The True Meaning of Platonic Love

L’Ecole de Platon (detail), by Jean Delville (1898). Source: Wikimedia commons/public domain.

Although they stood for reason, Socrates and Plato believed that, ultimately, it is by the power of love that we might be led to wisdom.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the knowledge of Greek was lost in the West. In around 321 CE, the philosopher Calcidius had published a Latin translation of the first part of Plato’s Timaeus, which for almost 800 years remained the only substantial section of Plato available to the Latin West.

Fortunately, the study of Plato continued in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic World. At the 1438-39 Council of Florence, the Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon reintroduced Plato to the West as part of a failed attempt to repair the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church and present a united front to the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453).

While in Florence, Gemistos Plethon made an impression on the banker, politician, and patron of the arts Cosimo de’ Medici, who had, among others, commissioned the David of Donatello, the first freestanding male nude sculpture since antiquity. He persuaded Cosimo to establish an institute and informal discussion group, now known as the Platonic Academy of Florence, which, under Cosimo’s protégé Marsilio Ficino, went on to translate all of Plato’s extant works into Latin. This, in turn, ignited and inflamed the humanist Renaissance.

It is also Ficino who coined the term “Platonic love” [amor platonicus], which first appears in a letter that he wrote to Alamanno Donati in 1476. In 1492, he published a series of Platonic love letters to Giovanni amico mio perfettisimo[“Giovanni my most perfect friend”], the poet Giovanni Cavalcanti.

But what is the basis for Platonic love in Plato? The two key relationships are the ones between Socrates and Alcibiades, and Socrates and Phaedrus.

Socrates and Alcibiades

Socrates was remarkably full-blooded for an ascetic philosopher. In Xenophon’s Symposium, he says, “For myself I cannot name the time at which I have not been in love with someone.” By all accounts, his greatest love was with the famously handsome Alcibiades (450-404 BCE), who was by some 20 years his junior.

In 432, Socrates and Alcibiades fought in the Battle of Potidaea, where the middle-aged plebeian and the young aristocrat became unlikely tent mates. In his Life of Alcibiades, Plutarch relates that “all were amazed to see [Alcibiades] eating, exercising, and tenting with Socrates, while he was harsh and stubborn with the rest of his lovers.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades reports that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea and, even after that, let him keep the prize for valour.

Plato’s Symposium is set in 416, some 16 years after the Battle of Potidaea, and just before the fateful Sicilian Expedition that led Alcibiades to defect to Sparta. The setting is a drinking party hosted by the playwright Agathon. After each of the guests, including Socrates, has made a speech in praise of love, a drunken Alcibiades stumbles in supported by a flute-girl. When Alcibiades entreats everyone to drink and match him in his drunkenness, the other guests object to “drinking as if we were thirsty” and suggest that Alcibiades instead make a speech in praise of Socrates.

Alcibiades says that Socrates always makes him admit that he is wasting his time on his political career while neglecting his several shortcomings. So he tears himself away from him as from the song of a siren and once again lets his love of popularity get the better of him. Socrates may look like a satyr and pose as ignorant, but, like the busts of Silenus [the tutor of Dionysus], he hides bright and beautiful images of the gods within him. Attracted by his wisdom, he tried several times to seduce him, but each time without success. Eventually, he turned the tables round and began to chase the older man, inviting him to dinner and on one occasion persuading him to stay the night. He then lay beside him and put it to him that, of all his lovers, he was the only one worthy of him, and he would be a fool to refuse him any favours if only he could make him into a better man.

Socrates replied in his usual, ironical manner:

Alcibiades, my friend, you have indeed an elevated aim if what you say is true, and if there really is in me any power by which you may become better; truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you. And therefore, if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomedes, gold in exchange for brass.

After this, Alcibiades crept under the older man’s threadbare cloak and held him all night in his arms—but in the morning arose “as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.”

All this, says Alcibiades, took place before Potidaea. But how much of his drunken account is true, and how much invented by Plato to rehabilitate the reputation of Socrates? Socrates was executed, in part, for “corrupting the youth”.

In the little-known Alcibiades of Aeschines, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with Alcibiades. Socrates tells his companion that, if he was at all able to improve Alcibiades, this was not through any knowledge or art that he possessed, but only by the force of the love [eros] that the youth had aroused in him.

Socrates and Phaedrus

The ostensible theme of Plato’s Phaedrus is love and pederasty, and the dialogue is full of flirtatious banter and sexual innuendo. Socrates persuades the young Phaedrus to pull out the speech on love that he is hiding under his cloak… The grass on which they lie down to read the speech is “like a pillow gently sloping to the head” … After Phaedrus has read the speech, Socrates says, “the effect on me was ravishing. And this I owe to you Phaedrus, for I observed you while reading to be in an ecstasy … and like you, my divine darling, I became inspired with a phrenzy.”

But although the Phaedrus appears, especially at first, to be about love, it is more properly about the education of the soul, which might be led to wisdom by the power of love or dialectic, although not, as Socrates argues, oratory or the dead [written] word. Just as the Phaedo used to be called, On the Soul, so the Phaedrus might have been called, On the Education of the Soul.

Despite his emphasis on Apollonian reason, Plato recognizes that the original impulse for philosophy arises out of something as irrational and Dionysian as love. However, this love, although fertile, is not of the reproductive kind, and must be reined in if it is to serve its purpose. For Plato, the body with its needs and pleasures are a source of distraction and confusion that hold us back from wisdom. In particular, the needs and desires of the body are why we waste ourselves going to work and to war, focussing always on particulars rather than the universals that are the objects of wisdom.

Although Socrates and Phaedrus openly flirt with each other, it is no coincidence that Plato has them sit beneath a chaste tree. According to Pliny the Elder, the matrons of Athens, at the time of the Thesmophoria [the festival of Demeter and Persephone], used to place the stems and leaves of the chaste in their bedding to temper their lust.

When, at the end of the dialogue, Socrates prays to the gods of the place, he calls himself “a temperate man”; and when he asks Phaedrus to complete the prayer, Phaedrus responds, “Ask the same for me, for friends have all things in common.” Thus, it is not as pederastic lovers but as friends and equals that they leave.

The genius of Plato is that the relationship between Socrates and Phaedrus is the very embodiment of the pure, ameliorating, elevating love of which they speak. And if this love begins as lust, this lust can be refined and sublimed on the ladder of love.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.