Friday, September 23, 2011

Plato on love

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on love
Date: 9 February 2005 13:05

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your email of 2 February, with your University of London BA essay in response to the question, 'For Plato, can people be loved for their own sake?'

This essay represents a tremendous amount of work, and is very impressive.

Your argument turns on a crucial distinction between loving X, where X is a terminal object of love, and loving X where one wishes for X's own good. Here, I think, things get a little unstuck. Although this is an important distinction to make, the examples you give obscure, rather than illuminate the point at issue, and spoil your case against Vlastos.

I am going to concentrate on this point, because this is where I feel you need to do more thinking.

I do have some sympathy with the view that Aristotle is talking about genuine love between two persons, while for Plato my love for you is ultimately not for you, in yourself, but rather for what you represent, an ideal which I strive to realize both in myself and in you. It sounds hard to call this 'selfish', because the acts which it demands are acts paradigmatically acts of selflessness and, if circumstances require, self-sacrifice. Yet there does seem to be a sense in which for Plato the wonder and greatness of 'love' lies precisely in the fact that it serves as a reminder, it aids the activity of recollection of something which is not only higher than the material world, but also higher than any individual soul: the world of the forms.

I won't dwell too long on your examples. Money (as I think you half see) is a paradoxical object of love, and so better avoided in giving examples. I love Sheffield (I came to love it, as a Londoner I never thought I would) and I love Sheffield 'for its own sake' rather for some further end. What does the difference amount to here? (I have chosen this example because Sheffield is not a 'person'.)

I might love Sheffield only for some further end if, for example, the people are very helpful, or there are nice parks where I can walk or relax, or if house prices are very cheap, or if the public transport is excellent. (Mostly true.) I could feel all this, while having no desire for the good of Sheffield (e.g. I am an Iraqi spy plotting revenge on the British people).

On the other hand, loving Sheffield for its own sake (as I do) I feel pride when Sheffield teams win sporting competitions, take every opportunity to tell people how great Sheffield is, avoid doing anything to spoil the local environment, sign petitions or go on protest marches when local services and amenities are threatened and so on.

If Sheffield is merely a means to my end, this can be a good end (something I love for its own sake, e.g. Islam) or not. But that is irrelevant so far as Sheffield is concerned. In either case, there is no genuine love for Sheffield.

When we come to Plato's discussion of love, especially in Symposium, two things need to be borne in mind. The first is the doctrine of the unity of virtues which always lies in the background. The second is the contrast between two very different kinds of 'feeling', the feelings which derive from the body and its urges on the one hand, and the non-discursive awareness of the forms, accompanied by feelings of wonder and awe.

Love is a wonderful thing which deserves praise because of its potential to connect us to something higher but also because of what it is in itself: the love of beauty is the love of the good.

What makes the Symposium so exciting - and dangerous - is the way Plato teeters on the edge between human passion (bodily feeling) and the inspiration that comes from above, as one gazes at the beautiful face and body of one's beloved. It is the most perfect anticipation of Freud's theory of sublimation. (I have no doubt Freud was influenced by Plato in this regard.)

People *can* be loved for their own sakes, surely that is the right answer to the question, because Plato has given an ample description of what this entails, as you explain at length in your essay. Yet at the same time this 'form of life' - the very fact that human beings are capable of being attracted erotically to other human beings, the physical excitement that beauty causes in us (try to imagine a cold-blooded Martian Plato) - exists for a higher purpose, to connect us to the world of forms.

All the best,

Geoffrey