But how does one know what love really is, and how can one exploit the significance of love and desire to construct a happy median in life? The ancient Greeks asked themselves these same questions thousands of years ago, and two very central scholars took the time to share their wisdom.
In the Symposium, ancient scholar and philosopher Plato speaks through his literary characters and ultimately through Socrates, revealing to the reader that as a teacher, he wants us to make an ascent of increasing generality and transcend the material, corruptible, earthly love to connect with the pure, unified, heavenly love-the love of the gods.
In book one and book two of the Satires, however, poet and philosopher Horace instructs his readers on love and desire by communicating to his readers that the good human life should be filled with healthy desires and pleasures, not with extreme pleasures, and that humans must value these pleasures in moderation to live life well. In the dialogues of his Symposium, Plato enlightens his readers on the different meanings of love by writing through distinguished characters such as Eryximachus, the educated doctor, and Agathon, the entertainer and sophist.
The most important figure that Plato uses to vindicate the true meaning of love, however, is Socrates-one of the greatest philosophers in the history of Western philosophy and teacher to Plato himself (Martin, 2003). Socrates defines love by recounting a lesson that he once learned from a woman of Mantia, Diotima, whom Socrates claims taught him everything he knows on the subject of love (Plato, 201D). According to Diotima, one can approach the true meaning of love only through a slow and certain ascent up a “ladder” of stages (Martin, 2003).
These stages constitute the ultimate objective, which is to reach the top of the ladder, or the final stage of transcendence, which is Beauty in its truest form. Diotima emphasizes, however, “Even you, Socrates, could probably come to be initiated into these [customs] of love. But as for the purpose of these [customs] when they are done correctly-that is the final and highest mystery [that of true Beauty], and I don’t know if you are capable of it” (Plato, 210 A).
The first, and ultimately the lowest stage of love according to Diotima, is the devotion to physical love and to the desire of a beautiful body. Plato explains this to the reader through the reiteration of Diotima’s discourse to Socrates by stating that “First, if the leader leads aright, he should love one body and beget beautiful ideas there” (Plato, 210A). This love and physical desire for one individual should, however, eventually lead to the realization “that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same” (Plato, 210 C).
This generalization from a love of one beautiful body to a love for all beautiful bodies, which constitutes the second rung on the ladder of transcendence, describes a physical desire for all that is beautiful-other beings, landscapes, art, and nature. Stepping up to the next level, those who are able to love all bodies “must think that the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies, so that if someone is decent in his soul, even though he is scarcely blooming in his body [or bodily appearances], our lover must be content to love and care for him… ” (Plato, 210 C).
Diotima is telling Socrates (the audience) to transcend the physical aspects of individuals and other entities and to see them for their inner wisdom and knowledge. It is only after an individual can transcend the physical that he “will be forced to gaze at the beauty of activities and laws and to see that all this is akin to itself, with the result that he will think that the [physical] beauty of bodies is a thing of no importance” (Plato, 210 C). This love and appreciation for the beauty of knowledge and wisdom may or may not lead him to “grasp his goal” of love (Plato, 211 C).
If he is able to grasp the true meaning of love, which Diotima calls Beauty, only then will he experience love of a soul for the sake of truer ideals. This love “is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself within itself… ” (Plato, 211 B). This love for a beautiful soul can be, for example, in the form of love of a teacher for a student (Martin, 2003). For the teacher to be able to create beautiful thoughts, or even to arouse beautiful thoughts in the mind of the student, shows the teacher’s ability to use this Beautiful love in a virtuous and worthy manner.
Diotima concludes her instruction on love by informing Plato that “the love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he” (Plato, 212 B). Horace insinuates a very different view on love and desire in his collection of Satires. Throughout book one and book two of his Satires, Horace stresses the need for a life of growth through contentment. By relying on real-life examples, Horace instructs his readers to settle all human desires so that they can step back from the stressfulness of those desires and enjoy life.
In “book 1” for example, Horace describes the lifestyle of a greedy miser: “But a raging sword wouldn’t make you cleave less money. Nor would winter, fire, the sea, and swords… How does it help a fearful soul like you to be cunning and hide an immense weight of gold and silver in the earth… what’s the value of such a high-piled heap? ” (Sat. I. 1. 38) Horace is asking the reader, “could you really be happy with a life like this? ” He reminds his readers, “there is a mean in living, there are fixed boundary lines, and the good can’t support itself outside of them” (Sat. I. 1. 06) He strives to help his readers understand that happiness in life comes from choosing a happy median according to our desires, not through focusing on the extremes in life, for this will only make us miserable (Martin, 2003). In the miser’s case, people only learn to hate the miser, for they realize the importance of money (to the miser) before family, friends, and loved ones. Horace asks the miser, “Are you surprised, when before all else you put money, that no one will offer you love, which you didn’t earn? ” (Sat. I. 1. 86) He is perplexed as to how any miser can possibly be happy with such a destructive lifestyle.
In book two of his Satires, Horace once again points out the existence of three individuals and reflects on the absurdity of their extreme lifestyles. The first individual that Horace encounters is Ofellus, whose excessive simplicity in food represents an unnecessary extreme that causes unbalance between pleasure and pain in life. Ofellus proclaims that humans are “bribed by false considerations,” and are often unnecessarily attracted to expensive, unconventional foods such as peacock instead of chicken: “Peacock and chicken taste the same, but you fool yourself and pick the prettier bird” (Sat.
II. 2. 25, 30). Ofellus feels that “Huge dinners and huge turbot bring huge disgrace, coupled with financial loss,” yet Horace in turn questions Ofellus, asking him how it is possible to be happy while fixating on the necessity of eating simple meals (Sat. II. 2. 95). Horace is clearly making a point with Ofellus’ story, reminding his audience that the point of human life is to be happy and to enjoy oneself. Obsessing over simple eating habits is an unnecessary desire and an unhealthy habit that even though at times may take away from underlying financial burdens, it only takes away from happiness.
In a similar yet opposite example, Horace informs his readers on the gourmet philosophy of a food connoisseur named Catius. Catius is just the opposite of Ofellus, for he is obsessed with eating only the finest of foods. In order for Catius to be happy with a meal, every food item must be perfect in his eyes: “The long, less round eggs are preferable; so, be sure, since they taste better and are whiter than the round, that you serve them… Get mushrooms grown in meadows, they’re the best; don’t trust the others” (Sat.
II. 4. 12, 20). Catius continues on in this manner for nearly ninety lines of text, describing his excessive desires for perfect food. Horace, in later lines, cues the reader into his thoughts on Catius’ unnecessary desires by falsely praising Catius: “Professor Catius, I beg you as my friend… take me to a lecture, no matter where. Don’t forget! You could bring me your retentive memory’s total store, but as a middleman you won’t wholly satisfy me… Besides, it matters how he looks and acts” (Sat. II. 4. 88).
Horace is, in reality, is questioning Catius’ motives by drawing Catius’ attention to his pointless and excessive love and desire for perfection in food. In essence, Plato exemplifies to the reader the true meaning of love in its most sacred form: Beauty. In the dialogue that he presents though the use of accredited characters making speeches on the meaning of love, he builds up to his final character, Diotima, who in the end explains that love ultimately stems from Beauty, and that which an individual should really desire is God and the essence of heavenly Beauty (Martin, 2003).
Horace takes on a very different view from Plato, however. He recognizes that human beings tend to want and desire what they can’t have, but they also create an unhealthy imbalance among the things that they do have. Diotima would say, “Rise above these desires and transcend to higher things. ” Horace, in response, would argue that one could try and follow Diotima’s way of life and transcend his desires, but if the point of human life is to enjoy oneself, then one should concentrate on forming a healthy balance between life’s desires and live life well.