Wings of Desire

Cupid and Psyche, 1787-1793, by Antonio Canova

Sermon #12 (11th January 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

Reading and Reflection: Plato’s Symposium – Introducing Socrates and Alcibiades

We’re going to hear a few excerpts from Plato’s Symposium but first let me set the scene for you. The Symposium is perhaps the classic philosophical text on eros, erotic love, the love of romance, desire, and passion. The word ‘symposium’ refers to a Greek drinking-party and the book is set at one of these gatherings. A lot of the great and the good have turned up round Agathon’s house for a symposium but they’re all hungover from a big party the night before so someone suggests they lay off the drinking for a night and instead amuse themselves by having a conversation about the nature of love – eros – (surprisingly they’re all well up for this). So they take turns giving impromptu speeches about eros and we get to hear a variety of different perspectives.

The star of the show is Socrates. All the earlier speeches build up to his. He is known for his wisdom and eloquence and everybody who speaks before him kind-of knows he’s going to top whatever they say. It’s perhaps a bit like having Stephen Fry round for tea. Socrates tells of what he has learned of eros from a wise woman called Diotima…  as such it is the only hint of a female voice in the Symposium. The key idea from this speech is known as ‘The Ladder of Love’ and Antony is going to read you a condensed excerpt.

Love – eros – is the desire to have the good forever. Given that love has this overall goal, we should also ask this… What function does love really have? …I shall tell you. Love’s function is giving birth to beauty both in body and in mind.

All human beings are pregnant in body and in mind, and when we reach a degree of adulthood, we naturally desire to give birth… There is something divine in this process; this is how mortal creatures achieve immortality … [Those] who are pregnant in body… express their love by producing children. [Those] who are pregnant in mind… [express their love by bringing forth] wisdom and other kinds of virtue: these are brought to birth by all the poets and craftsmen … [and by] the organisation of cities and households… People look enviously at Homer and Hesiod and other good poets because of the kind of children they have left behind them which provide them with immortal fame and remembrance.

The correct way for someone to approach this business [of erotic love] is to begin when [they’re] young by being drawn towards beautiful bodies. At first, [they] should love just one body, and in that relationship produce beautiful discourses. Next [they] should realise that the beauty of any one body is closely related to that of another, and that… it’s very foolish not to regard the beauty of all bodies as one and the same… After this, [they] should regard the beauty of minds as more valuable than that of the body, so that, if someone has goodness of mind even if [they have] little of the bloom of beauty, [they] will be content with [them], and will love and care for [them], and give birth to the kinds of discourse that help young [people] to become better… [then they] will observe the beauty in practices and laws… [then] forms of knowledge, and see their beauty too… [They] will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and, gazing on it, [they’ll] give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas.

So Socrates – via Diotima – describes an idealised version of ‘eros’ through this ‘Ladder of Love’ where people graduate from their attraction to individuals, from the body, to the mind, to knowledge, until they desire this abstract sea of beauty, and ultimately the idealised ‘Form of Beauty’ which was a key idea of Plato’s. Many people treat this abstraction of erotic love as the concluding message of Plato’s symposium – Socrates is meant to be the wisest, after all, so surely what he says goes? – and nowadays we often use the phrase ‘Platonic love’ to mean this sort of chaste, non-sexual, love – but in the Symposium Socrates doesn’t actually get to have the final word. At the end of his speech an unexpected visitor, Alcibiades, crashes the party. Alcibiades is passionately in love with Socrates – to the point that he makes a nuisance of himself – and the lusty Alcibiades gets the nod to speak without restraint about his passion for this brilliant and eccentric man. This is just a tiny distillation of some fragments of Alcibiades’ speech.

Good evening, gentlemen. Will you let someone who’s drunk – very drunk – join your symposium?… I suppose you’ll laugh at me because I’m drunk…. I’ll try to praise Socrates through images. He’s just like those statues of Silenus you see sitting in sculptors’ shops… when they’re opened up you find they’ve got statues of the gods inside… Whenever I listen to him, my frenzy is greater than that of the Corybantes.

My heart pounds and tears flood out when he speaks…. I don’t know if any of you have seen the statues inside Socrates when he’s opened up. But I saw them once, and they seemed so divine, golden, so utterly beautiful and amazing… I thought he was interested in my looks and this was a godsend and amazing good luck, because, if I gratified him, I’d be able to hear everything he knew… I invited him to come to the gymnasium with me and we exercised together; I thought I would get somewhere that way. So we exercised together and wrestled on many occasions with no one around – and what can I tell you? I got nowhere. Socrates is like no other human being, either of the past or the present. This person is so peculiar, you’ll never find anyone close to him.

Through Alcibiades, we get to see a more familiar version of eros, which is anything but abstract: a half-crazed desire for Socrates, the very particular flesh-and blood individual in front of him, who seems unique and irreplaceable. It seems that this sort of passion cannot be entirely abstracted away even by Plato himself.


Sermon: Wings of Desire 

Some people might be a bit squeamish about the thought of a service all about eros. If that’s the case for anybody here today – thank you for overcoming your squeamishness and turning up to church regardless – I don’t think there’s anything too racy coming up in the next ten minutes so I think you’ll be alright. And for anyone who was looking forward to the racy bits – apologies if what follows is a bit of a disappointment to you!

So, eros. When I mentioned the theme of today’s service to a few non-church-y mates of mine they expressed surprise at the thought that this sort of thing would be spoken of in positive terms from a pulpit. One friend gently ribbed me a bit about the – undeniably true – fact that, on the whole, organised religion hasn’t got a great reputation for celebrating passion, desire, sexuality in all its fullness (and occasional absurdity). The Catholic priest and social psychologist Diarmuid O’Murchu has commented on what he calls the ‘antisexual rhetoric’ which has been the mainstream message put about by many religious groups down the years. He says:

‘In mainline Christian spirituality, the erotic denotes primitive instinctual drivenness — a wild, uncontrolled release of passion, with demon-like sexual desire as one of its primary expressions. Eros denotes everything that is disordered and disorderly — the subliminal id in Freudian psychology, the source of sin and temptation, the relentless drive that begets compulsions and addictions, driving humans to insanity and beyond…’

However, thankfully, most religious traditions contain strands which view eros in a more positive light than this, and as religious liberals and progressives we Unitarians – in general – tend to be far more open to the combination of spirituality and sexuality. I want to share some words from the eminent Unitarian Universalist minister Rebecca Parker which put eros in a bigger context and ultimately at the very heart of what it means to live well. This is quite an extended quote from her essay ‘A Home for Love’.  She says:

‘Love is what happens in the vibrant interchange between living beings and life forms. It is the experience of being drawn to one another, of interacting with each other to create happiness and joy, to labour to care for life’s daily needs, to give refreshment to the soul. Love blesses the intersections among individual beings and the whole fabric of existence… [so] Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding. It is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life. Eros can be exploited and misdirected. It can be domesticated into patterns of dominance and submission that disrupt equality. When mutual power and consent are absent, it becomes abusive and can deeply harm souls and bodies. But, at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul – our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give. It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another.  It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness. It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life – not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world.’

Words from the UU minister Rebecca Parker. She’s talking about eros as a fundamental life force and, whilst acknowledging that this energy can be directed for good or ill – this is not an uncritically positive view of eros – she’s pointing towards the idea that, as well as being about taking simple pleasure in the particular other who is in front of us, eros can direct us to something beyond itself, beyond ourselves, leading us onward and upward, raising us up on wings of desire.

This notion has been around a very long time, and it’s more-or-less the message that’s contained in Plato’s Symposium, in Socrates and Diotima’s ‘Ladder of Love’.  A lot of people seem to interpret Plato as talking about ‘lower eros’ and ‘higher eros’ and saying that over the course of a lifetime you ought to strive to transform your lowly lusty urges into something more lofty and abstract. Plato seems to say that you start out when you’re young and foolish (like Alcibiades), passionately desiring one beautiful individual (like Socrates), but if you educate and discipline yourself properly you will come to realise that the proper object of your desire is something more abstract (the form of beauty itself) that you just happen to be experiencing through this individual.

The downside of this interpretation of Plato is that it seems to deny our instinctive sense that it matters that we love and desire this or that particular, unique, irreplaceable person.  Alcibiades, half-crazed with love and desire cries out that ‘Socrates is like no other human being, either of the past or the present… you’ll never find anyone close to him.’  So he certainly doesn’t seem to think that the beauty of one beautiful person is interchangeable with that of any other. And we heard that gorgeous excerpt from Walt Whitman earlier on where he speaks of a particular man, a farmer, and celebrates every aspect of him: his strength, his character, his presence, way of life, his appearance (his beard, of course!)

Most interpretations of Plato suggest that he’s saying we can’t have it both ways (and that you should therefore choose the restrained virtue of Socrates and Diotima, which leads to higher things, over the chaotic passions of Alcibiades).

Well, if that’s really what he meant, then this is where I part company from Plato.

I reckon we can have it both ways. Each of us may have a temperament which causes us to lean one way or the other by default but I would suggest that it is good to keep in touch with both the earthy aspect and the transcendental aspect of eros  (though I think it’s likely that one or other will dominate at different times of life). Let’s not turn eros into a rarefied abstraction altogether. The particular, flawed, lumpy, bumpy, hairy, flesh-and-blood reality of the human being in front of us is uniquely valuable and should be celebrated and cherished in their own right.

Eros significantly shapes the course of our lives.  Bringing it right back down to earth, as best I can, let’s consider how this notion might play out in our everyday reality.  Plato talks about ‘being pregnant in body and mind’. The most conventional sense in which eros can be said to shape lives is the sense in which you might be drawn to someone romantically, get together, perhaps made a home together, raise children. Eros is at one level connected to a sort-of immortality through procreation, either in the starkest biological sense of passing on your genes, or in the sense of passing on your values and ideals when helping to bring up and educate the next generation.

But Plato’s notion of being ‘pregnant in mind’ broadens this considerably. Eros brings us into powerful connections with others which inspire us to create homes and cities, works of art, literature and poetry, works of justice, science and philosophy. All these are in a sense ‘children of the mind’ which arise from the energy of eros.

As Iris Murdoch wrote in the words which are on the front of your order of service:

‘Plato’s Eros is a principle which connects the commonest human desire to the highest morality and to the pattern of divine creativity in the universe… Carnal love teaches that what we want is always ‘beyond’, and it gives us an energy which can be transformed into creative virtue.’

Even ill-fated or short-lived passion can have an impact. Every time we are drawn towards another human being the attraction may well be leading us somewhere – and not just into the arms of the one we fancy – our passion may open us up to new things. For example, when we are besotted with someone we might we want to read the books they read, listen to the music they like, try out the pastimes that they are interested in. We may broaden our horizons, learn something, become enlarged.  To put it in a way that Plato might approve of, perhaps, we increase in virtue and wisdom (if we’re lucky).  Even those ‘ships that pass in the night’ may make a significant and lasting impression.  There is a deep value in intimate knowing, and being known, in body as well as soul.  We can approach any encounter in a way which sanctifies it and brings out deeper meaning.   And as Walt Whitman wrote: ‘There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odour of them, that pleases the soul well.’

Eros in its widest sense – in its myriad forms – is the driving force of all life.  I want to close with some words by James and Evelyn Whitehead, from their book ‘Holy Eros’.

‘The human journey is sustained by eros and grace. Eros names the vital energy that animates all creation. Eros lies at the source of our desires — for friendship and love, for fruitful work, for life in abundance. Eros and grace embrace in the heart of God. Although we usually associate eros with the engines of sexual desire, it is much more than that: It is an ebullient, eager, and sometimes disruptive energy that moves us again and again toward more life… the energy of eros also opens pathways to our passionate God.’

May it be so, for all of us, one way or another.  Amen.


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: