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Is Platonic love essentially self-centered?


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Platonic love essentially self-centered?
Date: 3rd December 2008 12:51

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 21 November, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, in response to the question, 'Is love, as Plato conceives of it, always essentially self-centered?'

This is a well written essay, which concentrates on the exegesis of Plato's arguments in Symposium, although you also include a reference to the critique of Plato's view on love by Gregory Vlastos.

In case I did not mention this before, I would appreciate a bibliography, showing at least the works referred to in your essay plus (optionally) works you have consulted in writing the essay.

I can see that you really got into this, from the essay as well as from your comment in your email, 'I found this very interesting and realise that there is an awful lot to learn about Plato.' There certainly is!

I don't have any criticisms of the exegesis, which is more thorough than I have received from other students writing on this topic. However, the essay would have made a stronger case if you had taken the time to analyse the question.

What exactly is it for love to be 'self-centered'? Is self-centered love the same as self-love or love of self, or are there forms of love which might be described as self-centered which are not simply self-love?

As I have stressed previously, you should always assume that the question has been worded with care. Leaving aside the question of the meaning of 'self-centered', there are at least two questions here: Are there forms of love, for Plato, which are 'essentially' self-centered, and is love 'always' thus?

Do we have a different model of love from the one that Plato offers? In other words, what is love? The modern notion of romantic love implies a willingness on the part of the lover to sacrifice everything for one's beloved, including one's own live. Whatever selfish or self-centered aspects there may be to love, these are considered subsidiary and dispensable. The same applies to self-sacrifice for the sake of love of one's country, or for the sake of love of freedom or liberty, or humanity etc.

Plato's question in relation to this would be: What exactly is it that the lover desires, in sacrificing themself, and why is it desirable? His answer, in the broadest terms, is that there is a process of identification between the lover the thing loved. (You indeed suggest this in your essay.) The interests of my beloved are my interests. My country, the cause of philosophy, humanity are all things I can 'identify' with. In promoting the interests of that which I love, even if my physical existence ceases, the thing I have identified with continues, therefore (in a sense) 'I' continue.

We learn from the Phaedo that the self is 'akin' to the forms, and its ultimate destiny is to return to the company of the Forms after the physical body has been destroyed. This already suggests that love of the physical self is based on an illusion -- our failure to grasp what we essentially are.

As you note in your essay, we 'live on' in our children, and in the succeeding generations. The writer or philosopher lives on in their works. Once again, we have a view of the self as something we identify with, as contrasted with the physical being who lives for a brief while and then is gone.

This is one reason for questioning the claim that Plato's conception of love is 'always essentially self-centered'. The claim becomes successively more meaningless as we widen our view of the nature of the self and distinguish it from the mortal subject.

However, another point that you note in your essay is that love is concerned with the interests of the beloved, even though this is seen as part of a progression towards knowledge of the Forms. My love is the vehicle which conducts me to knowledge of the Form of Beauty, but, in doing so, it is also a vehicle which conducts my beloved to this knowledge. We are in this together. My beloved is no more the means to my end, than I am the means to my beloved's end.

Quite apart from what we have said before about Plato's notion of identification, this would surely indicate that the description, 'always essentially self-centered' is not appropriate.

We could try a different tack: are there grounds for criticism of Plato's conception of love, along the lines of its reflexivity or self-centered aspect, even though this is not in any way selfishness or self-centeredness in the narrow sense?

There is a different model of love. Everything in Plato's account moves towards the idea of identification and enlarging the self so that it in a sense includes the object of its love. So long as the self does not achieve this enlargement, it feels itself to be 'lacking'. However, it could be argued that what is essential to love -- or indeed generally with regard to the relation between the self and others -- is the aspect of the other which cannot be assimilated by knowledge: the essential 'otherness' of the other.

Two philosophers who have written about this are Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Emmanuel Levinas in particular has offered an insightful critique of the Platonic conception of love. Arguably, this is a more subtle version of the charge levelled at Plato, that his conception of love is 'essentially self-centered'. If you look up "Emmanuel Levinas", Plato, and love in Google you will find plenty of references.

All the best,