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What is love, exactly?

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005

Plato considered the question a long time ago... but we're still, perhaps, no nearer an answer.

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Perhaps the greatest works on love are by one of the most famous philosophers of ancient Greece - Plato. Plato was the first to use the term philosophy, which means "love of wisdom".

Born around 428 BC, Plato investigated a wide range of topics. Chief among his ideas was the theory of forms, which proposed that objects in the physical world merely resemble perfect forms in the ideal world, and that only these perfect forms can be the object of true knowledge.

The goal of the philosopher, according to Plato, is to know the perfect forms, to get behind the appearance of things and try to discover what they are really like.

Plato’s writings were in dialogue form; philosophical ideas were discussed and criticized in the context of conversations or debates. He wrote two great dialogues dealing with love - The Symposium, an account of conversation at a dinner party that tackles love and The Phaedrus, is an account of erotic passion, mingled with reverence and awe.

Sharing the same general theory of human nature, The Phaedrus treats love as a divine madness, a natural, if not wholly desirable, emotional imbalance.But the diverse speeches delivered in The Symposium offer several more favorable accounts of human emotion in general and of love in particular.

Take it further

Would you like to learn more about the philosophy of love? Why not find out about the foundations of philosophical thought and how it relates to us with course A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation.


What Does It All Mean? : A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy
Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press

Introducing Plato
Dave Robinon and Judy Groves, Icon Books

Phaedrus and Letters VII & VIII
Plato, edited and translated by Walter Hamilton, Penguin Books

Plato, translated by Robin Wakefield, Oxford Paperbacks


More from OpenLearn on Plato

Join Tara Palmer Tomkinson as she askes why are we all love junkies and Margi Clarke as she discovers what happens to our bodies when we fall in love

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