Platonic love

Platonic love, in its modern popular sense, is a non-sexual affectionate relationship, usually between people who otherwise might be expected to be sexually involved with each other. A simple example of platonic relationships is a deep, non-sexual (i.e. overtly romantic) friendship, not subject to gender pairings and not excluding close relatives.

At the same time, this interpretation is a misunderstanding of the nature of the Platonic ideal of love which from its origin was that of a chaste but passionate love, based not on lack of erotic interest but on spiritual transmutation of the sex force, opening up vast expanses of subtler enjoyments than sex.

In its original Platonic form, this love was meant to bring the lovers closer to wisdom and the Platonic Form of Beauty. It is described in depth in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, where the examples given refer exclusively to the love between a man and a boy. In the Phaedrus, it is said to be a form of divine madness that is a gift from the gods, and that its proper expression is rewarded by the gods in the afterlife; in the Symposium, the method by which love takes one to the form of beauty and wisdom is detailed.

Amor Platonicus

The term amor platonicus was coined as early as the 15th century by the Florentine scholar Marsilio Ficino as a synonym for amor socraticus. Both expressions signify a love focused on the beauty of a person's character and intelligence rather than on their physical charms. They refer to the special bond of affection between an older and a younger male Plato had highlighted in a dialogue, and exemplified by the affection between Socrates and his young male pupils, in particular to the one between him and Alcibiades.

The English term dates back as far as Sir William Davenant's Platonic Lovers (1636). It is derived from the concept in Plato's Symposium of the love of the idea of good which lies at the root of all virtue and truth. For a brief period, Platonic love was a fashionable subject at the English royal court, especially in the circle around Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. Platonic love was the theme of some of the courtly masques performed in the Caroline era—though the fashion soon waned under pressures of social and political change.


Ironically, the very eponym of this love, Plato, as well as the forementioned Socrates, lived in a period where homosexuality and pederasty were central to the "Greek history and warfare, politics, art, literature and learning, in short to the Greek miracle". The concept of platonic love arose in Plato's early writings such as Symposium and Phaedrus, within the context of the debate pitting mundane sexually expressed pederasty against the philosophic - or chaste - homoeroticism. Specifically, in Symposium, Alcibiades attempts to seduce Socrates, but Socrates rebuffs this pursuit and responds that if he does have this power to make Alcibiades a better man inside of him, why would he exchange his true beauty (i.e. the intellectual realm) for the image of beauty (i.e. the physical beauty) that Alcibiades would provide. However, Plato's opinions in the late period of his life are reflected in the last dialogue, Laws, where he condemns homosexuality as "unnatural".

Regarding Socrates, John Addington Symonds in his A Problem in Greek Ethics states that he "...avows a fervent admiration for beauty in the persons of young men. At the same time he declares himself upon the side of temperate and generous affection, and strives to utilize the erotic enthusiasm as a motive power in the direction of philosophy." According to Linda Rapp, Ficino, by platonic love, meant "...a relationship that included both the physical and the spiritual. Thus, Ficino's view is that love is the desire for beauty, which is the image of the divine."

Because of the common modern definition, platonic love can be seen as paradoxical in light of these philosophers' life experiences and teachings. Plato and his peers did not teach that a man's relationship with a youth should lack an erotic dimension, but rather that the longing for the beauty of the boy is a foundation of the friendship and love between those two. However, having acknowledged that the man's erotic desire for the youth magnetizes and energizes the relationship, they countered that it is wiser for this eros to not be sexually expressed, but instead be redirected into the intellectual and emotional spheres.

To resolve this confusion, French scholars found it helpful to distinguish between amour platonique (the concept of non-sexual love) and amour platonicien (love according to Plato). When the term "Platonic love" is used today, it generally does not describe this aspect of Plato's views of love.

The understanding that Platonic love could be interpreted as masculine eros is alleged by some socio-historical critics to be linked with the social construction of a homosexual identity, and the cultural model of platonic friendship / pederasty was supposedly used by educated gay men since the early Renaissance.

See also


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