April 17, 2011

Eros, lack, and unreality

Wherever there is love, Socrates demonstrates,[1] there is a lack of something; for that there is love means that there is desire (which is what gives love its drive, its dynamic); and desire can only be for something that is lacking.

In other words, you can only want something that you don't have; if you already had it, there would be no point in desiring it. At the same time, you have to be aware that you are lacking it: if you didn't, you couldn't have a desire either. A good example is love of wisdom: you can only be a lover of wisdom if you are not wise yourself, for if you had wisdom already, there wouldn't be a need to strive for it any more; but at the same time, you cannot be a lover of wisdom as long as you are totally ignorant: because then you wouldn't know anything of such a thing as wisdom, and hence you couldn't desire it.[2] For love to be in play, there must be something you lack and therefore desire, something that you want, but know you do not have.

Something that is very important to understand about a line of thought such as this is that it's nothing that we can detect by simply observing what's going on: it's not merely a fitting interpretation of the facts of human behavior. It follows from our idea of love, the concept that we have in mind when we talk and think about it. (Behind that concept, there is much more than just the single linguistic item, of course: a sea of cultural background lies behind it, centuries of love poetry and reflective philosophy, stories and dramas, millions of lived and experienced love relationships have formed our idea of love, and also transformed it over time.) The dramatic means by which Plato makes this clear is by having Socrates insist on clarifying whether it's just 'likely', or whether it is necessary that there is a lack in someone who desires something, a lack of the very thing that is desired.[3] (It's necessary not necessarily because there is a mystical, metaphysical force behind it; it's necessary because, as I said, it follows from how we think about love. If there were a situation in which it looked like someone was loving something or someone, and there was in fact no lack of what was desired, then it simply wouldn't be a case of love, as we use the term.)

Love implies, then, that there is an instance of unreality in play. In order to form the desire that is the basis of love, we need to form an idea of something that is not the case (but which we desire to be the case). It's not love if there isn't a lack, and we must come up with an idea of that lack; it's unreality, because we're thinking of something that isn't so (yet), and we must produce it (it wouldn't be unreality if we didn't produce it). We must be both lacking something and be aware of the lack.

(This is the formulation I would give it in the terms I've been using in this blog; for reasons that will emerge soon, Plato would certainly be suspicious, to say the least, of that way of putting it.)

[1] Symp 200a–e. We should keep in mind that, throughout this discussion, the focus is on eros, which is only one of the various forms of love. Both in ancient Greek and modern thinking there's much complexity to the concept of love; we might distinguish different forms to the extent that it could even appear that there really is a multitude of different concepts behind the single word. But I'm not going into that variety here.
[2] Symp 204a
[3] Symp 200a–b. Moreover, Socrates doesn't just get Agathon (his partner in the discussion) to confirm this stronger claim (of a strictly conceptual necessity), but he also discusses an obvious objection. Sometimes it might seem that a person has a for something that he already has; but this, Socrates argues, cannot really be a desire for getting that thing; instead, what the desire really points to is a future continuation of these attributes: you desire to keep that thing which you already have (200b–d).

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