Saturday, March 20, 2010

it takes a special bravery to see love through.

i've been trying to write this paper for over a year. i had a strong intuition about what the problem to be addressed was, but i was floundering around with no real notion of how to address it. and then i understood, and the answer seemed obvious. so i finally wrote it. i never really understand, of course, whatever it might feel like in the moment. i just take a swing at it. what follows are some tweaked selections from my swing. i've tried to strain out the most boring technical parts, but a good bit of it's here, and though it's a paper about a platonic dialogue it is not, as you'll see, addressed to a boring or technical question. plato, you should know, is endlessly sexy and relevant, and i'm not just saying that.

Love as Reverence & Revelation: Mad love in Plato’s Phaedrus
"[The lover's] effort is to know the other's character through and through. This leads, further, to increased self-understanding."
Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

It’s an endless source of consternation, reassurance and wonderment how little the most basic questions about how to live ever change, even over the course of millennia. Ought one choose a partner she loves terribly—one, perhaps, who harbors a love like that for her—or ought one partner on more prudential grounds? Is passionate love imprudent by its nature? These are the questions that Socrates and Phaedrus discuss at length, along the banks of the Ilisus, in a dialogue composed roughly twenty-four hundred years ago. Passionate romantic love is a form of madness, both sides agree—the point of contention is whether this madness consists in a desire that overpowers reason-- obscuring our sense of the good, the right, the true-- or whether it is a kind of “divine” madness, in fact a special insight into those very things.
In the following paper I will present the arguments for and against choosing the companionship of a suitor in love (as those arguments are presented in the text), and then I will raise what I take to be a significant problem with the argument as it is explicitly put: namely, that, first of all, it’s hard to know how we could adjudicate between these views in principle, and that, second of all, even if we were to find some grounds on which to agree with Socrates about the wisdom of partnering for love, it would be difficult make good pragmatic use of his advice. What is "divine madness", and what, in principle, could count as a good secular reason to affirming or denying its exists? And what, in practice, could count as a reason for thinking that some particular instance of madness is of the divine as opposed to profane variety? The solution I will suggest is that we understand Socrates’ claim that love is a "god-given" madness, and his conclusion that we ought therefore to choose the companionship of a lover, as part of the larger and utterly central Socratic injunction to ‘know thyself’, making the relevant question not whether love obscures or enhances the lover’s understanding of the world, but whether love is a force that obscures the lover’s own character, or if love in fact reveals her. I hope I can demonstrate that this reading of the Phaedrus is both warranted and instructive.
Phaedrus presents the view of the speechwriter Lysias, who argues that being in love is a kind of madness, and that choosing the companionship of someone who is in love with you is therefore to exercise extremely poor judgment. On this view love is a kind of desire—a desire for what is beautiful. “Each of us,” on Lysias’ view,
is ruled by two principles which we follow wherever they lead: one is our inborn desire for pleasures, the other is our acquired judgment that pursues what is best…The unreasoning desire that overpowers a person’s considered impulse to do right and is driven to take pleasure in beauty…, this desire, all-conquering in its forceful drive, takes its name from the word for force and is called love. (237d 6-8, 238b7- 238c1-3).
On this view, a person in love is, by definition, in a state of impaired judgment, moved by slave-like necessity. The “miserable condition” of the lover is to be driven by a helpless kind of agony to make imprudent choices regarding his own affairs—choices he will likely come to regret and retract, and for which he may even come to resent the love object—and to demand that the object of his affection make similarly imprudent choices, to neglect his other business and relationships, and, worst of all, to neglect the cultivation of his own soul. The lover loses his sense of proportion and perspective—“when a lover suffers a reverse that would cause no pain to anyone else, love makes him think he’s accursed! And when he has a stroke of luck that’s not worth a moment’s pleasure, love compels him to sing its praises” (233b 1-4). The lover cannot help, in his impaired condition, but exploit, limit, and otherwise harm the one he desires with such myopic urgency, and when the madness has passed, a lover, whose promises were compelled by this madness, has little reason to honor the commitments he made while not “in his right mind” (241a8).
On this basis, Lysias advises Phaedrus to choose the stable, enriching, and mutually beneficial companionship of a friend he can trust and admire over the companionship of a lover—one who, according to Lysias, will have been rendered unreliable, pitiable even, by that very love. In the cool light of reason or the warm glow of tame affection, free of mad desire, the suitor not afflicted by passionate love will choose a more appropriate object. In a better position to assess a potential companion’s proper worth, he is free to choose on the basis of certain facts of character and habit which better determine a longer-term suitability, facts which desire would obscure (233b1-4, 232e2-5). This is a companion who can dedicate a stable and improving attention to his partner. To be measured, masterful, and far-thinking, then, is the special province of the “non-lover”. And Lysias cites additional advantages: If a person is not limited to those who are in love with her, she can choose the most deserving from among a significantly larger candidate pool, and the relationship, in its decorum, is more likely to meet the approval of the community (231d6-10, 232a6-233b4).
Socrates dismisses Lysias’ speech as a sort of heretical hack job—not an earnest attempt to define and examine love, but a “wily” attempt to win the favors of a boy (Phaedrus) that he is actually “no less [in love with] than the others” (237b3). But despite Socrates’ (and some of my classmates’) protests to the contrary, it’s easy to see why Phaedrus is so enamored of Lysias’ speech. He describes with a formidable and stirring accuracy certain kinds of pain and poor judgment often associated with being in love, riling some deep and not unreasonable anxieties we have about loving and being loved—how it can limit and reduce us. Examples abound of love’s reputed tendency to blind, torment, and turn us sour. We have good prudential reasons for fearing the impact of powerful irrational forces on our ability to make sound judgments and manage to live by them. We have strong experiential evidence in favor of the proposition that love is, as Lysias claims, just such a powerful and irrational force. It is not at all obvious, at least to me, why a person—particularly a person aspiring to lead a philosophical life—shouldn’t agree with Lysias’ advice. Eros is unreasonable.
Socrates’ agrees that love is a kind of madness, and he, too, has a compelling and resonant description to offer of the human experience of love—a description not so terribly different from the first:
“in its madness the lover’s soul cannot sleep at night or stay put by day; it rushes, yearning, wherever it expects to see the person who has that beauty…no one is more important to it than the beautiful boy. It forgets mother and brothers and friend entirely and doesn’t care at all if it loses its wealth through neglect. And as for proper and decorous behavior, in which it used to take pride, the soul despises the whole business. Why, it is even willing to sleep like a slave, anywhere, as near to the object of its longing as it is allowed to get! That is because in addition to its reverence for one who has such beauty, the soul has discovered that the boy is the only doctor for all that terrible pain. This is the experience we humans call love.” (251e-252a)
But on the view presented by Socrates love itself consists not in the desire for the beauty we see in another person, but just in the striking recognition of that beauty. On this view, all human beings are to some degree, depending on their sensitivity to beauty, prone to being so struck. Love is a mad insight—a way of coming to know an aspect of the true nature of things by visceral impression as opposed to inductive or deductive methods. The experience of this insight is by its nature powerful and will tend to be accompanied by powerful desires, but the specific character of the experience, and the particular response one has to it, will be determined by the character of the experiencer: One will respond by “gazing…reverently” at the object of beauty, while another “surrenders to pleasure,” seeking immediate gratification (250e). Both may appear to be, or be in fact, mad—but a person of the right character, the right sensitivity to beauty, the right kind of soul, is divinely mad—he is “moved abruptly from here to a vision of Beauty itself when he sees what we call beauty here” (250e). Love in fact consists in this experience of insight, and not just the powerful desires for sexual and emotional gratification that notoriously accompany it, and although some may lack the strength of character to maintain the right kind of composure in the face of this terrible beauty, the explanation for their bad behavior is their own character, and not the character of love, which lies in seeing, and to which the proper response is reverence.
In the course of the dialogue Socrates offers a larger story about the human soul and the nature of reality as a context for this view of love. The soul is described as analogous to a charioteer, whose chariot is guided by two winged horses. One is “beautiful and good,” “a lover of honor with modesty and self-control,,,he needs no whip” (246b2, 253d5-6). The other is bad—“companion to wild boasts and indecency…deaf as a post—and just barely responds to the horsewhip and goad combined” (253e2-4). Before a human soul is incarnate it must have driven its winged horses around that Platonic heaven of ideas—a place “without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence” where “it has a view of Justice as it is; it has a view of Self-Control; it has a view of Knowledge” (). Each fights for a view of this Reality. It’s our nature, Socrates tell us, to be nourished by it. But not all souls have the same view. Different souls follow different gods, who, in turn, each have a different a place in the procession—and they differ, too, in the competence of their charioteers. Even the luckiest of souls, “distracted by the horses…does have a view of Reality, but just barely” (248a3-4). While we won’t explicitly remember the soul’s journey, we will be more or less sensitive to earthly instances of these perfect Ideas according to our exposure.
Both the practical question of who one ought to choose as one’s most intimate companion and the question, underlying the first, of what the nature of love might be, are as compelling now as they were twenty-four hundred years ago, and the descriptions and analysis offered by Lysias and Socrates are both still awfully compelling. But it seems less clear what secular grounds there could be for deciding the practical question. Though we may recognize that Socrates analysis is better organized, that it makes some important clarifying distinctions—that it is, in short, an actual analysis, in contrast to Lysias’ mere and partial description—it is still grounded in something almost mystical. We may be extremely sympathetic to the view that certain ethical insights can only be reached by human beings by way of irrational forces—love in particular. But it seems that the practicality of trusting such a force to generate insight as opposed to distorting it depends upon there being some truth to the claim that madness can be a force of insight and some way of determining when it is.
My intention is not to distort or simplify the view for the purposes of making it palatable or provable by contemporary standards. Certainly an important part of what Socrates claims is that mad love is good because it constitutes a kind of vision into the nature of external Reality (the world of the Forms), and that it does this by picking out what it is good and beautiful in the changeable world we daily inhabit—“the soul,” Socrates says, “is a sort of seer” (242c5-6). There is, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, something “cognitive” about the emotions and desires that constitute the experience of this madness—“they give the [lover] information as to where the goodness and beauty are, searching out and selecting, themselves, the beautiful objects” (215). Though it may be difficult to understand how we could go about proving this to be so, without either going around in a circle, or appealing to something sort of mystical, these claims stand, and they resonate, and they’re an essential part of the view Socrates presents.
But there is another aspect of the argument which doesn’t immediately raise the same kinds of difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions, and which, I am proposing, might present us with easier grounds on which to decide the practical question: to choose the lover or the non-lover? The grounds, I’ve proposed, are whether love reveals or obscures the lover’s character. Socrates, I argue, claims the former, while Lysias claims the latter.
One of the strengths of [the reading I've proposed] is that it gets to what I take to be the very heart of the Socratic project, particularly as it is framed in the Phaedrus. Early in the dialogue, before any arguments have been offered, Socrates tells Phaedrus that he himself has no interest in debating the truth or falsity of certain mythological explanations of things on the grounds that he has “no time” for it:
and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and really it seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that. This is why I do not concern myself with them. I accept what is generally believed, and, as I was just saying, I look not into them but into my own self: am I a beast more complicated and savage than Typhon, or am I a tamer, simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?
It seems that understanding our own nature is the beginning and the end of Socratic discourse. Whatever divine entities are posited, they’re role is to make sense of things that seem true on other grounds—some combination of felt experience and careful analysis of that experience.
A good example of this use of divine explanation of observable phenomena is Socrates’ claim that each man’s soul is attendant to a particular god, whose character he strives to emulate. The mythology stands as the explanation for a mundane and observable reality: different people have different characters. Apart from being just more or less ‘good’ or ‘bad’, different persons are more or less querulous, more or less domestic, more or less prone to admire the warrior, the philosopher, or the able politician. “Everyone spends his life,” Socrates says, “honoring the god in whose chorus he danced” (252c8-252d1). We needn’t be deists to feel the force of this insight.
When Socrates recounts the view of Lysias, he emphasizes that Lysias’ view implicitly relies on the notion that love obscures the lover’s nature—than the honorable man will be rendered dishonorable, the gentle man violently jealous, the otherwise trustworthy man untrustworthy. The lover is not “the same man” as he was before he loved—he is “a different man” when passion has passed. The lover in love is ruled by “a mindless regime” which will be subsequently replaced by another, sounder one, and the man in question will not be able, in good conscience, to honor the promises he made—promises of another man, imprudent and otherwise inclined. On this picture, there is reason, and there is desire. Love is desire. Desire distorts reason. Love is unreasonable.
Socrates rejects this view. Love, he argues, is not mere desire, identically distorting. It is a common experience of beauty, to which different individuals will be differently sensitive; it is an experience that commonly incites strong desires, to which different individuals will respond differently. When and how we experience love, and how it shapes our behavior, is largely a matter of individual character. In his strongest explicit formulation of this claim, Socrates says that however the man in love behaves, “that is how he behaves with everyone at every turn, not just those he loves” (252d3-4). It seems correct, at least, to conclude that those who tend to be careful in love, or abusive, or effusive, will tend to be careful, or abusive, or effusive more generally. Socrates, in fact, begins his rebuttal by appealing to the obvious fact that the listener must know some “noble and gentle man…who [is or has been] in love with a boy of similar character”—someone whose behavior and experience Lysias’ description of love fails to capture. The right account of love will explain the obvious diversity of experience and behavior among people in love. On Socrates’ account, this diversity is best explained, commonsensically enough, by the diversity of human character.
It seems to me that Socrates’ definition of love, and his description of the peculiarities of the human experience of it, warrant a claim which is in some sense stronger than the one Socrates explicitly makes, and in another sense weaker: namely, that our experience of and behavior in love doesn’t merely express our character, but specially reveals it. This claim further underscores the role of love in bringing out what is uniquely true of the individual experiencer, but it is weaker in the sense that it may require us to back off somewhat from the explicit claim that the lover treats the beloved just as he treats everyone. Socrates’ own description of love provides us with adequate grounds to conclude that, in fact, love amplifies our typical responses, uniquely arousing and laying bare certain deep and relevant aspects of the lover’s character which, for better and worse, are not otherwise on prominent display—which are generally invisible even, to others and, perhaps, to the man himself.
We’ve said that mad love is to get a look at the beauty in another human being, a beauty that arrests the attention and inspires reverence. This reverence, I think, amounts to a kind of profoundly active stillness—the effort to hold one’s ground, to maintain the proper posture of awe, to keep one’s eyes fixed, against the powerful desires to grasp at or to flee the object of one’s awe. Socrates says that “when the charioteer looks love in the eye, the entire soul is suffused with a sense of warmth and starts to fill with…the goadings of desire”—the white horse is prevented only by his sense of shame from “jumping on the boy” who is his object, while the dark horse “leaps violently forward”, “no longer responsive to the whip and the goad” (253e5-245a5). An epic struggle ensues between the charioteer and the dark horse, in which the charioteer occasionally tires, giving in and moving toward the boy, only be blown back again each time he “sees that face”: “At the sight he is frightened, falls over backwards, awestruck…pull[s] the reigns back so fiercely” (254b4-254c1). And as the stunned dark horse regains its strength, the whole thing begins again, over and over, until the dark horse is finally humbled by the repeated violent reigning and the whole soul is then able to “follow its boy in reverence and awe” (254e8). Love, inasmuch as it is a thing apart from a desire for sexual or emotional gratification, is a process of “reject[ing] certain ways of acting when they…do not accord with felt reverence” (Nussbaum 217). The reverence one feels—the love—is not only a thing apart from these desires, it is the only help for them, the measure against which neither grasping nor fleeing can really meet with our own approval, though the desire to do either may be powerful—though we may even succumb to them.
The beauty that inspires love also riles powerfully destructive aspects of the lover’s own nature, bringing them mercilessly to his attention. Fears and desires—the stuff that underwrite the jealously, pettiness, and abandonment Lysias’ speaks of—are revealed and at the same time thrown into a specially instructive kind of relief by the revered love object. He comes to feel the power of these fears and desires in light of love—a light in which they are seen to be profane. In light of love, the lover is revealed to himself. He can’t afford a smug or self-congratulatory naïveté about his own nature, but must engage fully with the hardest parts of that nature in order to hold his ground and his gaze—in order to do justice, that is, to the object of his awe. Guided by his awe to control those powerful and potentially destructive aspects of his nature, he learns, through struggle, a kind of self-control that Socrates argues is near to being divine. “The companionship of a non-lover,” Socrates says, “is diluted by human self-control”, and “all it pays are cheap human dividends” (256e4-6). A self-control hard-won by the light of reverence, not “human self-control”, is, on Socrates view, the only truly stable basis for lifelong companionship and self-knowledge.
We don’t have to be deists or mystics, or even Platonic idealists, to feel the power of this claim: that love reveals us—that its dual power is to rile and aggravate and generally expose what we’d most prefer to avoid and deny, while simultaneously providing us with a special motive and energy for understanding and learning to control the same. If we accept this view of love, we have good reason to agree with Socrates that a boy ought to choose the companionship of a lover: The self-control of the non-lover is not hard-won—neither inspired by a sense of the boy’s true worth, which is not merely prudential, nor accompanied by the same hard-won insights into his own nature which are both essential to partnership itself to the overarching process of living well.

No comments: