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Socrates, Plato and Modern Life

Embracing Imperfection: Plato vs Nussbaum On Love

Lillian Wilde contemplates what love means.

Plato’s dialogues, most notably the Phaedrus and the Symposium, mark the beginning of 2,400 years of written philosophical contemplations on love. Many lovers have loved since, and many thinkers have thought and struggled to understand. Who has never asked themselves the question: What is love? The various discussions since range from Aristotle to an abundance of contemporary philosophy and fiction on the topic. Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love, and Byung Chul Han’s Die Agonie des Eros, all published in the past ten years, refer to Plato’s account, so it is clear that Plato’s treatment of love remains relevant. Naturally, the conception has also dramatically changed over this long period of time. The non-sexual, purely intellectual relationship that the modern English speaker understands as ‘Platonic love’ is rather distinct from the account we get in Plato’s own works, which are predominantly focused on a striving for perfection through beauty. Modern everyday understandings of personal love, ranging from motherly to romantic love, are something else altogether.

Given the widespread interest in romantic love, this is the aspect on which I shall focus here. It is necessary to identify which of Plato’s assumptions are still relevant for our understanding of love today, and which of these need to be revised. Martha Nussbaum, the contemporary female academic voice on this topic par excellence, criticises Plato’s account mainly for its focus on perfection. In Upheavals of Thought (2001), she argues that a good definition of love should include three characteristics: compassion, individuality, and reciprocity. Without these, love threatens to incite neediness, anger, and even hatred, and thus have a negative impact not only on the individual, but on society in general. But none of these three criteria can be found in Plato’s multifaceted thought on the topic, and a conception of love based on the striving for perfection even threatens to work against them.

Plato: The Ascent of Love

It is impossible to reduce Plato’s conception of love to a single definition, but I would like to focus on one aspect of his thought. It is put forward by Socrates in the Phaedrus, in a recasting of a debate between Socrates and Diotima towards the end of the Symposium. It is a view that, over the centuries, has found its way into everyday assumptions about love. This supposition is that love is the striving of the soul for divine perfection; which, as Plato has Socrates say, is the “fourth kind of madness, which causes him to be regarded as mad, who, when he sees the beauty on earth, remembering the true beauty, feels his wings growing and longs to stretch them for an upward flight” (Phaedrus 249d).

There is a distinction between the beloved, who is “the truly beautiful, and delicate, and perfect, and blessed” (Symposium 204c) and the one who loves the beautiful: the lover. Commonly in Plato’s Greece, this love is a relationship between two men, where the lover is an older, intellectually superior partner, whereas the beloved is young and beautiful. (Love is therefore not a mutual affection between two equals, but rather a hierarchical relationship directed from one person to the other.) The beauty of the beloved is the instantiation of the higher Form of Beauty, that is, it is a concrete representation of the abstract ideal of beauty, in the form of a beautiful body. According to Plato, the one who sees this beauty realised in another person “is amazed… and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god, he reverences him” (Phaedrus 251a). In other words, he falls in love.

For Plato, the beauty of the beloved acts as a bait for the lover’s soul. It enchants the soul of the lover, who thus wishes to possess it, and by wishing to possess it, begins his ascent of the ‘scala amoris’ – ‘the ladder of love’. By gazing upon this instantiation of beauty in the world, the lover is tempted towards contemplating Beauty itself, what we might think of as the pure idea of beauty – “the vast sea of the fine” (Symposium 210d) that contains all the concrete expressions of beauty. As Nickolas Pappas says in Plato’s Aesthetics (2016), “more than any other property for which a Form [an abstract Platonic ideal] exists, beauty engages the soul and draws it toward philosophical deliberation, toward thoughts of absolute beauty and subsequently (as we imagine) toward thoughts of other concepts,” such as goodness and justice. “The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wings of the soul is nourished, and grows apace” (Phaedrus 246e). So the lover soars upward – becomes a better person – by means of his contemplation.

At the top of this ladder he reaches absolute wisdom by knowing the Form of Good(ness). Through this understanding he attains true knowledge and wisdom, thereby gaining a fuller view of reality itself. So this development is not superficial: self-perfection stands at the end of this ascent of love. The contemplation of beauty elevates the lover. As Professor Sabrina Ebbersmeyer put it in her 2012 book Emotion and Cognitive Life in Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy:

“For Plato the erotic attachment to a beautiful person implies an inner tendency to self-improvement and can be regarded as the beginning of an intellectual development. In the Symposium Plato describes this development in terms of attaching oneself step by step to more and more abstract objects: the love of a beautiful person leads through several intermediate steps [of the love of beauty] – such as beautiful souls, beautiful observances and laws, and beautiful knowledge – to the love and view of the idea of the beautiful itself” (p.136).

Embracing Imperfection

Now love, which generates the most ferocious emotions, has had a difficult standing in philosophical discussions from the Stoics to more recent thinkers such as Schopenhauer or Kant. Martha Nussbaum’s discussion of love is embedded in her wider inquiry into the contribution of emotions to ethics. “Erotic love has typically been seen by ethical thinkers as a danger, a disease that good thought ought to cure,” Nussbaum writes; and erotic love “lies at the root of all other emotions” (Upheavals 9.II). This common perception suggests that in order to lead an ethical life we ought to eliminate emotions – love first of all – sacrificing compassion for reason. Instead, Nussbaum argues, we need an account of erotic love that allows it to be part of a good ethical life. For this to be possible, Nussbaum claims that romantic love ought to feature three ‘positive normative criteria’: individuality, compassion, and reciprocity.

However, since Plato’s account is based on a striving for divine perfection, it’s bound to fall short of Nussbaum’s criteria, notably in three significant ways. Plato neglects the individuality of the beloved, who dissolves into the ‘vast sea of the fine’ as just one instance of beauty amongst many; this results in a lack of compassion for the beloved individual with their imperfect, worldly struggles. Furthermore, reciprocity is left out of account, since Plato’s love is not mutual.


“Plato’s ascent” Nussbaum remarks, “leaves out of account, and therefore out of love, everything about the person that is not good and fine – the flaws and the faults, the neutral idiosyncrasies, the bodily history” (10.III).

Plato scholar Gregory Vlastos also famously criticised Plato’s theory for its neglect of the individual. In The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato (1981) he noted that Plato’s concept of love implies that:

“We are to love the persons so far, and only insofar, as they are good and beautiful. Now since all too few human beings are masterworks of excellence, and not even the best of those we have the chance to love are wholly free of streaks of the ugly, the mean, the commonplace, the ridiculous, if our love for them is to be only for their virtue and beauty, the individual, in the uniqueness and integrity of this other individuality, will never be the object of our love. This seems to me the cardinal flaw in Plato’s theory” (p.31).

Love, in this sense, is not for the whole person but only for their good qualities. So Plato’s conception does not allow for the necessarily imperfect human being. For him the object of love is an agglomeration of good properties, and the individual is merely the carrier of these properties. The significance of the individual is sacrificed for the concept of the utopian perfection of the object of love. The individual is reduced to a mere step on the ladder of love towards loving higher Forms. “The highest climactic moment of fulfilment” Vlastos remarks, “is the one farthest removed from affection for concrete human beings.” (p.31).


It is indisputable that human beings are never entirely good. Every one of us is suffused with faults and failures. So as Lydia Amir remarks in Plato’s Theory of Love (2001), “What most people do not realise is that they cannot both hold [Plato’s] definition of love and expect a human being to fulfil it” (p.13). An account of love based on the striving for perfection “has no room for mercy, for an embracing unconditionality in love that seems well suited to a life of imperfection and vulnerability.” (10.III) Mercy and unconditional embracing are needed to face one another in the fragile relationships that are established through romantic love. Nussbaum therefore argues for an account of love that takes our imperfection seriously and meets it with compassion. Disappointment, in the worst case resulting in anger and hatred, is unavoidable when one expects another human being to be perfect. Imperfections ought to be met with compassionate understanding rather than utter disappointment, as the latter will spiral into anger, envy, and hatred.


As I mentioned, Nussbaum’s third criterion for love, reciprocity, is completely missing from Plato’s account. There is no mutual recognition of the other, since the lover sees the beloved as a mere carrier of good properties. In Plato’s hierarchical account, love is directed from the lover to the beloved. Therefore, no exchange of love takes place.

Our modern understanding of love differs sharply from this conception. In our world it is commonly agreed that reciprocity is necessary for any romantic relationship to work. And in “reciprocal relationships of concern… people treat one another not just as things, but as agents and as ends” Nussbaum remarks (10.III).

The most influential account after Plato that takes up reciprocity as a significant component of relationships is Aristotle’s conception of philia, or friendship:

“We may describe friendly feeling [philia] towards anyone as wishing for him what you believe to be good things, not for your own sake but for his, and being inclined, so far as you can, to bring these things about. A friend is one who feels thus and excites these feelings in return: those who think they feel thus towards each other think themselves friends” (Rhetoric, II.4).

However, Aristotle’s notion of philia does not incorporate the passionate feelings that are often so overwhelming in personal love. But instead of going into Aristotle’s philosophy, I shall continue with the counterstrike that Nussbaum levels against the Platonic notion of the Ascent of Love: she calls it the Descent of Love.

Martha Nussbaum: The Descent of Love

The Descent of Love involves “turning the ladder upside down” (16.III). Whereas the pursuit of perfection, especially the perfection of beauty, so often ends in disappointment, envy, and hatred, the Descent of Love aims at embracing the imperfect. Incorporating Nussbaum’s three criteria – individuality, compassion, and reciprocity – into everyday conceptions of love results in relationships characterised by acceptance, respect, and inclusion. In this way love can contribute to an ethical life. Nussbaum thereby introduces a political dimension to her discussion of romantic love, just as Plato does.

Real-life love requires an embracing stance, requires saying yes “with a mercy and tenderness that really do embrace the inconstancy and imperfection of the real-life reader and real-life love” (16.III). The German verb bejahen (to affirm, to accept) incorporates this ‘yes’ (‘ja’) into the act of affirmation. But bejahen is not just ‘accepting’, since acceptance entails a downside, an imperfection that needs to be accepted. To ‘embrace’ is therefore the more suitable translation in this context. The yes cherishes the whole individual with all their imperfections and flaws, and even takes pleasure therein. This attitude, Nussbaum argues with reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses, “is the essential basis for a sane political life, a life democratic, universalist, and also liberal, in which human freedom will be protected.” (16.VII) The opposing movement, which exclusively strives for perfection, threatens to disappoint and thereby incite “self-hatred and the hatred of others.” (16.VII) So all three positive normative criteria ought to be elements of romantic relationships. In this way the hatred, envy, and neediness often associated with erotic love can be transcended. Nussbaum’s account of love thereby takes on a social and political dimension: the loving attitude that incorporates mercy and compassion can contribute to an ethical stance towards our fellow human beings, embracing not only the imperfections of our beloved ones, but gradually, of the other people in our lives as well.

It might be argued that where Plato aims too high, Nussbaum’s notion of the Descent of Love aims too low. If we are to embrace the individual’s every imperfection, we and our loved ones are not being encouraged to become better people. Leaving self-perfection out of the picture, the incentives for becoming a better person seem drastically decreased in comparison to Plato’s account. But on the other hand, Nussbaum’s account invites each individual to develop compassion and mercy towards their fellow human beings. Ironically, by offering a more sober conception of humanity, with all its flaws, Nussbaum thereby ultimately presents us with a richer and perhaps more optimistic view of love. Despite being opposed to the Platonic striving for perfection, Nussbaum’s account of love still has the development towards a better self at its core. She arrives at an account of love that allows for the emotions to contribute positively to an ethical life.

An Incomplete Account

The account of love that Nussbaum sketches is not at all conclusive. Not even an extensive work like hers, spanning over seven hundred pages, can get anywhere near a complete account of this multifaceted topic. Instead she notes:

“We are left not with a total text, but with insights from several idealistic pictures that we may try to incorporate into the greater chaos of our lives: with Dante’s lucid love of the individual, piercing the fog of envy, anger, and sloth; with Mahler’s triumphant compassion, rising above envy, including the whole world of mortal striving in its embrace; with Whitman’s political call to a democratic equality grounded in the recognition of mortality” (16.VIII).

Nussbaum criticises Plato’s conception for its focus on perfection, and instead proposes a merciful view that embraces the imperfections of real-life love. Both partners in a romantic relationship recognise each other as individual but utterly imperfect agents, and meet each other’s imperfections with merciful understanding. In this way, the development towards a better self remains at the core of romantic relationships. At the same time, the threat of love to end in disappointment, anger or hatred can be avoided. Further, the attitudes cultivated in romantic relationships incorporating individuality, compassion, and reciprocity can have a positive impact on other, non-romantic, social relationships. Embracing imperfections in the ones we love can enable us to accept them in others we don’t have the same feelings for, and thereby reach our highest human potential. Or in James Joyce’s words: “Lovers: Yum Yum.” (Ulysses, p.377).

© Lillian Wilde 2017

Lillian Wilde is an independent academic who completed her MA in Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen.

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