27 Plato’s “Phaidros”
On Love and Lust
Plato’s dialogue “Phaidros” is a peculiarly heterogeneous artwork. It deals simultaneously with truth, and also with the invalidity of isosthenias. In this case also with the provocative, in a speech on Lysias’ proclaimed and subsequently well-founded argument, that one may only indulge oneself sexually with those in whom one is not in love: “And I maintain that I ought not to fail in my suit, because I am not your lover”1 Plato disagrees (as usual using Socrates’ voice): quite the opposite, only when falling in love (a form of “divine madness,” of which Plato approves) should it come to the sexual act.
Yet this is also not Plato’s true belief. To wit, at the heart of the dialog is a philosophical attempt at a refutation; that both positions of an isosthenia can be correct. They are indeed both defensible. This is shown in Lysias’ speech, also in its later form, formally “improved” by Socrates. Yet the eventual antithesis (palinode)—that even in the case of reciprocally falling in love with the enamored the beloved should not be poised for sex—which Socrates argues in a third speech, finally wins agreement from Phaidros, so that the initial parity of the two arguments, the isosthenia, may be resolved.
At the beginning, Phaidros (to whom Plato had dedicated a love poem) was in fact enthusiastic about Lysias’ speech, while Socrates finally convinces him that only his, the Socratic view of things, is the correct one, and consequently may be uttered only in the case of good and convincing argumentation—that is, truth. Socrates even goes so far (in the second speech of Lysias he pleads against his own convictions regarding sexual indulgences), that he must apologize to the god Eros, as he has allowed himself to slip into such a dubious and purely rhetorical/playful discussion entirely in the manner of the sophists, that he has committed an outrage. His prayer of atonement—repentance—reads as follows:
And thus, dear Eros, I have made and paid my recantation, as well and as fairly as I could; more especially in the matter of the poetical figures which I was compelled to use, because Phaidros would have them. And now forgive the past and accept the present, and be gracious and merciful to me, and do not in thine anger deprive me of sight, or take from me the art of love which thou hast given me, but grant that I may be yet more esteemed in the eyes of the fair. And if Phaidros or I myself said anything rude in our first speeches, blame Lysias, who is the father of the brat, and let us have no more of his progeny; bid him study philosophy, like his brother Polemarchus; and then his lover Phaidros will no longer halt between two opinions, but will dedicate himself wholly to love and to philosophical discourses.2
However, Plato’s “Phaidros” isn’t read and treasured because of this sublime and subliminally resonant epistemological complex of problems—which is once again directed against the thinking and actions of the Sophists—but rather because Plato’s position regarding lust or desire, as it is most often stated, is expressed most clearly. It concern the essence and effect of amorousness, whether it is useful or harmful. The subject is dealt with more thoroughly, though relating more to the intellectual dimension of love and beauty, in the Symposion.
In the second part of the dialogue, the palinode (the antithesis to the previous statements), when Socrates pleads for the “divine madness of falling in love” (the divine is namely to be found in the lover, not in the beloved), it doesn’t come to the result that one today might expect (from under the blanket and likewise onward). Prudence now comes into play: one of the cardinal virtues of antiquity.
Wherefore? What objection does Plato have against lust, corporeality, sometimes even emotionality? How influential yet his animosity towards lust remains, which exerted such an influence via the philosophy of the Stoics over Christianity, over the entire cultural and moral history of the West, to the present day! Whereas Plato himself was, however, such an emotional artist with his mythical tales, poetry, and near theater pieces, in which Socrates almost always played the leading role. Why did he not concern himself a single instance with the idea of love, but rather only with beauty, intellect, infatuation, and lust; whereby lust—despite its divine origin—is rejected again and again?
My first thesis is, that in this Axial Age,3 when the idea of the human intellect first came to be understood as a concept and after Hegel’s theory of Zeitgest first formed in ancient Greece, emotionality—a relic from our pre-linguistic (animal) past—needed to be bound up in an ethical corset. The excessive aggression of the same past would not, however, be called into question—this would first become a matter for Christianity to confront some 400 years later—but rather the sex-drive must first, as a cultural achievement of language, literacy, and reading skills, be domesticated.
A sex-drive that sought in our case primarily to pursue young men as objects, must be permitted to pursue them, needs to pursue them. For in the upper-classes, the bond with an older mentor in the sense of an idealistic upbringing and development into manhood (wise, valorous, competent in speech, adroit, should be athletic) was viewed positively, even desirable. Yet Plato rejects the sexual aspect of this love again and again, perhaps because he himself personally had negative experiences with it, or was even (in Freudian terms) traumatized by one. He doesn’t reject the relationship of an older (man) to a younger, but rather quite the opposite; only the physical dimension of the “love for boys.” In “Phaidros” Plato’s subconscious even finds such words for this rejection as “compulsion of the elder,” “pleasant exposure to peer pressure,” “repugnant view,” “abominable bodily contact.” Only the “search for pleasure” shackles bodies to one another. Such a form of love is seen as an unreasonable desire and ultimately so defined:
And now I think that you will perceive the drift of my discourse; but as every spoken word is in a manner plainer than the unspoken, I had better say further that the irrational desire which overcomes the tendency of opinion towards right, and is led away to the enjoyment of beauty, and especially of personal beauty, by the desires which are her own kindred—that supreme desire, I say, which by leading conquers and by the force of passion is reinforced, from this very force, receiving a name, is called love (ερρωμένως έρως). 4
Enjoy falling in love, this divinely delivered madness, but restrain yourself! You do not love beauty in the physical body next to, before, or underneath yours: rather, you love beauty as an idea, which is revealed to you as a sign of the gods. This beauty you have already seen—as with all other ideas as well—in your prenatal life. Thence your great longing after the ideas—it truly is a re-remembrance of that time, it’s nostalgia! Don’t allow yourself to be driven or led astray by the licentiousness of your feelings, their uncontrollability, which in men only ever wants one thing. Love is more than unreasoning desire: it is the intellect, captive to the idea of beauty, cast away from the idea of the good and which always seeks to return to it, to bring one’s partner to perfection.
Through Lysias we experience the inborn drive towards desire and sex, its immoderateness and licentiousness carried out in the name of beauty, the lust and debauchery executed for its sake:
Now he who is not newly initiated or who has become corrupted, does not easily rise out of this world to the sight of true beauty in the other; he looks only at her earthly namesake, and instead of being awed at the sight of her, he is given over to pleasure, and like a brutish beast he rushes on to enjoy and beget; he consorts with wantonness, and is not afraid or ashamed of pursuing pleasure in violation of nature.5
Whereas discretion leads to conviction, which a priori leads to the Good, indeed to the Best. It desires less the body of the beloved than the character. And “from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear.” It is not the lustful gaze that is pursued, but rather the life-long friendship of the elder with the younger. And: “Yet surely you ought not to be granting favours to those who besiege you with prayer, but … rather to those who, when the charm of youth has left you, will show their own virtue.”6
This is a society of approximately 200,000 inhabitants, thousands of slaves contained within and without the residences of Athens. Only 30,000 men of age have authority by law. Where the women remain holed up in their homes like the harem-concubines of Qatar (pardon). Where an extreme cult of the body is carried out on the athletic grounds and in the arenas—sport is one of the daily principle subjects of study for youths, as strong and valorous men are needed for the continuous military confrontations. They train in the nude, although the foreskin of the genitals remains bound (as the paintings on vases depict): erections on display are undesirable. In contrast to Sparta, where girls were also permitted to train (likewise in the nude), there are no girls to be seen in the Athenian sports arenas. Olympia, the great peaceful congregation of all Grecian city-states with its quadrennial competition, seems to have been of even greater importance than the recently developed theater of Athens and the public-speaking competitions, or even the peoples’ assemblies in the manner of modern-day Switzerland.
We are in a society, a city-state by the sea, where the men sired children—Socrates himself had a son—but rather preferred to fall in love with young men formed in the image of neighboring Sparta, particularly as they were seen as useful for breeding. Only then would a young man become a man in the true sense, when he had experienced the love of boys, likely both giving and receiving it. Then he is immune to pain and fit for the military combat which inevitably awaits him. Plato himself was thrice in his lifetime called to war, despite that he had written not an inconsiderable amount opposing war. How old these young men were is unclear.
In the “Phaidros,” Plato chooses the image of the chariot to make the problem clear. The chariot has, naturally, a charioteer: Platonically described a “steersman of the soul, the intellect;” in Freudian terms the Ego. The charioteer governs two horses: a restless one, the Id—the drives and emotions—and a docile, compliant one, the Super-Ego—which carries the bidding and forbidding in itself, and lets itself be guided by the charioteer. In the middle ages one spoke of Satan and God’s Law, with man in between. The chariot is underway, perpetually struggling with the wild and ungovernable horse that is reined in only with difficulty. If it should win the upper hand, the chariot inevitably pitch over and crash. If the other horse prevails, that is if prudence and reason predominate, then the chariot finds its way and reaches its destination in safety.
And yet, what is its destination? Its goal is the return to a prenatal condition, in which ideas are observed, quasi from a transcendental Heaven. In our concrete case it is the idea of beauty, which stands significantly alongside prudence. It is the most easily accessible of the senses and thus also especially threatened by sensuality, i.e. the desire of the body with its drive towards pleasure. The longing for the most beautiful body desires either sexual enjoyment or, when one follows the other horse, dominates it, i.e. maintains self-restraint. Perhaps the wild and unruly horse might win; this is, according to Plato, no great catastrophe, but almost a quotidian one (later, in heaven, these might also “live in light always; happy companions in their pilgrimage, and when the time comes at which they receive their wings they have the same plumage because of their love.”7) Only its total victory is proscribed: to give oneself over completely and continually to lust would be an outrage against the god Eros. For only measure, self-restraint, prudence leads us through the struggle with lust and bodily desire to the idea of the good, that is: towards the gods.
Let us once more consider the question, why Plato so strenuously inveighed against bodily desire. Quite the opposite compared to the present day, where (under the influence of Wilhelm Reich and his theory of the orgasm, including its further development in bioenergetics and other psychotherapeutic schools) the body, feelings, and lust, including in their trivialization in the German pop song “I want fun I want fun,” enjoy the highest priority.
My second thesis thus reads: Plato had, with the love of boys and perhaps also with anal sexual intercourse, bad personal experiences and hence rejects them. He seems “traumatized.” His moral teachings thus contain the permanent demand for the sublimation of sexual desire (which was likely especially strong with Plato, when one reads his pages-long descriptions of sexual desire in “Phaidros”), which is later taken up in the Judeachristian moral system and passed on, as in Freud’s psychoanalysis and other moral teachings. And it remains to the present day widely accepted.
Even more extreme was the opposition to lust in toto of the Cynic School in Athens, already promulgated in Plato’s time, where its principal acolyte Anthistenes—one of the founding fathers of the Stoic School—is even said to have argued (and this despite his hostility towards Plato): “better to go mad than to succumb to lust.”
Cf. also Plato’s Symposion
1Phaedrus, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892.
3See Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher who originated the idea, and a semi-historical investigation of the same period in Armstrong, Karen, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, New York: Knopf, 2006.
4Phaedrus, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892.