieve that which is beautiful instead of actually itself representing or encapsulating the virtue in its authentic form of that which is good. Love therefore is a desire, which Plato infers perhaps is too animalistic and temporal to represent a virtue. Plato holds that love exists inside every human individual as an exemplary of the notion of perfection. However, contained in this embodiment is the notion love itself is tainted and colored in the actual world with human error and tendency to disrespect and shun the good. Therefore, love itself is neither the beautiful nor the good, but it represents a step toward realizing that.
Socrates nevertheless advocates for this notion of Platonic love. He proclaims that, “‘Human nature can find no better helper than love’” (212b) (285). It is love that can counteract some of the more negative and pejorative elements of human nature and seek to rectify the human existence in the temporal world with that of the good. Plato introduces another character, a female, Diomita, to present a similar to slightly differing definition of love. Diomita states that, “‘The object of love is to procreate and give birth in the presence of beauty’ (206e). It is not enough, she seems to say, for a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, merely to assist at the birth of ideas in others” (285). Diomita, like many of her Greek contemporaries, also places sexual love as an important semblance of the virtue on earth. However, Diomita also connects the ultimate end result of physical procreation, birth and the creation of new life, as what relates physical love to the beautiful. In this sense, Diomita also expounds upon previously held notions to arrive at a new understanding of what precisely love is.
Plato’s concept of love differs from both ancient and contemporary understandings of what constitutes love. According to Plato, Levy writes, “The different types of love are to be ordered hierarchically, one being judged superior to another because its object is inherently better” (286). Plato assigns a structure to that whimsical and difficult to grasp emotion that is love. Here, modern observers could take objection to what Plato’s essential dichotomy of such a complex and multifaceted emotion. Levy states that, “There is one ultimate object of love to which all the others must be tending in order for them to be objects of love at all” (286). Like absolute beauty, absolute love exists and represents love beyond the physical. Plato proclaims, according to Levy, that “To achieve the vision of absolute beauty one must first progress from love of physical beauty in an individual to love of all physical beauty; then love of beauty in the soul leads to aware of the beauty of activities, institutions, and sciences” (286). Therefore, one must depart from the more traditional and physical semblances of love in order to understand the more authentic and inner notions of what truly constitutes love. Love of the beauty of society, the intellectual world, and the sciences Plato deems superior.
Scholars such as Vlastos, and arguably Aristotle much earlier, object to Plato’s notion of the absolute love. According to Vlastos and Aristotle, ‘Love is wishing good things for someone for that person’s sake.’ True love therefore departs from the personal and individualistic understanding of love as self-gratifying and represents an individual’s capability to love another’s achievement and happiness totally independent of one’s own personal goals or endeavors. Levy concedes that. “Since Plato has already defined love as the desire for oneself to possess what is beautiful, his idea of love, however spiritualized it may be, remains essentially egocentric’ (286). Plato’s notion of love therefore does not depart from the individual’s own personal gain and benefit. Vlastos and Aristotle maintain that true love must exhibit some form of movement away from the self and toward a more universal understanding of love as a virtue.
Some scholars have criticized Plato for not accurately accounting for particular individuals associated with love. Levy agrees to an extent, writing that, “Plato does not see that love fundamentally and primarily has persons as its object” (286). However, Plato understands human individuals as the only conduits through which to engage in love and ultimate seek to arrive at higher virtues that love can exhibit in the temporal world. According to Levy, “For Plato, the love of persons is placed far below the love of an abstract entity, absolute beauty. ‘What we are to love in persons is the ‘image’ of the Idea in them’” (286). Therefore, it is not the physical attribute of an individual that one should love, but the aspect of the Idea of the good inherent in them. Notably, this differs from lust and desire, which perhaps, Plato implies, would focus on the physical.
Vlastos argues that love needs to depart from the individual in order to be validated as true. He maintains that, ‘This is all love for a person could be, given the status of persons in Plato’s ontology” (286). However, Plato’s dichotomy seeks not to invalidate one source of love over the other but simply to acknowledge that there are images of the Idea of the beauty and the good present in certain acts or sentiments that, as not actual representations of the Idea, should therefore be placed lower in the hierarchy. Levy writes that, “Vlastos’ definition of love, compared to which he finds Plato’s defective, seems a definition not of what love is, but of what love ought, perhaps, to be” (286). Vlastos identifies what he sees as a flaw in Plato’s theory, noting both the dichotomy and lack of departure from the individual. However, Plato’s original thinking may simply be more realistic. Humans are not capable of understanding a love that is entirely independent of themselves. Therefore, one needs to break down what is love.
The figure of Diomita is crucial to understanding the universality and applicability of Plato’s theory of love. According to Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, Diomita presents a slightly differing, yet still legitimate, understanding of love that helps rectify the seeming inaccessibility of Plato’s theory. Ritchie and Ronald write that, “Diomita argues that love is a spirit that moves between the gods and humans, connecting them through discourse and desire” (9). Like Socrates, Diomita agrees that love is not a god. However, love is not quite temporal either, and represents an entity sort of in between. According to Ritchie and Ronald, “Diomita’s feminine presence, including her references to the body, the family, and the private realm, enhances, rather than detracts from, the powerful homoeroticism of this dialogue” (9). While Plato appears to move away from the importance of heterosexual physical love in his hierarchy, Diomita’s presences asserts the feminine perspective to the dialogue to ensure that important aspects of love in the physical sense are also explored. Nevertheless, it is ultimately Diomita who teaches, “Socrates how to transcend a base physical desire and move toward a philosophy of perfect love and intellectual intercourse that reproduces the form of immutable beauty” (9). Therefore, Diomita does not simply reflect a sexualized feminine perspective of love but articulates an authentic understanding of love should be theorized.
F.C. White concurs with Plato’s theory that love is neither beautiful nor good, but strives for something higher and should not necessarily be cast aside. According to White, “Love is neither beautiful nor good, nor is it ugly or bad; it is something in between” (150). While Plato does not explicitly condemn or condemn physical sexual love, White seeks to rectify love’s wavering oscillation between perhaps a desire and a virtue: “Nor is it to be numbered among the gods, since it lacks what they, being happy, always possess: it lacks what is beautiful and good” (150). Love is not emblematic, as Plato emphatically states, of that which is beautiful. However, an authentic understanding of metaphysical love for a wide array of virtuous objects and sentiments can allow one to achieve that which is beautiful through feelings of love.
Love is neither good nor bad. According to White, “While love is not a god, and therefore not immortal, it is not mortal either. Again it is something in between, this time a spirit; and like all spirits, it acts as a mediator between men and gods, binding them together” (150). Here, White ascribes a Diomitian perspective of love as a spirit to the larger Platonic narrative of love. White summarizes that, “Love is neither immortal not moral; neither resourceless nor wealthy; and, being but a love of wisdom, a philosopher, neither wise as yet nor ignorant” (150). One can therefore understand Plato’s attempt to categorize and quantify love as colored by this difficult placement of love between the typical extremes of Greek ancient thought. For Plato’s love is love, but what is most important is of course that which lies beneath.
Donald Levy. “The Definition of Love in Plato’s Symposium.” Journal of the History of Ideas (April – June 1979), pp. 285-291.
Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald. “Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s): ‘On Love’ from Plato’s Symposium (c. 360 B.C.E.).” University of Pittsburgh Press: 2000, pp. 10-15.
F.C. White. “Love and Beauty in Plato’s Symposium.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies (1989), pp. 149-157.
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