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The Evolution of the Concept of Love: Plato Versus Simone de Beauvoir

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Abstract

The definition of love is something that will always remain too abstract and widespread to narrow down into a concise, neatly wrapped paragraph. Even if we did manage to do so, as many poets and writers have attempted to in the past, it is not guaranteed that the said definition will be acceptable by all those who were to come by it. In our paper, we look at love from the perspective of four different philosophers, ranging over different eras and generations. We sought to narrow down our understanding of love and to comprehend whether such a thing, which has existed since the beginning of mankind, can evolve over time and gain varied meanings and/or interpretations.

Introduction

The evolutionary theory of love states that we fall in love in order to find a potential sexual partner so that we pass on our genetic information to the next generation. This ensures the survival of the species through the offspring in order to avoid extinction. We basically find strong genetic features attractive in our partner so that the progeny carry on the healthy genes further to the next generation. Not only reproduction, but also caring for the children is an important aspect. Hence, the feeling of love or feeling attracted towards a potential mate is important for the survival of the species. Mostly, physical aspects are taken into account rather than emotional ones, however, males and females have different sets of traits which they find attractive in their mates. For example, males find females who have an hourglass shaped figure more attractive because it indicates that the woman is healthy enough to bear his child and deliver it. Women on the contrary, see how well-built or emotionally connected he is with his own feelings, hence ensuring that he will provide for the family and will not wander off in search of another mate. Hence, the goal of love, according to the evolutionary theory, is merely to ensure reproduction and preserve life. But this theory stands true only to a limited extent as it focuses more on physical traits rather than considering it to have a deeper emotional meaning. It also limits love to only sexual relationships. But love is a feeling that could develop in any relationship and to any extent. Hence, it is better to consider love from other perspectives as well. Love is an ever-changing, dynamic concept which is highly subjective.

The concept of love has many aspects and tangents. For each individual the word ‘love’ carries a different meaning. It can be found within one’s self and/or in someone else. It is a feeling of completeness with yourself and your partner. Love is being there for one another as well as respecting each other’s personal space, accepting perfection with flaws.

When today’s generation is asked what love means to them, it is possible that they will choose one of the above statements as the answer. However, when referring to ancient times and its philosophers, a lot of knowledge about love and its intricites can be found. Be it the iconic philosophising couple of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who are buried together to this day, or Plato, one of the oldest names in Western philosophy, or bell hooks, a relatively new, African-American philosopher, each of them have something new to add to the theory of love, something never thought of before. Something that changes our meaning of love and in turn, changes how we love. Each of us understand the concept of love in different ways. Each of us love in different ways. That is the uniqueness of love. That for each pair of lover with his beloved, their equation of love is always different from other pairs. Through the ages, the concept of love has had an evolution. In each era, love was understood, and interpreted and acted out in different ways and in each era, the meaning of love had a shift, or a turn, thanks to the individual philosophers that gave love a different perspective.

Plato

Plato was born in 428/427 or 424/423 BC in Athens in Greece and died aged 80 in 348 BC in the same country. Phaedo, Apology, Republic and Symposium are a few of his great works. Plato’s main interests lay in Love, Friendship, Society, Education, Literature, Rhetoric Art, Epistemology, Politics, Ethics and Metaphysics. He was influenced by various others like Socrates, Parmenides, Diotima, Pythagoras and Heraclitus.

He founded the Academy which was the first institution of higher learning of the Western world. He is considered to be one of the greatest figures in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy. He is also considered to be one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality. He was the innovator of the written dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy. His most notable contribution is the ‘Theory of Forms’ which includes pure reason, which provides a solution to the problem of universals called Platonism (ambiguously also called Platonic realism or Platonic idealism). His teacher was the great philosopher, Socrates, and his student was Aristotle, who was greatly influenced by him. His ideas on love were called as Platonic Philosophy.

Platonic love, named after Plato himself, is a type of love or an intimate relationship, that is non-romantic in nature or has no sexual element. It is the use of the word ‘love’ that directs us towards a deeper relationship than the scope of a normal friendship.Platonic love consists of rising levels of closeness to wisdom and true beauty, from carnal attraction of individual bodies to attraction of souls, and lastly, union with the truth. This is the ancient, philosophical interpretation. Platonic love is contrasted with romantic love. For Plato, generally the correct use of love of humans is to direct one’s mind to the love of divinity. Plato’s theory of love is given in the Phaedrus and the Symposium.

Plato’s discussions of love were originally based on relationships which were sexual and between members of the same sex. But the meaning of platonic love in Plato’s original sense underwent a transformation during the Renaissance, leading to the contemporary sense of nonsexual heterosexual love.

For a brief period, Platonic love was an honourable subject at the English royal court. It was famous in the circle around Queen Henrietta Maria, who was the wife of King Charles I.

Through these eras, platonic love was categorized into different subsections. They were:

  1. Eros: sexual or passionate love.
  2. Philia: the type of love that is based on friendship or goodwill. It is met with mutual benefits. It can be formed by companionship, dependability, and trust.
  3. Storge: the type of love that is found between parents and children.
  4. Agape: a universal love. It consists of love for strangers, nature or god.
  5. Ludus: the playful and uncommitted type of love which is focused for fun and sometimes has no strings attached.
  6. Pragma: the type of love that is based on duty and reason.
  7. Philautia: self-love which can be healthy or unhealthy; unhealthy if one places oneself above the gods, and healthy if it is used to build self-esteem and confidence.

Plato is most interested in the same-sex desire that sometimes exists between an older and a younger man.

For Plato, love aims at beautiful, good things, since this brings happiness. Truth and wisdom are the best of all good things. Plato says that love is not a God, it is a philosopher.

According to Plato, love (philia) goes beyond the physical and emotional bonds in human life. For him, friendship is an important aspect in a lover’s life. It is philia that is born out of erôs, and that further strengthens and develops it. Philia also transforms erôs, from a lust for possession into a shared desire for a higher level of understanding of the self, the other, and the universe. Philia transforms erôs from a lust for possession into an impulse for philosophy. Like philosophy, erôs aims at transcending human existence, and connecting it with the eternal and infinite, and achieving immortality which is the highest goal of human beings.

Plato’s dialogue is considered to be one of his major works, and is appreciated for its philosophy and literary qualities. In the Phaedrus, Plato emphasizes the relationship between love and the divine and hence to the eternal and infinite. In the Symposium, he strongly emphasizes on the relationship between love and the practice of philosophy, the search for happiness, and the contemplation of truth.

‘He whom love touches not walks in darkness.’ (Plato, The Symposium)

The Symposium was a friendly contest among notable men which was based on the oration speeches when attending a banquet, which, in ancient Greece, traditionally took place after the meal. Only men were a part of this tradition which included drinking, music, dance, recitals or conversation.

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The host of the banquet challenged the guests to deliver an encomium (a speech) in praise of Eros, who is the god of love and desire. In the Symposium, Eros is considered to be both, erotic love and a phenomenon capable of inspiring courage, valor, great deeds and being the divine power that vanquishes man’s natural fear of death. The men in the Symposium included the famous philosopher and Plato’s teacher, Socrates, the general and political figure Alcibiades, and Aristophanes, the comic playwright.

Reciprocation is not necessary according to Plato’s idea of love because love itself is attached to a form or idea and not the company of somebody. For Plato, truth and authenticity are a higher value than reason, love or happiness which aim at them.

In Plato’s words, according to Greek mythology, ‘Humans were originally created with four arms and four legs and a head with two faces and fearing their power, Zeus split them into two parts, thus they spent their entire lives in search of their other halves.’ (Plato, The Symposium)

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher, French writer, political activist, social theorist and feminist. Despite her works having a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory, she did not consider herself to be a philosopher. De Beauvoir’s most noteworthy work, The Second Sex, was a detailed analysis of women’s oppression throughout history. Amongst the many topics that were covered by de Beauvoir in her two-volume book was the topic of authentic love in the chapter The Woman in Love.

Simone de Beauvoir believes the reason for many of the disagreements between men and women their different understandings of the meaning of the word “love”. According to her, Lord Byron was correct in saying that men consider love to be an occupation whilst women consider it to be life itself.

‘Men might be passionate lovers at certain moments of their existence, but there is not one who could be defined as ‘a man in love’; in their most violent passions, they never abandon themselves completely; even if they fall on their knees before their mistresses, they still wish to possess them, annex them; at the heart of their lives, they remain sovereign subjects; the woman they love is merely one value among others; they want to integrate her into their existence, not submerge their entire existence in her.’ (The Second Sex 699)

De Beauvoir believed that men valued their women as much as they valued their other pursuits, integral and important, but only a part of their lives, not their life itself. De Beauvoir stated that a man could never be considered as ‘a man in love’, at least not whilst practicing inauthentic, romantic love. She believed that the entire purpose of such a romantic love was to possess the woman, to make her a part of his life, another addition to his list of possessions. Women, on the other hand, were expected to make love the essence of their whole existence: ‘total abdication for the benefit of a master’ (The Second Sex 699).

De Beauvoir shuns the idea of romantic love by saying that it is only a means to oppress and limit women from transcending their limited roles as a wife and mother. She says that the danger of romantic love is that it forces women and men to live in mauvaise foi, or bad faith, instead of transcending and trying to achieve their individual autonomy. Inauthentic love prevents women from doing so and instead subjugates them to a life of pleasing their lover by being all that he could possibly ever need and nothing more than that.

De Beauvoir, in her time, saw many implicit and explicit assumptions which stated that being in love for a woman must involve forgetting themselves as their own person, in their own right. Several sages’ advices are cited in The Second Sex, including one from Cécile Sauvage: ‘When the woman loves, she must forget her own personality. This is a law of nature. A woman does not exist without a master.’ (The Second Sex 700)

According to De Beauvoir, the laws of nature were not the one to be blamed, but the laws of culture. Since birth, men have been told that they’re a subject who are completely themselves. That they are essential and are expected to be active in all spheres of their life. They are not only expected to love but also to be ambitious and to act in all other domains. Women, however, were considered to be inessential, they were considered to be the other. Hence, women dream of fusing with the sovereign subject, to become one with the absolute and the essential. This is her only way out. She’d rather submit willingly to the man she considers to be God than give in to other ‘tyrants’ (The Second Sex 700) like parents, husband or protector. She chooses to be enslaved by the man she loves and considers this to be the expression of her freedom. She tries to overcome her situation as the inessential by accepting it, by claiming it for herself and losing herself in a person who is considered to be essential i.e. a man, and deifies him and worships him. Consequently, she starts to look at herself from his vision, from his viewpoint. Hence, women were always told that their value was dependent on whether a man loved her or not. ‘The young girl has dreamed of herself as seen through the man’s eyes: it is in man’s eyes that the woman believes she has at last found herself’ (The Second Sex 703). In this way, women try to find themselves using men not as a guiding light but as their personal identity dictionary, one that defines who they are, what they are and how much they are worth.

Simone de Beauvoir says that one of the barriers to achieving authentic love was women’s willingness to objectify themselves in at attempt to identify with men.

‘She first sought in love a confirmation of what she was, her past, her personage; but she also commits her future: to justify it she destines it to the one who possess all values; she thus gives up her transcendence: she subordinates it to that of the essential other whose vassal and slave she makes herself. It is to find herself, to save herself that she began by losing herself in him: the fact is that little by little she loses herself; all reality is in the other.’ (The Second Sex 708)

The woman, when in love, tries to see herself through her lover’s eyes, basing everything about herself around him: she reads his favourite novels, listens to his favourite songs, grounds herself in his ideas and his friends, even his political ideas become hers, etc.

‘When she questions herself, she endeavours to hear the answer he gives; she wants the air he has already breathed in her lungs; the fruits and flowers she has not received from his hands have neither fragrance nor taste; even her pedological space is upset: the centre of the world is no longer where she is but where the beloved is; all roads leave from and lead to his house.’ (The Second Sex 710)

In him, she finds her raison d’être. She doesn’t want anything but to fulfil her lover’s wants. The only thing that would make her unhappy is if her lover were to not demand anything of her. All of her features, her face, her body, her me, have found a raison d’être because of her lover. She appreciates all of these qualities about her, through the eyes of her beloved. She loves them because he does. If certain qualities are not of use or not desirable to her lover, she eliminates them. Everything that he hates, she disowns.

‘She would like to devote to him each beat of her heart, each drop of blood, the marrow of her bones; this is what a dream of martyrdom expresses: to exaggerate the gift of self to the point of torture, of death, to be the ground the beloved treads on, to be nothing but that which responds to his call.’ (The Second Sex 708)

De Beauvoir states that, even sexually, women are used as ‘instruments’ for achieving male pleasure rather than as sexual subjects themselves whose desires should also be taken into account.

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The Evolution of the Concept of Love: Plato Versus Simone de Beauvoir. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-evolution-of-the-concept-of-love-plato-versus-simone-de-beauvoir/
“The Evolution of the Concept of Love: Plato Versus Simone de Beauvoir.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-evolution-of-the-concept-of-love-plato-versus-simone-de-beauvoir/
The Evolution of the Concept of Love: Plato Versus Simone de Beauvoir. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-evolution-of-the-concept-of-love-plato-versus-simone-de-beauvoir/> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2022].
The Evolution of the Concept of Love: Plato Versus Simone de Beauvoir [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2022 Dec 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-evolution-of-the-concept-of-love-plato-versus-simone-de-beauvoir/
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