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Erik Svetich

Plato’s Theory of Love: Failures, Successes and Reinterpretations

Plato offers a compelling theory of Love in his dialogues Symposium and

Phaedrus. It is radically different from generic theories of love, such as soul mate theory,

and would demand reevaluation of how we ought to think of love and relationships were

we to accept it. Although compelling, Gregory Vlastos highlights a couple major

concerns with the kind of love Plato describes which, I will argue, Plato cannot reconcile.

L. A. Kosman offers some interesting defenses of Plato, but I think that he fails to

acknowledge the depth to Vlastos‟ central concern for selfless love of an individual.

Nonetheless, there is a theory left to be salvaged from Plato. At the end of this essay, I

will offer a reinterpretation of Plato‟s theory of love which resolves the issues Vlastos

raises and maintains many of the points Plato wants to make. It is an error in Plato‟s

teleology of love which gets him in this trouble to begin with, but a minor reinterpretation

can leave us with a meaningful and viable theory of love that I will flesh out at the end.

In Symposium and Phaedrus, Plato offers two distinct (but not necessarily

incompatible) stories which come to the same conclusion about the purpose of love.

Love, Plato says in Symposium, is a desire “That [good things] become his own,”1

because then “He‟ll have happiness.”2 Indeed, despite the colloquial usage of the term, a

lover is anyone who has a “desire for good things or for happiness.”3A lover embraces

what life has to offer; she enjoys nice things, she admires beautiful people and she revels

in great ideas. But, while she may have some good things now, and even if she were to

attain many good things, they would hardly amount to anything if she could not have

1
Plato, Symposium 204 E
2
Plato, Symposium 205 A
3
Plato, Symposium 205 D
them “forever.”4 Therefore, the lover desires immortality so that those good things are no

longer limited by the ephemeral lifespan of a mere mortal. But, alas, the kind of

immortality that Zeus possesses is not an option for us, so love drives us to find another

kind of immortality. By loving properly, we are motivated to have good things forever by

procreation or producing children of the mind.

Plato continues the discussion in Phaedrus from another angle. He argues that,

despite the general misinterpretation that love of persons is the only real kind of love,

what really inspires our love are things which acutely reveal the Forms—especially

Beauty and Wisdom—to us. When we love someone, we love the way in which their

qualities present the Forms. We are not impressed with the beauty of the person, but

awed by the magnificence of the Forms which we glimpse through that person. The

person serves as a conduit for us to recall the Forms. Further, spending time with the

people we love is enjoyable in so far as we are reminded of perfection, yet it is painful

because that reminder accentuates just how lowly we are. We are inspired to reduce that

distance by becoming immortal in one of two ways mentioned above. We either

procreate, to pass on a portion of our self eternally through children, or we give birth to

ideas, art, technê, from our “pregnant”5 minds, which will eternally hark back to their

creator. Both dialogues conclude that this drive for immortality is the true purpose of

love.

Gregory Vlastos was initially struck by the brilliance of Plato‟s theory of love, but

a couple deep theoretical flaws eventually arose to dissuade him. He holds that Plato‟s

theory of love is insufficient because (1) it is egotistical and (2) it is a love of properties,

4
Plato, Symposium 206 A
5
Plato, Symposium 209 A
not persons. In these objections, Vlastos implies that we must grant the following two

axioms: (1) egoistic/utility-love is wrongheaded to begin with and/or insufficient to

express an amply altruistic (read: proper) notion of love. (2) There is a difference

between a person and his/her qualities such that loving a person‟s qualities and loving a

person mean two different things. Both axioms will later be brought into question, but

first I will expound on Vlastos‟ argument.

Vlastos argues that the repercussions of Plato‟s theory of love are untenable

because, on this model, love is valuable only in so far as it has a purpose for the lover.

The person or thing which inspires that love is of no great significance. They are a tool

for personal gain. In the Phaedrus, Plato suggests that a relationship can be symbiotic as

two people strive for ideality through “backlove,”6 but proper love does not require that

the loved get anything out of the relationship. Vlastos wants to say that these lovers have

missed the point of an interpersonal relationship. If there is no room in a theory of love

for the desire that the person loved has “good things,”7 that theory is simply insufficient

to accurately render the significant difference between infatuation and love.

The other contention Vlastos raises is in regards to the target of love for Plato.

Plato claims that beautiful people evoke a recollection of the Form of Beauty, and that it

is the Form which ultimately inspires love rather than the person. Vlastos, however,

argues that Plato dismisses the love of persons too readily. When in love, we love people,

and to call for a “love for place-holders of the predicates „useful‟ and „beautiful,‟” 8 is to

call for a comparably insignificant kind of love. Plato‟s theory of love is so antithetical to

6
Plato, Phaedrus 255 E
7
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1380B35-1381A1
8
Vlastos, The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato 107
the paradigmatic loving family that he is either talking about a different kind of love

altogether or he is simply mistaken.

I agree that Vlastos‟ concerns are irreparable for Plato‟s original conception of

love, but, before offering a reinterpretation of the theory, I need to first show that

Kosman‟s defenses of Plato do not hold. Kosman is going to respond to each contention

expressed by Vlastos in turn. In regards to the contention that Plato‟s theory is (1)

egoistic, he says that something is wrong if we do not enjoy and benefit from being in

love. And, in regards to the contention that Plato‟s theory is (2) a love of qualities, he

says that the human condition is such that there is nothing to love about a person if not

for qualities.

Kosman notes that enjoying spending time with a loved one is no cause for

concern. Rather, “A‟s love of B is cause for concern if loving B does not itself give A

satisfaction.”9 Indeed, it is queer that we associate desire fulfillment with failure to act

honestly/meaningfully/sincerely to begin with. Egoism requires further qualifications in

order to be of concern such that, either “1) A desires B only insofar as B produces some

good for A, or 2) A loves B only insofar as loving B produces some good for A.”10 I do

not see how this gets his argument up and running, however, because it seems that Plato

does make that qualification when he (Diotima) says, “What‟s the real purpose of

love?...It is giving birth in beauty.” 11 That there is a telos to Love (general), as opposed to

any specific kind of love, implies that it is not about people, but, rather, it is more akin to

a mechanism where the beauty and virtues of the loved are just ingredients for some

9
Kosman Platonic Love, 159
10
Kosman Platonic Love, 158
11
Plato, Phaedrus 206 B
product. If Love (general) has a designated purpose, it is not clear that we can engage in

any kind of real love unless it fulfills that purpose.

Even if we were to grant that Plato‟s theory of love does not make such

qualifications, the claim Kosman makes that „love is cause for concern if it is not

satisfying‟ is questionable. Surely, it is convenient if love is a satisfying experience, but I

am curious as to what Kosman would make of Sappho‟s poetry when she describes her

feelings at the mere thought of being next to her love: “cold sweat covers me, a

trembling/seizes all my body, paler than grass/am I, and little short of dead/I seem to

myself.”12 In order to preserve his point, it seems that Kosman would have to reply either

that that kind of love is satisfying, or that it is not really love to begin with; both of which

are somewhat dubious conclusions. And what would Kosman make of Ovid when he

says, “We lovers need hope and despair in/Alternate doses. An intermittent rebuff/Makes

us promise the earth?”13 Ovid claims here that a healthy relationship is not satisfying all

the time. In fact, “Love too indulged, too compliant, will turn your stomach/Like a surfeit

of sweet rich food.”14 The painful kind of love completes its telos quite well for love

poets, so how can Kosman claim that such love is deficient or cause for concern when he

is defending a theory of love which defines Love by its purpose? Perhaps Ovid‟s love is

satisfying, but I would suspect that it is satisfying only if/when his fights with Corinna

are resolved.

Kosman also rejects the idea that we should love persons rather than their

qualities, because it is only their qualities which we can know. When we try to get to

know someone, there is no other criterion to love by other than qualities so it must be

12
Sappho Fragment L-P 31
13
Ovid The Amores II.19 5-8
14
Ovid The Amores II.19, 25-26
their qualities that we love. In fact, “I don‟t love what A happens to be, but A qua

beautiful.”15 So Plato, he concludes, is right to talk about the target of love as the Forms.

I agree with his premise—that we cannot separate a person from their qualities—but not

the conclusion. This is the switch that Kosman subtly makes: Vlastos asked about what

we love, but Kosman replied with an answer about how we can come to love. I do not

concede that these are one and the same.

According to Kosman, “If I love A because of Ø or love the Ø in A, I should not

be said to love something other than A if Ø is what A is.”16 However, this makes the

following assumption: if there is no distinguishable difference between A and Ø, A = Ø.

Therefore, for all intents and purposes of love, a person‟s qualities = that person. I reject

this conclusion because there are reasonable assumptions we make about persons which

are not observable qualities, yet are necessary for love to be selfless in a meaningful way.

To express this point, I want to offer a fitting analogy to another unobservable. We can

distinguish our love of persons from their qualities, just as we can distinguish our interest

in black holes from bent light. So far as the observer is concerned, these so called „black

holes‟ are just bends in light. According to Kosman, we would have to concede that

bends in light = black holes. But, by making some reasonable assumptions, we readily

add that there is something more going on there than just the bending of light. We are

interested in the black hole itself. Similarly, the qualities of an individual—beauty, wit,

virtues, etc.—are all we can observe, so Kosman argues that a person‟s qualities = that

person. But, by making some reasonable assumptions, we add that there is something

more there than just those qualities. We are in love with the person herself. A physicist

15
Kosman Platonic Love, 159
16
Kosman Platonic Love, 159
could explain the assumptions we make about black holes, but what is the major

assumption we make about people? It is that they, too, consciously engage in the world.

That the other person shares in the wonder of existence, that they share a similar

consciousness, is a necessary component to love. Despite issues of privacy of mind, we

grant—for good reason—that other people share a similar structure of consciousness. We

come to love people because of their qualities; to this extent, Kosman and I agree. But

what we love is other people. This can be seen by the recognition that love is most

satisfying when we care about another conscious individual and they care about us in

turn.

In order to illustrate this point, consider the following thought experiment:

imagine that you discover that your loved one is not actually conscious because he/she is

a zombie (or hallucination or hologram, pick your thought experiment)! Whether or not it

is loved would no longer matter since you do not exist in its mind as well. Consciousness

is not an observable quality, and, as such, should not matter. Plato‟s theory of love would

suggest that you would go on loving it in just the same way because it has the same

beautiful qualities. But doesn‟t that seem wrong? It seems that our existing in the mind of

our lover is necessary for the most satisfying kind of love.

Try as I may, I cannot honestly redeem my conception of love of persons with

Plato‟s theory of love. So long as Plato holds that there is a distinct purpose to Love

which has nothing to do with the well being of other individuals, it simply cannot

properly make sense of how much greater love is when it is reciprocated. But, as I

mentioned before, not all is lost. Every step Plato makes is reasonable when we see that
the so called “purpose” 17 of love is not really a purpose at all. The so called purpose is

really a phenomenological explanation of what it is like to be in love.

Plato was getting too excited doing teleology, but many things just are the way

they are because they happened to be that way. It is not right to say that the purpose of

love is immortality. If loving just so happens to be a catalyst for seeking immortality, that

is not a purpose but a description of the effects it has on people. Plato is off to the right

start when he describes love as a sensation of lacking, of desiring to meet our most ideal

self in eternity, but it is by the inspiration love ignites in us—not some overarching

purpose—that there is a relation between love and immortality. Many things do have a

telos, but this universe was not designed for us. We should appreciate how lucky we are

to experience the magnificence of love, rather than putting it to work with some

anachronistic telos. It is just not the kind of thing which can have a telos.

There is just as much telos to the experience of love as there is to the experience

of greenness. The purpose of greenness cannot be „to be as green as it can possibly be,‟

because “green” is simply a designator which signifies the experience greenness. That is

to say, some green things may be “greener” than others only in so far as there is language

to call it that—every color and hue and texture already expresses itself as best as it

possibly can. Similarly, the purpose of love cannot be to give birth to beauty because that

is simply part of how love is manifested in us. Every kind of love—manifested in the

Forms—will inspire a unique desire for birth in different kinds of beauty. Love of a

person is exceptional, however, because the quality of the beauty manifested matters to

the lover since it matters to the loved. The lover strives to harness the inspiration love

appropriates her and try, more exhaustively than ever before, to give birth to something
17
Plato, Phaedrus 206 B
so beautiful that it will inspire the loved in turn. It is the exultation which comes from

successfully inspiring the loved that is truly happiness.

If we read Plato as explaining what it is like to be in love, instead of trying to

explain the purpose of love, we end up with the following: when in love, we are driven to

meet our ideal and impose our will on eternity by bearing children, ideas, art, technê —by

giving birth in beauty. This makes room for both the love of persons and the Forms. Plato

may be right that love is manifested when we are reminded of the Forms, but not that

these qualities are all we love—we love people. Kosman is also right that it is qualities—

the Forms—that spur on our feelings of love, but those feelings are most fully satisfied

when they are reciprocated by a loved individual. Indeed, it is metaphysics which gets

Plato in trouble, but phenomenology which rescues him.