Psychology: On Love and Lyric Poetry From Plato’s Phaedrus

   Seeing the deplorable condition of our “scientific” psychology, and hypothesizing that antidepressants are behind the wave of public shootings in the United States, I set about to write a book in the re-founding of psychology on the basis of the Socratic turn, the very same as that said to divide Socratic from pre-Socratic philosophy. The first chapter is there for free in the section titled Psychology in the menu of this website (Look up!). Hover your cursor over the words in the menu, and these are the pages of the website, as distinct from the blogs. The following is a blog on the section of Plato’s Phaedrus, addressed in an old Midsummer Night’s Dream paper, where Socrates seems to get at the cause of both love and lyric poetry.

   Doing two things at once, I set out to prove my bold assertion that there is more in “one line” of the introductory dialogues of Plato than in a whole textbook of modern psychology. Having done that with ease, I also wanted, in the book on psychology, to follow the path of Carl Jung, first discussing the shadow, and then what he calls anima and animus. Quickly, though, I was diverted into Shakespeare commentary, taking up Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Nights Dream, and hopefully one day The Tempest. The best piece I have on the shadow is the teaching of Jesus on the log and the beam, in a blog above as well as in the psych category. The shadow at first corresponds to the level of the three part Platonic soul called appetite, but the shadow effects the soul and mind, and is the apprenticeship or beginning of the quest of self knowledge. What we do not see in ourselves appears in another, in our faction with our fellows. Our faction with the outer world is of course based upon our faction within. The same is apparent in the psychological truth that what we do to others is in truth done to us, that if we do not forgive, we are not forgiven, etc. That is how the things of the “personal” shadow work. In some sense, too the principle must hold especially for what Jung would have to call the “collective” shadow.

   Bruce Lee has demonstrated how the principle applies in the martial arts, when his “Cain” (In the television show “Kung Fu”) was trying to fight an imaginary demon in a cave. His old blind teacher appeared, and said, “Why have you left the Tao?” Cain returned from his flashback in memory, and the imaginary demon had disappered. All things of the shadow and faction are like that. But the next level, after the recognition of he personal  shadow, is love, belonging to the second or middle of the three parts of the soul.

   In his palinode (Plato, Phaedrus, 243-257), Socrates explains the occurrence of love on the basis of the same faculty or capacity of man on which philosophy is based, the capacity for the recollection of the knowledge of truth seen prior to our present incarnation (Plato, Meno 81). [Writing for the liberally educated, I will not pause again to explain that one can see the nature though the image, so that we need not get sidetracked by a discussion of whether Plato believed in reincarnation.] According to the speech, the soul, once perfect and winged, travelling in the train of one of the twelve gods, ascended to the summit of heaven, and there saw a vision of true being, which dwells beyond the Olympian heavens (Hyper-Ouranian being, as an old U of D teacher called it). In this, we were all “initiated into that mystery which is rightly accounted blessed beyond all others” (Phaedrus, 250b). The soul then lost its wings and descended into incarnation, but only the souls that have beheld truth can enter into human form, as is evident in the capacity of man for language. Because of this mystery, “If a man makes the right use of recollection and approaches the perfect mysteries,” he and he alone becomes truly perfect. Only the soul of the philosopher recovers her wings, because she is “ever near in memory to those things to which a god’s nearness makes him truly a god” (249d-e). While the lover and the philosopher, like the lover and the Saint in the Palm dance of Romeo and Juliet, are distinct, the one is an image of the other, and at the same time literally the activity of the same faculty, and hence love is a kind, and one of four kinds, of divine madness (244).

   Beauty alone, of all the objects of vision seen, is manifest at all to our senses, though sight, the keenest of the bodily senses (250d). From this, we derive the teaching that in love, the lover is having their first concrete encounter with the divine or intelligible. (This demonstrates, too, what a Joke is the first way that the “theory of the forms” appears.) But to continue, when one who saw much and is fresh from the mysteries beholds a godlike face or bodily form that images beauty itself, the stream of beauty entering through the eyes gives rise to a warmth which causes the roots of the wings of the soul, once hardened, to melt and begin to grow. As in Plato’s Symposium, where love (a spirit and not a god) is the beginning of an ascent on the ladder of love, so here, love is presented as the beginning of the recovery of the wings of the soul, completed only in the philosopher.

   Each lover loves in the manner of the god in whose company he once traveled, selecting a beloved according to his disposition. Then, as if the beloved were a god, the lover fashions for himself an image, and adorns it to be  the object of his worship. When the followers of Zeus find a Zeus-like disposition, aimed toward the love of wisdom and the leading of men, they do all that is possible to foster this disposition. The lover sets out on a path of following up “the trace of the nature of their own god within themselves” (252e). Fixing the gaze of their eyes onto the beloved, they reach out after the god in memory and are possessed by him, taking their ways and manners from the god as much as is possible for humans (253). But the lover attributes this not to the god, but to the beloved. In this “unconscious” activity of character formation, in which the lover does not know himself, Socrates describes the possessed activity of the lover as the drawing of droughts from Zeus, which they pour like Bacchants, onto the soul of the beloved, thus making in him the closest possible likeness to the god they worship” (253a). This following up of the trace of the god within and the drawing and pouring of drink from Zeus may be the source and function of the lyric poetry to which the lovers are inspired by the sight of the beloved. The reaching back in memory of the lover imitates the right use of recollection by which the philosopher alone recovers the wings of the soul. Hence, we say that the noble (Ta Kalon) is based upon and is an image of intellectual virtue. The “song of dialectic itself” (Republic VII, 532d), unknown to the lover, may yet be the being on which lyric love poetry is based. The capacity of the soul for this sort of love is due not to the body and its principle, but to the mind, and is due to the higher capacity of man for knowledge. In Plato’s Republic, too, legislation and character formation are based either upon the image of God (500e-501b; 484c); or on the good itself (540 a-b).

   It remains for us to convert the Platonic account of love into the terms of fertile love, and we will have the equivalent of the unified field theory sought in psysics. One should already see the basis for the translation of the Biblical mysteries into the terms of philosophy, and then back again, from whence all of the knowledge of the Biblical mysteries, right up to the bride, becomes visible. The soul is indeed the image of God- or did you think he was just kidding? Or perhaps willfully asserting the “dignity of the person”? Just as modern psychology cannot begin to approach platonic psychology, so modern theology is a waste of time compared to philosophic theology, where reason and love have company. But at least it reminds barbarians to treat the soul as a thing of dignity, perhaps even each soul endowed equally with inalienable rights, since the image of God in man is a higher thing than anything else in the creation.

   Marriage is the foundation of the family, the natural human society. The soul by nature has the faculty of love, “romantic” love, because human societies are by nature formed this way. Man is by nature political by this root, which happens also to be our participation in the entrance of new souls into the creation. The lovers are alike in a way and complementary in a way, the masculine and feminine things, like vegetable and flower gardening, fitting together to make the whole. Their love is the crown of the rule of the household throughout life, and the happiness of the vast majority depends upon this home life, which is notoriously difficult. The way that they are alike is the basis of friendship, and so people seek a spouse that shares with them the first principles, etc. We think that homosexual love is usually the result of appetite trapped in the matter or the body, like Ariel in the pine tree, freed by Prospero. Hence those seeking the male also seek the effeminate, but cannot tell and get angry if one asks them why. This holds out the possibility of a higher sort of homosexual love-friendship, but also gets at why Plato and Socrates sought to purify Greek homosexual love of all ignoble entanglement in the body, in what is hence called “Platonic” love.

   Until Shakespeare, there was no account of heterosexual or natural, fertile love to compare or compete with the Greek account, based on homosexual love in Greek custom, a thing we do not yet understand. Perhaps they had no liberally educated women. The account, though, is hidden in the Bible, where readers are surprised to find the reason for the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in holy scripture, and surprised to find that the two thousand year old prudish or puritanical understanding of all eros as sin is based on an error made by sinful souls, the Christian things treated like mere laws to lay upon the un-transformed appetites, never leading through true penance and sacrifice. But suffice it to say that the songs engendered in fertile love, as that of Orpheus for Persephone, may well excel the songs engendered by infertile love, (such as those of Sappho) which does seem to be an accidental or mistaken transposition of fertile love onto the same rather than the complementary opposite.


One thought on “Psychology: On Love and Lyric Poetry From Plato’s Phaedrus

  1. “As in Plato’s Symposium, where love (a spirit and not a god) is the beginning of an ascent on the ladder of love, so here, love is presented as the beginning of the recovery of the wings of the soul, completed only in the philosopher.”

    Maybe I am a bit insulted by the priority – exclusivity – given the philosopher here and am perhaps intentionally misinterpreting what is meant by philosopher too narrowly.

    Unhappily for me, I am extremely distant from being “liberally educated.” This I truly regret and sorely miss the opportunities and joys that background would afford me.

    Neverthess, maybe because of that, I have problems with formulations which make anyone, in this case philosophers, the purpose of it all. I have no problem with considering philosophers to be at the pinnacle of things, but not their exclusive purpose.

    Charkes Rosen, in his notes to his wonderful recorded performance of the Art of the Fugue – recollecting his meaning as best I can, not his words – explains the following:

    That in his Art of the Fugue, [Bach, a still living God if ever there was one] gave little or no indication of articulation, mood and tempo indicators (e.g., Grazioso), batches the movements individually so that it is unknowable in what order to play them, gives no indication of the instrument or instruments to play them (although he has structured the parts in such a way that they cannot be played by one player alone [Rosen overdubbed]), and especially, wrote it out in score so that all the parts were clearly delineated.

    His intention: To play this piece, created within three years of his leaving us, in any and every way imaginable!!!

    For me, this typifies Bach and what I believe was his purpose at all times: That although his own scoring for whatever he wrote was supreme, even when he set the same material in different ways, he intended the most universal and infinitely dimensional scope for everything that he wrote. That is why, in any way his music is presented, it remains Bach. That is just one of the infinite miracles of Bach!

    So what did Bach mean, intend? For the scholars, narrowly, theorists only, it means that – without repeating the whole list – since he gives no indication of how to play it, Bach didn’t intend it to be played!

    That since he wrote it in score, he intended it – one of the most wonderful works of art on the face of the earth – exclusively for them, the music theorists, to analyze. Those same who sneer at Saint-Saëns, because his music was diatonic, meaning he didn’t advance harmonic history, and only stood squarely on the shoulders of the greats who came before him.

    You can see that “completed only in the philosopher” rang a very personal bell for me. I read those Rosen notes probably over forty years ago, but the absurdity of the arrogance really stung.

    My theoretical understanding of music theory is extremely limited, and the small degree to which it can inform my playing makes me thirst for more. But there are perspectives outside theory that I participate in that may even be, that I claim to be more important – let’s not confuse the means with the purpose – like feeling and expressing the music!

    So hopefully I am not too narrowly misinterpreting what is meant here by philosopher, and, that perhaps, there is some room for me!

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