Tuesday 2/4

Love in Ancient Philosophy IV



Quiz Questions

  • How does Socrates argue in the Phaedrus that the non-lover is to be preferred to the lover?
  • What reasons does Socrates give for recanting his own argument that the non-lover is to be preferred to the lover?
  • In defending the proposition that the lover be preferred in the final analysis to the non-lover, how does Socrates respond to worries about the madness of love?


Today we took up the Phaedrus to further inquire into the nature of love as Plato understands it and to ask a question I suspect many--particularly women--ask themselves in today's hook-up culture: Is the non-lover (the 'friend-with-benefits', if you will) preferable to the lover?

Phaedrus, of course, is eager to repeat to Socrates what he thinks is a magnificent speech by the orator Lysias wherein Lysias argued that it is better to be loved by the non-lover than the lover. Lysias' argument is well-worn, for the lover has vices happily absent from the non-lover: He is

  • Jealous;
  • Over-wrought; (overly-emotional)
  • Easily angered;
  • Fickle;
  • Unreliable;
  • Possessive; and
  • Needy.

In playing his flirtatious game with Phaedrus, Socrates objects that Lysias' speech is really quite repetitive and banal. Socrates improves on Lysias' speech by articulating a more defensible (though ultimately unconvincing, as we shall see) argument for the proposition that it is better to be loved by the non-lover than the lover. Contrast, then, the lover with the friend. The lover seeks pleasure above all else; the friend seeks only what is best. Hence "as the wolf loves the lamb, so the lover loves his beloved." The lover is above all self-serving, while the friend is trustworthy and will, unlike the lover, keep his promises for the benefit of all. The lover's passions are thus much to the detriment of love, whereas the friend's lack of passion makes him steadfast and true.

All of which, Socrates quickly recants, is hogwash. To be sure, the lover is in the grips of a kind of madness: He is possessed by Eros. Yet not all madnesses are an evil. Why should we automatically condemn the lover's madness? Perhaps we should celebrate it instead!

There is more than a little echo of this idea in our modern vernacular. Think about some of the ways we talk about love:

He fell in love.

She was overcome by passion.

They were swept away by love.

She couldn't help herself from loving.

We made the point in talking about Aristophanes that love is often seen as having an intentionality or deliberateness all its own; it is also often seen as a force wholly beyond our will-power to control, a (possibly divine) force or madness we welcome in our lives and desperately miss when we lack it.

What sort of madness is love, though, and is madness of this sort necessarily a bad thing?

Note first of all that madness per se is not in the mind of the Ancient Greeks always mental illness or disease. It can as often be the result of divine inspiration or intervention which can lead us to great artistic and heroic achievements.

To explain the madness of love, Socrates, recall, articulates a neat view of the soul wherein it is really three distinct souls or faculties: the Tripartite Soul.

1. The Rational Soul;

2. The Spirited Soul; and,

3. The Appetitive Soul.

Understanding the madness of love in terms of our losing control to the Appetitive Soul as it pursues the beautiful--seeking, unknowingly, Beauty itself--helps to explain this notion that love is a power at once outside ourselves and yet within us, driving us on.

Now, let me add that I have the sense from your reading quizzes that too many are not setting time aside to do the readings for the course. Given the mechanics of the course, it really is impossible to pass it consistently getting 5's, 10's and even 15's on the quizzes. You should aim for 20's and 25's, but this requires reading and, of course, setting aside time to read--quiet time, undistracted time, if you can manage it. How much time should you plan to set aside for a course like this? Some of my courses are 4-6 hours for every hour in class, but I think 2 hours outside class for every hour in class should suffice. That may still seem like a lot, given that other courses require almost no time outside of class. Thankfully, we in this class do not answer to those other classes. Moreover, you'll find in doing so that our discussions in class become deeper, more sophisticated, more interesting, and, ultimately, more enlightening.

We concluded today by discussing Theano's letter and Sappho's poem, providing as they do valuable insight into women's attitudes in the ancient world, attitudes scarcely reflected in the male-dominated literature.