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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”.