Love and sex in Ancient Greek philosophy

Ralph asked:

According to the ancient Greek philosophers what is Love (Eros) and Sex?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Would you be surprised to hear that Plato tells us the story of Socrates going to the priestess Diotima to ask the same question?

He went to Diotima asking about love, but she instead taught him about beauty and wisdom. This suggests that we attain wisdom and beauty through love.

However, to answer your question, I have to start with separating Love from Eros. I noticed you have Eros in brackets after Love. That’s a mistake – eros is not love! But the differences between them are subtle and not exactly what we understand today. This is because we have gone through 2000 years of Christianity, which changed the way we think about these matters.

So to start:

Eros according to Socrates is not a god. What then? Well, it’s difficult, as I said, but not impossible, We get help from Hesiod, who wrote a poem about the birth of the gods. When Uranos and Gaia (Heaven and Earth) copulated to produce offspring, Hesiod says that Eros was present. This means that Eros is prior, but not a personalised divinity.

Now in today’s world, the word we would use is ‘passion’. It is not restricted to what we mean when we say ‘erotic’. In fact, eroticism is just one of our passions. In the dialogue between Socrates and Diotima, she tells him that Eros is the passionate search for love, beauty, wisdom, truth, justice and many other things that can be summarised as ‘the Good’.

So in the first instance, Eros is the energy that drives artists, politicians, inventors, philosophers in their search for truth. But you might entertain a passion for football, or stamps, ants, stars, coins, gardening or any other worthwhile activity; and this passionate interest is also Eros.

In a word, Eros is the great energiser that gives us the will and the power to pursue what we are passionate for.

So Eros means passion, the intense desire for something you want to achieve in life.

Sex, on the other hand, is not associated primarily with Eros, because it is the prerogative of Aphrodite. She is the goddess of sex and everything that belongs to courtship, relationships, sex and marriage and children, as well as the sheer pleasure of intimate affection.

This again overlaps with Love. To the Greeks, love was not quite the explosive sort of relationship that you find in many modern novels, plays and movies. Rather it was focused on stable and mutually beneficial relationships. Aristotle is a good example. He had intimate friends, and he had a very close loving relationship with is wife. Evidently love is wider than passion or sex, because it includes the love of parents and children, sometimes even close friends, and perhaps even animals.

One more things needs to be said. Plato is often represented as promoting homosexual love, even pederasty. It’s a terrible misrepresentation. He was only interested in ideal love, and in the ideals for which we need the help of Eros. For him, sex was for the sake of procreation. It played no part in his doctrine of love. Accordingly he abhorred physical sex for any other purpose. Neither love nor eros (passion) should ever be diverted into the lower desires that we share with animals.


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