In Phaedrus, a very famous dialogue written by Plato, Socrates explains that “love is a madness.” At the same time, he also expresses that love is one of the greatest gifts that humankind could receive. What exactly did he mean by both of these statements and how should we make sense of them?
Not so crazy in love
The idea of love as madness probably doesn’t seem strange — after all, movies and songs talk about being “crazy” in love while highlighting its addictive and sporadic nature. But Socrates is referring to a different madness and, in fact, does a takedown of this simpler view. Appealing to the cultural and religious traditions of his time, Socrates suggests that love is a form of divine madness.
To illustrate the concept of divine madness, consider that the etymology of the word “enthusiasm” tells us the word comes from the Greek “enthousiasmós,” which literally means to be possessed by a god. The idea is that this madness is just a form of inspiration from the heavens. This, too, is an idea that’s somewhat prevalent in pop culture. Think of any show or movie where the weird person who is just a little bit crazy seems to be more enthusiastic, more passionate, and more perceptive than the rest of the cast (I’m thinking of Psych, but honestly any one-man-solves-it-all narrative fits here). It’s also worth noting that similar notions of divine madness/inspiration are also part of many religious and spiritual traditions across the world.
With regards to love specifically, love is a special type of divine madness that results from the recognition of a deeper, sublime beauty in the world. It essentially comes from getting a glimpse of the world as the gods see it, or as it truly is. While appreciation of someone’s physical beauty might be the impetus that causes this feeling, if one is experiencing love as Socrates describes it, there’s something far more substantive driving their sentiments.
What does this mean?
What got me interested in discussing Socrates’ notion of love as madness was a quote I read that is commonly attributed to Plato describing love as a “…serious mental disease.” While I’ve admittedly not read many of Plato’s works, at least not the primary sources, the quote sounded like somewhat of an uncharacteristic misreading given what I did know of Plato. I don’t know where exactly this quote comes from; however, considering all of Plato’s major works were dialogues, it’s most likely not something he said directly. What makes the most sense is that the quote probably is a mistranslation or misquote of Socrates’ “love is madness” line in Phaedrus.
As I’ve explained above, though, this madness is unlike mental illness. In fact, by Socrates’ account, it’s one of the most important steps towards a certain type of self-improvement. By seeing a deeper beauty in the world, rather than just seeing the world as it is, one is essentially grasping at Truth. The only reason this is “madness” is perhaps because divinely inspired people see what those who haven’t been touched by the divine can’t see. They’re pointing to ghosts from the point of view of everyone else.
Through Socrates, Plato is effectively suggesting that the beauty love can inspire has the ability to improve lovers if they respect the sublimity that love enables them to experience. Although Socrates’ speech affirming love in Phaedrus relies on a rather complex myth to make rhetorical points, its meaning is clear. The vision of “true” beauty that lovers potentially see in each other can inspire them to shape one another into better people. Rather than being a mental illness, if viewed in this light, love is possibly one of the most rational impetuses one can have.