20 February 2006

Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?

Do the gods love an action because it is pious, or is an action pious because the gods love it? That old chestnut is of course the 'Euthyphro problem.'

A crucial assumption in Plato's treatment of it, it seems, is that an act or condition of love is for something, and what it is for provides the reason for (explanation, account of) that love. We can therefore distinguish (i) qualities that we attribute to things as a consequence of someone's love for them, and (ii) qualities of things that are prior to the love that someone has for them, and which motivate and explain that love. Euthyphro effectively takes piety to fall under (i), but Socrates thinks he has shown that it falls under (ii), in which case Euthyphro's definition has been refuted.

Isn't Plato concerned that, if we did not grant his assumption, then love--and the gods, too, insofar as they loved--would be irrational? Just as, in the application of a word to a thing, there must be a reason why we apply a word to that thing but not to others (the logos kata ten ousian), so, in our loving some things but not others, there must be a reason, located in the object, why this is so. If there were no such reason, then our love would be something irrational and even apeiron. (Love which doesn't begin because of something in the object of love also won't stop, ever, because of something in the object. It's therefore without any limit.)

We might object to the language (that love should be 'limited') or even to the concept, but that this is the view of Plato and Aristotle, at least, seems clear. We apparently find exactly the same notion in the Symposium--love is motivated by beauty--and in Aristotle's ethical writings--in his presumption that there are three reasons for loving something, its goodness, usefulness, or pleasantness.

I was therefore a bit surprised to find, when I was studying the book recently, that Eros Unveiled by Catherine Osborne reaches something of an opposite conclusion:

There are two main claims that I have tried to defend. One is that the correct way to understand the ancient tradition concerning eros is to see love as inexplicable, in the way suggested by the motif of Eros the god of love with his arrows. In other words we are not to seek the reason why anyone loves another by looking for some quality that is admirable or desirable in the other, but rather to see love as occurring regardless of whether there are desirable features in the beloved. The second claim follows from this, namely that where desire or admiration of fine qualities occurs and is associated with love, it would be a mistake to suggest that the desire or appeciation was itself love, or was the motive that inspired us to love. Rather it makes more sense to see desire, and appreciation of what is good, occurring as a result of love, as the expression of the love that enables us to see such qualities as good and desirable. (219)
What of the Symposium, and what, then, of Aristotle?

Osborne dispatches with Aristotle by saying that he is concerned with a different phenomenon from love altogether: his writings on philia are about 'cooperation' or 'befriending', not love.

As for the Symposium, Osborne points to Plato's personification there of love as daimones who are intermediaries between earth and heaven. What this indicates, she says, is that Plato thinks that we need love even to be turned enough toward beauty, in the first place, as to find it desirable. Thus eros explains our finding beauty attractive; it is not the case that we find beauty attractive and then as a consequence love it.

(There is no discussion of the Euthyphro in the book, understandably enough.)


Anonymous said...

Osborne's reading of the Symposium seems a bit bizarre. I've always read in that dialogue a fairly clear expression of the idea that eros is for to kalon, and no suggestion that we find things to be kala because we love them. The fact that we find some things kala is taken as a kind of brute fact. The idea that we desire things under a description of their admirable qualities is one that I've taken to be quintessentially Platonic -- I'd be surprised if it turned out to be that, for Plato, we just desire things because we desire them, and thus they seem good. Wouldn't that make all of the talk about real and false desires fundamentally incoherent? We simply wouldn't be able to be mistaken about the good if it really is just what we desire.

Interestingly enough, the idea that Osborne finds in the Symposium does seem to be present in Sappho fragment 16: "the most beautiful thing on the black earth is whatever thing anyone loves." Sappho's use of Helen in the following stanzas have often been understood as offering a particularly feminine perspective on the story, where Helen is not blamed for the destruction of Troy as she often is by male authors. To my mind, however, the fact that the poem doesn't mention the destruction doesn't mean that Sappho doesn't expect it to be in her audience's minds, and the destruction illustrates precisely what Plato (on the more traditional understanding) would take to be wrong with the Sappho and Osborne's radical subjectifying of the good and eros: it is completely oblivious to what actually is good.

As for the Euthyphro, would I simply be repeating your idea in different words if I suggested that Plato's concern there is not so much to avoid making piety irrational as to avoid making it arbitrary? If the 'irrational' has to do principally with whatever is not derived from or otherwise associated with a self-conscious process of reasoning, then I don't think it is right to claim that Plato wants to avoid irrationality above all else. That piety should not be arbitrary, derived entirely from the whims of some fickle divinities -- that does seem to be something that Plato wants to avoid.

Catherine Osborne said...

I didn't mean to say that love and the good is radically subjectified. Far from it. I strongly assent to the idea that there is a clear distinction between real and false desires and that one can be mistaken in desiring what is not desirable. The object of correct love is good, while the object of mistaken, misdirected or infatuated love is not worthy of the attention that is wrongly directed to it.
My point was rather that love (as described in Socrates's speech in the Symposium) is the sine qua non for seeing an object as good when it is good. It opens our eyes or directs our attention to the goodness in things we had not otherwise seen as kalon, and when we see the kalon it becomes a focus of our desire. But without love we would not be in a position to see the beloved as beautiful. Love is the cause of our aspiration to seek and to obtain some kind of relation with such beauty: without love we woulod be without aspirations.
That means that we don't love something because we desire it. We desire it because it is kalon. But it just being kalon is not enough to waken our desire, not unless we see and appreciate the value of the kalon—which requires looking with the eyes of love.
I think Michael's link between this and the Euthyphro dilemma is an interesting one. I'll have to think about it.