Platonic love is one of the most widely misinterpreted concepts in Plato’s philosophy. It has transcended the realm of philosophy, becoming widely used across culture — and has strayed from its original meaning throughout the process.
Plato believed that love is the motivation that leads one to try to know and contemplate beauty in itself. This happens through a gradual process that begins with an appreciation of the appearance of physical beauty and then moves on to an appreciation of spiritual beauty.
Moving through these steps culminates in the passionate, pure, and disinterested knowledge of the essence of beauty, which remains incorruptible and always equal to itself: the knowledge of the idea of beauty.
The true concept of platonic love
This type of love is often interpreted as spiritual rather than physical. Some even go so far as to call platonic love an “impossible love,” although that is perhaps more extreme than Plato’s conception. Plato provides his most clear outline of Platonic love in “The Symposium.”
A symposium, or banquet, was a common celebration where Greeks came together to drink, celebrate, and discuss ideas.
During a symposium held in the house of the tragic poet Agathon, several of the most important men of Athens — Socrates, Pausanias, Aristophanes, and the most powerful character of the moment, Alcibiades — began a philosophical debate over the true nature of love, with each philosopher providing their own argument.
After having listened to all those present, Socrates takes the floor and narrates what the priestess of Apollo, Diotima, had revealed to him about the meaning of platonic love: that it was a ladder in which love climbs up a series of steps to reach the peak of a “supreme idea.”
For Plato, love is not in itself an end, but only a means to achieve this supreme concept of beauty. The first step is physical; the senses unleash eros (the love that enters through the eyes and compels one to approach someone). In this stage, love is physical. Plato does not in fact reject the physical dimension of love, as many falsely believe — this is a fundamental stage and is necessary in order to reach the supreme idea.
In the second step, one goes from looking for beauty in a particular body to looking for beauty in multiple bodies, thus forging a categorical notion of beauty and beginning the search for the idea behind this notion.
The third step is the one that passes from the physical body to the beauty of the soul. In this state, the person learns to love the soul despite the physical aspect of beauty.
In the fourth step, Socrates elevates love to a very different scale since it enters the world of ethics: the love of beautiful souls increases moral beauty.
In the fifth step, Socrates passes from the rules of conduct to beautiful knowledge, referring to institutions and a love for the government.
The sixth step starts from the beautiful knowledge and uses science to reach a delight in the beauty of knowledge and understanding.
In the seventh, the idea of beauty comes into harmony with the universe: it passes from the world to the cosmic category (to beauty itself.) In this phase, beauty takes on the hue of vision, or revelation, experienced through the lens of philosophy.
Plato and his ideal love
Plato’s ideal love is connected with his notion of the ideal world (a world where everything is perfect and our material reality is a copy of its image). That is why this ideal of Platonic love does not refer to having an unattainable love, but to love in a sense that is eternal and intelligible: a perfect ideal form.
This framework is closely connected to Plato’s allegory of the Cave. The one who comes to the idea of beauty is the one who has managed to get out of the cave and look at the sunlight. That person has passed from the initial experience of physical love, which could be compared to existing within the cave, to reaching the experience of beauty’s truth, the equivalent of leaving the cave for the outside world.