Transcript: 32 - Frisbee Sheffield on Platonic Love

Frisbee Sheffield, an expert on Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus, chats to Peter about love and friendship in the erotic dialogues.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: This show is supposed to be about Plato's erotic dialogues, so can you remind us which works we're actually talking about when we talk about the erotic dialogues of Plato?

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes, it's a good question, which dialogues of Plato's are erotic, an answer to which, to some extent, depends on what one means by erotic. Typically what is meant is that these are dialogues that are about "eros," roughly passionate desire. It had a strong sexual sense, the term eros, though it was broader in scope and could be used of desire, say, for food or war. So it was really used to sort of designate any intense desire. And a more specific notion that's often implied by the term erotic dialogues are those dialogues concerned with erotic relationships between an older man and a younger boy. These sort of pederastic relationships were not uncommon amongst certain social circles, amongst Athenian elites. Typically an older man would seek sexual favors in exchange for some sort of social and political training. And that sort of educational aspect goes some way towards explaining Plato's interest in these kinds of erotic relationships.

Peter Adamson: Were these relationships frowned upon by other people? Was it something that everyone acknowledged as a kind of acceptable relationship between an older man and a younger boy?

Frisbee Sheffield: I think that, I mean, we don't have a broad spectrum of social evidence for this. In some of Aristophanes' plays, he associates these kinds of relationships, which often took place at Greek symposia, such as the one Plato writes about, with people that had sort of Spartan sympathies in particular, and certainly talks about them as if they operated in these specific elite social circles. So that doesn't give us a sense that they were necessarily widespread across the culture as a whole.

Peter Adamson: But it's not something that was generally perceived to be shameful, for example? It was a well-entrenched social phenomenon, at least in Athens.

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes, but it was heavily regulated. It wasn't, there were certain rules of engagement that one had to subscribe to for these relationships to be seen as socially acceptable.

Peter Adamson: Right, but as you're saying, eros can mean passionate or very intense love for a wide range of things, so not only young boys, but other kinds of people and even things. Now, there's something kind of strange about that, I think, because if you're saying that the paradigm instance of eros in Plato's dialogues is a sexual relationship between an older man and a boy, then why do we have this expression of "platonic love" or "platonic friendship" in English? Because that basically means love or friendship without any romance or without sex. So is there any basis for that in Plato's own dialogues, or is that just a kind of misconception?

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes. Well, firstly, I wouldn't want to say that these sexual relationships were a paradigm case for Plato, if by that we mean the sort of ideal case. What I meant was that these erotic pederastic relationships were an important context in Plato's day for the moral education of the young, you might say. And so Plato was naturally quite interested in them. I think that the common conception of platonic love as a relationship devoid of any sort of sexual activity certainly has something in it, because for Plato, purely sexual relationships would be certainly something that I think he would have thought of as quite shameful and certainly pretty low-grade relationships.

Peter Adamson: You mean a relationship where all you want is sex.

Frisbee Sheffield: A relationship where all you want is sex, exactly. But I think in order to understand the reason for that, we have to understand something about how he conceives of the nature and the aims of eros. And one of the things that is quite clear from the Symposium is that he talks about eros as a desire that aims at happiness, at "eudaimonia," which is often translated as happiness or flourishing. And given that that is the aim of eros, he thinks that simply having a relationship in which constant sexual intercourse, for example, is the aim is a pretty poor way in which to achieve human flourishing. That's the sort of activity that we get described in Aristophanes' speech, for example. He thinks that the best kind of erotic relationship will be one in which the partners have an eye on what is really good for the other person, what will really cause them to flourish and make them happy. And that means for Plato that they will focus on the soul of the other person and how it can achieve its characteristic excellence, which is wisdom. So yes, it will be a relatively chaste relationship, one imagines.

Peter Adamson: So that maybe explains why Plato might think that both relationships involving sex, and relationships not involving sex, could be examples of eros. But something you've already said is that eros could also be applied even to objects. So you could have eros for war, like you said, or maybe wine and things like that. That I take it is a perfectly reasonable way of using the Greek word eros. So should that tempt us to think that the word eros just doesn't mean love or something like that? So how could I have the same relationship towards wine that I have towards, say, my wife?

Frisbee Sheffield: I think if we if we think about eros as referring really to any sort of intense or passionate desire, then we can at least begin to get a sense of why Plato considers such radically different objects in the Symposium, for example, to be objects of eros. Things like, for example, beautiful bodies, beautiful laws and practices, and even a form, an ideal intelligible object. That goes some way towards explaining that, that there are many different objects that people experience intense desires for.

Peter Adamson: I suppose one might object to that, though, that when we talk about, for example, loving wine, it's perfectly reasonable in English as well as apparently in Greek to say, oh, 'I love wine,' that that's some kind of metaphor. And insofar as Plato is really taking seriously as a philosopher that I could both love wine and love my wife, that seems to imply some kind of really alarming attitude towards my wife, right? That I think of her sort of the way I think about wine? And that's not what we want, is it?

Frisbee Sheffield: I think the objection that thinks about eros as some kind of metaphor in such a way that when we say that we have eros for laws and practices or intelligible objects, that we're not really having the same desire that we properly speaking have for persons, would for Plato be to get things entirely the wrong way round. It's to assume that a sexual interpersonal relationship is the primary and paradigm case and that all other cases are somehow derivative from that. And that's just doesn't seem to be how Plato conceives of the phenomenon of eros. Rather, Socrates is considering sexual interpersonal cases of Eros, those cases with which we're all relatively familiar, that sort of basic phenomenon. He's considering that within a wider framework when he asks the question, 'what do we aim at in this kind of desire?' Or what we're sort of groping towards in that kind of desire is a desire for happiness. That's the real aim of this desire. And the desire for happiness is a desire that can be manifested in many different activities in life. And we can have, we can think that the desire for happiness is something that's satisfied in interpersonal relationships, or we can think that the desire for happiness is something that's satisfied in intellectual activity, for example. And it's no mere metaphor there. If we appreciate Socrates' point that eros for him is a phenomenon of sort of desire and action in quite general terms.

Peter Adamson: So I guess the idea might be that if you really had love for wine, that might imply that you believe that your fulfillment could be had by drinking wine. So that's a possible attitude towards wine, although presumably not one that Plato would endorse.

Frisbee Sheffield: Exactly.

Peter Adamson: So that makes Plato actually sound like he has a very appealing view. So he would recognize lots of different desires and attitudes as being eros. And then he would say, we have here a desire for fulfillment, and the fulfillment would be provided by different objects. And then he would say some of these objects will actually give you happiness and others won't. Now, there's this kind of traditional worry that goes back at least as far as a scholar named Gregory Vlastos, as I mentioned in the previous episode, that since Plato thinks that what will really give you happiness and fulfillment is the forms or knowledge of the forms, actually one of the things he's telling you is that you shouldn't seek fulfillment in interpersonal relationships. So it's kind of obvious that wine is not going to make you happy. And he's saying in some sense that interpersonal relationships or other people would be like wine, whereas what you really want is forms. So you should be moving away from wine and towards the forms. But that would also mean you should be moving away from other people towards the forms. Is that what he thinks?

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes. I think that if we take it that the aim of Eros for Plato is happiness and flourishing, then that helps to blunt the force of objections like Vlastos's objection that Plato is urging us to move away from interpersonal relationships. Because many of us would surely agree that finding fulfillment in an erotic interpersonal relationship and seeing that as the proper end of human flourishing - by which for Plato is meant some goal around which a flourishing human life can be constructed. I think if we really take that point in mind, then we would think that yes, it is a rather limited view of the possibilities for human aspiration and happiness if we see interpersonal relationships as the end of that.

Peter Adamson: It's actually maybe the view Aristophanes describes in the Symposium, right? So your goal in life is to find your other half and kind of stick to each other and then you're done. Nothing more to achieve. Nothing more to make you happy than that.

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes. And in a sense, Aristophanes' speech shows us that these lovers get some kind of temporary respite, but whether they really achieve happiness and fulfillment is not at all clear. Certainly in the original Homeric story on which Aristophanes draws there, I don't think that Aries and Aphrodite seem to get much respite from their activity.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, it seems more like an obsession that they can't quite shake off rather than an actual portrayal of happiness as such.

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes. If we take that point on board, then I think Socrates' move away from individuals as proper objects of the desire for happiness is really a laudable one. It's not something that I think we should find objectionable. And I think if people approach the Symposium and just read the famous ascent passage, i.e. the passage in which Socrates urges this move from individuals and laws and practices and so on towards the forms, if they read that passage in the larger context of the account, then I think perhaps people will stop seeing it as presenting an objectionable theory.

Peter Adamson: So maybe though there's another objection you could pose to Plato though, which is that although perhaps having an interpersonal relationship maybe isn't all there is to life, it doesn't seem like knowing the forms could be either. So that seems to be this kind of radically intellectualist, almost nutty version of what it would be to be happy. So what it would be to be happy is, say, to know what beauty is. Is there anything we can say to make that more plausible or is Plato just sort of nutty in this respect?

Frisbee Sheffield: I think probably there is some element of nuttiness in the theory, but if we were trying to render it more plausible, I think one way we can start thinking about it is to think that Socrates is looking for some kind of object that can satisfy our desire for happiness. So how can we think about how he's construing happiness in that ascent passage, the passage where he's leading us towards the form? Well, one way to think about it is to consider him as examining the desire for wisdom as a desire that's proper to happiness. And I think rather than thinking in terms of how can an object make us happy, this intelligible object, the form of beauty, we should think in terms of, well, how can the activity of contemplating the form, how can the generation of wisdom, which is the goal achieved at the end of the ascent, how can that contribute to or constitute happiness for Socrates? I think that's a helpful question to ask about the ascent passage.

Peter Adamson: And I suppose it doesn't imply that you would be, as it were, sitting on a mountaintop just contemplating a form, because if you grasp the form of justice or beauty, it might actually inform, no pun intended, the other things that you're doing in life.

Frisbee Sheffield: Absolutely. And I don't think there's anything to suggest at the top of the ascent that one will just be in a cave and that other objects are excluded from one's interest.

Peter Adamson: If you're right that the ascent passage in the Symposium is really about how to be happy rather than about, strictly speaking, the nature of an interpersonal relationship, does that mean that Plato just doesn't have a view on that? I mean, is this something that he talks about in the erotic dialogues or anywhere else, say, what the nature of friendship is or the nature of interpersonal love, the way Aristotle does, for example?

Frisbee Sheffield: I think that firstly, there is material in the symposium about interpersonal relationships. When Socrates and Diotima are summing up the ascent passage, it's said that this is the way to go about the correct love of boys. And I take it that what's meant there is that when one engages in pederastic relationships of the sort that Plato is interested in in the Symposium, these sort of educational relationships, one needs to have some sense of the proper grounds and nature of human happiness. So part of what the ascent passage is doing is articulating what Socrates takes to be the proper nature and goals of a pederastic relationship. So pederastic interpersonal relationships provide the context for the discussion of the ascent. All I was trying to suggest is that they're not its focus. So in that respect, I don't think Plato has lost sight of interpersonal relationship. However, that's not to say that he's provided an account of them, of course. And although there's a lot of suggestive material in the Symposium that indicates that Socrates did have interpersonal relationships with people like Alcibiades, for example, there isn't much theoretical reflection on the nature of those relationships. For that, I think we would be better off turning to the Phaedrus, which is Plato's other so-called erotic dialogue, i.e. a dialogue that's concerned with these sorts of pederastic relationships and talks about eros. And in that dialogue, he talks about philia relationships. And philia relationships were slightly different from erotic relationships, i.e. relationships in which Eros played a stronger role.

Peter Adamson: And philia is usually translated as friendship, right?

Frisbee Sheffield: Exactly, yes. And these friendship relationships could, of course, arise out of pederastic erotic relationships. And that's exactly the context for the discussion in the Phaedrus that Plato does, I think, articulate a variety of philia relationships, i.e. these friendship relationships, within the context of a discussion of these erotic pederastic relationships. And I think it's within that discussion that he gives us some sense of how an eros for wisdom of the sort that he described in great detail in the Symposium is compatible with a love for other persons, i.e. a friendship, a philia relationship.

Peter Adamson: I guess that for everything you've said, it sounds like the erotic dialogues connect to a lot of very big themes in Plato. For example, what you were just saying about friendship seems to connect to his views on virtue, because it's about something like how to treat others and how to have relationships. But on the other hand, something like the ascent passage looks like it has to do with the theory of forms. So would you say that the erotic dialogues kind of stand on their own, say the Phaedrus in the Symposium, maybe the Lysis, as a detachable part of Plato's corpus? Or did they tell us a lot of things we needed to know in order to understand something like the Republic properly?

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes, I think they're hugely informative for understanding Plato's ethics, and probably in two main ways. So firstly, Plato's account of eros in the symposium can be seen as part of a more general trend in the Platonic dialogues, where Plato is interested in not just how people behave in certain ways, what they do, but what sort of character they develop. And desires for Plato, and having desires for the right sorts of things in particular, being properly orientated towards things of genuine value, is for Plato part of developing the right kind of character, becoming the right kind of virtuous agent. So I think his account of Eros is an important part of Plato's conception of virtue ethics, as we conceive of it. And secondly, I think the account in the Phaedrus, the more interpersonal aspect of Plato's discussion of eros and philia, love in these two different senses, we might say, helps us to understand the way in which other people play a role in Platonic ethics, because it's often said, for example, about dialogues like the Republic, that his approach to virtue in the good life is very agent-centered, that the focus is very much on the state of the agent's soul. You, for example, have raised that question with reference to the Symposium, that at the top of the ascent, really the focus is on the agent himself understanding wisdom and achieving happiness. So what happens then to interpersonal relationships? And I think if we understand the rich account that's developed in the Phaedrus, then we can see that Plato does, in fact, have a much less otherworldly conception of happiness than might be indicated if we just read, for example, the digression in the Theaetetus or the focus on the forms in the Symposium and even in the Republic, that Plato does think that interpersonal relationships have a role to play in the good life.

Peter Adamson: So it would have been a gap if I left out the erotic dialogues.

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes, I think it would have been a big gap.

Peter Adamson: Okay, well, in that case, I'm glad I included it with both of these episodes. But before we stop, I want to just ask you one other thing about the Symposium, because there's this thing in it right at the end that's always puzzled me. It says that Socrates and the other people present stay up all night drinking. And one of the things that they're discussing is that Socrates is claiming that the same people who are able to write good tragedy should also be able to write good comedy. So what is that all about? I mean, why would you end the dialogue about eros with that point?

Frisbee Sheffield: Yes, I think that that puzzle is so tantalizing and takes us to the heart of Socrates's account of the nature of eros. So the puzzle there is he seems to be arguing to Aristophanes, the comic poet, and Agathon, the tragic poet, that the same qualities are required to write both tragedy and comedy. And I think perhaps one way we can understand the force of that is to consider Socrates as thinking about what qualities are required for somebody to think properly about eros. And I think people have long noticed that the Symposium is a dialogue with many tragic elements and with many comic elements. Plato here exemplifies the very principle that Socrates is arguing for at the end. OK, so to return to the theme of eros, why is this pertinent to a discussion of eros? Well, when Socrates is describing the nature of eros, he says that eros is derived from Porus and Penia. These are his sort of mythical parents. And he has aspects of his personality that are derived from both. So from his mother, he's very needy and lacks resources. And from his father, he's this much more elevated character. His father dines with the gods, and he's very resourceful. And I think we can see eros as exemplifying in that respect the two qualities that are central to tragedy and comedy. Central to comedy is some notion of the fallen and what's lowly about mortal life. And central to tragedy is thinking about what's eudaimon and what's lofty and elevated about human life. And it's really eros, human aspiration, human awareness of deficiency and our ability to transcend that deficiency. That's something that's captured by Plato's account of eros here. And that's something for which Plato needs to combine elements from both comedy, to capture the lowly aspect of our nature, and tragedy. 


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