On the word “platonic”

I’ve been kind of passively not using it for a while now, but lately it’s gotten to the point where seeing people using it has begun to bother me, so I thought I’d write up an explanation for my reasons for avoiding it.  To clarify, this is not an outright condemnation of its usage so much as it is a summary of… some things to take into consideration.

The common noun “platonic” is derived from the proper noun “Platonic”, in reference to the philosopher Plato, and the notion of “platonic love” is a term retroactively applied to Plato’s beliefs about the ideal form of love — which, basing your understandings off modern notion of what “platonic love” means, might give you the mistaken impression that Plato might’ve been aromantic, a theory that I’d unfortunately be able to refute with quotes from the Phaedrus that demonstrate his elevation of romantic-aesthetic attraction and passionate desire as some kind of touch of the divine.  The dude would not have been kind to aros.  But I digress.

Platonic love, in its original conception, describes a model of human relations that, from one angle, sounds like an ideal that most human relationships should be held to, including romantic ones.  Platonic love is an egalitarian love, forming relationships that entail balanced power dynamics.  Unfortunately, this entails certain perspectives on sex, as I discovered when reading John Durham Peters’ “Dialogue and Dissemination”:

In this great discourse, Socrates offers a conception without master or slave, dominant or subordinate — Platonic love, as we have come to call it, love without penetration.  Two of the most characteristic Socratic gestures are the refusal to write and the refusal to penetrate, the latter described in Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium.  In the Phaedrus we discover the intimate connection between the two refusals.  Both renounce asymmetrical relations.

…meaning, there are many nonsexual romantic relationships that could be described as platonic, in this sense, and even some sexual relationships, too, in cases where the participants’ activities are all non-penetrative.  Not really what I think most people are going for when they use the phrase “platonic relationship”.

Further, Platonic love entails eros, which is a quite decidedly romantic conception of love, making “platonic” a rather ironic choice for an antonym for romantic.  Of course, I’ve also seen people use it to mean simply “nonsexual”, which just further makes a mess of things since that would mean that platonic relationships can be romantic but not sexual, while others would say that platonic relationships can be sexual but not romantic, and still others think of platonic as describing relationships which are neither sexual nor romantic.

Even if you are content with the lack of consensus there, however, and are willing to substitute your own opinion despite the confusion, the idea of Platonic love comes with some extra ideological baggage — which is that the point of Platonic love, the equal love between two romantically-entwined philosophers, is meant to serve as a stepping stone to enlightenment and spiritual growth, an idea which I think a lot of the aro community would reject.  It posits physical attraction/desire (and I’m presuming all three types of physical, here) as something “base” and “earthly”, which is elitist, but also suggests that such feelings are necessary in the process of beginning to appreciate and contemplate wider universal mysteries, specifically by embarking on that path in dialogue with another, in a way that implies aromantics, singles, and nonamorous people are disqualified from developing the same depth of meaningful philosophical thought as those with Platonic lovers.

Granted, the problems with the word “platonic” are not really any worse than with the word “romantic”, so feel free to continue using it if it’s convenient to you.  For my own part, I prefer using the dichotomy of “nonromantic” / “romantic” instead, to parallel that of “nonsexual” / “sexual”.


13 responses to “On the word “platonic”

  • deconstructionships

    Being generally interested in the origin of words, I find this fascinating, and I can see why you take issue with it. Still, I have to wonder whether most of the problems should be considered problematic from a current standpoint. Since the meanings of words shift over time and most people who use it have no idea of those origins, do you think it still carries any implication about spiritual enlightenment?

    That said, the point about people using it in different ways is certainly a valid one. Regardless of any other issues with the word “platonic,” “nonromantic” and/or “nonsexual” are definitely clearer. I hadn’t known all the background, but I rarely say “platonic” because I’m not sure what people will assume I’m saying.

    • acetheist

      Indeed, I’m not a prescriptivist by any means — the meaning of words can change based on how they’re used, which is what we’re trying to convince people of with “asexual”, after all. I don’t think anyone still uses it in the spiritual sense, although it appears that’s an association that clung to it for a long time, lasting into the Renaissance at least.

      Still, I have enough personal disdain for Plato and some of his ideas for that to be enough for me not to use it, haha. Agreed, though, opting for clarity is the best reason.

  • Calum P Cameron

    Personally, I have no problem with separating “platonic” (lower-case p) as a modern adjective from the actual character and words of Plato, just as I similarly separate the word “devilish” from the actual character and words of the Devil, but I understand disliking a word because of its etymology and/or alternative usages.

    Although speaking purely in terms of a nonromantic/romantic dichotomy doesn’t help much if, like me, you don’t personally care very much about romantic love but DO care deeply about platonic, familial and volitional and the differences, overlaps and links between those three. So I’m prolly gonna stick with what I’m doing already.

    • acetheist

      Well, I meant that dichotomy more in terms of describing things (eg. clarifying “this relationship is strictly platonic” vs. “this relationship is strictly nonromantic”). However, this reminds me, I’ve also been having some thoughts about the word romantic and how I’m inclined to use it in my head — and how sometimes I’m not sure how to make the distinction between “I find this romantic, in the sense of romanticized ideals and cozy, picturesque visuals” and “I find this romantic, in the sense of wanting to share it with a romantic partner”. Not necessarily the same thing in all cases, but I don’t actually know what makes them different for me personally.

      • Calum P Cameron

        Yeah, I get that problem with the multiple meanings of “romantic” too.

        On the dichotomy thing, that still doesn’t help me personally, because since I became openly aromantic it’s been more necessary for me to be able to clarify “strictly platonic” as opposed to “at least partially FAMILIAL” in my relationships. I have several people whom I am not closely related to by blood but with whom I have a familial relationship rather than a strictly platonic one. “Romantic” relationships don’t feature much in my life, but the various different types of “nonromantic” ones do, so it helps me to have words for them.

  • luvtheheaven

    I’ve been using platonic for years, well before becoming a part of the asexual community – I’ve been using it as a vidder who hosts collabs: http://vidders-vidding.wikia.com/wiki/Our_Terminology#C https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQMJvh-CRyo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoQlJmzRhIo etc.

    I like the word to simply mean “non-romantic” as a way of describing a type of relationships between characters on TV shows, because very often people vid only the romantic “ships” and I like a single word that sums up both family relationships and friendships. Calling them “non-romantic” would be exactly what I meant, but it is longer, and when typing YouTube video titles every letter matters as you have a limited number of characters you’re allowed to type. Plus, non-romantic highlights what they’re not, and the point to me is to highlight what they are – relationships with a different, but just as valid and strong type of love. I like the word platonic because people seem to know what it means – and if they don’t, if you clarify “I’m using it to simply mean non-romantic” then they get it.

    The term “queerplatonic” seems to be sticking in the asexual community and that is another reason abandoning the word seems like something that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do.

    However, I did find myself, when writing this in January: http://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/what-is-the-difference-between-platonic-and-romantic-love/ looking up Platonic in the dictionary and realizing it meant something like “free from physical desire” which… I didn’t want it to mean. I didn’t realize it was meaning that. That maybe I’d been using the word “incorrectly” for all of these years. I brushed off that discovery of mine and decided to keep using it.

    But I don’t know what the best solution is. You raise some very good points, and I’ll have to keep them in mind.

    • acetheist

      “Calling them ‘non-romantic’ would be exactly what I meant, but it is longer, and when typing YouTube video titles every letter matters as you have a limited number of characters you’re allowed to type.”

      Ah, that’s strategic then.

      “Plus, non-romantic highlights what they’re not, and the point to me is to highlight what they are – relationships with a different, but just as valid and strong type of love.”

      So you see defining things by an absence/by what they’re not as a negative, then? I agree that it certainly can be in some cases. I wonder how we might describe this type of love in its own right, then. Storgic, maybe?

      “The term ‘queerplatonic’ seems to be sticking in the asexual community and that is another reason abandoning the word seems like something that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do.”

      I’m the opposite, because I’m someone who doesn’t identify as queer and remains somewhat uncomfortable with applying the term queerplatonic to my own relationships because of that, even though at least one of them fits the bill for what people use that term to mean — and I’d like to develop language to talk about this phenomenon (that I’m otherwise fascinated by) that doesn’t hinge on two morphemes I have reservations about.

      “realizing it meant something like ‘free from physical desire’ which… I didn’t want it to mean.”

      haha, I’m with you on that. Not all physical desire is sexual, sheesh.

      • luvtheheaven

        And not all romantic desire is about physical stuff lol. :P I think. But as a wtfromantic I don’t really know.

        Yeah I can’t decide if I consider myself queer or not, but because I like to consider myself “not-straight” then I am leaning toward the idea that, by default, I suppose I am “technically queer”.

        Regardless, I sort of have been liking the term queerplatonic because it was always about the queering of relationships, not about the people being queer, and idk. But idk. I also am not completely attached to the term queerplatonic and I too would be willing to try to find better or at least different words to describe these things, too.

        Non-romantic as an adjective to describe a relationship doesn’t necessarily seem THAT negative to me, but it has the slightest hint of distracting/detracting from what they *are* to remind you of everything they’re not.

        In a vidding/fandom context, saying a pair of siblings is being vidded in a “platonic” way would be exactly the same as saying “vidded in a non-romantic way”, which is the most obvious way of assuring you that “no, I’m not wishing this pair of siblings were having sex with each other on the TV show” if you emphasize that you’re considering them a “non-romantic pairing” (as some people do tend to “ship” siblings in that way. And yes it’s equating romance with sex which I kinda hate but… it just is what it is, it seems). In that kind of context, platonic really does mean “non-romantic” and even the word platonic signifies an absence of a sexual romance – an absence rather than what they actively *are* – and the two terms have like no difference to me… idk.

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    I think I stopped describing my nonromantic/wtfromantic partner-relationship as platonic a while ago because the word implies either a lack of physical affection, or that physical affection is unimportant in the relationship. Physical affection is pretty important to my partner and me and it’s one way we demonstrate our feelings.

  • Isaac

    It seems that “platónico” is more accurately used popularly in Spanish than “platonic” in English, since in Spanish “platónico” is accurately translated into English as “sexless.” I think that the closest to “amor platónico” is the ideal asexual romantic relationship.

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