My topic is love and the role it plays in edifying the human soul. It is my assertion that experiencing love is the key to seeing the unseen world and comprehending the nature of the divine. I will briefly discuss how we learn to love, what is experienced when we feel love and what happens when we feel love returned. Next I will present what love desires according to Plato. This will lead to the Ascent to the Form of the Beautiful found in Symposium. I will clarify aspects of seeing the unseen world that are described in Symposium in order to understand the connection between love and beauty. Finally I will utilize Socrates’ second speech on love in Phaedrus and Diotima’s Ascent to the Form of the Beautiful to discuss the role of love in comprehending the nature of the divine.
The first thing we do as a human being is love. We love the person who supplies our needs and makes us comfortable, usually our mother. We communicate our love by the look in our eyes, the smile on our face, the contented lilt of our coos and giggles, and at times our whole body radiates pure joy. We have innate ability at its simplest level, but we don’t really know what we are doing until someone loves us, teaches us to recognize the process and how to perfect it. Plato used a specific type of relationship called pederasty - a relationship between an older man and a young boy outside the man’s immediate family that was an aristocratic means of educational and moral instruction- to illustrate this mentoring process. Relationships between older adult males and young boys were the norm in Greek aristocracy. The relationship was complex and included role modeling, nurturing, mentoring, teaching, and initiating into manhood. The older man showed loving patience to his beloved boy. They shared a passionate love for each other, but that passion was not always expressed sexually. In our times, loving is taught first through parent/child relationships, then friendships and finally through a relationship with a spouse. When we love someone, we feel a sense of connection that cannot be seen. We feel complete when near to our beloved and a desire to become more than we thought possible before we encountered our beloved. This loving experience is described in Phaedrus as our soul beginning to grow wings. Love touches our soul and compels us to explore its possibilities.
We experience an increased aspect of love when we are loved by someone else. Our mother shows us that she loves us by the way she looks at us, the soothing sound of her now familiar voice, and the tender way she touches us. Her love communicates to us that we are valued, important, desirable, significant and beautiful. The love of a mother for her child is believed to be so natural, that its lack in the life of a child is incomprehensible and mourned as tragic. The experience of being loved by family, friends and our chosen partner brings our soul some of the sweetest joys in life. Now that we have experienced being loved by someone, our soul is compelled to discover a higher level and expand our understanding even further.
What is it that we desire when we love? In Symposium, Socrates and Agathon come to the agreement that love desires what it needs and lacks. They proceed to conclude that love desires beauty and immortality. Phaedrus describes when our souls first beheld beauty prior to being joined to a body.
…we gazed in rapture at sacred revealed objects that were perfect, and simple, and unshakeable and blissful. That was the ultimate vision, and we saw it in pure light because we were pure ourselves, not buried in this thing…which we call a body…Beauty…was radiant among the other objects; and now that we have come down here we grasp it sparkling through the clearest of our senses…beauty alone has this privilege, to be the most clearly visible and the most loved. (ref.)
Our soul desires to make the beauty that we recognize as divine from the ultimate vision part of us. Our souls want to possess this beauty and never want to be parted from it, even in death. Love has made its connection to beauty, and helped us to recognize the brightest and most sparkling of the Forms.
This step by step journey from love to beauty is gone into detail in Symposium. It is from Diotima that Socrates learns how the rites of love, when followed correctly, lead to understanding the goal of loving. Those who are pregnant in soul are those who have within themselves wisdom and virtue from a young age. At the appropriate age, these pregnant souls desire to give birth to the wisdom and virtue within them, and they are initially attracted to beauty because of the beauty within themselves. First they are drawn to beautiful bodies, and if they are lucky they are also attracted to beautiful, noble and well-formed (well-proportioned) souls. Led by these beautiful bodies containing well-proportioned souls, the virtuous youth learns that “wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it” and becomes a lover of all beautiful bodies. Alcinous attempted to clarify Plato’s concept of erotic love; he considered love that was directed only toward the body and dominated by pleasure to be bestial in character - love in its basest form. The median form of love combines body and soul by being attracted to the body, but directing love toward the beauty of the soul. This idea is echoed in Symposium as the youth begins to learn that “the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies” and the beauty of bodies as unimportant. He instead finds contentment in seeking to make young men better through philosophical reasoning. Sexual desire provided a useful illustration for the drive toward philosophy because they are similar in nature. According to Julia Annas, “The drive to do philosophy has to come within you, and be genuine…it comes from within you in a way that cannot be deliberately produced, and, like love, it drives you to focus all your efforts to achieve an aim which you feel you cannot live without, however impossible attainment may seem” (ref). The desire for the physical has now been elevated to the desire for something invisible, intangible, and outside the reach of the physical senses. As our love for our beloved increases, our attraction to the beauty we see in their soul increases and surpasses the distraction of the beauty of their body.
Love’s ability to look beyond the physical is addressed by Alexander Nehamas in Only a Promise of Happiness. Plato said that love is beauty’s attendant and constant companion and has no place for ugliness. Nehamas uses the example in Symposium of Alcibiades’s love for Socrates to point out “that it is possible to love someone who is physically repulsive but psychologically or morally magnetic.”
The question is not whether I can love someone who is in fact ugly...but whether I can love someone I find ugly, and I believe that’s impossible. But to the extent that I find you beautiful – which is always...a matter of love- life will seem better to me with than without you. The forward looking element and the risks that attend it are essential to beauty...My reasons for finding you beautiful include characteristics I feel you have not yet disclosed, features that take me in directions I can’t now foresee.
This phenomenon of seeing beauty in something that is not considered beautiful is belittled in phrases like “love is blind”. Yet it is not that love blinds us in regard to our beloved; instead loving is directed toward the qualities of the divine in the soul of our beloved, and beauty is the quality we recognize first.
From beautiful souls our pregnant youth learns, through philosophic reasoning, about beautiful laws, activities, and customs. These particular beautiful things help him to understand the beauty of knowledge. Nehamas asserts that
...though these “higher” beauties are abstract and seemingly impersonal, they never cease to provoke action and inspire desire and longing. Even the very last stage, when the philosopher understands through reason alone what beauty really is, is not a moment of pure contemplation; his understanding is inseparable from the truly happy and successful life he is now able to lead; his desire has not been sublimated into some sort of higher, disembodied phenomenon.
When the beautiful youth philosophically recognizes the beauty in all of these things, the beauty that is within all of them combines and they create something greater than themselves. “He is turned to the great sea of beauty, and gazing upon this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom”– he learns of Beauty itself. But these glorious ideas and theories are only images of virtue. Through love, reason, and philosophy he has come to understand Beauty itself; and while learning of Beauty, he catches a glimpse of the Form of the Beautiful. According to Nehamas
...the philosopher wants from the Form just what ordinary men who know no better want of beautiful boys: intercourse (sunousia) – without a second thought, Plato applies to the highest point of his philosophic ascent the very same word he uses for its lowest. In that way, he reminds us that beauty cannot be sundered from understanding or desire. The most abstract and intellectual beauty provokes the urge to possess it no less than the most sensual inspires the passion to come to know it better.
Only after knowing the Form of the Beautiful, can the virtuous youth give birth to true virtue. Then, as he nourishes true virtue, he will have the love of the gods and become immortal, which, according to Diotima, is the goal of loving.
Plato’s Forms are an integral part of his philosophy. One of the qualities that distinguish Forms is their separateness from the material world. Since they are immaterial, Plato reasons that they could not have any place in anything material. He is making an assumption that all material functions like the physical material in the world. We have just been taken through a process where our soul, while residing in a physical body, is able to possess the Form of the Beautiful by making it a part of itself. Why then can’t there be a body that possesses all of the Forms in their perfected state? That body could not be a physical body that degenerates and breaks down, it must be a body that is immortal, capable of containing the Forms forever. I believe that if Plato took the next step, he would envision a being who has the qualities of goodness, virtue, justice, beauty and all of the Forms in their perfected state because he had succeeded in making them all his own forever. This would be a being truly worthy of the worship of the souls of mankind. This is what it is to be a God. What our souls would have viewed while riding around the rim of heaven was God himself. We didn’t get a complete understanding of what we beheld, but because the beauty he possessed was so compelling, it made the biggest and most lasting impression on our souls. When a piece of paper is folded it becomes smaller with every fold, exposing less and less surface area to the scrutiny of a casual observer. Physical attraction, the smallest portion of life’s mysteries, is available to the most causal observer. The mysteries of life are said to unfold, exponentially expanding our understanding with each turn. When love inspires the desire for greater understanding, physical attraction unfolds into an attraction between souls that we ravenously explore. This exploration introduces our souls to philosophic reasoning, which further unfolds the mysteries of life and we revel in the Bacchic frenzy of philosophy. Our reasoning enables us to understand the phenomenon of the unseen world, unfolding the mysteries even further. It is while we are thus engaged that we catch a glimpse of the divine. This small glimpse propels us into the all-consuming desire to see more of the divine, and we seek to increasingly understand its nature. In the final unfolding of life’s mysteries, we come to know God. We desire to be just like him. In the beginning of our journey, what we loved was all of the qualities of the divine seen in those we loved and who loved us. In the end, we can come to understand that God loves us because he sees the qualities of the divine within us.
(Works Cited Available on Request)