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?”


Instead of speaking in praise of love, Socrates takes a more philosophical approach, questioning Agathon’s characterisation of Eros itself as beautiful. He secures Agathon’s agreement that Love instead desires and seeks things with the fine qualities which Agathon had described, rather than having them already. Consequently, it seems that Love itself lacks beauty and goodness because its objects are beautiful and good.


Diotima: “Everyone is beset by this zeal and love with a view to immortality”


In explaining this point to Agathon, Socrates recalls a conversation he once had in his youth with a woman called Diotima (possibly the historical Aspasia) who had wisdom regarding love. Diotima had convinced Socrates that the problem about the nature of love can be resolved if we accept that there are intermediates between absolute concepts. It is interesting and significant that a woman is cited here as an expert in the context of the all-male institution of the symposium; Socrates even attributes to Diotima some ideas which are of fundamental importance to his philosophy more generally. According to Socrates, Diotima held that there is an intermediate between knowledge and ignorance (belief) and similar middle grounds between good and bad, beauty and ugliness, divine and non-divine. In this way, Eros is an intermediary being who is not a god but a daimon (‘spirit’), who lacks and pursues good things without being bad himself.


What value, then, does Love have for humans? Diotima argues that this desire for good and beautiful things leads us to become ‘creative’ via contact with the beautiful, through different forms of reproduction, which are the closest we can come to immortality. While some people are ‘pregnant’ in a bodily sense and create children, they can also be ‘pregnant’ in the soul and girth birth in an even better and more abstract sense: to virtues, inventions, heroic actions, literature, laws, art and ideas. Diotima tells Socrates that love can lead us to philosophical progression, culminating in a meaningful life that is productive of good and beauty.


Alcibiades: “Socrates’ unlikeness to anyone else, either in ancient times or now, deserves our greatest wonder”


Alcibiades, a handsome young man destined for political fame, suddenly knocks on the door. In contrast to the serious mood after Socrates’ speech on complex philosophical ideas about love, Alcibiades is drunk and raucous and declares his love for Socrates. In doing so, he gives a playful speech in praise of Socrates, the object of his love, whom he finds rather like Eros itself. Alcibiades describes the torment of his intense love and the entrancing power that Socrates has – to him, Socrates is the ideal erastes, instructing with his marvellous words and setting a wondrous example of virtue. Alcibiades has tried everything (meeting him alone, wrestling, inviting him for dinner), but all his romantic advances were in vain. Socrates, who famously professes to know nothing, denies that he has anything to offer him. Alcibiades is hurt and affronted by this, but impressed by Socrates’ integrity; he recounts several anecdotes about Socrates’ bravery and hardiness. Ironically, it is Alcibiades who ­– despite his state which is perhaps the ancient Greek equivalent of drunk-texting your crush! –powerfully encapsulates the human experience of love’s emotional rollercoasters and intensity.


Translations by Megan Bowler

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