70. Eros vs. Thanatos, Part 2: Dying to Love

In post #55 I explored, with reference to Freud, the dynamics of eros (love) and thanatos (death). Here I would like to continue these reflections with reference to Plato.

In his dialogue Symposium, Plato has his character Socrates tell us of Diotima’s teaching on love. This teaching speaks of a mysterious initiation that entails a gradual movement of the soul away from the changing, imperfect aspects of beauty to the unchanging, perfect Form of Beauty itself. The process of approaching the Beautiful itself is as follows: love is detached from individual people and we come to see beauty can be present in many bodies; then we come to value the beauty of the soul and the virtuous laws of the state which guide it; then we come to grasp the beauty of truths found in mathematics and science—truths which are eternal and thus transcend the moving aspects of the body, the soul, and the state (210a-e). Finally, we transcend even these intellectual truths and see, with the eye of the soul, the eternal Form of Beauty that grants beauty to all the previous imitations of it. This seeing comes suddenly upon the soul after many years of preparation and is wonderful (210e-211d). It enables a new form of procreation to take place—a spiritual form. Rather than making something like children or works, the soul is able to give birth to itself as wise and therefore virtuous. This transformed soul would have wisdom capable of intelligently directing its appetites and passions towards the good. In doing so, it would be divine-like in its autonomy. Love, if we follow its guidance towards beauty all the way, may even help us become immortal: “The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he” (212b, translation Nehamas and Woodruff).

Sounds great doesn’t it?

The problem is that this process of pursuing higher forms of beauty entails many experiences of feeling worthless. For example, at the end of Symposium Plato’s character Alcibiades says that Socrates, whom he loves and thinks is beautiful, “makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living!” (216a). This comment reminds us of of Apollodorus’ comment in the introduction to the dialogue: “Of course, I used to think that what I was doing [before meeting Socrates and doing philosophy] was important, but in fact I was the most worthless man on earth…” (173a). Love’s pursuit of beauty guides us to value certain things at certain levels of the soul’s ascent. Indeed, without love’s guidance we feel like we are drifting “aimlessly” as Apollodorus put it (173a); we would have “no idea what to do, no purpose in life” as Alcibiades put it (219e). Love and beauty give us a sense of well-being. But since love’s pursuit of beauty is restless, since it often lives and dies in a “single day” as Diotima put it (203e), it tries to move us beyond this temporary well-being to something better; and this leads us to experience an existential crisis. Our life as we know it is judged to be inadequate, we are judged to be inadequate, and we may, in the face of all this judgment, seek our own death (216b) or seek the death of the one who we love: “I think I would be happier if he [Socrates] was dead” (216c). But this will not do since the beloved is the means to our love flourishing and thus is a means to becoming more alive. As Alcibiades puts it: “And yet I know that if he dies I’ll be even more miserable” (216c). Love of the beautiful, so it seems, can only bring us towards immortality by killing us many times.

For Eros vs. Thanatos part 3 go here.

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