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Plato and the problem of love: on the nature of eros in the symposium.

I Is love essentially autoerotic?

In his classic study published at the turn of the last century, Pierre Rousselot posed what he referred to as 'the problem of love,' namely, 'Is it possible for there to be a love that is not egoistic? And if it is possible, what is the relationship between this pure love of the other, and the love of self that seems to lie at the basis of all natural tendencies?' (1) Though the question is evidently a perennial one, Rousselot investigated it specifically within the context of the concern among medieval thinkers to honor the Christian demand that one love God more than oneself. According to Rousselot, there were two general notions of love in this period, each with its own solution to the problem: on the one hand, there was 'ecstatic love,' which interpreted love in its purest form as a violent ex-propriation in the unconditional gift of self to the beloved. (2) On the other hand, there was 'natural love' (l'amour physique), which insisted that love remains essentially self-referential even in its loftiest instances, but that the notion of self could ultimately (and somewhat paradoxically) be expanded to include what one would normally recognize as a readiness to make a sacrifice of one's own person. This latter notion of love, which Rousselot attributed to the 'Greco-Thomist' tradition, he deemed in the end to be the more satisfactory: for the radical selflessness implied in the ecstatic conception must surrender rationality to the extent that it denies what is clearly an undeniable principle, that it is impossible for me to affirm something as good unless I see it in some respect as good for me. (3)

Now, whatever one makes of Rousselot's assessment of the various thinkers in his brief, but rich, treatise, (4) the terms in which he frames the issue get us to the core of this perennial problem, and thus allow us to engage fruitfully with another question: what would Plato's response be to 'the problem of love'? The balance of scholarship appears to tilt in favor of Rousselot's judgment that Greek philosophy embraces a 'natural' view of love, at least as far as we can gather from the Symposium. At first glance, there does not seem to be much room for objection. When Diotima asks Socrates to identify the motivating reason for love, he answers simply and without qualification that it is the will 'to be happy' (eadammon eqnai). With approbation, Diotima gives his response the seal of finality: that reason, she says, is ultimate ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) (205a). Later, happiness is characterized as making the good one's own forever. In this respect, the defining impulse of love would be the desire for one's own eternal fulfillment. The eudaimonistic character that thus appears to belong essentially to Plato's conception of love has led commentators to regard that conception as fundamentally centered on the self, or, to use L.A. Kosman's provocative expression, human love, for Plato, is at bottom and most properly 'auto-erotic'. (5) There are some who criticize Plato precisely for this self-centeredness, whether they do so in the name of what they take to be the selflessness of Christian agape or in the name of the apparently self-forgetful magnanimity of, for example, Aristotelian philia. Those who wish to defend Plato against the charge of egoism that would seem to be necessarily entailed in this conception of love--Kosman among them--typically try to show, as Rousselot did, that an authentic self-love will include the generous and self-sacrificial behavior we normally associate with love. (6)

What seems to be a common presupposition among the commentators on Platonic eros, regardless of whether in they end they criticize or defend him, is that desire is essentially self-centered; this is, indeed, an inference readily drawn from the principle cited by Rousselot, namely, that one cannot perceive something as good unless one sees it in some respect as good for oneself. In this case, goodness--understood, it should be noted, specifically as an appetible object rather than as, say, the predicate of a moral action--is necessarily self-referential. This assumption seems to underlie the whole spectrum of responses to Plato's view and positions taken on the essence of love in his thought. Thus, for example, one attempts to eliminate desire from the highest example of love, divine Agape, (7) or one subordinates (receptive) desire to (active) generosity in preferring Aristotle's philia to Plato's eros. (8) David Halperin betrays the same assumption, for example, when he argues that the reason for the common dissatisfaction with Plato's view of love is that people overlook the fact that, in the Symposium, he is talking only about sexual love rather than other kinds. (9) Another response is to attempt to disconnect eros and desire in Plato's thought. (10) Or, along similar lines, one claims that, at the higher levels of the 'ladder of love,' desire gives way to generosity--so much so that Socrates retains the same word for love, eros, at this summit only for rhetorical purposes, given that the charge of the evening was to speak in praise of eros. (11) Or one concedes that the relationship to goodness is eudaimonistic, but argues that the relationship to beauty is not so: it is not desired for its own sake, but as a means of begetting and giving birth. (12) Finally, as mentioned above, there are some who expand desire to embrace the sorts of activity we usually associate with generosity: but to the extent that they call this generosity a form of 'self-love' they reveal the same assumption, namely, that desire, even in its most generous form, is ultimately self-referential. (13)

The present essay aims to challenge the view that Platonic eros is egoistic precisely by challenging this assumption. Through a discussion of a couple of key passages in the Symposium, we intend to show that Plato's conception manages to 'outwit', as it were, Rousselot's distinction between natural and ecstatic love, so that we might best think of his as a 'naturally ecstatic' understanding. As we will see, the account of love that Socrates offers in the dialogue depends on a recognition that desire is essentially, and in its most rudimentary structure, self-transcending, and thus that, without denying its relative truth, we must therefore go beyond the principle that one cannot affirm the goodness of something unless it is in some respect good for oneself. If we accept this 'rereading' of the nature of desire, which we will argue for below, we will see how it provides a consistent way of interpreting the relationship between eros and what Plato presents in the Symposium as its ultimate object, namely, the wholly non-relative form of Beauty. We hope to show that this re-reading of desire not only offers a deeply satisfying response to the 'problem of love', but also allows in principle a way to answer the other objection that Kosman rightly identifies as among the most commonly raised against Plato's conception of eros: namely, that it excludes in principle a genuine love of individual persons for their own sakes precisely because it is set on the acquisition of an abstract property.

A comment on methodology is in order before we begin. The present essay does not intend to offer an interpretation of the Symposium as a whole, but will limit itself to a consideration of a few decisive moves made in Socrates' speech, which are most directly related to our question. Although it is a controversial presumption, we will talk about these ideas as representing Plato's own view of love. Admittedly, the Symposium is an especially problematic instance of a general problem in interpreting Plato: because he does not speak in his own voice, we can never be completely sure who, if any, among the characters are speaking for him. The Symposium has the added difficulty of laying out a series of relatively self-contained speeches about love without coming to any obvious synthetic judgment regarding their various claims. Indeed, Plato seems in this dialogue deliberately to wish to frustrate any attempt to 'check' the sources by foregrounding, in the prologue, the 'second-hand' (or more accurately, 'fourth' hand (14) nature of the account of an evening that took place, he writes, a long time ago (173a). Now, it may be the case that the order of the speeches given that evening is not simply accidental, but carries philosophical significance regarding the relation of the claims made in the speeches to one another--a possibility that is certainly strengthened by the fact that order is shown to be so important in the evening's 'final' speech--but it would take us too far from our specific purpose to explore this possibility. (15) Instead, we will content ourselves with a more direct observation: there are at least two places in Socrates' speech in which he explicitly 'corrects' claims made in the speeches that immediately preceded him, namely, Socrates' interrogation of Agathon at 199c-201c, and Diotima's comment at 205e -6a on the story that echoes Aristophanes' speech. (16) If we are justified in assuming that the character of Socrates at the very least carries a special weight for Plato, there is warrant for taking these 'corrections' to be important for Plato, regardless of what he would make of the content of the rest of the speeches or what else he himself might want to add if he were to present, say, a systematic treatise on love. In any event, this is what we shall assume in the present essay. (17)

II The intentionality of desire

When the moment comes for Socrates to present his encomium of eros, he approaches his task in a manner that differs from his predecessors in two basic respects: first of all, he begins with a philosophical questioning of the speaker who directly preceded him, and, second, rather than relate his own speech, he gives an account of a conversation he once had with the wise woman from Mantineia (i.e., 'Prophetville'), Diotima. There is something common to these two differences: they both show Socrates as something other than an 'author' of a doctrine, and in that sense an 'authority' on love. In other words, in both respects Socrates stands forth as one who responds to another's ideas, rather than as one who possesses his own (which is, incidentally, a reflection of Plato's doing the same by means of composing a dialogue on love between other speakers at a gathering from which he himself is absent). How can this apparent modesty be reconciled with Socrates' uncharacteristic exclamation, when the evening's activities were first proposed, that the only thing he would claim to have expert knowledge of ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) is 'erotics' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) (177e)? The very first point established in Socrates' initial questioning of Agathon (which he claims to be a repetition of the questions put to him by Diotima, and thus even in this case not 'his own': see 201d), casts a brilliant, if paradoxical, light on this problem. As we unfold the significance of this initial point, we will see that the way in which Socrates approaches the theme of love and the content of what he says on that theme reciprocally reflect one another, and that the insight generated in this convergence of form and content already contains in nuce the main thrust of what Diotima will eventually teach.

Before he is willing to give his 'own' speech, Socrates wishes to ask some 'little' questions of Agathon, and begins with what seems to be a painfully obvious one. Is love 'of' something or nothing, he asks (199d)? To illustrate what he means by the question, he points out that there are certain things that make sense only in relation to something else: for example, a father or mother can be such only in relation to a son or daughter. Lest anyone misinterpret his example, Socrates immediately clarifies that he does not intend to imply that this relationship itself is erotic, i.e., that eros may transpire between parents and children, a notion he dismisses as ridiculous (gelolow). As off-handed as the reference here to incest may seem, it actually raises in a striking, though implicit, manner what is at stake in the question being addressed. Agathon had affirmed the age-old Greek notion that 'like is always drawn to like' (195b), and indeed derived all of the essential properties of love from this notion. (18) But, if this principle is true without qualification, the practice of incest would seem to be quite a natural expression of eros, since one's offspring (or one's parents) are more directly related to one, and thus 'like' one, than any other human beings--apart from oneself, of course. (19) In this case, the taboo on incest would turn out to be artificial, if not altogether contra naturam, an inference that would certainly make anyone who wishes to affirm the rootedness of nomos in physis uneasy. Socrates' joking remark in a subtle way brings Agathon--not to mention the other speakers, who all arguably share the assumption that like is drawn to like--to face this implication.

While one might wish to adduce any number of practical reasons for the necessity of exogamy, Socrates introduces the foundation (which will require further development, as we will see) of a theoretical reason with his first observation. The obvious answer to the question he put to Agathon is that love is always 'of' something, that is, the very notion of 'love', like that of 'father' or 'mother', depends on what is other than itself for its own meaning. The genitive, which expresses this dependence grammatically, is so constitutive of the notion that it, rather than the accusative, is used for the object of eros also in its verbal form. Thus, the act of eros is not an action upon an object (accusative) but remains receptively related to the object (genitive) to which it is ordered, and in this respect is itself determined by that object. We might thus say that eros is essentially relational, or, to use a more modern term, that it is essentially intentional. This term indicates the fact that eros is not a self-contained entity, but that it is ordered to what is other than it, so much so we could say that its very being lies in this dynamic movement 'beyond'. Its 'self' is its reference to what is other than itself. Socrates reinforces the sense of this movement by associating love with desire ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) (200a). As he explains, desire always and in every case relates to something that is not in one's possession, but something absent, i.e., not present ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). Desire is thus a function of need ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). While Agathon derived all of love's properties from the principle that like draws like, Socrates will unfold all that he says about love from the fact that it is dependent in a decisive way on the otherness, the non-likeness, of its object.

Now, it is quite common to point to this observation as the ultimate source for what one takes to be the problem with Plato's theory of love: it is based, one says, on deficiency, and for that reason cannot but be essentially egoistic in form, regardless of what else is said. (20) But let us note that there is an ambiguity at this stage, which will turn out to be crucially important a little later: The presence of need prompts the question whether it is the lack that determines the desire, and thus the desired object, or the object of desire that first determines the desire and therefore generates the lack? As we will see in a moment, Aristophanes embraces some form of the first possibility, while Socrates will eventually affirm the second, and they come to radically different conceptions of eros as a result.

Before discussing this difference, which we will do below in the next section, let us unfold the significance of the intentionality of love further in the context of the dialogue. Though they may have disagreed about the most important features of love, one thing that all of the speeches before Socrates' had in common was that they presented love as an object of praise. From this perspective, love acquires the status of a telos, an end pursued or the terminus of an appetite, and for that reason stands as a final state of perfection, i.e., a god. Diotima, by contrast, insists that love is not a god but a daimon, because while a god is in possession of all good things, a daimon, in-between the mortal and divine realms, is in-between possession and sheer emptiness (201e-202e). (21) Diotima underscores the 'in-between-ness' of love with her genealogy: on the feast of Aphrodite, Penia (Poverty) contrived to get a child by Poros (Plenty), who was drunk on nectar. Interestingly, it is Penia who initiates the relationship because of her lack of resources--i.e., due to Poros' absence to her ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])--which is consistent with the point made above, namely, that the dynamic tension of intentionality is a result of the absence of its object; nevertheless, she already appears to have the 'resourcefulness' to do so. Because of the day of the conception, Diotima says, love is a servant specifically of beauty, which she had already identified in a basic way with goodness. (22) The speech in praise of love thus becomes in some respect a speech in praise of love's object.

But the fact that Socrates focuses his attention away from love and toward love's object does not mean that he is shirking the charge of the evening, namely, to speak in praise of love. Indeed, he fulfills that charge in a much more dramatic and complete way than his predecessors. After hearing Agathon's speech, which Socrates said made him think of Gorgias, the well-respected sophist, he said, punning, that he worried it would have the effect of the mythical Gorgias' head, and strike him silent as stone (198c)--i.e., make him unable to speak about love. But his is the proverbial silence that speaks louder than words. No doubt occasioning a good deal of rolling of eyes at the symposium, Socrates explains his confusion about the task they were given, saying he thought to praise something meant to speak the truth about a thing rather than simply pronouncing beautiful phrases in its regard. We see here a common Platonic theme, namely, the contrast between appearance and reality, and the association of the latter with truth. In general, truth can indicate the use of correct words in regard to a thing, or it can indicate the actual showing forth of the thing itself. (23) While Socrates does remain in some sense silent about love, and speaks instead about what love loves, he thereby makes the reality of love actually manifest: he points toward that toward which love itself points, and in this respect his speaking of what is other than love enacts love. As Kosman puts it, Socrates thus praises love in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] rather than simply in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. (24) If love is essentially intentional, there is no better way to demonstrate that one knows 'erotics' than by not claiming for oneself any knowledge of it. What seems on the surface to be a contradiction, or at least a tension, is instead the revelation and 'making real' of a paradoxical truth. In a word, Plato, in the Symposium, makes love actually present by releasing it from the limitations of (mere) discourse--a reversal that finds reinforcement in the real love-play that occurs after the speech between Socrates and Alcibiades.

James Arieti has pointed out that each of the speakers depicts Eros in his own image: (25) according to Eryximachus, for example, Eros is a doctor, for Agathon, he is a poet, and so forth. This self-reflection in eros seems to be especially true in relation to Socrates: as commentators have pointed out through the ages, the likeness between Socrates and Eros extends even to the physical appearance; Socrates' description of the barefooted and somewhat ugly Eros appears to be a description of Socrates himself. (26) Here we would seem to have a challenge to the direction our discussion has been moving in thus far: the fact that the speakers all present an eros fashioned in their own image could be taken to imply that love cannot avoid ultimately being self-referential, and that however much it may point to an 'other' beyond itself, love still cannot help but understand that other essentially in terms of itself. This fact would seem to confirm the suggestion that Platonic love is ultimately, and inescapably, 'auto-erotic'. But this interpretation would overlook an essential ambiguity. To say that the description of love bears a striking similarity to the one describing it does not necessarily mean that one fashions love in one's own image; it can also mean that one fashions oneself in love's own image, i.e., expresses love's nature in oneself. And if love is intentional, and thus defined by that to which it points, then one best images love by conforming oneself to the self-transcending dynamic that constitutes it. In contrast to the static presentation of love as an image of oneself and at the same time as an object of praise--here we would have the essence of 'auto-eroticism'--Socrates dramatically becomes love by seeking what love seeks, which lies in a crucial respect beyond what he (Socrates/Eros) is. There is a mirroring of self and other in both cases, but the order of the reflection is fundamentally different.

III The absoluteness of love's object

To say that love is intentional is to say that it is defined by its object. Diotima identifies the 'something' of that which love is always of as the beautiful (203c), or the good (206a). At this point, we face what is perhaps the most decisive question in interpreting the meaning of eros in the Symposium: how are we to understand the goodness of the good to which Platonic eros is ordered? The answer to this question will most clearly reveal the nature of eros. Is the proper object of love good in an essentially relative sense, i.e., good because it corresponds to the desire of that which loves it, or is it rather good in an absolute sense, i.e., independently of any particular (and therefore relative) purpose it serves?

At first glance, it would seem that we ought to rule out the latter possibility because of the incoherence it seems to generate. Goodness is already a relational term; to call something good that was not good for anything at all in particular or in relation to some particular thing does not seem to make any sense. We recall that this is a criticism that Aristotle raises presumably with respect to Plato's Idea of the Good, such as Plato presents it in the Republic--namely, that it is senseless to speak of goodness simply as such; it is intelligible only to speak of the variety of particular goods. (27) Kosman, who affirms the intentionality of love in terms similar to our characterization above, nevertheless rejects an absolute sense of goodness or beauty for reasons similar to Aristotle's: goodness and beauty, he says, are 'incomplete predicates': 'To say of something that it is good must always be relative to some description under which the entity said to be good is specified.' (28) Likewise, Terry Penner argues in a different context that it is impossible for me to take something as good unless it is good for me. (29) He thus echoes the general position articulated with great force a hundred years ago by Pierre Rousselot, as we noted above. The truth of the judgment here cannot be denied. On the other hand, we may still ask whether the judgment expresses the whole truth. It is to be noted that Kosman makes his point as a formal philosophical principle rather than drawing it from any particular text in Plato. As we shall see, what Plato himself writes points to a much more complex, and I will argue, adequate, position. When Aristotle criticizes a non-relative, i.e., absolute, notion of goodness, he is after all criticizing the Platonic view, which ought at least to discourage us from assuming that Plato would simply agree with his criticism, as Kosman implies, and basing our interpretation of the Symposium on that assumption if there is another possibility that would allow us in fact to make sense of what Plato does say in the dialogue.

There are two things in the Symposium that would incline one to interpret love's object in an essentially relative sense, and so we enter into the issue by addressing them in turn. First, we have Aristophanes' speech, which presents the unforgettable myth of Zeus' division of the human spheroids as punishment for their overweening complacency, with its implication that eros is our search for wholeness, our attempt to reunite with our missing half. The other is Socrates' clear response to Diotima's questioning, that we desire goodness because of the happiness it brings once possessed. To say that we desire the good because it makes us happy is certainly to that extent an essentially self-referential conception of goodness. In order to judge whether this is a proper inference to draw from Socrates' and Diotima's exchange, it will be helpful to ask first what Plato seems to make of the view of love Aristophanes presents.

There is a priori no reason to assume that Plato rejects the full content of Aristophanes' story simply because it does not come out of Socrates' mouth. On the other hand, Diotima, in Socrates' speech, does register a significant qualification of the key point made, which, as a direct philosophical comment on that speech, we ought to accord a certain weight:

"Now there is a certain story," she said, "according to which lovers are those people who seek their other halves. But according to my story, a lover does not seek the half or the whole, unless, my friend, it turns out to be good as well. I say this because people are even willing to cut off their own arms and legs if they think they are diseased. I don't think an individual takes joy in what belongs to him personally unless by 'belonging to me' he means 'good' and by 'belonging to another' he means 'bad.' That's because what everyone loves is really nothing other than the good." (205e-206a)

If one were to ask, in relation to Aristophanes' story, what accounts for love's desire, the answer is plain: we love something because it belongs to us, because it is related to us in some way: it is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. Its relativity to us, in other words, is precisely what constitutes its goodness (and therefore its forming the object of eros). The intentional character of eros we discussed above would already require a modification of this claim, but Diotima's observation here brings out a further problem with it. There are things that belong to us that we would rather not have, e.g., a diseased limb. In this case, the mere relation to self cannot be said to be a sufficient cause of goodness, nor, for the same reason, a sufficient cause of love. Aristophanes' assertion that Eros' principal business is 'leading [us] to what is our own' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]: 193d) is therefore inadequate, at least to this extent. It may be difficult to see what meaning goodness has if it is taken in an absolute sense, without any relativity, but what critics of this absoluteness overlook is that goodness likewise becomes meaningless the moment it is reduced to relativity. On the one hand, absoluteness without relativity dissolves into unintelligibility (in addition to the fact that it ignores the dialogue's repeated claim that we love something because it makes us happy), but, on the other hand, mere relativity, i.e., relativity without any absoluteness--if we may put it thus for the moment--likewise fails to account for the existence of eros. Is there some way to affirm absoluteness and relativity at the same time?

We see an opening in this direction already in Diotima's observation in the passage above, which becomes even clearer in the brief exchange that follows it. A thing that belongs to a person does not bring joy to him unless it is good. Diotima goes on to affirm in an absolute ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) sense that goodness is the object of love: 'Can we simply say [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]] that people love the good?' (206a). But then: 'Shouldn't we add [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]] that, in loving it, they want the good to be theirs?' Diotima is not rejecting the relational aspect of goodness; instead, we could say that she is simply rooting its relationality in its absoluteness, and thereby reversing the direction, so to speak, of that relationality. This interpretation takes on weight when we realize it is exactly the same reversal we noted above in Socrates' introduction of 'intentionality' into the conception of eros. Goodness is not good because it is relational (good for me); instead, it is relational (good for me) because it is good. In other words, we do not call it good because it is our own; instead, we wish to make it our own because it is good. (30) Diotima is clear about affirming the absolute character of goodness first, and then 'adding' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) its relationality. This does not mean, of course, that relativity is a feature tacked on to goodness in a second moment, but only that the absoluteness has a logical priority within a context of relationality that is always present. Let us look again at the last words of the above-quoted passage: the absoluteness of the good does not in any way exclude its being (also) relative to a particular person, or a particular respect; it is just that this particularity does not by itself account for the goodness of the good. I cherish something that belongs to me because it is good. Its goodness does not exclude its belonging to me, but nor does it reduce to that particular qualification. To the contrary, Diotima is here insisting that the relativity must itself 're-duce,' in the sense of 'leading back,' to what is simply good.

If we thus interpret the absoluteness of the good as having a primacy, which does not exclude but rather non-reductively includes relativity, it provides a coherent way of reading an otherwise problematic feature of Diotima's speech in the dialogue. On the one hand, as we have noted, Diotima does indeed present goodness and beauty in the self-referential terms of eudaimonia. On the other hand, however, it is equally true that the beauty toward which love ascends with ever-increasing passion, and presumably ever-increasing eudaimonia, is categorically nonrelative, i.e., beauty that is not beautiful in any particular respect, but simply in itself. At the peak of love's ascent lies 'beauty in its nature' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]: 210e), which, though she had earlier claimed that our happiness is the ultimate reason for love (205a), she now identifies as the ultimate goal of all of love's labors ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]):
 First, it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away,
 neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and
 ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor
 beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another;
 nor is it beautiful here but ugly there, as it would be if it were
 beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the
 beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything
 else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one
 idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing,
 as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else,
 but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form.

Kosman attempts to reconcile the relativity and absoluteness of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] by saying what Plato means by beauty itself here is 'our own true but fugitive nature,' (31) though he himself admits he does so because he takes for granted that love, for Plato, is essentially self-love. But it should be clear from our foregoing discussion that Plato explicitly and emphatically rejects the notion that the self and what belongs to it (tl ogkelon) is as such the object of love. However much it may bring happiness to the self--and we might say that it necessarily will bring happiness precisely because it is good--the one and only object of love for Plato is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. (32) As we have been suggesting, to say that the meaning of beauty cannot reduce to its relativity means that beauty transcends the relative. If beauty is not beautiful because it is beautiful in some particular respect, this implies that we cannot simply add up all the ways that things are beautiful and identify that sum with beauty itself. In the first place, the number of possible ways is infinite, and therefore cannot be added. Moreover, even if it could, this would imply that no new particular instance of beauty would be possible, which is obviously absurd. Beauty thus necessarily transcends all of its possible manifestations. When Plato describes it here as existing 'itself by itself with itself ... always one in form' (211b), he is referring precisely to this transcendence.

Now, we are all familiar with the claim that Plato's characterization of beauty here is an example of his crude 'theory of forms', which he proceeds to criticize himself in later dialogues, particularly in the Parmenides.33 Although there is no space in the present context, an argument can be made, both on intrinsic philosophical grounds and on textual grounds, that Plato never abandoned, or needed to abandon, a commitment to the perfect transcendence of the forms. (34) Here, we can at least suggest that the desire to reject the transcendence of beauty might stem from a misunderstanding of the meaning of absoluteness in Plato's thought, or more directly in his language, the meaning of 'itself-by-itself-with-itself-ness'. When we think of beauty as non-relative, we tend to assume that this implies the exclusion of relativity. In other words, we take absoluteness and relativity to be mutually exclusive opposites. One can thus explain the dualism that we often attribute to Plato, without considering the criticism he offers of this very dualism in the Parmenides. But, while it is true that, if we, so to speak, absolutize relativity as those do who characterize Platonic eros as essentially self-referential, then we do in fact exclude absoluteness, the reverse is not true: the absolute cannot define itself in opposition to, and therefore relative to, the relative without contradiction. Instead, to be absolute is precisely to be inclusive of all possible relations. In terms of the form of beauty, its being absolute beauty is precisely what allows it to be the beauty of many particulars, which is another way of saying it is what allows there to be many--in principle, infinitely many--beautiful things. Relativity may be in some sense opposed to absoluteness, but absoluteness is not opposed to relativity. (35)

Such an interpretation of the transcendence of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] thus opens up a consistent reading of what Plato says about eros, and moreover offers a striking way to resolve the perennial problem of the relation between self and other in love. To see this, it is helpful to draw on a distinction that Plato introduces in the Phaedo. After offering, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum, an example of a simplistically materialist causal analysis of a complex reality (namely, Socrates' being in prison), Socrates says: 'Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would be able to act as a cause.' (36) The physical elements--i.e., the positions of his muscles and sinews, and so forth--have to be such as they are in order for him to be in prison, but they do not suffice to account for his being there. We would say that they represent a necessary but not sufficient cause. The very same distinction can be introduced in the present context. As Penner and Kosman have argued, it is not possible for me to take something as good unless it is in some respect good 'for me'. This is certainly true. But it does not mean that we are justified in inferring the relativity as the sufficient cause of goodness. Indeed, as we have seen, there is good reason for denying this, which Plato explicitly does. Instead, we may include the relativity as a necessary cause--it is impossible for something to be good absolutely without it ultimately also being good for me--and still insist that the finally determinative cause is its being simply ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) what it is, namely, good. Indeed, once we recognize this distinction, we can go even further, and state that a necessary consequence of its being simply good is that it also be good for me, without thereby reducing love to self-referentiality. To affirm that if it is not good for me in some respect, it cannot be said to be absolutely good (modus tollens), does not imply that it is good because it is good for me. We can therefore agree with Kosman that aiming at [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] is, in some sense, aiming at one's 'true' self, if we allow that one is most oneself when one possesses what is ultimately good for one; we may also agree that the good would not be good unless it bore some relation to us in our most original being; and we can still insist that it is not good because it is most primordially our own. Rather, to say it again, the good is most primordially our own, it most properly belongs to us, because it is simply and absolutely good in itself.

IV The individual as object of eros

There is an additional criticism frequently raised against Platonic love, which the foregoing reflections put us in a fruitful position to consider, even if a final response will turn out to elude us. Gregory Vlastos presents perhaps the best-known articulation of this complaint: Plato's conception of eros, he says, leaves no place for a genuine love of the individual person. Instead, because of the abstract and impersonal nature of the exclusive object of love--the 'beautiful itself'--, the movement of eros can find no rest in any particular, but in fact can 'use' individuals only as 'stepping stones' on the way to the soul's proper end. Vlastos himself connects this criticism with what he takes to be the ego-centrism of Platonic eros. But, if it is indeed the case, as Kosman in our view convincingly argues, that this second issue is independent of the first, insofar as pure selflessness (an other-centeredness that excludes the other's relation to the self) likewise makes love of a particular individual impossible, then our having shown the essentially self-transcending nature of eros still leaves us to face this objection. If, indeed, the only proper object of love for Plato is the beautiful/good itself, must we conclude that all particular instances of beauty or goodness, be they physical things, persons, or ideas, can be ultimately nothing more than 'stepping stones'? (37)

In responding to this question, it is important to keep in mind that this was not a question that Plato himself directly asked, (38) and so what we say will be somewhat speculative, drawing from our discussion of the nature of eros above; it is, in other words, what Plato could have said, given what we have interpreted as his understanding of eros. But first a general observation is in order. While there is admittedly a plausibility to the objection at first glance, given the necessarily 'impersonal' nature of love's object in the dialogue, we must also acknowledge the peculiar fact that what we would call the uniqueness of personality is more tangibly present in Plato's writing than in that of any other thinker before him, and has rarely been equaled in any philosopher after him. The significance of the very person of Socrates, beyond the value of his 'ideas', is just one, though the most obvious example. It would be odd to show such an exquisite attention--one might say a lover's interest--in regard to something that one claims to be excluded in principle from one's conception of love. But there are strong philosophical reasons as well to think that the objection misses the mark.

Let us assume that I love a particular person. A host of questions arise if we think about this situation philosophically. Do I love the person without any reference at all to her goodness? To say yes is to dissociate love and goodness in principle, which would not only generate a host of problems, but is clearly foreign to Plato. But if I love a person as good in some way, we must ask: as good simply in herself, or as good for me? Drawing on our previous discussion, we can see why either alternative is problematic. The utter selflessness of altruism paradoxically undermines the genuine goodness of the other, because it denies the other's goodness for me, a relative goodness that would necessarily follow from the absoluteness of that good. In more concrete terms, I am hardly affirming her goodness in herself if I insist that it gives me no joy or pleasure at all to be with her. On the other hand, a reduction of your goodness to the joy you afford me equally fails to appreciate your own intrinsic goodness. Avoiding both reductions, we ought to say that eros is ordered to your goodness simpliciter, which includes your goodness for me.

But here we run into the more pressing problem. Given our account of goodness above, in what sense is it legitimate to speak of your goodness at all? Isn't goodness itself transcendent of all possible respects? Isn't Plato saying in the Symposium that I ought to love goodness itself in abstraction from all instances? Yes, in some sense he clearly is. But we need to reflect on the alternative. To deny this would either require that we dissociate love from goodness, which ultimately becomes nonsensical, or that we identify the particular person with absolute goodness itself. Even if it were possible thus to particularize the absoluteness of goodness, doing so would entail what is obviously an extraordinarily perverse order of love. To identify an individual person with absolute goodness is to deny goodness to all other persons and things.

The absurdity of these alternatives should lead us to consider more attentively the implication of affirming precisely a transcendent goodness as the proper object of eros. Following our earlier analysis, we could interpret the transcendence and thus absoluteness of goodness in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner. In this case, loving the good in itself is not opposed to loving particular goods. Indeed, it cannot be. Instead, we could say that loving goodness itself necessarily entails loving particular goods, (39) but doing so in a new way: namely, not, in the first place, merely as relative to me, but instead as relative to goodness itself, which is another way of saying loving things simply for their own sake. (40) It is only because the object of love is transcendent that we do not have to choose between the equally unsatisfying alternatives: either I love you merely because you are good for me, or I love you, not because you are good for me, but because you are merely good in yourself. To love goodness in a not-merely-relative way is to love all good things in a not-merely-relative way. In other words, moving up the 'ladder of love' is not a horizontal sequence, which would imply exchanging one object for the next; rather, it represents an increasingly disinterested love of beauty wherever it is found. But, in contrast to at least one interpretation of the Kantian understanding of disinterestedness, for Plato, the more perfectly disinterestedly one loves beauty, the more wholly and passionately involved in it one becomes, and the more fulfilled. While the Platonic view may still not represent the Romantic ideal of an exclusive love of a particular person, nor the Christian notion of human eros as a sacramental expression of the relationship between Christ and the Church, and through it, the relationship between God and the world, one may nevertheless say the notion does not in itself exclude a development in these directions.

There is one more way in which the objection we have been discussing misinterprets Plato's notion of eros and its object. The objection reads eros as pushing impatiently past imperfect reflections of beauty in order that it may seize on an immediate vision of absolute beauty. This interpretation assumes that the vision of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] has an essentially 'private' character, which would of course entail my turning away from others so that the vision can be had for itself. Once again, this assumption is based on the dualistic notion of transcendence we have been criticizing. As we have seen, Plato is unequivocally clear that the drive to 'make the beautiful one's own' is not, and cannot be, a taking of beauty individually into oneself, but can only be a taking oneself to beauty, which will always necessarily transcend oneself and everything else in its absoluteness. In this sense, beauty cannot but be shared. This is the meaning of the one-ness of the forms: it is what opens beauty to the endless multiplicity of expressions. We see here a philosophical foundation for the remarkable 'availability' Socrates displays in his intercourse with others, his desire always to see things with others. We also see why there is in principle no contradiction between the soul's pursuit of beauty in the Symposium and the Phaedrus' depiction of the manic event of eros between souls, who ascend jointly to the beautiful. (41) Once again, the ordering of eros to absolute beauty does not in principle exclude generous and desire-laden companionship. Instead, we ought to say that it intensifies it.

This last observation raises a final point. When we interpret the absoluteness of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] in an inclusive manner, things that we tend to oppose to one another become paradoxically intertwined. We have seen an example in the often-assumed opposition between self-fulfillment and generosity in love. But we may see the same paradox in the passionate nature of eros. If it is the case that the absoluteness of beauty necessarily includes relativity, then it follows that, in an eros properly ordered, a sober freedom will increase in tandem with intense attachment. Moreover, as we see in Socrates, an 'exclusive' concern for beauty itself heightens the interest in even physical beauty. (42) As Holderlin's epigram on Socrates and Alcibiades has it: 'Wer das Tiefste gedacht, liebt das Lebendigste.' There is, in short, no reason in principle to attribute to Plato the contempt for the sensible world that has been so widely disseminated under the name of Platonism; nor are there any grounds for opposing Platonic eros, as abstract and self-centered, to the unconditionality of agape. Platonic eros is likewise unconditional, but that is also precisely why it includes without restriction a desire for the beauty reflected in the physical world.

To return to the original issue, Platonic love cannot be said to be auto-erotic, but should be called 'agatho-erotic' or 'kalo-erotic,' for its object is not [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] as such, but simply the good and beautiful. The absoluteness of the final object of love, then, integrates all the relative objects within their proper order. What Socrates introduces into the conversation at Agathon's house--and, indeed, what he introduces as something he learned from Diotima, and thus as coming from beyond this apparently closed circle of men who have assumed that eros is desire for the same--is love's essential origin in what is genuinely other than the self. But because this other, which Plato shows in the Republic to be the perfectly transcendent and thus absolute other, does not exclude, but non-reductively embraces relativity, the ecstasy of eros, and all the dispossession of self this implies, turns out, one could say, to be 'perfectly natural'.

(1) Pierre Rousselot, Pour l'histoire du probleme de l'amour au moyen age, vol. 6 of Beitrage zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, ed. Clemens Baeumker and Georg F. von Hertling (Muenster: Aschendorffschen Buchhandlung 1908), 1

(2) Ibid., 56-87, esp. 65-76

(3) Rousselot cites, among others, the following text from Aquinas: 'Ex hoc ... aliquid dicitur amari quod appetitus amantis se habet ad illud sicut ad suum bonum. Ipsa igitur habitudo vel coaptatio appetitus ad aliquid velut ad suum bonum amor vocatur.... Unumquodque amamus inquantum est bonum nostrum.' In Div Nom, c. 4,1.9. Cf. his discussion of the 'irrationality' of ecstatic love: 76-80.

(4) His interpretation of Aquinas in particular has been substantially criticized by Louis Geiger, O.P.: Le probleme de l'amour chez saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Vrin 1952).

(5) L.A. Kosman, 'Platonic Love', in W.H. Werkmeister, ed., Facets of Plato's Philosophy (Assen: Van Gorcum 1976), 53-69, at 61

(6) See, for example, Richard Kraut, 'Egoism, Love, and Political Office in Plato', Philosophical Review 82 (1973): 330-44.

(7) The best known example of this approach is Anders Nygren's enormously influential Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press 1953). See his discussion of Plato, in which he characterizes eros as 'acquisitive' and 'egocentric': 166-81. Gerasimos Santas bases his interpretation on the same assumption: 'Plato's Theory of Eros in the Symposium,' Nous 13 (1979): 67-75, esp. 69-70.

(8) See Gregory Vlastos, 'The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato,' in Platonic Studies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1981 (2)), 3-34.

(9) The judgment therefore concedes that sexual love (eros) itself is self-centered. See David Halperin, 'Platonic Eros and What Men Call Love', Ancient Philosophy 5 (1985): 161-204.

(10) In this case, then, desire is assumed to be self-centered. See Drew Hyland, 'Epithumia, Eros, and Philia in Plato', Phronesis 13 (1968): 32-46. Joseph Cummins presents a compelling critique of the attempt to dissociate desire and eros: 'Eros, Epithumia, and Philia in Plato', Apeiron 15 (1981): 10-18.

(11) R.A. Markus, 'The Dialectic of Eros in Plato's Symposium', The Downside Review 73 (1955): 219-30. Timothy Mahoney likewise claims that eros ceases to be egotistical at the very highest level: 'Is Socratic eros in the Symposium Egoistic?' Apeiron 29 (1996): 1-18.

(12) Harry Neumann, 'Diotima's Concept of Love,' The American Journal of Philology 86.1 (1965), 33-59; here: 37-9 (see also 41, 50). Again, the implication here is that because goodness is desired for its own sake, the soul's relationship to goodness is self-centered.

(13) See L.A. Kosman, 64-5.

(14) Apollodorus recounts his prior recounting to Glaucon of a story he heard, not from Socrates himself, but from Aristodemus who was silently present at the discussion.

(15) Leo Strauss makes the interesting observation that there seems to be some correspondence between the seven parts into which Socrates' speech naturally divides itself, and the seven speeches that are given that evening: Leo Strauss, On Plato's Symposium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2001), 183.

(16) Of course, there are clear allusions to claims made in some of the other speeches (e.g., 208c-d is a comment on Phaedrus' speech), but these two are the most directly related to our specific theme.

(17) On the basis of the sorts of difficulties we have mentioned, Neumann argues that we have no reason to think any character in the dialogue represent Plato's own view: see 34-37. There are some who interpret the Symposium as Plato's critique of Socrates: see, e.g., Stanley Rosen, Plato's Symposium (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press 1999), 279-80; Cornford, 'The Doctrine of Eros in Plato's Symposium', in Gregory Vlastos, ed., Plato II: Ethics, Politics, and the Philosophy of Art and Beauty (New York: Doubleday 1971), 119-31 at 125-6.

(18) Agathon calls the proverb a '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]'. The first appearance of this notion in Greek literature seems to be Odyssey 17.218: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. Plato refers to some version of this idea in Phaedrus 240c, Republic 329a, Lysis 214a, and Progatoras 337d. See also Aristotle, Rhetoric I 11, 1371b12-25. The attraction of similars is a basic principle in early Greek thought.

(19) It ought to be noted that Aristotle draws this inference explicitly in relation to philia, namely, that one naturally loves oneself above all others, and then loves the others that are most 'like' one (cf., Rhetoric I 11, Nicomachean Ethics IX 4). If eros is also taken to follow the 'like to like' principle, then autoeroticism incest, and homosexuality would represent the paradigm.

(20) See, e.g., Nygren, 175-6. C.D.C. Reeve, in Love's Confusions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2005), 113-6, suggests that defining love in terms of need leads to a conception in which the satisfaction of love entails its destruction.

(21) It is true that Diotima claims love is without a share ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) in goodness and beauty (202d), but she had earlier denied that love was ugly (202a), pointing instead to its intermediate character. We ought thus either to assume that her denial of any share in goodness and beauty is exaggerated to make her point more sharply, or that love is, as it were, an entity of a different sort, in relation to which the simple alternatives of beauty and ugliness do not make sense.

(22) See 201d. On the general interchangeableness of goodness and beauty, see Jacques Follon, 'Amour, Sexualite, et Beaute Chez Platon: La Lecon de Diotime', Methexis 14 (2001): 45-71 at 63, fn. 86. Follon does not acknowledge that there may be some specific sense in which beauty and goodness differ within this general equivalence (using scholastic terminology, beauty seems to represent the efficient cause of love, while goodness represents its final cause; however, the fact that they cause love in a different respect does not require that beauty and goodness be different objects, materially speaking), but the differentiation is not significant for the argument he makes in his essay, nor for the one we make here.

(23) Rosemary Desjardins explains the significance off the dramatic form in the Platonic dialogues for dealing with just this ambiguity, which she rightly claims to have been a central concern for Plato. See 'Why Dialogues? Plato's Serious Play', in Charles Griswold, Jr., ed. Platonic Writings, Platonic Readings (New York: Routledge 1988), 110-25.

(24) Kosman, 58

(25) James Arieti, Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 1991), 107.

(26) Cf., Rosen, Symposium, 233. The most direct indication of this identification, of course, is Alcibiades' unexpected contribution to the evening's discussions. While all the previous speeches had been about eros, his was instead about the person of Socrates. At that moment, according to Gunther Figal, Socrates 'wird zur Eros': Sokrates (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck 1995), 97.

(27) Aristotle, however, rejects pure equivocity among these goods and affirms instead an analogy. See Nicomachean Ethics, I 6, 1096b20-9.

(28) Kosman, 61

(29) See Terry Penner, 'The Forms, the Form of the Good, and the Desire for Good, in Plato's Republic', Modern Schoolman 80 (2003): 9-233, esp. 96.

(30) Francisco Gonzalez interprets the Lysis as presenting precisely the same reversal in relation to the notion of philia, namely, a movement from the traditional association with the ogkelon, to a relation to the good understood first intrinsically: 'Socrates on Loving One's Own: A Traditional Conception of FILIA Radically Transformed', Classical Philology 95 (2000): 379-98.

(31) Kosman, 60

(32) Or, of course, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.].

(33) See Parmenides 130b ff.

(34) See, e.g., Eric Perl, 'The Presence of the Paradigm: Immanence and Transcendence in Plato's Theory of Forms', The Review of Metaphysics 53 (1999): 339-62.

(35) Kurt Sier clarifies the distinction between abstraction as it is normally understood (which would imply simply a movement away from particularity toward the universal), and the Platonic dialectic, which follows both horizontal extension and vertical intension in a conceptual circle: see Die Rede der Diotima: Untersuchungen zum platonischen Symposion (Stuttgart: Teubner 1997), 155-8.

(36) Phaedo, 99b

(37) See Irving Singer, The Nature of Love, Vol. I: Plato to Luther, 2nd edn. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1984), 67-9, and 84-5.

(38) To be sure, Plato does jest about the philosopher's inability to see his next-door neighbor because his eyes are set on the universal question, What is Man? (Theaetetus, 174b), but he is not engaging this issue, here, as a problem of love and its proper object. When Plato does describe the erotic movement 'up' the so-called ladder of love in the Symposium, he is talking about the love of bodies, and then of virtues and ideas, and not the love of persons.

(39) See Republic V, 474c-5b.

(40) John Brentlinger also criticizes the interpretation, according to which Plato instrumentalizes persons for a love of the properties they possess (ultimately for the abstract property of goodness). He suggests instead that the property loved ought to be taken as the reason that explains why we love the person or thing, the basis but not the sole object of the love: see 'The Nature of Love', in Alan Soble, ed., Eros, Agape, and Philia: Readings in the Philosophy of Love (New York: Paragon House 1989), 136-48, at 141-2. Our interpretation offers a metaphysical justification, one could say, for the point Brentlinger makes.

(41) Phaedrus, 256d-e

(42) Socrates, we might recall, nearly swoons with desire when he catches a glimpse inside Charmides' cloak: Charmides, 155d.

D.C. Schindler

Department of Humanities

304 Saint Augustine Center

Villanova, PA 19085

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