When we’re younger, maybe our relationships are more grounded in the physical than the spiritual and emotional. But underlying the foundation of any enduring relationship is a certain kind of love, and at the crux of this spiritual connection are the teachings of the philosopher Plato.
What is Platonic love?
You’ve surely heard of the notion of a “platonic friendship,” or the “platonic ideal.” These are terms that evolved from Plato’s musings, but they weren’t coined by the philosopher himself. Rather, the idea that two people can have a fulfilling relationship devoid of sexual touch grew from an extrapolation of Plato’s work, The Symposium, in which Socrates describes the human understanding of love like a ladder. Each level of the ladder is indicative of a higher plane of love, from infatuation with a beautiful body to the love of beauty itself.
In an abridged view, the ladder goes something like this: Love for a beautiful body, to love for all physical beauty, then on to a greater reverence for mental beauty than physical beauty. Eventually, this is overtaken by love for the beauty of knowledge, and then, finally, a love of beauty itself.
As it was conceptualized at the time, Plato’s idea of love was very different from how we understand it today. For starters, romantic love in 5th century Greece was reserved for homosexual relationships between men, who only married women to fulfil reproductive needs. The notion of love as a ladder was given new life in the 15th century through the writings of the Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino, who, according to Slate, first coined the term “platonic love” or “amor platonicus.”
Per Ficino’s interpretation, the highest order of love was not a sexual endeavour, but linked to something far more spiritual, writing that love “does not desire this or that body, but desires the splendor of the divine light shining through bodies, and is amazed and awed by it.” Since the 16th century, however, the concept of platonic relationships has been used to describe those distinctly in the friend-zone, since Platonic love doesn’t have much to do with sex. That, however, has just been the term’s evolutionary course — and it might not be an entirely accurate one.
Platonic love still involves a deep, spiritual connection, which is different from the concept we hear a lot about today. As the Conversation notes, Platonic love is probably best encapsulated by a monologue in The Symposium by Aristophanes, who basically distilled that love is the search for the Platonic ideal of a soul-mate:
Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a human whole…and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.
This is essentially the crux of Platonism, which Dictionary.com defines as “love of the idea of beauty, seen as terminating an evolution from the desire for an individual and the love of physical beauty to the love and contemplation of spiritual or ideal beauty.”
As it happens, this can inform your approach to finding a partner, or bettering your relationship with your current partner.
How Platonic love can help your relationship
Though sex is important, you can keep Plato in mind by thinking of your relationship as a spiritual merger of sorts. You’re not so much in partnership with a person’s body, but their soul, or maybe it’s the looser, more abstract idea of what their love means to you that keeps the flame burning.
The base attraction — or the first step of the ladder — is what forms the bond, or stimulates the urge to join forces. From there, you scale the steps, until a higher plane of understanding one another forms. It might not have been Plato’s true intent over 2,000 years ago, but his concept of love can prove instructional for anyone navigating a relationship today.