Love is an omnipresent phenomenon that has pursued humankind since the dawn of our existence. The experience of love is a sensation that can be attributed to a benevolent and infinite power. Love can be considered a form of faith due to the fact that the loved individual becomes the source of som ultimate concern. In my relatively short time living in this world, love has still managed to integrate itself into many of my thoughts, and it has greatly altered my past choices and current state of being.
Plato’s Phaedrus consists of a dialogue where Socrates speaks about his own viewpoint towards love, and I strongly agree with many of his opinions. Many people have attempted to explicitly define love; however, love cannot be fully understood due to humankind’s limited perspective on infinite concepts. Keeping this fact in mind, I do believe that Socrates’ explanations are quite good. He exemplifies rich symbols of faith, and “symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate” (Tillich 47). However, Socrates only begins to scratch the surface of successfully depicting love’s complicated explanation.
Plato’s use of extensive literary devices, symbols, and myths has helped me better comprehend the infinite nature of the process of love and my own personal feelings towards the beneficial and divine elements of this elusive experience of faith that we all inevitably face. A common quality accredited to God, or any infinite being, is love. We are granted the ability to fall in love ourselves. Since we are able to feel such powerful emotions, this allows us to sense and encounter the infinite. Falling in love with someone unites us with one of the infinite’s greatest characteristics.
Socrates’ palinode utilizes a myth of human souls growing wings. Socrates states, “the divine being beautiful, wise, good and everything which is of that kind; so it is by these things that the plumage of the soul is nourished and increased” (Plato 246e1-e3). These wings are a divine gift, so they grow when someone experiences love, which is an act of divine nature. These wings are purposeful, and once they have fully grown, they are able to function properly. Socrates explains, “The natural property of a wing is to carry what is heavy upwards, lifting it aloft to the region where the race of the gods resides” (Plato 246d6-d8).
These wings, which are developed by love, elevate our souls to be united with a higher existence. This acknowledges the ultimate reward of love where two people are able to lift each other up past their own dimensions of being. Reaching a state of the divine and immortality with another person is truly rewarding and beneficial, but the journey to this point is long and wavering. Due to the elevated emotions of love, as in any form of faith, a certain element of risk is present. When we truly love someone, we place them in the center of our beings.
Humans are mortal and flawed, and loving another person leads to the possibility of eventually losing them, which results in losing a part of yourself. Referring back to Socrates’ wing myth, one can note that the wings of a person’s soul also experiences a lot of damage due to a soul’s exposure to shameful and nondivine acts. The battle between growth and destruction depicts love well, because love is a process where not everyone finds a happy conclusion. In order to reach our final destination of love, an elevated sense of being, we must valiantly haul ourselves through a thick terrain of burning emotions and madness.
Love can be equated to an emotional seesaw where one end leaves us feeling filled with ecstasy while the other side is brimming with pain. These two intense emotions follow each other, and you cannot experience one without the other. The contrast between these feelings can cause us to go mad. The fact that love, our ultimate concern, is uncertain can drive rn, is uncertain can drive anyone a little crazy. Visualizing our wings perishing, discarded in a frayed and torn state, is terrifying. However, it is well worthwhile.
Socrates elaborates on this concept by saying, “the ancients testify to the fact that god-sent madness is a finer thing than man-made sanity” (244d2-d4). The madness of divine-sent love allows us to feel emotions deeper than we ever deemed possible in a state of finite sanity. These feelings are beautifully depicted in the passage where Socrates states, “So when it gazes at the boy’s beauty… it experiences relief from its anguish and is filled with joy; but when it is apart and becomes parched, the openings of the passages… throb like pulsing arteries…
SO that the entire soul, stung all over, goes mad with pain; but then, remembering the boy with his beauty, it rejoices again” (251c6d8). The reasoning behind these cycling emotions originates from the risks of our faith in love. In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich explains, “herein lies the greatness and pain of being a human; namely, one’s standing between one’s finitude and one’s potential infinity” (21). We are innately aware of love’s elevating capabilities, and our fear of being trapped in a state of finitude causes these maddening and intense emotions of ecstasy and pain.
In the words of Plato, “[people] looking upwards like a bird, and taking no heed of the things below, causes him to be regarded as mad” (249d8-e1) and “[people are] entombed in this thing which we carry round with us and call body, imprisoned like oysters” (250c5-c6). We long to be elevated, lifted up by our wings, and freed from our finite captivity. While we trek through this progression of love, a state of dueling feelings and madness, we must find some sense of reasoning in order to survive. People who are in love are experiencing elements of infinity, while they are still trapped within finite boundaries.
Our sense of reasoning gives us the ability to comprehend these infinite components. Dynamics of Faith addresses this idea by saying, “reason is not bound to its own finitude. It is aware of it and, in so doing, rises above it” (Tillich 87) and “If reason is grasped by an ultimate concern, it is driven beyond itself” (Tillich 88). Plato also comments on this topic when he equates our reasoning abilities to a charioteer and his two horses. In this metaphor, the first horse is described as “a lover of honour when joined with restraint and a sense of shame, and a companion of true glory, needing no whip” (Plato 253d7-e1).
This horse resembles the passionate and romanticized elements of love, and it is an allegorical depiction of Freud’s superego. The other horse is referred to as a “companion of excess and boastfulness… hardly yielding to whip” (Plato 253e4-e5). This horse represents love’s lustful and impulsive behaviors, which can be equated to a person’s Freudian id. The final component of this metaphor is the charioteer. The charioteer depicts the ego, whose responsibility is to monitor both the superego and id. The charioteer is reasoning, and he or she is capable of navigating the two horses and maintaining control.
Without reasoning, the two horses of love will never successfully travel together in the correct direction. Love needs reasoning. Reasoning guides love to the “outer part of the heavens” (Plato c1). Socrates explains, ‘When it arrives there, the charioteer stations his horses at their manger, throwing them ambrosia and giving them nectar to drink down with the ambrosia” (Plato 247e4-e7). The horse’s manger, their home, is located in this infinite location due to the fact that love originates from the divine. The horses benefit greatly from their relationship with reasoning; however, this relationship is mutually beneficial.
It is important to note that the charioteer relies on the horses in order to proceed forward. The charioteer remains motionless without the two horses. Reasoning needs love in order to rise beyond itself. Together, the charioteer and the two horses pursue the treacherous route towards an infinite state of existence, the end goal of love. After understanding all of these incredibly important components of love through the use of symbolic language and the human experience of faith, it is still tricky to answer that confounding question: What is love?
In my opinion, attempting to define love into some form of human language is not only impossible, but slightly belittling to this divine experience. No definition can thoroughly pay love enough homage and respect that it deserves. Although humankind cannot fully describe love in any perfect combination of words, authors like Plato manage to captivate and describe beautiful fragments of the grand scheme of love. Truly being in love with a person elevates us to a higher state of being. It is ultimately rewarding.
Along the way, love forces us to feel the world around us deeper and sharper than we deemed possible. Happiness morphs into a state of frenzied ecstasy. Sadness turns into searing pain. Love is an ultimate concern and a form of faith. Love is all-encompassing, and we feel sometimes that we are actually losing our minds. Maybe we are. Suddenly, one person becomes so deeply engrained within us that the moment they are away, we feel as though we are breathing through a straw. We can still take in oxygen and survive, but we are constantly begging for more.
Love is an addiction, but the ecstasy of love is far greater than the ecstasy delivered by any amount of a finite drug. Love is a partnership between reasoning and our feelings of romance and lust. Love is a state of being. Love is so many things. Love is captivating, crushing, maddening, agonizing-love is chaos. No amount of collaborative wisdom held by all of humankind will ever fully grasp the expansive and overwhelming nature of love. All I know is that this exhausting phenomenon is truly a divine gift and it is the most beneficial and incredibly worthwhile occurrence that one can ever hope to experience.