In the Symposion, perhaps the most famous of the ancient Greek philosophical texts on love, Plato gives us a definition of what love is:
“Love is the desire for the eternal possession of the good.”
This looks strange on first sight. Possession? What is a good? And why should it be eternal?
We are striving for perfection, says Plato. We are attracted to it. We love to look at a beautiful face, a perfect body. But if we follow our instincts for a while, we’ll notice that it’s not one particular body we’re attracted to. We’re attracted to every beautiful body, and thus to the beauty itself that is common in them. And we notice that there are other kinds of beauty: when the beauty of the body fades with age, the beauty of the mind becomes more prominent. Things like humour, or intelligence. And so our understanding of beauty grows wider, to include these things. And then we notice that we’re also attracted to other things that are beautiful: a sunset, a haunting melody, the spiral form of a seashell, perhaps even a mathematical formula, or the clever way a philosophical argument works. That’s also love, says Plato. These things we also want to possess.
Love is the desire for the eternal possession of the good.
But nothing is forever. We know that we’ll die. Sunsets end, melodies fade into silence, seashells break. But our desire to be united with beauty is still there, as long as we live. So how can we satisfy that? By uniting with these things that are not ephemeral, things that are eternal, things that won’t die: the abstract beauty of a formula describing a seashell. The score of a melody. An argument in a philosophical book. And when we engage erotically with these things, we produce eternal offspring: another melody, a new formula, a better argument. These things will not go away, they will stay around humans, to be loved and admired, forever.
Plato the man has been dead for two and a half thousand years. Socrates, who was loved by many for his wit and his wisdom, has been dead equally long. But what remains are Plato’s words on the page, recording those other words Socrates said, preserving that wit and that wisdom across the aeons for us to admire, to enjoy, and to love.
For Plato, this is the ultimate, the highest form of love, the only love that is truly eternal.