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.

1 comment:

  1. <3 Some great thoughts here. Thanks for sharing! Hope you enjoy the holiday with those you love.