Properties of Blood I.2: Love and Hate, C

The Realm of Love

But on this side there is no end to strife,

where violence has taken love to wife--

a pagan tale of Venus and of Mars,

matter of fact and heedless as the stars

of carnage done in our too human wars.

“Love makes the world go round,” as an old proverb has it.  Does this mean anything more than the obvious fact, celebrated in Valentine cards and romantic novels, that sexual attraction between male and female is a necessary condition for propagating many species, the human species in particular?  What is love?  Philosophers since Plato and psychologists of different schools and sects have spilled much ink in a vain attempt to define it, and I am not going to enter, much less add to the debate.  If love could be defined, it probably would not possess the power it does.

Whatever else can be said of it, love in its everyday sense includes a kind of passion or feeling (like pain or hunger or envy), which can be roughly described though not defined in any absolute terms.  In one obvious sense erotic love implies the desire for another, even the other.  If we limit ourselves to the desire that leads to procreation, it is the desire of opposite sexes for each other, and although men and women expect to find mates with compatible interests and habits, they are rarely looking for their twins or doubles.  In this respect, Plato was quite wrong in the charming myth he puts into the mouth of Aristophanes, who (in the Symposium) argues that lovers are forever seeking the other half from whom they were divided.

“The original human nature was not like the present, but different.  The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, of which the name survives but nothing else….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, attempted to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods.

The gods, to curb the power of the two parts of man, split them in two with the result that

"The two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they began to die from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,--being the sections of entire men or women—and clung to that."

If this fable had any explanatory force, the human race would have long ago died out.  The survival of the human race requires us to lust after the other and not after the same.  In abstract terms, then, love might be compared with the magnetic or electronic attraction of opposites, and it is not too much of a stretch to claim that such a force is responsible (if only in part) for making the world go round.  On this understanding, hate (or some other negative emotion like strife or competition) would represent the repulsion of opposites, the attraction of like for like; and, if love really does make the world go round, then the opposite of love, the complex of feelings and relations we refer to as hate or competition or strife, presumably keeps the world within its orbit by preventing all things from joining together in a universal union.

Perhaps such fanciful speculation should be left to the poets, who have always testified to the power exercised by love and hate in human life.  The first work of Western literature, the Iliad, seems to be about nothing but desire and hate.  Paris’ love for Helen sparked the Trojan War, and Achilles’ hatred of his commander, Agamemnon, almost led to a Trojan victory until Hector killed Achilles’ best friend and inspired an even greater hatred in the Greek hero.  Like pleasure and pain, which Plato describes as a monster with two bodies but one head, love and hate cannot easily be kept separate.  Love, when thwarted, often turns to hate, and

Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d,

And Hell no fury like a woman scorned.

But love and hate of the same person can coexist in the same soul, as the poet Catullus knew, though he could not explain the reason:

Odi et amo: quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

“I love and I hate.  Maybe you want to know why I am acting this way. I don’t know, but I feel that I am, and I am on the rack.”

For the most part, the poets sing of the love experienced in the here and now.  “What is love?” asks Shakespeare in a song, “T'is not hereafter...Present mirth and present laughter.  What’s to come is still unsure.”   Erotic love is, proverbially, a short-lived passion, as I learned when I asked a student to distinguish between the Latin verb forms amavi  (I loved, have loved) and amaveram (I had loved).  The young lady, sighing in her charming lowcountry South Carolina dialect, replied: “What’s the difference?  When love’s gone, it’s gone.”

These days, most of us would agree with this young lady or the other lady who advised a poet “to take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree,” but there are tales of love and hate that go beyond the grave.  The ghost of Hamlet’s father walked the earth seeking revenge on the brother who had murdered him and married his wife.  The Greek hero Protesilaus, the first to die at Troy, was so mourned by his wife that the gods allowed him to spend three hours with her, and when he left she died of grief.  Wordsworth christened the myth, and the hero tells his wife of eternal love:

…such love as spirits feel

In worlds whose course is equable and pure;

No fears to beat away—no strife to heal—

The past unsighed for, and the future sure.

Orpheus, the patron-saint of poets, went to Hell to fetch his bride but made the mistake of looking back to make sure she was following him.  His excess of passion—and lack of faith in the gods--cost him his wife.

These tales are myths, that is to say, they contain truths too deep to be taken literally, but the Greeks were also inclined to systematic reflection, and this was a habit that grew in the centuries following the writing down of their great epic poems.  Many textbook accounts of ancient philosophy give the impression that Greek philosophy represents a steady advance from the religious and mythical point of view of Homer and Hesiod to the entirely rational and scientific approach of Democritus and Epicurus, who explained everything in the universe as the interaction of atoms within the void.  Such an account makes philosophy, almost by definition, the enemy of religion (and of the opinions of everyday life), but it leaves out not only Aristotle, who took ordinary life and the prejudices of ordinary people very seriously, but also the important contributions of Greeks in the West, in Sicily and Magna Graecia (southern Italy), whose philosophical speculations began with religious assumptions and culminated in a mystical theology that sometimes defied common sense.

Plato’s Republic (though not devoid of its own mysticisms) is the most familiar literary expression of the rationalist tendency in Greek philosophy, not just in physics and metaphysics but in ethics and politics.  To ascertain what a just man would be, Plato’s Socrates suggests an exercise in model-building: Let us construct a perfect commonwealth and then apply its features—more easily explicable for being on a larger scale—to the human individual.  Thus his republic has no real geography, only an idealized setting; no history, only a set of founding principles.  One might think he were talking about the United States as Lincoln imagined it, a nation without identity or history, a mere abstraction “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

All the normal traditions that shaped the lives of the Greeks and gave them joy were either to be banished from Plato’s ideal state, as the poets were, or reengineered, as the family was, so as to be unrecognizable.  The family, at least for the ruling class, would no longer be an autonomous institution informed by erotic attraction, parental love, filial obedience and the strong ties of blood.  Male and female guardians would live in barracks, own no property, and rear their children in common.  Unfit children would be adopted out to a non-guardian family.  Henceforth families would be little more than departments of an all-controlling commonwealth—as they have become in totalitarian societies of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Plato’s hostility to the jealous passions of the household are well-known to students of philosophy.  What receives somewhat less attention is his skeptical view of Greek religion and civilization.  Socrates, in the early dialogues, debunks the common morality and religion of the Greeks, and in the less-than-candid Apology Plato gives him, he denies the charges of atheism and introducing false gods, defending his skeptical teaching as a blessing to Athens.

Socrates was, alas, guilty as charged.  He not only did not accept the gods of his city, but, in the Apology, he declared his moral independence of both gods and the city.  This is not merely arrogance but hybris, as that word is understood in Greek tragedy, that is, an overweening arrogance that leads to ruin.  The understanding of the divine offered in the Apology and the Euthyphro precludes the existence of the individual and passionate gods who inspired all of Greek culture, and, as Miles Burnyeat correctly (if rather optimistically as regards the state of our own civilization) observes, “With gods as moralistic as Socrates’, Greek culture would have been impossible, and in consequence Western civilization would not have been what it is today.”

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    I always assumed Diotima represented the Platonic view of love. At least as Socrates relates his understanding of love as was taught to him by her in the final speech of the Symposium — a kind of spirit or desire. The kind that inspires both comedy and tragedy in the lives of men. I always wondered about the final lines of the Symposium when Socrates goes back to this theme of comedy and tragedy having the same genius. But I may need to go read again as reading Plato is like looking through a prism which tilted one way reveals these colors, tilted another way reveals different colors. My teachers always tried to slip Freudian and Darwinian themes into the Dialogues as was the prejudice of their time while others read Hegelian themes, but there is nothing more boring than yesterdays news or intellectuals who read subjects backwards from their haughty and condescending view of progress. I prefer the medieval view of “ubi armor, ibi occulos” and read for delight. Something that literally knocks the lights out in wonder for a pause or brief moment outside time and Plato can still certainly do that.