Classical Perspectives On A Modern Question: Plato On Love
Early philosophers sorted out many things we often take for granted and spent a lot of time in contemplation of subjects like art, culture, ethics, sex, and knowledge itself. But they also asked questions that we still ask today like, “What is love?”
Few ancient Greek philosophers spent as much time discussing love as Plato. Plato is one of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers. Many of his writings on philosophy, including some of his thoughts on love, have survived to the present day, thanks to modern and available translations.
Who Was Plato?
You’ve probably heard the name before, but you may not be too familiar with his works. Plato lived in what is now Greece in the fourth century B.C. He was a student of another famous ancient Greek Philosopher, Socrates. Most of Plato’s writings, or at least those that we have conserved today, were written around the middle of the fourth century, shortly after the death of Socrates.
Virtually all of Plato’s better-known writings are in the form of dialogues that read like plays. Settings are usually not described in detail, and the characters seldom have actions. Most of the text is a conversation between the actors.
While these dialogues give us insight into Plato’s opinions on philosophy, they seldom include his voice. Some describe conversations and events that Plato witnessed, and, in these cases, Plato is one of the dialogue's characters. However, most are conversations described to Plato or that Plato likely imagined and used to illustrate philosophical ideas.
Plato’s dialogues don’t only help us to understand his philosophy and mind; they also preserve most of what we know about Socrates. Despite being widely regarded as one of the most influential minds of all time, many historians believe that Socrates was illiterate. He believed that if everything was in writing, people wouldn’t use their memories; they would just write everything down instead. Fortunately, Plato seems to have had a more accepting attitude about writing, preserving many of the writings of his friend and teacher and passing down his wisdom.
The World Of Plato And Socrates
In the 4th century BC, Greece was strictly polytheistic. People believed that individual gods were in charge of separate phenomena and that the intercessions of the gods determined human affairs. People also thought that humans could please or offend the gods with their actions. Fortunately, the gods were all good and wanted what was good for humans, even if they sometimes disagreed and fought with one another.
While the early philosophers used the gods to discuss life because it was something that every ancient Greek understood, many philosophers were skeptical about the whole system. Preaching against the gods was one of the offending charges when Socrates was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens,” the Greek city-state where Plato and Aristotle spent most of their lives.
Understanding at least a little about the ancient Greek pantheon of gods is crucial for understanding the writings of Plato on love. Love was ascribed to the god Eros (who the Romans would later rename Cupid) and was the child of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, though Plato had his own idea regarding this cosmology. In some materials, Eros and Cupid are both male and female. In fact, in the writings of Plato on love, love is often referred to with a pronoun, and male and female pronouns are used interchangeably. Specifically, “Phaedrus” usually uses “she/her” pronouns for love, and the “Symposium” usually uses “he/him” pronouns – though this could be a difference in translation.
Plato On Love: Phaedrus
“Phaedrus” isn’t one of Plato’s best-known dialogues, but it is one of the most important writings of Plato on love. The dialogue is named after one of the two main characters who, in casual conversation with Socrates, brings up a speech that he had heard by another philosopher on love. On hearing the report of the speech against love, Socrates finds it wanting. He gets so caught up in points the original speaker missed that the earlier part of the “Phaedrus” sounds hostile toward love.
For one thing, Plato points out that people who are in love are often prone to jealousy and even obsession with the object of their love. Socrates proclaims,
“The irrational desire which overcomes the tendency of opinion towards the right, and is lead away to the enjoyment of beauty and especially of personal beauty, by the desires which are her own kindred – that supreme desire, I say, which by leading conquers and by the force is reinforced, from this very source, receiving a name, is called love.”
Plato also decries the tendency of people experiencing romantic love to turn their backs on their families in favor of their romantic interests. He points out that jealousy between partners can lead people to look for not the best partner but a person who is slightly less impressive, as Socrates says, “The lover is not only hurtful to his love, he is also an extremely disagreeable companion.” in calling love a selfish pursuit of what an individual wants for themselves rather than for the other person, Socrates concludes,
“In the friendship of the lover, there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you. As wolves love lambs, so do lovers love their loves.”
As the character of Socrates catches his breath after this tirade against love, he realizes that he didn’t wholly mean what he had said; he had just been carried away in responding to the report of the speech that Phaedrus opened with. He apologizes and defends the actions of lovers, saying that there is one kind of madness that is dangerous and that,
“There is also a madness which is a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men … the madness of love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings… when [a lover] sees [her beloved], and bathes herself in the waters of beauty, her constraint is loosened and she is refreshed, and has no more pangs and pains; and this is the sweetest of all pleasures at the time and is the reason why the soul of the lover will never forsake his beautiful one, whom he esteems above all… and is ready to sleep like a servant, wherever he is allowed, as near as he can to his beloved one.”
Eventually, through the character of Socrates, Plato writes that love is like a chariot drawn by three winged horses: it can take the charioteer to places that he would never have imagined possible, but only if he can maintain control of the chariot. As Socrates puts it, “their happiness relies upon their self-control.”
Any sourness that a reader may have left about the earlier sayings of Plato on love may be erased by the beauty of some of the dialogue’s concluding lines. The character of Socrates says,
“Those who have once begun the heavenward pilgrimage may not go down again to darkness and the journey beneath the earth, but they live in the light always; happy companions in their pilgrimage, and when the time comes at which they receive their wings, they have the same plumage because of their love.”
Plato On Love: Plato’s Symposium
Plato’s “Symposium” is one of his better-known dialogues and one of the most famous philosophy texts in the world, dealing specifically with the true nature of love, where it comes from, and whether it is good or bad. From “Symposium,” we get many of the ideas of Plato on love. Plato wrote it around the same time as “Phaedrus,” but it likely takes place later and was possibly written slightly later, as the attitudes of Plato on love – shown through the character of Socrates – are far more balanced and mature.
The setting of the Symposium is a dinner party in which several prominent philosophers debate love. A symposium in ancient Greece was a forum where men would drink, listen to music, and engage in discussion and debate. The characters originally planned to listen to music and get drunk, but they are all hung over from the day before. They decide to take turns talking about their attitudes on love. Socrates speaks last in the “Symposium,” after everyone else at the party has spoken strictly in praise of love. He introduces his speech by calling for a more balanced idea of love, similar to his later attitudes expressed in “Phaedrus.” saying,
“You attribute to love every imaginable form of praise which can be gathered anywhere, and you say “he is all this,” and “he is the cause of all that,” making him appear the fairest and best of all … I do not praise him in that way. Indeed I cannot … [do not] infer that because love is not fair and good, he is therefore foul and evil; for he is a mean between them.”
The character of Socrates goes on to say that love is not only a means between good and evil; love is an intermediary between humans and the gods. To do this, he reinvents the background of the god of love, saying that the god of love is not the birth-child of the goddess of beauty and is instead the illegitimate child of the lesser gods, Poverty and Plenty, who the goddess of beauty raised. In the end, the attitudes of Plato on love and the truth are presented with more temperament and more respect than in Phaedo as he concludes his speech,
“Human nature will not easily find a better helper than love: and therefore also, I say that every man ought to honor him as I myself honor him, and walk in his ways and exhort others to do the same, and praise the power and spirit of love according to the measure of my ability now and ever.”
In the end, the writings of Plato on love, beauty, knowledge, and the soul all point toward love as one of life’s greatest gifts and guides but also as something that must be used responsibly and wisely.
Written over 2000 years ago, the questions and attitudes presented in the dialogues of Plato on love still seem very clear and pertinent. Many people are still confused as they try to navigate love in their own lives. If you need help figuring it out, consider talking to a therapist. People experience many strong feelings about love, and overcoming your anxiety may help you improve your relationships.
Online therapy may benefit anyone who wants to talk to a professional about their anxieties about love. Finding an online therapist is pretty straightforward; just fill out a questionnaire, and you’ll be matched with a qualified licensed counselor who you can begin seeing right away. You don’t have to worry about finding a qualified local therapist to help you or being put on a waiting list for an appointment. Some studies also show that people may feel more comfortable in online therapy as the safety and distance of being behind a screen makes it easier to talk about difficult things.
Studies also show that online therapy is effective. If you experience anxiety about love or anything else in your life, research indicates that online therapy is an effective treatment. If you’re interested in learning more, reach out to a BetterHelp therapist for more information.
How we date in the modern age may have changed dramatically, but many people apply Plato’s perspectives on love today. If you have anxieties about love, talk to an online counselor today to help ease your mind.
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