What is love? For most literary writers it’s one of the most interesting questions we are able to ask ourselves. The question has sparked a lot of debate. No wonder. It’s one of the most fundamental aspects in human life. And it should not bewilder us that the first philosopher to have created a coherent philosophical system made love something fundamental in his philosophy.
Socrates is invited to a symposium. This is a gathering where wealthy, intellectual men would sit down on couches with wine in front of them and basically just drink. Having a debate about love was something rare to do and was probably just initiated by Socrates. Normally they would just have a conversation and drink a set amount. Every symposium someone would be appointed who would choose the amount of wine that was to be drunk and how fast, which mostly resulted in them getting extremely drunk. This particular symposium occurs just the day after another one where they got a bit too drunk and are still hungover; except for Socrates who wasn’t there the previous day. But with him present a debate could begin.
The decide to debate about something which hasn’t been debated that much before: love. If we can believe Plato, then love wasn’t really a subject to be debated, but he dominantly puts it on the agenda and in doing so gives it a vital position in his philosophy. The guests all take a seat and one by one they give their account of love. The most vivid representation is the one by Aristophanes. He instead of a reasoning gives a myth, which is in line with him being a play writer.
According to Aristophanes, human beings used to be conjoint. The two genders were molded together in some sort of hybrids. You had woman/man, woman/woman and man/ man. Then Zeus decided to cut us in two with a lightning bolt. Now we are the half of the original human being. Love is then to try and find your other half. It is because of that feeling that you know you have found your other half. And the gods gave us the ability to come together once more during the sexual act. This image speaks for its own. We talk about our loving partner as our other half. Now we know where that comes from.
Now Socrates’ account on love can help us to get a deeper understanding of Plato’s metaphysics. In rough lines love is the force that drives everything. For Plato the supreme Form, the form where all other forms are born out of, is the Form of the Good, which is represented as the sun in the Republic. To have knowledge of the Good will grant you true understanding. Now in the Symposium we learn that the object of Love is the Good. Which if we translate this to Plato’s metaphysics, shows us that we always love the Good and because we have to know the Good in order to become a good person, we have to love knowledge of the Good. We need to become philosophers, lovers of knowledge.
For Plato to know something was to know the Good of something. We could say that we knew what a knife was if we also know the proper (read: good) use of the knife. If we use a knife to play the banjo then we can’t say that we have knowledge of the knife. The good of a thing is what the thing ‘loves’ to do, whatever its proper function is.
This relatively short book has a lot of philosophical weight and thus you could read it over and over and still find new pieces of information and insight whenever your read a couple of pages of it. Not only that it’s just beautifully written. In my opinion this is one of the best dialogues of Plato that I have read and can highly recommend it for those who are lovers of knowledge.