Symposium: Socrates Responding to Agathon

Just prior to his speech, Socrates disputes Agathon's claim that Love is beautiful and good:

  1. There is some x such that Love loves x or there is no y such that Love loves y

  2. It is not the case there is no y such that Love loves y

  3. Hence, there is some x such that Love loves x

  4. If there is some x such that Love loves x, then Love desires x

  5. If Love desires x, then Love does not possess x

  6. Love loves/desires what is beautiful

  7. Hence, Love does not possess what is beautiful

  8. If Love does not possess what is beautiful, then Love is not beautiful

  9. Hence, Love is not beautiful

  10. Love loves/desires what is good

  11. Hence, Love does not possess what is good

  12. If Love does not possess what is good, then Love is not good

  13. Hence, Love is not good

  14. Hence, Love is neither beautiful nor good

(1) is plausible by law of excluded middle. Agathon grants (2), so (3) follows. Agathon grants (4) as well, presumably since loving is plausibly understood as a species of desiring. Socrates argues for (5) by observing infelicities, e.g. a bald man desiring to be bald, and accompanied by an explanation of putative counterexamples, e.g. what the bald man desires is that he continue to be bald. Agathon claimed (6) and (10); note I've collapsed the link between loving and desiring from (4) when characterizing these premises. (7) and (11) follow. Socrates motivates (8) and (12) by shifting from possession of an object with a quality to being an object with a quality. (9), (13), and (14) follow.

Why accept (4)? To be fair, I think it's right to say that if S desires x then S does not possess x, so I'm happy to grant the related (5). Desire seems motivational, and so intimately tied to action. If S desires something S already possesses, there seems little motivation or guidance for action on offer unless one appeal to something like continued possession, as Socrates points out. That said, (4) treats loving as a species of desiring. But it doesn't seem as obvious that, say, loving is motivational. S might love x without that love motivating or guiding action, e.g. love of an ancestor, love of a mathematical proof. Yet, this must be the case if loving is a species of desiring.

Why accept (8) and (12)? Socrates seems to shift from the lack of possession of an object to the lack of having whatever quality that object exhibits possesses. If this conditional is true, it's nevertheless irrelevant, since there seems little connection between, say, my not possessing a red apple and so thereby not being red. That is, it seems plausible Love might lack beautiful things, yet still be beautiful. Moreover, Love might seek out beautiful things because Love is beautiful, if one assumes - as many of the speakers seem to - that like attracts like.

Symposium: Speech of Pausanias

Pausanias provides an analysis of what he means by accepting a lover in the Heavenly manner:
It is honorable for a young man Y to accept a lover X iff

  1. X realizes he's justified in performing P for Y who returns the favor by performing Q
  2. Y understands he's justified in Q for X because X can make Y virtuous and wise
  3. X can make Y virtuous and wise
  4. Y is eager to be taught by X

The idea is that it is honorable for a young man to accept a lover just in case the lover realizes he can provide services for the young man who returns services in kind, and they both understand they are justified in this interaction with the eager young man gaining wisdom and virtue from the deal, and both can gain what they desire.

One worry to have about this is the transactional nature of honorable acceptance of a lover. For a young man to accept another as lover, the young man must essentially be engaged in cost-benefit analysis. Consider, according to this analysis the following holds: It is honorable for young man Y to accept lover X where,

  1. X realizes he is justified in performing P for Y who returns the favor by performing Q
  2. Y understands he's justified in Q for X because X can make Y virtuous and wise because X knows Z who is virtuous and wise, and while X tells Y he does not intend to lead Y to Z, Y holds out hope any way
  3. X can make Y virtuous and wise through Z
  4. Y is eager to be taught by X because Y hopes X will teach Y what X has learned from Z or will introduce Y to Z  

Pausanias might respond that Y loves virtue and wisdom. My quarrel here is not that, however, but rather that this should not count as honorable acceptance of a lover. Rather, it’s honorable acceptance of wisdom and virtue. The lover is incidental. Related, it seems counter-intuitive to claim love is never for the sake of an individual – the lover – rather than as some instrument.

Symposium: Speech of Phaedrus

Phaedrus sets the tone for the Symposium, complaining no poet praises Love. From Phaedrus, we learn Love is ancient – not the oldest – and one of the earliest gods to exist. Love has no parentage, though Love is said to have started to exist at some time. Phaedrus rests on authority in this origin myth, adding both humanity and the gods stand in awe and praise of Love.

We also learn Love is the greatest good for humans. Here, it seems Phaedrus is providing something of an argument, though as you’re no doubt aware he’s sees no reason to provide support for his claims, or consider potential counterexamples or difficulties. Rather, Phaedrus claims Love is the greatest guidance or motivator for humans, because whether lover or beloved, being shamed in a lover or beloved’s eyes is something we all seek to avoid and being admired is something we all seek. In fact, Phaedrus claims avoiding shame and seeking admiration effected through the lover-beloved pairing is a much better guidance or motivator than anything deriving from kinship, wealth, or even honor. Putting this point another way, if we are to seek to achieve great things, we require great guidance and motivation, and Love provides the best source of such guidance and motivation.

I pause here to point out the intuitive plausibility of this claim. Most of us no doubt can empathize with the sting of hearing those words from a lover “I’m disappointed in you.” Feeling that you’ve disappointed one you love – even if that love falls short of the sort of lover-beloved relationship Phaedrus has in mind here – is not enjoyable, and one feeling the sting is likely spurred to ensure they are not stung similarly in the future. In other words, the recipient will likely change their behavior to avoid disappointing their love. On the other hand, most of us likely know how good it feels to be admired by a lover, and to admire. Admiration by a lover spurs one to seek out further admiration, by achieving great things perhaps. We may even do quite drastic, perhaps unhappy, things for to acquire admiration and avoid shame. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s return to Phaedrus.

Phaedrus illustrates his understanding of Love as a great motivator with the example of the army of lovers. He claims, hyperbolically, that an army of lovers would be invincible, perhaps capable of taking over the world. I can’t help but think of Thebes’ Sacred Band, elite troops who loved, fought, and often died together, who respected one another as lovers might. They posed a considerable threat on the battlefield, from what I understand. I’m not sure which came first, the Symposium or the band. It’s not that important though. What is important is that this thought experiment seems well-motivated.

Phaedrus goes on to claim Love is the reason we are willing to make great sacrifices, with the greater sacrifice in the right context leading to the greater blessings from the gods. He provides three examples to illustrate. The first is of a lover Alcestis who sacrifices herself to save the life of her beloved – her husband. Alcestis is returned to life by the gods, a blessing provided for her great sacrifice. Note too in this example, the callback to how poorly kinship pales as a motivator for great sacrifice, as the husband’s parents are not even willing to sacrifice their lives for their son.

Contrast this with Orpheus, a lover who only caught a glimpse of his beloved, since he wasn’t willing to sacrifice himself. The gods did not praise Orpheus, but punished him with a mere image of his beloved. This is because Orpheus was unwilling to do what a lover should: sacrifice.

Where both Alcestis and Orpheus are examples of a lover sacrificing or not, Phaedrus’ third example is that of Achilles who he understands as the beloved of Patroclus. Even so, Achilles sacrificed himself by avenging the death of Patroclus by killing Hector, and consequently the gods gave him one of the highest prizes – the Isle of the Blessed. This is so even though Achilles was – as Phaedrus claims – the beloved and not the lover.

In fact the gods, Phaedrus claims, delight more with a beloved cherishes their lover, than when the lover cherishes the beloved. I suspect the point here trades on loving not being a symmetric relation. That is, just because x loves y it doesn’t follow that y loves x. Anyone can love, and one who loves may be motivated to do rather unacceptable things if that love is unrequited. This should be expected, as love is – again – a great motivator. But it seems paradigmatic cases Phaedrus has in mind of loving are those where love is symmetric, i.e. where the lover is loved in return. This is perhaps why the gods delight more with a beloved who cherishes their lover, than with a lover who cherishes the beloved. The latter may be had too easily, while the former secures a good.

Before closing his speech, Phaedrus says something rather puzzling: the lover is more like a god than the beloved. This is so because the lover is inspired by the gods. I can think of two ways to understand this passage.

  1. The implication here is that the beloved is not inspired by the gods. I think this is a problematic reading of the passage. If the lover is inspired by the gods, while the beloved is not, but the gods delight and bestow more honors on the beloved, then it seems the gods praise something more than what they inspire. More concretely, the gods praise Achilles the beloved for his sacrifice more than they praise Alcestis the lover for hers, though they make similar sacrifices. But Alcestis was inspired by the gods in her sacrifice, since she was a lover. There seems tension here, since this seems to imply that the gods praise something as greater than themselves. I take this consequence to speak against reading the passage as having the implication that the beloved is not inspired by the gods.
  2. But we can mitigate by claiming the beloved is not directly inspired by the gods, though the beloved is indirectly inspired. Achilles – after the death of Patroclus – acts as a lover would act, and so acts as if he’s inspired by a god. Because Achilles sacrifices himself, the way a lover would despite the fact that he is not a lover, he is more praiseworthy than Alcestis. Note: on this reading it is important only to claim Achilles acts as a lover. We can’t, for instance, go so far as to say Achilles – in acting as he does – becomes a lover. This is because if Achilles becomes a lover through his action, then Alcestis – who was already a lover – should receive just as much praise. Since she doesn’t, according to Phaedrus, we seem limited to saying Achilles acts as a lover would, but is not himself a lover. Ultimately then, the implication from the passage should be that the beloved is not inspired directly by the gods, but is inspired indirectly.

Summary aside, there are patent worries one should have about Phaedrus’ characterization of Love. Most clearly, Phaedrus simply assumes that Love guides lovers towards things that are good. This is not obviously true. We can illustrate the point in several ways.

  1. Consider first a lover who is not cherished by his beloved. It is easy to imagine a lover doing all sorts of terrible things for the sake of the beloved, because they aren’t cherished or perhaps because the beloved cherishes someone else.
  2. Consider second Phaedrus’ army of lovers not directed at admirable ends, but instead, say, genocide in the name of racial purity. Put another way, were Nazi’s lovers, I’d hope Phaedrus is incorrect about whether the resulting force was “invincible.” An army of lovers may achieve great things, but pure motivation need not be directed at a good end. 
  3. Consider third Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles seemed motivated by wrath and revenge rather than love. Indeed, it seems his love was an instrument for his wrath rather than the other way around, i.e. love was the justification but vengeance was the end. I take Achilles’ desecration of Hector’s body after killing him – parading him in view of his family and Troy – illustrates this point. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the gods had to intercede to force Achilles to stop, i.e. give Hector’s body to his father Priam for proper burial. Surely then the gods did not find this action praiseworthy. This again illustrates that Love understood by Phaedrus has no valence, it’s directed – but not much more.

Objections aside, I think Phaedrus’ speech is valuable for three reasons.

  1. First, Phaedrus provides Love a motivational character, which is taken up by subsequent speakers in the Symposium.
  2. Second, Phaedrus seems to play the role of a foil for later speakers. This is particularly apparent with the subsequent speech of Pausanias who begins his speech by making a philosophical distinction, something Phaedrus noticeably does not do throughout his speech. Phaedrus instead prefers to make claims, rely on myth, and basically play the role of a rhetorician. Pausanias doesn’t merely show Phaedrus as being a mere rhetorician by making philosophical distinctions where Phaedrus didn’t, but also tells by distinguishing between two sorts of love: one better than the other. I take this to be Pausanias picking up on the lack of direction towards the good that Phaedrus’ account of Love employs. In that, I think Pausanias is correct to make this distinction, as Love perhaps should be more than pure motivation; it should be directed towards something good.
  3. Third, Phaedrus’s speech isn’t merely a foil, but is a natural starting point for discussion to follow. Phaedrus’ account is wrong, but it’s by virtue of realizing his mistakes that we make progress towards the truth. Isn’t it plausible masses of people can be moved by mere rhetoric of the sort exhibited by Phaedrus – without reflecting much on its content? Of course. This is common enough in our lives today. It is common enough now, and likely was common enough then, to be worthy of being addressed directly. Phaedrus provides a case to dispute, but in doing so provides our base camp from where we begin our ascent towards understanding the nature of Love. It’s a starting point for dissent, which is a starting point for ascent.

Virtue in Rags: Virtue Requires Friendship

In Chapter 9 of the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle defends - with a rather tortured argument - the claim that a virtuous friend is naturally desirable for a virtuous individual. I’ve attempted to extract his argument here (Let “John” and “Sally” designate distinct virtuous individuals):

(1) John exists
(2) If x exists then x perceives/thinks
(3) If x perceives/thinks then x perceives that x perceives/thinks
(4) If x perceives that x perceives/thinks then x perceives that x exists
(5) Hence, if x exists then x perceives that x exists                                                                                                     (from 2-4)
(6) John perceives that John exists                                                                                                                                     (from 1,4)
(7) If x exists then x's existence is intrinsically good/pleasant for x
(8) John's existence is intrinsically good/pleasant for John                                                                                    (from 1,6,7)
(9) If z is intrinsically good/pleasant for x & x perceives z, z seems good/pleasant for x
(10) Hence, John's existence seems good/pleasant for John                                                                                    (from 6,8,9)
(11) If y is x's friend, then whatever is intrinsically good/pleasant for x is intrinsically good/pleasant for y
(12) Sally is John's friend
(13) Hence, whatever is intrinsically good/pleasant for John is intrinsically good/pleasant for Sally   (from 11,12)
(14) Hence, John's existence is intrinsically good/pleasant for Sally                                                                   (from 8-13)
(15) If y is x's friend, then whatever seems intrinsically good/pleasant for x seems intrinsically good/pleasant for y
(16) Hence, John's existence seems intrinsically good/pleasant for Sally                                                          (from 12,15)
(17) If y is x's friend, then x is y's friend
(18) Hence, John  is Sally's friend                                                                                                                                         (from 12,17)
(19) Hence, Sally's existence is intrinsically good/pleasant for Sally                                                                   (repeat 1-8 replacing "John" with "Sally")
(20) Hence, Sally's existence seems intrinsically good/pleasant for Sally                                                         (repeat 1-10 replacing "John" with "Sally")
(21) Hence, whatever is intrinsically good/pleasant for Sally is intrinsically good/pleasant for John   (from 11,18)
(22) Hence, Sally's existence is intrinsically good/pleasant for John                                                                   (from 19-21)
(23) Hence, Sally's existence seems intrinsically good/pleasant for John                                                          (from 15,18)
(24) If z is intrinsically good/pleasant for y & z seems intrinsically good/pleasant for y, then z is desirable to y
(25) Hence, Sally's existence is desirable to John                                                                                                          (from 22,23,24)
(26) Hence, John's existence is desirable to Sally                                                                                                          (from 14,16,24)

Aristotle's Tense Friendships

An interpretive puzzle arises from a straightforward reading of Aristotle’s analysis of friendship. Shortly after claiming friendship involves mutually reciprocated goodwill for another’s sake, Aristotle claims those involved in friendships based on use or pleasure do not bear goodwill to their friends for their own sake, but instead only for the sake of what is – respectively - advantageous or pleasant.[1] Many proposals have been offered to ease the interpretive tension.[2] In this paper, I arbitrate between two and propose a third. The Standard Reading treats goodwill for the other’s sake as a defining feature of friendship based on virtue, with use and pleasure friendships resembling this form in other ways, but involving goodwill only for the sake of what is advantageous or pleasurable. On this reading, Aristotle either misspoke in his initial presentation of what varieties of friendship require, or – perhaps more charitably – dropped the requirement that all forms of friendship involve goodwill towards another for their own sake as he refined his characterizations of the lesser forms.[3] In contrast, the Goodwill Reading[4] treats goodwill for the other’s sake as a feature of all forms of friendship discussed by Aristotle, though they are nevertheless differentiated based on their respective objects. On this reading, Aristotle’s later remarks concerning the lesser forms of friendship are perhaps meant to merely emphasize the crucial role use and pleasure play in the corresponding forms of friendship, but were not meant to undermine each form of friendship involving goodwill towards others for their own sake. Arbitrating between these two readings stands to clarify Aristotle’s intended analysis of varieties of friendship while simultaneously providing a foundation on which alternative interpretive proposals may be evaluated. 

In Section 1, we examine Aristotle’s discussion of varieties of friendship further, extracting salient details. Here too we outline and motivate the Standard Reading of Aristotle’s discussion, and note the Standard Reading appears to treat most friendships as based entirely on egoistic motivation. These observations inspire seeking an alternative. In Section 2, we contrast the Standard Reading with the Goodwill Reading, which we also outline and motivate. We then pose several objections to the latter reading. In particular, we undermine the Goodwill Reading insofar as it relies on Aristotle’s definition of friendship from the Rhetoric, and observe this reading entails various relationships Aristotle explicitly counts as friendship fail to count as friendships. Having posed trouble for the Goodwill Reading, rather than retreat to the Standard Reading, we extract lessons from the preceding discussion and gesture at a prima facie promising synthesis of these distinct readings that provides a more nuanced solution to the interpretive puzzle than its predecessors.

[1](1156a11-3; 1164b10; 1167a14).
[2]See (Nehamas, 2010) for an overview of interpretive options. See (Whiting, 1991) among others, for more detail.
[3](Pakaluk, 2005, pg. 270-1); (Nehamas, 2010, pg. 220). The characterization of the Standard Reading here is from (Cooper, 1999), and shares much in common with the first option (Nehamas, 2010, pg. 220-1) considers as a solution to the interpretive puzzle. [4](Cooper, 1999, pgs. 312-35).

Frede among the Skeptics

Check out my recent presentation on ancient Skepticism where I try to get clear on whether, according to Sextus Empiricus, Skeptics had beliefs. I engage with Michael Frede's two seminal papers The Skeptic's Beliefs (1979) and The Skeptic's Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge. If the presentation piques your interest, check out the paper here (which is much better than the presentation imo).