Thursday, February 14, 2019

Pregnant Bodies and Pregnant Souls: Plato on Love and Creation

plato, philosophy, love, symposium, valentine's day, book love, create, creation, children, creativity

My husband and I recently watched a Netflix movie called IO that I didn't care for overly much (the premise was cool, the execution was a little too art/independent-filmish for it's own good, basically you can skip it), but there was one scene that was really beautifully executed and has stayed with me. The main character has a boyfriend who she has not seen in years (he left on a spaceship), and while they are able to communicate through some form of email, they will likely only see each other again if she's able to catch the next flight off planet earth, which is both logistically and emotionally difficult for her to do. Enter another character, who was once a philosophy professor, and in this really beautiful scene he describes to her how, in an essay on love, Plato wrote that men used to have four arms, four legs, and two hearts, until one day a jealous god divided man into two, and ever since then, man has spent his whole life looking for his other half so that he may be complete and whole again. It's a very compelling scene.

But this description of love really bothered me. I do not subscribe to the belief that single humans are incomplete, or that being in a relationship is what makes us whole and complete. So I decided that I needed to come here and write about how much I disagreed with Plato. But before taking on one of Western civilization's greatest philosophers of all time, I figured I better check out the original source, rather than just arguing with a movie version of him (here's my advanced degree education kicking in, always best to check your sources!). So, imagine my surprise and delight when I stumbled across the Symposium, a Plato work I was completely unfamiliar with (I've had to read some Plato before, but apparently never this one).

Here's the summary for you: Basically, this is a fictional story, a dialogue (or even dramatic scene) between a group of men at a banquet. The host of the banquet challenges the men to each give a speech about Eros (or Love). The speech about humans once having four arms and four legs was given by a character named Aristophanes, who is a comic playwright, and, it should be noted, his story doesn't seem to be taken very seriously as truth. I think it would be a stretch to argue that Plato in any way is actually promoting this view on love. So, here's why it's important to always check original sources! Plato may have written the story, but in the mouth of a character he probably didn't agree with. Good to know!

Traditionally, it is agreed that Plato probably put his own opinions about love in the mouth of Socrates, who is the final member of this dinner party to make a speech. And you guys, this Socrates speech on love is good. I mean, it is really, really good. While I was reading through it, I just kept thinking, hm, wow, how have I never heard this before!? So, in case you are not familiar with this particular essay of ancient Greek philosophy, and in honor of the holiday today, I'm just going to drop some quotes here for you to be thinking about this week.

In his speech, Socrates relates a conversation he had with a woman named Diotima, who teaches him all about Love. Here's a snippet of that conversation:

"[Love] is a great spirit, and like all spirits he is intermediate between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal. He interprets between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him is all bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love."

I mean, how beautiful is that image? The only thing between God and man is Love, all the communication and intercourse between the mortal and the divine is through Love.

Okay, later on they keep talking about about how Love is about this pursuit of beauty, and then there's this snippet (this is Diotima speaking again):

"Then if this be the nature of love, can you tell me further ... what is the manner of the pursuit? what are they doing who show all this eagerness and heat which is called love? and what is the object they have in view? ... I will teach you:- The object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul. ... I mean to say, that all men are bringing to the birth in their bodies and in their souls. There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation-procreation which must be in beauty and not in deformity; and this procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing; for conception and generation are an immortal principle in the mortal creature, and in the inharmonious they can never be. ... For love, Socrates, is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only, [but] the love of generation and of birth in beauty. ... Because to the mortal creature, generation is a sort of eternity and immortality."

Okay, there's so much in there, and I'm not expert on Greek philosophy, so I may be getting all this wrong, but from what I understand Diotima is saying here that real love brings about a pursuit of beauty through generation and procreation. The first level of this is literal procreation between a man and a woman. This is romantic love, and Diotima/Socrates/Plato is arguing here that that the goal or pursuit of this type of romantic love is procreation, for that is a way to immortality (you live on through your children, or something like that).

But romantic love and procreation is only love and birth of the body. There is also love and procreation of the soul, and this is where they move on to next:

"But souls which are pregnant-for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions? -wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor."

So, if I'm following this right, to Plato love is about creation- procreation of children from physical love, and creation of virtue, wisdom, art, poetry, etc. from soul love.

As I understand it, this essay is where we get the concept of Platonic love, but how we use the term "Platonic love" today is not very faithful to the idea of love Plato is actually talking about here. We talk about Platonic love as simply meaning friendship without sexual desire, but actual Platonic love here is referring to a love which leads to creativity of the soul.

While Plato (and the Greeks in general) were obsessed with the idea of immortality, and the way these two expressions of love could bring immortality (either from having children to pass on your memory, or having famous works of art that people would study forever), what I'm far more struck by is simply the idea that true love leads to creation, and creation is beautiful.

I love this conception of love. To me, it speaks perfectly about how love works in a relationship. The love I share with my husband has led to physical creation, we've produced three beautiful children. But our relationship has also led to soul love as well. We've built a family, we've created a home, and, most importantly, we've spent everyday learning virtue and wisdom through the art of getting along, serving, forgiving, playing, celebrating, and just being together. We've created a life together. We've created a marriage, and while that may not exactly be the type of art or poetry Plato is thinking of, believe me when I say that marriage is an art.

But also what I love about this conception of love is that it is not dependent on being in a relationship (okay, the physical procreation part is, that does take two), but anyone can fill their soul with love and have it generate virtue, wisdom, art and poetry. Anyone can access God through love. Anyone can pursue beauty and good. Love is simply about creating good in the world.

There's lots more to this essay than I've discussed here (and I just want to reiterate that I am no ancient philosophy scholar, and I'm positive there are two centuries worth of criticism written on this particular essay which probably all say it means something entirely different than what I've said here, so just take everything with a grain of salt).

But the two things that really struck me as being profound and significant are these: Love is the only thing between man and God, and Love is all about creation.

So if you find yourself depressed today because you are not in a relationship with that other half who formed your four arms and four legs at the beginning of creation, maybe it's time to let that soul mate vision go anyway and realize that all that matters to really celebrate Love is using it to create.

Create good.

Create beauty.

Love man and love God.

Happy Valentine's Day, dear readers. I truly love you, and thank you for your support in this small space I use as my own little outlet for creativity. I hope you find goodness and beauty here.

May your day be filled with love.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Books I Read in December and January

So, I totally forgot to do an end of month review for December (it happens, what with all the craziness of the holidays and all the necessary year-in-review/goal-setting posts at the beginning of the year), but I don't want to not document those books, so I decided to do a double month post for December and January. But I read 17 books in the past two months (yay for holiday reading time!) which is a heck of a lot of books to get through, so I'm kind of intimidated. But the only way on is through, so let's just plunge in, shall we?

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

How I love Dickens! This one (apparently one of his earliest, maybe even his first?) is much more episodic than his other novels. In fact, I was uncertain for a long time if there was going to be any sort of over-arching plot at all, or if it was just going to be a loose collection of adventures (spoiler, there is a plot, of sorts). But mostly, this was a just a delightful ride with these crazy characters. I came to love Mr. Pickwick with all my heart. This ended up being a serendipitous December read, as there's a couple of wonderful Christmas stories/scenes (hints at his future Christmas Carol). I've been wanting to read this one ever since I re-read Little Women last year, and it did not disappoint. It was charming and delightful!

My True Love Gave To Me by a bunch of big-name authors

So guys, I love me some seasonal reading, but does it feel like finding good non-picture book Christmas fiction is really hard? Or is that just me? Anyway, I found this short story collection while browsing my library's Christmas suggestions, and recognized most of these author names (some big YA names here), so I decided to give it a whirl. And here's the thing. I genuinely enjoyed some of these stories, and I think if you are a hard-core fan of these authors, you'd probably enjoy them too. But it was not what I was looking for in a good Christmas read. It was all rather fluffy, all romance with Christmas just being incidental. But it was kind of mostly clean and still rather fun, so I did finish it.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Guys, this ended up being a surprise favorite for me. This is classic fantasy, but it's not for everyone, not even fans of fantasy. My husband read it after me, and he's a huge fantasy fan (LOTR, Brandon Sanderson, etc.), but he didn't really like this one. It's prose is a bit more sparse and poetic. It has the feel of an ancient myth to me. I loved it, especially the magic system. I have grand plans of designing a 200-level English course and teaching this novel in it (I'll tell you more about it if that idea comes to pass).

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

You guys! I found it! Everything I've been looking for in a great seasonal Christmas read! I mean, duh, right? There's a reason this is the classic it is. I cannot believe this is the first time I've actually read it! It's going to have to become a yearly tradition, it was just so perfect. Considering how many times I've seen all the movie versions and how familiar I am with the story, I was surprised at just how much better the book really was. I cried (that Dickens, he's so manipulative). I loved it.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My sister gifted me this trilogy for my birthday, but since it was a physical book instead of an audio book I had to wait patiently all semester for Christmas break before I could finally jump in. I've seen it getting some buzz lately, and I have to say, the first one is quite enjoyable. If you enjoy urban fantasy, this is a pretty fun story, and the first one works fairly well as a stand alone, which I kind of recommend leaving it at.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

This one was still pretty good. I still breezed through it and found it mostly enjoyable, though it didn't necessarily lead in the direction I expected things to go...

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

I read Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy a few years ago and rather enjoyed it, and I was intrigued enough by the synopsis of this one to want to jump in. There were lots of things to love about this: the library/book love, the role of dreams (literal and figurative), the fantastic world. I'm not sure it's quite as good as the Daughter series, but I still really, really liked it. But, it ended on quite the cliffhanger, which means of course I have to read the next book (just as soon as my library gets the audio, which I hope it does soon).

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Seasonal reading in January feels like self-help to me, and this was my first self-help of the year. And I liked it, but can't say I loved it. Rhimes sounds like a gem of a person who would be really fun to know in real life, and her story of the changes she made in her life and the happiness she found were very inspiring... just not for me so much. Her life is just different than mine, and I didn't find her experience very applicable to my experience. But I did enjoy it and generally recommend it, especially if you follow her work at all (I, for one, have never seen a single episode of Grey's Anatomy, so I guess I'm not the target audience really anyway).

Invested by Danielle Town

Oh man, this one might deserve a post all it's own. I'm not even sure what inspired me to pick this book up, considering how it seems like exactly something that would not interest me in a million years. When it comes to money, I stick to things like budgeting, frugal living, and saving money as my areas of specialty. Investing? Stocks? Not really my thing (understatement). But reading this book somehow got me all fired up and inspired to go out and turn into some kind of investor wizard. They just managed to make it seem really doable. Or at least, really doable since I happen to be married to a corporate lawyer with a business degree who actually understands this stuff and could be really good at it. So I pressed the book into his hands and he got cautiously persuaded by it, and so we're going to maybe follow this program and see how it turns out. I have no clue what I'm doing, but I have all the faith in the world in my husband, so I'll let you know what happens (if anything happens, we're still very much in the just paper planning stage of things). Either way, we've decided this will be an interesting joint project, something to spend time doing together. Nothing says romance like investing in stocks together, am I right?

Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life... and Maybe the World by Admiral William H. McRaven

Continuing on with my January self-help theme, I picked up this little quick read and rather thoroughly enjoyed it. McRaven has a fascinating life story, and his little nuggets of wisdom really are fabulous. But the one thing this book really convinced me of is that... I could never be a Navy Seal. I just don't have that in me. And I kind of came away from this book feeling insecure about that. Like, Navy Seals are awesome, and I can never be that awesome. Is that okay? Anyway, I still highly recommend this book.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Guys, this one was fantastic. This one straddles the line between self-help and business-y pop psychology. He spends Part 1 talking about the science of personal habits and how to change bad habits (some really good stuff), and then he spends Part II talking about how businesses and companies try to exploit our habits (he talks about Febreeze, Target, other stuff that's really interesting). Then in Part III he just brings up some interesting ethical questions about habits (super interesting stories here). Anyway, I just really enjoyed this one. I would say if you're interested in starting new good habits, Gretchin Rubin's Better Than Before is probably a more helpful book, but if you're interested in breaking bad habits (and just learning some interesting trivia) then this is a better choice. Good stuff.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

And here we go, I finally finished the third book in that series I started way back over Christmas break. Yeah, this third one really lost me (can you tell by the fact that I finished like five other books before finishing this one?). Major plot holes, a lot of missed potential for the magic system and world-building, and just far too long. The first one is good, just stick with that one.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

A complete treat to listen to this. And then, of course, as soon as I finished I immediately had to go listen to the entire soundtrack of the musical and just bask in the brilliance of that adaptation. I don't know if I would've been team Hamilton had I been alive back then (and I love how Chernow doesn't sugar coat any of his mistakes or failures), but I can't help but be grateful for his life and his brilliant contributions to founding our country.

The Warren Buffet Way by Robert G. Hagstrom

Oh boy, look at me, reading investment books like I know something. Who am I even anymore? Okay, this is NOT the one to start with. It totally feels like the target audience of this book is other experienced investors (which I most definitely am not), but I certainly learned quite a bit about Warren Buffet that I found fascinating, and, thanks to my crash course from Invested, even felt like I was hanging with all the jargon being thrown around. I sure hope I get to put this knowledge to good use.

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Guys! I really liked this one! It's about the tragic explosion of the Hindenburg, and while lots of the story is historically accurate (like all the character names were real people on board), this is a fictionalized and super thrilling dramatic account of what possibly could've caused this tragedy. I was blown away by Lawhon's ability to craft such an exciting story (spies! intrigue! romance!) on the bones of actual historical detail. It was a lot of fun (even if the ending is tragic, but you already know that from the beginning) and I definitely recommend.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Guys, you just have to read this. I mean, you have to read Beartown first (this is the follow up story), but Backman is just incredible for his ability to dissect human behavior. I just can't believe how good he is hat making such superbly flawed but lovable characters. Also, just know, Backman is manipulative. You will feel all the feels. I cried buckets. Ugh.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I've been wanting to re-read this one ever since watching the Netflix movie version (which, P.S., is really, really well done, even if the book is better). Ay, me! What a lovely book! Even better as a re-read! I didn't want it to end. I do so love this one!

Well, look it that, we made it through all seventeen books! What a fabulous couple of months it's been, reading-wise. As per usual, have you read any of these? I'd love to hear your thoughts about them!