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Philosophy Then

All Your Love is Need

Peter Adamson ponders erotic philosophy in the Renaissance.

Pop music offers to philosophers a nearly limitless supply of ideas about love. Confining ourselves just to the lyrics of the Beatles, we find the theses that being loved can’t be bad; that love cannot be bought; and even that it might be possible to love someone for eight days a week. The same song that proposes that unlikely scenario (‘Eight Days a Week’, 1964) includes the pleading line, “Hope you need my love, just like I need you.” This suggests that Lennon and McCartney were singing from the same hymn sheet as an earlier source of ideas about the erotic life: Plato.

In Plato’s Symposium, he has the philosopher Diotima argue that Eros, the Greek god of love, is poor and needy, without shoes or a home. She means that to love something is always to want something you don’t have. (By this reasoning, the gods cannot be philosophers: ‘philosophy’ means the ‘love of wisdom’, yet the gods already possess wisdom.)

On this view, love is a kind of unsatisfied desire, a craving to possess a missing good – especially a beautiful person or object. While this may sound plausible, it raises problems. For instance, can’t you still love someone after your pursuit of them is consummated? Consider a long and happy marriage: the couple have ‘had’ each other for decades, but this certainly doesn’t rule out that they are still in love.

This puzzle was taken up between Plato and the Beatles – to be more specific, in the sixteenth century – by the Jewish philosopher Judah Abravanel, also known as Leone Ebreo. His Dialogues on Love, published posthumously in 1535, begin with a contrast between true love and mere desire. Desire is indeed a yearning for what we lack, whereas love is specifically directed towards what we already have. The problem with desiring material goods is that we lose them even as we make use of them. No sooner do you enjoy food, or wealth, than you find yourself lacking it again. Here Abravanel evokes another idea of Plato’s: that the pursuit of physical pleasure is ultimately futile, because it always involves satisfying desires that will just come right back once they’ve been satisfied. In contrast, say the characters in Abravanel’s dialogue, ‘noble love’ is directed towards enduring goods that are not depleted through use, such as virtue. Love is thus a higher form of desire – the ‘desire to enjoy in union what we have obtained’. There can be love between two people, but only if they cherish one another spiritually: carnal lust is a lower form of desire, more like hunger for food than real love.

This being the Renaissance, Abravanel asks how these ideas might apply to God, and to our relationship to Him. God cannot lack anything, so He cannot have desires like the ones we feel towards food, money, or sex. Of course, He can enjoy His own perfection and thus love Himself; but he can also love what He has created, wanting it to become more perfect, closer to the ideal state He Himself is in. By contrast, we can love God, in a sense, but not possess Him fully. This sounds like bad news, but it has an advantage. As we grope our way towards grasping Him fully, we can appreciate more and more of His infinite goodness. This means that our desire for Him will constantly and increasingly be satisfied. But only partially: there will always be room for improvement.

Abravanel’s Dialogues were a huge success, and influenced subsequent writers on love, one of them another female philosopher, Tullia d’Aragona, whose own Dialogue on the topic came out in 1547. Casting herself as a character who disputes with her friend Benedetto Varchi, d’Aragona reiterates Abravanel’s definition of true love. The pair worry that his idea of an infinite object of love makes no sense, because nothing can be actually infinite, as philosophers have said since antiquity. But this is all right, they decide, because potential infinity is perfectly possible. For instance, you can’t count up to an infinitely large number, but you can keep counting indefinitely without getting to a limit. This is what love is like, and not only in the case of love for God. When two people are genuinely in love, their desires are infinite in this sense: they literally cannot get enough of each other.

It is thanks to thinkers of this period, and especially to Marsilio Ficino, who translated all of Plato into Latin, that we now speak of ‘Platonic love’. In fact, in Plato’s dialogues, frank attention is given to sexual desire, and Plato is not above exploiting lust for comic effect, as when men jostling to sit next to a beautiful youth on a bench cause the one at the end to fall off. The erotic desire in question in his dialogues is often between men, or rather, of men for boys. That was a difficulty for Renaissance readers, except those who disliked Plato anyway, who were happy to call attention to what they considered his moral perversion.

Renaissance Platonists instead took their cue from Diotima’s speech in the Symposium which encourages us to strive for a vision of Beauty itself, leaving behind the erotic desire for beautiful bodies. On this basis they put forward a spiritual, desexualized understanding of eros. But, as we’ve seen, they retained Plato’s idea that desire is fundamentally connected to a feeling of lack or deficiency. A perfect being, like God, would never experience desire of this sort. But that is not the fate of imperfect humans. Even if you did somehow manage to have everything you want, the mere fact that you are subject to time means that you would have an as-yet-unsatisfied desire: to keep what you already have. As Plato said, ‘love is wanting to possess the good forever’. So, ultimately, as the Beatles almost but did not quite put it, all your love is need.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2022

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-6, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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