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Philosophy & Love

Eros In Plato

Alfred Geier uncovers the erotic side of Socratic philosophy.

In a brief and very plain dialogue with Agathon in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates asks Agathon whether eros (= passionate love) is the sort of thing which is “of something” or “of nothing.” Agathon answers, “Yes, indeed it is [of something].” This is a most remarkable answer, because Agathon is sure about the existence of an object of erotic love, without yet knowing what that object, that ‘something’, is. But this, in sum and in substance, gives the very character of eros – namely, to be sure about the existence of its object, without yet knowing what that object is. Socrates continues, “Guard this [eros] by yourself, by remembering whatever.” The guarding is necessary apparently because the eros might easily depart, which implies that eros as Agathon presents it is not a permanent acquisition. Further, Socrates ordering Agathon to guard it ‘by’ himself, instead of ‘in’ himself, implies that eros does not dwell in Agathon as a desire or emotion of his soul. In fact, Eros is later described as a “great daimon” – an intermediary between men and gods. Also, what does Socrates mean by ‘remembering whatever’? How can one remember what he does not yet know? The only way he can ‘remember’ here is if he never forgets, for one moment, that he does not yet know ‘whatever’ the object of desire is.

Socrates now asks Agathon if eros desires and loves its object or not; and, further, whether it is in having or in not having the object that one desires and loves it. Socrates argues that it is necessary that desire depends entirely on lack, and that to continue, eros thus does not ever ‘have’ its object. Socrates summarizes the object of erotic desire as that which is not at hand and that which is not present and that which it does not have and that which it itself is not.

Later in the Symposium, Socrates asks who Eros’ parents are, and answers his own question with a myth. Eros’ mother is called Penia – Poverty – and her father Poros – Resource. Why these parents? Poverty, as an essential part of the nature of Eros, means Eros is never rich. Resource is also an integral part of the nature of Eros: therefore, Eros is never at a loss; which is to say, Eros will always find a way. And since Eros is neither rich nor at a loss, he is between wisdom and ignorance – or, “Eros is a philosopher.”

Socrates’ Erotic Method

Eros is at the heart of the so-called Socratic Method. The goal of the Socratic procedure is not merely to refute someone, but through the refutation to try to convince that person that what he thinks he knows, he really does not know (yet). Thus, the person refuted receives a great benefit from the refutation. The refutation is usually accomplished by several repetitions by Socrates, either of the same opinion or of a sequence of opinions, so that the person being refuted becomes less and less certain about what he thinks he knows. Yet the consequence of this decrease of certainty is that a yearning (pothos) begins to arise for the absent knowledge. This yearning transforms into an eros precisely for that which the person does not any longer think he knows or has. If an eros for truth does not arise, the refutation, however logically excellent it may be, is in effect a failure. Thus the art and heart of refutation is thoroughly erotic.

Truth and the True Socrates

In the Symposium, Alcibiades gives voice to some excessively lavish praise of Socrates, his former teacher. He tells his audience, and us, how Socrates once stood perfectly still for twenty- four hours, apparently deep in thought. Alcibiades also asserts that within Socrates’ soul are ‘divine words’. He also describes Socrates as strange (atopos: literally, ‘nowhere’). Yet what is most striking about Alcibiades’ description of Socrates, is that he seems to be completely convinced that he knows the ‘true’ Socrates.

Early in the Symposium, before Alcibiades arrives, Socrates characterized his own wisdom as paltry, disputable, as a dream. This is not false modesty on Socrates’ part, but an honest and intelligent appraisal from a man who values wisdom very deeply. It is not likely Socrates would himself ever boast that he has divine words in his soul. Nor does Socrates offer any information here about what sort of activity went on inside him at such times as his twenty-four-hour thinking marathon. Alcibiades’ account of the ‘true’ Socrates is therefore highly suspect.

However, in another of Plato’s dialogues, Lysis, there’s an account by Socrates of the sort of thing that goes on inside him when he’s thinking. From this account we may be able to understand the true (ie, Plato’s) Socrates: “And then I don’t know from where a most strange suspicion entered me, that what had been agreed to by us is not true…” Socrates says. He and his interlocutors are thus motivated by a newly-arisen eros to pursue and find the truth. Yet, according to Socrates, the suspicion does not arise from himself (“I don’t know from where…”); and it is not said to come from any divine source. The suspicion has a completely mysterious origin; yet it produces the greatest possible benefit – becoming undeceived about the truth.

The suspicion does not come from Socrates, but it does come to Socrates. This is perhaps the most trustworthy test of a true philosopher – the person to whom such a suspicion of claims to truth arises unsought, producing thereby an eros for the truth. It seems clear that such an individual, and not Alcibiades’ mocking, exaggerated, and ambivalent caricature, is the true Socrates. Alcibiades treated Socrates as the embodiment or incarnation of Eros; but in the Lysis we find the true manifestation of Eros in the active, suspicious soul of Socrates. It follows that when we come to know what a true philosopher, such as Socrates, is, then, and only then, will we become able to fully understand eros.

© Prof. Alfred Geier 2011

Alfred Geier is a professor of classics at the University of Rochester and author of Plato’s Erotic Thought: The Tree of the Unknown (2002). He is working on a sequel on Plato’s writings on friendship.

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