A reflection on Plato’s Symposium
The term love has been bandied around in poetry, epic and philosophy. It is generally agreed that love is a good thing, the pinnacle of human relationships. However, the actual concept of love is one that is contested – and depending on culture and context the word can have very different meanings. With this in mind, I shall attempt to examine the concept of love through the lenses of various forms of human connection – and from this survey attempt to scry its exact definition.
The first potential candidate that we shall examine is physical attraction, also known as lust. Physical attraction brings individuals together into union; however, it primarily engages the instinctual part of the human psyche – rather than the rational. It is the drive to procreation that generates the pleasure that is at the root of lust, regardless of offspring being produced from the physical union. In this sense, lust is a physical pleasure that should be engaged in with the same moderation as all other desires – hunger, thirst and sleep. But it would appear, by itself, to be a weak candidate for love.
The second option to consider is the blood ties between family members, the unconditional emotional connection between parent and child. It could be argued that on the surface this emotion is selfless in a way that lust is not, an elevation of another person over our own needs. However, I would counter that the root of this emotion is not selflessness but instead a reflection of the selfishness in human nature. It is the instinctual drive to protect one’s progeny, to ensure the survival of one’s descendants and to achieve the narcissistic goal of immortality through our children. As an instinctual driver, it seems that this bond is, by itself, not love.
The third offering for examination is the bond of friendship, the idea being that ties of amity, divorced of the instinctual drivers of procreation, are a purer form of human connection. Despite my belief that love can exist in friendship – just as with the other two types of relationship – I also doubt the idea of friendship as purely a connection of love. Friendship can also be a form of pleasure, in which people engage in acts of debauchery or spend precious time with their companions engaging in acts of intellectual loitering. In this case, friendship is not entirely good in and of itself but is instead a mixed pleasure, which should be monitored and engaged with moderation.
If the cases of partner, parent and friend do not represent love, in and of themselves, then what is the alternate thesis? Love is selfless, in that we put the other above us, but not to win glory for ourselves. Love is also to do with virtue, in that we want to see our beloved improved. Therefore, any of the above relationships can also be a relationship of love, as long as the lover has in their heart a genuine desire to improve the beloved, not just the achievement of their own pleasure.
Anselm Feuerbach, Plato’s Symposium, 1869