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The Symposium and Platonic Ethics: Plato, Vlastos, and a Misguided Debate

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Abstract Scholarship on the Symposium is dominated by a debate on interpersonal love started by Gregory Vlastos in his article, ‘The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato.’ This paper argues that this debate is a misguided one, because it is not reflective of the central concerns of this text. Attention needs to be turned to the broader ethical questions posed about the ends of life, the nature of human happiness, and contemplation. Failure to do so will mean that the Symposium continues to be eclipsed as a key resource in central debates in Platonic ethics.

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47. FN1 1)On the reception of the Symposiumand its influence on modern thinking about love, see Lesher, Nails and Sheffield (2006).
48. FN2 2)Scholars who inherit this debate from Vlastos’ 1981 article include Nussbaum (1986), Kosman (1977), Gill (1990), Price (1989), Rowe (1998), Kraut (2008).
49. FN3 3)On this issue see the detailed discussion of this term in Nehamas (2004).
50. FN4 4)See Nussbaum (1986, p165-95).
51. FN5 5)Vlastos writes that ‘Aristotle’s wishing another good for his sake, not ours, though still far from the Kantian conception of treating persons as ends in themselves, is the closest any philosopher comes to it in antiquity.’ (1981, p10 n.24).
52. FN6 6)See, for example, Frankfurt on the importance of disinterested devotion to [the beloved’s] well-being (2004, p42). Cf. Taylor, ‘Love’ (1979, p174): ‘If xloves ythen xwants to benefit and to be with yetc., and he has these wants . . . because he believes yhas some determinate characteristics ψ in virtue of which he thinks it worthwhile to benefit and to be with x’; Soble, in (ed.) Lamb (1997, p65-92).
53. FN7 7)Vlastos (1962, p44).
54. FN8 8)On which, see Nygren (1982, p76-7).
55. FN9 9)See Kosman (1976, p64).
56. FN10 10)Arguably, however, the ancients were less concerned with such criteria for personhood. On this issue, see Gill (1998).
57. FN11 11)The relationship between particulars and forms here can be construed differently. Since particular things embody, albeit partially, the intrinsically valuable character of the form, one might take it that they exemplify the nature of the form. In this way they still have a relationship to the further end (the Form), but this relationship need not be construed instrumentally; rather, it is a way in which that further end (the Form in this case) is manifested. On this distinction, see Adams (2002, p153). Cf. Williams (2006, p122-3) who argues that the notion of an intrinsic good might better explain the role of the Form here, and this is not one that can simply be mapped onto the distinction between a final good and an instrumental one.
58. FN12 12)On this issue, see Ludwig (2002, p8).
59. FN13 13)I take the phrase from Markus (1971, p132-3).
60. FN14 14)On this issue see Halperin (1986, p60-80); Ferrari (1992, p248-9); Kahn (1996, p261). Kahn argues that ‘In such a theory the object of desire is only initially or instrumentally a person. Reciprocal relations between persons would have to be treated in an account of philiawhich Plato did not develop’ (1996, p261). Vlastos (1981) was clearly sensitive to these nuances, but he believed (a) that Plato held a unitary theory of love with philiaand erosas distinct species and (b) that since the Lysisfailed to deliver an adequate account of love of other persons ‘for their own sake’ in its discussion of philia, given assumption (a), it was legitimate to search for this notion in the account of erosin the Symposium. For detailed criticism of this approach see Sheffield (2006) chapter 5.
61. FN15 15)Compare Symposium204e-205a with Euthydemus278e-282a and Philebus20b, 23a, 60a-61a on this point.
62. FN16 16)Cf. Moravscik (1971, p290) who, in light of this passage, suggests that erosis best translated as aspiration, since it refers to ‘any overall desire or wish for what is taken to be good, . . . the wish or desire for things deemed on account of their nature to be worthy of having their attainment become a man’s ultimate goal.’ Cf. also Dover (1978, p157) who argues that within Socrates’ circle ‘ erosis not a desire for bodily contact but a love of moral and intellectual excellence.’
63. FN17 17)This only goes some way towards justifying Socrates’ more extravagant claim that we desire immortality with the good (207a4). Socrates seems to assume that we desire the good not just at all times in my life, but at all future times, for only with this assumption can he justify the inference to immortality from the claim that we desire the good always (as he does at 207a1-4). Compare Aristotle NE1 10-11 where the issue of whether eudaimoniacan be affected after death is discussed. On this passage, see Scott (2000).
64. FN18 18)I thank Peter Goldie for pressing me on this point.
65. FN19 19)On pederasty as an important social institution in classical Athens, see Dover (1978) and Bremmer (1990).
66. FN20 20)For a defence of these claims see Sheffield (2006).
67. FN21 21)A notable exception is Moravscik (1971, p290-1): ‘it is not mere sexual desire; rather, it is love of a body for the sake of bodily beauty that can be abstracted and contemplated on a general level.’ Cf. the discussion in Price (1989) and Patterson (1991, p197).
68. FN22 22)I thank Gabriel Lear for raising concerns that I overstate the case here.
69. FN23 23)And there is evidence that other responses are in play: when the beauty of soul is encountered, for example, the one making the ascent is said to ‘love and care for the person, and if he has even a little bloom, even then this is enough for him’ (210b6-c3; trans. Rowe). This fails to satisfy scholars looking for evidence of love for another person’s own sake because they see (rightly, I think) that ultimately any sentiments had here are instrumental to an understanding of the Form. The experience of care for the beauty of soul prompts the one making the ascent to explore laws and practices, and those things that are responsible for the creation of beautiful souls, in order that he (the lover) may be turned towards other bearers of beauty (211b). Cf. Price (1989, p56-7). This need not exclude concern for others. Although this experience is an occasion for progress towards understanding beauty, the conversations that are produced as a result of this understanding are delivered ‘ungrudgingly’ (210d5). This suggests that one is generous with one’s insights, which in turn suggests that other people are involved as the beneficiaries of an increased understanding (cf. Phdr.249a2). None of these suggestions are explored in this text, however.
70. FN24 24)As Vlastos himself seems to recognize (1981, p26).
71. FN25 25)This is a theme of many dialogues which discuss eros; see, for example, AlcibiadesI 122b5, Lysis204b1-2 with Penner and Rowe (2005, p231), cf. Euthydemus282a1-b7.
72. FN26 26)Though, significantly, philiamay result (209c6).
73. FN27 27)Cf. AlcibiadesI on the koine boule, the common search, between Socrates and Alcibiades, 191b, 124b10.
74. FN28 28)Socrates’ rejection of this model of pederastic relations can also be seen in his role reversal where he transforms himself from lover to beloved and thereby thwarts the active/passive dynamics that typically characterised such relationships. See Symposium(222a8) with Halperin (1986).
75. FN29 29)But see the suggestive material mentioned in n. 20.
76. FN30 30)See Vlastos (1981, p31); Price (1989, p15-54); White (2004).
77. FN31 31)This reading has its origins in a paper by Hackforth (1950), and is developed by Irwin (1977, p343-4), Price (1989, p48-9), Rowe (1998, p257), White (2004) and Kraut (2008).
78. FN32 32)Price (1989, p98): ‘If bequeathing a way of life is to satisfy, even to some extent, an innate desire for survival, I must value its realisation in another as I value it in myself. If I view him as a means and not an end, then his happy life cannot count in itself as a success for me. The further we extend the desire for the good to belong to oneself always (206a11-12), the less we can oppose it to a desire that others should possess the good, and for their own sake.’
79. FN33 33)It is sometimes assumed that the flux passage (207d-208a) indicates other persons must be involved at the top of the ascent because it claims that a living being survives over time by a process of replacement – ‘leaving something behind in place of the old’ (208b1-2). But the passage explains whyvarious kinds of productive work is required (because mortal beings are subject to flux), and not also howit operates. Leaving something behind may be (and clearly is) oneof the ways in which living beings try to secure everlasting eudaimonia, but there is no reason to assume that this is indicative of reproduction more generally. If so, there is no reason to look for external products, or other souls, in whom the philosopher leaves something behind at the top of the ascent. For further discussion see Sheffield (2006, p100-10).
80. FN34 34)On the relationship between virtue and happiness in the Platonic dialogues, see Prior (2001).
81. FN35 35)Recall that erosis not of the beautiful, but of creative activity in the presence of beauty (206d); for it is the creative activity (e.g. child-bearing, law-making or philosophy) in the presence of beauty that produces a desired good end (honour or wisdom).
82. FN36 36)Vlastos (1981, p30), for example, argues on the basis of Plato’s metaphysical views that it would be ‘idolatry’ to treat persons as worthy of love for their own sake. Cf. Nussbaum (1990, p117-18) ‘we must take very seriously the claim that everyproperty of objects relevant to practical motivation will be homogenized qualitatively with every other . . . Now the question is what is left of objects and persons in this scheme? Everything about an object or person that countsfor desire and action is flattened out into “the wide sea.” So what is left for the body or person to be? What individuates it, enables us to refer to it, trace it through time, identify and reidentify it?’
83. FN37 37)That we are concerned with the agent’s own happiness is clear from the emphasis on his possession of the good for himself (205d f.; 204d). Cf. Meno77c6-d1 where we also have the assumption that to desire something is to desire that it come to be for oneself.
84. FN38 38)Cf. Broadie (2005, p45) who argues that the ancient perspective on the highest good is one that consists in some relation of the highest good to other goods. Cf. McCabe (2005, p202).
85. FN39 39)Although Alcinous ( Didaskalikos, 28) asserted that Plato postulated a telosin the sense of summum bonum, it is not always clear whether teloswas used in this sense in the Platonic dialogues. If telosis connected to a unitary notion of good in the Symposium– that for the sake of which all erosstrives – and it is (210e5-6), then already in the Symposiuma more technical sense of telosis emerging. I thank Tad Brennan for discussion of this point. See his ‘ Telos’ in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy(1999). David Sedley (1999, p321) argues that the Charmides(173d) and the Timaeus(90d) use telosin the sense of ‘supreme fulfilment.’
86. FN40 40)For a comparative discussion of the kalonin Plato and Aristotle, see Nehamas (2004). On the interpretation of the kalonas ‘the fine’ in the Symposium, see Irwin (1977, p170-2, 234-5).
87. FN41 41)On this issue see Cooper (1996, p102).
88. FN42 42)Some of these questions are explored in Wedgwood (2009).
89. FN43 43)I would like to thank the participants at a conference on Love and Friendship held at the University of Berne in 2007, and the participants at the King’s College London Departmental Research seminar in 2008, especially M.M. McCabe and Peter Adamson. I would also like to thank Gabriel Lear, David Sedley and James Warren, who provided helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Affiliations: 1: Christ’s College Cambridge CB2 3BU UK


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