The word “platonic” is relatively popular in ace communities and other contexts, even though its meaning can be ambiguous, and most people don’t see an issue with that. Unfortunately one of my own chief associations with it is its namesake: Plato. Having had to read stuff by this guy for school, I’ve come to hate Plato, and my reasons for that aren’t as unrelated to the word “platonic” as you might like to think. It’s not something I usually talk about — but this month I decided the May 2021 Carnival of Aces was the perfect excuse.
Note: this post is an anti-Plato only zone. If you’re not interested in a bunch of bashing on the word “platonic,” don’t engage with this post.
[Crossposted to Pillowfort.]
The first thing I’ll say right off the bat is that Plato hated democracy. This isn’t just my interpretation; this is a widely acknowledge thing of his. The dude was fundamentally elitist and suspicious of equality — believing that certain people are undeserving of political participation. According to him, instead of democracy, we should have kings, and those most suited to being kings would be…. philosophers. …Yeah. I think that should give you a sense of what we’re dealing with here. In the present day, he continues to be popular with conservatives, fascists, and self-identified monarchists for his hierarchical and aristocratic thinking. I’ve avoided linking to any of their takes directly here, but if you don’t believe me, go look for yourself. You’ll find them.
For the purposes of this post, though, I’m talking about three separate but related problems. The second and third problems concern the word “platonic” itself, both in terms of the vernacular usage and what it generally means within philosophy. But first, I also want to talk about how Plato wrote about love, and for that, I’m going to get into one of the two pieces by Plato covered in your standard intro to rhetorical theory class: The Phaedrus.
The Phaedrus (or, I Hate Plato and Plato Hates You)
The Phaedrus is one of Plato’s “dialogues,” i.e. a chatlog between caricatures and sockpuppets, kind of like a political cartoon. This particular dialogue is about the subject of love. Or at least… “love” is how it gets translated into English. I believe the original word here was eros, which is a lot more specific. So don’t get me wrong; we’re talking about something physical here.
The plot of The Phaedrus goes like this. The character of Phaedrus (a young man) runs up to the character of Socrates and says, “Dude, I just heard the greatest speech, let me tell you about it.” So Socrates listens to the speech, and at the end of it he says, “Bah, that’s nothing,” and proceeds to give his own speech. But then he’s like, “Okay wait, nevermind, that speech I just gave was blasphemy. Let me do a better one.” And that’s where we get to the last speech of the piece, the speech that’s the most textually endorsed by the rest of the dialogue.
The message of this last speech is that eros, or erotic love, is a divine gift that allows for intellectual/spiritual transcendence. This gets a bit complicated, so allow me to explain.
The speech features this extensive metaphor involving a flying chariot, a chariot driver, and two winged horses: one horse good, the other horse bad. This is supposed to be a metaphor for the different parts of the soul. The soul-chariot flies around the true celestial realm and sees the Eternal Absolute Universal Truth. However, the bad unruly horse is hard for the charioteer to control, and it ends up sending the chariot careening down to earth, where the soul is born into a mortal person.
Here’s what this has to do with love: When a mortal lays eyes on “divine beauty,” that person has a physical reaction (described at length, involving heat and perspiration) and becomes obsessed. “Socrates” describes this in terms of the soul beholding True Beauty and regrowing its wings. When the beloved returns his feelings, the beloved’s soul can regrow its wings as well, and if their passion is tempered with “self-control,” then when they die, their souls can fly again and return to the celestial realm of Truth. This is why Socrates says the “heavenly blessings” of friendship with a lover are greater than the friendship of a non-lover. Without love (eros), the soul is liable to remain stuck on earth for another 9,000 years.
At this point you may be wondering, wait, wait, then where does the word “platonic” come from? Why do we use that word for a more non-erotic kind of feeling? I’ve been wondering the same thing. The Phaedrus may place some emphasis on restraint, but it still positions sexually-charged relationships as contributing more to the soul than those without any erotic undercurrent.
“Platonic” Means “No Homo”?
I’ve tried to look up the background on how “platonic” ended up with the associations it has, and what I’ve found isn’t good. Most explanations that turn up are fairly vague on the subject, simply saying that it has to do with Plato’s Symposium, but obviously the Symposium itself doesn’t use the word “platonic” — and there’s something else to notice here, too. That Etymonline page describes the word in term of “the kind of interest Socrates took in young men.” The kind of interest… Socrates took in young men… Sorry, did I neglect to mention that the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus in The Phaedrus is generally interpreted as flirtatious? There’s even a line in there that’s roughly equivalent to “Is that a scroll under your toga, or are you just happy to see me?”
With that in mind, how does anyone end up interpreting “platonic” love as anything but gay?
Well. I haven’t dug too deep into this, but this article on the subject credits the Renaissance theologian Marsilio Ficino with introducing the concept of amor platonicus, or “platonic love.” The name draws on Ficino’s interpretation of Socrates’ speech in the Symposium where he ranks love for different types of beauty, placing the beauty of knowledge at the top. So Ficino conceptualized “platonic love” as the spiritual union of two people in pursuit of philosophical wisdom.
Thing is, this is an interpretation motivated by Christian heterosexism. Plato’s Socrates character is obviously attracted to young men; he simply views that attraction as a stepping stone to recognizing other forms of “beauty.” As this article puts it, “Plato required physical aspects of sensual love in order to produce the move toward philosophical understanding… [allowing for] the Platonic journey from physical attraction to comprehension of the Idea of Beauty.” To Ficino, though, male/male sexuality is a problem, and chaste male/male companionship (in Christian fellowship) is the ideal. Women didn’t factor into it because the idea of intellectual fellowship with women wasn’t even on his radar.
Arguably though, Ficino’s brothers-in-Christ vision of “platonic” love isn’t actually Plato’s fault.
Here’s something else that is.
In philosophy and rhetorical studies, what capital-p “Platonic” usually refers to is Plato’s metaphysics on Eternal Absolute Universal Truth. For example, in The Phaedrus he describes the celestial world of forms, which is roamed by the soul prior to its birth into a mortal body. This is representative of a major throughline to his philosophical influence: this idea that there are inherent underlying Truths to be discovered — not “truths” as in true statements, but true forms as a metaphysical essence of things.
In other words, all those times I’ve argued for a more social constructionist view of things, like identification as an act over identity as a trait, I’m taking a stance in opposition to the Platonic view. Platonic means essentialist, and essentialism is why we can’t have nice things.
That might be a bit more obscure of an understanding, but regardless–
I Hate Plato (& “Platonic” Too)
On the subject of “love,” Plato talks about erotic feelings as especially important to spiritual and intellectual growth. Ficino’s version of “platonic love” is based on misogynist and anti-gay ideas, and what “Platonic” actually means is a set of ideas that I oppose. That’s why I really don’t care for the word “platonic” as a type of feeling.
And if you didn’t already know, then now you know.