Platonic love (often lower-cased as platonic) is a type of love, or close relationship, that is non-romantic. It is named after Greek philosopher Plato, though the philosopher never used the term himself. Platonic love as devised by Plato concerns rising through levels of closeness to wisdom and true beauty from carnal attraction to individual bodies to attraction to souls, and eventually, union with the truth. This is the ancient, philosophical interpretation. Platonic love is contrasted with romantic love.
Platonic love is examined in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium, which has as its topic the subject of love or Eros generally. It explains the possibilities of how the feeling of love began and how it has evolved—both sexually and non-sexually. Of particular importance is the speech of Socrates, who attributes to the prophetess Diotima an idea of platonic love as a means of ascent to contemplation of the divine. The step of this ascent is known as the “Ladder of Love”. For Diotima, and for Plato generally, the most correct use of love of human beings is to direct one’s mind to love of divinity. Socrates defines love based on separate classifications of pregnancy (to bear offspring); pregnancy of the body, pregnancy of the soul, and direct connection to Being. Pregnancy of the body results in human children. Pregnancy of the soul, the next step in the process, produces “virtue” – which is the soul (truth) translating itself into material form.
“[…] virtue for the Greeks means self-sameness […] in Plato’s terms, Being or idea.”(106)
In short, with genuine platonic love, the beautiful or lovely other person inspires the mind and the soul and directs one’s attention to spiritual things. Pausanias, in Plato’s Symposium (181b–182a), explained two types of love or Eros—Vulgar Eros or earthly love and Divine Eros or divine love. Vulgar Eros is nothing but mere material attraction towards a beautiful body for physical pleasure and reproduction. Divine Eros begins the journey from physical attraction, i.e. attraction towards beautiful form or body but transcends gradually to love for Supreme Beauty. This concept of Divine Eros is later transformed into the term platonic love. Vulgar Eros and Divine Eros are both connected and part of the same continuous process of pursuing totality of being itself, with the purpose of mending human nature, eventually reaching a point of unity where there is no longer an aspiration to change.
“Eros is […] a moment of transcendence […] in so far as the other can never be possessed without being annihilated in its status as the other, at which point both desire and transcendence would cease […] (84)
Eros as a god
In the Symposium, Eros is discussed as a Greek god – more specifically, the king of the gods, with each guest of the party giving a eulogy in praise of Eros.
“So this is how I assert that Eros is the oldest, most honorable, and most competent of the gods with regard to the acquisition of virtue and happiness by human beings both when living and dead.” (180c, 8) – Plato’s quoting of Phaedrus’ eulogy on Eros
Virtue, according to Greek philosophy, is the concept of how closely reality and material form equate with the ideal, true essence of an idea, such as beauty. Virtue is the result of pregnancy of the soul. This definition varies considerably from the modern English interpretation of the term, where virtue equates to that which is good, positive, or benevolent. This can be seen as a form of linguistic relativity.
Some modern authors’ perception of the terms “virtue” and “good” as they are translated into English from the Symposium are a good indicator of this misunderstanding. In the following quote, the author simplifies the idea of virtue as simply what is “good”.
“[…] what is good is beautiful, and what is beautiful is good […]”
Ladder of Love
The Ladder of Love is named as such because it relates each step toward Being itself as consecutive rungs of a ladder. Each step closer to the truth further distances love from beauty of the body toward love that is more focused on wisdom and the essence of beauty.
The ladder starts with carnal attraction of body for body, progressing to a love for body and soul. Eventually, in time, with consequent steps up the ladder, the idea of beauty is eventually no longer connected with a body, but entirely united with Being itself.
“[…] decent human beings must be gratified, as well as those that are not as yet decent, so that they might become more decent; and the love of the decent must be preserved.” (187d, 17) – Eryximachus’ “completion” of Pausanias’ speech on Eros
Tragedy and comedy
Plato’s Symposium defines two extremes in the process of platonic love; the entirely carnal and the entirely ethereal. These two extremes of love are seen by the Greeks in terms of tragedy and comedy. According to Diotima in her discussion with Socrates, for anyone to achieve the final rung in the Ladder of Love, they would essentially transcend the body and rise to immortality – gaining direct access to Being. Such a form of love is impossible for a mortal to achieve.
What Plato describes as “pregnancy of the body” is entirely carnal and seeks pleasure and beauty in bodily form only. This is the type of love, that, according to Socrates, is practiced by animals.
“Now, if both these portraits of love, the tragic and the comic, are exaggerations, then we could say that the genuine portrayal of Platonic love is the one that lies between them. The love described as the one practiced by those who are pregnant according to the soul, who partake of both the realm of beings and the realm of Being, who grasp Being indirectly, through the mediation of beings, would be a love that Socrates could practice.”
Diotima considers the carnal limitation of human beings to the pregnancy of the body to be a form of tragedy, as it separates someone from the pursuit of truth. One would be forever limited to beauty of the body, never being able to access the true essence of beauty.
Diotima considers the idea of a mortal having direct access to Being to be a comic situation simply because of the impossibility of it. The offspring of true virtue would essentially lead to a mortal achieving immortality.
Evolution of platonic love
In the Middle Ages arose a new interest in Plato, his philosophy and his view of love. This was caused by Georgios Gemistos Plethon during the Councils of Ferrara and Firenze in 1438-1439. Later in 1469, Marsilio Ficino put forward a theory of neo-platonic love in which he defines love as a personal ability of an individual which guides their soul towards cosmic processes and lofty spiritual goals and heavenly ideas (De Amore, Les Belles Lettres, 2012). The first use of the modern sense of platonic love is taken as an invention of Ficino in one of his letters.
Though Plato’s discussions of love originally centered on relationships which were sexual and between members of the same sex, scholar Todd Reeser studies how the meaning of platonic love in Plato’s original sense underwent a transformation during the Renaissance, leading to the contemporary sense of nonsexual heterosexual love.
The English term dates back to William Davenant’s The Platonic Lovers (performed in 1635); a critique of the philosophy of platonic love which was popular at Charles I’s court. It is derived from the concept in Plato’s Symposium of the love of the idea of good which lies at the root of all virtue and truth. For a brief period, Platonic love was a fashionable subject at the English royal court, especially in the circle around Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. Platonic love was the theme of some of the courtly masques performed in the Caroline era—though the fashion soon waned under pressures of social and political change.
Seven types of love
Throughout these eras platonic love slowly was categorized into different subsections, which were:
- Eros is a sexual or passionate love, or a modern perspective of romantic love.
- Philia is the type of love that is directed towards friendship or goodwill, often is met with mutual benefits that also can be formed by companionship, dependability, and trust.
- Storge is the type of love that is found between parents and children, and this is often a unilateral love.
- Agape is the universal love, that can consist of the love for strangers, nature, or god.
- Ludus is a playful and uncommitted love, this is focused for fun and sometimes as a conquest with no strings attached.
- Pragma is the type of love that is founded on duty and reason, and one’s longer-term interests.
- Philautia is self-love and this can be healthy or unhealthy; unhealthy if one places oneself above the gods (to the point of hubris), and healthy if it is used to build self esteem and confidence.
There is a type of porosity that allows love to filter through one type and into the next, causing them to seep into and pass through each other. For Plato, love aims at beautiful and good things, because this brings happiness. Truth and wisdom are the most dependable and beautiful and the best of all good things, and this is why Plato suggests that love is not a god but rather a philosopher.
Definition of platonic love
“Platonic love in its modern popular sense is an affectionate relationship into which the sexual element does not enter, especially in cases where one might easily assume otherwise.” “Platonic lovers function to underscore a supportive role where the friend sees her or his duty as the provision of advice, encouragement, and comfort to the other person […] and do not entail exclusivity”
Complications of platonic love
One of the complications of platonic love lies within the persistence of the use of the title itself “platonic love” versus the use of “friend”. It is the use of the word love that directs us towards a deeper relationship than the scope of a normal friendship.
Secondly, a study by Hause and Messman states: “The most popular reasons for retaining a platonic relationship of the opposite sex (or sex of attraction) was to safeguard a relationship, followed by not attracted, network disapproval, third party, risk aversion, and time out.” This points to the fact that the title of platonic love in most cases is actually a title-holder to avoid sexual interaction between knowing and consenting friends, with mutual or singular sexual interest and/or tension existing.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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