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On Platonic Loving, or, The Peanut Butter Lover

Like Socrates, I’m absolutely passionate about pursuing friendship. Friendship (philia) is difficult to define in Plato’s writings, in part because the Lysis, the only dialogue that attempts a comprehensive understanding of it, is really not about friendship per se; rather, as has been noted by critics such as David Sedley, the Lysis concerns itself with the object of friendship, that is, the thing to or of which someone is a friend.  In a relationship between friends, the emphasis would be placed not on the lover (ho philôn), but rather on the beloved (ho philoumenos).

Why is friendship important for Plato?  Well, it forms part of the core meaning of the word philosophy (philo-sophia), which is fortuitous for our purposes, since the investigation into philia is really for the sake of defining its object, in this case, sophia (i.e. wisdom).  This might be a profitable way to approach the problem of defining Platonic philosophia, since Plato is rather reticent in his writings about what precisely that means.  One approach to this problem in the Lysis (212b1-e5) – inevitably abandoned by Socrates for unclear reasons – involves investigation into the possibility that both the subject and object of loving must “become friends” (philoi gignontai) in all cases.  We speak this way, of course: when I call Greg Nagy my friend, I do so because I understand – and I assume that he understands as well – that we are friends reciprocally, and it is assumed that I am his friend because I am the object of his philia and because he is the object of my philia.  On this “reciprocal” definition of philia, no beloved is a friend to the lover unless the beloved is a lover of him, that is, unless both “become friends”.

Colbert loves peanut butter, too.

But this proposition runs into problems when we imagine that the beloved, the object to which I direct my love, might lack the natural capacity to love in return.  For example, I might claim that I am a lover of peanut butter, and this would not be a controversial claim.  But, if we grant that the “lover of” an object is a “lover” if and only if his beloved loves him in return, we have a problem, since peanut butter does not have the capacity to love me in return.  Indeed, Socrates presents several examples that demonstrate the impossibility of such a definition.  Most notable, for our interests, is the example of “wisdom” (sophia): according to this definition, there “are no philosophers unless wisdom loves them in return.”  Explicitly, this passage functions within the larger argument of the Lysis to demonstrate the difficulty of arriving at a sufficient categorical understanding of the beloved.

If only Sophia were to love me in return!

2 Responses to On Platonic Loving, or, The Peanut Butter Lover

  1. Dear Friend,
    Wisdom can’t love in return, OK. But the real philo-sopher is loved by the Gods as much as it is possible for a man, so that he becomes immortal (hic et nunc: in contact with eternity). See Symposium 212a (theophileî), and also Timaeus 90 and following. Thus there is a kind of reciprocity. I can become a friend of the gods because we both love the same thing, the Beauty.

  2. More thoughts about philia:

    Friendship in ancient Greece denotes strong ties between people and entails a network of stable human loyalties that are very important for the social wellbeing of the persons involved.
    What happens, then, when the meaning of the term “friendship” changes? What if the network of loyalties collapses, precisely because the notion of the term loses its semantic certainty? To clarify this point, which to my mind is very important for the interpretation of the tragedy Ajax, that I’m working on presently, I turn to a seminal text of ancient literature that explores the collapse of the system of values in a period of crisis that connect a human society together. Thucydides describes in the third book of his Histories (3.70-85) the civil strife (stasis) in Corcyra. While he describes the excesses of savagery in the city in revolt, the author remarks: “the ordinary acceptation of words in their relation to things was changed as men thought fit”(3.82.4). In the long catalogue of things that have changed are the meaning of the words “courage”, “prudency”, and “moderation” (3.82.4). In such a world, the tie of blood (τὸ ξυγγενές), the first and most important category of philoi, was weaker than the political alliances (τοῦ ἑταιρικοῦ) (3.82.6), and a father may slay his son (3.81.5).
    In the works of the imaginary such a “form of depravity” (to use the expression of Thucydides: ἰδέα κακοτροπίας, 3.83.1) described by the historian found another graphic form of expression. Hesiod in his Works and Days (180-200) described the fifth human race just before Zeus destroyed it, when natural and social laws had collapsed. Among other things the poet imagined was the following: sons did not resemble their fathers, hosts and guests, fellow-companions and brothers are not befriended, as “family ties and similarly sacrosanct relationships” breakdown. This situation is so impossible that Aidôs and Nemesis left the human race in disgust.
    To blur the boundaries of the groups of friends and enemies entails danger and instability in human societies: the phrase of Thucydides, ὥστε τοὺς αὐτοὺς φίλους καὶ ἐχθροὺς νομίζειν (3.75.1), denotes how to form the alliances that are necessary in order to know where you belong, whom you can trust, who will support you in dire times; it establishes your human loyalties. Without them we are in deep crisis.

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