Thursday, 16 November 2017

Divine Madness: Plato on Sex and Love, part 2

For the sake of comparison, the speech of Diotima with the myth of Eros in Symposium (200-212) will be considered as a later stage in the redemptive process of love and beauty (after the soul’s initial incarnation). While the Phaedrus could be said to emphasize a primordial phase in ethical purification, the Symposium can be considered to elaborate a later, more intellectual process of salvation through love (a phase where the ascent occurs after many incarnations). Since the speech of Diotima has been amply summarized, commentary will be limited to certain comparative considerations.

In the ascent to the contemplation of absolute beauty, there are certain intellectual strategies that can be noticed:
1-An inductive movement from multiplicity to simplicity – observing many beautiful bodies before choosing a single representative example of beauty (210b).

2-A deductive movement from particular to general – the essential qualities of the ideal example of beauty are applied to all examples of beautiful bodies (210b).The first two phases apply to visible, concrete beauty. The next two phases are applied to a consideration of conceptual, abstract beauty.

3-A deductive process where the universal notions of concrete beauty are applied to concepts and values. The beauty of virtues, of ideas, sciences (210c).

4-An inductive process of contemplating various instances of conceptual beauty to arrive at an understanding of absolute, essential beauty, which is the source of the previous forms of beauty. (211a-b)

The notion of regeneration of wings in the Phaedrus corresponds to the notion of pregnancy in the Symposium: Growing wings can be related to giving birth to intellectual creations. Moreover the notion of ascension by growing wings corresponds with ascension via climbing a ladder in the Symposium The role of eros is related to the intermediary position of the soul; the daimon communicatesbetween the divine and material worlds.

The emphasis on the cosmic role of beauty in the process of generation of the cosmos in the  Phaedrus is shifted to the role of beauty in human procreation and artistic and intellectual creativity. Plato makes an interesting connection between the sexual function and the artistic function; Artistic creation is related to physical procreation. The sensual role of beauty of the body is considered in a more positive light. In the Phaedrus (and the Phaedo), the body is considered as a prison and a serious impediment to intellectual activity, to be suppressed and overcome. In the Phaedrus, physical love is not considered redemptive; in the Symposium it is granted that coition represents a desire for immortality and the desire to create beauty. This desire for immortality seems to be a more attenuated form of his theory of recollection of the Phaedrus. (1)(2) In both dialogues, beauty plays a role of catalyst to salvation.(3)

Both dialogues portray the lover’s beauty as a basis for appreciating higher forms of beauty such as moral or intellectual beauty. The Symposium emphasizes a more active process of the role of beauty in a romantic relationship. Beauty inspires the philosopher to educate the lover to be more virtuous. Romantic love is considered to be part of a complex psychological process; the love a soul mate is not absolute; the love is not entirely for one`s partner, the love is a desire for absolute goodness, or the desire to become one with the absolute good. Ultimately it is a love for one’s higher self; (4) a metaphysical self-centered love similar to Aristotle's notion of philia in book seven of the  Nichomachean Ethics, in the sense that friendship is essentially achieved by becoming a good person.

Interestingly, Blavatsky's definition of the Sanskrit term Kama in the Theosophical Glossary (p. 171-72) has certain similarities with Plato's notions of a higher and lower Eros:

As the Eros of Hesiod, degraded into Cupid by exoteric law, and still more degraded by a later popular sense attributed to the term, so is Kama a most mysterious and metaphysical subject. The earlier Vedic description of Kama alone gives the key-note to what he emblematizes. Kama is the first conscious, all embracing desire for universal good, love, and for all that lives and feels, needs help and kindness, the first feeling of infinite tender compassion and mercy that arose in the consciousness of the creative ONE Force, as soon as it came into life and being as a ray from the ABSOLUTE. Says the Rig Veda, “Desire first arose in IT, which was the primal germ of mind, and which Sages, searching with their intellect, have discovered in their heart to be the bond which connects Entity with non-Entity”, or Manas with pure Atma-Buddhi. There is no idea of sexual love in the conception. Kama is pre-eminently the divine desire of creating happiness and love; and it is only ages later, as mankind began to materialize by anthropomorphization its grandest ideals into cut and dried dogmas, that Kama became the power that gratifies desire on the animal plane.

(1) According to Robin,"Recollection of essential reality is replaced with the notion of the innate desire of immortality"(181).

(2) Plotinus distinguishes two levels of inspiration from beauty, one which provokes recollection, and a lower, less consciouslevel: "There are souls to whom earthly beauty is a leading to the memory of that in the higher realm and these love the earthlyas an image; those that have not attained to this memory do not understand what is happening within them, and take the imagefor the reality. Once there is perfect self-control, it is no fault to enjoy the beauty of earth; where appreciation degenerates intocarnality, there is sin. (Plotinus, III, 5, 1)

(3) Plutarch calls it a refraction: "But the noble and self-controlled lover has a different bent. His regard is refracted to the other world, to Beauty divine and intelligible" (Plutarch 409, Amatorius 766B).

(4) "All that one sees as a spectacle is still external; one must bring the vision within and see no longer in that mode of separation but as we know ourselves; thus a man filled with a god – possessed by Apollo or by one of the Muses – need no longer look outside for his vision of the divine being; it is but finding the strength to see the divinity within" (Plotinus, V, 8, 10).

Plato. The Banquet. Percy Byshe Shelley, transl. Provincetown : Pagan Press, 2001. Print.
- - -. Phaedrus. J. H. Nichols Jr., transl. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1998. Print.
Plotinus. Enneads V. A.H. Armstrong, transl. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Print.
Plutarch.  Moralia IX ‘’The Dialogue on Love’’ transl. W. C. Helmbold: Harvard University Press, 1967. 302-441. Print.
Robin, Léon. La Théorie Platonicienne de L’Amour . Paris : Presses Universitaires de France.1933. Print.
Sandford, Stella. "'Sexually Ambiguous. Eros and Sexuality in Plato and Freud' Journal of thetheoretical humanities 109 (2006) 11 3 43 — 59 28 Mar. 2011 <>.