What’s your take on platonic love vs. romantic love?

A student asked:

What’s your take platonic love vs. romantic love? To you, how are they different?

The modern sense of Platonic love is very different from how Plato intended it in his writings. Plato talks about Vulgar Eros, or an attraction to physical beauty. And he says that it is an important stepping stone to transcending the Vulgar Eros in order to attain Divine Eros (what we think of as Platonic love), which is an attraction to the conceptual form of beauty as beauty. This may not make sense to the modern reader. So let me put it simply as this: You know how sometimes we can be so amazed or intrigued by an idea that we feel a great attraction to it, or an excitement to learn more about it? That’s sorta like the experience of Divine Eros.

There is some fuzziness to our modern understanding of what Platonic love is. We can all agree it means that two people are very close but they don’t want to be in each other’s pants. Some people like think of Platonic love as the love between siblings. But I have a problem with this because it erases the subtle nuance between close-like-siblings and close-like-partners-who-don’t-want-to-shag, and conflate the two as if they are one and the same. Furthermore, the Greeks already have a word for such sibling-to-sibling love (even for friends who are close like siblings). It’s called “philia.”

Eros on the other hand is a very passionate kind of love. There is attraction, and there is desire for union. If I were to go with the spirit of Plato’s idea of Divine Eros, I would say that for our modern understanding of Platonic love, it probably has to be an attraction of minds. Just as how physical Vulgar Eros draws us to desire physical union with another; this transcended Divine Eros of Platonic Love is a love that draws us to want intellectual intimacy with another person. It is an attraction to a person’s beautiful mind, or the ideas that the person has to share. It is an attraction that compels you to seek a special kind of union – a union of minds through the intellectual intercourse of dialogue.

I believe this kind of union is very intimate because if you do believe that our minds and our souls are one and the same, then the intercourse of ideas is not just a union of minds, but a union of souls that gives birth to a new concept, a new idea. And ideas are eternal.

Sadly, this intimacy is rare. It’s not something we can just do with anyone. Most of the time, if you’re the brainy kind, it’s very one-sided. You’re just talking away, and the other person is just pretending to listen, going, “Uh-huh…”

So yeah… True Platonic love – in the sense I described above – is hard to find.

Thanks for the question. I had a lot of fun reading up to figure out what my thoughts on the matter are. :)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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