Plato on Love – 18/04/2016

Plato on Love in The Symposium

Love, it seems, is important to human existence. We bend over backwards to be loved, we are willing to kill and die for love, or love makes us do extremely stupid or heroic things. We usually know without a trace of doubt when we love someone or something. But what is love? That question is harder to answer. And is it possible to be mistaken in love? To love the wrong kind of persons or things? Questions like these are addressed in Plato’s Symposium, a short and beautifully written dialogue.

Setting: a drinking party (symposium) at Agathon’s house, the day after Agathon won a prize for one of his tragedies. Those present agree to not drink too much (because they are hungover) and to give a speech in honour of Love (the god Eros).


Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat

Pausanias, a legal expert

Eryximachus, a physician

Aristophanes, a comic playwright

Agathon, a tragic poet and playwright

Socrates, philosopher and Plato’s teacher

Alcibiades, statesman and general, young, handsome and in love with Socrates.

Diotima, a woman who taught Socrates all he knows about love. Not present at the party, but quoted by Socrates.



Paedrus concludes that Love is the most powerful and ancient god, because for the sake of Love people are willing to make the greatest sacrifices, sometimes – like Achilles and Alcestis – even their lives.

Pausanias distinguishes common love – sexual desire – from heavenly love – affectionate, life-long paederastia* relationships. He discusses laws and customs in various citystates and concludes that Athens’ custom, with its paederastia arrangements, favours heavenly love best.

Eryximachus discusses the workings of love in the body. He concludes that “Love has total power and is the source of all happiness.” It enables the connection between humans and gods, as well as among humans.

Aristophanes tells a satirical creation story: people used to be round creatures with four arms, four legs and two heads. They angered the gods, so to punish them, Zeus split them all in half so each human had to live their life as only half a person. Ever since, love is the desire to find our other half back. Pleasing the god Love thus leads to wholeness.

Agathon gives a poetic and rhetorical speech. He complains that previous speakers have described how Love works in humans, or how humans enact love, but failed to praise the god Love himself. To correct this, Agathon describes Love as young, beautiful, dainty and wise, and that the object of Love, the thing Love cares about most, is beauty (because everything that is good is truly beautiful).

Socrates departs from Agathon’s speech and asks Agathon a few questions: isn’t love always love of something? And if so, isn’t it contradictory to say that love is already that which it is a love of? A tall person can’t desire to be tall, because he already is. So Agathon must be mistaken that love is beautiful and wise. Love is love of beauty and wisdom, therefore it cannot itself be beautiful and wise already. Socrates then quotes a dialogue he once had with Diotima, who explained to him the same thing. Love cannot be a god, nor can he be powerful, beautiful, good or wise. Instead, Diotima explains, Love is a spirit, child of Poverty and Resourcefulness, who moves between ignorance and wisdom, ugliness and beauty, always directed at that which it wants but does not have. What mortals desire most is immortality, but they cannot have it. Therefore, they aim for the closest alternative: reproduction. Love enables this. There is bodily reproduction: a man and a woman who are pregnant with a human child. Then there is paederastia, homosexual love, which leads to another kind of pregnancy: they give birth to wisdom and virtue. The latter is a higher form of love than the former.

How to master the art of love in this latter sense? Diotima explains to Socrates that there are several stages. First, the lover must love one particular boy. Sexual attraction draws the lover to the boy, who thereby represents beauty to the lover. This leads to discussions about beauty between the two. Those discussions lead to the second phase: the lover comes to understand that the beautiful boy is only one among many. The lover becomes a lover of beauty more generally, and less obsessed with one particular boy. The third step occurs when the lover realises that beauty goes beyond physical beauty, to include beautiful souls and virtues that make young men better men. Finally, the lover understands that he loves the beautiful (i.e. the good) itself. Once he realises this, he will ‘give birth’ to beauty by mentoring the young beloved to ensure he grows up virtuously.

Finally, Alcibiades enters the symposium, drunk. He is handsome and he knows it, and tells the group that he initially sought to seduce Socrates with his beauty. However, once he caught a glimpse of Socrates’ hidden beauty, he found himself in love with Socrates rather than the other way around. He leaves with a group of Bacchian revelers, as usual seeking approval from the crowd. It illustrates why he is so in love with Socrates, because he loves what he does not have: Socrates’ virtue.


*Paederastia: Athenian custom whereby an older man (the lover) has a relationship with a teenage boy (the beloved). The older lover is attracted by the boy’s beauty and the fulfilment of his sexual desires, and in turn teaches the boy virtue. These relations existed alongside marriages between men and women. Homosexual love relations (for men as well as for women) were the norm.

Ten tips for getting the most out of your philosophy education. Dos and don’ts

After teaching philosophy to different audiences for years, I have observed that some take more out of their education than others. Those who do well have a certain attitude in common: an open and inquisitive mind, a willingness to engage and to have their mind changed. Those who do less well often are held back because they are intimidated by the complexity of philosophical puzzles, by the (often illusory!) confidence of their classmates or because they are afraid of saying something stupid, or because they think they know the answers already. But adopting the first attitude in favour of the latter is easier said than done. Yet, there are some simple things you can do or avoid to help you adopt a healthy attitude.

When I started studying philosophy as a 19-year-old, I was often the one being intimidated by the other students in my class, whom I thought to be cleverer, better looking, more knowledgeable and more confident than myself. I learned later that this impression may well have been false, and even if it were true, it doesn’t really matter. Socrates, for example, wasn’t particularly clever, nor good looking, nor knowledgeable, but he was a bloody good philosopher! I also often felt overwhelmed by the complexity of philosophical arguments. First Plato convinced me, then Aristotle convinced me equally with the exact opposite view, leaving me confused. If just any philosopher could sway me, then my views must all be false and stupid, I thought. I learned later that if you don’t have exactly that experience, you’re doing it wrong.

What follows applies to any level of philosophy education, whether you’ve just joined your first philosophy evening class or you are working on your PhD. I’d even say that some established philosophers would do well to remind themselves of these things once in a while.


1. Realise that changing your mind often is a sign of growth, not of weakness.
Someone once said to me: if Wittgenstein can change his mind, then surely so can I. Wittgenstein is widely regarded as one of the best philosophers of the twentieth century. He worked long and hard on his Tractatus, and claimed to have answered philosophy’s questions. Then he thought some more and came to the conclusion that he’d had it all wrong, so he wrote his Philosophical Investigations, which says in many ways the polar opposite of what he’d said in the Tractatus. Nobody thinks Wittgenstein is stupid. Most people agree that both books are very interesting, regardless of whether they agree with Wittgenstein. Bottom line: everyone has opinions, you too. Whichever they are, some of them are likely to be mistaken. It’s great if you discover this within your lifetime, so you can change your mind. But if you never articulate any opinions for fear of having to reject them later, you’ll never investigate them and then you won’t learn anything. So just state your opinions and change them if necessary.

2. Ask questions. Particularly the ones you think are stupid. They’re the best.
I once had a student who thought he was stupid, or so he said, and he apologised for interrupting with stupid questions. In fact, he asked pretty darn good questions! He always asked questions like: “But what does idealism mean?” or “I didn’t follow that last bit. Can you repeat it?” I would then ask the rest of the class: “can someone explain what idealism means?” but often the response was silence. That means that someone who thinks he was stupid asked a simple question that the rest of the class was actually thinking but didn’t ask. So when you don’t know what the jargon means, or if you’ve lost the teacher’s narrative, or if you don’t understand something: just ask. More often than not you’ll be doing the class a favour. It allows the teacher to get everybody on board too. I’ve heard better and worse questions, but none of them were really stupid or made the person who asked it look stupid. A genuine question is always worth asking.

3. Charity before criticism. Think along with the argument before you refute it.
When you learn about the argument of a philosopher, it is great if you can identify the weaknesses in that argument and articulate a point of critique. But nourishing your critical thinking is not the same as disagreeing with everything from the outset. On the contrary. For an argument to be interesting, it must be somewhat controversial (platitudes and truisms are boring, they don’t teach us anything new). In order for you to understand what the controversial elements are, you’ll have to understand the argument. For you to understand the argument, you’ll have to give it a good shot. Perhaps the author of the argument has already anticipated and refuted your critique? Perhaps she can justify her controversial stance? Perhaps the answers are already implicit in her argument? A charitable attitude is not the same as uncritically accepting whatever the author says, but simply trying to follow the argument as far as it will go, granting its premises if you can. If you then still disagree, your critique will rest on a stronger foundation.

4. Respond to what your classmates say. Education is a group effort.
Good philosophy teachers make you think. They can give you material to think about in a lecture, and they can ask questions to invite you to make up your own mind. But they can’t do it alone. Neither can you, on your own, dream up all the questions you wish you could ask. The only way to really get some depth in the discussion, is by joint effort of everyone involved. A question asked by another student might spark a further question in your mind. You may think you’ve understood Aristotle, but another student might have understood the text in an entirely different way. The teacher cannot fully anticipate all of these things, nor can you. So learn from your fellow students and contribute your two cents too. You won’t learn very much if you expect to passively consume your education in the back of the class.

5. Realise that everyone can do philosophy. A child is just as good as a professor.
Of course, someone who has spent their working life surrounded full time by philosophy will master certain skills. Just like a flute maker can dissemble a complex instrument and put it back together again, an experienced philosopher can dissemble a complex argument and put it back together again, or amend it, or turn it upside down and inside out. Some people are real masters: articulate, knowledgeable, smart, thoughtful, good writers and speakers, and that’s wonderful. You’ll need those skills if you want to make philosophy your profession, or if you’re working towards a degree. But you don’t need those skills to be able to engage in philosophy per se. A child is naturally inquisitive. It asks questions because it genuinely wonders how things works and why the things are the way they are. If you can remember the questions you asked when you were a kid, you’re basically there. Others may be more or less skilled in the things I mentioned above, but we’re all sort of helpless in the face of the really puzzling questions, and they’re worth asking for everyone. An allegory: I play the flute very poorly. It’s not worth anybody’s time to listen to it, believe me. But it’s worth my time to do it nonetheless. There are excellent flautists in orchestras who are thousands of times better at it than I am. Should my incompetence stop me enjoying my playing the flute in an amateur orchestra? I think not! Should I be embarrassed about my lack of skill? No! Making music is intrinsically valuable for everyone, and so is philosophizing.


6. Don’t get too comfortable.
Imagine the following: you’ve been to a couple of classes, you’ve figured by now that your teacher is a passionate Kantian. Leafing through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy pages of critics of Kant has not persuaded you that Kant was wrong, so you’ve come to the conclusion that Kant was right. And this has been the best decision you’ve taken so far. Finally, you can leave the confusion behind you, because you are now a Kantian. And it works fabulously. In every discussion, you’ve got a Kantian answer. Your teacher agrees, you sit back and rest comfortably in your new-found Kantianism: a little Kant goes a long way. STOP RIGHT THERE! If you want to make the most of your education, you’ll have to keep challenging your own position, even if you keep returning to it. And I mean seriously challenge it, not just find another objection to cleverly refute for the sport of it whilst you remain comfortable in your Kant armchair. You have to be prepared to wake up every morning and find the argument that will turn all your previously held beliefs upside down and cure you of your Kantianism for once and for all. That is difficult, and many philosophers are, I think, guilty of making themselves too comfortable in their armchair of choice, but if you want to really learn something, you’ll have to resist this temptation.

7. Don’t avoid taking a stance.
I once heard a philosopher scorn another philosopher and accuse him of being “merely an historian of ideas”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with historians of ideas. They do excellent work interpreting historical philosophies, not an easy task. But what this philosopher criticised was his opponent’s refusal to make himself susceptible to critique. He thought his opponent only offered uncontroversial accounts of what other people argued, but never committed to a controversial view himself. From a different angle, Derrida is often criticised for deconstructing everything, but failing to offer an alternative that could survive his own deconstruction. Martha Nussbaum accused Judith Butler of something similar: criticising what others thought without offering any alternative that can be criticised. I’ve had students who put a lot of effort in not having to say: “This is where I stand. I agree with position A, but disagree with position B, and these are my reasons.” Why is it a bad thing to avoid taking a stance? Why do philosophers ridicule each other if they fail to do so? Because such evasive accounts stifle the discussion. Because you’ll only really genuinely consider arguments if you are involved, if the stakes are high, if you have a belief to lose. For teachers, it is important to know where their students stand, whether they are sympathetic to Plato, or critical of his views, or if the class is divided. Teachers need to know this so they can adjust their pitch accordingly. In a class where no student states their view – however tentative – it is very difficult to get a discussion going. So try to take a stance, even if you think you’ll change your mind three times in the course of the lesson (see point 1).

8. Don’t be arrogant, nor be intimidated by arrogant peers.
There’s always one: “But obviously, Plato is fundamentally flawed. Nobody really buys his idealism.” says a clever loudmouth in the front of the class. When I was a 19-year-old and one of my fellow students said such a thing, I thought: wow, they’ve read so much more than I have! They already (1) understand Plato through and through, (2) have discovered not just some weaknesses, but fundamental flaws, (3) know that there isn’t any other philosopher who still buys Plato’s idealism, and (4) I’m clearly lagging behind because this is apparently “obvious” so the others must all know this too! It turns out I was mistaken: they were just as puzzled as I was. Nowadays, phrases like “obviously”, “everyone knows” or “nobody buys that” act like red arrogance flags for me. Hardly anything in philosophy is obvious. Most positions in the history of philosophy have some currency today, albeit in amended forms, so it’s hardly ever true that “nobody buys” a philosophy, or that “fundamental flaws” are so serious that there are no insights to learn. I’ve noticed that some people say such things to appear more confident than they are, or they just want to provoke a polarised debate. What they really mean is: “I’ve heard/read somewhere that Plato’s idealism is controversial.” Or “Plato’s idealism doesn’t really convince me.” Comments of this form are much more reasonable, less intimidating, and more constructive of a good discussion.

9. Don’t think this one historical philosopher you’ve read has all the answers.
There’s always one of these too: his mum gave him Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil for Christmas, he read it, and now Nietzsche has got him under his spell. I understand it. It’s like falling in love. Some philosophers are so persuasive, such powerful writers, that they enchant you. So he is under Nietzsche’s spell, and everything makes sense now. Everything can be explained now he’s looking through Nietzsche glasses. He can find no flaw in anything Nietzsche has said. He dismisses the critiques: these people just haven’t really understood Nietzsche. He attends philosophy classes and then the teacher and his peers have to put up with his love for Nietzsche. All his questions and comments eventually return to Nietzsche, even in the class about Plato. All philosophers are judged by Nietzsche’s merits. All his essays are about Nietzsche. (Or perhaps he fell in love with Sartre. Or Derrida. Or Hegel. Or Wittgenstein. Or Davidson. Or any other philosopher.) What can I say about this? First love is really sweet, but there’s more fish in the sea. You better shop around.

10. Don’t expect learning to always be fun.
Here’s news for you: learning is not always fun. It is difficult. Philosophy can be rewarding: you get to flex your mind, you get to have really deep conversations with other people, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and where you stand, you might learn skills, you’ll learn to be more articulate, you’ll learn to ponder about these really interesting questions, you’ll get to know what fascinating ideas other philosophers had, and lots more. But the process may be confusing and uncomfortable. There’s a certain discomfort in realizing you’re going to have to abandon an assumption or belief you’ve always held dear and that informed your decision making. There’s also a certain discomfort in realizing you are confused, and you may never find the security of trusting in a firm answer the way you did before. These things happen a lot in philosophy. It makes you wiser. It’s just not all fun and games. You may have to plough through some dry stuff before you realise how fascinating it is. It’s all part of it, but don’t give up, it’s worth it.


Marthe Kerkwijk


Plato’s Cave, and CAKE! – 04/01/2016

platos caveDo the thoughtless comments people make about matters of justice leave you feeling hopeless? Are you frustrated by party politics when those who should be ruling the country in fact care more about their own power? If you answer ‘yes’ to these questions, you might be sympathetic to what Plato is trying to convey in his most famous book, The Republic.

But, as with all meaningful philosophy, Plato’s view is controversial. Plato is vehemently anti-democratic…

The first West London Philosophy School class on Monday the 4th of January 2016 will be about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It is the most famous allegory in the history of philosophy, which appears in the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in book VII of The Republic. In the dialogue, Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the question: what is justice? But along with that question, Plato – through the character of Socrates – tries to teach us something about education and insight: how do we learn the truth?

To celebrate the opening of the West London Philosophy School, cake will be served during the break!

Plato’s Cave 2007 by Ken Stout


An old but good translation of Book VII of the Republic is Paul Shorey’s (1935-1937). You can find it here.

Tim Wilson made this wonderful animated mini lecture on Plato’s Cave.