A Tale of two Loves


“Mortals call him fluttering love,
But the immortals call him winged one,
Because the growing of wings is a necessity to him.”

                                    Plato, Phaedrus

by Edward Spence

Apollo dates Aphrodite?

Tinafto pou to lene agape Socrate, what is this thing called love Socrates, asks Diotima, the mystery woman from Mantinea? I haven’t got a clue, is Socrates’ reply. If the man declared by the oracle of Delphi as the wisest among mortals doesn’t know, what chance do the rest of us have in answering that question?

One way to approach this stubbornly difficult question is to look at it from two seemingly opposed and irreconcilable perspectives that we’ve inherited from Greek Mythology: that of Aphrodite and Apollo – the two extreme ends of the spectrum or should we say, kaleidoscope of love.
If indeed irreconcilable, do we choose carnal love as inspired by the Cyprian Aphrodite, goddess of Eros, which grounds love in the hedonistic pleasures of the body, and which, as the chorus in Antigone warns us, drives men and women mad, or the spiritual love of the mind, as inspired by the Sun god, Apollo? Why can’t we have both? In a manner of speaking we can, but we first need to learn not to be afraid of heights. For love according to Plato, is not about falling but about flying. But before one can learn to fly upwards towards Apollo one must first learn to swim deep in Aphrodite’s secret caves of the sea. All love is paradoxical, a thing that attracted Plato and Socrates since philosophers love paradoxes.

From Love of Reason to Love of the Good and the Beautiful

It was Plato’s love of reason that may have led him to examine the concept of love in itself. Love lies at the very heart of Plato’s philosophy and his dialogue on love the Symposium is, together with the Republic, the most important of Plato’s philosophical works. Because Love is the corner stone of Plato’s philosophy it renders his philosophy both universal and relevant for all times and all places. For if Love is universal and relevant for everyone, for isn’t everyone interested in love, so is Plato’s philosophy.

When Love Goes Wrong Nothing Goes Right

But not all kinds of love will do. For as Marilyn Monroe informs us in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “when love goes wrong nothing goes right”.  Plato would have agreed. For according to Plato, things can only go right with the right kind of love. If love goes wrong it is because the love pursued is the wrong kind of love. Love will never go wrong if it is of the right kind. This is roughly what Plato, through Socrates and Diotima, the mysterious woman from Mantinaea, claims in his dialogue the Symposium, which comprises a series of speeches, seven in all, given in honour of Eros or Love by the guests at a dinner party (symposium) held in Athens around 416 BC.

Aristophanes’ Speech on the Origins of Romantic Love

Apart from Diotima’s speech on Platonic Love, Aristophanes’ speech on the origins of Romantic Love is by far the most important speech in the Symposium. Aristophanes’ speech marks a sharp point of departure from the speeches on love that precede it. Whereas those speeches present love as a god or a goddess, Aristophanes’ speech presents love not as a god but as a longing for wholeness.

Aristophanes offers a story dealing with human nature and the human condition. Human beings were once spherical, with eight limbs like an octopus (think before you next throw that octopus on the barbie – you may be committing cannibalism), four arms and four legs, one head with two faces and four ears and two sets of genitals, male or female, or both, so that they were any one of three kinds: male-male, male-female, and female-female. One day they offended the gods and to punish them Zeus cut them in half, scattering the two severed halves in opposite directions. Since that day, we are always searching for our other half. When a half meets its other half, they are overcome by Eros and they delight in being with each other. The reason for this is not, or at least not merely, a desire for sexual intercourse: on the contrary, the soul of each wish for something it cannot be put into words. Lovers desire to live a common life and die a common death, to become One again, in a complete and lasting union. The reason is that this is our ancient nature when we were once a unified Whole. “Eros” Aristophanes tells us, “Is the desire and pursuit of Wholeness”.

Aristophanes’ Story is the Story of the Fall

Aristophanes’ story is the story of the Fall; not dissimilar to that of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Heaven. We need healing, precisely because, when whole, we were impious and arrogant, prepared in our wholeness to challenge the gods.  We find an analogous story of humanity’s fall from grace in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus. In that dialogue, Socrates relates to the character Phaedrus, who also features in the Symposium, how our souls were once winged and circled the heavens with the gods until getting too close to earth, became enamored with its sights and sounds and losing their wings, crash-landed to earth like Ikaros. But once in a while upon encountering the face of the beloved our souls become amorously and strangely agitated and growing wings again long to take flight to the heavens from which they came (next time you get an incessant itch under your armpits make sure you hold onto to something heavy).

The Paradox of Romantic Love

Love as wholeness, however, is forever frustrated. For if the aim of love is wholeness it is an aim that cannot be achieved. Despite the impulse toward union and wholeness, lovers are inherently and essentially separate. It is their bodies through which they express their union and their love, which is the cause of their separation. That which expresses their longing and desire for wholeness is what divides them and keeps them apart. The paradox of love is in fact a double-paradox. It was originally our wholeness that through its arrogance led to our separation. Now it is our separation that forever frustrates our efforts to recover our original wholeness. That which expresses our wholeness, which our souls desire and seek, is what forever divides us and keeps us apart. Romantic love is essentially mediated by the body which is a cause of our separation rather than our union. We are creatures of a longing that in principle and in practice cannot be fulfilled. We crave for wholeness through union of our souls, which the physical separation of our bodies hinders us from ever achieving.

Aristophanes’ speech itself presents us with no resolution to the paradox of love. Aristophanes offers a myth on love that begins in comedy and ends in a vision of the human condition that is inherently tragic.

Plato Offers a Beacon of Light

Just when things look bleak and beyond redemption, Plato offers us a beacon of light through his vision of Platonic Love. It is a vision expressed poignantly by Diotima, the mystery woman from Mantinea. Diotima tells Socrates, who wisely feigns and expresses ignorance on matters of love (he wasn’t known as the wisest for nothing), that romantic love implies a longing for immortality which, in essence, cannot be fulfilled by love for another mortal body, no matter how beautiful that body is. Aristophanes’ claim that lovers wish for something other than sexual gratification, a permanent union that they cannot fully describe but only something to which they can obscurely aspire, anticipates Diotima’s account of Eros. Her account of love, as a longing for immortality, can ultimately lead one to the highest form of love, love of the Beautiful itself. According to Diotima, the most fundamental desire of our nature is not for another human being, but for that which never changes, immortal Beauty itself.

Three Stages in Diotima’s Vision of Love

Diotima’s account of Eros proceeds through three main stages. First, Diotima defines Eros as the wish for happiness and happiness as the possession of good and beautiful things for ever. In the second stage, Diotima turns to the works of Eros and claims that Eros aims at immortality through generation both with respect to the body and the soul. In the third stage, the Greater Mysteries of Eros, the lover ascends as by a ladder from bodily beauty, through spiritual and intellectual beauties to the contemplation of the Beautiful and the Good itself, and there if anywhere, as Diotima says, the lover becomes immortal.

Eros not a God but an Intermediary

Like Aristophanes, Diotima claims that Eros is not a god. What is he then, Socrates asks, “it is a demon Socrates” she replies “a very powerful spirit that lies halfway between the human and the divine”. Although Eros is not himself divine he acts as an intermediary between the divine and the human realms and binds them together into a unity. In this sense Eros is like a philosopher, who as the lover of wisdom, tries to mediate between ignorance and wisdom. As an intermediary between heaven and earth, Eros is our guide to heavenly love, which ultimately consists in the contemplation of the Beautiful and the Good itself. In this final stage, a kind of erotic Nirvana, the lover becomes one with the Beautiful and the Good, and recovers his lost wholeness.

Platonic Love is a Dynamic Continuum

We can think of Plato’s vision of love as comprising an inclusive and dynamic continuum between the lowest form of love – lustful or carnal love and the highest form of love, love of the Beautiful and the Good itself. In between there are various other kinds of love including romantic love, familial love and friendship.

The Nexus between Platonic Love and Christian Agape

If we substitute the Beautiful and the Good with God, we get an early version of Christianity. Not surprising, Plato had a substantial influence on Christianity, something for which he was accused by Nietzsche who labeled Christianity as “Plato for the people”. We can see Love of the Beautiful and the Good as analogous to love of God, through Jesus Christ as God incarnate. And as Christ is traditionally presented as the medium or intermediary between the human and the divine, He is in a sense analogous to Eros. He is the embodiment of Eros and Philosophy as both Eros and Philosophy are, according to Diotima, intermediaries between the human and the divine. Moreover, like Platonic Eros and Philosophy, Christ is presented as the One who can heal the rift between us and God and help us recover our original divine state of wholeness prior to the Fall. So both Platonic love and Christian Agape can be understood as means to redemption and salvation. And like love of God, Platonic Love is transcendent – although immanent in this world, it also extends beyond this world to another more perfect world.

Importantly, Love is both the metaphysical and existential foundational nucleus that lies at the heart of both Platonic philosophy and Christianity and provides them with a unique ethics based almost exclusively on love.  More importantly still, love is the bridge that both links and unites Plato’s pagan philosophy with Christianity whose central doctrine, like that of Platonic philosophy, is love (all together now let us raise our voices in unison and sing the Beatles chorus “all you need is love…love is all you need).

The Resolution of the Paradox of Love

Like, Socrates, platonic lovers can be re-united with their true love, the Beautiful and the Good and through that spiritual union, become One with the Beautiful and the Good and regain their lost wholeness. United in wholeness with the Beautiful and Good itself, the platonic lovers can never again challenge the gods as in Aristophanean romantic love, for the Good and God are One. Thus in union with the Beautiful and the Good, platonic lovers become One with God and recover their primordial unity and wholeness.

The double paradox of Aristophanean love is thus resolved. Spiritual union with the Beautiful and the Good removes and heals completely the Aristophanean severance of lost souls looking for their other halves. Simultaneously, the soul’s recovered wholeness, through union with the Beautiful and the Good, re-instates the soul to its original state of primordial grace. Now the lover and the beloved become once more an undifferentiated and indissoluble One in a movement of grace that manifests the ever-presence of the Beautiful and the Good; a grace similar to that of the movement of the stars that manifestly bear witness to the absolute presence of light. Once more, Apollo the Sun star and Aphrodite the evening and morning star accompanying Apollo on his rises and settings, are aligned in harmony.

Beauty is a call, a call to love and pursuit of the Good, the other aspect of Platonic love. For the Greek word used by Plato in the Symposium, for beauty and the good is one word, the word “Kalo”.  And whereas kalo as the beautiful provides Plato’s concept of love with its aesthetic dimension, kalo as the good, provides it with its ethical aspect.  Thus platonic Eros has a dual irreducible aspect: It is at once aesthetic and ethical: both an aspiration towards the Beautiful and the Good.


Note: The above article is an edited version of a talk and a play performance based on an original play by Edward Spence, The Philosophy of Love: Love in the Age of Terror, presented by Edward Spence for the 22nd Greek Festival of Sydney on 28 March, 2004 at the Sydney Opera House. This event was also recorded and broadcast as a one hour program on “Big Ideas” for ABC Radio National. The talk and play were also presented at the Adelaide Fringe Festival on 5-7 March 2004, at Coriole Vineyards at McLaren Vale, South Australia.


A Biographical Note on Edward Spence

Edward Spence, BA (Hons), PhD (University of Sydney), is of Greek and Irish heritage, steeped in the rich Hellenic and Celtic traditions of Retsina and Guinness.  He is a senior lecturer in moral philosophy and professional ethics in the School of Communication, Charles Sturt University. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) in Canberra. CAPPE is a Special Research Centre funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC). CAPPE is co-hosted by Charles Sturt University, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University.
He is the lead author of Advertising Ethics 2004, Prentice Hall, USA, and co-author of Corruption and Anti-Corruption: A Philosophical Approach, 2004, Prentice Hall, USA; He is the author of Ethics Within Reason, Lexington Books, USA (an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield), forthcoming. He is also the author of several refereed papers in national and international journals on professional ethics, including media ethics.
He is the founder and producer of the Philosophy Plays project whose aim is the introduction of philosophy to the general public. Conceived by Edward in 1997 now in its 8th year, the Philosophy Plays project combines philosophical talks presented by academic philosophers with original plays performed by professional actors in public forums which can take the form of a restaurant, pub, theatre, vineyard, opera house, or other type of venue accessible to the public. Several philosophy plays have been produced and presented by Edward at Arts and Cultural Festivals including the Adelaide Fringe Festival and the Greek Festival of Sydney. His Philosophy of Love play was recently performed at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 2004 Greek Festival of Sydney. The performance of the plays is designed to illustrate dramatically the key abstract ideas in the philosophical presentations. Each performance is followed by audience participation through discussion.


  1. Edward, what an interesting treatise on the aspects of love. No doubt the Greek philosophers plumbed the truth of it all. You have now inspired me to read up on Plato and Socrates. Years ago, I read Stendhal’s “Love” – an analysis of the subject written after his unrequited love affair. Thanks so much for a fascinating read. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    1. Hello Gabrielle,

      Edward is a Philosopher as far as I am concerned and a good friend of mine. He’s from Sydney (good things come from Sydney too) but last I heard of him he had joined a research team at the University of Holland. He has many interesting articles, and doesn’t only discuss philosophy in writing, but also practicing it in his own life. This piece was given to me by Edward himself when he was still in Australia and it was first published in a Classical journal by the name of “Athena” where I was the editor for a few years. I may try and get in contact with him.

      However for those in our midst who speak Greek I have translated this lovely article into Greek and it will be published on Diasporic Literature in a few days.


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