love. week five.
city. new york city
I finally got around to reading Plato’s dialogue on love, the Symposium. I haven’t read Plato since undergrad, and forgot just how funny he is! He begins the dialogue with a discussion of whether or not they should get drunk that night. I kid you not.
[Pausanias: “Well, gentleman, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a terrible hangover from yesterday, and I could really use a break.”
Aristophanes: “Good idea. We’ve got to make a plan for going easy on the drink tonight. I was over my head last night myself, like the others.”
At that point they all agreed not to get drunk that evening; they decided to drink only as much as pleased them.
“It’s settled, then,” said Eryximachus.]
I spent the last few days reading and re-reading Socrates’ speech. He defends a view of love that is rather surprising and seemingly silly, but I think that once I worked through it properly, I’ve found some value in it. The trick here is not to decide whether something is right or wrong, but rather to see what I can learn from it, and how I can adjust my own appreciation for love in response.
In any case, it’s nice to have a completely strange theory of love to add to the mix.
As usual, Socrates begins his discussion by first defining the term in question, in this case, love. Here’s what he comes up with:
Just like a brother must be a brother to someone, and a sister must be a sister to someone, love, too, must be a love of something.
Love desires the thing which it loves.
And, if it desires it, it must not already have it. (For, says Socrates, you cannot desire something you already have. And when you do desire it, it’s actually the future thing which you desire. You desire that you should continue to have it.)
“Come, then,” said Socrates. “Let us review the points on which we’ve agreed. Aren’t they, first, that Love is the love of something, and, second, that he loves things of which he has a present need?”
At this point, I was growing quite skeptical of Socrates’ claims. Equating love with desire is what you’d expect from a child, not one of the greatest philosophers in history. Now, I understand that the Greek word for love here is eros (with its associations of erotic love), rather than the Christian forms of love (agape and caritas) which we are more accustomed to. But Socrates does not make this distinction. He claims that erotic love is the most divine, and thus sets himself up with an improbable challenge: how can erotic desiring love be central to a life worth living?
Well, as the father of philosophy, perhaps he’s up to the challenge. Let’s see.
Having established this definition, he then proceeds to develop a more detailed description of love. He tells it over in the form of a story, but let’s focus on the actual claims:
1. “Love is neither beautiful nor good.”
Okay, I can accept that. Socrates proves this by pointing out that love desires beauty and goodness, and therefore must not already possess them. I think this is a bit murky, but sure, let’s agree with him for now.
2. “Love needs good and beautiful things, and that’s why he desires them—because he needs them.”
Again, super murky. But let’s play along for now. (This is really two claims: love needs good and beautiful things. And love desires them because he needs them. One is a claim about love, the other is a claim about desire. Alternatively, if love and desire really are the same, then I suppose that they are both claims about love.)
3. “Love is always poor, and he’s far from being delicate and beautiful (as ordinary people think he is); instead, he is tough and shriveled and shoeless and homeless, always lying on the dirt without a bed, sleeping at people’s doorsteps and in roadsides under the sky, always living with Need. But he is also a schemer after the beautiful and the good; he is brave, impetuous, and intense, an awesome hunter, always weaving snares, resourceful in his pursuit of intelligence, a lover of wisdom through all his life, a genius of enchantments, potions, and clever pleadings.”
I think that what Socrates is pointing out here is the duality of not just love, but desire in general. On one hand, the desirer is homeless and needy, but on the other hand, he is infused with passion and intellect. To be honest, I only included this passage because it’s quite poetic and thought provoking, even though I don’t think it will be that important at the end.
4. “Love is by nature neither immortal nor mortal. But now he springs to life when he gets his way; now he dies—all in the very same day. For this reason, Love is never completely without resources, nor is he ever rich.”
Again, a meditation on the impermanence, yet constancy of desire, emotions, etc. What would Buddha say?
And, finally, the reason why people tend to hold mistaken views about love is because:
5. “We think that love is being loved, rather than being a lover.”
This was the first line in the entire dialogue that I actually liked! When someone says that they would like to have more love in their life, or even when they refer to their love-life itself, they usually mean that they would like to have someone in their life who loves them, rather than someone who they can love. They download more apps, go on more dates, and comb the city for someone somewhere out there. When, according to Socrates, love is always already available to those who seek it. All you have to do is become a lover.
At this point, Socrates shifts from describing love itself, to discussing “what use is Love to human beings?” Oh boy. This is gna be fun.
6. “The lover of beautiful or good things has a desire; what does he desire? That they become his own.”
Okay, if we continue to go along with defining love as desire, then sure, the lover desires that the thing should become his own.
7. “And what will he have, when the good things he wants have become his own? Happiness.”
Or some version of happiness.
8. “Now, this desire for happiness, this kind of love, is common to all human beings. Then, why don’t we say that everyone is in love? It’s because we divide out a special kind of love, and for the other kinds of love we use other words.”
Yeah, like desire! But okay, go on. What’s so special about this *special* kind of love?
9. “Every desire for good things or for happiness is ‘the supreme and treacherous love’ in everyone. But those who pursue this along any of its many other ways—through making money, or through the love of sports, or through philosophy (gasp)—we don’t say that these people are in love, and we don’t call them lovers.
Just tell us already!!!
10. “Well, I’ll tell you. It is giving birth in beauty, whether in body or in soul.”
11. “Well, I’ll tell you more clearly. All of us are pregnant, both in body and in soul, and, as soon as we come to a certain age, we naturally desire to give birth. What love wants is not beauty, but reproduction and birth in beauty.”
Oh, I like that.
First of all, it shifts love from being a passive state into an activity or pursuit. Love is not simply a desire, but rather a particular way of pursuing the fulfillment of that desire.
Secondly, it recognizes that love is an inherent feature of being human. We are all pregnant (and by this I think he is referring to the potential that each person/animal/plant/atom has), and we desire to give birth (to actualize our potential). In this sense, love is not an accidental state, but is rather a very personal and essential task for each person. It is not enough to know how to compose a symphony; love requires that one actually composes the symphony. I guess that’s what we call a labor of love.
Coincidentally, this is the very observation that sets Marx off on his own journey 2000 years later: “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, with what they produce and with how they produce it. What individuals are, therefore, depends on the material conditions of their production.”
And, finally, this theory of reproductive love ensures that the beloved is not entangled in a struggle of ownership or possession, but rather serves as the fertile ground which allows both the lover and the beloved to give birth to something new and beautiful. They each bring something to the table, and they are each self-actualizing and self-reproductive in the act of love.
Returning to the question of what the use of love is, Socrates points out that this act of (both physical and spiritual) reproduction is important for another reason as well:
12. “Now, why reproduction? It’s because reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality.”
This is where Socrates really begins to lose me. Apparently ancient Greeks were very much concerned with attaining immortality. I feel like he could have just ended with happiness and self-actualization, but he goes on to describe how replacing a person with a person, or an idea with an idea, gives the impression that nothing has changed at all. Like if you have a hole in a bucket of water and, instead of plugging the hole, you just place it under a steady stream of water. The water in the bucket is constantly being replaced, but because it happens so quickly it looks like the water is standing still. This, then, is the best we can do to reach immortality. Reproduce ourselves so quickly and so precisely that no one will even notice that we’re gone (once we’ve died).
13. “And in that way, everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been. It is for the sake of immortality that everything shows this zeal, which is Love.”
At this point, Socrates moves on to his final topic, the various objects of love. As it turns out, not all loves are created equal. While Socrates doesn’t really say why, I assume this has something to do with each object’s ability to grant ‘immortality’.
For example, the love of beautiful bodies, and the biological reproduction that results from it, does achieve some sort continuity, but not nearly as much as the love for (and birthing of) beautiful laws and customs, or even better, the love for beautiful ideas. The final and highest object of love, for Socrates, is something like the ‘ideal beauty’ and all of the other, lower forms of love are really just preparation for this final, ideal love. Socrates’ description of ideal beauty is rather mystical/poetic, but when I open my heart, I do feel that he is describing something true. I feel like he’s describing existence itself (although I suppose that he may just as well be describing god):
14. “First, it always is and neither comes nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another; nor is it beautiful here but ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face of hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change.”
And, in summary:
15. “This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always upward for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful.”
Bravo, Socrates. Bravo.
Well, I have many reservations (like, for example, his focus on beauty, desire, ascension, immortality, etc.) but maybe I’ll just stop writing at this point and let Socrates have the last word. He’s certainly earned that much.