Unethical Love

10 July 2015
Dr. Dionisis Mentzeniotis
Unethical Love

Unethical Love

Plato’s Symposium is one of the most polyprismatic texts on Eros. Indeed, in view of the Symposium, one can say – paraphrasing Italo Calvino’s description of Aglaura, one of his ‘Invisible Cities’ – that “everything which has previously been said of Eros imprisons the words and forces you to retell rather than to tell”. This ‘retelling’, however, if we do not submit ourselves to the needs of a mechanical rhetoric, is also an opportunity for us to appropriate its meaning, to understand ourselves, and to determine the very bases of our ideological interrelations with the world. It is a call to self-knowledge.

Let us, then, try to think – with Plato’s help – and feel what Eros is. What is this passion that is cursed as irrational and destructive, and praised as the origin of just about everything? What is this passion that, on the one hand, possesses cosmogonic powers, and, on the other hand, we hold responsible for the demise of Adam and Eve (though for some this is the original ‘arranged marriage’, based – of course – on the wisdom of the arranger, and not Eros), Abelard and Heloise (or should I write Hell-oise?), Romeo and Juliet, and King Kong?

Once we endeavor to understand Eros, it – trying to honor its pronouncement as irrational and destructive – evades coherence and tears us apart between bestiality and divinity, between considerations of dependence and autonomy, security and the dubious freedom to remain ‘uncommitted’.

For Plato, Eros is a relational being; it is an intermediary, a mediator between gods and humans. Eros is the communicative space between being god and being human. Eros is the middle; it is ‘betweenness’. It should be noted, however, that Eros is not a ‘god of the gaps’; this is Hermes’s job. Hermes, the merriest Olympian, usually represented with an erected phallus (hermae), is the one who inhabits a realm between Zeus and Hades and between Hades and mortals. He mediates between waking and dreaming, day and night. He is the ‘marshal of dreams’ and the ‘master of sleep’. Liminality or marginality is his very essence. Hermes is also linked with Aphrodite: he is erotic but his eroticism is stealthy, sly and amoral, a love gained by theft without moral concern for consequences. Hermes, for some, was the father of Eros, though, for others, Eros’ father was Ares. Perhaps this is why Eros – in search of a father figure – wavered between love (uniting people, bridging the gap between them and offering mutual ‘hermenies’ [understanding]) and hate (separating people, inciting war between them) in the company of aunt Eris, cousin Strife, and their ‘behated’ friends Panic, Terror, and Trembling.

It seems that today people think that Eros is certainly related to Ares, for it is clear that Eros is not considered a virtue. For Plato, on the contrary, Eros was virtuous and everyone in the Symposium (but the rest of his fellow citizens) agreed with him. Plato, in fact, was on a campaign to turn the concept of Eros from a vulgar description of sexual desire (which was the common view among his contemporaries) into an ethereal and transcendent notion.

Eryximachus’ speech in the Symposium offers one of the finest and most beautiful definitions of medicine (and therapy one might add) as “episteme ton tou somatos erotikon…’ (= “medicine may be regarded as the knowledge of the loves and desires of the body, and how to satisfy them or not; and the best physician [read: therapist] is he who is able to separate fair love from foul, or to convert one into the other; and he who knows how to eradicate and how to implant love, whichever is required, and can reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution and make them loving friends, is skillful practitioner [agathos demiourgos]”, Symposium, 186c5 – 186d6).

For some, this speech portrays Eros as a medical phenomenon, but I believe that it is medicine that follows Eros according to Eryximachus. Imagine, in addition to this, what the potential is if one adopts Plotinus’ idea that it is not the soul that is inside the body, rather it is the body that is inside the Soul (it is like the difference between ‘somatopsychic’ and ‘psychosomatic’).

In Socrates’ speech, Eros is raised to a status of excessive idealization: Eros is impersonal, indifferent to any particular person, ‘above’ bodily desire and sexual passion. On the other hand, we can say that Socrates celebrated Eros as a ‘grasping’ sensuality (not sexuality), perhaps of the mind rather than the body, but erotic nonetheless. Eros is a virtue just because it is, in part, a passion, filled with desire.

To Aristophanes’ suggestion that Eros is sexual desire and that what one really desires when sexually desires another person is not sex but permanent re-unification with the other, Socrates counters that one really wants the heavenly Forms (could we find a parallel in today’s “I like your Style, babe?” and “Could Forms be thought of as perfect heavenly particulars?”).

For Aristophanes, Eros was a powerful desire for the other person through sex: it was not a desire for sexual objects, but a desire for sexual subjects; and the whole subjects cannot be wholly sexual. Aristophanic Eros is the desire to be with, the desire to touch, the desire to caress. An Aristophanic reason for Eros has to do with the way two people ‘fit’ together, that is to say, it is a ‘relational’ reason in that it explicitly has to do with the relationship rather than just the person loved. Eros is the attitude or emotion the lover has toward the beloved.

What is our attitude toward the other? Is it the one of a brute colonist asserting our rights of predominance over the territories we have conquered: the other’s body or/and soul? Eros seeks/desires equals. Consider, for example, the fact that, historically, romantic love emerges only when women begin to have more of a choice about their lives. John Milton, a representative of the early romantic period, has his Adam, in ‘Paradise Lost’, requesting from God not a mere playmate or companion or mirror image of himself but an equal, for “among unequals what society/ can sort, what harmony or true delight?” (Book 8, 11.83-85). Love tends to create equals even where it does not find them.

One may say that the beloved is defined in terms of his or her properties only insofar as these are identified in terms of their ‘fit’ (the relationship between the two). Aristophanes’ idea of people ‘fitting’ together carries with it the idea of choice: critical to erotic love is the sense of choice (we choose those who ‘fit’ with us). One of the most obvious examples of an Aristophanic reason for love is the one that has to do with the history of the relationship. The very fact of time together is not fungible (Aristophanes’ ‘creatures’ were together for time immemorial). Any reason for love must be understood contextually and in terms of the particular dynamics of the relationship. Time together, though not sufficient, is a necessary condition for love. Love is a whole process; it is neither a state nor an outcome. Love, as process, takes time.

Aristophanic Eros is an urge for shared identity, a kind of ontological dependency (which is quite different from the codependency of a symbiotic relation). The problem here is what the meaning of a shared identity (or of identity) is. (Even the Christian God is thought of as having a shared identity; as a group in dialogue: the Holy Trinity. Is it polyphonic? And, what are they talking about, I wonder. The Trinitarian God is the theological version of mathematical infinity, its definition being that the part is equivalent to the whole).

Shared identity does not point to any mystical union, but a sense of presence, always ‘in mind’, defining one’s sense of self to one’s self. Identities are created through dialogue on interindividual territory. As D. Kondo suggests “rather than universal essences, selves are rhetorical assertions produced by our linguistic conventions, which we narrate and perform for each other” (Crafting Selves, U of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 307). As we piece together identities from the discourses that are made available to us, we simultaneously create possibilities for the identities of those with whom we are in relationship. Conceptualizing the construction of the self as relational means that choosing to author (or narrate) our self-identities in particular ways directly impacts the social identities that can be formed by others. We define ourselves dialogically in terms of each other.

The interindividual territory may well be the realm of dialogue and Eros. The erotic dialogue with the other is open; it is never finalized. Eros goes hand in hand with the realization that we can never really get to know our beloved, her/his hidden dreams, fears, and secrets. This Eros/Dialogue is a continuous journey to the unknown and not-yet-understood; it is about mastering the art of not-knowing, of being curious, being open to being surprised, ‘being kept away by an enigma’.

The unhappiness of so many relationships comes from a lack of reciprocity and mutual recognition that has its root in the over-idealization of the erotic other (which means that a decision has already been reached about who we are and who the other is, a goddess, for example, but then “Does a goddess have needs?”; this is the end, my friend as the song goes). To understand ourselves and the other we should have an open attitude toward the world. Aporia is the soul of intelligibility.

If the ‘I’ or the ‘other’ comes to dominate the interindividual territory wholly, we do not have a relationship, we do not have a dialogue; what we have is an aggressive solipsism. On the other hand, to love is to be intensely conscious of one’s own ‘worthiness’ and thus greatly concerned with one’s virtues. Being in love is already a definitive step in the teleology of self-realization.

In a fragmented world, built on ‘intimate’ privacies, love determines selfhood. Eros is a dialogical process of weaving together two lives into two independent selves who understand themselves through each other. Eros is not selfless, but it is not selfish either. In love, what is desired is not just one’s own satisfaction but mutual satisfaction.

Love, as an open process, changes and it is not love when it is inattentive and indifferent to change. When love endures it is because love itself changes. Love as a process need not be at all capricious or unintelligible.

To return to the Symposium, I believe that in it one can also discern Plato’s criticism to Socrates, through the voice of Alcibiades. Alcibiades – wholly drunk, for he cannot bear the weight of his confessions being sober – emphasized the very personal, irrational, physical aspect of Eros: the ‘unreasonable’ Eros for a particular human being, not a desexed universal. For Plato, Socrates perhaps went too far in abandoning the eroticism of the particular (unless, as I hinted above, Forms are perfect heavenly particulars).

By the 14th century, in the West, Eros had already been cleansed from the views expressed by Alcibiades and Aristophanes. Diotima (which means “honor the God”) took over and love, with the Christian faith in a purely spiritual love, became even more idealized than Socrates had urged. Humanity ‘gained’ in spirituality but lost the sense of the importance of happy human relationships for their own shake. In fact, humanity lost its way towards an ethics that would be based on Eros/Love.

Our modern ethics looks upon Eros with a disapproving eye. Who are we to combine personal love with ethical virtues? The recipe is, at least, it has been since the Enlightenment, that if you are determined to be a person who cherishes all the virtues, you had better omit love and/or erotic love. Why is our epoch so opposed to Love/Eros and other feelings as essential ingredients in morality?

Eros is not considered a virtue for three reasons:

Eros is reduced to mere sexuality.
Eros/Love is an emotion, and as such it is irrational, beyond control, and merely episodic.
Eros fulfills personal needs; Eros means desire, self-indulgence, and self-love; in short, it has no utility; it is not useful to others.
Rationality, allegedly, reigns supreme nowadays rendering the differences between Utilitarian and Kantian ethics superfluous: moral philosophy is nothing if not objective, rational, based on principles, and exclusive of particular self-reference and mere personal perspectives. What is shocking, however, is what these conceptions of ethics leave out: most emotions and love in particular, except insofar as these might motivate duty.

Only what can be ‘commanded’ is morally obligatory, and love as a passion cannot be controlled or commanded.
It is always the universal that is in question, never the particular (however, we always encounter ethical dilemmas in the form of the exceptions to universal rules). Erotic love is wholly particular and Christian love may be seen as the love of every particular (not just the universal). For Kant the particularity of love would seem to be a form of irrationality.
Morality is a matter of reason; hence, the supposed irrationality of the emotions is a good reason not to accept them as a basis for ethics. Emotions’ apparent tolerance of contradiction – which Freud made one of the hallmarks of ‘the Unconscious’ – make them unsuitable as a basis for ethics.
Emotions do not succumb to rules and canons (though this word makes an implicit reference to war and not to ethics). They are subjective and do not conform to obvious considerations of objectivity. Subjectivity is opposed to and contrasted with rationality. It is a source of unreasonableness.
Emotions are capricious (though love, as already noted above, may well not be).
Most contemporary ethics is framed not as personal but as policy to be applied by some imagined bureaucrat, who treats everyone the same and has no relevant personality of his or her own (it is the sort of person that can operate – effectively and efficiently – a concentration camp, burn people in the ovens, and then go home to listen to Mozart’s music. It is a product of the Enlightenment, which Zygmunt Bauman holds responsible for the Holocaust). The emphasis is not on being a ‘good person’ but rather a just and fair administrator.

It seems to me that the neglect of personal inclinations in favor of legalistic universal principles leaves out the substance of the ethical, which is not principles but feelings. Thus, love is unethical, for against all principles of ethics, it has the audacity to view one other person as someone very special and does not count ‘everyone as one and only one’ at all. Love sees people not numbers.

Love and dialogue could very well be the basis of a bottom up dialogical ethics, and it would also solve the paradox as to why people see the right thing but instead they choose the wrong thing to do.

Dr. Dionisis Mentzeniotis



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