Anatomy of Platonic Eros

There is a certain guidance each person needs for his whole life, if he is to live well; and nothing imparts this guidance — not high kinship, not public honor, not wealth — nothing imparts this guidance as well as love” [i.e. eros]  — Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, translated by Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett Publishing, 1989), 178C-D.

In order to understand how eros can function as a guide for life, I think it is helpful to anatomize eros into four interrelated parts: 1) penia, 2) poros, 3) chorismos, and 4) kinesis

1) Penia means poverty or lack, recognized as such, even if one doesn’t yet know what is lacking. I am using this word and the next in sequence mindful of Diotima’s assertion in the Symposium (203b-c) that Eros is the child of Penia and Poros. This is the condition of the lover.

2) Poros stands for plenty or fulfillment. This is the intended, the beloved. Although it literally means something like “resource” or “means of fulfillment” rather than the fulfillment as such, I think for Plato the animating means and the end are the same. In hungering after an object, such as a Form (eidos, idea), one is already under its influence. The beloved is the mover, the lover the moved.

3) Chorismos — This word means “separation.” In the movement of eros there must be a separation between lover and beloved. A desire that is satisfied without remainder is no longer desirable. If there is an abiding eros, then there is also an abiding separation, some unbridged (or unbridgable) transcendence — what Levinas calls “exteriority.”

4) Kinesis — This is the movement from lack toward attempted satisfaction. Although I have placed it last in sequence, it may be the first to become evident to the desirer.

Diagrammed, my anatomical version of eros looks something like this:

Present Penia ——kinesis overcoming chorismos—–> (Absent Poros)

(Not very erotic, I know!)

Now, a few extensions to the regime of intellectual eros, the desire to understand or to know:

1. A question is the articulation of a particular eros. It is important that Socrates — who in the Symposium (177d) claims that the only thing he understands are erotic things (ta erotika) and in Phaedrus (257a) that he possesses an “erotic art” (tē technē erotikē) — teaches through questioning. Socrates both models an eros and articulates the eros with a question. Socratic questions incite (1) an awareness of ignorance (penia), (2) a struggle to know something (poros), (3) removes the false doxa that masks the separation (chorismos) and (4) impart a movement, a struggle, toward an answer (kinēsis).

2. The myth of anamnesis in the Meno, which teaches that all learning is recollection, also suggests that the poros is already functioning as means in being sought. The relationship however is not one of knowledge or possession but of desire, eros. I will try to spell this out in a later post.

3. Aristotle, who on my reading is always attacking a version of Platonism when he critiques Platonic concepts, objected most strongly to the separation of the forms from particulars (Metaphysics, XIII 9 1086b). But if we understand this separation as the chorismos at the heart of intellectual eros, Plato’s notion is much more intelligible than the version Aristotle attacks.

4. The status of doxa as an intermediate (metaxy) between ignorance and knowledge, discussed in an earlier post, is related intimately to the depiction of eros as an intermediate daimon in Symposium, Lysis and Phaedrus. Ignorance (agnoia) is penia and knowledge (episteme, gnosis) the poros of the intellectual eros proper to doxa, which becomes most evident in thinking (dianoia). As Aristotle states, “All men desire by nature to know.” (Metaphysics, 1.1, 980a)

5. In an earlier post, I referred to the phenomenon of “felt absence,” which I think is best understood as an erotic phenomenon: an absence (and desired presence) made evident by a inwardly felt kinēsis.

6. Etymologically, aporia (impasse, perplexity) is the privative or negation of poros.

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