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Plato on the Pleasures and Pains of Love

Plato on the Pleasures and Pains of Love
Published Date: Thursday, 11 April 2019

Plato on the Pleasures and Pains of Love

Mehmet M. Erginel

İstanbul Üniversitesi, 14th March, 2019


At the heart of Plato's theory of erōs is his 'ladder of love', which describes the 'ascent' of love for an individual body, through several stages, to love of Beauty itself (Symposium 210a-212b). But the psychology of this transformation is hard to spell out since the text is very terse on this subject. I believe that our understanding of Plato's conception of erōs would benefit especially from bringing in Plato's views on pleasure and pain from elsewhere. Indeed, a difficult question about the ladder arises once we consider it in the light of Republic IX and the Philebus.

The difficulty arises from the observation that sexual desire and 'romantic love' are painful, whereas love of wisdom is painless, according to Republic IX and the Philebus. In Republic IX (583b-586e), the 'third proof' that the just man is happier than the unjust involves the claim that the philosopher's pleasures are more pleasant because only they are pure, all other pleasures being mixed with pain. In the Philebus (50e-55c) all pleasures except for the purely intellectual ones are mixed with pain. The contrast between the philosopher's pleasures and all others turns out to be even sharper than scholars have generally supposed: all other pleasures are mixed with pain not only sequentially – the pleasure being preceded and followed by pain – but also simultaneously – the pain being present during the pleasure too. (The state vs. process view of pain) On this reading of Plato's 'restoration model', the desires of the non-rational parts of the soul are themselves painful, and thus the ascent of the Symposium seems to involve the transformation of a painful desire into a painless one. The question is whether there is a plausible psychological story to tell about how a painful desire can gradually morph into a painless one.

The place to look, I think, Republic 485d, where we find a hydraulic metaphor for the strengthening and weakening of the desires of different parts of the soul, an important feature of the development of a philosopher. This passage is controversial, especially because it is reminiscent of the Freudian theory of the libido. Whatever one thinks of Freud, however, it would be rash to conclude that the passage should be dismissed as a misleading metaphor, since a careful reading reveals insights that are useful for understanding not only the moral psychology of the Republic but also the transformation of erōs in the Symposium. By virtue of these insights, we may find a surprisingly simple solution to the problem of how a painful love can turn into a painless one: it is not that a single motivational force undergoes a drastic metamorphosis, but rather that a single (and limited) source of energy is diverted from soul-parts that contains painful desires to a soul-part that contains painless ones.