Plato on Love

Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach

Plato stated that love is the motivating force that pushes a person to think deeply about beauty. He said that love is a step-by-step process that starts with the admiration of physical beauty and then evolves into the admiration of spiritual beauty.

In his work, Symposium, Plato asserts that the love of wisdom is the greatest form of love. It necessarily follows that, to Plato, philosophy is a purification of the sexual appetite. This purification then drives individuals to crave wisdom over sex. By this, Plato means that individuals will not crave wisdom by subduing the sexual urge but by transforming that urge and aiming it at a higher goal.

Plato explains his idea of love through dialogue in his Symposium, where a group of Athenians meet at a drinking party and discuss the nature of love. Using the discussions, Plato illustrates that philosophy is not far away from the practicalities of everyday life. He maintained that philosophy is simply the uppermost destination of our desires that fuel us in our daily affairs. Plato clarifies that if human minds were not so muddled, they would easily see that their admiration for a well-written play or beautiful people is, in reality, an admiration for beauty itself. Philosophy is merely the shortest way to the object of an individual’s desire.

The Discussion at the Symposium

 The Symposium is held at the house of the poet Agathon. It was attended by notable men of Athens such as Socrates, Aristophanes, Pausanias, and Alcibiades. Their conversation focused on the meaning of love, and each philosopher put forward his own idea on the matter. When everyone had expressed their argument about love, Socrates narrated his views on love and said that Diotima, the priestess of Apollo, had disclosed to him the meaning of love. He said the priestess enlightened him that love was a step-by-step journey up a ladder that eventually leads the lover to the highest form of love.

Plato does not believe that love is the end goal of itself, but rather, love is only a way to comprehend the highest form of beauty. The first step on the way is physical love. Here, Plato says that love comes into the eyes of the beholder, possesses the body, and pushes it to approach the object of love. This is the beginning of physical love. Plato does not look down on the nature of physical love but views it simply as a starting point in a journey that culminates in an elevated destination.

The second step is where love looks past beauty in a particular object and searches for beauty in several objects. In this step, love has developed an absolute meaning of beauty and has begun the quest for beauty. In the third step, love overcomes its attraction to physical beauty and now looks forward to the beauty of the soul. Here, the individual begins to admire the soul apart from his admiration of physical beauty. In the fourth step, love becomes involved in moral principles and sees that good morals increase beauty.

In the fifth step, love becomes concerned with knowledge and starts caring about the government while in the sixth step, love delights in science and grasps beauty in the form of knowledge.

Finally, in the seventh step, love understands that beauty is one with the universe. In this step, love rises from the physical world to the cosmic realms, and the beholder experiences the joys of the highest form of knowledge through philosophy.

Platonic Love

Platonic love is frequently interpreted as love that is not physical but spiritual. According to Plato, this kind of love united itself with the world of ideas where everything is unchanging and perfect. This world of ideas is where the physical world derives its images from. Therefore, the concept of Platonic love is closely related to the Allegory of the Cave. The prisoner who had escaped from the cave and shadows is the only one who comprehends what truth and beauty are. The former prisoner had escaped the first step of love, represented by the life inside the cave. And when this former prisoner finally discovers the sun, it is said that he has reached the understanding of beauty.

In common understanding, Platonic love often means a romantic relationship between two human beings not tainted with sexual activity. Although Plato’s Symposium contains a significant amount of material related to a desire for the same sex, it would not be accurate if the characters were viewed as homosexuals. In ancient Greece, sexual preferences were not as controversial as today. It was normal for men in ancient Greece to be married to women and have children with them, and at the same time, have romantic relationships with other men. And so, in politics and warfare, it can be said that the men of ancient Greece experienced the sharing of love that they could not have shared with women. Viewed this way, these romantic relationships between men in ancient Greece could be classified as Platonic.