Platonic love: A philosophy of love set forth by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his Symposium and Phaedrus (c. 360 B.C.) and attributed to the female sage Diotima, who supposedly related it to the philosopher Socrates, Plato’s teacher. This theory was further developed in the third through fifth centuries A.D. by Neoplatonist philosophers such as Plotinus and evolved still further during the Renaissance, when it informed the writings of Christian Church fathers and love poets alike. Platonic philosophy dominated Western thinking about love until the Medieval Period, when the competing courtly love tradition emerged.
According to Platonic love philosophy, the lover of beauty may admire physical beauty but should work toward a vision of beauty at the highest level — the absolute and perfect beauty in and of God. Indeed, this philosophy calls for the Platonic lover to progress, in steps, from contemplating physical to mental to conceptual to spiritual beauty until he has attained a vision of the eternal and true Ideal Beauty from which the soul is normally separated and next to which all worldly beauty pales. (The masculine pronoun has been used in the preceding sentence because the Platonic lover has traditionally been identified as male, perhaps because in the Phaedrus, Socrates addressed male-male relationships, asserting the superiority of nonsexual male friendships over merely physical homosexual relationships. While Platonic love philosophy has been applied mainly to heterosexual relationships since Plato’s time, the conception of the Platonic lover as male has not changed.) The doctrine also postulates that, by achieving the highest vision of beauty, the Platonic lover could actually create in his beloved a higher, more soulful beauty.
Today, most people use the phrase Platonic love to refer to love that does not involve sexual relations, without realizing that the term has a much deeper and more complex significance.
EXAMPLES: The following lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” (1822) express the philosophy of Platonic love:
Warm fragrance seems to fall from her light dress
And her loose hair; and where some heavy tress
The air of her own speed has disentwined,
The sweetness seems to satiate the faint wind;
And in the soul a wild odour is felt,
Beyond the sense, like fiery dews that melt
Into the bosom of a frozen bud.—
See where she stands! a mortal shape indued
With love and life and light and deity,
And motion which may change but cannot die;
An image of some bright Eternity;
A shadow of some golden dream; a Splendour
Leaving the third sphere pilotless; a tender
Reflection of the eternal Moon of Love… .
The relationship between Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1896) is essentially Platonic. Theirs was “not an ignoble, merely animal feeling” but rather “an extraordinary affinity, or sympathy … which somehow took away all flavor of grossness”; they “seem to be one person split in two.”