Love in Socrates (and Plato), is



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Love in Socrates (and Plato), is Eros or desire. In the Symposium, Socrates claims that spiritual love is better than physical love. In this vein he distinguished between heavenly Aphrodite who represents spiritual love, friendship and the beauty of goodness, and the worldly or vulgar Aphrodite of carnal and physical love. In explaining why spiritual love is better than physical love, Socrates says that the lusts of the body wish only to be temporarily satisfied and fade away soon after while the soul which tends towards spiritual love becomes increasingly lovable as it progresses towards wisdom. Spiritual love is more stable and does not change or alter when physical appearances change. Socrates used the analogy of the farm to elucidate the distinction between spiritual and physical love.
When one rents a farm, one tries to get as much return from it as possible, that is physical love; however, when one owns the farm, one sees to it that it is well taken care of, that is spiritual love. One cares for it not for any advantage one hopes to derive from it. If the farm were a human being, it would trust the one who cares for it more than the one who tries to take advantage of it. Spiritual love therefore fosters and begets mutual trust, happy friendship, a sense of sharing and solidarity. It also makes one to be virtuous and to practice virtue. On the other hand a love that is aimed at physical advantages is based only on the passions and those who indulge in it come worse off.
Socrates further explained that Eros is like a primordial desire which moves one towards something instead of towards the possession of something. Love is what moves one towards the beautiful and the good; it is not itself the beautiful and the good. Love is therefore the spirit which moves between the gods and the humans. Socrates claims to have learnt about love from Diotima. Love is what moves humans towards wisdom, beauty and goodness. One who possesses these possesses happiness. Aristotle, as we shall see shortly also thinks that humans are made for happiness as their final end. Diotima also taught Socrates that love desires immortality (through physical procreation, fame and virtuous action), that is, it motivates people to give birth to theses ideals. The ultimate aim of love is to move into the universal truth of beauty and goodness. Love therefore wants to make one not only virtuous but also divine, and ultimately, immortal. One could say then that, according to Socrates, loving is “goding”.

Aristotle, unlike Socrates (and Plato), thinks that love, or philia, consists in seeking the good of the concrete other. As he set it out in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, philia is all-encompassing, including loyalty to friends, family, profession, community, country and world at large. As Aristotle himself says in Rhetoric , II. 4, "Things that cause friendship are: doing kindnesses; doing them unasked; and not proclaiming the fact when they are done". Since his idea of love is not different from friendship, he sets out what he means by friendship and the criteria of true friendship. Since the best way to have a friend is to be one, Aristotle lays a lot of emphasis on character. And so, the major theme of the Nicomachean Ethics is how to cultivate a good character in oneself (which includes a healthy love of oneself) whose ultimate aim is happiness, achieved through the golden mean (or life of reason). The best characters will be the ones capable of the best kind of friendship. The most rational characters are therefore those who will be the happiest.


With this idea of love as philia in mind, Aristotle went ahead to state three kinds of friendship: 1. Friendship of utility or philia based on mutual advantage; 2. Friendship of pleasure, or philia based on mutual pleasure; and 3. friendship of the good or philia based on mutual admiration. The first one is love based utility, the second is love based on pleasure while the third is love based on goodness. It is only the third that is worthy of the name love, according to Aristotle. No doubt they may overlap. But it is only the third that best incorporates the others. Mutual admiration is based on the character of the persons admiring and being admired.
Philia, then, and the Socratic (Platonic) Eros, have different practical applications. This difference could be manifest in the answer to the question: could A start or stop loving B because on what B has done or not done? The two schools of thought have very different answers!
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