Plato and Love

10Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and all your soul. And your neighbor as yourself. This is the first and greatest commandment.

Love is experiential, mysterious, and only minimally analyzable. Kant was suspicious of it because it cannot be commanded, it comes and goes, and thus seems like an unfirm foundation for ethics. It is, however, central to Plato’s philosophy (and Christianity). It drives the development and the education of the philosopher. The philosopher is defined by love. He is the lover of wisdom and wisdom is practical. A pretentious hypocrite is not wise. The merely intelligent are not wise. Plato loved the Form of the Good, and Beauty, Justice, and Truth, its progeny.

Aristotelian philosophy officially has love as a driving force and motivation for realizing one’s human potential, but his God is not lovable. He is not the Creator, and does not love us, since he is not even aware of us. Our supposed love for him goes unrequited. Too much of Aristotle is organic and biological. His picture of human flourishing is of a zoon; an organism. He does think the philosopher is the happiest, because he is self-sufficient. But, Aristotle’s philosophy is maimed by his uninspired image of God.

The Stoics too have a God similar to Aristotle’s. Like Aristotle, they consider the rational soul to be the most significant – the other two, for Aristotle, being the nutritive soul, that plants share, the sensitive soul, that animals have in addition to the nutritive soul that enables the feeling of pain and pleasure, thus the desire for pleasure, and then the rational soul that only Epictetusman has. Epictetus writes: “It is no ordinary matter merely to fulfill our profession as a man. For what is a man? A rational and mortal living creature. At once the question arises, from what are we distinguished by the rational element in our nature? From wild beasts.”[1] Being driven by stomach and genitals is to sink to the level of a sheep. “Rational creatures . . . alone are qualified by nature to associate with  god being connected with him by reason.”[2] It is interesting to note that this passage comes shortly after mention of Socrates, not Aristotle. But, Epictetus’ conception of Socrates is closer to Xenophon’s and is possibly more historically accurate. Xenophon’s Memorabilia is significant because it gives us an account of Socrates free of Platonic interpretation and interpolation, and that Socrates has always seemed closer to where Aristotle ended up than Plato. When Epictetus mentions our affinity to the gods, it is not to do with beauty and love, but reason.

For Epictetus, this rational soul is God within us. God is equated with reason and the Logos. The Logos is the principle of reason that gives order to the universe and creation. “Where the true nature of god is, there too is the true nature of the good.” And the true nature of god, according to Epictetus, is intelligence, knowledge, and right reason.

In the Phaedrus, Plato describes love as a divine madness. Love for God and for philosophy provides aspiration and drive. We love beauty. Why? Because beauty has a connection with our heavenly birthplace. God and heaven are beautiful. We come from the divine realm and we return there, and beauty connects us to our home. If someone were to ask why we love something and we were to reply “because it is beautiful,” then that is the end of the matter, just as if someone were to ask why we want to be happy.

Plato describes beauty as the only virtue that is visible – though physical beauties are lower than invisible beauties of soul. Virtue begins with a love of beauty. The other virtues, Justice, and Truth, must be found lovely before they will be diligently pursued. “You choose a beloved according to your disposition and character, as though the beloved were a god, the lover fashions and adorns an image/statue to be the object of his veneration and worship.”[3] To love beauty, wisdom, knowledge, truth, and justice, in others, those qualities must already be inside you. It is beautiful to appreciate beauty, and it is wise to seek wisdom. And we seek those things in our beloved. We recognize those qualities within them and encourage them to search for them.

A sociopath loves no man, because he admires no man. He does not love beauty or knowledge. If he does not have those qualities in himself, he cannot recognize them in others. He finds no one beautiful nor just. Someone has to be little bit beautiful to love beauty, and wise to pursue and admire wisdom. Just as we hate those qualities in others that we hate in ourselves – qualities we either have or fear that we have – so we love aspects of other people that we too share – negative and positive projection. Of all the negative qualities we could hate, we hate those most that have formed a wound within us. And of all the positive qualities we could love and admire, we love those most those things we already participate in, to some small extent.

Beauty, Knowledge, and Truth are not “ours.” They are eternal and timeless. But all humans have seen them and so they exist inside us, in our memory, and we can be reminded of them as they are imperfectly presented to us on Earth. These qualities are divine and godlike. When we love and admire someone, they embody the gods. We love the divine and transcendent in them, and this connects to the divine and transcendent in ourselves. The god in us loves the god in them.

God in Heaven

What is this love? It is a divine madness. It is not calm, rational, sensible, and prudent. It  provides the impetus that drives us forward and upward. Life is nothing; it is meaningless, without this divine love. If you cannot admire anyone, then you cannot love them. And admiration requires an acceptance of the superior and the inferior, the higher and lower. The “democratic” and egalitarian, are the death of love.

In the Phaedrus, Plato contrasts the lover with the nonlover.  Being a nonlover, “will cause the soul to be a wanderer upon the earth for nine thousand years and a fool below the earth at last.”[4]  Plato writes: “But the affection of the non-lover, which is alloyed with mortal prudence and follows mortal and parsimonious rules of conduct, will beget in the beloved soul the narrowness which the common folk praise as virtue.”[5] The prudent live a well-regulated life and strive for self-mastery. They aim to put things in the proper perspective and to face disease and death, which are outside our control, with equanimity. The movie Ghost Dog depicts an Eastern version of this as the lead character follows “Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai.” Part of this is the daily visualization of one’s violent death to be met by calm acceptance. It seems poignant and intriguing, as Epictetus can be, but, there is no particular love for the divine things, it seems.

It is hard to love a tool; to love reason. God as reason implies, seemingly, some plan for everything. The job of the creature is then to discover and fit into this scheme, in an excess of fatalism. And Epictetus, that former slave, who had had to try to find a way of coping with complete thralldom, focused on adjusting his attitude to the inevitable. This is admirable, but too passive. Meonic freedom, the causeless basis for inspiration and creativity is by necessity, a mystery – and divine mysteries inspire wonder and love, more than mere intellect and reason. And after all, a precondition of love is freedom.


Plato’s Form of the Good, and the Christian personal God seem like proper objects of devotion. Reason and intelligence are meaningless and even evil without love. Kant points out that a smart, self-disciplined criminal is even worse than a stupid, dissolute one. The Stoic emphasis on reason and a well-regulated life is connected with prudence. Prudence has its place and no parent wants his children to be without prudence. But there is something unlovely about prudence. Prudence is not love. It is not prudent to love philosophy, it is not the path to fame and fortune, or to love anything, or anyone. Everyone you love will die and their loss will make you miserable. Allan Bloom wrecked his translation of The Republic by rendering sophrosyne as “prudence,” making Socrates sound schoolmarmish and “sensible.” In following Socrates, Plato was not prudent. He threw away his political future and failed to exploit his looks, wealth, and aristocratic heritage, following a dirty, ugly, malcontent, constantly dissatisfied with himself and others. But, Socrates inspired love in Plato and Alcibiades, among others. And Socrates was filled with ecstatic love for the divine. His famous moderation was not the result of right reason, but his lack of interest in physical pleasures. It was not a moderation imposed by rationality and prudence, as a kind of suppression. It was the result of having his attention and love directed elsewhere. St. Augustine too relates moderation to the existence of the love for an infinite divine being. Being infinite; unending, insatiable desire finds its home in God. Love for money, persons, and things is moderated by love for God. One kind of love, moderates another kind of love, by finding the correct objects of love. Though there is something good and kind and wise in Epictetus, and he is worth reading, he is not driven by divine inspiration; by noble love. Therefore, he is not fully lovable in the way that Plato and Jesus are. The love in us loves the love in others. Reason is a tool. It is a tool with links to the Logos, and it helps make us human, but right reason informed by the gods should contribute to understanding the limitations of right reason, though we need to be divinely inspired to see it.

[1] Epictetus, p. 93, Book 2, Chapter 9, The Discourses.

[2] Epictetus, p. 22, Book 1, Chapter 9, The Discourses

[3] 252

[4] 257a

[5] 256e

6 thoughts on “Plato and Love

  1. Oddly enough, Socrates reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1 (oddly because of that passage’s surface-level attack on philosophy) . . . in that it was through “a dirty, ugly, malcontent” that the men of Athens — and eventually the world — came to aim for the highest beauty and the highest εὐδαιμονίαν. Yes, I’m one of those shameless Hellenists who think that pagans like Parmenides and Plato were inspired like Isaiah and David.

    As a side (but related) note, I encourage the visitors here to read Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address. It’s a shame that people tend only to know about the sparks it created in the Dar al-Islam. It’s really a wise and insightful piece. One day (soon, let’s pray!), bishops of Rome will once again deliver such thoughtful teachings to the people of God.

    • Thanks, Joseph A. I hope it’s clear that I share your admiration for Socrates and Plato and regard them as inspired too. And I agree that the irony (sort of) of Socrates’ ugliness is worthy of comment!

  2. Great piece!
    I now see the distinction you were trying to make much more clearly than in your other article on the Stoics. And, as helpful as Epictetus has been to me in some dark times, I agree with you on his deficiencies.


    • Hi, Donald B: Thanks for reading and your nice comment. Thanks to your comment and another’s with the previous piece, I decided I was on the wrong track and my facts straight about Epictetus and god. Revision is a great benefit of online publication!

      • I also wanted to make a quick comment on your fantastic reference to Ghost Dog. You rightly point out the non-divine seeking fatalism of the main character. And yet. Yet. The single thing that I think of when I hear Ghost Dog is the friendship he builds with the French ice cream vendor. That is one of my favorite friendships ever portrayed in film. I would dare call it beautiful. Strange movie.


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