There have been a lot of posts about love in recent months–finding it, losing it, what’s the right kind, what’s the proper duration, is it really even worth it? Eccetera.
It reminded me that I went through a phase, some years ago, in which I was obsessed with the philosophy of Platonic Love. It’s my favorite kind of love. It’s the most interesting–and, I think, most delicate and complicated–kind.
Plato called it Eros
Oh, no no. It’s totally platonic.
I don’t think there’s anything going on. Just a platonic thing.
“Platonic,” in the contemporary sense, tends to indicate the absence of love. Or at least love as we’re prone to understand it.
Allow me to back up. Or switch gears. First of all, I’m not a philosophy student. I’m not an expert. I’m an armchair philosopher at best, expert only on my love of thinking and likely mistaken on the finer points of Platonic philosophy. My understanding of Plato’s Eros is slightly superficial and, in many cases, metaphorical and free-associative. Nevertheless, “Platonic” as it applied to fondness, was not always or originally about the absence of love.
While most famous for The Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice appears, Dante Alighieri also wrote a book called La Vita Nuova. It is entirely–at least ostensibly–about Beatrice. Or, more correctly, about Dante’s obsession with Beatrice. She is only vaguely aware he’s alive.
Her name is derived from Beatrix (heads up, Tarantino fans), which itself is some combination of Viatrix (voyageur, traveler) and Beatus (lucky, blessed).
Her name, thereafter, became a recurring symbol in all of western literature. Usually, a character named Beatrice will be an object of intense beauty & passion, (perhaps divine) epiphany, some amount of obsession, and often, elusiveness. Unless her name is being used ironically or ignorantly, which is increasingly a hazard, a character named Beatrice is meant to signify THAT Beatrice.
In any case, that name, intentionally or not, carries a symbolic quality nearly on par with that of the ubiquitous “Eve.”
Beatrice’s beauty, Dante claimed, was so overwhelming it made him see the whole world differently and with more love and appreciation for all beauty wherever he came upon it.
He said he loved her so much he saw God.
Sickening. Take your pomade Italian pick up lines and beat the bricks, Guido. I’ll have none of your hand-waving, chest-haired, shiny-toothed machismo preying on my romantic feminine tendencies.
Plato’s Eros was, ostensibly, a love without prominent sexual ambitions. Sexual ambition, if Plato is to be believed, is irrelevant. Love–the BEST love–is grounded in beauty and wisdom and transcends earthly desires, so sex is not an expression the highest from of love but rather an approximation of it.
Not that sex was discouraged, necessarily, but Eros was essentially androgynous, and whether heterosexual or homosexual, sex always indicated some level of removal from–or was at best a stepping stone towards–the real thing. It was of secondary concern.
At some point, the transcendent aspect of Eros fell away entirely, and Platonic love came to mean what it does now–the opposite of divine. In current use, it tends to mean unimpressive, uninteresting, average, or warmly friendly. The entire emphasis is on the part where two people aren’t necessarily having sex. It’s not sexy or romantic, it’s just platonic.
But Plato’s version of Eros could be found in the relationship between a mother and child, between extremely close friends, between homosexual and heterosexual lovers, between art and its viewer (or experiencer, as the case may be), and, most importantly, in the pursuit of wisdom, particularly in the form of philosophy.
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk- real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.
Jack Kerouac was a chronicler of the sublime, as he experienced it. Sketcher of daemons in the dirt. Sublimity is not entirely unlike Platonic Love. Socrates characterized Eros as a daemon.
Courtesy of Wikipedia:
In aesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublimis ([looking up from] under the lintel, high, lofty, elevated, exalted) is the quality of greatness or vast magnitude, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.
I am generally a fan of sublimity.
The above is a gross understatement.
As an aside, that same Wiki page gives credit to the Bhagavad Gita for the first known written description of something like sublimity. I happened to look it up. I am fascinated by the similarity of Krishna’s voice to the voice of Jesus.
Granted, translations will differ. But even the message is familiar.
It is not surprising, then, that a priest could make the sublime dead sexy, despite itself:
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.
The last line, when read aloud, makes my mouth water.
Plato was likely aware of the Bhagavad Gita or had at least heard of some of the stories in it, and the writers of the New Testament were aware of Plato, and Dante was aware of both the Bible and Plato, and Donne was aware of Dante and the Bible, and Walt Whitman is in the 19th century somewhere, smelling his own armpits, being aware of everyone and himself all at once and singing and heaving all this transcendental goofballism off to Kerouac who, in turn, infected Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan and an entire, as-yet-thriving generation of take-and-run-with-it hippies who never knew, fail to understand, or have conveniently ignored that the concept is metaphysical and/or religious in nature.
And, in a way, sort of elitist.
If beauty is the path to the divine, and artists and poets are in the business of creating and experiencing beauty, then it’s no secret who the holy people are.
But that takes us back to Kerouac again:
…and everything is going to the beat – It’s the beat generation, it be-at, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat..
Beatitude. One concept. 3500 years. The literary genealogy of an idea. Or at least one lineage of it.
I say it because, as I said, it is my favorite kind of love. And I can’t tell if it’s falling into favor or out of favor as of late.
nameberry.com declares that “Beatrice is back.”