Platonic Love

“[Love] interprets,” [Diotima] replied, “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all prophecy and incantation, find their way. For god mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of god with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The knowledge which understands this is spiritual; all other knowledge, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar…”:”(Plato, Symposium 202d-203a, in Essential Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett [New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005], pg. 95.)”:

I quoted this passage last year when I read through Plato’s dialogue the Symposium, and at that time I commented that it well shows how many of the Church Fathers could have believed that Greek philosophy prepared the way for the Gospel. I’m even more convinced of this perspective now that I’ve had a chance to read some of Marsilio Ficino’s commentary on the Symposium. Ficino (1433-1499) was a Christian and one of the best of the Renaissance-era advocates of Platonism. Here are some samples of Ficino’s exposition of the Symposium‘s view of love and the Divine.

In Speech III of his commentary, Ficino writes that “Love is present in all things and extends through all things,” just before saying that Love creates and preserves “all works that according to nature and is the lord of all the arts (III.1). Like attracts like, which is why our souls are drawn to God and the parts of our bodies and the elements of the world adhere to each other in mutual concord. Love rules the reins of all things, holds the key of all things, is “the eternal knot and link of the world,” “the immovable support of its parts,” and “the firm foundation of the whole machine” (III.2-3). Love is the author of our very beings, and through Him as our author, father, and protector we exist, live, are governed, and taught to live well and happily (III.4).:”(Obviously one should here be thinking of St. John’s “God is love” [I John 4:7-8] and St. Paul’s “In Him we live and move and have our being” [Acts 17:28].)”:

In Speech IV of his commentary, Ficino explains the Fall of man by explaining that because love draws like things to like things, the soul tried to imitate God by being self-sufficient like God is. The soul has two lights, a natural (or innate) light and a divine (or infused) light. The problem is that the soul became enraptured with its own natural light instead of remaining content with the divine light: “our soul fell into the body when, neglecting the divine light, it used its own light alone and began to be content with itself.” But as self-sufficiency is an attribute which only God, the Infinite Being, can have, the soul “made itself equal to God when it wished to be content with itself alone, as if it could be sufficient to itself no less than God” (IV.4) In this striving after what it could not have (which was, ironically, prompted by Love!), the soul fell “into the abyss of the body,” and “forgetting itself for a time, it is seized by the senses and lust, as though by police and a tyrant” (IV.5). Later he will say that “the soul, in pursuing the body, neglects itself, but finds no gratification in its use of the body. For it does not really desire the body itself; rather, seduced, like Narcissus, by corporeal beauty, which is an image of its own beauty, it desires its own beauty.” However, it “never notices the fact that, while it is desiring one thing, it is pursuing another, it never satisfies its desire,” and so finds itself outside of itself, “racked by terrible passions and, stained by the filths of the body” which make it die (VI.17).:”( This seems to be a typical Neoplatonic denigration of matter, but I can’t help but wonder if the point for Ficino the Christian is more profound than that, because later he celebrates bodily procreation as the means by which eternal life is made available to mortal things, and also condemns abortion as murder.)”:

This slavery to mere sensory apprehension of vulgar things can be somewhat overcome by learning, for as the soul exercises its contemplative powers it “perceives that there must be some architect of this huge machine [and] it desires to see and possess Him.” Contemplation of the world of lower things reminds the soul of the world of higher things: “the soul’s intellect is very strongly goaded, by the prodding of its own light, to recover the divine light” it has ignored in favor only of the natural light. Like the fall into the body, this desire to return to God is also motivated by Love. When the soul fell by obsessing only on its own natural light, it lost half of itself – the other half being its divine light attraction to God, its creator. This light, which God infused into men “that it might lead men to bliss, which consists in the possession of Him,” leads us to God by way of the four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Courage, Justice, and Temperance). These things in men are but shadows of what they are in God, but they show the soul the way back to God. It is important to understand that the soul can only seek and find God by means of the divine light which God has given it, for the examples of many philosophers show that by restricting oneself to the natural light (and therefore to natural things), one spoils that light. Even the poet Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium, recognizes of such men that “even the natural light which was left them they darken with false opinions and extinguish with wicked habits” (IV.5):”(Think Romans 1:18ff here, on the suppression of truth in unrighteousness.)”:

Another important truth is that only those who love God can know God. It is not enough to know of or about God (through the natural light); one must love God (through the divine light). “Those who know God do not yet please Him unless they love Him when they know Him…what restores us to heaven is not knowledge of God but love.”:”(Again, 1 John 4:7-8 seems relevant here. Ficino does not cite these Scriptures, but it seems likely that since he was a Christian he knew them well.)”: Loving God begins with the fact that, as Ficino says in Speech VI of his commentary on the Symposium, “in the intellect of man there is an eternal love of seeing the divine beauty, thanks to which we pursue both the study of philosophy and the practice of justice and piety.” But even the seemingly more mundane love found in bodies, the love which produces children, is in an important way eternal: “by it we are continously driven to create some likeness of the celestial Beauty in the image of a procreated offspring” (VI.8).

Here Ficino reveals, I think, a properly Christian critique of the tendency of Platonism to devalue the body and the sensory world in which it resides. He notes that Plato calls these two loves of ours (the intellectual and the bodily) “daemons,” and says that one of them (the intellectual) is a good daemon and the other (the bodily) a bad daemon. “In reality,” says Ficino against Plato, “both are good, since the procreation of offspring is considered to be as necessary and virtuous as the pursuit of truth.” The reason why bodily love is often called evil, in Ficino’s opinion, is merely because we often abuse it, and because of our abuse “it often disturbs us and powerfully diverts the soul from its chief good, which consists in the contemplation of truth, and twists it to baser purposes” (VI.8). Later he says that “procreation with a beautiful object” is “in order to make eternal life available to mortal things.” The goal of procreation is “that what is unable in itself to last forever, may last forever, perpetuated in offspring like itself” (VI.11)

Although the contemplative life (i.e., the life of intellectually seeking the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in their highest forms, which are above and beyond their sensory, bodily copies) is in a real sense superior to the active life (i.e., the life of sight, touch, and bodily action) remains an important part of the soul’s quest for virtue as it awakens to and begins to seek after the true object of its love, Love Himself (God). Indeed, the cognitive part of man loves procreation as well because it has the secondary effect of “caus[ing] the soul to desire truth as its proper food, by whcih, in its own way, it is nourished and grows.” Just as procreation regenerates and preserves mortal things, the love of procreation in the intellect “restores to the mind what had either perished through forgetfulness, or had grown inactive through laziness.” For “Once the soul is mature, the love of procreation inspires it with a burning desire to teach and to write, so that by propagating its knowledge, either in writings or in the minds of students, the knowledge and truth of a teacher may remain among men eternally.” It is in this way that both the body and the soul of man “seems to be able to survive in human affairs forever after death” (VI.11):”(It seems hard to fault this Platonic reading of Christianity in the light of St. Paul’s own frequent remarks about the distracting influences of the flesh, but as I read him, Ficino isn’t falling into the trap that many Platonists have of totally devaluing the flesh. Ficino is a Platonist, but he is more importantly a Christian, and he has a sense of where Plato has to stop and Scripture has to take over.)”:

In terms of the soul’s intellectual activity, motivated by and oriented to Love, Ficino follows the Augustinian understanding of the divine illumination of man’s mind: “The intellect would be empty and dark unless the light of God were present to it, in which it sees the Reasons of all things. Thus the intellect understands by means of the light of God, and it actually knows only that divine light itself” (VI.13). “The light of the soul is truth,” and even Plato acknowledges that this light is only given to the soul by God. Socrates (Phaedrus 279b-c) asked God only for Wisdom and not for merely earthly things,:”(Ficino does not note the parallel here with King Solomon.)”: and God gives truth to men in the form of the Virtues. There are two classes of these Virtues, moral and intellectual. The moral are Justice, Courage, and Temperance; the intellectual are Wisdom, Knowledge, and Prudence. Although in the Platonic scheme the intellectual Virtues are higher than the moral, at the same time the moral precede the intellectual. This means that by the pursuit of moral Virtue (love of goodness), men are prepared for the intellectual ascent to the true object of love, Love Himself (God). All these Virtues are fundamentally one and come from God: “above the soul of man there must be some single wisdom which is not divided among various concepts, but is a single wisdom, from whose single truth the manifold truth of men derives” (VI.18). The things of the natural life thus point the way to the things of the spiritual life.:”(Or, as St. Paul puts it in Romans 1, men can understand the hidden attributes of God through the things which God has made.)”:

The notion of Platonic love has often been cited as a major reason for homosexual activity in Ancient Greece, because, goes the argument, the principle that “like loves like” combined with the notion that men are superior to women in terms of intellectual ability brought about the idea that contemplative men should love other contemplative men as being “most suitable for receiving the learning which they wish to procreate.”:”(In graphic terms which Ficino has already made reference to, the teacher would be fulfilling the male role in procreation, and the student the female role.)”: Interestingly, however, Ficino condemns homosexuality because he says that it results from a disordered transference of intellectual love to the body. But this is not the purpose of the male body’s reproductive organ, and the act of homosexuality is thus useless (VI.14):”(An interesting note here is that in the Symposium itself, Socrates rejects the homosexual advances of Alcibiades, which implies a distinction between homoeroticism and homosexuality and shows implicitly the wrongness of the latter. A man might properly love another man’s mind, but that is as far as it should go.)”: Further intriguingly, Ficino connects the logic of homosexuality with the logic of abortion: “We think it was by some error of this kind that that wicked crime arose which Plato in his Laws roundly curses as a form of murder. Certainly a man who snatches away a man about to be born must be considered a murderer no less than one who takes from our midst a man already born. He who destroys a present life may be bolder, but he who begrudges light to the unborn and kills his own unborn sons is more cruel” (ibid.). Thus, both homosexuality and abortion are unnatural and result from a disordered understanding of Love.:”(Note that in his Laws (636c), Plato also condemned homosexuality as unnatural. First, he said, it reduces men to the status of women and thus undermines masculine virtue, and second, it is a sterile act that undermines the purpose of physical sexuality.)”:

Lastly, the soul is to love God alone. All other loves are but shadows and copies of Love Himself, and if we put this plethora of lower loves before God, we essentially recapitulate the Fall.:”(Ficino does not say this in so many words; I am interpreting him this way based on his previous exposition.)”: God is the light with which we see all other things, and just as the thing that the eyes desire above all else is light itself, so too the thing the soul desires above all else is God Himself. “Thus in this life we shall love God in all things so that in the next we may love all things in God.” Further, “anyone who surrenders himself to God with love in this life will recover himself in God in the next life…as long as we are in this life, none of us is a true man, for we are separated from our own Idea or Form. To it, divine love and piety will lead us.”:”(As Jesus said, “”For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” [Matthew 16:25].)”: The end of the soul’s love for Love Himself is that we might “recover ourselves in Him above all, and in loving God we shall seem to have loved ourselves” (VI.19).

For all this Scripture-compatible exposition of Plato, there is, in my estimation, a serious problem in Ficino’s views. This is that he agrees with Pseudo-Dionysius’ Neoplatonic scheme of the necessary emanation of the superabundant One into lower degrees of being. Ficino approvingly cites P-D: “Divine Love did not permit the King of all things to remain in Himself without issue.” THe problem here is that it leads to the idea that creation was necessary, that God could not have helped but to create finite things. Several centuries earlier, Peter Abelard had followed this trajectory of Greek thought in terms of arguing that since God is Good and it (allegedly) cannot be good not to do something that is good, God cannot help but to do what He actually does do. Other Christian thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, took firm stands against the notion of a world which was eternal because it was necessary for God to creat it. On this point Ficino stands with a problematic aspect of Neoplatonism, but that should not detract from the good points he makes as noted above. In the footnotes to this post I have noted various passages of Scripture which accord with the Platonic doctrines Ficino expounds in his commentary on the Symposium, and I think these ought to be enough to demonstrate that at the very least it is not fundamentally idiotic, let alone fundamentally compromising of truth, to see correspondences between the best of Greek thought and the teachings of Scripture. Platonic Love at its best, seen in the opening quote I provided from the Symposium and in Ficino’s expositions of it, seems to be awfully close to what Scripture itself teaches.


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