Friday, October 24, 2008

Love desires the good

In Plato's Symposium, after a series of speeches praising love, Socrates comes along, and in dialogue with Agathon, demonstrates that love is neither beautiful nor good (200a-201c), which basically all the previous speeches had assumed. How does Socrates go about proving that love is not beautiful? Well, he first sets up the assumption that things desire what they lack. In other words, if I have a hunger for food, it's because I lack food in my stomach. Of if I desired friends, it would be because I don't have any friends (because philosophers are uncool). So, all desire is due to a lack. Well, we might question this and say, "don't people who have stuff desire to keep their stuff? Like a guy who has a car who desires to continue to have their car," or "don't people who have stuff sometimes desire to have more stuff? Like a guy who has money but wants more money." Well, Plato says, these both still express a lack. One is due to a future lack--the guy lacks a car in the future (since you can only have things in the present)--and the other is due to a lack in terms of shortage--the guy doesn't have enough money.

Socrates then defines love as a desire for beauty. I think if we define "beauty" broadly enough to include physical beauty as well as all of those other non-physical and intangible things we find attractive (like, perhaps, personality, sense of humor, kindness, intelligence, gobs of money, and so on) then I think most of us could accept this. True, we get other things out of love, like companionship or the feeling of being loved, but let's not worry about this. It seems like a good definition: Love desires what is beautiful. But if love desires the beautiful and things only desire what they lack, then love lacks beauty. And since beauty is a form of goodness, then love isn't good. That's a striking conclusion.

Oh, but not so fast Plato. Something sneaky is going on here. I think the technique Plato used here might be appropriately called a bait and switch. He has told us the desire entails a lack. In demonstrating this, he effectively responds to an obvious counter-example, that people can desire things they have. This, shows us that there is more than one type of lack: 1) where you simply don't have it and 2) where you have it but don't have it (either because you don't have enough or you lack it in the future). But then, when he turns around and speaks about love desiring beauty, he forgets about the second type of lack. In other words, it's possible that love desires beauty because love is beautiful but lacks future beauty or it's possible love is beautiful but lacks enough beauty. In fact, since things can only possess what they have in the present, then all things can have a future lack. Thus, anything could potentially desire what it has. I guess Plato could claim that since love is timeless then it doesn't make sense for it to lack things in the future, since time doesn't apply to it. Still we could say that love is beautiful but desires to be more beautiful. Many beautiful people desire to be more beautiful. It's not unheard of. He couldn't probably find a way out of this problem too (something about how as a timeless thing it doesn't admit of more or less beauty, or something like that) but now where just creating ad hoc assumptions to preserve a pre-established conclusion. That's not reasoning. Oh well, I guess love might be beautiful after all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So does that mean a "philo-sophos" lacks wisdom? Just kidding. Happened to stumble on your page while searching for Socrates's view of love as a lack of something.