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The ancient story behind modern romantic love

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Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Plato Symposium takes place in 416 BC during a drinking party organized by the playwright Agathon to celebrate his victory at the Lenaia. Most of the guests are hungover from the previous night’s revelry, and all agree to cut back on alcohol consumption in favor of conversation. Since the young Phaedrus laments that Eros (the god of love) has not praised enough, the physician Eryximachus offers everyone, from left to right starting with Phaedra, to give a speech in praise of the ‘Love.

The ladder of love

After Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes and the host Agathon, it is Socrates’ turn to speak. Socrates slips into Elenchus mode and makes Agathon accept that if love is not nothing, then it must be something, and if it is something, then it must be something that is desired , and therefore of something that is missing.

Socrates then recounts a conversation he once had with a mysterious priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who, he says, taught him the art of loving. This Diotima (the name means “Honored by the gods”) told him that this something which Love lacks and which he desires consists in beautiful and good things, and above all in wisdom, which is both extremely good and extremely beautiful. If love is lacking and desires beautiful and good things, and if all gods are good and beautiful, love cannot, as most people think, be a god. In truth, Love is the child of Poverty and Resource, always in need but always inventive. He is not a god, but a great intermediate spirit between gods and men. As such, he is neither mortal nor immortal, neither wise nor ignorant, but a lover of wisdom.

No wise man wants to become ignorant, just as no ignorant man wants to become wise: “For that is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless self-satisfied…” The goal to love Beautiful and good things must possess them, because the possession of good and beautiful things is called Happinessand happiness is an end in itself.

Wild animals enter a state of love because they seek to reproduce and become immortal. People also seek to make themselves immortal and are willing to take great risks, even death, to achieve glory and honor. Some people are Pregnant in the body and beget children who will retain their Memory, while others, a few, are pregnant in the soul and instead beget wisdom and virtue. As their children are more beautiful and more immortal, people who are pregnant at heart have more to share with each other, and a stronger bond of Friendship between them.

Who, when thinking of Homer and Hesiod, and other great poets, wouldn’t like to have their children instead of ordinary humans? Who would not imitate them in creating children like theirs, who had preserved their memory and given them eternal glory?

Diotima then tells Socrates the right way to learn to love beauty.

A young person should first learn to love a beautiful body so that he realizes that this beautiful body shares beauty with all other beautiful bodies, and therefore it is foolish to love only one beautiful body. By loving all beautiful bodies, the young person begins to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul, may they also be beautiful in body.

Having thus transcended the physical, the child gradually discovers that beautiful practices and customs and various kinds of knowledge also share a common beauty.

Finally, at the highest rung of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various appearances. By exchanging the various appearances of Virtue for Virtue itself, he acquires immortality and the love of the gods.

This is why love is so important and deserves so much praise.

How the Ladder of Love Changed Love

Before Plato, and long after, people fell in love, of course, but they didn’t believe that this love could somehow save them, as we tend to do today. When in the IliadHélène fled with Paris, neither she nor he thought of it attraction as pure, noble or uplifting. In the OdysseyPenelope’s commitment to Odysseus is better understood in terms of devoted love, or marital fidelity, than in crazy modern terms. romantic love. Other models of love in antiquity include the “perfect friendship” of Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, and the naturalism of the Roman poets Lucretius and Ovid.

Relationships Essential Readings

On the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Jewish and Christian patterns of love evolved alongside Greco-Roman patterns. In the Old Testament, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to kill Isaac, an angel holds back his hand. This passage emphasizes that although love and morality are important principles, unconditional obedience to God is even more important, because God is morality, and God is love.

The New Testament, unlike the Old, elevates love to the rank of supreme virtue. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption. You even have to turn the other cheek to love your enemies. We are far from the law of retaliation of the Old Testament: “… you will give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…”

Even so, the Bible, which is nearly 800,000 words, does not contain a single modern love story. His greatest human love stories are between two women and two men: Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan.

Jesus may have spoken Greek and may have been directly or indirectly influenced by Platonism. But even if he did not, the later Church sought to align Christian theology with the classical tradition. philosophy— and Christian love, more properly called charity, and originally directed towards God, began to merge with something much more individualistic.

The blending of Christian love with Platonism set the stage for the troubadour tradition that began in the 11th century in Occitanie (roughly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed towards a married or otherwise unapproachable woman, often of higher rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining superior virtue. For the first time, love was ultimately not aimed at or dependent on God – and the Church duly condemned love as heresy. In a radical cultural reversal, Eve’s daughter went from diabolical temptress to sublime conduit of virtue, goddess in place of God.

The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elitist and minority movement, died out at the time of the Black Death in 1348, but laid the foundations for the modern conception of romantic love.

Read my related articles, A short love story and The woman behind Socrates.