Does love lift us up where we belong? Or is it a kind of madness? In this week's class, we plunge into Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus to find out.
Love, we are told, lifts us up where we belong: “Where the eagles cry / On a mountain high… / Far from the world we know / Where the clear winds blow.”
When we are in love, the world takes on a different, more giddying perspective. But shifts in perspective are tricky things. When we are loved-up and out of our right minds, are we at last seeing the world clearly? Or have we descended into a kind of madness?
In this week's lesson, we're going to be exploring love, transcendence, and madness in Plato's dialogues. We're going to see what the priestess and philosopher Diotima has to say about the transcendent path of love in Plato's Symposium. And we're going to see how in the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that love sends us mad—while also making the case that sometimes a spot of madness is just what we need.
But we're going to start with the experience of finding ourselves suddenly smitten, caught somewhere between madness and transcendence, just when we least expect it.
You don't know how it happens. You can't predict when it will happen. Nevertheless, it happens. One day, you run into somebody new, or you find yourself unexpectedly seeing somebody you already know in a different light. And you are utterly smitten. You are spellbound, enchanted, barely able to breathe or to speak.
Sometimes philosophers refer to this as “limerence”, a term first coined by the psychiatrist Dorothy Tennov in the late 1970s. Tennov invented the word to refer to the strange infatuation with another person that bursts upon you for no obvious reason. In an interview in the UK Observer in 1977, Tennov said,
I first used the term ‘amorance’ then changed it back to ‘limerence’… It has no roots whatsoever. It looks nice. It works well in French. Take it from me it has no etymology whatsoever.
It looks good. It feels right. It works well in French. And it has no roots in the real world. For all these reasons, “limerence” sounds like a well-coined term for romantic infatuation.