105. Love and Speech in Plato

What is the relation between logos (speech, reason) and eros (love)? Some say there is no relation since love is just a matter of emotions, feelings, passions, and actions. But according to Plato’s developmental vision of eros encountered in his dialogue Symposium, our soul can be inspired to move towards very different objects of love as we grow. We must begin with physical attraction that will, to be sure, be a matter of emotion and sexual hunger with little or no speech. However, eros can inspire us to move from a love of beautiful bodies to a love of beautiful souls as well. And the only way our love can direct us toward a particular person, rather than just the person’s body, is by hearing what their soul says. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato comically presents this erotic movement from body-sex to soul-speech with suggestive images such as a speech held under a cloak (228d-229a), choosing a position on the ground for speech (230e), playing coy in giving speech (228c), and even the threat of rape if speech is not delivered (236c-237a). Socrates is seeking beautiful speeches because they reveal beautiful souls; and beautiful souls reveal to him, however imperfectly, the eternal Form of the Beautiful Itself. A glimpse of this Form will awaken his soul’s erotic longing for wisdom and, in doing so, will enable him to procreate virtue in himself and his lover. So we see that speech and love are intimately connected: speech helps love become directed towards more worthy objects and opens up the possibility for the development of virtue and thus happiness.

Unfortunately, we don’t always find beautiful speeches that reflect beautiful souls; rather, we come across deceitful and manipulative ones that reflect inner ugliness. Thus Phaedrus explores the differences between, on the one hand, speech that reveals a lovable, beautiful soul with which one can procreate virtue and, on the other hand, speech that reveals an ugly soul that negates love and procreation. Here are some of the differences.

A beautiful love speech will:

(1) Attempt to speak the truth by, on the one hand, collecting many things under one Form (247c-248a; 265d-266c) to show what they have in common and, on the other hand, dividing those things from one another to show how they differ. Such a speech will be integrated like a living organism with a body, head, and extremities; all the parts will relate to one another and the whole (264c-265a). It seems that this unity within diversity with reference to the truth is part of what makes a speech—or anything—beautiful.

(2) It will have an element of divine erotic madness in it that leads the speaker beyond his or her limits—to be “beside themselves” (250b) when they are struck by their beloved’s face like a “bolt of lightning” (254b-c) that shines, from within the sensible realm, the eternal Form of the Beautiful Itself to the soul.

(3) It will be directed towards the improvement of the beloved so that one can, in turn, be improved through shared philosophical inquiry. This improvement will entail knowing the nature of the soul to which one is speaking (276e-a).

Such a speech is represented by Socrates’ second speech. Socrates claims to be speaking the truth by, for example, collecting madness under one universal definition and then dividing it up into various types (the kind from illness and the kind from the gods) and various kinds under the type of divine madness (prophetic, poetic, purifying, and erotic). He is clearly inspired and speaks ecstatically at times. And he is trying to inspire Phaedrus to become virtuous by presenting him with a beautiful speech that he knows will captivate his desire and move it in a more virtuous direction. To do this, Socrates must perceive what Phaedrus’ soul is like and direct his rhetoric appropriately towards it.

An ugly love speech will:

(1) Speak falsehoods and fail to collect and divide the subject. This will make the speech appear inorganic: its parts will be assembled in a way that “it makes no difference at all which of its verses comes first, and which comes last” (264e). It will be senseless in its lack of integration.

(2) It will have no madness in it at all—it will be a matter of cold calculation and self-possession. To be sure, such self-control can get something accomplished if manipulation is one’s goal. But the companionship that emerges from it will be “diluted by human self-control; all it pays are cheap, human dividends, and though the slavish attitude it engenders in a friend’s soul is widely praised as virtue, it tosses the soul around for nine thousand years on the earth and leads it, mindless, beneath it” (256e).

(3) It will treat the “beloved” as a means to an end only: the beloved will be a mere instrument for sexual pleasure, social status, power, wealth, etc. without regard for their well-being.

Such a speech is represented by Lysias’ speech that Phaedrus reads to Socrates. In this speech we find a lack of unity-in-diversity, falsehoods, cold calculation, and no concern for the well-being of the beloved.

The dialogue dramatically explores the clash between these two speeches when Socrates realizes, at the end of his first speech which marginally improved upon Lysias’ speech, that he has committed impiety against divine Eros and must make amends for his transgression (242c-243a). Thinking Eros is an evil humans need to avoid through careful self-possession and manipulation of others is dangerous since we run the risk of becoming less human. After all, it is precisely through the divine power of Eros in the presence of beauty that we come to learn about our soul’s capacity to momentarily transcend the physical world and recollect the eternal Forms. Without such recollections, our soul could never come to love the wisdom necessary for developing a virtuous soul. Socrates claims that, by leading the philosophical life – loving wisdom with the help of Eros – we have a chance to escape mortality in 3000 years rather than 10,000!

One way to unpack the existential significance of Plato’s mythical point about reincarnation in Phaedrus is to see it as talking about one life with many phases. In this life the more you divorce love from beautiful speech the less you will know, the less contact you will have with souls from whom you can learn, and the more ignorant and unhappy you will be. Rather than growing from your deaths-in-life, you will be bound to repeat vicious patterns of behavior or degenerate into worse ones (some even degenerate into a tyrant which is the worst form of life: 248dff.). But if you love wisdom and seek this wisdom with your lover then you can hope to live through your deaths-in-life in ways that make you more intelligent: you will be “reincarnated” in ways that lead to freedom rather than the slavery of being a human who is like a “four-footed beast” (250e-251a) with only “human dividends” (256e).


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