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February 13, 2010

Question: Plato on Love

What is the definition of erotic love?  What are its origins, functions, aims and effects?  Are some kinds of erotic love better than others?  What is the relationship between erotic love and friendship?  Why do we fall in love with the individuals that we do, and is it either possible or desirable to transfer these erotic attachments onto other objects of desire?  What happens to the identity of both lovers and love if love is consummated?

Plato has much to say on all these questions, particularly in his dialogues the Symposium and the Phaedrus (both widely available in many translations; the Penguin translations are fine).  Over the next few weeks we'll be exploring some of the views put forward by characters in the dialogues, and also asking whether Plato gives us any clues as to which views are preferable.

First, though, I would welcome your definitions of erotic love.

And though much of Plato's analysis of romantic and erotic love is beady-eyed, to say the least, here are a couple of quotes (from a poetic translation of 1914) to get you in the mood for Valentine's Day.

'Well, when one of them ... happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other's side for a single moment.  These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.  No-one could imagine this to be a [solely] sexual connection, or that such alone could be the reason why each rejoices in the other's company with so eager a zest: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express ...' (Symposium 192c-d; translation adapted from W.R.M.Lamb)

And a powerful passage from the Phaedrus which describes how the soul of the lover starts to grow wings in the presence of his beloved:

'And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat: for as the effluence of beauty enters him through the eyes, he is warmed; the effluence moistens the germ of the feathers, and as he grows warm, the parts from which the feathers grow, which were before hard and choked, and prevented the feathers from sprouting, become soft, and as the nourishment streams upon him, the quills of the feathers swell and begin to grow from the roots over all the form of the soul; for it was once all feathered.'(Phaedrus 251a-b; translated W.R.M.Lamb)

Happy Valentine's Day!


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