On the basis of the Symposium, outline and discuss the main features of platonic love.

Is this ‘love’ as we normally understand it?

By Eleanor Mason

Edited by Irene Ivanaj


Eros is most famously remembered as the God of Love. However, he is not always personified, rather, often eros is perceived as a cosmic principle. Most simply, eros can be translated as ‘Love’. However, the extent to which these terms are in fact synonymous is complicated. This work discusses the concept of love in Plato’s Symposium, an ancient work describing a dinner party of prominent Greeks who each convey their conception of eros.

The main features of the Platonic vision of love are that eros is a motivational force, rather than a state, and that its object is ‘the good’. The goal of Platonic love is to achieve immortality so that the lover can possess the good forever, and the method of achieving this is to produce mental or physical offspring in beauty. The final major feature is that the lover is supposed to have a changing perception of what constitutes ‘the good’ and ‘beauty’ so that they move by stages from love of individuals to universals and finally to love and contemplation of the Form of Beauty. This eros is defined by the lover, not their beloved, and so appears selfish as it seems to ignore the ideas of mutual affection, kindness, or loyalty to an individual which are key to a modern understanding of love. However, if one takes these qualities to be aspects of philia (friendship), rather than eros, Platonic love becomes much more recognisable as the passionate, self-driven aspect of the concept we call ‘love’.

In the Symposium, Socrates, via Diotima, defines Platonic eros as ‘the desire to have the good forever’ and, in so doing, demonstrates that this version of love describes a motivation rather than a state of being.[1] This is illustrated in the personification of Eros as a daemon who aids people on their journey.[2] Platonic love is a driving force and a ‘guide’ to what is lacking from our lives, so that Diotima describes him as always being ‘in a state of need’.[3] The concept of eros as a guide also appears in the other speeches of the Symposium.[4] In Aristophanes’ speech, for example, the motivational eros drives a lover to find unity with a partner (193a), whilst, in that of Alcibiades, it causes him to pursue Socrates.[5] These descriptions of passionate desire are far more familiar to the reader than Socrates’ abstract account yet they describe the same things – a love that drives you towards gaining what you perceive to be good. For this reason, Nussbaum argues that the Symposium should be read as a whole, with all parts of it contributing to the image of Platonic love.[6]

However, there are problems with this approach. Socrates’ speech contains some implicit contradictions of earlier depictions of Eros (for example, of Aristophanes’ at 205d-e) and while Socrates will change and perfect the particulars, the earlier speeches have laid the groundwork for his image of Eros as a motivation or urge. In this way, Platonic love is described as what draws the lover towards what they perceive as good and this is recognisable as the ‘desire’ aspect of today’s concept of love, but not as the experience of ‘being in love’.

Plato describes the object of love as ‘the good’, which a lover desires to have forever.[7] The idea that people love what they perceive as good and aim to possess it is very familiar, and also extends eros from just loving people to any object, activity, or concept. ‘Love’ is used in the same way today not only to describe the love of individuals but also of pastimes and anything else that brings enjoyment. Once again, Socrates’ abstract description of ‘the good’ is exemplified in other speeches. According to Aristophanes, the good pursued is ‘wholeness’ with another person, while Alcibiades views Socrates himself as the good he desires to possess.[8] That we desire to have this good ‘forever’ indicates that eros does not cease once its object is gained, and so ties in with ideas of ‘everlasting love’. Even if the lover has gained possession of ‘the good’, they will continue to desire to have it for the rest of time.

Since the lover wishes to possess the good forever, Plato asserts that they should also wish to gain immortality so that they can possess the good beyond their mortal lifespan.[9] However, since true immortality is the privilege of the gods alone, mortals must attempt to gain it by other means, and these are ‘reproduction and birth in beauty’.[10] Physically, this means sexual reproduction. However, we can also seek a mental immortality through production of great works of art and literature, and Diotima prioritises this over the physical.[11] When two people who are ‘pregnant in mind’ with ideas and inspiration having come together, the resulting discussion may lead to production of great works which will ensure their author’s immortality.[12] Sheffield describes how in this process ‘the philosopher needs to pass on his mental life to a beloved in order to secure his own immortality’ and thus creates a new mental life in the beloved while preserving his own by passing it on.[13] However, production of something new, whether a physical or mental child, seems to be only a pseudo-immortality at best and so implies that the eros of mortals is doomed to be unsatisfied. The idea of a love whose function is reproduction and birth could be recognisable through an evolutionary lens as the need to continue a species, but this seems a sterile explanation and unlike usual understandings of love. The idea that love’s function is to reproduce to gain the lover immortality implies that love is selfish and exists only to gain the lover what they want, rather than being directed at anyone who is inherently loveable. Reproduction of either sort could be accepted in modern thought as a possible outcome of a selfless love, but to call it the ‘function’ and goal makes eros seem uncomfortably selfish and so unlike current conceptions of love which focus more on giving to the beloved than the gain of the lover.

Additionally, Diotima’s prioritisation of the mental ‘birth’ between two men in a homoerotic relationship seems to have no basis.[14] Although same-sex couples are naturally limited to this rather than physical reproduction, there seems no reason to exclude heterosexual couples or female same-sex couples from having a part in mental reproduction. Plato seems here to be capitalising on the acceptance of male homo-eroticism in his contemporary society, and particularly among the internal audience to Socrates’ speech, rather than indicating any valid point on the interplay of love and gender.

Plato also explains that the true philosopher and lover’s perception of ‘the good’ will change over time from the beauty of the individual to the universal. According to Diotima’s scala amoris (steps of love), the ideal lover will begin loving the beauty of an individual body, then realise that all bodies possess the same beauty and so love all of them.[15] Next, they will discover that the beauty of the mind is superior to that of the body and, as before, will love first an individual and then all minds as sharing the same beauty. Finally, in a moment resembling the initiation into a mystery cult, the lover will recognise the Form of Beauty, which is superior to all other reflections of beauty in minds and bodies. This has been one of the most contentious passages of the Symposium, since it seems to indicate that abandoning the individual beloved for a more abstract and universal one is a requirement for true understanding and love. Price argues that this need not be the case, but that the lover can retain his affections for an individual while still progressing his understanding of beauty. In this way the ascent can be read as ‘a series of attractions, not dissatisfactions’ up the levels of the scala amoris, so that ‘personal love… is thereby not supplanted but glorified’.[16] Furthermore, just because the lover has understood the Form of Beauty, there seems no reason for each separate reflection of it to become unworthy. Just as we can enjoy the assembled beauty of an entire garden while equally appreciating the individual beauty of the flowers within it, we can surely love both Beauty as an entity and individually beautiful things. However, Plato in the Symposium does not seem to support this view. Contrary to Price’s claims, he has Diotima specifically say that at each level of the ascent, the lover will move on ‘despising this [former] passion and regarding it as petty’.[17] This attitude is supported by his characterisation of Socrates, the apparent incarnation of Eros. The Symposium shows Socrates scorning Alcibiades and as entirely immune to the pleasures of the flesh in his contemplation of higher beauty and so indicates that the true lover discards the individual in his eros-driven pursuit of the good and beautiful.[18] This image does not seem to fit with the earlier description of love’s function as reproduction. The lover, at any stage of the ascent, will surely still need other individuals so that they can pass on their thoughts and mentally ‘give birth’ to achieve immortality and perhaps a devoted pair could even progress together on the path to understanding.[19]

Once again, however, this idea does not match Plato’s depiction of Socrates, the ideal lover. Socrates does not seem to be passing on his mental life, as it is abundantly clear in Alcibiades’ speech that he does not know about the scala amoris. He is able to describe a beauty higher than the physical when he recalls Socrates’ inner life as ‘so divine, golden, so utterly beautiful and amazing’.[20] However, Alcibiades cannot put a name to it, which suggests that Socrates has not shared with him what he has just shared with the rest of the guests, and the reader, and so has not passed on his thoughts. We do not see how Socrates is mentally ‘giving birth’ with another at all as he appears aloof and separate to everyone else, arriving alone and late and finishing the party as the only one not overcome by wine or sleep.[21] It could be said that, since Socrates is now at some point of the scala amoris, beyond the love of individuals, he does not need Alcibiades or anyone else, but is mentally giving birth with the beauty he is contemplating. But if this is so, we are still not shown what the offspring of this might be. Thus, while it is certain that Platonic eros requires an ascent from loving the individual to the universal, it is unclear whether this must be accompanied by a complete renunciation of the individual or if individual love is still needed to enact eros’ goal. Socrates certainly seems to be leaving everyone else behind, but Plato offers no convincing explanation as to why.

A love that leads the lover to abandon the individual for the universal as they pursue personal possession of the good to achieve their own immortality seems uncomfortably selfish and unkind to today’s reader. Socrates’ rejection and hurt to Alcibiades appears cruel and distinctly unlike the image of a lover devoted to their beloved’s every need. Kindness and mutual passion are central to modern ideas of romantic love and, in this way, the scala amoris seems to depict something entirely different to today’s concept of love. However, Sheffield notes that in ancient times there was a disparity between concepts of eros and philia.[22] Philia is described by Aristotle as ‘wishing for anyone the things which we believe to be good, for his sake but not for our own’.[23] This selfless altruism is far more familiar to modern ideas of love, suggesting that modern thought conflates eros and philia. If philia is removed from our concepts of love, what remains is the passionate desire that drives us to pursue what we perceive as good so that we may possess it and its benefits for ourselves. This more describes the eros depicted by Plato which relates to the lover and drives them to their own gain with an ambiguous attitude to those who may accompany them at any stage in their journey. In this way, Platonic love cannot entirely be called love as we understand it today, but just one aspect of it.

Platonic love is described as a motivational force which leads the lover to desire what is beautiful and good in order to reproduce, physically and mentally, within that beauty to ensure their own immortality. It is concerned with the experience of the lover, and so it has a focus on their gain over that of their beloved which may appear selfish. Platonic love operates on different levels and a true philosophical lover will move from loving individuals for their bodies to loving the universal beauty of the mind and finally reaching a true understanding of the Form of Beauty itself. This describes only a facet of the love we are accustomed to depict today. Platonic eros is the selfish passion and drive that moves us to pursue our desires, not the generous and mutual love which sustains a relationship between individuals.

[1] Plato, Symposium 206a.

[2] Ibid. 202d.

[3] Osborne (1994), 92.

Plato, Symposium 203d.

[4] Osborne (1994), 92.

[5] Plato, Symposium 193a, 217a.

[6] Nussbaum (2001), 167.

[7] Plato, Symposium 206a.

[8] Ibid. 193a, 217a.

[9] Ibid. 207a.

[10] Ibid. 206e.

[11] Ibid. 209c-d.

[12] Ibid. 208e-209c.

[13] Sheffield (2006), 154.

[14] Plato, Symposium 209a.

[15] Ibid. 210e-211d.

[16] Price (1990), 25, 34.

[17] Plato, Symposium 210b.

[18] Ibid. 219c-d.

[19] Sheffield (2006), 164.

[20] Plato, Symposium 217a.

[21] Ibid. 175a-c, 223c-d.

[22] Sheffield (2006), 156.

[23] Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.4.2.


Primary Sources

Plato, The Symposium, trans. C. Gill, London: Penguin Classics.

Aristotle, ‘Rhetoric’, in J.H. Freese (trans), Art of Rhetoric, Loeb Classical Library.

Secondary Sources

Nussbaum, M. (2001), The Fragility of Goodness: luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and

philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Osborne, C. (1994), Eros Unveiled: Plato and the God of Love, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Price, A.W. (1990), Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sheffield, F.C.C. (2006), Plato’s Symposium: The Ethics of Desire, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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