Transformation through love

Plato, The Symposium

4th-5th centuries BC, ancientAthens


As we have seen in the previous text, the Allegory of the Cave, Plato suggests that we humans are imprisoned in a cave, believing that the shadows on the wall are true reality. But the question is: If we believe that we already see reality, then why do we turn around and leave the cave? What is the power that pulls us out of our cave and transforms us?

In his dialogue The Symposium, Plato’s answer is: Eros, in other words Love. Love is the drive that pulls us out. When I love, I yearn for what I lack, so that it would complete me and make me happy. As a finite person, I am incomplete, and so I seek that which can make me perfect–the Good, the Beautiful, the Real, or what Plato calls The One. This is what pulls me out of the cave towards the One (which in the Allegory of the Cave is the sun that shines outside the cave).

In The Symposium Plato explains the nature of love, using the image of Eros from Greek mythology. Plato explains that Eros is a semi-god, something that is between man and god. In other words, according to Plato, love is a mediator between the finite and the infinite, the imperfect and the perfect. It is the power that pulls the person from his limited shadows to the perfect and absolute One.

When we love, we love the beauty that exists in the object that we love. We, humans, can see beauty in a dress, in a tree, in a person’s face. However, Plato argues, the beauty that we find in objects is a diluted form of beauty. It is only a remote reflection of the perfect beauty. When we find beauty in a face, or in a pair of shoes, and are attracted to it, we are in fact attracted to the perfect beauty – to the One. But we are usually not aware of this –our ignorance makes us think that this object is the source of beauty, and that this object is what we love.

Our true attraction is to perfect beauty, to the source of all beauty. Therefore, in order to pursue the real object of our love, we should learn to look beyond simple beauty to pure beauty. This process will lead us to the One, but it is a long process, and it is made of several stages. It is a process of self-transformation.

In the Symposium, Plato describes this process, putting his words in the mouth of Socrates (Plato’s teacher):(The following is shortened from Benjamin Jowett’s translation)

The person who follows the right process, should begin in youth to look at beautiful physical forms. And first, if he is guided correctly by his instructor, he should love only one physical form,and create beautiful thoughts about it. Soon, however, he will come to see that the beauty of one physical form is similar to the beauty of another form, and that the beauty in every physical form is the same! And when he perceives this, he will stop his passionate love of one object, which he will now despise, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms.

In the next stage he will understand that the beauty of the mind is greater than the beauty of external forms. He will be compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of all of them belongs to one single family, while personal beauty is insignificant.

And after laws and institutions, he will go on to the sciences, and will see their beauty. He will no longer be attracted to the beauty of one single person or institution, but to the vast sea of beauty. He will create many beautiful and noble thoughts and ideas in boundless love of wisdom.

And when he grows strong, at last he will gain a vision of one single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere. Now the person will suddenly perceive a type of wondrous beauty – a beauty which is everlasting, not growing and decaying. Second, it is not beautiful from one point of view while being ugly from another, or beautiful only at a specific time, or at a specific place. Rather, it is a beauty that is absolute, independent, simple, and everlasting. Without decreaseor increase, without any change, it is the source of the temporary beauties of all other things.

The person who begins to perceive this beauty, is not far from the end. So the process is to begin from the beauties of earth, and go upin search of that other beauty, using these steps, until he arrives at the understanding of absolute beauty, so that at last he knows the essence of beauty. This is the life that is higher than any kind of life which a man can live, in the contemplation of absolute beauty. Once you perceive this beauty, you would no longer care about gold, or garments, orprettyyoung boyswhonowexcite you.