Fall in love. Be wise.
If you’ve ever fallen in love, you’ve already discovered the essence of philosophy...
One of Plato's favourite metaphors for philosophy is one rarely used today. It says a lot for how modern philosophy has shifted away from the wise way to live sought by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle; the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics.
The metaphor is falling in love. That mix of intimacy and hope, yearning and fear. When you fall in love, your only thought is how to be closer to that beauty. It seems at once the most desirable possibility and the most frightening possibility. The reason is this, Plato suggested: love is the desire for what you lack having been awakened to what you lack. Before you fell in love, you didn't even realise. Now you do realise and you must be able to know your love.
The ancient philosopher seeks in the same way that the lover pursues. You have glimpsed something; it eludes you; it promises so much, and yet, yikes. You don’t fully understand.
To put it another way, our greatest task - individually and collectively - is to manage our ignorance and not be led astray by such powerful yearnings, crucial to flourishing though they are. The melee of uncertainties is why falling in love is such a messy business. It's why ancient philosophy seemed to many to be so essential. It can be a guide. With such powerful forces alive inside us, understanding them is pressing.
Plato's exploration is conveyed in his dialogues. It is here that he develops the stance often now called Socratic questioning, the ‘elenchus’ or testing - though I think that is a misleading term. It suggests Plato treated life as an intellectual puzzle, like solving the ultimate Sudoku. Reasoning is an important tool, he doubtless agreed. But reason cannot lift itself up by its own bootstraps. It's one of the capacities that can serve us in the responses we make to the deeper dynamic that runs through life, this unruly pull that would make or break us. Plato’s wisdom is practical before it's theoretical.
He sought to educate his own and his followers’ hearts. He did so by engaging with individuals in the state that he found them. Plato, and so presumably Socrates, seems to have had a powerful ability to detect where individuals were at and help them appropriately. One day, according to the dialogue named the Lysis, Plato has Socrates bumping into a fellow called Hippothales. The poor fellow was suffering from a wild infatuation with a statuesque youth called Lysis. He was blushing and bumbling and humming quiet, crazy songs. Socrates immediately realised that there was little he could do for him in such a state. Not infrequently, in fact, Plato portrays Socrates as not afraid to tell individuals that first they need to live a little, suffer a little, make mistakes, feel their vulnerability – and then come back to him. That is the first stage in a Platonic education. You then have material to work on.
Those who have such baggage (everyone) and have become more aware of it (not everyone), Plato engaged further. Then they were more able to reflect on their experience. Step away from what you think you know, Plato’s dialogues imply, and move more into the unknown or hidden aspects of your life, expansive and frightening though that can be. This process is a generator of insight and wisdom. It's the journey with which the philosopher falls in love, the experience itself becoming the agent of change, of expansion, of discovery.
Loosen some of the knots of instinct and ignorance and a creative life of material, philosophical and spiritual discovery unfolds before you. Tighten them by not examining them and the desire for more that pulses through you might throttle you in jealousy, frustration and hate. It's about responding skillfully to the energy within us called love.
And what does philosophy promise? Consider the link between love and knowing that is preserved in the archaic use of the verb "to know". In older translations of the Hebrew bible, for example, you can read: "He went to her, he lay with her, and he knew her." The "he" there could just as well be the philosopher; the "she" sophia, wisdom. Ancient philosophy offers a way to know to life, to relate to it differently, to love it in all its fullness.