"Plato's ideal of love not only downgrades bodies, but persons also."


The essay title invites an investigation of Plato's notion of "love", and an analysis of how it relates to our modern concepts of personal identity and personal dignity.   There are three dialogues where Plato discusses his concepts of love and friendship.   "Eros" in Plato has its origin in sexual desire, both homosexual and bisexual.   The romantic attachment of homosexual desire is the basis of the discussion of friendship in the Lysis and the Phaedrus.   The implications of extending that discussion to more general thinking is explored in Socrates'speech in the Symposium

Some initial caution is warranted, however, because in the modern Western world (especially the English speaking part thereof) we necessarily approach Plato's ideal of love with a strong predisposition towards the Christian concept of love -- a love that is of someone for themselves and not for their attributes.   This cultural imprinting can make it difficult to understand what Plato had in mind with his ideal of love.   To properly understand Plato's ideal of love, therefore, we must keep in mind a couple of linguistic distinctions --

(1)  The word that Plato uses, normally translated into English as "love", is actually "ἔρωτα".   Romanized, this is transliterated as "erôta", the masculine form of "eros".   In the Greek language it denotes a far more sensual connotation of love than does the other Greek word that Plato does not use -- "αγαπάω"or "agapaô", the masculine form of "agape".   When applied to human relations, "agape"is best connotative of what is incorrectly called "Platonic love" -- an intellectual and non sensual relationship.   "Eros"is used to communicate the sense of love-making (and not just sex), while "agape"is used to communicate the sense of impersonal love that one might have of, say, peanut butter or ice cream or philosophical discourse.   Plato uses the masculine form "erôta"because in Plato's day, most male-female interactions were pre-arranged, with love in the modern sense only an accidental side show rather than the main event.   In ancient Greece, women had status and significance only marginally above that of slaves and other chattel property.   "Erota"was therefore reserved for those things that men passionately desired and pursued -- not sex with women, but the physical, sexual and intellectual pleasures that come from male bonding.   It is a concept of love requiring interests and desires, not any kind of disinterested love, whether contemplative or altruistic.   Therefore, what Plato is describing, when he describes his ideal of "erota"is not the Christian concept of "love", it is a concept denoting the primary source of personal and desirable physical and intellectual pleasures, the source and target for passion.

(2)  The word that Plato uses, normally translated as "beauty", is actually "καλός" or "καλόν" -- transliterated as "kalos" or "kalon".   Plato reserves this word for his Form of Beauty because it communicates the sense of "admirable"or "good", and is better connotative of moral or spiritual fineness and virtue than any sense of physical attractiveness.   The word can be specifically contrasted with the two words that Plato does not use in his discussion of "the form of beauty" -- "ωραίος" and "όμορφος", "oraios" and "omorfos".   These two words are also normally translated as "beautiful"but more properly communicate the sense of physical beauty - "lovely, attractive, good-looking, gorgeous, stunning, striking, fine-looking, handsome."  It is possible, therefore, for someone (like Socrates himself, perhaps) to be "kalos" (virtuous, morally and spiritually admirable, good) while also not being very "oraios".   (Busts of the elderly Socrates indicate he was not particularly good looking by ancient Greek standards of physical beauty.)

(It should be noted that it is debatable whether the distinctions being drawn pre-date Plato and determined his use, or are the cultural consequences of Plato's particular manner of use.   The debate is irrelevant, however, since the distinction in utilization within Plato's dialogues remains, regardless of whether it is cause or effect.)

In both the Lysis and the Symposium, Plato draws a clear distinction between "that which loves" (the lover) and "that which is loved" (the beloved).   In both, he is far more interested in pursuing the love which a lover experiences, than the love which a beloved experiences.   His focus is on the nature of the lover, and not on the nature of the beloved.   In the Symposium, Plato describes the love ("erota") of a lover as a passion for the perpetual possession of the good ("kalos").   Socrates makes it clear that love is a desire for what is not in hand.   Love impels us to pursue the good because the ultimate good that all men seek is happiness.   And in Plato's ethics happiness comes from having and being good -- knowing the Form of the Good.   In pursuing the good, the lover reaches towards that which he conceives will bring him happiness.   It is not possible, by the very nature of love, to love things which we do not believe will bring us happiness -- things that we believe are not admirable, beautiful, and good.   Whatever it is we love, we must see as worthy of our love, pleasing to our eye (or senses in general), and of greater virtue than ourselves.   Contrariwise, those people and things that we do actually love reveal what it is we actually believe about what is admirable, beautiful, and good.   To a great extent, given Plato's conception of love, the things and people we love can tell us a good deal about how we really view ourselves.

In the Symposium, Plato has Socrates relate a conversation he once had with Diotima of Mantineia.   It is Diotima who provides us with Plato's "ideal of love".   During Diotima's instruction of Socrates into the meaning of Love, she provides a description of the five stages of love, five stages that the student of love must transition in order to fully understand the meaning of love.  

(1)  At the first stage, the lover will be attracted by physical beauty ("oraios", "omorfos") and will fall in love with one particular individual that he finds especially attractive.   In the dialogue, Plato is here directing his attention specifically to the love of individuals.   But interpolating the rest of the material, one need not see this first stage as particularly addressed to individual love.   One can instead see it as addressing any subject (person or thing) of the lover's passion.

(2)  At the next stage, realizing that physical beauty is not limited to one subject, the lover will move from one subject to another, loving physical beauty wherever he finds it.   He "will relax the intensity of his passion for one particular person, because he will realise that such a passion is beneath him and of small account." (Diotima to Socrates, in Plato's Symposium)

(3)  At the third stage, the lover will recognize (recollect) that the "kalos" of the spirit is more rewarding the any "oraios" or "omorfos" of things physical.   He will appreciate social and moral virtues, moral and spiritual excellence, and admire the beauty of institutions and noble activities.

(4)  The fourth stage is the study of science and the acquisition of knowledge.   The lover will free himself from attachment to any particular instance of beauty ("kaylos").   In his efforts to perpetuate the good, he will create "many beautiful and magnificent sentiments and ideas, until at last, strengthened and increased in stature by his experience, he catches sight of one unique science whose object is the beauty of which I am about to speak." (Diotima to Socrates, in Plato's Symposium)

(5)  The fifth and final stage of love is love of the absolute ideal Form of Beauty ("kaylos").   "This beauty is first of all eternal; it neither comes into being nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes;   . . .   he will see it as absolute, existing alone with itself, unique, eternal, and other beautiful things as partaking of it, yet in such a manner that while they come into being and pass away, it neither undergoes any increase or diminution nor suffers any change." (Diotima to Socrates, in Plato's Symposium)

When it comes to how this definition of love governs our actions, Plato maintains that to love the good is to desire and strive to re-create it endlessly.   Hence, love must also be the love of immortality.   Plato/Diotima explains that in the first two stages of love, this love of immortality is expressed through the drive to procreate -- to propagate that which we love unto future generations.   For most people, stuck in the first or second stages of love, the only access to immortality is the birthing of the next generation.   (Oddly, this Platonic view of love and immortality finds an echo in the modern science of socio-biology.   As individuals, according to Richard Dawkins, we are but complex biological machines constructed by our genes in order to ensure their own immortality.   Perhaps our love of immortality is genetically programmed?)

For those who succeed to the third stage of love, there is available also the immortality of fame and historicity.   Hence, Diotima explains, the love for noble (and presumably historically memorable) actions, and for the creation of long lasting social norms and institutions.   At the fourth and fifth stages comes the love of ideas and ideals (the Forms -- "true virtue"), and the passion to perpetuate those by gaining and passing along wisdom and knowledge.

Clearly Plato's ideal of love ("erota") is quite different from the modern Christian tradition.   In the Christian tradition, the most important forms of love are considered supremely personal.   At the highest point of Christian love -- the "beatific vision" -- God is seen as a personal God.   Christian love is most admirable when it transcends any of the qualities of the beloved, transcends any changes in those qualities, and transcends any errors in attribution of those qualities.   When one loves with Christian love, it is supposed to survive and grant strength through the changes of age and illness, bad character and "blindness" ("love is blind" -- meaning that true Christian love ignores any errors we might make when attributing physical and character attributes to our beloved).   Unlike such seemingly similar emotions as admiration and pride, Christian love is supposed to survive the revelation that the qualities that initially inspired the admiration, pride, love are not in fact (perhaps any longer) invested in the object of ones admiration, pride or love.   Christian love is also most admirable when it is a disinterested and altruistic love.   In the Greek texts that form the basis of the New Testament, the idea of love is expressed by the word "agape"rather than "eros"in order to avoid the connotation of sexual pleasure inherent in the latter.   Christian love is not supposed to be "for oneself."  It is supposed to be for the interests of the beloved.   The height of Christian love is altruistic self-sacrifice in the interests of one's beloved.   ("Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dieing for her kittens.")   Christian love is predicated on the premise that there is more to a person than the sum of his properties.   What Christian love is supposed to love is the wholeness of the spirit or soul of the person, rather than any particular manifestation of that person.   And you'll notice that in this description of Christian love, the focus is on the nature of the beloved, rather than on the nature of the lover -- the reverse of Plato's focus.

Plato very clearly has a different notion in mind with his ideal of love.   For the Christian tradition, what I described above is considered the highest (best, most admirable) form of love.   For Plato, however, it is merely the first stage of love.   Plato's ideal of love is most admirable when it transcends the individual, and transitions to a love of the qualities that are loveable, and thence to the Form of the loveable -- the Form of the Good.   Plato's notion of individual love is predicated on the premise that a person is no more than a collection of qualities (which is a strange inconsistency with his attitude towards the immortal soul).   And Plato's ideal of love is driven by self-interest not self-sacrifice.   Love, for Plato, is a passion for something good that one desires but does not yet have.   For Plato, what drives love is the personal happiness that will be the reward to the lover when the object of one's love (the good) is finally obtained.   So for Plato, the beloved is loved not for himself, but for the use that he is to the lover.  

With these two very different concepts in mind, does Plato's ideal of love downgrade bodies or persons?   That very much depends on one's point of view.   Or rather, on one's ethical premises.   Plato certainly downgrades the importance of the body and person of the beloved.   For Plato, love is of the qualities that are recognized as good, rather than for the person in whom those qualities are instantiated.   Love for one's beloved is for the utility that the beloved can provide in delivering to the lover the happiness that is the driver of love.   From the perspective of a Christian notion of love this is clearly insulting to the beloved.   But on the other hand, Plato's notion of love is very solidly based on a self-interested focus on the lover, and not the beloved.   Plato holds the person and interests of the lover in the highest regard.   It is the happiness of the lover that drives the Platonic ideal of love.   Plato's notion of love is thus a highly rational reaction to self interest -- and reasonably consistent with modern theories of evolutionary biology.   From the perspective of the Platonic notion of love, on the other hand, the Christian notion is disastrously self-sacrificing -- having only a purely irrational emotional basis that is ultimately self-defeating, and quite inconsistent with modern theories of evolutionary psychology.

So whether one considers that Plato's ideal of love downgrades bodies and persons, depends on whether one places one's ethical priorities on the lover or the beloved.   If you choose to follow the Christian tradition of self-sacrificing love, then the answer is clearly yes.   Plato's ideal of love downgrades the body and person of the beloved because Plato's ideal focuses on the interests of the lover not the beloved, and sees love as a passion to obtain in perpetuity the qualities/properties/Forms that the lover considers good.   The beloved is but a means to an end.   If, on the other hand, you choose to follow the scientific principles of evolutionary biology, then the answer is no.   Plato's ideal of love high-grades the body and person of the lover because Plato's ideal focuses on the interests of the lover not the beloved, and sees love as a passion to obtain in perpetuity the qualities/properties/Forms that the lover considers good.   Plato's ideal of love transcends the physical passions of sexual lust inherent in the first two stages to embrace the spiritual and intellectual creativity inherent in the latter stages of Diotima's five stages of love.   From the perspective of evolutionary biology, no clearer statement of intelligent self interest could be found.


P.S. -   The character of James Taggart in Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" is an interesting exploration of some of the consequences of Plato's conception of love.   The people that James falls into and out of love with reveals a great deal about how James sees himself.   Despite the fact that Rand is very vocal in her anti-Platonic and pro-Aristotlean philosophy, she takes a very Platonic approach to love in her novels.   Go Figure!

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