Platonic love: what is it all about?

Platonic love: what is it all about?

Platonic love: what is it all about?

Last update: 01 September, 2018

Platonic love is a very frequently used expression in popular argot to refer to an impossible or unattainable love. Despite the adjective "Platonic", which relates this sentiment to Plato's philosophical vision, we will see that what the Greek philosopher postulated about love has very little to do with this definition.

Love, you know, has always been a topic that has given a lot to talk about. It has been a source of inspiration for many poets, writers, thinkers and philosophers since time immemorial, and the well-known ancient Greek philosopher Plato was no exception. Let us try to define the concept of Platonic love in the following paragraphs.

Clarifications on Plato

Plato was a Greek philosopher, disciple of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Numerous writings are due to him, including the Symposium and the Myth of the cave. In the first Plato develops his concept of love, which will form the basis on which he will later define Platonic love.

For Plato, love is the motivation that leads us to know and contemplate beauty itself. But the beauty contemplated by dualism, which is one of the main threads of his philosophy. This philosophical current - dualism - is based on the postulate that reality is made up of two independent substances that never mix: spirit (form) and matter. These two substances can join, but never mix.

Plato believed that the human being was composed of soul and body, where the soul belonged to the plane of ideas and the body to the material one. The soul therefore coexists with the body, in which, to be exact, it finds itself trapped. The two realities, however, are independent.

Starting from this philosophical conception, Plato develops his concept of love, misinterpreted by many, who define Platonic love as a chaste or spiritual love, although this is not the case at all. The love proposed by the Greek philosopher follows an intermediate path: it avoids promiscuity, but also abstinence, since for Plato morality was equivalent to containment.

The love

The vast amount of uses, meanings and feelings that embrace this concept makes it difficult to define it. Thus, one of the structuring characteristics of love is that it is about a universal concept that alludes to the affinity between human beings.

In Italian, the term "love" designates a range of different feelings, from the passionate and intimate desire of romantic love to the asexual emotional closeness of family love. It also includes the deep devotion or unity typical of religious love.

Whatever kind of love we talk about, the emotions involved are extremely powerful, even categorized as irresistible, since it is impossible to escape from them. It is an important incentive for interpersonal relationships, therefore it is a source of inspiration for the arts and an object of study for psychology..

"What we do out of love is always beyond good and evil."

-Friedrich Nietzsche-

What does the concept of platonic love contain?

The adjective "platonic" associated with the concept of love alludes to the doctrine of the Greek philosopher. Plato, in Socrates' Discourse, defines love as the motivation or impulse that leads us to try to know and contemplate beauty itself. Love eternal, intelligible, perfect forms or ideas that go beyond the physical beauty that can be appreciated; however, it does not rule it out.

In other words, for Plato love arises from the desire to discover and admire beauty. The process begins when someone appreciates physical beauty and then progresses towards spiritual beauty to reach the maximum stage of pure, passionate admiration emanating from the essence of beauty.

Platonic love, therefore, has nothing to do with unattainable or impossible love. Instead, it concerns a love that goes beyond the boundaries of physical beauty, a level that is perhaps difficult to reach. Sexual elements are not contemplated simply because true love for Plato is not that which is addressed to a person, but to the transcendent essence of beauty.

In the Symposium Plato exposes this postulate in the following way:

Beauty and love in Plato

According to Plato, in the presence of beauty, love arises in us, which can be defined as the impulse or determination that drives us to know and contemplate it. It is a series of phases that follow one another gradually, and in each being it is possible to appreciate a different form of beauty:

  • Body beauty: is the first phase. It starts with the feeling of love towards a beautiful body in particular, which evolves to appreciate beauty in general.
  • Beauty of souls: after having overcome the barrier of appreciation and falling in love with a person's physical appearance, we begin to focus on his inner world; it refers to the moral and cultural level of the person. In this phase of love, the bodily aspect is overcome, one passes from the physical to the soul.
  • Beauty of wisdom: appreciating the beauty of the spirit, of the soul unequivocally leads to love for knowledge, for ideas, going beyond the loved one.
  • Beauty in itself: when one has been able to overcome the three previous phases, a new and final door opens, which is the possibility of experiencing the love of beauty in itself, emitted by any object or subject. It is the highest level of love, the greatest.

This last step is characterized by the dispassionate, disinterested and pure knowledge of beauty. Contemplate a feeling that is neither corrupted nor altered with the passage of time. It is therefore not a question of an impossible love in itself, but of one that is based on the appreciation of perfect, intelligible and eternal ideas and forms. 

Why is platonic love related to unattainable love?

The expression "platonic love" was first used by Marsilio Ficino in the XNUMXth century. Platonic love was a love focused on the beauty of a person's character and intelligence, and not on his physical appearance. However, it is a love only present in the world of ideas, where it is considered perfect and incorruptible.

According to Plato, in reality it is not possible to achieve the purity of this feeling because it is not based on interests, but on virtue. In other words, it would be perfect love and since perfection is only an illusion of the real world - nothing is perfect - it would only be possible in the world of ideas.

To simplify, we can say that Platonic love means love that is idealized and does not include sexual desire. By extension, in colloquial language it is spoken of as the romantic feeling one feels for a person who, for some reason, is unattainable. Consequently, such love cannot include a sexual bond.

In this sense the expression is congruent with the postulate of the Greek philosopher; however, only a very small space is taken into consideration compared to the one referred to by the concept of Platonic love. The expression is therefore an error of colloquial and frequent use.

What does platonic love contemplate?

According to Plato, beauty is equal to justice, goodness, truth. Love thus seeks justice, goodness, truth, because it needs it, launching itself after them. In summary, Platonic love alludes to the activity of seeking and finding the part of the soul that we lack in another person, yes, but in one that represents for us all the good, the beautiful, the true, the right.

For this reason, Platonic love is not really an impossible or unattainable love; it is an intermediate path that obviously can include the sexual element, although it does not constitute its central point. It is possible to generate and fertilize more than the body, it is possible to fall in love with the ideas, with the soul of another being and this does not necessarily imply the exclusion of the corporeal, sexual element. It implies inclusion, but at the same time it goes beyond it.

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