A few philosophers are famous enough that their names become everyday adjectives – but not always in a way that fits what the philosopher believed. Epicurus, for instance, was no ‘epicurean;’ he taught freedom from pain and fear, not love of food and drink. So what about ‘platonic love’, now used to mean a non-sexual love for another person?
Plato’s main work on love is the Symposium, an account of a drinking party attended by Plato’s teacher Socrates and other notables. Each guest has to give a short speech on the nature of love. Socrates goes last, and, as is his habit, proceeds to demolish the previous speaker’s arguments. He then relates what a wise woman, Diotima of Mantinea, once taught him about the nature of love.
You start, according to this Platonic story, by loving just one person whose body you find beautiful. But as you progress in wisdom, you come to realise what you love in this one beautiful body can be found in other bodies as well. You’ll then move to loving someone for their beautiful mind, but here too you will come to realise other minds are lovable too. Ultimately, instead of loving specific people, you will come to love beauty as such.
When Socrates has finished, the hot-headed Alcibiades bursts into the party, quite drunk, and describes how Socrates has continually rejected Alcibiades’ sexual advances. So you might well think that the term ‘platonic love’ is accurate enough, seeing as Plato’s Socrates spurns sex for something higher. But Plato’s version of love treats the beloved as a mere stepping stone on the path to a love of the abstract, eternal forms. Perhaps it’s not that ‘platonic love’ is a long way from Plato, but that Plato was a long way from what we mean by love.