Different Types of Partners – Who is Yours?
Who makes the best lover? The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once held a raucous drinking party at which he posed this question. Various Athenian notables were present and they all offered different answers, reflecting every colour of the rainbow.The intrepid reporter Plato recorded it all for posterity in a work called the Symposium.
Throughout history, many readers have found their answer to our question in one or another of the Symposium’s theories, but we have to ask whether even three of the best might be missing something.
Twin Flames/Soul mates
According to the playwright Aristophanes, human beings were originally created with two faces and four arms and legs. We lived very happily as these double creatures until our creator, Zeus, cut us in half due to our arrogance and disobedience. Since then, we have roamed the earth, lonely and forlorn without our missing halves. Only Eros, the God of love, can help us find them.
Aristophanes also contends that the original double-humans had three genders: male (with two male halves), female (with two female halves), and androgynous (with one male and one female half). Males descended from the sun, females from the earth, and those who were androgynous descended from the moon. Eros must unite two men in order to restore the male gender, two women in order to restore the female gender, and a man with a woman to restore the androgynous gender. Therefore Aristophanes presents also theory of the origin of sexual orientation which no other author in the ancient world has done before. However, making us complete again is not easy. When Zeus first started cutting the original human beings in half he cut them in such a way that all they could do when they reunited was kiss and hug. These poor creatures soon died from despair. So, in a rare display of mercy, Zeus began giving each half-human a set of sexual organs. They enable us to merge with our other halves, at least for a little while, releasing us from the unbearable tension of desire. This is why sex is such a powerful governing influence for human beings and rules our lives with absolute sovereignty. Although it paints a very beautiful picture, Aristophanes’ account of true love suffers from two significant issues:
- first, regardless of how lovers physically enter into each other, they remain two persons - the full merger is impossible. This suggests that not even true love can bring true happiness, which is wrong, we hope.
- Second, how do we explain such a high divorce rate, especially when divorce so often occurs after the couple has raised a family together? It seems that in such situations, erotic desire disappears because the initial movement to create a union was completed. The same goes for couples who split up after reaching other milestones, such as building a house, establishing a business, or creating a work of art. People do not stay in one place with one passion. The very notion of there being a single right other half for each of us is therefore too simple. It reduces the lover to a pure functionality, e.g., reproductivity, while disregarding other dimensions.
Love as a Ladder Towards Divine Wisdom
Opposing Aristophanes’ account, Socrates himself offers an interesting alternative. In his view, true love is ultimately the relationship between a philosopher (someone seeking wisdom) and the wisdom he seeks. The object of erotic desire is not actually another person at all but something immaterial that gives us an anchor within ourselves. In this way, our passion and happiness does not depend on our lover but on our ability to gain wisdom and thus become self-sufficient.
For Socrates, this implies that couples always consist of a teacher, who is older and wiser, and a student, who is younger and ignorant. Neither of the lovers desires the other; they both desire to achieve the greatest knowledge — with one another’s help. Their relationship is based on strict roles: the older instructs while the younger inspires the instruction.
The greatest knowledge, which all human beings long for, concerns something we do not possess, namely: beauty, goodness, and truth. Eros itself is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither good nor bad, neither wise nor fool, neither god nor mortal. Eros is something neutral in the middle. He is a great “daemon,” or intermediate power, who conveys to the gods the prayers of men, and to men the commands of the gods. As something in between, love is always a process, always unfolding–perpetual movement towards fulfilment.
The lover is a philosopher because his attainment of truth, beauty, and goodness constitutes his/her supreme happiness. Ultimately, true love is the desire for this happiness. And when something makes us happy we do not want to lose it, we want to keep it forever. In fact, it would be difficult to be happy while knowing our happiness was about to disappear. So, in our yearning for possession of the greatest knowledge, we desire immortality. We witness our desire for immortality most obviously in our urge to reproduce. But we also see it in other urges, such as in the quest for fame, making laws and in artistic creativity.
Socrates advises that he who would seek wisdom should begin by loving one fair form, and then many, and then proceed by learning the connection between them. From beautiful bodies he should advance to beautiful minds, and the beauty of laws and institutions, until he perceives that all beauty is of one kindred. From institutions he should move on to the sciences, until at last he beholds the vision of a single science of universal beauty. Then he will behold the everlasting nature which is the cause of all, and will be near his goal. In his contemplation of that supreme being of love he will behold beauty, goodness, and truth, not with his bodily eye, but with the “eye of the mind.” The vision will inspire virtue and wisdom. At this stage, the lover is dependent neither on the beloved nor on the outside world. No one will ever be able to exploit, betray, surprise or dump him. His love is now freed from pain, moodiness and instability because his beloved (immortal beauty, goodness, and truth) is always available, always stable and always with(in) him. He has become divine.
Socrates kept his promise to provide a theory of love in which the lovers are not dependent on one other, thereby avoiding Aristophanes’mistakes. He does not deliver a relationship between two people, however, but a relationship between a person and something purely immaterial. Nor can the beloved achieve the all-important vision until he himself assumes the teaching role or better said to recognize that he is as much a learner as much a teacher himself. Love is as we said, an everlasting process. Teacher tries to guide and show the student the path to discover his own potentials and his own fulfilment–his path to the highest knowledge, i.e. love, (truth, goodness, beauty) and yet there is also danger for teacher to fall into position of self-sufficiency and authority, assuming he knows the Truth while student is on his path of knowing it through the process of their encounter.
In practice, this arrangement can also make for an exploitative situation. One can’t help but think of the older, wealthy, and successful man choosing a (wo)man twenty years younger than him. (S)he depends on his knowledge, experiences, connections, and fortune to help her/him achieve what (s)he desires and he in exchange enjoys being in power and especially her/his youthful ambitions, enthusiasm, freshness, even naivety and even more he can enjoy being in power and at certain point even hinder her/his progress if seeing that (s)he became knowledgeable and empowered enough. Treating someone as a means to an end, even if that end is itself noble, can represent a rather selfish attitude that cannot be suitable for lovers (and for Kant such relation between lovers is certainly intolerable. For him no (wo)man should ever be treated as a mean to achieve his goals).
In order to prevent this pitfall teacher must be very self-awake and responsible not to use his student to fulfil his latent ambitions for power or leadership (not to misuse or abuse trust of the student) but to be always just aloving helping hand and passing on what is offered to him and what he has got to know through his own abilities and expertise.
Love as an Exchange
The politician Alcibiades, disagreeing with Socrates, presents yet another intriguing account of love in the Symposium. Alcibiades was a stunningly beautiful and desirable man. An acclaimed war hero, he had won many prestigious awards, and was universally admired in Athens. He could have just about any lover he chose. Astonishingly, he chose Socrates. He announces to the revellers at the dinner party that he fell in love with Socrates because Socrates is an enchanting speaker who ravishes the soul and changes the hearts of men. Alcibiades was surprised to find that beneath Socrates’ 'ugly' appearance lay the greatest treasure of all. This made him compare Socrates to Marsyas the great flute-player. For Socrates produced the same effect with his voice as Marsyas produced with his flute.He used the commonest words as the outward mask of the most divine truths. Alcibiades says that upon first meeting Socrates, he felt as though he had been bitten by something in the most sensitive spot where it hurts the most. Socrates awakened in him the uncomfortable awareness that he ought not to live as he was, neglecting the improvement of his own soul.
Alcibiades also compares Socrates to the busts of the great sculptor Silenus. They portray people with pipes and flutes in their mouths but they are made to open in the middle, and have images of gods inside them. To Alcibiades, the words of Socrates are divine. Alcibiades was irresistibly drawn to something very unique he saw only in Socrates. In so doing, he demonstrates a theory of love that explains why we fall in love with one person instead of another.
The twentieth-century French philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls this uniqueness “agalma.” According to Lacan, romantic desire points towards a peculiar feature which makes a certain person stand out of the crowd and makes him seem to exceed all others. This is why, of all the lovers Alcibiades had ever had, Socrates is the only one he considered to be worthy. Lacan adds, however, that the agalma is actually a subjective projection not reflecting something real in the person. And this explains Socrates mysterious reply to Alcibiades invitation to become his lover — he said, “Look again, and see if you are deceived in me.” So we see that Alcibides fell in love because he saw something unique in Socrates – treasures hidden from the eyes that can be found only if you go deeper into the person — treasures of words and thoughts that help you to get to know yourself. Discovering your true self gives you the greatest self-satisfaction and happiness. At the same time, it shows you how to become a better person and help others.
Of course, Socrates devoted his life to this mission. He called it “midwifery”— helping others bring to light the wisdom that was all along within themselves. It doesn’t matter how you look, successful you are, how popular, or how important. What matters is striving to be a good person who is happy and free, knowing yourself and helping others. The problem with Alcibiades’ account of love, as Socrates, who never fell for Alcibiades, points out, is that it is more imagined than real. The man who has everything hears of a new computer or jet airplane unlike any other that has existed before, and he decides that he must have it. He infuses it with the ability to solve all of his problems. And yet, somehow, when he finally has it, it becomes just another conquest. No doubt a great part of Alcibiades obsession with Socrates actually hinged on the fact that Socrates was the one person in Athens who had the nerve to say no to him. Alcibiades could have anyone — anyone except Socrates. Socrates was therefore the final conquest, so completely enticing precisely because he lay just beyond reach.
While I find each of the three accounts of love we have surveyed insightful, I think nonetheless that they are all missing something. They all presuppose that a romantic relationship should bring a person something they have been looking for. However in the first case, we should ask ourselves, how we can actually recognize our soul mate: is there any 'sign' that would notify us we just met our soul mate? Is there a list of personal traits and features that could and should be matched in order to recognize other person as our soul mate like Plato in Phaedrus describes people following different deites and therefore possesing their interests and passions? For instance those who have passion for wisdom are followers of the Zeus, those who have interest in combat are followers of Ares and alike… Or as Plato says: »Everyone chooses his love from the ranks of beauty according to his character, and this he makes his god, and fashions and adorns as a sort of image which he is to fall down and worship. The followers of Zeus desire that their beloved should have a soul like him; and therefore they seek out some one of a philosophical and imperial nature ... But those who are the followers of Hera seek a royal love, and when they have found him they do just the same with him; and in like manner the followers of Apollo, and of every other god walking in the ways of their god, seek a love who is to be made like him whom they serve, and when they have found him ...«. (Plato, 253b). The same thing is with choosing a suitable pupil in order to pursue the realm of ideas of Truth, Goodness and Beauty.
And regarding Alcibiades: we all know the enchatments when we fell in love with the person but we actually don't love the person. There is a difference to love and to be in love, to project our desires and wishes on to the other without actual consideration for the other: to love person requires getting to know the beloved and that requires work, time, knowledge and will to be able to adopt. Through actual love and getting to know him/her things don't look so godly like anymore.
Therefore it seems that all three accounts tell us this story: when we go shopping, we have a list of the things that we want and need, we browse through the available products, and we buy the ones that we believe will meet our requirements. We make a predictable transaction, an exchange designed to be mutually satisfactory to the buyer and the seller.
I propose that such a pragmatic approach will always undermine the true nature of love. A lover cannot be regarded as some kind of acquisition. Although the three accounts of love we surveyed were very different, they each suffered from this misconception. For Aristophanes, we must acquire our missing half, for Socrates, we must acquire a student to inspire our intellectual assent, and for Alcibiades, we must acquire the one thing no one else has. In all of these perspectives, the lover becomes a kind of burden to be evaluated, rather than spontaneously experienced. While such a deliberate approach may result in a relationship of some kind, it will not result in true love. True love must be experience on its own, without any preconceived expectations.
A lover needs not be beautiful, knowledgeable, of a certain race, social status, or level of success to be worthy of love.
So the necessary mindset of the lover is to be oneself and to let the other be him - or herself. Love flows everywhere and between everyone. Only a state of mind that is kind, allembracing, accepting, understanding, and humble can be called love. Another person can only be truly valued and cherished when imperfections are disregarded. We are all imperfect. Imperfect beings are needy, dependent, fragile, vulnerable, and mortal. We all need love to feel complete and worthy of existing. In the end, love is as essential as breathing. As adults we have certain obligations, responsibilities, and tasks to perform and it is difficult not to see everything in pragmatic terms. But true love can exist only for its own sake. It does not exclude, bargain, exploit, or possess. If you can achieve this kind of state, then you can love anybody and can be loved by anybody. But, of course, no one can fully achieve it. The thrill of romantic passion is being able to achieve it to some degree. The “magic” or “mystery” occurs exactly at that moment when our preoccupation with our selves and our own agenda shifts and we dare to embark on a completely new adventure.
Seeing, hearing, embracing the other for what (s)he is. When finally someone responds to your wishes without 'judging' them on her/his own terms but just fulfilling them (s)he is the answer to your prayers, she heals and fills that empty hole, missing part that needed to materialize. And this is exactly the point that enables us to truly see, hear, smell the other for the first time and also to truly meet. This is also a liberation and upliftment point–because by giving what your lover needs and wishes mean that you truly see your lover as the most beautiful and precious gift regardless of how (s)he is and this awakens and liberates him/her from the old ways and we can now proceed to discovering new ways of being together.
What makes the Symposium accounts so valuable is that they give us diverse images of what love can be. It can be finding your other half, it can be finding an inspiration for intellectual ascent, it can be finding the one thing no one else has.It can be any of these things and more. But it cannot be sought out as any one of those things. Rather, it must be received and appreciated for whatever it turns out to be. By presenting various partial accounts of what love can be, the Symposium tells us that love is a gift. And when you receive a precious gift you treat it with respect. A gift makes you feel grateful and with gratitude comes happiness, gratitude of meeting the other and knowing that happiness is also what happens together with the other. This gift includes spiritual, intellectual, emotional and sexual dimension.
Plato (2003). Phaedrus. Trans. by S. Scully. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing.
Plato (1952). Symposium. Trans. by W. Hamilton. London: Penguin Books.