Godtalk: Devaluation of love

Published on 06 Mar 2014

Listening to a radio programme about Plato’s dialogue ‘The Symposium’ led Harry Eyres, Financial Times columnist, to reflect on devaluation.*  The devaluation in question was not of the pound, but of the language of love.

The Symposium is a discussion of the nature of love, consisting of speeches made by participants at an Athenian dinner party held in 416BC.  So we are talking about a work of literature written nearly 2,400 years ago. A prevailing view is that anything written that long ago must be “primitive.” Surely we have progressed since then.

No one would deny immense material advances; but rereading the dialogue made Eyres think that with all our marvellous technical progress has come a strange impoverishment in the way we speak about love.

We don’t seem to speak much about love any more.  Although we retain a mystical belief in it we prefer not to speak about it.  We would rather speak about relationships and sex. We can get relationship and sex therapy on the NHS, but anyone asking for love therapy free at the point of delivery might be looked at askance. Surely this way of speaking is both more realistic and more scientific. Love is an ideal, like an elusive perfume, but relationships are the nitty-gritty, the crucible where all our “issues” are played out. And sex, as we know from the study of animal behaviour and popular music, is what many think ‘makes the world go round.’

We are not the first people to study animal behaviour. The Greeks were also fascinated by it. The climax of ‘The Symposium’, and its most profound insights,  come in the speech by Socrates, in which he relates the lessons about love taught to him by a mysterious priestess called Diotima. Diotima draws Socrates’ attention to the behaviour of animals, who when gripped by “violent lovesickness” first “desire union with one another”, then go to the most extreme lengths to provide for their young.

The reason is that all mortal nature, whether human or animal, seeks to perpetuate itself and become immortal. This does not seem so far from Richard Dawkins’s idea of the selfish gene, but the spin put on it could hardly be more different.

One of the key differences is that procreation for humans, according to Diotima, can be spiritual as well as physical. Examples of spiritual procreation are poetry and the making of laws. Love aims at the good, and beauty leads lovers towards that end, starting with physical beauty and progressing to spiritual beauty, and eventually to that absolute beauty in which true goodness is produced.

Our romantic notion of love – the one we cling to but prefer not to talk about – is an idea of a couple finding refuge in each other against the indifference of a hostile world. The Platonic idea in The Symposium starts with physical passion for one person, but going beyond that to embrace all beauty and goodness.

Plato implies that those qualities exist in abundance, for people whose minds are attuned to them, believing in the intrinsic goodness of the world, finding in everyday life in the main, generosity and hospitality. (Sounds like another voice from the past reverberating in the present;  ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’John 15.12. P.K.)  

Peter Knott SJ

* Adapted from Financial Times  11/1/14