The Issues of Erotic Desire in Phaedrus and De Rerum Natura – Philosophy Essay
Erotic desire in Phaedrus, and De Rerum Natura is intrinsically connected with pleasure. But had Plato examined De Rerum, and Lucretius, Phaedrus, they would have been troubled by the place and role of erotic desire in the other’s work. Superficially, erotic desire in the two works differs little; both would appear to the undiscriminating reader as a variance of lust, or perhaps love. But on a deeper level, when comparing the importance of erotic desire in the works, and the relation to the conception and attainment of the summum bonum, the greatest good, ideological conflicts are revealed.
The differences between the place, conception, and role of erotic desire in the two works are determined by the view of the summum bonum, which largely hinges on the question of the mortality of the soul. To get a firm grasp of the topic, it is useful to first look of the two author’s definitions of erotic desire, with short expositions on the place and role of erotic desire in the two works, irrespective of each other.
What is erotic desire in Plato’s Phaedrus? Erotic desire, as defined in Socrates’ Second Speech, is:
“… the fourth kind of madness—that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below…” (37)
Erotic desire is a kind of ‘madness’ brought on by the recollection of ‘true beauty’. With Plato, erotic desire exists in a world where immortal forms are the ideal. Erotic desire is the manifestation of the longing for those perfect forms. The summum bonum is the knowledge of the truth, represented by the forms, and erotic desire is the feeling brought on in the physical world by the recollection of those forms. It is important to note the reaction of the man ‘reminded of true beauty’, and its relation to the definition of erotic desire. The man’s reaction is the first step in a process which Plato refers to as, “lov[ing] boys philosophically” (36). It is not the path of the man who “surrenders to pleasure and sets out in the manner of a four-footed beast” (39). The ideal relationship, in which a man ‘loves boys philosophically’, is never consummated, though those that love ambitiously are only a step or two below the ideal (48). This implies, since both begin the ascent back into ‘heaven’, that the erotic desire and the close relationship results, rather than strict philosophy, is the most important mechanism for the regrowth of the soul’s wings and the return to ‘Reality’. This clarifies the concept of erotic desire somewhat. Erotic desire becomes a love for another person, a love that leads one to look for a higher truth, no matter the circumstance. Man on earth is incomplete, he has lost the sense of truth and virtue he had while in ‘Reality’. Erotic desire becomes a desire for completeness that is achieved through union with another. The summum bonum is this completeness, this knowledge of the truth. But what of “practice[ing] philosophy without guile”, the other way that Socrates mentions the soul can regrow its wings? The philosopher is already as complete as possible, “since [the philosopher’s mind’s] memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities” (37).
What place does erotic desire have in Plato’s Phaedrus? Erotic desire has a central place in the philosophy of Phaedrus. Socrates’s second speech, where erotic desire is discussed, occupies the literal center of the dialogue. However, erotic desire’s importance is more than just nominal; erotic desire is key to the philosophy of Socrates’s second speech. Socrates’ proof begins:
“Every soul is immortal. That is because whatever is always in motion is immortal, while what moves, and is moved by, something else stops living when it stops moving.” (29)
Motion is connected with life; immortality, with perpetual motion. The speech of Socrates is based on this principle, which proves the immortality of the soul. Motion is the important element to focus on. Erotic desire is the manifestation of the longing for the perfect forms that define the immortal soul’s existence; in Platonic terms, the forms exist in the collective as ‘Reality’ (34). The knowledge of these forms, and the sight of them in ‘heaven’ is the Socratean summum bonum. Truth is the greatest good, and erotic desire leads to truth. The soul’s attraction to the truth, in Plato’s terms, ‘forms’ and ‘Reality’, is paralleled by the body’s attraction to reminders of these things, in this case, the erotic desire for ‘beautiful boy’. Erotic desire is essentially a force for motion toward the forms. Since Socrates describes erotic desire earlier as, “tak[ing] its name from the word for force”, this should be no surprise (18). It is a natural desire for the soul to want to move toward the forms, as Socrates says that the mind of the soul is “nourished by intelligence and pure knowledge” (33). ‘Nourish’ connects the forms and the soul in a physical way, in a way equational to the connection between the man and the ‘beautiful boy’.
What is erotic desire in Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura? Lucretius defines erotic desire in different terms than Plato. Erotic desire is the “mind’s wound”, when man’s body, “strives for union with [her body], wants to fill that body with his own, pour out that seed into the other…” (149). For Lucretius, erotic desire contains elements of lust; it is a hopelessly physical attraction. Throughout the work, Lucretius talks of seeds, most notably with reference to atoms, and the theme continues through his discussion of erotic desire, “once we are men mature and strong, becomes an active force, compulsive, driving” (149). The ‘seed’ is the ‘driving’ force behind erotic desire in the work. There is no pretense of a higher love in De Rerum, no mention of souls, or wings or forms, but as Lucretius’s focus in his work is on the mortality of the soul, the transience of existence, there is no place for such things. The main unit of Socrates’s world is the soul, while the main unit of Lucretius’s world is the atom. Both units are immortal, but only Socrates’s unit allows for an individual, perpetual existence.
Erotic desire has a place in the Lucretian world view, but not a major one. Insofar as the Lucretian philosophy looks to maximize pleasure, erotic desire can bring pleasure, but remember that the greatest pleasure, the summum bonum, is the absence of all pain. Erotic desire can be the first step down into the abyss of “passionate love” (150). As Lucretius says, “What could be more contrary to nature? Nothing else inflames us, once we have it, with desire of more and more and more” (151). Love has the potential for immense pain along with its pleasure, and immense pain is exactly what Lucretius looks to avoid. Love is unnatural, not only through its ‘desire of more and more and more’, but also through the pain it almost always brings. What is more unnatural in the Lucretian system than the seeking out of pain? But the danger of falling in love is not enough for Lucretius to counsel against erotic desire, represented by Venus, “Avoiding passionate love, you need not miss all the rewards of Venus” (150). Lucretius is direct in his ‘prescription’, “The only thing to do is to confuse the issue, cure the hurt by many more—what does the adage say, Safety in hordes? Ah, that’s the right prescription” (150). Love is like a sickness, also the “germinal seeds of madness”, and must be treated with a ‘prescription’ (150). The ‘prescription’ is promiscuous sex, which stands opposed to Socrate’s condemnation of those who ‘set out in the manner of the four-footed beast’.
How does the role of erotic desire differ between Phaedrus and De Rerum Natura? Erotic desire fits into the two works differently, and this is largely the result of differences in the two works’ conception of pleasure. Socrates says, “the truth is my subject,” and it is the truth, in the shape of the forms, that is the ultimate pleasure in Phaedrus (34). The result is a more abstract view of the pleasure in erotic desire; it is very much connected with the idea of forms, and the recollection of the ‘truth’ brought on by the ‘beautiful boy’. It is also one of the few ways the soul can regrow its wings, and ascend back into the realm of ‘Reality’. Erotic desire is key to the world view of Socrates’s Second Speech. Within Socrates’s concept of erotic desire is a firm belief in the immortality of the soul; erotic desire allows the fallen to rise again, it is a redeeming force. But Lucretius goes to great pains to prove the mortality of the soul, and thus erotic desire plays a somewhat different role in De Rerum. The soul is instead replaced by ‘seeds’, and their physical connotation. Lucretius compares erotic desire to the “mind’s wound”, and much like blood spurts from the body’s wound, the seed spurts from the mind’s. Erotic desire is a physical pleasure, in a world where everything is physical, and it is only one of a multitude of physical pleasures. But more crucial is that in the work of Lucretius, the summum bonum is the absence of all pain. This is in contrast to the Socratean summum bonum of knowledge of the ‘truth’. Socrates’s philosophy accepts that pain can follow erotic desire; he makes clear that it is a pain of the soul, “[the wing’s] feathers prick[ing] at its passageway” brought on by the absence of the ‘beautiful boy’ (40). Because the soul is immortal, pain in the present can be endured for the greater everlasting pleasure. All this pain is endured for the greatest good. Lucretius’s philosophy is consistent with the delay of gratification for a greater pleasure, but the soul in Lucretius is mortal and erotic desire provides no such opportunity. Though in Lucretius, erotic desire is a perfectly legitimate pleasure, so long as it does not develop into ‘passionate love’, which carries the potential for great pain. In a superficial way, relative to a discussion of immortal forms, Lucretius views erotic desire as a force that distorts the truth, as it causes the lover to overlook flaws in their love.
It may seem obvious, but pleasure and erotic desire are inextricably linked. Imagine the discussion between the two writers; focus on the intensity of it. See how deep into their philosophies erotic desire gets them? It gets to the heart of the matter, to the ‘greatest good’, and the mortality of the soul. How is the summum bonum to be achieved? Is a part of us immortal? The two men would have disagreed. The soul is immortal for Plato, and mortal for Lucretius. Plato’s ideal is a man full of erotic desire, of that ‘passionate love’ which Lucretius denounces, but his soul will be the better for it, because it leads him to a greater good. The man of Lucretius would see no higher good in erotic desire, just a pleasure with pitfalls. For Plato, erotic desire leads to the truth, but for Lucretius it leads astray. As the two works, in the discussion of erotic desire, seem to be defined by the question of the mortality of the soul, the works, in this light, provide insight into how crucial a role time, or the lack of it, plays in the conception of the summum bonum.
There is a troubling undercurrent that runs through both works. In this context, both works imply the instability of human experience. In Plato, the soul exists in the perfect world of forms, and then falls into the imperfect world of man; the cycle repeats endlessly. For Lucretius, man may take pleasure in the moment, but pain is always around the corner. Though ideologically different, both philosophers accept that stability is difficult to realize. Again, the issue hinges on the mortality of the soul, because stability can only ultimately be achieved in death.