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Does Plato's ideal of love downgrade persons?


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does Plato's ideal of love downgrade persons?
Date: 29 October 2008 11:37

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 23 October, with your University of London essay for Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato, in response to the question, 'Plato's ideal of love not only downgrades bodies but persons also.' Discuss.

This is an excellent piece of work, although marred somewhat by (what seems to me) a fallacy in the second paragraph of your introduction. I'll deal with this first, in order to get it out of the way.

You say, 'what gives a body its dignity, and thereby makes its degradation (sic) possible is purely the fact that it is the corporeal manifestation of a person.'

In other words: a necessary condition for downgrading the human body, is that the body is the corporeal manifestation of a person. It is only in relation to the bodies of persons that the question of downgrading (or not) can arise. A chair does not have 'dignity' because it is not the body of a person.

It is true that a chair or a table are merely items from the phenomenal world, and as such 'downgraded' in relation to the Form of the chair or the table. But what we are talking about is an attitude which Plato is advocating towards the human body over and above the observation that all material bodies are merely shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.

Second premiss, 'Plato does not downgrade persons.' (To be proved.)

Your conclusion: 'Plato does not downgrade bodies.'

I don't see how this follows. Superficially, you seem to be assuming that if X is the manifestation of Y, then anything one does to Y, one also does to X. Here's a counterexample to this form of inference: An angry face is the manifestation of anger. However, you can suppress the angry face (hide your anger) without suppressing the anger. That is because there is more to anger than an angry face. Similarly, there is more to a person than his body. If one's view is that what is most important about a person is their non-bodily aspect, their mind, then one will say the kinds of things that Plato says about the body.

It is all the more puzzling that you make this claim, given what you say later in your essay about Plato's determined attempt to distract the lover's focus away from the body and towards the mind of his beloved. To a modern reader, the idea that sexual interest is a distraction is indeed correctly described as a 'downgrading' of the body.

However, having said that, I can see a possible argument that would go along the following lines: The person who has 'escaped the prison house of the body' is a purely intellectual entity, no longer capable of affective states. The philosopher 'loves' the Forms because the philosopher is still imprisoned. Set free, there is no longer any gap between desire and the desired which could give any meaning to the notion of love. So in a very real sense, the body is absolutely essential for Platonic love. In this sense, the idea that we would be better lovers if we didn't have bodies is absurd. It is necessary to be embodied, in order to practice the restraint on sexual desire which Plato advocates.

Getting to the main argument of your essay, I like your use of the distinction between utility love, mutually beneficial love, selfless love and self-sacrificial love. Your case, in a nutshell, is that Plato's view that love for a person is ultimately a means to gain a vision of the Form of Beauty, and ultimately the form of the Good, is not a 'downgrading' because a person can be viewed, simultaneously, as a means and an end. Indeed, as part of this process, the beloved also gains this vision.

I find your arguments against Vlastos convincing. And yet I can't help feeling that there is something seriously amiss with Plato's account, and that it does have something to do with the *way* the beloved is used as a means. Let's assume from the start that it is OK to gain benefits from loving a person which are not, thereby, benefits for the beloved. The beloved also gains benefits, so the balance is restored.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the closer the lover gets to attaining the ultimate object of his desire, the vision of the Forms of Beauty and the Good, the less *important* the beloved becomes in relation to this philosophical quest. To use Wittgenstein's metaphor at the end of the Tractatus, you discard the ladder after you have climbed up. Continuing to care for one's ladder after one has made the ascent is mere sentimentality. For the true philosopher, philosophy and the Forms are the ultimately lovable thing. In short, Plato puts knowledge, episteme of the Forms, above relationship.

This is not to dismiss the important insights shown in the Symposium which you emphasize, as well as Plato's remarkable understanding of human psychology. The setting of the Symposium itself tells us a great deal about the importance which Plato attaches to human love and friendship; his concept of the philosopher is very far from the ascetic ideal embodied in the figure of Diogenes who spurns all material comforts. But this serves merely to heighten the contrast between the enjoyment of life, good company, good wine and the incomparable thrill of philosophical enlightenment.

All the best,