Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

PLATO: Symposium (Philosophy and Love)

Any beginning philosophy student will tell you that philosophy means love of wisdom. But ask what they mean by love or by wisdom and their answer may be as muddled as any ordinary person picked randomly off the street. Which leads ordinary people to ask an obvious follow-up question: why should ordinary people even bother studying philosophy? What good does it do? It’s hard enough to make a living and pay the bills without worrying about stuff like what is love? Or what is wisdom? What difference does it make? Can we even answer those questions?
Plato thinks so. At least he thinks we should try. Even if we get the answers wrong the effort itself will lead us down a path of self-understanding. And if it turns out that we really don’t know what love is or what wisdom is, at least we know that we don’t know. That’s a start. Plato’s Symposium sets the stage by laying out the basic problem facing philosophy out there in the “real world” of getting and spending: “…I don’t know anything that gives me greater pleasure, or profit either, than talking or listening to philosophy.” That’s one reason we should study philosophy: it gives us pleasure. J.S. Mill told us that the main goal in life is to increase pleasure and decrease pain. Of course Mill was also a philosopher. Does that count? Philosophers by definition get pleasure from studying philosophy but what about real people living in the real world? Apollodorus the narrator goes on: “But when it comes to ordinary conversation, such as the stuff you talk about finance and the money market, well I find it pretty tiresome personally, and I feel sorry that my friends should think they’re very busy when they’re really doing absolutely nothing.” Well, that right there’s a good reason why some people don’t like philosophy. That snooty attitude which basically says, I’m doing something important, thinking. You, on the other hand, are just wasting time making money. Apollodorus knows he’s being snooty and he knows how ordinary people react: “Of course, I know what you think of me; you think I’m just a poor unfortunate philosopher, and you’re probably right. But here’s the difference: I don’t think that you’re unfortunate, I KNOW you are.”
This kind of wrangling is not philosophy and it’s not what Socrates had in mind when he encouraged his listeners to follow the path of philosophy. To be any good, to do any good at all, philosophy has to make its own way in the real world. For Socrates that literally includes the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. That’s where the real action is. Philosophy has to meet people where they are and handle things nearest and dearest to our hearts. What’s any nearer and dearer to our hearts than love? We all know what love is, right? Wrong. Many of us don’t. Or we may think we know; we just can’t articulate it. But if we can’t express something in our own words do we really know what we’re talking about? That’s what Socrates is driving at. If our answers aren’t clear our thinking isn’t clear either. That’s what philosophy is all about.
Think about modern love songs. Love makes the world go ‘round. That’s not really a philosophy but it could be a starting point for Socrates to get his foot in the door. Maybe love doesn’t literally make the world go around but (he would ask) is love some kind of force, a force similar to the gravitational attraction between planets? Does it draw people together the way gravity draws things down to the earth? Here’s a quote from the Symposium: “There are two kinds of love: earthly and heavenly… The earthly Aphrodite’s Love…governs the passions of the vulgar… Heavenly love… is innocent of any hint of lewdness.” Oh, Socrates might say, we started off with love as just one thing, a kind of universal force, and now we’ve already split it into two different things. Is there really an earthly love and a heavenly love? What do you think? Socrates would ask with a twinkle in his eye. What DO I think? Now philosophy begins.


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