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Love Part 1: Platonic Love

(Books, Fiction, History, Nonfiction, Reference, Poetry) Permanent link

I'm embarking on a whole new reading journey. Before I get married this Fall, I wanted to read and think about what some of the greatest thinkers have written about love. Where to start? (well, the library of course). There is a set of books called Great Books of the Western World, a collection of the knowledge and wisdom in fiction, philosophy, science, history, poetry, religion, and more. And it comes with an index (called the "synopticon") that allows you to read through these great thinkers by subject. I'm using this reading list as my foundation, but will probably supplement it with other writers (Eastern thinkers, for example!). This blog will be the chalkboard of my reading experience. I hope you comment, add your wisdom and experience, suggest other books, and join me!

We begin with Plato, the father of philosophy. On my first reading, I must admit I was not impressed with what Plato had to say. It seemed like an eccentric philosopher talking about something he had no clue about, over-intellectualizing it, making jokes about it, and talking a lot about the Greek practice of old men "loving" young boys. But I dug deeper. Someone once said that all of western philosophy is merely a footnote to what Plato already said. I don't know about that, but this is what he says [in Plato's dialogues, Socrates is his mouthpiece] about love:

Love is “young and tender” and “of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race." “He walks not upon the hard but upon the soft…in the hearts and souls of both gods and men…in them he walks and dwells and makes his home…and also he is of flexile form; for if he were hard and without flexure he could not enfold all things, or wind his way into and out of every soul of man undiscovered.”

Socrates sees love as a sort of mediator between God and man:

“he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together…For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of god with man…is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom…is mean and vulgar.”

This has parallels with Christianity, and there is no wonder that future Christian thinkers will take a lot from Plato.

The goal of Platonic love is to increase virtue and wisdom, “communicating wisdom and virtue...seeking to acquire them with a view to education and wisdom.” “Thus noble in every case is the acceptance of another for the sake of virtue. This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to individuals and cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement."

In contrast, loving for the sake of temporary things like physical beauty, is unwise:

“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, insasmuch as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring is over, he takes wing and flies away.”

On a more practical note, Plato talks about what makes two people compatible for marriage. In Lysis, the conclusion is that totally different people cannot be friends or lovers, but also that the same nature will gain nothing from the other; thus, lovers should be similar but different.

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Posted by Matt Smith at 06/07/2011 10:41:06 AM