Most people tend to use the phrase ‘platonic love’ to refer to an idealized or otherwise unreciprocated kind of attraction to another person, whether it’s entirely physical or partly mental. Others go further, thinking of ‘platonic love’ in terms of the “other half” metaphor, whereby couples describe their partner as their “soul mate.”
Though both these usages are, at least in part, based on Plato’s own writings, neither actually captures what Plato truly meant when he talked about love. Here’s why, after all this time, you’ve probably been using the phrase ‘platonic love’ wrong all along.
Wait, who was Plato?
Plato is the guy we named the expression ‘platonic love’ after. He was a philosopher from Ancient Greece, and remains one of the most important figures in the history of philosophy to this day. A pioneer of thought and reason, we owe much to his groundbreaking conceptual innovations—from Judeochristian religion to politics to science. His views of the body-soul duality painted the whole canvas of Christian theology (for better or worse), while his inquiry into the very idea of knowledge gave us the foundations of the whole scientific enterprise, in part by defining knowledge as “justified true belief.” His magnum opus, The Republic, forever changed the way we understand politics and political theory as a whole.
Did you know…
Plato is only a nickname supposedly given to the philosopher by his wrestling coach (yes, Plato was a wrestler, which makes him a badass philosopher). Read ahead to learn his real name.
So, yeah, he was a pretty important guy. What makes his influence even more impressive is just how much time has passed between his lifetime and ours.
Plato was born around the 420s BC, during the Classical Period in Athens, Greece. He founded the Platonist school of thought, the predominant philosophical and scientific world view from his time until well into the Middle Ages—a period spanning more than 1,500 years. A disciple of Socrates and teacher of another famous philosopher, Aristotle, he was at the center of the foremost philosophical debates of his time.
Most of Plato’s own original views are presented as if they were spoken by Socrates himself, who would usually discuss these ideas throughout the text with many other characters in a sort of debate that laid the foundations of philosophical inquiry.
Where does the expression come from?
Plato wrote many important works, including The Republic, the Apology, and the Symposium. It is the latter where we found the discussion about love that would later model the whole notion of platonic love.
Did you know…
The word plato derives from a Greek term that means “broad,” and the philosopher was presumably called that because he had broad shoulders. His real name, though, was reportedly Aristocles.
The Symposium, written between 385 and 370 BC, depicts a friendly competition between several important figures attending a banquet. The group includes notable historical characters such as the philosopher Phaedrus, the eminent comic playwright Aristophanes, the poet Agathon, the prominent statesman Alcibiades, and Socrates, of course.
Just for fun, the men agree that each would give a speech to honor Eros, the Greek god of love. Whichever speech was deemed the most beautiful and worthy of the bunch won. So every single character, in turn, gave their own opinion as to what Eros (love) is, and in what regard it is above all other gods.
So, what does ‘platonic love’ actually mean?
At some point during the discussion, Aristophanes puts forward a creation myth to explain why people in love often feel “complete” or “whole.” He claims that once upon a time, we were all complete beings so powerful that the gods had to split in half, lest we challenged them. Our quest for love is just a matter of looking for our “other half” — or our “soul mate,” as it’s often called. But this is not platonic love. In fact, Socrates outright rejects this notion, as Aristophanes seems to present it as mere comedy rather than a serious view.
When it’s Socrates turn, he first points out that true love is never about being attracted or desiring that which one already has: that would be absurd. It would be odd for someone with perfect health to wish to be healthy—they may desire eternal health (which is something even a currently healthy person lacks), but not merely health. So, when we love something, it must be something that we lack, at least partially. A healthy person may desire perfect health, but never the health he or she possesses already.
Then, Socrates tells a story of a woman, called Diotima, who was Socrates’ own teacher and whom he credits for his view on love. According to Diotima, true love is not only about seeking that which one lacks, but about seeking that which is worth seeking in the first place. Diotima explains that love leads to both a literal and a metaphorical pregnancy: physical love results in the pregnancy of the body, whereas intellectual love results in the pregnancy of the soul. The body conceives children, while the soul conceives ideas.
Did you know…
By Socrates’ own admission, Diotima, a female philosopher, was actually the mastermind behind many of his ideas, and served as an important inspiration for Plato.
As such, love should be seen like a ladder. In Socrates’ view, everyone should be brought up as follows: first, a young person might fall in love with the physical beauty of another human body. As time goes by, that person should relax his inclination and let go of his passion, and should instead love all bodies. After that, they should love all beautiful minds, leading to the love for knowledge itself. Finally, the person should come to admire beauty in itself: the true form of beauty above all beautiful things. This truly is love of wisdom, which, as you might know, is what philosophy actually means (philos meaning “love,” and sophia meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”).
And that is what platonic love is all about: the ultimate quest for beauty in itself, or, as some translations have it, the ultimate quest for virtue or goodness.
So, you see, platonic love is not about idolizing someone else, or thinking of them as your other half. Those are all rather superficial notions with which Plato would find fault. True love, Plato said, consists in turning your mind’s eye to the admiration and pursuit of the very concept of beauty, virtue, and the good. And that’s why you’ve probably been using the expression ‘platonic love’ wrong all along.
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