The pursuit of living a good life, one immune to intervention from forces and circumstances outside of the agent’s control, is something that many famous philosophers have pondered heavily. The desire to live a life full of happiness without pain and suffering is an interest of most people. The Symposium, written by the famous philosopher Plato, recalls the many different theories that Ancient Greek philosophers including Aristophanes, Diotima, Alcibiades and Socrates had to say about love and its presence or absence in the pursuit of a good life. Excerpts from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Martha C. Nussbaum’s interpretation of the Symposium also explore the effects of love, and its place in life. After analyzing these three texts, one can begin to draw conclusions about love, its ability to open the good life up to tragedy, its ability to render the good life immune to the possibility of tragedy, and its place in human love and life.
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Love is normally considered a fragile good, one that can be affected by external forces and circumstances beyond the agent’s control. This could not be more evident than in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. O’Brien introduces the reader to the character Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his love interest, Martha, who is not nearly as interested in him. Cross carried around a photo of Martha, and it was “. . .signed Love, though he knew better” (O’Brien, 4). Jimmy Cross loves a woman who simply does not love him back. Cross was so infatuated with this girl that it even distracted him from watching over his troops leading poor Tim Lavender to take a bullet through the head. As his men investigated a tunnel, “Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey Shore” (O’Brien, 12). Cross dreamed about false realities that would not happen, and this ultimately distracted him leading Tim Lavender to be “. . .shot in the head on his way back from peeing” (O’Brien, 12). Cross “. . .felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead” (O’Brien, 16). Cross’s obsessive love and thoughts for a woman who does not reciprocate such emotions lead him to experience a series of events bringing him great pain through shame and self-hatred. Yet still after Lavender’s death, Cross still was “. . .in part, grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real. . . and because he realized she did not love him and never would. . .” (O’Brien, 17). Still even after feeling the responsibility for a death, Cross can only focus on Martha, the woman that does not love him back. Love can open the good life up to the possibility of tragedy by, in the case of Jimmy Cross, making you obsessed with it. Jimmy Cross cannot stop thinking about Martha and how she does not love him with the passion that he loves her with. It is so bad that even years after the war Cross attempted to rekindle any mutual emotions between Martha, yet after getting the same response he still says “’It doesn’t matter. . .I love her’” (O’Brien, 29).
Aristophanes explores his theory of one person only being able to truly love one and only one other person with a comic myth in the Symposium. “Love is born in every human being. . .each of us, then, is a “matching half” of a human whole. . .” (Plato, 27). Aristophanes theorizes that every person can only experience true love with one and only one other person, a soulmate some may call it. This search for the soulmate is the “. . .pursuit of wholeness, our desire to be complete. . .” (Plato, 29) and “. . .when a person meets the half that is his very own. . .the two are struck from their senses by love. . .and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for moment” (Plato, 28). Aristophanes believes that the human pursuit of love is solely based around the desire to find your other half, your one and only, and that there is one and only one other person that can complete you. The problem with love being a good under Aristophanes’ theory is that it opens the target of the agent’s love up to forces and circumstances beyond their control. What if that one and only one other person is on the other side of the planet, what if they die? These possibilities open love up to external forces that the agent cannot control, and therefore there is no place in the good life for love under Aristophanes’ theory.
Martha C. Nussbaum deconstructed the fundamental beliefs behind each of the philosophers’ beliefs on love in her essay “The Fragility of Goodness”. Nussbaum says that “Aristophanes and the tragic speech of Alcibiades contain the most serious objections raised. . .these facts suggest that we should study the two speeches together. . .” (Nussbaum, 171). Nussbaum primarily believes that Alcibiades is an Aristophanes-like lover. They both tell renditions of stories that dramatize both the contingency of love and our vulnerability to contingency through love. Unfortunately for love’s ability to be present in the good life, Nussbaum hypothesizes that neither Alcibiades nor Aristophanes believes that there is a place for love in the good life, due simply to its fragility.
There are conceptions of love that have also been theorized to be present in the good life that render the good life immune to the possibility of tragedy. Diotima, a philosopher in the Symposium, creates a concept of love that saves us from our vulnerability to contingency through love. She believes that the ascent of desire can save an agent from being vulnerable while still allowing the agent to love. Diotima presents to Socrates that “. . .what is really beautiful and graceful that deserves to be loved. . .” (Plato, 49), but that really “. . .love is wanting to possess the good forever” (Plato, 52). Diotima talks about love as more of an object in reference to loving something, rather than some unexplainable attraction like Aristophanes and Alcibiades. Diotima believes that “. . . the man who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature. . .” (Plato, 58). Diotima describes a way of loving that allows love’s presence to be in the good life. Instead of being attracted and attached to one other person, Diotima focuses on the possibility of metaphorically moving upward into being attracted to beauty. This way, when an agent is attracted to beauty, certain specific qualities found in one person that are attractive can be identified and discovered in another person should the original love interest hurt the agent in some way. Diotima describes this movement upward in eight different principles: immaturity to maturity, appearance to reality, falsehood to truth, ignorance to knowledge, vulnerability to invulnerability, fragility to self-sufficiency, perishability to the eternal, and becoming to being.
Diotima’s eight principles are illustrated through metaphorical steps up to being able to truly love without being vulnerable to external forces and circumstances beyond the agent’s control. The first step, and most vulnerable, is the attraction to one particular beautiful body. This is an exclusive attachment to one body, similar to Aristophanes’ theory of loving one and only one other person. This form of love and attraction, as expressed previously, opens the agent up to the contingency and vulnerability of love. The second step is loving the beauty of bodies. This form of love is the physical attraction to the human body, and the realization that all beautiful bodies share something in common. This commonality is something the lover eventually comes to recognize, and when this recognition occurs, the agent moves beyond a passion for any particular body, and moves towards a passion for any beautiful body. The third step in Diotima’s theory of love is the attraction to the beauty of souls. This step occurs when the agent comes to realize that the spiritual and moral beauty of a love interest matters much more than the previous step of physical beauty. This moves the agent to desire a form of interaction with love interests that will promote his/her self-actualization, and to become a better version of themselves. The fourth step in this chain is the attraction to the beauty of laws which are the conditions which foster and create moral beauty. These previous four steps combine to create the final step of Diotima’s theory which is the attraction to beauty or the forms, ideas, and essences of someone. This is the ultimate form of love and attraction, and this is the most superior to previous steps in terms of rendering the good life immune to the possibility of tragedy. These steps illuminate that Diotima’s theory on love renders the good life immune to the contingency of tragedy while also allowing a certain form of love to be present.
Nussbaum also talks about the forms of love which can possibly render the good life immune to tragedy in her “The Fragility of Goodness” essay. Nussbaum believes that Diotima “. . .connects the love of particulars with tension, excess, and servitude; the love of a qualitatively uniform ‘sea’ with health, freedom, and creativity” (Nussbaum, 180). Nussbaum sees Diotima as able to connect love with other ideal qualities found in a person. In this manner, Diotima is no longer valuing the love interest as an individual, but she values the love interest for the qualities that they embody. Love is seen as a good, and the asset of desire is the movement of salvation. This asset of desire is motivated to protect the agent from becoming an Alcibiades or a Jimmy Cross or able to be affected by the contingency of love. Nussbaum also draws the comparison that Socrates is a Diotima-like lover. Similar to the way Diotima envisioned an ascent of desire, Nussbaum invites the reader to take a “. . .look at the life and behavior of Socrates as exemplifying the benefits of ascent” (Nussbaum, 183). Nussbaum also draws connections between Socrates and Diotima later on with how “They show us what Diotima could only abstractly tell: what a human life starts to look like as one makes the ascent” (Nussbaum, 184) whereas, “Socrates is put before us as an example of a man in the process of making himself self-sufficient. . .” (Nussbaum, 184). Nussbaum concludes that Socrates lived his life, and chose who and what he truly loved under the assumptions of Diotima’s theory: the theory of following the steps in order to achieve the ascent of desire. Through this comparison between Diotima and Socrates, Nussbaum acknowledges the prospect of a conception of human love that renders the good life immune to the possibility of tragedy.
I believe that the possibility of truly loving someone for themselves and not focusing primarily on the attractive qualities about them leaves the agent open to vulnerability through love. The chapter in Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, titled “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” illustrates this point perfectly. Mark Fossie flies his girlfriend, and what he considers to be his future wife, out to Vietnam to see her again, and his relationship with sweet Mary Anne slips through his fingers. At first the euphoria of being reunited keeps both Fossie’s and Mary Anne’s spirits high, and the lovers close together like back home. Unfortunately for Fossie, Mary Anne’s attitude started to change, and there was nothing he could do about it. The reader saw this start to slip through his hands as:
On one level things remained the same between them, They slept together. They held hands and made plans for after the war. But now there was a new imprecision in the way Mary Anne expressed her thoughts on certain subjects. Not necessarily three kids, she’d say. Not necessarily a house on Lake Erie. . .Mark Fossie would nod at this, even smile and agree, but it made him uncomfortable (O’Brien, 99).
This slip later escalated to Fossie having to wait hours upon hours for his love to come out of the special force barracks. Eventually Mary Anne becomes a completely different person than the one that Fossie fell in love with, and she disappears without a trace. The entire time Mary Anne was growing further from Fossie, he was doing any and everything in his power to stop it, to reel her back in. Unfortunately, the actions of another human being are out of an agent’s, Fossie’s, control and the love was lost no matter the opposition given to it. This is why true love has no role in making the good life immune to the possibility of tragedy, because the actions of another human being cannot be controlled.
I, personally, do not believe that Diotima’s and Socrates’ theory of love is representative of true love. Only being able to love certain qualities of a person, whether it is their physical beauty, soul, morals, or mental beauty is not what I believe true love is. I see that more as really liking something. Yes, it is practical to love some object, quality, or action of a person, but I do not see this as true love. True love is uncontrollable, unexplainable, and indescribable. Using the scenario if you ask your significant other, ‘what do you love about me?’ you may be able to answer with certain qualities that you value. Maybe you are attracted and even love their brown eyes, brown hair, or sense of humor, but this is not true love, in my mind that is a loving attraction. The good life can include loving attraction because you can be lovingly attracted to certain repeatable qualities, thus giving you the opportunity to find the same qualities in many different lovers. However, I do not believe that loving attraction is the same thing as truly loving something. Therefore, Diotima’s theory that describes loving attraction may render the good life immune to possibility of tragedy, but this theory does not accurately describe true love.
Aristophanes’ claims in his one and only one theory of love are not as legitimate and relevant to modern love because there are opportunities to remarry. People do, unfortunately, have to deal with the reality of losing their spouse, but it is not impossible to fall in love again and find someone else. Diotima’s theory includes a step of being attracted to certain beauty of souls, and these qualities can be reciprocated in other people. Only loving one and only one other person is relevant to my argument in the sense that the good life is not immune to tragedy when love is involved, however people can love more than one person, and the idea that there is only one other person out there that you can truly love does not carry much legitimacy. Alcibiades is an Aristophanes-like lover, and therefore I also do not see his argument as holding much weight because of this.
However, Aristophanes and Alcibiades do bring up good points when discussing the contingency of love. They believe in three principle characteristics of love: that which the agent loves is not under his/her control, who the agent loves is not under his/her control, and what the agent loves is not under his/her control. Similar to Jimmy Cross in the earlier chapters of The Things They Carried, I believe the agent does not have control over that, who, and what s/he loves. The inability to control these three things automatically opens up the good life to external forces and circumstances if love is a part of it. The examples of Jimmy Cross and Marth, and Mark Fossie and Mary Anne illustrate the pain that comes with the failure of one person to reciprocate love. Jimmy Cross was put through a lifetime of suffering, because his obsessive love of Martha, yet acceptance that those feelings were not mutual got his friend killed. Mark Fossie was forced to deal with his once loving girlfriend not reciprocating his love, and eventually leaving him completely.
Being in love can bring out the best emotions, it is better than the best high, it makes everything awesome, and especially loving someone while knowing the love you back bring the best memories. No other external factors matter when you are in love. Yet, the only thing that can bring you down from this high is the person you love if they fail to reciprocate those same feelings. There is a reason so much of modern day media focuses on heartbreak, because it is one of the lowest of lows a person can experience. It can bring even the strongest of people to their knees, the most active of people to become lazy, the happiest of people to depression. The pain that accompanies heartbreak is terrible, words cannot even begin to describe how bad a heartbroken person may feel. This heartbreak comes directly from the inability of one person to reciprocate the feelings of love to the other, just like Martha did not love Jimmy, just like Mary Anne left Fossie. Love will always render the good life vulnerable to tragedy, mainly because when you truly love someone, not their qualities, but truly love someone, you cannot control that you love them because you do not have control over that, who, or what you love.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried showed us the pain and suffering an agent can experience when love is not reciprocated. Aristophanes’ and Alcibiades’ speeches in the Symposium gave us a view on the uncontrollable nature of truly loving someone else. Diotima’s speech from Plato’s Symposium gave us her and Socrates’ views on loving attraction, and how to love without opening yourself up to the possibility of tragedy. Considering all of this, I believe that there is room for loving attraction in the good life, similar to the theory of Diotima in which the agent is attracted to certain repeatable qualities in their love interest. However, when differentiating loving attraction and true love, it is clear that there is no room in the good life for true love because true love is uncontrollable and ultimately leaves the agent vulnerable to the possibility of tragedy that can destroy the good life.
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