Plato- Phaedrus: Beautiful boys as a route to the Divine
Phaedrus is a masterful dialogue that it’s impossible to do justice to. Here Plato is at the height of his powers describing the soul’s ascension towards the divine with the aid of the beauty of a beloved friend. As a loving friend of the dialogue, I can’t possibly capture its essence (a perversion of love anyway), but maybe I can pay tribute to its beauty.
The Phaedrus is a natural companion to the Symposium and here Plato improves upon that dialogue by addressing one of its peculiarities. In the Symposium, the soul seemingly desires only good and beautiful things, and we differ mostly in our conceptions of what the good consists in. The problem, of course, is that most of us have experienced love that was neither good nor beautiful, and the text seems to ignore the possibility of irrational or destructive attraction.
Phaedrus addresses this possibility right off. In the dialogue, the young Phaedrus recalls a speech on romantic love recently given by the famed orator/speech-writer Lysias. The young man is a great admirer of Lysias, and the speech makes the case that favors, ostensibly sexual, should be granted to a man who is not in love instead of to the man who is. You see, unlike a man who is not in love, the lover is not in control of his reason; he wants to keep the beloved from the world, everything seems to cause him pain, he can’t give an honest judgment, and his jealousy does the beloved harm. The man not in love, however, has no intention to keep the beloved to himself or harm him; he just wants to get laid.
Plato’s literary invention shines through here as he has Socrates deliver a speech making the same argument, but better, just to show that he’s cleverer than Lysias. Speaking to a hypothetical youth, Socrates argues that every man has an irrational desire for pleasure in beauty and a rational judgment aiming for the best. The man who is sick in love will try to keep his beloved from the best, which is philosophy, for fear of losing him, begrudge him his property and other friends, and be untrustworthy towards the future. It’s a similar argument to Lysias’s- that love is deranging, a form of madness- but better composed.
It’s also untrue. Socrates, calling himself a seer- and indeed he most often describes his method of approaching truth as a sort of mystical trance- knows that he has given an offense against the gods in giving the speech. To make amends, he offers one of the most beautiful defenses of romantic love in classical literature. He says it is true that love is a sort of madness, but it’s a divine madness, given to us by the gods in order to lead us closer towards the divine.
As proof, he offers that the soul, as a first principle of movement (something that causes movement without being itself moved), is immortal. The soul is also tripartite- in a justly famous metaphor, he compares it to a chariot with two horses, one pulling in the direction, upwards, of the nobler passions; the other pulling towards concupiscent desires. By reaching upwards, the soul can catch a glimpse of the divine realm of the forms. In so doing, the soul gains its wings and the fully enlightened see the forms in all their glory. It is a beautiful image of human existence- trapped betwixt and between, pulled both higher and lower.
Most of us struggle to control the pull of the black horse, and having not reached enlightened knowledge of the forms, are incarnated in physical bodies of nine different types. The highest type is the philosopher, of course, but I’d note that Socrates puts the seer, of which he has claimed to be a poor example, directly above the poet. The chariot metaphor, of course, has been a very influential image of the human psycho, with Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego bearing a special kinship with the metaphor in the last century.
The lover is inspired up towards the divine by the memory of the form of Beauty inspired by the beautiful beloved here in the mundane realm. This image of beauty can lead to lowering lust or ennobling love and friendship. Ideally, however, the beautiful boy leads the lover towards divine revelation; you’ll notice that reaching God through the love of boys is not a method promoted by most churches today! But, to pull back a bit, there are numerous passages in the Bible describing how the soul is brought closer to God by the softening of the heart when we learn to love others in a selfless and non-carnal way.
There are several parallels, as well, in Sufi poetry, which was quite often composed as a tribute to the beloved. The most famed examples are the love poems Rumi wrote for his master. Another lovely example is the twelfth century poem The Conference of the Birds, by Farid Ud-din Attar, which features several stories of love directed towards young men and women; more importantly, the book describes the stages of the soul in its mystical movement towards God. The second stage leads directly through the Valley of Love, further breaking down the Self, which is the eternal enemy of the mystic, and thus bringing the mystic closer to the soul’s enlightenment. In essence, the beauty of the beloved evokes in us the most beautiful image of all: His face. The Platonic tone of these ideas, of course, comes from the strong strain of neoplatonism in Sufism. Admittedly, Sufis have often been controversial in Islam, but I’ve often wondered if Sufism won’t ultimately be the salvation of the religion, or even if mysticism as such won’t be what saves each of the monotheisms.
For Socrates, however, the reverent awe we feel for the beloved, that combination of divine madness and self-control, helps the soul to regain its wings and return to its divine origin. We can quibble about the Socratic (really just classical) idea that the most suitable object of love is a young boy. However, the idea that what elevates our souls and makes us noble beings is our selfless devotion to our beloved friends is something that’s hard to find fault with.