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Eros UnveiledPlato and the God of Love$

Catherine Osborne

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198267669

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198267669.001.0001

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(p.222) Appendix Anders Nygren and Gregory Vlastos

(p.222) Appendix Anders Nygren and Gregory Vlastos

Eros Unveiled
Oxford University Press

This book addresses questions about the nature and explanation of love, and how that love figures, when properly understood, in the relationship between individuals, and between the individual and god, in ancient thought and in Christian theology. Two writers have been particularly influential in building up a popular prejudice against Plato, and against the ‘Platonic love’ that is essential to true philosophy for Plato. One of these is Anders Nygren, whose claims about the difference between Platonic eros and Christian agape have become widely and uncritically accepted in much popular Christian teaching. It is impossible to challenge Nygren’s thesis except by starting from a wholly different starting point, and building up a positive picture of love as a motive in Christian devotion. That picture is, in effect, what the whole of this book seeks to create. It does not do a piecemeal job of attacking Nygren’s account of the story, but it tells a story of its own from the same ancient and early Christian texts as he was reading.

Gregory Vlastos has been influential with a different readership. His article called ‘The individual as object of love in Plato’1 reflects some of the same concerns as Nygren, and although Vlastos disagrees with Nygren’s one-sided and inadequate understanding of what the Greeks could regard as love,2 he does not actually break loose from the dichotomy that he inherits from Nygren. His objection to Nygren is that Nygren fails to see that Greek thinkers, other than Plato, were aware of a non-egoistic kind of affection that matches Nygren’s notion of agape. Because Nygren fails to take account of other strands of Greek thought, Vlastos suggests, he is able to develop an attack on the Ancient Greek way of love as a whole. But for Vlastos some charges are still justified against Plato, though not simply for taking love to be an egoistic tendency, as Nygren’s challenge had stressed, but also for his failure to value the individual, seeing in love only an admiration of the qualities that an individual instantiates, and not the individual as a person in her own right.

Despite my respect for Vlastos’s approach and his insight into the importance of the individual beloved, I find myself in profound disagreement with his article; the studies I am presenting in this book are (p.223) directed as much to a revision of his understanding of the ancient views on love as to a challenge to Nygren’s supposed contrast between the classical and the Christian.

Vlastos’s article has five main parts and two appendices. I have little to say on the central sections which suggest that Plato’s neglect of the individual as a proper object of love is linked to his political communism, which requires a devotion to the general values of the state rather than the particular good of any individual within it. This is because I take the Republic, which is the text that Vlastos is discussing in these sections, as an analogy for the individual soul, as indeed Plato constructs it. Hence the doctrine of the Republic is one of valuing the concerns of the individual as a whole and enabling a person to develop the strengths of all parts of her soul in a well-ordered life. This is a work that argues for a holistic understanding of the individual, and revises the purely intellectual care for the soul advocated, apparently, in dialogues such as the Phaedo, where the appetites are identified with the body and to be repressed altogether. But while the Republic has much to say about our internal relations with our own selves, it has nothing to say about our relations with other individuals. Of course the analogy with the state suggests an analysis of how a city could, ideally, promote its collective good. But that is not to say that such a state would be desirable, nor that such collective good should override the good of an individual. It merely serves to illustrate how, if you treat something that is a collection of parts as a unity with unified interests and purposes, as of course a person might be, and a state qua state tries to be, then the interests of the parts, in so far as they conflict with the interests of the whole, will need to be modified or denied. Otherwise the well-being of the whole person, or the state as a whole, may suffer. Thus Plato’s analogy points out the importance of seeing the individual as a whole person, with appetites and emotions as well as intellect, and so far from denying a concern for individuals, it rather presupposes just such a concern. Of course this cannot prevent there being a conflict, as there still must be today, between the interests of individuals in a state and the interests of a state viewed as a collective unity.

The first part of Vlastos’s article uses Aristotle’s account of philia to show that some Greeks, apart from Plato, were well aware of affection of a generous sort, directed to persons as persons. He takes Aristotle’s talk of philein to be about ‘loving’. Indeed, he objects to the traditional translation ‘friendship’ as being too weak, and failing to capture the depth of affection implied in Aristotle’s notion of philia. Vlastos’s main ground for this contention is that Aristotle includes among his examples of philia the relationship between mother and child.3 Vlastos takes this to be ‘maternal affection’; but Aristotle is referring to the way in which mothers behave, (p.224) trying to do the best for their children and caring for their well-being. Whereas Vlastos takes this example to indicate that Aristotle’s discussion must be about affection, I have argued the reverse in Chapter 6 above. The mother-child relation is just one of a number of examples that Aristotle takes, some of which seem to involve affection. But it seems clear that Aristotle’s interest is in the way we work for another person’s interests, sometimes regardless of our own. That this may be connected with affection, that affection may account for why we do it in some circumstances is, of course, undeniable. I do not want to suggest that the mother does not act so out of affection for her child, nor that Aristotle was unaware of that factor, but I do want to suggest that that was not his concern or interest in mentioning the mother as an example.

Aristotle’s discussion is not about affection, though it does mention it occasionally. Does this alter Vlastos’s point? Of course it is correct to suggest that Aristotle may have been aware of self-denying affection and love, and hence that we can say that the Greeks knew of such a thing. But it does not show that Aristotle discussed it, or thought it tremendously significant. I have suggested that the partners engaged in Aristotle’s perfect form of friendship also may feel some affection and love for each other. But there too the fact that they love each other is not Aristotle’s primary concern. So Vlastos is, of course, right, that Aristotle and others recognized the possibility of such love.

That is, I believe, true of Plato too. Vlastos wishes to suggest that Plato had no place for such affection, while Aristotle recognized affection and gave it an important place in ethics. My disagreement over Plato arises from the reading of the Lysis, on which I am at odds with Vlastos, but not because I disagree with him over the question of whether it ‘is a vehicle of Platonic doctrine’ in the sense in which he asks that question.4 He answers that question ‘no’ on the grounds that the Lysis does not concern itself with the Theory of Forms and middle-period Platonic ontology. I share the view that there is no reason to read the Forms, or ontological questions of any sort, into the Lysis. What I disagree with is the manner in which one should read an aporetic dialogue. If Socrates gets an interlocutor to tie himself in knots and admit that, in the end, he does not know what he means, how far can we take Socrates’ criticisms to convey what Plato holds to be true doctrine? Socrates persuades his companions to change their views by showing that there is a contradiction between two views that they previously took themselves to hold. If Socrates shows Hippothales that he holds both that his parents love him, and that love is motivated by self-interest, a motive which is not available in the case of parental love, then Hippothales must abandon one or both of these claims. It does not follow (p.225) that Socrates held either claim to be true, since he may show the conflict between them without assenting to either. Nor is it apparent which of the two theses Hippothales must abandon. It is as likely, or more likely, that Socrates is encouraging him to revise his account of love rather than reject the claim that his parents love him. And even if Socrates suggests that one of those views is what he himself holds, it need not follow that Plato allows us to go away with that view still intact by the end of the dialogue. On my reading of the Lysis, which I have outlined in Chapter 3, the point of the dialogue is not, as Vlastos suggests, to put forward an analysis of love as motivated by desire, but rather to show that such an analysis is impossible and leads to an impasse. The regress that shows that no individual could be the ultimate object of our love is, on this analysis, part of the reductio ad absurdum, which shows that we cannot actually find an object to love, so long as we adhere to an analysis of love as desire for what is good. Hence, on my interpretation, Plato is arguing for the same kind of analysis as I am suggesting, that is that it is mistaken to see love as motivated by desire: rather it is the motive that inspires us to see individuals as beautiful and to care about them as objects of our devotion. The absurd conclusions of the Lysis follow precisely because Socrates was allowing his interlocutor to suppose that there must be a motive, whether self-interested or otherwise, for us to love any object. The point of the dialogue is not to accept that premiss but to show that it will not do.

This is the reason why I do not share Vlastos’s view that Plato’s discussions of love allow no place for affection for an individual. But even supposing that Vlastos were right that the Lysis rejects the standard examples of affection, it still follows that Plato knew of such examples and was aware that we should normally describe such relationships as love. It is because parental love seems an obvious example that it occurs in the Lysis as a difficulty for Hippothales. It follows that neither Aristotle nor Plato ignores such affection; if I am right about Aristotle he merely notices it in passing, and does not make it important in his ethics. I see no reason to think that Aristotle is more sympathetic to the kind of love that has regard to the individual beloved as she really is than Plato is. On the contrary I think that the correct reading of the Lysis shows that Plato is more open to this understanding of love than Aristotle appears to be.

In any case, however, it seems to me mistaken to interpret Plato as adhering to a view of love in which it is susceptible to explanation, in terms of self-interested motives. I have tried to show in my chapters on Plato how the suggestion that we appreciate the goodness and beauty of the beloved, which clearly is there in Plato, can be seen as a consequence of our falling in love with the individual, and that it is in virtue of our seeing the beloved with the eyes of the lover that we see her as beautiful and an object of devotion. Thus it is not that desire for the qualities she reveals (p.226) explains our love, but that our love explains our appreciation of what we see in the individual. We learn to value beauty and truth by learning to love the individual. Without love, for Plato, we should never aspire to wisdom. It cannot be that the desire comes first, nor will the love of the individual ever be redundant. It is what explains our whole commitment to goodness and the endeavour for perfection.

Vlastos concludes with an appendix on sex in Platonic love. I have not been concerned in this book with sexuality or the physical aspects of any relationship. Many others have written on the subject of sexual relations in the ancient world, and I have nothing to add on that subject.


(1) Gregory Vlastos, ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’, in G. Vlastos Platonic Studies (2nd edn., Princeton, NJ, 1981), 1–34.

(2) Ibid. 6 and n. 13.

(3) Ibid. 3–4 and n. 3. Cf. Aristotle, NE 1166a2–6.

(4) ‘Is the Lysis a Vehicle of Platonic Doctrine’, Appendix 1 to ‘The Individual as Object of Love in Plato’, in Vlastos, Platonic Studies, 35–7.