On Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love (1475), with guest Peter Adamson from the History of Philosophy podcast joining Mark, Wes, and Seth.
Attention: We’ll be live-streaming video for our big ep. 300 on Friday, Aug. 19 at 8pm ET. More info at partiallyexaminedlife.com/pel-live.
Leading up to that episode, we’re continuing to revisit some classic themes, and this constitutes our reacquaintance with Plato’s Symposium (covered in our live ep. 100), albeit through the lens of the Renaissance effort to combine Platonism with Christianity. Whereas the multiple speakers in Plato’s work present apparently contrasting views of love, with Socrates’ view at the end intended to show how the previous ones were inadequate, Ficino instead treats all the speeches as expressing truths about love when reinterpreted through his neo-Platonic metaphysics and ethics.
For instance, Aristophanes’ famous myth in Plato’s book whereby each of us is half a creature in search of completion is replaced in Ficino’s theology with the idea that we’ve all lost our native “supernatural light” that would allow us to behold perfection (a la getting out of the cave in Plato’s Republic), and we all seek, with the “natural light” that we do all retain (i.e. attraction toward beauty, which is Ficino’s definition for love) to recover that supernatural light and so recover (ultimately) God.
Ficino shows us a full-blown metaphysics complete with an “Angelic Mind” (where the Forms live; they can’t live in God because God is absolutely unitary and simple and so can’t have multiple Forms as parts), the “World Soul” (which is what moves the heavens; unlike the Angelic Mind, it exists within time), and “World Body” (nature itself, which is organized by reflections of the Forms from the preceding, higher entities: pretty much Forms as Aristotle conceived them; Peter refers to this at one point as “quality,” drawing on elsewhere in Ficino’s writings), and only then the individual bodies we interact with. Love ends up being a primary metaphysical force both in creation down these layers (God created the world out of an act of free love and essentially shares the Forms with us out of love) and (more importantly for our values and behavior, love is all about our turning back to divine sources. As with Plato’s picture (via Socrates, relaying teachings he says he received from a teacher named Diotima), love for Ficino is all about climbing the metaphysical ladder to become more spiritual.
He wants to argue that even though the desire for generation (reproduction) is natural, and so is a natural part of love, we’re not actually, when we find someone attractive, attracted to their body. Again, love (attraction) is a matter of seeking beauty, and beauty for Ficino is a matter of harmony of elements. This is something that only the mind and also our senses of sight and hearing can appreciate. Our other senses (importantly touch) are not such that they can distinguish a harmonized blend. So appreciating someone’s physical beauty is a matter of appreciating their appearance: an arrangement of elements, i.e. a form, not the matter itself, and what we really want is to stand in the presence of that beauty and contemplate it. Wanting to actually touch (and further, have sex with) the person is no part of love, according to Ficino. Ficino is the one who really invented the term “Platonic love” in its modern sense as love without sex. He was reacting to the religious philosophers of his time who wanted to cancel Plato as a dirty, sex-obsessed pervert.
Like many Christian apologists, Ficino was trying to account for something he sees as bad (sex) not because God is bad, but because we’ve been given (indirectly from God via various daemons, just like Socrates’ daemon that he said in the Apology forced him to do philosophy) various legitimate urges which very well might (and for Ficino, most often do) fall out of balance. We all have two eternal types of love (primal drives) within us, one of which pulls us up the ladder towards God via contemplation, the other of which pulls us down towards the beasts via fornication. In both cases, what we want is (per Socrates’ definition) self-reproduction in the presence of beauty, but the beasts want this very literally, while reasoning, spiritual humans want instead to reproduce the Forms, including spreading ideas of virtue through philosophical conversations and educating others. By making these distinctions, Ficino can argue that we’re all equipped with divine capabilities while also saying that we are for the most part fallen, and that it’s only rare, wise individuals that can lift their eyes from the physical and recover the perfection that is our birthright.
Our dual fallen/blessed nature correspondingly gives rise to a puzzle (or maybe just an inconsistency in Ficino’s ideas arising from disagreements among the speakers in Plato’s Symposium) about love: If love is desire, then love is a lack, and so not in itself a perfection. So God’s “loving” (out of fullness) couldn’t be the same thing as our loving (out of desire for that fullness), though the two are obviously related. Even sticking to the earthly realm, there’s love as in unrequited desire but then also fulfilled desire. At one point Plato says that in the latter case, the love is really the desire for the continued presence of the beloved (since the lover already has the beloved for the moment). This makes it sound like love is actually always in vain: a desire for eternity that we can never have, a desire for a full merging of two people that is impossible, a desire that always transcends the feeling of the moment. While we’ve discussed thinkers who’ve toyed with the idea that on these grounds, love is pathological (see our most recent treatment of this in Badiou), for Ficino, it just means that love can’t literally be for the other person, but is really for the divine, which is the only thing that is permanent, and our spiritual connection with it is the only way we can relate in a permanent, ultimately fulfilled way to anything.
Buy the book. (Actually, the version we were able to obtain is the Sears/Jayne translation.) Listen to Peter’s HoP episodes which give some context re. Ficino’s corpus and Renaissance theories of love. Here’s the video that Seth mentioned with a Christian presentation of Ficino (from the U. of Notre Dame’s Denis Robichaud.)