What is Love? (According to Plato) - by Megan Bowler

Plato’s Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach, 1869.
Plato’s Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach, 1869.

In the Symposium, Plato presents a dialogue in which the philosopher Socrates and his friends take turns to give a speech in praise of love (eros). The setting is a symposium (a sort of drinking party, and a popular pastime of the male intellectual elite of Athens at this time). On this occasion, their hangovers from the night before mean they go steady on the wine and decide instead to talk about love.

A type of romantic love which particularly interests them is that of an erastes (an older male lover) and an eromenos (a younger male ‘beloved’) – an institutionalised type of relationship which was prevalent among the Athenian upper classes. This relationship was idealised in terms of the transfer of wisdom and experience from the erastes to the eromenos; accordingly, many of the speakers in the Symposium dialogue praise love as encouraging us to follow good examples set by worthy lovers – knowledge itself becomes erotically charged.

A connection also emerges in this imagined conversation between love and goodness or beauty. While we tend to distinguish clearly between ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’, the Greek for ‘beautiful’ (kalos) refers to a more general quality of ‘fineness’ which is less tied to physical appearance and more to character.

Phaedrus: “Love has supreme power to provide virtue and happiness”

The first speaker is Phaedrus, an attractive young Athenian aristocrat. He argues that love is valuable because when we are in love, we are likely to act as virtuously as possible. This extends beyond trying to impress a crush: Phaedrus suggests that love will always make us want to avoid behaving shamefully in front of the object of our affections, and so motivates good actions (such as bravery in battle). Love also makes us become selfless, as Phaedrus demonstrates with mythological examples: Alcestis was willing to die to save the life of her husband, and Achilles fought to avenge his lover Patroclus despite knowing this would lead to his own death.

Pausanias: “This type of love belongs to the heavenly goddess, heavenly itself and valuable for both public and private life, compelling lover and beloved to pay great attention to virtue”

Pausanias (not the later geographer!) develops the idea that love leads us to become more virtuous, but notes that it is only a particular kind of love – one which values the beauty of the soul over that of the body and consequently stands the test of time – which has this positive effect. In an erastes/eromenos relationship, this leads to an erastes imparting wisdom and an eromenos being receptive to learning from him. Pausanias argues accordingly that societal laws and customs should promote this good, reciprocal type of love whereby a lover is also a moral and intellectual role model. Pausanias’ own mutual love with Agathon (who speaks later), which has continued to last beyond the conventions of the erastes/eromenos model (typically a temporary relationship in youth), also attests his view that the ideal kind of love is lasting.

Eryximachus: “And so in music, medicine, and all other human and divine affairs, we should look out for either sort of love as much as possible”

Aristophanes is next in order to speak but has hiccups, so Eryximachus tells his opinion first. Eryximachus, whose expertise is in medicine, suggests that this higher, cerebral love has an ordered and health-promoting quality. Love is accordingly a kind of harmony, and the ideal lover is a well-balanced person; eros, in this sense of order and consonance, is found not only in human relationships but also in branches of expertise such as music and medicine.

Aristophanes: “Mutual love is ingrained in humans from ancient times, re-uniting us in our original state, attempting to make one from two and to heal human nature”

Aristophanes, the comic poet, says he will adopt a different approach in his speech. He suggests that if love has a healing, beneficial effect, it must alleviate some deficiency in humans. He comically literalises the idea that humans need love to ‘complete’ them. He gives an ironic mythologised explanation that ‘whole’ humans once comprised two conjoined people (either male-male, male-female, or female-female), but were severed in half by an angry Zeus; hence, we need to reunite with our missing ‘half’ to attain true happiness by recreating this original state. Expertise in eros, then, involves discerning deficiencies in one’s self so as to remedy them with union with the right partner. Aristophanes’ speech is tongue-in-cheek – he seems to be making a joke about the inseparability of lovers and parodying clichés about the strength of romantic attachments. It is interesting to note that his idea of looking for your “other half” is still pervasive today!

Agathon: “Love is the most blissful of the gods, being the most beautiful and the best”

Agathon, the tragic poet, notices that they have forgotten to talk about the nature of the god Eros, who personifies Love. He suggests that Eros should be young, delicate, poetic, supremely beautiful, and virtuous in nature – a god who compels others to pursue good and beautiful things (wisdom, virtue, and creative endeavours as well as partners). His style of speaking is grand and poetic, but his points mostly echo those of his erastes Pausanias. However, Socrates picks up on the importance of his suggestion that they should work out the nature of love itself first so that they don’t make unsubstantiated assumptions about what it is based on its effects.

Socrates: “Have we agreed that Eros loves what he lacks and has not?”