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HeyJ XLIII (2002), pp.

The Editor/Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, UK and Boston, USA.
The University of Notre Dame, Australia
A theory of love should explain that we love a person; that a person is
in some way the paradigmatic focus of our love. Moreover, it is qua
person that the beloved is loved and not just as bearer of loveable quali-
ties or attributes; in other words, love is directed at the totality of the
beloved and not identifiable (solely) with certain aspects of a person.
As a result such love is held to be incompatible with the easy inter-
changeability of the beloved with some other with similar or higher
qualities and attributes. This is not to say that love is not transferable
from one beloved to another but only that such transferability is subject
to loss of the unique and irreplaceable individuality (personhood) of a
particular beloved.
This particular account of what a theory of love should provide is
deemed by numerous philosophers to amount to a knock-down case
against any theory of love which identifies what is loved as some com-
plex of qualities/attributes or characteristics of a beloved.
Plato is the
central figure who is held to have missed these features of love by
supposing that what we really love in loving a person are their qualities
of Beauty and Goodness. However, the critique goes a lot further and
applies equally to any conception of agapistic love, or indeed to any
theory of disinterested compassion-love (as in Buddhism). This is so
because (aside from the theological difficulty of understanding any love
relation as genuine because it is commanded) when we consider our
grounds for loving another person as posited by the fact that he or she is
a child of God, or as a divine soul made by God, or in terms of the
universality, anonymity and ready replaceability of each and every
beloved, we are not deemed to be loving such persons as persons. Rather
we are loving them because God commanded us to do so, or because
they are Gods children, or because they have immortal souls. In each
case precisely because the love is directed towards all, and thus every-
one is loved, one instance of love is exactly the same as all others; each
instance is identical to, and replaceable by, any other, and thus in a sense
the love is anonymous and universal, independent of any of the particu-
lar features which render the person individual and unique.
In this article I look carefully at the Platonic account of eros in order
to ascertain just how far these general criticisms hold water. We must
however, in dealing with Platos theory of eros, consider a further set of
criticisms specific to the Platonic project, namely, the view that Platonic
eros is egocentric and acquisitive. However, in this article I shall not just
engage in historical exegesis in order to correct past misunderstandings
of Plato, but rather I will be using Platos work as an example of how we
might better understand the nature of love in our own lives.
Platos theory of love is presented in numerous dialogues but for the
purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to considering only the Lysis
and Symposium. I will consider various interpretations of Platos writ-
ings and dismiss many of the criticisms of Platonic love, and I will pre-
sent a Platonic account of love which goes a long way towards capturing
something of the mysterious nature of love by identifying two separate
but overlapping ways of loving.
The subject matter of the Lysis is a discussion of philia. Philia is the
general term in Greek for friendship, but it is quite clear that in the Lysis
and generally within the Greek philosophical tradition its meaning is not
exhausted by the modern English word friendship. It is often used
interchangeably with eros, but it also comprises the feelings of affection
one has with regard to things, as well as to familial love (storge), and
even captures some aspects of desire.
In the Lysis, Plato employs the terms, eran, philein, agapan, epithumein
and peri pollou poieisthai, sometimes interchangeably, but certainly as
loosely demarcated but closely related subsets of philia. At 215ad the
terms agapan, philein and peri pollou poieisthai are used interchange-
And importantly, even before the philia group of terms are intro-
duced in the text, and the attraction of friends is settled as the initial
topic of discussion, the conversation employs for the most part the eros
group of words (204206a). The background to the discussion is markedly
erotic and the subsequent discussion is stamped throughout by the
sexual orientation of the opening. In fact, the philia group is used
exclusively only in the discussion of familial love between 207 and 210
and in the attempt to spell out a meaning for what is dear (211e213d).
In the remaining sections, from 214 through to the close, there is a
mixture of all the terms mentioned above, sometimes used inter-
changeably, at other times with only subtle changes of meaning. The
point to be taken from this is in substantial accord with Kenneth
Dovers claim that philia and eros do not designate separate realms of
meaning, but that there is a high degree of overlapping between the two
Thus, since I will be assuming that the doctrine of love in both
the Lysis and the Symposium is one and the same, these prefatory
remarks should forestall any objections that I am conflating two separate
The Lysis provides us with a structural and analytic account of loving
or befriending. In this dialogue Socrates conceives of loving as compris-
ing three elements; a lover or subject who loves, an activity loving
(which in the Lysis is captured by the idea of actively engaging in making
something dear to oneself, not just a recognition of value but the
investing of [further] value in something over time), and an object of
love or beloved.
The motivational force which as it were enables the lover to love is
grounded in the ontological endeia (lack) of the person who loves.
Because persons are not self-sufficient, agents exhibit desire which
seeks out objects and subjects to fulfil the lacks which are integral to our
natures. On the existential level, lack or need is experienced in the
desire for a plurality of things, including the need for a lover or friend.
Corresponding to the nature of desire and lack Socrates also thinks
that the object of love (whatever object) must also be loveable. In other
words, there must be something in the nature of the object of love which
elicits the loving of the lover. This is not to deny that the lover actively
invests value in the beloved but rather is posited as a partial explanation
for the grounds of attraction. Many objects are valuable in themselves
but are not loved in the special sense of the relation. In other words the
recognition of value is not sufficient to characterize the special
relationship of love. In love, recognition of value requires an activity on
the part of the lover which maintains and deepens through valuation the
relation with the beloved.
It is surprising nevertheless that neither in the Lysis nor in Diotimas
or Socratess speech in the Symposium do we receive any full
articulation of the activities of loving; this in part explains the unease
many commentators have had with Platos theory of eros.
Platos preoccupation in both the Lysis and the Symposium is with the
proton philon or first (final) object of love, and the phenomenon of love
is discussed only insofar as it illuminates something of the path to that
object. Throughout, the two dialogues are determined by that goal.
Having established the logical grammar of philia in the Lysis that
philia is the name of a relation and that it comprises a subject who loves,
an activity of loving (couched in terms of rendering and maintaining
something as dear) and an object which is loved but which also elicits
our love, Socratess dialectical questioning focuses on the nature of the
relation between subject and object of love. Kosman, in what is still the
most penetrating analysis of Platos views on love, correctly identifies
the crucial elements of the theory as presented in the Lysis.
identified what is loved in terms of ontological endeia, he writes:
That of which one is endees is not simply that which one does not have, nor which
one wants in the sense of desires, but that which one lacks, or wants in the sense of
needing, missing and requiring for the fulfilment and completion of some nature.
When Socrates finally suggests that what persons actually lack is the
plenitude of the first (final) object of love, the proton philon, he goes on
highly suggestively to identify a relationship between the soul and the
proton philon. He does so by tantalizingly (and without a rigorous
argument) pushing the notion that the real meaning of our ontological
lack resides in what is phusei oikeion, what belongs to us naturally.
Kosman once again captures the point brilliantly:
The conclusion [of Socratess questioning] is clear and interesting, for it suggests
that the proton philon is that of which we may be said to be properly endeeis,
and this is our own true but fugitive nature, that which for us is phusei oikeion, even
if we are separated from it. Erotic love is thus primarily for Plato self-love, for
it is finally our true self which is at once native to us and lacked by us.
The similarity between the position outlined here and that presented by
Aristophanes in the Symposium is especially noteworthy, in particular
where he says that Eros is a great god who leads us eis to oikeion , eis
ten archaian phusin.
While the Lysis formally ends in aporia it has covered much ground-
work. It has established the logical grammar of philia as being the name
of a relation;
it has presented the formal structure of any philia relation,
in terms of a befriender, a befriending and a befriended; it has identified
but not articulated the active on-going valuation which characterizes the
activity of befriending; and it has managed to suggestively tie up a nexus
of ideas which intrinsically link the ontological lack of the befriended
with an organic wholeness which the befriender attempts to overcome by
loving the friend. (Moreover, the organic wholeness which is described
as our true nature is both subject and object of love.) However, the
emphasis of the dialogue lies in the vertical dimension of philia which
takes the befriender in the direction of the transcendent object of love
the proton philon. While this is well-recognized it is complemented by the
notion that there is an intrinsic relation between this transcendent object
of love and our original nature. This insight will be of some import-
ance later in the article.
The importance of the Lysis in Platos articulation of a theory of love
cannot be overestimated. Indeed it provides a kind of prolegomena to the
account in the Symposium (rendered by Diotima via Socrates) which takes
up the aporetic close of the Lysis by continuing to illuminate further the
nature of the proton philon. That the two dialogues are intimately linked
is clear when we look at the dialectical interchange between Socrates
and Agathon at Symposium 198b201d. Here we get an almost verbatim
rendition of the arguments in the Lysis which establish the logical gram-
mar of eros as a relation and its structural elements, rendered now in the
language of eros, as lover, loving and beloved. It is this analytic that
provides the truth conditions for the subsequent myth of eros and after-
wards the elaboration of the lower and higher mysteries of love.
As I have pointed out, the preliminary truth conditions for the proper
discussion of love had been settled in the Lysis and repeated almost
verbatim in the Symposium. I will briefly rehearse the manner in which
they are dramatized in the Symposium and show how they affect the
account given there of the nature of love and the lower and higher
mysteries of love.
The purpose of encomia is to render a eulogy or good word. In the
Symposium the encomium will be to Eros, but Socrates immediately
changes the ground rules adhered to by the other speakers. For Socrates,
an encomium must be true for if it were not true it would not be good.
Hence, he will deliver one which picks out the fairest of the facts about
eros and praise them (198d57). (He will not focus on the destructive
passion of eros so vividly portrayed in Homers Iliad and Odyssey, and
by Plato as the eros turannos of the Politeia.)
Before presenting the encomium proper developed through Diotima,
Socrates takes up the logical grammar of eros in his interchange with
Agathon. He asks Agathon:
So come now, complete your beautiful and magnificent description of Love, and tell
me this: Are we so to view his character as to take Love to be love of some object
or of none? (Symp. 199c8d2).
This is the same question asked in the Lysis. Formally it seems as if
Socrates is asking whether or not eros is intentional whether eros is
eros of something. But this is not quite the point as Socrates goes on to
suggest by amplifying his question. His clarification continues:
My question is not whether he is love of a mother or a father how absurd it would
be to ask whether Love is love of mother or father! but as though I were asking
about our notion of father, whether ones father is a father of somebody or not
(Symp. 199d26).
Socrates is thus highlighting that Eros like the term Father is the name
for a relation. Moreover, it is the name for a relation which comprises
the lover, the activity of loving and the beloved (see 200e210a).
The lover desires the object of his/her love and thus lacks that object,
but it is this lack that explains the very phenomenon of desire. We desire
because we lack. Moreover, this phenomenon has both a temporal and
an eternal element. Desire is not just for something lacked but for the
preservation of what good we may achieve and which might be taken
away. The point Socrates is making is fundamentally that desire has
something of the infinite in its nature. The only thing that could possibly
satisfy fully and completely the nature of a desirous and thus lacking
being is the eternal satisfaction of desire or, from a slightly different
perspective, the complete cessation of all desire. Such could only be
found in a world-transcendent object of desire which is itself a pleroma,
because the satisfaction of all temporal desires is capable of being lost;
moreover, because we desire ultimately such an object, we desire to
become that object or at least to be in the presence of that object. (On
one reading at least this might be portrayed in Sartrean terms as the
desire of the pour-soi to become a pour-soi/en-soi.)
Having established these distinctions Socrates introduces Diotima as
source for the doctrine of eros to be presented. Mythically eros is the
name of the relation which exists between the temporal and the eternal,
the human and the Divine. That Eros cannot be God is proven by the
fact that human beings love and they establish the relation of love via
desire which is grounded in lack. Since it is axiomatic that the Divine
lacks nothing, love cannot be a divinity. Rather love is said to be the
great daimon which unites the disparate orders of the real, or if not
unites, at least establishes the relation between them.
Because Eros is the name for a relation, it occupies the metaxy, that
is, whatever is intermediate, whether that be conceived of as opinion,
lying intermediate between error and truth, or the realm between mor-
tals and the Divine. Eros takes from its mother the brute fact that it is a
relation between the Divine and the human, the Heavens and the world,
and, it is intimated by Plato, the passive intuition of this relation, and
the element of lack. From its father it derives its capacities to scheme,
hunt, create and fashion. In other words it derives its active or desirous
element from the masculine side of its parentage, as is suggested also by
the various meanings of poros path, way, passage, but also resource.
The active element provides the impetus to overcoming lack.
The dialectical interchange between Socrates and Agathon re-
establishes the logical grammar of eros together with a structural account
of what eros involves, just as had been done in the Lysis. The myth
relates these logical categories of eros to the framework which estab-
lishes the relation between the human and the Divine. As a matter of
continuity Diotima will present a vision of the manner in which Eros via
desire is always attempting to satiate lack and how such satiation re-
quires a transcendent object of Eros.
Diotima identifies the object of love as having or being in the pres-
ence of Beauty, following her question what is the love of the lover of
beautiful things? (204d6). (All references to the Symposium in this article
are to the Loeb translation.) Quickly she identifies the beautiful and the
good. However, drawing upon Aristophaness speech it is claimed that
the lover is indeed searching for completion/fulfilment with the other
half (205e) but only if that fulfilment is deemed good.
Collecting the analysis provided by the dialectical interchange with
Agathon and the myth, Diotima suggests that the essential motivation
proper to love is that love loves the good to be ones own forever
(206a1213). Everyone qua lover is lover of the good. The method of
achieving the good by the lover is procreation in what is beautiful with
the body and soul (206b89).
It is at this point in the dialogue that a very new emphasis is placed
on eros. Whereas before eros had been identified primarily in terms of
the lovers lack and the lovers desires to fill these lacks, it now takes
on a distinctively poetic role in including desires for begetting and
bringing to birth.
Moreover, the two elements of love considered as
lack and as desire to produce are maintained at each level of the ladder
of love. Further, this is a corollary of the two aspects of eros identified
in the myth of love where on one side love lacks its object and on the
other it provides a means of achieving its object.
Primarily eros (in the lower mysteries) is creative according to its
thirst for immortality which is carried out through begetting. Just as in
the animal kingdom a vicarious immortality is preserved through the
propagation of offspring, so too at the human level, the creative desire
to bring forth children is thought to be indicative of this desire for
immortality. This is conceived of in terms of a general principle or law
of nature. However, while animals are restricted in the sense that this is
the only form of immortality open to them, humans can achieve a
vicarious immortality in other ways according to their natural powers.
So humans are in love with what is immortal (208e23) and achieve it
according to both body and soul.
From here Diotima leads Socrates ever upward in the so-called
Higher Mysteries of love moving from love of a beautiful body to the
vision of the Beautiful in itself.
The criticisms of the Platonic theory of love have a long and distin-
guished pedigree, and, as I have argued, they are applicable to any
theory of love which identifies what is loved in loving others as situated
in anything other than the integral individual personhood of persons,
whether that be conceived of in terms of a persons qualities, attributes,
characteristics or in terms of a religious command and its correlative
account of why we ought to love persons, or indeed to the notions of
disinterested love or compassion. In general, the following sorts of
criticisms are found: Platonic love is (a) acquisitive; (b) egocentric and
(c) non-personal. To these general criticisms can be added a more spe-
cific one: Platonic love devalues persons. The list of philosophers who
have argued against Platos theory of love is impressive and includes
Nygren, Vlastos, Nussbaum, Singer and Solomon.
The voices which have stood out in favour of the Platonic view are
few and even when they have attempted to vindicate Platos theory they
have for the most part done so unconvincingly. Cornford and Markus
attempted to show that Platos theory of eros is compatible with the
Christian ideal of love-agape (as has Brentlinger), but even though they
are convincing in their appeals, this fails to vindicate the Platonic theory,
for as I have pointed out, the Christian view of agape suffers from the
central problem that because it is commanded, universal and substi-
tutable it cannot account for the unique and irreplaceable love which we
have for special individuals.
So aside from the central merits these
arguments have in establishing the compatibility of Platonic eros with
Christian agape, the crucial objection still stands.
Brentlinger, in arguing that Platonic eros cannot profitably or easily
be distinguished from Christian agape provides a series of reflections
which adequately resist the criticisms that Platonic eros is egocentric
and acquisitive but does not convincingly show that Platos theory does
not devalue persons. And the most penetrating analysis to date, by
Kosman, while also showing that Platonic eros is not narrowly egoistic
or acquisitive and that it is compatible with love of persons qua persons,
fails to articulate an answer to the Symposiums doctrine that persons are
to be considered a small thing in comparison to love of the Good and
Let us rehearse the arguments here. Because Plato identifies the
origins of love in ontological lack and subsequent operative desires to
fill this lack, it is claimed that eros is essentially acquisitive. It seeks to
appropriate the good for oneself and this is held to be incompatible with
loving the other for his or her own sake. This argument is most
forcefully pursued by Nygren.
Abstracting from Plato here, it can be
argued that this is a rather futile criticism because it fails to capture
the notion that we can have different kinds of desires, some selfish and
some unselfish. For example, I can legitimately desire a better world not
just for myself but for others and even for future generations. I can also
desire the well-being of another person without that well-being being
the source of any specific positive outcome for myself; and so for many
benevolent other-concerned desires. Desire, therefore, is not essentially
acquisitive. But perhaps the objection is not so much general as specific
to Plato. Thus, the claim will be that the Platonic theory of eros as
articulated in the Dialogues is such that it is presented in a way which
does not allow for this general response. Nygren writes: Even where
Eros seems to be a desire to give it is still in the last resort a will-to-
possess; for Plato was fundamentally unaware of any other form of love
than acquisitive love.
Similarly, Singer suggests: For desire is always
acquisitive and its object a mere commodity designed to satisfy.
These sorts of objections are, however, not fair to Plato. One of the
problems which issue in these kinds of criticisms is grounded in a point
of scholarship. It is often supposed that Socrates talks about the object
of love being possessed by the lover (200d1011). However, the
English term possess is an inadequate rendition of the more neutral
Greek echein. Echein and its derivatives refer to having without the
emphasis of owning and possessiveness, and thus exclusivity. We
talk, for example, of having a friend, even a best friend, without imply-
ing in any way that we own or possess the friend. Indeed in the Sympo-
sium Plato describes the relationship between desire and the good not
just in terms of having (echein) but often in terms of the word parontas
(being in the presence of). This latter term captures the transcendent
quality of the good without implying that it is subject to possession by
a lover. Moreover, it leaves open the alternative sketch of desire pre-
sented above whereby we can desire the good for another without any
stigma of acquisitiveness.
A similar ambiguity attaches itself to the idea that what is loved are
good or beautiful things. Here the acquisitive aspects of Platonic love
are highlighted by the idea that the lover desires good or beautiful things
for himself or herself. Given that Diotima appeals to the notion of par-
ticipation, it is perhaps not useful to maintain this translation. To better
capture the force of the Platonic argument, the translation should be the
good or beautiful as it inheres in things. Once again this suggests that
there is not a relationship of possessiveness attached to the relationship
with the good and beautiful, thus leaving open the notion that a more
disinterested element can be present in desire. Admittedly, the ambiguity
is difficult to dispel, as Plato in discussing the genesis of love and its
transcending strains does indeed suggest that at one stage desire is for
or of beautiful things. However, this refers to the genesis of love in
finding objects and qualities which fill lacks. At later stages, love is
clearly identified as of or for the qualities that inhere in things and not
just of the things themselves. In what sense this can be seen as acquisitive
possessiveness is at the least very unclear.
Platos theory of eros is also held to be egocentric. This objection also
fails on grounds analogous to the acquisitiveness criticism. Whereas the
acquisitive objection holds that Platos account of love is determined by
possession of the object of love and is thus incompatible with loving
another for his or her own sake, the egocentric objection pushes this
criticism somewhat further by claiming that the motivation and activities
of all Platonic love is focused on the self. Again the criticism focuses on
the relationship between lack, desire, and the good/beautiful. However,
it has rightly been pointed out by Brentlinger that Plato does not make
desire and love synonymous: Love, [Socrates] says, desires its object
(200a). He does not say that love is a desire, much less that love and
desire are the same.
Indeed this seems fairly obvious. Clearly, I can desire many objects
without thereby loving them. Love, however, includes desire both in
terms of setting on an object to be loved and in terms of desiring to
give or procreate in the presence of the Good/Beautiful. Love is the
name of a relation which is characterized partly in terms of desire, but
includes active valuation and recognition. Moreover, it is precisely the
egocentric interpretation of the lack/desire model which renders incom-
prehensible the crucial move in the Symposium between the lack/desire
conception of the genesis of eros and the alternative vision that because
all persons are pregnant in body and soul they desire to give/procreate in
goodness and beauty. Once again this opens up the perspective which
enables love to be considered in terms of non-egocentric desires.
Platonic love is said to be non-personal. By this most commentators
have meant that because eros is focused on the good/beautiful and thus
on qualities which inhere in individuals, it is therefore only accidental
that we love persons. In other words, persons qua persons are not the
objects of love. In loving a person for his or her qualities, we are loving,
as Vlastos put it, that abstract version of persons which consists of the
complex of their best qualities.
To this he adds:
Since persons in their concreteness are thinking, feeling, wishing, hoping, fearing
beings, to think of love for them as love of objectifications of excellence is to fail to
make the thought of them as subjects central to what is felt for them in love.
The intuition that somehow the person loved is irreplaceable and unique
and loved as such is deemed to be missing from the Platonic theory.
This is a serious objection if our intuitions and experiences of love are
to be vindicated. One reply might be to show that there is an integral
relation between persons and their qualities and thus to exhibit the notion
that the qualities are, at least in terms of the beloved, not separable. Thus
to adulterate something of Brentlingers analysis,
we might argue that
I love a pint of Guinness and in attempting to say what it is about
Guinness that I love, I can point to certain qualities of the pint. I enjoy
and love the manner in which it is pulled, its taste, its aroma and its
colourful blend of dark and cream. When describing my love of a pint
of Guinness this way it is not at all clear that I am saying that I love these
properties/attributes/qualities, and that the pint of Guinness is a means
to achieving these ends. But in making these claims about what I love, I
am doing no such thing; these are things about the pint of Guinness that
I love, they are not separable from it. While I might also love a pint of
bitter, also for its taste, its colour, its aroma, these qualities as instan-
tiated are different to those in the pint of Guinness and thus in no way
substitutable. In part my love for the pint of Guinness is attributable to
historic/cultural circumstances peculiar to my own identity.
Roger Scruton suggests that there is a difference between an emo-
tional reaction to universals and one to particulars.
He is no doubt
correct. One can, for example, love a universal like justice, caring about
it passionately, as an ideal and working tirelessly to achieve justice in
ones own life and in the world around one. One also loves a particular
person and the kind of attachment one has to that person does indeed
seem different. Robert Brown appeals to this distinction in his
platonizing conception of love in his book Analysing Love.
Brown thinks
that love of individuals is to be understood in terms of characteristics or
qualities. He argues that we love a particular person because that person
exhibits certain qualities in a unique manner. Moreover, this concaten-
ation of qualities, including potential ones, is part of an open-ended
commitment to the bearer of these qualities, and thus leaves open the
possibility that there may be development of new or different qualities.
The universals (the qualities) are loved, then, as they are exhibited by
the subject. In other words there is a symbiotic relationship between the
universal qualities which both attract and are loved and the subject
within which these qualities inhere.
Now this sort of appeal seems to work quite well for the Platonic
theory of eros. By arguing that what is loved in another person is not just
qualities but the qualities as exhibited and instantiated in the beloved,
one appears to avoid the difficulty that love is non-personal. If the
symbiotic relationship between qualities and the subject which
instantiates them is maintained one thereby explains the fact that one
does love qualities but also persons. Moreover, it also, by appealing to
the manner of instantiation, accounts for the historical features which
contribute to the development of a love relationship as well as high-
lighting the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the particular instan-
tiation. It might nevertheless be thought that the sort of symbiosis
appealed to here is still not a love of the whole person.
However, aside
from the difficulty of saying, let alone knowing, what constitutes a
whole person, given that we can scarcely say that about our own self, the
symbiotic argument is sufficiently open-ended, because of its appeal to
the manner of instantiation, to sway the decision.
However, there is still a more damaging objection to Platos theory of
love which does not seem to be capable of being resolved by the above
arguments. The previous arguments, which in principle the Platonic
theory can address, were arguments which attacked Platos view of love
because it was deemed to be impersonal, not love of the whole person,
and to be a love that is replaceable, egocentric and acquisitive. These
objections, I believe, have been answered. But in the Symposium Plato
seems to say that love of persons is of less value than love of qualities
as instantiated in other things and ultimately to the Idea of Beauty/Good.
The issue arises in the context of the transcendent mysteries of love
proclaimed by Diotima. Here, after having suggested that the Higher
mysteries require both a daimonic nature and a guide, she argues that
certain minimal conditions of beauty must exist in the environment of
the initiate before he or she can progress on the ladder of love. I take this
to be a consequence of Diotimas requirement that the initiate from
youth must encounter beautiful bodies (and because elsewhere Plato
insists that a sound environment is a prerequisite to right reasoning see
Politeia 491c).
If the environment is suitable the person who is directed correctly must
love a particular body and engender beautiful discourse (209a9b1).
This follows from the model that desire has a moment of lack and a
moment of giving, creativity or bringing to birth. The next stage in the
ascent comes when the lover acknowledges that what is beautiful in one
body is adelphon or closely related to that in any other body. Moreover,
if he seeks beauty in form (eidei) he must recognize that the beauty of
each individual body is an example of beautiful bodies in general, and
unless he is to be guilty of anoia he must come to love all beautiful
bodies; and in doing so must also loosen his attachment to one particu-
lar body considering it to be smikron. This is the first intimation that the
transcending strains of eros involve a diminution in attachment to
particulars, where the general take precedence over the particular, here
specifically the beauty in all bodies over the beauty in one. But Plato
will go further. Attention moves from the love of the beauty as it inheres
in bodies to love of beauty in a single person, and then to the beauty
exhibited generally in all souls. From here the vertical movement goes
towards love of learning in general (the sciences), up to the final stage
of the ascent which involves the graciously given vision of the
Beautiful/Good itself, the transcendent object of love. The problem
becomes particularly acute because at each level of the ascent Plato
suggests that certain negative attitudes (kataphronesanta b56) must be
taken up in respect to the lower instantiations of the beautiful. This
means, it would seem, that anything other than the Beautiful itself must
be viewed negatively and thus also persons. This is strangely counter-
A. W. Price has pointed out that the attitudes of disdain or looking
upon the lower instantiations of beauty does not thereby render them not
beautiful. As he puts it: Diotimas theme is that Beauty itself is
supremely beautiful, and not that the lesser beauties are no beauties at
Moreover, he goes on to argue that what Diotima rejects is an
exclusive devotion to some particular instances of beauty and not a
liberal attachment to all kinds and instances of beauty.
But even if this
is true it doesnt seem to do justice to the special nature of ones love for
another unique individual. Price thinks that the ascent can be interpreted
as an account of how lover and beloved mutually develop their interest
in beauties that are more universal (by advancing horizontally) and more
high-flown (by advancing vertically).
But this seems to run counter to
the expressed view of Diotima that one must divest oneself (at least to
some extent) of attachment to the particular in favour of the path to tran-
scendent beauty.
The move from the recognition of beauty of soul to that of beauty of
laws, institutions, branches of knowledge, philosophy and finally tran-
scendent beauty involves, according to Diotima, a lessening of value
for particular instantiations. Price certainly presents an interpretation
which gives some weight to the notion that in a certain manner the love
of the individual beloved may be preserved throughout the ascent but
this is not enough to suggest that the beloved is loved as a unique indi-
vidual whole person. Price cites as evidence for his view 211b57 where
Diotima says: Whenever someone, ascending from these things through
loving boys rightly (dia to orthos paiderastein) begins to see that
Beauty, he would almost be touching the goal. And he thinks that this
implies that right up at least to the beginning of the end of his ascent
the lover is still, in a manner, loving a boy.
Moreover, Price finds the
strongest evidence for interpreting the ascent as an exercise of per-
sonal love in the fact that Diotimas original definition of love involved
aiming at:
immortality through generation in beauty and in particular the educative pederasty,
described in the so-called lesser mysteries of 200. Though it is only the discourse
of 210c1 that is specified as being educative (c23), the emphasis upon discourse at
every level (a78, c15, d46) confirms that communication is always the goal (209
While I think there is clearly merit in Prices view, it still seems to strain
the text because; 1) it does not give sufficient weight to the notion that
Diotima thinks there must be negative attitudes taken up in respect to the
lower instantiations, 2) even if education and communication are still
fundamental goals of the ascent, it is unclear in what sense the beloved
is loved as person, and 3) as I have already pointed out, there are strong
reasons for thinking that Plato holds that without having seen
Transcendent Beauty, all objects of love cannot be loved truly. Diotima
tells us that once the lover has seen transcendent beauty, he will then
bring to birth upon the visible manifestations of Beauty not illusions but
true examples of virtue 212a57. Such truth is clearly supposed to be
contrasted with the semblances mentioned earlier in the speech when
Diotima is talking about vicarious immortality. It might further be
thought that just as it is only after having apprehended transcendent
beauty that the lover can beget true virtue (212a79), it may be that only
then is he capable of truly loving the particular.
So it would seem that the final objection really does capture what
Plato holds to be central to an account of love, and that therefore his
theory does fail to accommodate some of our deepest intuitions about
love of persons.
However, while there is, I think, this inevitable tension in Plato
between the concern for the transcendent object of love and love of
persons, there may still be a further response which captures yet other
intuitions about love. There is surely a difference between recognizing
the transcendent object of love as the ultimate source of value and still
holding that certain beloveds are still loved as unique individual whole
persons. Plato argues that knowledge of the good implies a kind of
identification with that object. Now if we follow this account it might be
said that this process of identification marks out what is truly loveable
in the other, such that in loving the person we are in some mysterious
way loving what that person most essentially is. This was the doctrine
espoused in the Lysis that the object of love is immanent in the soul of
the persons. As Kosman puts it:
To love the beautiful in me is thus to love my essential being, my realest self.
Provisionally and within the context of self-love, I suggest then that talk of beauty
as the proper object of eros is talk of eros as directed toward what is truly native to
us and that in turn (i.e. circularly) may be thought of as the self which manifests our
good and beautiful nature: i.e. the nature which we love In self-love, lover and
beloved are one; but such love is always love of the ecstatic self.
Applying this insight to the love of others, Kosman continues:
If I love A because of or love the in A, I should not be said to love something
other than A if is what A is. Thus to love A for its beauty is to love A for itself.
But loving A for himself is not totally unconditional agapic love, because in loving
A for himself, I dont love what A happens to be, but A qua beautiful and this means
loving A for what he is, in spite of what he may happen to be, or for the mode of
his being what he is.
The views just expressed do seem to capture something of the mys-
terious element which many people commonly hold and which in part
explains the difficulties even reflective lovers have in saying what it is
that they love about the beloved. As presented here it is only a sketch but
it goes some way to explain this mysterious element. Plato scarcely
anywhere (except in his description of Alcibiades in the Symposium so
brilliantly portrayed by Nussbaum, and in the Phaedrus)
discusses in
any systematic way the special bond of love between individuals, his
focus is always upon the transcendent object of love, but this does not
mean that his theory cannot accommodate an account of loving persons
qua persons.
To tie up the various reflections on loving persons in this essay, I would
like to present a twofold conception. On the one hand love of a
particular person is grounded in the historic/existential nature of a
couples facticity. By this I mean that the reason I love Fionnuala rather
than Siobhan who has the same qualities to a higher level than Fionnuala
is explicable partly in terms of the history of my, and her, life. A range
of factors partially explain my love including all those factors,
sociological, cultural, genetic and historical that go into me being the
kind of person I am and the kind of person she is. While it is true to say
that I love her qualities, it is better to say that I love the qualities as
instantiated in her, in other words, I love her as bearer of these qualities;
and it is precisely Fionnuala as bearer of these qualities who is
irreplaceable, unique and individual. While I might admire and even
love such qualities or others in another person, my attachment of love is
to the historical person Fionnuala, and is sustained by among other
things commitment and care for her built up over many years of shared
But there are other senses somewhat more mysterious. Fionnuala,
despite all the things about her that I love, often fails to live up to her
own ideals. She is like myself all too human. But part of what I love
about her are her commitments to ideals some of which I may not share.
But it is not just that I love her commitment to certain ideals but rather
that these are partly constitutive of her identity. The failure to live up to
them, in no way abrogates that part of her self which identifies with them.
She is in part her ideals even if they are so rarely achieved if indeed
ever. In a sense I love her fugitive self. This follows one line of Platos
Moreover, there is also an important sense in which I love Fionnuala
for her very being. Let us imagine, God forbid, that Fionnuala were to
be involved in a car accident which left her comatose. She can no longer
communicate with me, nor let us suppose, me with her. I still love her.
Yet my love is clearly not directed towards her qualities or indeed pres-
ently any element of our historical vicissitudes. How is this explicable?
It might be thought that I am loving a memory or series of memories of
her. But this does not ring true to my experience nor indeed the
experiences of people who have actually been in this kind of situation.
So it might be that I love her in some form of expectation of her
recovery. While this may be true it does not quite capture what it is that
I love while she is comatose, and besides the doctors and surgeons have
advised me that she will not recover. Further unthinkable decisions for
me may have to be made. Part of my own identity lies there with her in
the hospital bed. Much of what is meaningful and good for me is also
placed in jeopardy by this tragedy.
There is a story told that each person has an immortal soul which is
akin to the Divine, and while it is certainly the case that I love
Fionnuala as embodied, there seems to be some kind of intuitive right-
ness to the notion that ultimately what I love in Fionnuala (at least on
one level) is her very being, her soul, her spirit. These provide some of
the grounds for faith in this matter, though doubtless this element is
largely abstracted from her concrete individuality, and may not even be
individual. But it may be moreover that while logos fails and mythos
takes over there is an experiential appeal to the notion that it is only from
the depth of the experience of the loving person that we begin to
understand what is involved in loving persons.
1 For an account of some of these undergirding intuitions to a theory of love, see, for example,
Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and
Stephen Leighton, What We Love, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71, 2 (1993), pp. 14558.
2 See for example, G. Vlastos, The Individual as Object of Love in Plato, Platonic Studies,
Princeton, 1973.
3 For a useful exploration of these issues see Robert Adams, The Problem of Total Devotion
in Neera Badhwar, Friendship: A Philosophical Reader (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).
4 See L. Versenyi, Platos Lysis, Phronesis 20 (1975), pp. 18598.
5 Ibid., p. 187
6 See K. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 50.
7 Some hints however may be gleaned from the speeches of Aristophanes and Alcibiades.
8 The issues raised rather quickly here are explored in some detail in my Platos Theory of
Philia in the Lysis: A Defence, Irish Philosophical Journal 7 (1990), pp. 13159.
9 A. Kosman, Platonic Love in W.H. Werkmeister (ed.), Facets of Platos Philosophy (Assen:
Van Gorcum, 1976), pp. 5369. References in this article are to the version in A. Soble (ed.), Eros,
Agape and Philia (New York: Paragon House, 1989).
10 Kosman, p. 155.
11 Ibid., p. 156.
12 This point seems to have been missed by many commentators who tend to emphasize the
intentional nature of philia/eros. Among commentators who have emphasized the distinction Plato
makes see R. E. Allen, The Dialogues of Plato, Vol II, The Symposium (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1991); R. E. Allen, A Note on the Elenchus of Agathon: Symposium 199201, Monist 50
(1966), pp. 4603; and D. N. Morgan, Love: Plato, the Bible and Freud (New Jersey, 1964).
13 For a fuller discussion of the arguments underlying the elenchus of Agathon see my The
Dialectical Interchange between Socrates and Agathon, Antichthon 28 (1994), pp. 1624.
14 See also R. A. Markus, The Dialectic of Eros in Platos Symposium in G. Vlastos (ed.),
Plato, vol. II (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 138.
15 See A. Nygren, Eros and Agape (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953); Vlastos, The
Individual; Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness; I. Singer, The Nature of Love, 3 vols., (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984); R. C. Solomon, Love: Emotion, Myth and Metaphor (New
York: Doubleday, 1981).
16 See Markus, The Dialectic of Eros; F. M. Cornford, The Doctrine of Eros in Platos
Symposium in W. K. C. Guthrie, The Unwritten Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1950); J. Brentlinger (ed.), The Symposium of Plato (New Haven: University of Massachusetts
Press, 1970). References to Brentlinger in this paper are to the version in C. Williams (ed.), On Love
and Friendship (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1995), pp. 15766.
17 Eros and Agape.
18 Ibid., p. 76.
19 Nature of Love, vol. I, p. 89.
20 In Williams (ed.), On Love and Friendship, p. 165, note 3.
21 The Individual, p. 31.
22 Ibid., p. 32.
23 In Williams (ed.), On Love and Friendship, pp. 15960.
24 It might be thought, however, that this argument does not do the work it needs to do in the
case of loving another person because while (for the most part) one pint of Guinness is substitutable
for any other pint of Guinness, our intuitions about loving other persons do not allow for such easy
replaceability. Later in the article I will show that there are other factical aspects to a love relation
with another person which escape this difficulty. Nevertheless, for the moment it will suffice to
argue that the Platonic theory is not incompatible with the idea that the instantiation of qualities
requires an attachment not just to the qualities but also to the objects within which they inhere.
25 R. Scruton, Sexual Desire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986).
26 R. Brown, Analyzing Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 1067.
27 See S. Leighton, What We Love, pp. 1523.
28 A. W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989),
p. 44.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., p. 45.
31 Ibid., p. 48.
32 Platonic Love, p. 159.
33 Ibid.
34 See Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness. It is also perhaps worth noting that there is an attempt
to spell out something of what loving persons involves, within (contra Nussbaum) the general
metaphysics adumbrated in the Symposium, in Platos Phaedrus. However I cannot argue this issue