Platonic love is one of the most misinterpreted concepts of Plato’s philosophy. It transcended the realm of philosophy, becoming widely used in culture – and strayed from its original meaning throughout the process.
Plato believed that love is the motivation that leads to trying to know and contemplate the beauty in oneself. It happens through a gradual process that begins with an appreciation of the appearance of physical beauty and then moves on to an appreciation of spiritual beauty.
Going through these stages results in the passionate, pure and selfless knowledge of the essence of beauty, which remains incorruptible and always equal to itself: the knowledge of the idea of beauty.
The real concept of platonic love
This type of love is often interpreted as spiritual rather than physical. Some even go so far as to call Platonic love an “impossible love”, although this is perhaps more extreme than Plato’s conception. Plato gives his clearest insight into Platonic love in “The Banquet”.
A symposium, or banquet, was a common celebration where Greeks gathered to drink, celebrate, and discuss ideas.
During a symposium held in the house of the tragic poet Agathon, several of the most important men of Athens – Socrates, Pausanias, Aristophanes and the most powerful figure of the moment, Alcibiades – began a philosophical debate on true nature of love, with each philosopher providing their own argument.
After listening to everyone present, Socrates takes the floor and tells what the priestess of Apollo, Diotima, had revealed to him about the meaning of Platonic love: that it was a ladder in which the love climbs a series of steps to reach the top of a “supreme idea”.
For Plato, love is not in itself an end, but only a means of achieving this supreme concept of beauty. The first step is physical; the senses release eros (love that enters through the eyes and forces one to approach someone). At this point, love is physical. Plato does not in fact reject the physical dimension of love, as many mistakenly believe – it is a fundamental and necessary step in reaching the supreme idea.
In the second step, we move from the search for beauty in a particular body to the search for beauty in multiple bodies, thus forging a categorical notion of beauty and starting the search for the idea behind this notion.
The third stage is that which passes from the physical body to the beauty of the soul. In this state, the person learns to love the soul despite the physical aspect of beauty.
In the fourth step, Socrates elevates love to a whole new level since he enters the world of ethics: the love of beautiful souls increases moral beauty.
In the fifth step, Socrates moves from the rules of conduct to the beautiful knowledge, referring to the institutions and the love of government.
The sixth step starts from beautiful knowledge and uses science to achieve pleasure in the beauty of knowledge and understanding.
In the seventh, the idea of beauty comes into harmony with the universe: it passes from the world to the cosmic category (to beauty itself). In this phase, beauty takes on the hue of vision, or revelation, experienced through the lens of philosophy.
Plato and his ideal love
Plato’s ideal love is linked to his notion of the ideal world (a world where everything is perfect and our material reality is a copy of his image). This is why this Platonic ideal of love does not refer to an inaccessible love, but to love in an eternal and intelligible sense: a perfect ideal form.
This setting is closely linked to the allegory of Plato’s Cave. The one who comes to the idea of beauty is the one who managed to get out of the cave and look at the sunlight. This person went from the initial experience of physical love, which could be compared to being in the cave, to experiencing the truth of beauty, the equivalent of leaving the cave for the outside world.