Love is central to the human experience. Brutal wars have been waged over it, an abundance of people have died over it, political institutions have been reformed and sociopolitical remediation efforts have been undertaken in its name. In fact, the entire trajectory of human society has been, in some form or another, molded by its firm grip. It is no surprise, then, that the notion of love is repeated time and time again within the most preeminent texts of human history, an experience at once deeply personal and yet shared by people across physical and temporal boundaries. Two works, however, Plato’s Symposium and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are built on a multifaceted and complex conception of love that puts them head and shoulders above the rest; like peeling an onion, each underlying layer of these texts reveals new insights into love’s shape, spread, consistency, and evolution. In this context I argue that, while Symposium portrays love primarily as aimed towards the acquisition of immortality, in the process inspiring intellectual, spiritual, and moral transcendence, Metamorphoses paints love as an ultimately predatory, animalistic, and vulgar interaction. Nonetheless, both works assert that love is ultimately unidirectional, with clear differentials of power between lover and beloved.
Plato portrays love as fascinatingly complex, essential for improving the human condition, and aimed primarily towards the acquisition of immortality. According to Plato, love is what we call our “…pursuit of wholeness,” our desire to complete those parts of ourselves we deem lacking or unremarkable. In and of itself, love is not a divine entity who must be appeased, but rather, it is a “…spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire,” guiding one towards wisdom, beauty, and philosophical exploration. To this end, love has an unparalleled ability to elevate human consciousness, one’s attention to moral rules and regulations, and as such, is essential for the good of society more broadly. If there were “…some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved,” Plato reasons, then “they would be the very best governors of their own city,” shunning away all dishonorable behaviors – for what lover would abandon his post in war, or act with cowardice and self-interest, at the risk of losing his beloved’s affection? And yet love, Plato asserts, is not only driven by social incentives and disincentives, but is even further concerned with establishing a form of universal harmony. Like music and medicine, a beautifully tuned lyre or elegantly composed poetry, love is about taking from the world’s chaos seemingly discordant elements and molding them into the most opulent constructions; love craves somatic and spiritual unity, cultivates health and moderation, and mediates human ascension.
It is particularly this theme of transcendence that is critical to Plato’s notions about love’s inherent nature; it is not merely an emotion one feels at that instant one calls here and now, but love is instead a ladder whose ascension requires a life-long process of self-awakening. As Plato indicates, a person in their youth is primarily attracted to the physical beauty of a single person, the most basic stage of love (stage 1). Upon deeper reflection, however, one realizes that “…the beauty of any one body hardly differs from that of any other body.” In this way, one begins to regard physical beauty of all beings as identical and develops an infatuation with a conception of the aesthetic (stage 2). This development naturally leads to the recognition that ideas (i.e. products of the mind), and not just physical forms, are also beautiful, motivating the lover to explore and interact with a boundless universe of knowledge divorced from the physical realm. Lovers, at this point in their journey, become full-fledged philosophers of love, dissecting its components with surgical precision until they stumble upon a raw beauty appearing neither as “a face or hands or any other physical feature,” nor as “a piece of reasoning or knowledge,” but instead as a Good existing “in itself and by itself, constant and eternal” (stage 4). In this way, Plato shows that the process of love not only requires a metamorphosis of the individual towards achieving one’s potential, but that it is also a method of obtaining “permanent possession of goodness for oneself.” Through physical and cognitive “lovemaking,” one can obtain a crude form of immortality and infuse oneself in the intellectual mosaic of humanity. Ultimately, Plato argues that the advancement from childhood simplicity towards existential immortality is the work of love.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses also implicates love in inspiring a whole host of diverse transformations, although it must be noted that this text is far more pessimistic in its portrayal of love than the work of Plato. While Plato might argue that Ovid reaches such a negative conception of love primarily because he is concerned with its “common” form – that is, a love preoccupied not with producing wisdom but instead with a lust of the body – Ovid nonetheless portrays the love of gods and mortals alike as destabilizing, a nefarious force that overwhelms reason and instigates self-indulgence. Jove, for instance, the most esteemed and supposedly just of the Olympians, transforms into a bull prior to grotesquely raping Europa; Daphne, by the same token, when pursued by a love-mad Apollo, transforms into a Laurel Tree in a desperate attempt to evade unwanted advances; Narcissus, furthermore, upon catching a glimpse of his “youthful cheeks, ivory neck, [and] the beauty of his face…” falls deeply in love with his own reflection, his vanity ultimately leading to his death and subsequent transformation. Even Ovid’s particular use of imagery surrounding such instances – references to wolves chasing lambs, eagles pouncing on fluttering doves, and brutal bloodhounds closing in on their prey – paints a picture of love as wholly animalistic and barbarian, far removed from Plato’s conception that it can inspire both intellectualism and moral rectification. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Ovid’s depiction of Eros himself, the agent and bringer of love, is negative as well; specifically, his representation as an infant squabbling with Apollo over the size of his bow is meant to illustrate the petty and infantile characteristics of love – a state of being concerned with nothing more sophisticated than fulfilling the innate desires that drive us. Ovidian love, then, is predicated on invasions of civil liberties, unapologetic instances of misogyny, and failing tests of moral character. Ultimately, Ovid argues that one must move far away from, rather than evolve staunchly toward, the curse of love.
While Symposium and Metamorphoses have starkly differing opinions about love’s character, influence, and predilections for influencing human morality, both texts converge in their portrayal of love as conferring a sort of unidirectionality. In Symposium, there is a clear asymmetry, with the exception of Socrates and Alcibiades, between lovers (older men of high status and intellectual prowess) and their subordinate beloveds (younger males in the final stages of puberty). The ideal relationship of student-teacher love, according to Plato, occurs when the lover pursues the beloved on account of his beauty, but is not actively pursued in return, his advances only passively accepted. The beloved, instead, willingly enters a state of “…subjection for the sake of virtue,” offering the pleasures of his body for the opportunity to learn and become wise. In Metamorphoses, the notion of love as inherently asymmetric is also prevalent, occurring most notably when Eros shoots Apollo and Daphne with two diametrically opposed arrows; while Apollo’s golden arrow causes him to fall in love with his beloved, Daphne’s lead arrow causes her to flee at the sight of Apollo’s hopeless advances. Eventually, Daphne’s transformation into a Laurel Tree completes the narrative of inequality, silencing her voice, constricting her physical mobility, and putting her at the mercy of Apollo’s personal interests. Indeed, love in both texts is portrayed as a profoundly polarizing affair that splits its participants into disproportionate, and ultimately hierarchical, differentials of power, designating one partner as a dominant agent of love and the other as submissive in their acceptance of it.
Ultimately, Symposium and Metamorphoses, while differing substantially in their interpretation of love, allow readers to appreciate the complexity of its structure and the broadness of its application to core components of the human experience. According to Ovid, certain forms of love underlie our most raw and animalistic desires, while other facets of love, according to Plato, offer profound room for intellectual exploration; some components bring harmony and balance to previously incommensurable components of the world while others breed nothing more than chaos and disorder. Love is implicated in timeless questions of morality, mortality, and sociodemographic inequality – for better or worse, it encompasses all of our actions, thoughts, and hopes for the future.
Nehamas, A., & Woodruff, P. (1989). Plato: Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Ovid, and David Raeburn. Metamorphoses. Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.
Masih Tazhibi, Columbia University