Plato, Romance, and Self-Inquiry

If philosophy has all along proclaimed the unexamined life to be not worth living, it seems not yet to have grasped that the unloving life is hardly worth examining.

Think about the “story” of your life. If you’re like most people, a major plot line will revolve around the ecstatic peaks and crushing lows of your love life—from the intoxicating flourishing of love found to the miserable suffering of love lost. The delicious intensity of these feelings leads us to proclaim that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

But the centrality of romance in our lives is more than a matter of the powerful feelings it gives rise to. Romance also injects a sense of meaning into the days of our lives, transforming our habits and personalities, and giving rise to previously unknown capacities to appreciate and to serve.

Of course, not everyone would describe the centrality of romance in this way. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, would suggest that even the most exquisite delight of romance’s full bloom is just a captivating personal gloss on what is at bottom a blind (and specifically heterosexual) urge of our genes to replicate. Romantics and poets disagree. “It isn’t like that at all,” they protest. “True love is a quality of transcendence, not a function of nature. True lovers are meant to be with each other. Destiny joins them, not selfish genes!”

And so it goes, with scientific sobriety on the one side and romantic intoxication on the other. From my point of view, both ideas can be right—complimentary aspects of a single complex reality in which neither side can be reduced to the other.

The essential concern, however, is our place in the flurry and passion of romance. That is, is it possible for us to exercise thoughtful choicesin the ongoing script of the love story of our lives, or are we doomed only to discoverthe plot? Can we create romance, like a work of art, or must it happen to us, akin to Cupid’s arrow? In short, is the continued, blossoming success of romance a decision we can make?

The challenge in answering these questions lies in one’s self-programming. One would think philosophy would be able to help. After all, both the injunction of the Delphic Oracle to “know thyself” and Socrates’ resonating pronouncement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” date from the infancy of the Western philosophical tradition. And Plato often characterizes the psyche as a powerful chariot running wild without a charioteer. However, in spite of the enormous incentive, love has never been a major concern in the history of philosophy; if philosophy has all along proclaimed the unexamined life to be not worth living, it seems not yet to have grasped that the unloving life is hardly worth examining.

Yet Plato has given us a choice text in the form of the Symposium, a series of speeches written circa 385-380 BCE on the genesis, purpose, and nature of love.

Before we examine Plato’s ideas, let’s acknowledge that any journey of self-examination in the area of love and sex is going to be difficult. For starters, if we harbor any resistance to self-revelation, the internal protocol for our investigation then becomes, “seek—but do not find.” In addition, there is the inescapable fact that, on every level, American culture is saturated with deception. Whether it’s on the large stage where products and politicians are presented to us, or on the small stage where we present ourselves to the world, some version of the age-old attempt to make what is seem like what is not is likely to be operating. Of course, there has always been deception. The same gift of language that enables us to seek truth beyond our senses also gives us the means to deceive. But now there’s a difference. From government, business, and Wall Street all the way down to individual resumes and Facebook pages, the age-old capacity to deceive is now practiced with full cultural validation (indicated by the fact that we now refer to open, calculated attempts to mislead as mere “marketing”). Under these conditions honest self-inquiry becomes even more difficult.

Adding to this difficulty is the fact that there isn’t a lot of support in our educational system for taking on even the mild discomfort of new discovery, let alone the pain of self-discovery. And so routine rules the classroom, excitement and enthusiasm are more likely to be found at football games, and modest attempts to penetrate the psychic depths of our individual and collective lives becomes too much to bear. (Minor good news: reading this essay is a strong sign that you are an exception.)

But this is where Socratic inquiry can be most helpful because it challenges us to approach our illusions, our self-deceptions, and our defenses by cultivating a self-aware “distance” from ourselves. In this way we can engage in inquiry without defending anything, disagree without getting angry, and let our differences drive discovery rather than fuel contests with a winner and a loser. As it’s said in Zen, the way to get enlightened is to cease to cherish opinions.

The stakes are high here. Looking around, one can see the results of a culture that is fully open to marketing deception and increasingly closed to critical inquiry and honest self-examination. And if, as Plato says, the character of our government will always be a large-screen projection of the quality of our own selves, then the deceptions and dishonesty of our leaders just mirror the patterns of deception established in our own internal dynamics. On this basis Plato suggests we always get the leaders we deserve. He would have told us that electing a “new and improved” candidate to high office won’t change things. In order to change things we have to change ourselves.

Now I’m not offering Plato’s thoughts as a rationalization for abandoning the responsibilities of citizenship. Just the opposite. Good citizenship is more important than ever—which is why Plato’s connection between the state and the psyche is also more relevant than ever. It can help us to grasp that the more ruthlessly honest we are with ourselves, the less likely we are to accept being deceived by our leaders as normal. Conversely, the more we accept as normal the fact that our leaders routinely and shamelessly lie to us, the more likely we are to be less than scrupulously honest with ourselves. From both the political and personal ends, therefore, there is reason to engage in a process of comprehensive and honest self-examination. And a good place to begin is to attempt to examine our deepest ideas (and illusions) about love.

How Deep Is Your Love?

To acknowledge an idea as “deep” is not necessarily to endorse it as true. It is to recognize that the idea operates at the foundation of our thinking and, by shaping our way of seeing, contributes to helping to construct our experience. Indeed, one of the tragedies of life is that so many deep ideas aren’t true. At any rate, I am claiming that two of Plato’s deep ideas about the nature of love are at work in our psychic depths and thus have a large and ongoing (if hidden) influence on our love lives. I am further claiming that one has a negative influence and the other a positive one.

So what are these deep Platonic ideas about the nature of love? Both are presented in the Symposium, Plato’s dialogue on love. Here, a group of aristocratic gentlemen, recovering from a previous night of heavy drinking, decide only to drink lightly on this night while taking turns giving speeches about love. The first idea comes from Aristophanes’ speech in which he presents a comic myth to explain what love is.

Aristophanes begins by saying that men and women are the separated halves of what was originally one whole being. This original being was round, had four arms, four legs, two faces, and two sets of sexual organs. It could generate great speed and power by coordinating its arms and legs to spin like a cartwheel at incredible speeds, almost like a human bowling ball. Although these beings were asexual and reproduced by casting their seed on the ground, they came in three forms—male, female, and mixed.

Aristophanes says these beings also had great ambition—so much so that they tried to ascend Mount Olympus to attack the gods. Although the gods were understandably outraged, they were perplexed about how to respond. They were inclined to destroy these beings with thunderbolts, as they had destroyed the Titans, but they didn’t want to lose the worship and sacrifices they provided. After a great effort of thinking, Zeus came up with a plan. He decided that rather than destroying them he would rip them in half, thereby depriving them of their strength and rolling power. In this way humans would lose their arrogance while at the same time doubling in number, thereby increasing the number of sacrifices offered to the gods.

The newly-cut-in-half beings suffered greatly, more so than Zeus had anticipated. They longed so achingly for their other half that they would throw their arms around each other, staying woven together all day in the hope that they would grow whole again. So great was their longing that they began to die in each other’s arms. Seeing the great show of their sorrow, Zeus took pity on them and made a correction. He moved their genitals to the front, thereby creating sexual reproduction by means of the male penetrating the female.

Aristophanes then says this is how love was born into our being, love being the force that leads us to try to heal the primal wound to our original nature through sexual union. We are seeking to find our “matching half” in order to become whole again.

Our primal wound also explains our sexual proclivities. Men and women who were split from a mixed being seek wholeness with the opposite sex and are often lecherous. However, women split from a female being seek wholeness with other women, and men split from a male being seek wholeness with other men. The men who seek wholeness with other men, Aristophanes says, are the only type who grow up to be political leaders and, when they are grown men, love only boys and marry only as required by local custom and to make children.

The key point in this comic myth is that it’s not a desire for sex that brings us together but the desire to become whole. Sex is the vehicle, not the destination, and love is the fuel for the journey. And it is because lovers find union with their beloved that they cannot bear to be apart.

For all of its outlandishness, this myth expresses the widespread notion that romantic love will end our agonizing loneliness if we can form not merely a stable relationship with another but a sort of metaphysical fusion with them. The idea is that when we’re in love, we cease to exist as a separate individual and instead merge or fuse into a new whole being. When this doesn’t happen, it isn’t love.

Now before you dismiss this idea as nonsense, consider how deeply we’re influenced by it. How often do we hear someone say they feel “lost” and “incomplete” without their romantic partner? Indeed, we think it is the very heart of romance to feel we need our true love in order to be complete. “I can’t live without you,” “You make me whole again,” “I need you”—all of these romantic sentiments express Aristophanes’ idea.

It’s on this basis that Freud associated romantic love with the death instinct. That is, through love (understood as a sort of metaphysical merging) we seek the “death” of our previous, separate existence. This culturally validated idea that true love involves such a merging of identities is a source of great suffering. It is the classic double-bind. As autonomous psychic entities, we resist losing our identities. At the same time, as culturally created romantic partners, we not only seek to abandon our separate existence in a romantic fusion, but we use the extent of our success in “becoming one” as a standard to measure the quality of our relationship and marriage. As a tragic consequence, many a healthy, autonomous couple has split apart because one or the other of them felt that their failure to achieve metaphysical “oneness” was a sign that love had died.

Unfortunately, there is an even darker element to this. Freud’s association of romantic love with the death instinct opens the door to a number of other strange but revealing connections in our depths. For example, just as the romantic urge can become a dysfunction when it aligns with the death instinct and seeks not just a committed relationship with another but a complete fusion with them, so too can lusting after great wealth. It happens when we want lots of money in order to move out of our neighborhood, get all new clothes, quit our job, and get new friends. In other words, possessing great wealth will enable us to “die” to our old life.

As grim as these dysfunctions are, it may be that the deep inner emptiness that leads to them is not an inherent quality of the human condition, as Freud thought, but simply a natural spiritual response to the denigration of self-worth. These dysfunctions occur when it is a sense of lack that is driving us and not a compassionate and loving urge to give and to serve. Once the feeling of inadequacy and metaphysical lack is established in the psyche—the very feeling Aristophanes based his comic myth upon—then products we don’t need can be sold to us on the basis of the implication that the reason we feel empty and unfulfilled is because we don’t yet have them.

As far as romance is concerned, the idea and feeling that each of us needs something “other” in order to complete ourselves represents a failure to accept our intimate selves.

A Love Supreme

If Plato’s first idea—that love is seeking completion in another—is psychologically unhealthy (notwithstanding its powerful romantic appeal), Plato’s second idea about love—that there is a great chain that links all of our loves, from the lowest and most carnal up to the highest and most spiritual—has had a much more positive impact. This idea is revealed in a speech Socrates delivers later in the Symposium. Rather than primarily interrogate others, as he normally does, Socrates recounts what the priestess, Diotema, a teacher of what he calls the “mysteries,” had explained to him about love years earlier. Love, she had said, is not a god at all but a great spirit that shuttles back and forth between the gods and humans. Not being a god, love is not immortal—but desperately seeks to be so by giving birth to beauty, both through children and through wisdom, works of art, and political reform.

Diotema acknowledges that what is called “love” is often little more than a carnal desire to possess the beautiful body of another. Instead of dismissing this vulgar practice, however, she identifies it as a lower rung of a great chain connecting the lowest vulgarities to the highest spiritual realities. From loving one beautiful body, the lover ascends link by link. First, the lover comes to note that the beauty of one body is similar to the beauty of another. In this way the lover realizes that all beautiful bodies participate in beauty as such, and that it is more precious than the beauty of any particular body. The lover then ascends higher by coming to realize that the beauty of mind and conscience is greater than physical beauty. The lover ascends even higher to an appreciation of the beauty in the activities of other human beings—the beauty of laws and institutions and the beauty of knowledge. Finally, the lover comes to an appreciation for the actual form or idea of beauty itself.

Once again, even though few of us think in this way, it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of Plato’s magnificent idea that an unbroken chain of unity runs between the lowest human expression and the highest spiritual reality.

The Unattractiveness of Opposites

Now the opposite of this understanding would be any sort of dualism that holds the higher and lower to be not different levels of development but absolute metaphysical opposites. I am not referring to Cartesian dualism, which opposes mind to matter, but to religious dualism (sometimes called Manichaeism) which sees the world as a life-and-death struggle between good and evil. In the world picture of religious dualism, good and evil are different realities that are at war with each other, each struggling to vanquish the other from existence. Where the Platonic self rides the lower to the higher, transforming the lower into the higher by means of that journey, the dualistic self aspires to destroy the lower.

In a contemporary context, much of American religion and politics is taking on a dualistic form. Psychologically, the dualism can be seen in our tendency to combat our lower qualities—our lust, hedonism, and laziness—rather than try to socialize them into a larger functioning unity. Nietzsche’s witty remark in this context is apropos—that we should be very careful when we cast out our demons that we aren’t throwing away the best parts. In the same context, it is instructive to recall that the word “holy” comes from a root that means “whole.” However, it’s not an urge for holiness, but this sort of dualism that leads to even larger “wars” against drugs, terrorism, and poverty.

Unfortunately, the dualistic tendency to go to war with the lower parts of ourselves characteristically leads to the sanctioning of wickedness and destruction in the name of higher things. For example, dualism is the basis for zero-tolerance policies. Such policies are built out of the broken links of Plato’s chain, and while they do much to ruin young lives, they characteristically misidentify the ruination they impose as a natural consequence of the violation.

And politically, of course, the dualistic war between higher and lower can be seen in the increasing tendency to treat one’s opponents as vermin and scum to be eliminated. Domestically, this dualism takes the form of an increasing partisan division between people, with the large middle area of common ground—the foundation of civilized legislation and harmonious social consensus—shrinking to irrelevance.

Internationally, dualism is behind both jihad and the global war on terror. Americans who have accepted dualistic assumptions often find it unacceptable to accord those suspected of crimes, even of great and horrible crimes, due legal process. They fail to see that in denying their enemies any recognition of humanity, let alone an acknowledgement of their universal human rights, they are turning away from civilization. As Plato warns us, they become the thing they hate. Pilotless drones that kill anonymously from the sky are the new weapons of choice for American dualists because they kill more of “them” and save more of “us.” In classic dualistic fashion, the fact that children and innocents are killed is blamed on the evil of the enemy.

As far as our love lives are concerned, dualism leads to rejection—both to self-rejection and also to a categorical dismissal of the qualities, even the personality, of our beloved. The relationship then has to try to sustain itself on these grounds, and only produces more suffering and failure. In essence, dualism is a failure of love.

Now clearly there are negative qualities that, unacknowledged and untreated, will destroy a relationship even without the influence of dualism. Regarding these difficulties, Plato’s notion of the great chain is a powerful aid as we attempt to address the problems that negative qualities give rise to. The idea is to move up the chain, not to destroy the link. In doing so, the original difficulty is transformed. And the way to move up the chain is always to love more, not less—in short, to love unconditionally. Thus, the great chain of Plato, which sees the lower as an immature and unevolved first step of what will eventually move higher, not only opens us to unconditional love but also expresses a much deeper faith in the essential goodness of reality.

There is so much more to say about these things. And while we can continue in an attempt to enlighten some shadows, even when the lights are the brightest the mysteries of love remain. Still, I might take this closing moment to offer one important qualification. I have hinted that while romantic love certainly involves passion and is even heralded by it, there is more to romance than passion. I have also suggested that this something is more of a deep decision than a wonderful feeling. Now I well understand how unromantic that sounds. Surely many a lover will say about his or her significant other, “I want him to be with me because he loves me, not because he’s holding to a decision.” The point is well taken, but it does not apply to what I’m saying.

When I say love is a decision, I don’t mean it’s a one-time thing, coming at a single moment. Aristotle says it takes a lifetime of applied effort to become a good person. I am saying something similar because the decision I’m talking about takes place constantly. It involves mindfully reviewing our thoughts about our partner as we go through the days and years of the relationship, especially those fueled by feelings of rejection, anger, and disappointment. We try also not to give in to the dark side of selfishness, fear, and withdrawal, and when we do so, we immediately come back. Through all of this we would gently but constantly choose again, always picking a more loving response or a more romantic attitude. In this way we develop constancy in our gifts of love to others and consistency in our trust.

Let’s ask ourselves: Will our romantic love lives be as satisfying in the flesh as they are in the fantastic spirit of our aspirations?

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