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Plato part 5: Love forms foundation for rule of law

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Posted on April 8, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



5. All you need is love

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of essays about politics and the moral life. The essays develop themes from a work by the philosopher Plato, entitled “Laws,” which he wrote shortly before his death in 347 BCE. “Laws” is written as a dialogue involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos; Megillus, from Sparta; and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. This essay follows Plato’s digression into the “Symposium.”

Plato wrote the “Symposium” a quarter century before the “Laws.” His allusion to it in the latter work was meant to evoke a remembrance of Socrates, whom he there represents as a master of erotica, the art of love, and as the model for commanders of drinking parties.

Platonic lovers, whom Socrates describes, are supposed to be concerned more about the welfare of the soul than of the body. They are bound by a mutual desire for the soul’s perfection, which requires that intelligence, its highest and best part, become preeminent over appetite and desire, its lower parts. Platonic love is invoked as the proper means to the end sought in the “Laws.” For whenever intelligence rules in the soul, then human behavior is properly subject to the rule of law. 

Yet, in the “Symposium,” Plato presents an alternative view of love that is in many respects the opposite of Platonic love; it is epitomized by intimate physical embrace and therefore does not draw away from the body, nor does it seek immortality. Like Platonic love, it is supposed by its advocate to promise a sure way to peace, friendliness and reconciliation.

If so, then it can be regarded as an alternate foundation of the rule of law. The advocate of this variety of love is Aristophanes, one of the guests at the drinking party memorialized in the “Symposium.” Aristophanes was surely one of the greatest comic playwrights. He was about 20 years Plato’s senior. The guests at this symposium (the term means “drinking party”) decided to entertain themselves by taking turns speaking in praise of love. There is no doubt that Plato considered Aristophanes’ speech the only serious rival to Socrates’, which was delivered last. That he invented it himself makes it all the more remarkable, for it is comic, lyrical, exquisitely moral, profoundly poignant, serious and persuasive. It challenges Plato’s preferred point of view. It is also a splendid example of Plato’s mimetic art.

Aristophanes’ speech is a tale of human woe.

A very long time ago, human nature consisted of three genders: male, female, and a third combining the other two — androgynous or male/female. Our ancestors were spherical in shape, with four legs and four arms, and two faces looking in opposite directions. They stood and walked upright, except, when in a hurry, they would leap head over heel at an accelerating pace. They were formidable creatures, self-satisfied and vain. They imagined that they could assault heaven and displace the gods. It was a foolish thought that evoked the wrath of the gods.

However, Zeus chose not to destroy them, for he needed them to perform services beneficial to the gods. Instead he decided to cut each of them in half, which would weaken them but also double their number. He sliced each one in two as nicely as one would divide an apple with a thin strong wire, and he left it to Apollo to complete the operation. First, Apollo turned their heads around, so that they could see their humiliation. He closed up their wound, shaping the breasts and stomach, and like a leather worker making a purse he drew the loose flesh together with a string, and tucked it in to form the navel. After this, Zeus warned them that if they continued to harbor rebellious thoughts, he would divide them again and they would be reduced to basso-relievo figures hopping about on one foot.

Poor unhappy creatures, they clung to each other in the futile hope that they might be restored to wholeness until starvation, inaction and despair caused one of them to die. The one that remained went on to seek another. Zeus took pity on them. Hitherto their sexual organs were on the outside. Like cicadas, they deposited their seeds in the ground, from which their progeny sprang forth. He moved them to the other side, and decreed that when a male and female embraced, their intercourse would produce children, and so their species would not become extinct.

According to this tale every human being is driven by a deep longing for its other half, for another to love as oneself. From this universal longing, the god of lovemaking was born, who among all the gods is the most friendly to humankind.

This basic motive of human existence has a physical as well as a moral expression. Its goal is intimacy between two persons expressed in a physical embrace. The primary intent of intimate physical contact, therefore, is not procreation, but wholeness; sexual desire is only a symptom of it; romantic love, an adolescent display of it.

Nor is this longing a desire for immortality, but for the closest possible union of two persons: a desire to live and to die together, to become one flesh, albeit mortal. It is marriage — a relationship of perfect mutuality, moral and physical, involving two persons who freely choose to cling only to each other until death. It is wholesome and earthy and bittersweet.

Although Aristophanes’ tale is whimsical and mythic, the longing it describes is real, elemental and very natural. Who is there among us who has not experienced this longing? Lastly, as Aristophanes’ tale implies, it depends upon one’s natural disposition whether the object of this longing is someone of the same or the opposite sex. Whatever one’s orientation, the relationship is the same.

Let us compare these two sorts of love: Platonic and Aristophanic. The Platonic lover struggles to be free from all physical attachments; the Aristophanic lover finds fulfillment in them. The former eschews physical intimacy; the latter is restored by it. It is not hard to imagine how love Aristophanes-style might be better suited for domestic life, even though it is not essentially of the generative sort. It blends naturally with mother love, the font of all love, whose arts even men can learn; and there is no doubt that children flourish when nurtured in a household where mutuality and gentle intimacy is the rule, which is also the rule that makes the rule of law decent and humane and caring.

Postscript: In the “Laws,” the Athenian stranger denigrates physical intimacy; its only value is as an inducement to procreate, otherwise it is a dangerous distraction. He argues that homosexual lovemaking should be outlawed because it is unnatural. The argument is rooted in shame towards physical lovemaking. But Plato, thanks to his comic muse, has demonstrated that a desire for physical intimacy is in fact quite natural, whatever one’s sexual orientation, and when pursued with gentleness and mutuality, it has great moral and social benefit. Thus Plato is the source not only of a common argument against homosexual lovemaking, but also of its most ingenious refutation.

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