The Philosopher's Quest


"What then might Love be?" Socrates asked Diotima, the wise woman.

"Is it a mortal?" No, she told him, Love is most assuredly not a mortal. Neither is it an immortal, she said. It is something in between. "What is it then?" he asked.

Love, Cupid, Amor, Eros: Love has many names. Love is the subject of myths, fairy tales, stories and poems. Love is the focus of studies -- literary, scientific, philosophical, social. Love plays the vital part in our lives. Love makes the world go round. But what is this thing called love?

Artists paint Love as a winged boy with a bow and arrow. They give him golden curls and stand him beside his mother. He looks out at us with a half-smile. His eyes are an irresistible blue.

Yet their paintings don't begin to explain him. Neither do the candy hearts and cards of Valentine's. From the beginning of time, people have tried to put love into words. The ancient Greeks were among the first:

"Love is more than love alone," the Greek poet Sophocles wrote nearly 2,400 years ago. "For Love has many another name./Love is Death; Love is a power eternal;/ 'Tis passion's heady wine, 'tis wailing anguish,/ 'Tis frenzy at its starkest . . ."

The philosopher Plato, a contemporary of Sophocles, also tried to describe love. His Symposium contains several contradictory notions. The book is set at a banquet where the guests -- Socrates is among them -- make speeches about Eros, god of love.

One of the first speakers suggests that Eros is the oldest and the mightiest of the gods. Eros, he says, was born either from original Chaos or from a silver egg that set the world in motion.

Another speaker, a physician, presents Eros as a presence in the bodies of all animals. Medicine, he says, is the knowledge of the loves and desires of the body. It tells us how to satisfy them. Accordingly, the best physician knows how to implant love, if it is required. "He can reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution and make them loving friends."

Disagreeing with the others, the next speaker, a writer, explains that mankind has never understood the power of love. To understand that power, we must look at man's nature, he says. Early man was actually what we would call two men. "He was a round entity, with back and sides forming a circle." He had two heads, four hands and feet, and so on. This man was much stronger than man is now. So he challenged the gods. He failed and was punished, was cut in two, reduced to this present state.

Each of us, he continues, is separated. We are one side, something like a flat fish. We continuously look for our other half. If we find that half, we fall into amazement of love and friendship. We do not want to be out of the other's sight. We would be welded together, he says, if we could.

The speaker after him is also a writer. He seems young, his observations limited by a lack of experience. "Eros," he says, lives among flowers. Therefore his complexion is fair. His feet do not walk on earth but upon the hearts of men. At his touch, people make music even though they have no music in them. If it were not for him, we would not have delicacy, luxury, desire, softness, grace. Eros, he concludes, is the youngest and fairest of the gods.

Although Socrates disagrees with this speaker, his youthful opinions remain an integral part of today's culture. Our Eros too lives among the flowers. He carried a red heart -- with L-O-V-E on it. We put him in mail boxes on Valentine's. The words of Socrates, meanwhile, have been almost forgotten.

Socrates gives the final speech. He attributes his insights to a previous conversation with the wise woman, Diotima. Eros, he has learned, is only the companion of Aphrodite (the goddess of love), not her child.

Eros is the child of Poverty and Resourcefulness. Far from being tender and fair, Socrates explains, Eros can be rough and squalid. He sleeps on the ground, in doorways, on the street. Like his mother, Eros is extremely poor. He is without a home, without a bed and, most important, without a loved one. But like his father, Eros is resourceful. Energetic, passionate, he continuously hunts the beloved.

When he succeeds, he flourishes. And it seems as if he will live forever. When he fails, he dies. Yet because of his father's nature, he returns to life.

He is neither mortal nor immortal. He is neither beauty nor goodness, neither man nor god, Socrates says as he ends his speech. He is our yearning for these things.

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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