Socrates and the Proper Object of Love
The Bible is not a handbook of answers to philosophical problems (just as it is not a science textbook, history textbook, etc.). Nevertheless, it contains principles which, when understood and applied properly, solve philosophical problems. Such is the case with a question raised in the scholarship relative to Plato’s socratic dialogue, the Symposium (1997, pp. 457-505).
The Symposium is widely considered to be Plato’s literary masterpiece (see Plato, 2001, p. 103). It is a story of encomiums (formal tributes) to love, given at a dinner party. The purpose of this article is not to endorse everything said about love in the Symposium (e.g., some of the speakers voice approval for the common Greek practice of pederasty, although the dialogue’s hero, Socrates, refuses to participate in that custom). Rather, in the context of Christian apologetics, it is helpful to discuss two apparently opposing positions about the proper object of love, and how a biblical relationship with Christ solves the disagreement.
One commentator, Martha Nussbaum, compares the speeches of Socrates (Plato, 1997, pp. 482-494) and Alcibiades (pp. 497-504) and argues that one of Plato’s objectives in the dialogue is to show that we must not love another individual human, but rather an abstract, ideal good (2001, pp. 165-199). Socrates proposes an ascent of love that leads to passion for ideal Beauty (not only beauty we perceive with our eyes, but also intellectual beauty we might associate with knowledge, wisdom, etc.). According to Socrates, “all beauty, qua beauty, is uniform, the same in kind” (Nussbaum, p. 179). Socrates explains that one who is on the “ascent of love” will
move on to various kinds of knowledge. The result is that he will see the beauty of knowledge and be looking mainly not at beauty in a single example…. but the lover is turned to the great sea of beauty, and gazing upon this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom, until, having grown and been strengthened there…. he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature (Plato, 1997, p. 493).
So, what we really love is not an individual but Beauty itself. If we love the beauty in a painting, that is the same as the beauty we admire in a person. Furthermore, ideal Beauty is far purer and more lasting than beauty instantiated in a given thing or person. Progress is to move from the appreciation of that which is beyond merely human (e.g, Nussbaum, p. 181).
On the other hand, Alcibiades’ speech focuses on love for the instantiated person as being more important. While we may acknowledge that individuals are imperfect and may disappoint us in any number of ways, we cannot avoid identifying the object of our love in human personality.
Alcibiades is aligning himself with a tradition that defends the role of poetic or ‘literary’ texts in moral learning. Certain truths about human experience can best be learned by living them in their particularity…. [they] need to be apprehended through the cognitive activity of imagination, emotions, even appetitive feelings… (Nussbaum, p. 186).
Nussbaum’s argument is that Plato intended to show an irreconcilable difference between two positions about love. According to Nussbaum’s reading, we must love either an ideal, or the individual(s). Whether she is right about Plato’s intent being contentious (cf. Vlastos, 1973, pp. 3-42), Nussbaum does bring to mind a critical problem about human affection. We seem naturally to love other people, yet we are frequently disappointed by their imperfections, and they invariably see similar problems in us. Furthermore, people in our circle of friendship might not provide the best kind of guidance. Perhaps we cannot help but love other people, but by focusing on weak instantiations of goodness instead of Goodness (whatever that may be), are we robbing ourselves of what life has to offer?
Christ is the answer to this problem. Christ is an individual person with His own characteristics. He is in every way deserving of our admiration, because He is the only person (aside from the Father and the Spirit) Who possesses every good quality to the infinite degree (1 John 2:1). He demonstrated such characteristics without failure during an earthly sojourn similar to ours (Hebrews 4:15). We love Christ because He relates to us in many ways.
Yet, Christ is also God, meaning that He “fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). He is not just beautiful, but rather is the personification of Beauty. All other beautiful and good things are the results of His creative power, “whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17). We need not be concerned that Christ will let us down as mortals do, because He “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; cf. 1 John 5:7). If we want to be perfect in every way, we will aspire to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” and thereby we may “grow up in all things unto Him who is the head—Christ” (Ephesians 4:13,15).
Christ also provides the example for loving imperfect people. Christ loves us despite our imperfections (Ephesians 5:2). This does not mean that Christ loves human sin, but rather that He values souls and wants each soul to become obedient to the Gospel in order to be cleansed of sin’s guilt (Revelation 1:5; cf. Acts 22:16; Romans 1:16). Likewise, Christ commands us to love one another (1 John 3:23). Despite our faults, our souls can be “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2), because our love shares Christ as a common object (Philippians 2:1-8).
For the follower of Christ, there is no need to choose between the love for an ideal or an individual, because He is both.
Nussbaum, Martha (2001), The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press).
Plato (1997), Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett).
Plato (2001), Plato’s Symposium, ed. Allan David Bloom and Seth Benardete (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Vlastos, Gregory (1973), Platonic Studies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.