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Love and the Individual in Plato's Phaedrus

  • F. C. White (a1)

There are two basic objections to Plato's account of love in the Phaedrus, both raised by Gregory Vlastos, both metaphysically important in their own right, and both still unanswered. The first is that the Phaedrus sees men as mere images of another world, making it folly or even idolatry to treat them as worthy of love for their own sakes. The other is that it considers the love that we bear for our fellow men to be the result of human, temporal deficiency. If only we could be free of this deficiency, the objection runs, we would have no reason to love anything or anyone except the Forms: seen face to face, these by themselves would absorb all our love.

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1 In this paper Vlastos [44, see Works Cited], pp. 32f., concentrates on the Symposium more than the Phaedrus but it is clear that his objections apply equally to the latter (see his remarks on p. 20; p. 27 n. 80; p. 31 n. 93). His paper has already received attention from a number of scholars, but the particular objections that I am concerned with have not to my knowledge been met. See, e.g., Kosman [17]; Price [27]; Price [28]; Santas [35]; Nussbaum [23] & [24]; Griswold [10], pp. 128–9; Ferrari [5], pp. 181–4. Price in his excellent paper [27] pays direct attention to the second objection (p. 34), but concludes that it does not in fact constitute a special difficulty: by contrast, I hold that it is a serious objection but can be met. Nussbaum, though she does not attempt to meet the objections head on, says more that is sharply in conflict with Vlastos' views than anyone else: she asserts in various forms that love in the Phaedrus is love of individuals qua individuals, and that it is intrinsically worth while, and she implies that the Phaedrus' lover loves his beloved for the latter's own sake. However, she writes as if love in the Phaedrus were concerned solely with humans, a thing altogether of this world. This surely is wrong: the human individual is not even the main object, goal or point of love, and Nussbaum has to contend with a heavy weight of contrary scholarly opinion on this point. To take examples almost at random from the last hundred years or so, see: Jowett [16], pp. 554–5; Zeller [49], pp. 191–6, esp. n. 68; Taylor [40], p. 27; Field [6], pp. 164–5; Hackforth [13], p. 10; Friedlander [7], pp. 55–6; Gould [9], p. 107; Robin [30], pp. 57–8; Dies [4], pp. 437^48,444–6; Morgan [21], p. 42; Hamilton [14], p. 8; Guthrie [12], pp. 426–7; and, very recently, Santas [35], pp. 111–12; Rowe [31], pp. 172–3; Melling [20], p. 100. The majority of these tend towards the view that according to the Phaedrus ‘the vision of the eternal forms is the highest aim of divine and human souls; the “desire for the beyond” is the motivating power; the wings, borrowed from the god of love, are symbolic of this striving’ (Friedländer [7], p. 55).

2 Along with Vlastos I assume that Socrates' second speech can properly be taken as Plato's own account of love, in spite of its non-dialectical nature. But see Rowe's [32] useful comments on this, pp. 7–11; and see Rowe [33], passim.

3 While Plato does not talk of ‘Forms’, it is generally accepted without debate that his ‘real Reality’ is the world of the Forms.

4 On the religious language and tone of the Phaedrus, see the excellent article by Seeskin [37], esp. pp. 579–80.

5 There is little doubt that in Plato's mind the lover and the philosopher are one and the same person. See, e.g., Thompson [43], ad loc; Hackforth [13], p. 83; De Vries [3], p. 143.

6 See remarks on Nussbaum especially in note 1 above.

7 Vlastos [44], p. 32. It is perhaps worth noting here that in order to rebut Vlastos' charge it is not enough simply to argue that in the Phaedrus the lover in fact treats his beloved as worthy of love for his own sake (as several scholars have already argued); it needs first to be argued that this is not a case of folly or idolatry.

8 Plato does sometimes use the word εἰκὼν of existence-dependent images (see Rep. 509el–2, 510e3), but he also uses it of independently existing items, such as statues and paintings (see Rep. 401b5; Crat. 432b6; Soph. 235d–236b). The word ⋯μοíωμα etymologically has a broad connotation and is explicitly given this at Soph. 266d7; it can therefore be used, and is used, of independently existing items like paintings (Crat. 434a I). Concerning the use of the word εἳδωλα at Lysis 219d, discussed by Vlastos [44], p. 10, esp, n. 23, the following is to be said. Socrates has been discussing what he calls the πρ⋯τον ϕíλον, that for the sake of which all other things and persons are loved and which alone is really loved – that is, alone is worthy of being loved for its own sake. He makes the point that we should be careful not to value the various means to achieving the πρ⋯τον ϕíλον as if they themselves were really loved. There is a danger, he says, that ‘those other objects, of which we said that they are loved for its sake, should deceive us, like so many images εἳδωλα of it’ (219d2–4). In saying this, Socrates is not arguing that things and persons are eiScuAa and therefore not really loved. Rather he assumes in the immediate context that all sorts of things and persons are not really loved, and adds that there is a danger of mistakenly believing them to be so – a danger of being deceived by them in the way in which it is possible to be deceived by images, mistaking them for their originals. Concerning the Lysis in general and the bearing of its contents on the question of loving persons for their own sakes, along with Vlastos I take it to be a thoroughly Socratic dialogue.

9 I have argued the point about the ontological status of images in Plato's dialogues in detail elsewhere: see especially White [46], passim & [47], passim.

10 Quinton [29], pp. 104–5, and Taylor [42], p. 146, (quoted by Brown [1], p. 20) hold that only persons can be objects of love, but this seems unduly restrictive. See Hamlyn [15], pp. 1 Iff. and Brown's [1] (partially persuasive) arguments contra, pp. 20–6, 104–5.

11 The very general thesis that in all cases x loves y in virtue of some or all of y's qualities, is defended by Taylor [41], passim, and supported from Plato's point of view, though not always in the same form, by such commentators on the Phaedrus as Kosman [17], pp. 56–7 (commenting on Nygren [25]) and esp. pp. 64ff.; Price [27], pp. 32–4; Price [28], p. 98; Griswold [10], p. 129; Ferrari [5], p. 182. It is also splendidly argued for in relation to the Symposium by Warner [45], passim. But this general thesis is much disputed. For opposing views of various kinds, in addition to that of Vlastos [44], p. 31, see: McTaggart [19] (quoted by Warner [45], pp. 334–5); Pitcher [26], pp. 341–2; Scruton [36], pp. 41–2; Hamlyn [15], p. 13; Scruton [37], pp. 525–6; Goldberg [8], pp. 38–9; Brown [1], pp. 24,41–6,102–10. However, for the purposes of this paper, although I do in fact hold to the general thesis, I need only the ‘true and even trivial’ (Taylor [41], p. 153) thesis that in some cases x loves y in virtue of certain of y's qualities. More specifically, all that I need is that it be consistent with Plato's doctrines to hold that the lover loves his beloved in virtue of the latter's beauty and other qualities, and that this justifies his loving his beloved for his own sake as well as as a means to recollection and so on.

12 I take the view (perhaps stipulatively) that to assert that you love Mary because she was the first girl to dance with you, or something else of the sort, is not to give an explanation of your love at all. It is not uncommon to feel a sentimental attachment to the girl who first danced with you, but if in addition you actually love her, your appropriate emotional feelings and behaviour need to be based on beliefs about her lovable qualities.

13 Few of us would be flattered to learn that it was not in virtue of our qualities that we were loved.

14 But see: Hamlyn [15], p. 13; Lyons [18], pp. 78–9 and Brown [1] on Lyons, pp. 114–15; Brown [1], pp. 117–24 on Pitcher [26], pp. 341ff.

15 In the case of loving a person as a sexual partner the grounds here are prima facie grounds only, and can be overridden by such things as obligations to keep promises. Thus, for example, I may have good grounds for loving and living with Angela while being morally barred from doing so by the fact that I have obligations to Mary, my wife. But see Newton-Smith [22], pp. 124ff.

16 Two points are worth noting here. One is that Vlastos' first objection has already been answered: there are no grounds for saying that it is folly to love a man even qua image for his own sake. What follows is an argument to show that there are often positive grounds making it unreasonable not to. The second point is that a number of scholars have already drawn attention (for reasons different and sometimes opposed to mine) to the part that individuals play in the Phaedrus' account of love (often as opposed to that of the Symposium – but see Rowe's [32] sober comments on this point, p. 190). See, e.g., Grube [11], pp. 112–13; Gould [9], p. 120; Sinaiko [39], pp. 85–6; Price [27], pp. 30–1; Price [28], pp. 96–7; Santas [35], p. 112; Nussbaum [23], [24], passim; Ferrari [5], p. 184. Nussbaum [24] is particularly insistent on the place of the individual qua individual in the Phaedrus' account, though the textual basis for her claims is not always clear. She says of the beloved that ‘this person is loved and valued in a unique, or at least a rare and deeply personal way’, and ‘that this unique person is valued, throughout, as a separate being with his or her own self-moving soul’ (p. 218). Again she tells us, concerning pairs of lovers, that having found one another ‘they treat one another with respect for the other's separate choices, fostering one another's continuing development towards the flourishing of their deepest aspirations, “using not envious spite or ungenerous hostility” towards the other, but genuinely benefiting him for his own sake’ (p. 219). Yet again, she says that love is ‘a thing of intrinsic value and beauty, not just a way-station toward the good’; and that the ‘best human life involves ongoing devotion t o another individual’ (p. 219). Finally, she asserts that instead of ‘loving one another as exemplars of beauty an d goodness, properties which they might conceivably lose without ceasing t o be themselves, these lovers love one another's character, memories an d aspirations – which are, as Aristotle too will say, what each person is “in an d of himself”’(p. 220).

17 καἰ ὃταν αυτ⋯ν ευρóντεσ ⋯ρασθ⋯σι, 252e3–4. It is clear that although love is described as a form of madness, it is none the less based on reason: the lover looks first for the right qualities in his prospective beloved. An d surely there is n o suggestion that qua philosopher the lover is mad, whatever the majority ma y think. But see Vlastos’ [44] comments, p. 27 n. 80. Nussbaum [24], pp. 213ff., wishes to treat the Phaedrus' love as a more extreme form of madness than seems warranted: she speaks as if according to Plato being in love were incompatible with possessing the virtue of σωϕροσυνη. For some useful comments on the madness and rationality of the lover–philosopher, see Rowe [33], pp. 117–19.

18 See the quotation from Hermias, Ferrari [5], p. 184.

19 Cf. Vlastos [44], pp. 8f.

20 Th e following remarks attempt t o meet Vlastos' [44] ‘selfishness objection’ (p. 4). For very different and more radical attempts t o meet it see Kosman [17], pp. 54ff.; Price [27], esp. p. 30. See also Price [28], pp. 97–8.

21 1 In other words, I interpret Plato to mean at 252c–d that the lover, once seized by love, honours and strives to imitate his god in all the latter's characteristics, not just those that distinguish him from the other gods. From this it follows that he strives to imitate his god in point of those qualities shared by all the gods.

22 It is clear from Republic 377ff. that the gods are perfect and unable to change, and it is made explicit at Symposium 203e–204a that the gods, being in no way deficient, can desire nothing.

23 This is not in conflict with Plato's general doctrine that whatever a person does he does in some sense for his own good, since it is possible to view acting with unselfishness as in part constitutive of one's own good. (The latter view is what I believe Plato to have held as early as the Gorgias: see White [48].) On the other hand, the apparent conflict between egoism and loving someone for his or her own sake cannot, I believe, be resolved simply by distinguishing between the object and the aim of love. (See Santas [34], p.54.)

24 See Ferrari's [5] brief discussion on these points, pp. 183–4. For a useful discussion on behavioural criteria of love, see Brown [1], pp. 33–5, in criticism of Newton-Smith [22].

25 Vlastos [44], pp. 32f.

26 See Hackforth [13], p. 80.

27 It is worth relating 252d–253b to all of this – the passage in which the lover is eager to discover within himself the nature of his god and to become like that god, and to make his beloved like him too.

28 Cf. Seeskin [38], p. 583.

29 Compare Cooper [2], esp. sections II & III. I am grateful to the Editors for their carefully-worded comments; I have made use of them at many points in this paper.

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