So, my previous piece, attempting to set out a brief outline of a Platonic-realist understanding of sex, elicited a spirited exchange with one gentle reader of this blog, Mr Cal P—. We covered quite a bit of ground, and after a couple of attempts to formulate a cogent response in the comments, I thought it best to break out my response to him and turn it into a separate blog post. He had several criticisms of my approach, some of which I believe are fair and valid, others of which are slightly misaimed but still interesting and worthy of fuller explication, and still others of which I found well wide of the mark, completely missing or misconstruing the points I was attempting to convey. We covered so much ground, in fact, that I find I have to structure my response in a somewhat counter-intuitive way.
Firstly, I feel I should clarify and explicate what it is I am seeking to recover from Plato’s works on love, particularly Phædrus and the Symposium. The central insight that that excellent Russian Platonist and dialogist in his own right, Vladimir Solovyov saw in these works is that erōs belongs to a dimension of the human being that is not fully subject to reason, let alone to rationalisation. Erōs is primal. It is protean. It is (to use Solovyov’s formulation) both animal-instinctive and super-animal. It appears behind reason and overpowers it. It should be clear that Plato, and Solovyov after him, are not indulging generalities and superstitions at this point, but treating with hard, experimentally-demonstrable (as in behavioural economist Dan Ariely’s experiment whose conclusions appear in Predictably Irrational, widely credited in psychological literature as authoritative) natural fact that eroticism distorts judgement and ethical reasoning. Arousal can lead someone to discount future consequences, and even disregard elements of her own dignity and autonomy (let alone those of others) for the sake of immediate animal gratification. At this point, the only value-judgement I am making is that erōs is a powerful force in human biology and spirituality both, and is not to be underestimated by reason. I am not as yet casting any normative judgements on particular sexuate forms or sexual behaviours.
But, the behavioural science has proven Plato’s Socrates right: erotic desire can and does approximate a kind of temporary insanity or madness. But far from leading him to reject or shun erōs for the sake of preserving reason, Socrates argues instead that some of the greatest blessings can come from inspired or sophic madness, madness that is open to divine agency. In spite of his insistence elsewhere that wisdom, acquired by rational self-reflection, is the highest good, it is clear from Phædrus that Plato’s Socrates places a high value on the irrational elements of human life – especially erotic love, which he holds to be the highest form of divinely-inspired madness.
This is what I mean by having a realist view of sex. We human beings are political animals; we are social animals; we are reasoning animals; but we are animals. We are created beings with sexuate natures and physical senses. We have physical desires, both healthy and unhealthy. And it is naïve in the extreme to believe that these desires are always and at all times subject to domestication or the exhortations of duty and temperance. Plato’s Socrates fully comprehended this, and placed a very strong emphasis on it as a form of madness, with each and every one of the dangers and capacity for (self-)destruction that such implies.
But it is a madness which has within it a sophic, creative germ – a potential for that divine inspiration, similar to that which visits the Oracle at Delphi or the visitation of the Muses, on which Socrates places such value and which he holds to be the source of man’s highest deeds of nobility. Eroticism is, in Socrates’ own words, ‘the greatest of heaven’s blessings’; but it would be a very dire mistake to think that he either degrades its consummation or holds it valuable only in sublimation. Socrates is no Gnostic or hater of the flesh. As Solovyov himself put it, in his commentary on these two Platonic dialogues:
In the Symposium and the Phædrus, [Plato] clearly and definitely separates and juxtaposes the lower and higher activities of erōs—his action in the animal-instinctual man and in the super-animal man. Yet one must recall that even in the higher man, erōs acts, creates, generates, and does not merely think and ratiocinate. Here, too, [erōs’] main object is not intellectual ideas, but full, bodily life.My interlocutor, Mr P—, was very much in the right when he held forth that Plato’s Socrates did not affirm or embrace the Dionysian impulse with both arms open. Eroticism is only to be distinguished from the other, infirm and degrading forms of human madness, by how it harmonises with philos toward the beloved, and directs the inspired – or, we might say, afflicted – toward more noble and virtuous ways of living. But the old saw that ‘Platonic love’ is one which shuns consummation for the higher and for the sake of the spiritual – that, unfortunately, is a canard which ought to be retired. In the Symposium, Socrates, though he resists the immediate physical charms of Alcibiades and exhorts him to improve his soul, demonstrates through his discourse that the heavenly, philosophical love can exist even within consummate marriages, or between parents and children – which would imply an erotic love that has already been consummated, and passed down properly into parental affection. Socrates’ account of his dialogue with the wise Diotima affirms the ‘divine’ character even of procreative love: ‘an immortal principle in the mortal creature’. (But the trick – one realised by Solovyov in his The Justification of the Good – is that this immortal principle is an impersonal and necessitarian one which pales next to considerations of the immortality of the soul!) The ‘chains of being’ which mark Plato’s teachings have not been wrought along a single dimension, nor are they in the first instance meant to serve the crude purpose of fettering the flesh to free the spirit. Rather, they serve to link one form of love to the other without confusion. Plato ‘intimates’, in the words of his English interpreter Jowett, for ‘the lover of wisdom… the union of the spiritual and fleshly, the interpenetration of the moral and intellectual faculties’.
Having in this brief response attempted to acquit the honour, as it were, of Plato and his version of Socrates in their understanding of and complex appreciation for the erotic impulse, I shall attempt to move on to more recent quibbles, which are primarily historiographical in nature, but which link directly to this realist view of sexuality.
On that note: a very happy new year to one and all! My best wishes to my gentle readers for a warm and festive beginning to 2017.