January 10, 2014 6:57 pm

Lessons in love from the ancients

‘We don’t speak much about love any more; we would rather talk about relationships and sex’

Listening to a radio programme about Plato’s dialogue The Symposium led me into reflections on devaluation. The devaluation in question was not of the pound, the euro or the dollar but of the language of love. The Symposium, you may remember, is a discussion of the nature of love, consisting of speeches made by participants at an Athenian dinner party held in 416BC. The date is precise because the dinner is a celebration of the first victory in the Athenian dramatic competition of the tragedian Agathon, who gives the floweriest of all the speeches. The dialogue was probably written around 380BC, long after the events it describes, and nearly 20 years after the execution of its main character, Socrates.

So we are talking about a work of literature written nearly 2,400 years ago. A prevailing view is that anything written that long ago must be “primitive”. Surely we have progressed since then. No one would deny immense material advances; but rereading the dialogue made me think that with all our marvellous technical progress had come a strange impoverishment in the way we speak about love.

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Harry Eyres

Actually, it seems to me, we don’t speak much about love any more (though we retain a mystical belief in it that we prefer not to speak about). We would rather speak about relationships and sex. You can get relationship and sex therapy on the National Health Service in Britain, but anyone asking for love therapy free at the point of delivery might be looked at askance.

Surely this way of speaking is both more realistic and more scientific. Love is an ideal, like an elusive perfume, but relationships are the nitty-gritty, the crucible where all our “issues” are played out. And sex, as we know from the study of animal behaviour and popular music videos, is what makes the world go round.

We are not the first people to study animal behaviour. The Greeks were also fascinated by it. The climax of The Symposium, and its most profound insights, come in the speech made by Socrates, in which the snub-nosed philosopher relates the lessons about love taught to him by a mysterious priestess called Diotima. Diotima draws Socrates’ attention to the behaviour of animals, who when gripped by “violent lovesickness” first “desire union with one another”, then go to the most extreme lengths to provide for their young. The reason is that all mortal nature, whether human or animal, seeks to perpetuate itself and become immortal. This does not seem so far from Richard Dawkins’s idea of the selfish gene, but the spin put on it could hardly be more different.

One of the key differences is that procreation for humans, according to Diotima, can be spiritual as well as physical. Examples of spiritual procreation are poetry and the making of laws. These are superior to the creation of children. Love aims at the good, and beauty leads lovers towards that end, starting with physical beauty and progressing to spiritual beauty, and eventually to that absolute beauty in which true goodness is produced.

You might find these thoughts impossibly lofty; you might also be struck by their generosity and all-embracing nature. Our romantic notion of love – the one we cling to but prefer not to talk about – is centripetal, an idea of a couple finding refuge in each other against the indifference of a hostile world, as in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”. The Platonic idea in The Symposium is centrifugal, starting with physical passion for one person (people who think Platonic love is non-physical should reread The Symposium) but going beyond that to embrace all beauty and goodness.

For the despairing Arnold, the world “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light”. Plato implies that those qualities exist in abundance, for people whose minds are attuned to them. Arnold’s bleak view has prevailed for most of the century and a half since “Dover Beach” was written. But one contemporary writer and thinker who has more in common with Plato than Arnold is Satish Kumar. Kumar, a former Jain monk, founder of the Small School in Hartland, southwest England, and the editor of Resurgence magazine for the past 45 years, seems to have a belief in the intrinsic goodness of the world. This starts with a love of, and trust in, the earth as the great maternal protector and provider of mankind. His recent book Soil, Soul, Society is a plea for humanity to reconnect with a nature from which we are increasingly alienated – with which we are in effect at war. Kumar’s guides here are Gandhi, who said “nature provides enough for everybody’s needs but not enough for even one person’s greed”; Tagore, who encouraged outdoor education; and the visionary economist EF Schumacher.

Rather amazingly, Kumar does not just see the earth as good, or divine, but also believes in the goodness of people. Setting out on a peace walk from India to Washington at the height of the Vietnam war with no money, he encountered, in the overwhelming main, generosity and hospitality. Some kinds of love can be quite infectious.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

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