Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Thoughts on Plato's Symposium

All definitions of philosophy are inadequate. But defining philosophy as "the love of wisdom" is particularly irksome because it substitutes two concepts: love and wisdom, neither of which are well understood, for the vagueness of one. The imprecision of philosophy always disturbs people who approach the subject as something that ought to provide clear answers to difficult questions. But this is a losing game. Philosophy cannot provide solutions to problems in the way that engineers, accountants, or lawyers do.  Like theology and art, philosophy operates on the perimeter of human experience. It is something we turn to when the immediate demands of life are satisfied. The pursuit of wisdom, which is the ordinary business of philosophy, is therefore relegated to a leisure activity, something we pursue when the mood strikes us. But for certain people, like Socrates, philosophy is a full time occupation. This is because the essence of philosophy is to learn how to think correctly about things that matter, especially ideas pertaining to things you cannot control, such as life and death, or eternity. The Greek mantra "know thyself" identifies the source of most human difficulty--our failure to understand our own mind, and to know what it is we are really seeking. Philosophy is an inward journey toward self-awareness. But unlike theology or psychiatry, it offers no program for redemption, and provides no therapy to ward off unhappiness.

The Symposium is a discussion about love, and it is certainly true that many tears and much blood has been shed because of our inability to understand love. Of course, there is no guarantee that human misery will diminish because we have a better understanding of the subject. But the desire for wisdom and happiness are different objectives. Most people settle for happiness or pleasure at the expense of truth. But this is why Socrates is not like the rest of us. When he hears the oracle at Delphi, he doesn't just turn away. He listens and obeys, just as Abraham did when God spoke to him. But the search for truth takes many forms. It starts with an act of submission: Abraham listens to God and obeys his commands; Socrates listens to his daemon which guides him in his search for truth, just as Dante was guided by Virgil into the underworld.  Likewise, the goal of every philosophical journey is to travel from darkness (human ignorance) into the light of truth.

Yet, if wisdom is the light of truth, then what can we possibly make of love?  Over and over in the annals of literature, we find that love and passion are the cause of much trouble for mankind. Our quest for truth is compromised and diverted by the desires and temptations of the flesh. Thus, for Plato (and later for Saint Paul), love takes two forms, one which is transitory and the other which is eternal.  The transitory form of love is derived from the pleasures of the body which are but a physical expression of love; while the eternal and incorruptible form of love is spirit, which is akin to a state of rapture or ecstasy. In the Symposium, all definitions of love offered by the various speakers prove inadequate. Even Socrates is unable to give a satisfactory description. He resorts to a story which is always the result when the intellect bogs down, unable to grasp the fundamental powers which move us. Thus, logic and reason yield to poetry and myth, for our souls  aspire to something finer which cannot be confined or relegated to mere earth. Love is the soul's desire to unite the eternal with the transitory, to transform the substance of ordinary life into something beautiful and worthy of God. This, for Socrates, is the real mission of philosophy and its only justification. It's not about the accumulation of knowledge or facts. The pursuit of wisdom has a transformative power to unify beauty and truth, like Wordsworth seeing the world in a grain of sand. As if by some strange alchemy between will and desire, our humanity is transformed and elevated by the mere pursuit of something divine.

-- SJ


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