Plato on Love and Sex

In Adrienne M. Martin (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Love in Philosophy. New York: Routledge Handbooks in Philoso. pp. 105-115 (2018)
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Abstract

When people now talk about a relationship as being “Platonic”, they mean that the relationship is a non-sexual friendship. But what did Plato himself say about different kinds of relationship, and how did his name come to be associated with non-sexual relationships? While Plato’s Symposium has been the center of attention for his views on love, I argue that the Phaedrus and Laws VIII provide a much clearer account of Plato’s views. In these dialogues, Plato distinguishes between two kinds of love and three kinds of lover. The two kinds of love are fundamentally oriented towards different objects: one kind of love is focused on the body of the beloved and seeks to extract as much bodily pleasure from them as possible, whereas the other kind of love is focused on the soul and seeks to benefit the beloved by improving their character. There is a lover for each kind of love, and a third kind of lover who is torn between these two opposing objects of love. Notably, in the kind of love directed towards the soul, the lovers will not engage in sexual activity. I argue that this is because Plato thinks that the natural function of sex is the procreation of good children and that engaging in such an intensely pleasurable activity risks making the lovers intemperate and lacking in self-control. Thus Plato thinks that the best kind of relationship is one of love (and not just friendship) but is nonetheless non-sexual.

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Jeremy Reid
San Francisco State University

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