I recently saw a quote from Plato’s Phaedrus pass through Jack Faust’s tumblr (forgive me for not digging down for the post because, ugh, Tumblr is not an archive). It reminded me of all the fond memories I have for that dialogue and how it had been so long since I read it, so I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a whirl.
Can I say that I always love revisiting Plato? The guy is just so weird. I love how something so weird has become part of the core of the European intellectual genome even as the world it has created is, well, the stuff that would send Plato’s nightmares screaming for cover. The weirdness is really standing out to me, in a way that snaps into shape Platonism and its problems.
The Phaedrus is basically a manual for man-boy love as spiritual praxis. Sure, there is all this stuff about the celestial chariot, the crash-landing into material existence, the use of love to cultivate a philosophical attitude that provides the basis for breaking free of the material orbit back into the celestial spheres. But the vehicle for that escape? It is an older dude getting seriously romantic with a teenage boy.
It’s a little jarring and uncomfortable, right? That should remind us a bit of the cultural differences that separate us from Plato’s Athens For an Athenian man of his day, the relationship wasn’t particularly taboo. It was a bit of a feature rather than a bug. The relationship served to induct a boy into their republican manhood. It is why in the Symposium Plato can have Aristophanes wax poetic about the exceptionally virile and healthy nature of souls that were naturally gay (and I mean gay as in gay men; sorry, ladies, lesbianism was fine and all, but it wasn’t so exceptionally cool).
I want to drive home the alienness of Platonic philosophy by exploring this without eliding anything for the sake of our own comfort. While homosexuality, particularly between older and younger men, was a part of daily life in Athens, it was essential feature of Plato’s philosophical work. Moreover, Plato’s glorification of it takes a toxic turn.
Women need not apply. Folks love to play up that Socrates ascribes his teachings on love as having come from a woman, Diotima, but let’s note that Diotima makes an appearance only as she is described by Socrates. She is not present at the symposium. In a fairly straightforward sense, she can’t be, because her physical presence would threaten Plato’s homosexual mysticism with heterosexual intimacy.
What is it that Platonic love provides the man? Well, according to Plato’s Socrates, what the man sees in the beloved boy is an image of the divinity from which he became separated in the fall into material life. The boy is an image of the man’s own divinity. The excitement that the man feels for the boy is described as the man remembering his broken wings and the relationship is the healing of those wings.
Now, Plato envisions this as good for the boy because the man pours out his desire (as, ahem, a devotee of Dionysus pours out wine onto the earth), he also invigorates the spiritual life in the boy. He prepares the boy to be a philosopher, too, through the education of his beloved. The sexual is not at all suppressed but simultaneously sublimated toward an image of the divine in which their separation in the material life is overcome.
This is characteristic of Plato. He can’t stand difference, what we sometimes call alterity. The material is fallen for him because it is the home of difference and multiplicity. He has to exclude women because women make visible a difference. He has to exclude the Sophists because the Sophists make words mean many things according to the occasion.
Theater, art, writing? Similar danger for Plato. They all multiply the meanings of words and ideas. He has Socrates say quite explicitly that writing is dangerous because it cannot answer us and can slip around, acquiring mistaken references. What true philosophy can provide, can only be exchanges face to face, mouth to mouth, and, well, through the sexual receptivity of a young boy to a man.
A man who can tell the young boy exactly how things are supposed to be understood. Sounds like a great relationship, doesn’t it? Not toxic at all. The boy just needs to be good so that the philosopher can get his rocks off and see heaven more clearly, and that listen to the wisdom of the man as he comes back from his glimpse of the heavens. The power dynamics are part of the ritual process, the silence of the boy before his elder providing the elder with the opportunity he needs to develop his ideas.
The ideas which then become the special secret that can only be given by the man to the boy.
By which I mean to say: ugh. Plato’s ideal philosopher is a controlling cock. The guy who wants everyone to dance to his tune and call it heaven. It is telling that in his account of spirits in the Symposium, he makes them mere intermediaries between the gods and man, the avenue toward them. Me, I prefer Deleuze’s demons:
“It is not a matter of being which is distributed according to the requirements of representation, but of all things being divided up within being in the univocity of simple presence (the One – All). Such a distribution is demonic rather than divine, since it is a peculiarity of demons to operate in the intervals between the gods’ fields of action, as it is to leap over the barriers or the enclosures, thereby confounding the boundaries between properties.”—Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition (p. 37)
Indeed, to be done with the judgment of gods, to live in Plato’s nightmares rather than serve in his republic.