Love is one of the few words in the human dictionary that has no clear definition. It is an ignorance of knowing and a force of feeling that keeps humans in a state of churning and longing, no matter what they encounter in the natural world. In universal and historical human experience, it has become painfully clear that love is not to be found in the physical, in direct contact with our senses. Love is frustratingly immaterial, and material things have failed time and time again to satisfy the spiritual and mental lust that have produced this “sacred” notion. Love has no business anywhere, except the transcendental and the a priori. But as it possesses physical beings, love must also have an attachment to the material world. For humans, love must be an attraction to a beauty of perfection that is beyond the physical but partly manifest in it. Apart from this point, which is agreed upon by many seekers of truth and wisdom, any further details have been unresolved.
Is love the end or is it just the means to an end? In Plato’s Symposium, love—or eros, as it is called—is discussed by several people who are unable to give a whole enough definition to satisfy Socrates, the final speaker. According to Plato, love in its true and best form goes beyond romantic and erotic love. It is not merely sexual attraction or the emotional bond in a human relationship, hence the popular term Platonic love. It has a higher, truer form than physical affection. In Socrates’s words, love is neither knowledge nor ignorance but something in between. It is neither poverty nor wealth but something in between. It represents the lack of something good and beautiful but at the same time, holds the wisdom and passion to attain it.
Humans can only feel love for things they do not have. The object of love has to be beauty—the greater the beauty, the greater the love. In order to feel and practice the best love, Socrates argues that one should look for higher forms of beauty; the highest beauties should be those that leave the physical and join the abstract and divine. He calls love or eros a daemon or a being of a nature between the divine and the natural. This indicates that love is a messenger between heaven and earth, a carrier that serves as the tether for humans to the abstract and spiritual, to a beauty of perfection and to something higher and more meaningful than themselves and the world around them. Once this is realized, Socrates continues to explain that the object of love then needs to shift from beauty to the good. Love needs to become a desire for the good to be one’s own. Once love is directed at the perfect beauty, it needs to shift to the ultimate higher good for it to be complete and attain virtue. Love is the yearning for the true and divine form of Beauty, and its ultimate goal is the true and divine form of the Good, both of which exist in and of themselves, in accordance with the Platonic perception of forms. Socrates makes this point abundantly clear, as he argues that true love longs for an ultimate divine form of beauty and good.
Once Socrates explains the object and nature of love, he moves on to describe the act of love or eros. Love needs to lead to an action towards the object of its focus or desire. However, rather than possessing beauty, love is wanting to give birth in beauty. Love is the desire to engender or bring birth from what is beautiful. According to Socrates, experiencing and feeling beauty helps the lover give birth to something. In other terms, being in beauty or within the presence of beauty causes one to give birth to that which is the end result that love longs for.
In its most simple, crude form, this suggests intercourse with a physically beautiful body, thus giving birth to a child. But Socrates claims that there are higher forms of birth, just like there are higher forms of beauty, and the desire for one in the other arouses higher forms of love or eros. The object of love—beauty—becomes the means to a greater end, the birth. Giving birth grants a form of immortality, the highest form of existence, to the birth giver or the pregnant. Whenever the pregnant comes near beauty, they become glad, rejoice, dissolve, and produce offspring by giving birth. In a way, one who is beautiful releases the pregnant from labor pains through this divine act of love.
The offspring may come in many forms with ranging values and elevate the birth giver or the lover to a state of immortality, the level of which ranges according to the level of the offspring, the beauty, and the love. This indicates that the higher the love and beauty, the greater the offspring, and the greater the immortality. Therefore, the lover should always naturally look for the highest and best beloved in order to give birth to the best offspring and attain the highest attribute of immortality, something that all humans desire in a temporary, finite world. Once more, this shows how love always looks for something greater, higher, and outside of the physical world. Love is a desire for something it doesn’t possess. Ultimately, the only thing humans find themselves lacking or unable to have, is the divine perfection of good, something abstract and supernatural. As it is an impossibility in the physical, natural world, there exists a spirit of eros that knows wisely enough of this beauty but is too impoverished and worldly to reach it completely. This eros has nothing to do but possess the poor mortals and help them realize the true beauty.
Socrates gives a guide on how to do just that. He argues that a person needs to start by loving the beauty they are able to see around them, and, one by one, learn to recognize a higher level of beauty and redirect their love accordingly. To clarify, the lover needs to start feeling love for lesser beauties, and then pass on gradually to a love for higher beauties.
As this happens, one should naturally feel contempt for lesser beauty and aspire only for higher beauty. For example, a person should first feel love for a specific beautiful body, move up to love of all physical bodies, then move to a love of beautiful minds, then elevate to love the beauty of knowledge, then have a love for wisdom and continue on until the ultimate beauty and the ultimate good are reached. At each rung of this ladder of love, the lover should give birth to an offspring in the beloved, whether that is a child, a discovery of truth, or an idea in someone’s head. In the pursuit of love to behold the beautiful, a person should help the ones they behold, including themself, become more beautiful, so their love can magnify as beauty falls out of previous reach. In conclusion, Socrates explains this process of love to make the grand point that love in its entirety and true form, is a desire for the highest beauty and good, existing outside of the physical world. All other intermediate things are veils and stones, obstructing the way.
Love is the heart churning for what is higher and greater than what it possesses. It is a paradoxical state of neediness and fulfillment that drives the lover mad in the pursuit of the highest beloved. Just like Majnun, the true lover becomes insane as they wander in the desert, knowing and yearning for its Layla but never being able to possess it. According to Plato, humans are trapped in the desert of the physical and material while desiring the abstract and divine even though it is out of their reach. From this arises the origin of love. Socrates is just one in a long list of lovers in the painful pursuit of the highest and perfect beauty and good, existing outside of the natural realm, in a higher place that is divine, abstract, and spiritual. Love is what pulls us up, as our feet keep us down.