Ideals of Love

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the editor.


[Excerpt from "The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love", from In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays, 1893; originally published in The Contemporary Review, September 1890. Symonds argues that Greek (homosexual) love almost exactly mirrors Chivalrous (heterosexual) love.]


In order to understand the Platonic and the Florentine enthusiasm, the love of the Symposium and the love of the Vita Nuova, we must begin by studying the conditions under which they were severally elaborated.

Platonic love, in the true sense of that phrase, was the affection of a man for a man; and it grew out of antecedent customs which had obtained from very distant times in Hellas. Homer excludes this emotion from his picture of society in the heroic age. The tale of Patroclus and Achilles in the Iliad does not suggest the interpretation put on it by later generations; and the legend of Ganymede is related without a hint of personal desire. . . .

However this may be, masculine love, as the Greeks called it, appeared at an early age in Hellas. We find it localised in several places, and consecrated by divers legends of the gods. Yet none of the later Greeks could give a distinct account of its origin or importation. There are critical grounds for supposing that the Dorians developed this custom in this native mountains (the home of Achilles and the region where it still survives), and that they carried it upon their migration to Peloponnesus. At any rate, in Crete and Sparta, it speedily became a social institution, regulated by definite laws and sanctioned by the State. In each country a youth who had no suitor lost in public estimation. The elder, in this unions of friends, received the name of "inspirer" or "lover," the younger that of "hearer" or "admired." When the youth grew up and went to battle with his comrade, he assumed the title of bystander in the ranks. I have not space to dwell upon the minute laws and customs by which Dorian love was governed. Suffice it to say that in all of them we discern the intention of promoting a martial spirit in the population, securing a manly education for the young, and binding the male members of the nature together by bonds of mutual affection. In earlier times at least care was taken to secure the virtues of loyalty, self- respect, and permanence in these relations. In short, masculine love constituted the chivalry of primitive Hellas, the stimulating the exalting enthusiasm of her sons. It did not exclude marriage, nor had it the effect of lowering the position of women in society, since it is notorious that in those Dorian States where the love of comrades became an institution, women received more public honour and enjoyed fuller liberty and power over property than elsewhere.

The military and chivalrous nature of Greek love is proved by the myths and more or less historical legends which idealised its virtues. Herakles, the Dorian demigod, typified by his affection for young men and by his unselfish devotion to humanity what the Spartan and Cretan warriors demanded from this emotion. The friendships of Theseus and Peirithous, or Orestes and Pylades, of Damon and Pythias, comrades in arms and faithful to each other to the death, embalmed the memory of lives ennobled by masculine affection. Nearly every city had some tale to tell of emancipation from tyranny, of prudent legislation, or of heroic achievements in war, inspired by the erotic enthusiasm. When Athens laboured under a grievous curse and pestilence, two lovers, Cratinus and Aristodemus, devoted their lives to the salvation of the city. Two lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, shook off the bondage of the Peisistratidae. Philolaus and Diocles gave laws to Thebes. Another Diocles won everlasting glory in a fight at Megara. Chariton and Melanippus resisted the tyranny of Phalaris at Agrigentum. Cleomachus, inspired by passion, restored freedom to the town of Chalkis. All these men were lovers of the Greek type. Tyrants, says an interlocutor in one of Plato's dialogues, tremble before lovers. Glorying in their emotion, the Greeks pronounced it to be the crowning virtue of free men, the source of gentle and heroic actions, the heirloom of Hellenic civilisation, in which barbarians and slaves had and could have no part or lot. The chivalry of which I am speaking powerfully influenced Greek history. All the Spartan kings and generals grew up under the institution of Dorian comradeship. Epameinondas and Alexander were notable lovers; and the names of their comrades are recorded. When Greek liberty expired upon the Plain of Chaeronea, the Sacred Band of Thebans, all of whom were lovers, fell dead to a man; and Philip wept as he beheld their corpses, crying aloud: "Perish the man who thinks that these men either did or suffered what is shameful." It powerfully influenced Greek art. Pindar and Sophocles were lovers; Pindar died in the arms of Theoxenos, whose praise he sang in the Skolion of which we have a characteristic fragment. Pheidias carved the name of his beloved Pantarkes on the chryselephantine statue of Olympian Zeus. AEschylus wrote one of his most popular tragedies upon the affection of Achilles for Patroclus. Solon, Demosthenes, AEschines, among statesmen and orators, made no secret of a feeling which they regarded as the highest joy in life and the source of exalted enthusiasm.

Greek love, as I have shown, was in its origin and essence masculine, military, chivalrous. However repugnant to modern taste may be the bare fact that this passion existed and flourished in the highest-gifted of all races, yet it was clearly neither an effeminate depravity nor a sensual vice. Still such an emotion, being abnormal, could not prevail and dominate the customs of a whole nation without grave drawbacks. Very close to the chivalry of Hellas lurked a formidable social evil, just as adultery was intertwined with the chivalry of mediaeval Europe. Adultery was not occasionally, but so to speak continually, mixed up with the feudal love de par amour. One ingenious writer, Vernon Lee, even maintains that adultery was the very ground on which that love flourished. In like manner, another immorality was, not occasionally, but continually mixed up with Greek love, was the soil on which it flourished. Therefore in those States especially, like Athens, where the love in question had not been moralised by prescribed laws, did it tend to degenerate. And it was just here, at Athens, that it received the metaphysical idealisation which justifies us in comparing it to the Italian form of mediaeval chivalry. Socrates, says Maximum Tyrius, pitying the state of young men, and wishing to raise their affections from the mire into which they were declining, opened a way for the salvation of their souls through the very love they then abused. Whether Socrates was really actuated by these motives, cannot be affirmed with certainty. At any rate, he handled masculine love with robust originality, and prepared the path for Plato's philosophical conception of passion as an inspiration leading men to the divine idea.

I have observed that in Dorian chivalry the lover was called "inspirer," and the beloved "hearer." It was the man's duty to instruct the lad in manners, feats of arms, trials of strength and music. This relation of the elder to the younger is still assumed to exist by Plato. But he modifies it in a way peculiar to himself, upon the consideration of which I must now enter, since we have reached the very point of contact between Plato's and Dante's enthusiasm.

Socrates, as interpreted in the Platonic dialogues entitled Phaedrus and Symposium, sought to direct and elevate a moral force, an enthusiasm, an exaltation of the emotions, which already existed as the highest form of feeling in the Greek race. In the earlier of those dialogues he describes the love of man for youth as a madness, or divine frenzy, not different in quality from that which inspires prophets and poets. The soul he compares to a charioteer guiding a pair of winged horses,the one of noble, the other of ignoble breed. Under this metaphor is veiled the psychological distinctions of reason, generous impulse, and carnal appetite. Composed of these triple elements, the soul has shared in former lives the company of gods, and has gazed on beauty, wisdom, and goodness, the three most eminent manifestations of the divine, in their pure essence. But, sooner or later, during the course of her celestial wanderings, the soul is dragged to earth by the baseness of the carnal steed. she enters a form of flesh, and loses the pinions which enabled her to soar. Yet even in her mundane life (that obscure and confused state of existence which Plato elsewhere compares to a dark cave visited only by shadows of reality) she may be reminded of the heavenly place from which she fell, and of the glorious visions of divinity she there enjoyed. No mortal senses, indeed, could bear the sight of truth or goodness or beauty in their undimmed splendour. Yet earthly things in which truth, goodness, and beauty are incarnate, touch the soul to adoration, stimulate the growth of her wings, and set her on the upward path whereby she will revert to God. The lover has this opportunity when he beholds the person who awakes his passion; for the human body is of all earthly things that in which real beauty shines most clearly. When Plato proceeds to say that "philosophy in combination with affection for young men" is the surest method for attaining to the higher spiritual life, he takes for granted that reason, recognising the divine essence of beauty, encouraging the generous impulses of the heart, curbing the carnal appetite, converts the mania of love into an instrument of edification. Passionate friends, bound together in the chains of close yet temperate comradeship, seeking always to advance in wisdom, self-restraint, and intellectual illumination, prepare themselves for the celestial journey. "When the end comes, they are light and ready to fly away, having conquered in one of the three heavenly or truly Olympian victories. Nor can human discipline or divine inspiration confer any greater blessing on man than this." Moreover, even should they decline toward sensuality and taste those pleasures on which the vulgar set great store, they, too, will pass from live, "unwinged indeed, but eager to soar, and thus obtain no mean reward of love and madness."

The doctrine of the Symposium is not different, except that here Socrates, professing to report the teaching of a wise woman Diotima, assumes a loftier tone, and attempts a sublimer flight. Love, he says, is the child of Poverty and Contrivance, deriving something from both his father and his mother. He lacks all things, and has the wit to gain all things. Love too, when touched by beauty, desires to procreate; and if the mortal lover be one whose body alone is creative, he betakes himself to woman and begets children; but if the soul be the chief creative principle in the lover's nature, then he turns to young men of "fair and noble and well-nurtured spirit," and in them begets the immortal progeny of high thoughts and generous emotions. The same divine frenzy of love, which forms the subject of the Phaedrus, is here again treated as the motive force which starts the soul upon her journey towards the region of essential truth. Attracted by what is beautiful, the lover first dedicates himself to one youth in whom beauty is apparent; next he is led to perceive that beauty in all fair forms is a single quality; he then passes to the conviction that intellectual is superior to physical beauty; and so by degrees he attains the vision of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere, or the worship of the divine under one of its three main attributes.

The lesson which both of these Socratic dialogues seem intended to inculcate, may be summed up thus. Love, like poetry and prophecy, is a divine gift, which divers men from the common current of their earthly lives; and in the right use of this gift lies the secret of all human excellence. The passion which grovels in the filth of sensual grossness may be transformed into a glorious enthusiasm, a winged splendour, capable of rising to the contemplation of eternal verities and reuniting the soul of man to God. How strange will it be, when once those heights of intellectual intuition have been scaled, to look down again on earth and view the human being in whom the spirit first recognised the essence of beauty.

There is a deeply rooted mysticism, an impenetrable Sufism, in the Socratic doctrine of Eros. And it must be born in mind that the love of women is rigidly and expressly excluded from the scheme. The soul which has attained to the highest possible form of perfection in this life, is defined by Plato to be "the soul of one who has followed philosophy with flawless self- devotion, or who has combined his passion for young men with the pursuit of truth." These are the essential conditions of Platonic love; and they are so strange that Lucian, Epicurus, Cicero, and Gibbon may be pardoned for sneering at "the thin device of virtue and friendship which amused the philosophers of Athens," just as in modern times the purity of chivalrous love has been almost universally suspected.

It is not needful to describe the conditions of mediaeval chivalry with great particularity of detail. They are better known than the conditions of Greek chivalry; and the enthusiastic love which sprang from them, though little understood, is regarded by common consent as legitimate and beneficial to society.

Chivalry must not be confounded with the feudalism out of which it emerged. It was an ideal, binding men together by common spiritual enthusiasms. We find the ground material of the chivalrous virtues in the Teutonic character. As described by Tacitus, the German races were distinguished for chastity, obedience to self-imposed laws, truth, loyalty, regard for honour more than gain, and a reference for women amounting to idolatry. These qualities furnished a proper soil for the chivalrous emotions; and the chivalrous investiture, whereby the young knight was consecrated to a noble life, can also be derived from Teutonic customs. "They decorate their youthful warriors with the shield and spear," says Tacitus, insisting on the sacred obligation which this ceremony imposed. chivalry would, however, scarcely have assumed the form it did in the twelfth century but for the slowly refining influences of Christianity. In the epics of the Niblung Cycle, and in the song of Roland, thee are but faint traces of its subtler spirit. The unselfishness of the true knight, his humility and obedience, his devotion to the service of the weak and helpless, his inspiration by ideals, his readiness to forgive and to show mercy in fact, what we may call his charity in armour sprang from Christianity. It is only in the later romances of King Arthur that these essential elements of the chivalrous spirit make themselves manifest.

"As for death," says a knight of the Round Table, "be he welcome when he cometh; but my oath and my honour, the adventure that hath fallen to me, and the love of my lady, I will lose them not."

This sentence, in a few words, expresses the attitude of a chivalrous gentleman. When King Arthur established his knights in a solemn chapter at the Court of Camelot, he "charged them never to do outrage nor murder, and alway to flee treason; also by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asked mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewoman succour upon pain of death. Also that no man take no battles in a wrong quarrel for no law, nor for worldly goods." The knights, both old and young, swore to these articles; and every year they took the oath again at the high feast of Pentecost.

As the Christian religion in general exercised a decisive influence in the formation of chivalry, so we may perhaps connect the peculiar mode of amorous enthusiasm which characterised this ideal with the worship of the maiden mother of Christ. Woman had been exalted to the throne of heaven; and it was not unnatural that woman should become an object of almost religious adoration upon earth. The names of God and of his lady were united on the lips of a true knight; for the motto of chivalry in its best period was Dien et ma Dame. Love came to be regarded as the source of all nobility, virtue, heroism, and self-sacrifice. "A knight may never be of prowess," says Sir Tristram, "but if he be a lover." This language precisely corresponds with the language of the Greeks regarding that other love of theirs, which nerved them for deeds of prowess, for the overthrow of tyrants, and the liberation of their fatherland.

Chivalrous love was wholly extra-nuptial and anti- matrimonial. The lady whom the knight adored and served, who received his service and rewarded his devotion, could never be his wife. She might be a maiden or a married woman; in practice she was almost invariably the latter. But the love which united the two in bonds more firm than any other, was incompatible with marriage. The feudal courts of love in fact proclaimed that "between two married persons, Love cannot exert his powers." This is a peculiarity well worthy of notice. Not only does it at once and for ever set an end to those foolish questions which have sometimes been asked about the reasons why Dante did not marry Beatrice; it also constitutes one of the strongest points of similarity between the chivalrous love of the ancient Greeks and that of the mediaeval races. Plato, in the Symposium, it will be remembered, asserts that the exalted love on which he is discoursing has nothing whatever to do with the "vulgar and trivial" way of matrimony. It must be excited by a person with whom connubial relations are absolutely impossible. It is a state of the soul, not an appetite; and though the weakness of mortality may lead lovers into sensuality, such shortcomings form a distinct deviation from the ideal. Least of all can it have anything to do with those connections profitable to the State and useful to society, which involve the procreation and rearing of children, domestic cares, and the commonplace of daily duties. In theory, at any rate, both Greek and mediaeval types of chivalrous emotion were pure and spiritual enthusiasms, purging the lover's soul of all base thoughts, lifting him above the bondage of the flesh, and filling him with a continual rapture.

Plato called love a "mania," an inspired frenzy. Among the chivalrous lovers of Provence, this high rapture received the name of "Joy." It will here be remembered by students of the Morte Darthur that the castle to which both Lancelot and Tristram carried off their ladies was Joyous Gard. The fruits of joy were bravery, courtesy, high spirit, sustained powers of endurance, delight in perilous adventure. The soul of the knight, penetrated with the fine elixir of enthusiastic love, is ready to confront all dangers, to undertake the most difficult tasks, to bear obloquy and want, the scorn of men, misunderstanding, even coldness and disdain on the part of his lady, with serene sweetness and an exalted patience. Plato's description of the lover in the Phaedrus exactly squares with this romantic ideal of the knight's enthusiasm. The permanent emotion, whether terms "mania" or "joy," is precisely the same in quality; and whether the object which stirred it was a young man as in Greece, or a married woman as in mediaeval Europe, signified nothing.

Chivalrous love, under both its forms, did not exclude marriage, except between the lovers themselves. Lancelot and Tristram took wives, while remaining loyal to Guinevere and Iseult, their ladies. Dante had children by Gemma, and Petrarch by a concubine. Still it was the sainted Beatrice, the unattainable Laura, who received the homage of these poets and inspired their art.

In theory, then, chivalrous love of both types, the Greek and the mediaeval, existed independently of the marriage tie and free from sensual affections. It was, in each case, the source of exhilarating passion; a durable ecstasy which removed the lover to a higher region, rendering him capable of haughty thoughts and valiant deeds. Both loves were originally martial, and connected with the military customs of the peoples among whom they flourished. Both, in practice and in course of time, fell below their own ideal standards, without, however, losing the high spirit, loyalty, and sense of honour, which went far to compensate for what was defective in their psychological basis. At the same time, social evils of the gravest kind were inseparable from both forms of enthusiastic feeling, because each had striven to transcend the sphere of natural duties and of normal instincts.

At this point, when feudal chivalry was tending toward the travesty which is depicted for us in Little Jehan de Saintré, the same thing happened at Florence to its imaginative essence as had previously happened to the imaginative essence of Greek chivalry at Athens. We have seen that Greek love was originally a Dorian and soldierly passion; it had grown up in the camp: and when it lost its primal quality in the Attic circles, Socrates attempted to utilise the force he recognised in this still romantic feeling for the stimulation of a nobler intellectual life. The moral energy was there. It throbs through previous ages of Greek legend, literature, and history. But a philosophical application of this motive, which is the peculiar discovery of the Platonic Socrates, had not been attempted. That was reserved for the Athenians, and, in particular, for the school of the Academy. Precisely in like manner, chivalry, the fine but scarcely wholesome flower of feudalism, the super-subtle hybrid between savage Teutonic virtues and hyper-sensitive Christian emotions, which grew up in the mediaeval castle, had been now transplanted to the classic soil of Italy. Italy was neither feudal nor Teutonic; and her Christianity, for the highest of her sons, was deeply penetrated with political and intellectual ideas. The generous Tuscan spirits who adopted chivalry, partly as a motive for their art, and partly as a visionary guide in conduct — Guido Guinicelli, Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoja, Lapo, Dante — enamoured of its beauty, but unable to prolong its life upon the former line of feudal institutions, lent it the new touch of mystical philosophy. The simple substance of the chivalrous enthusiasm, which had take gracious form in the legends of Lancelot and Tristram, of Sir Beaumains and Sir Galahad, was refined upon and spun into a web of allegory. The subtleties and psychological distinctions of the troubadours received metaphysical interpretations. A nation of scholars and of doctors, who were also artists — Dante calls the poets of his school dottori — men who were not knights or squires or mighty of their hands, reformed, rehandled, and recast the tradition of the love they had received from militant subconscious predecessors. We come thus to the remarkable fact that the last manifestation of mediaeval love at Florence represents an almost exact parallel to the last manifestation of Greek love at Athens. In both instances, an enthusiasm which had its root in human passion, after passing through a martial phase of evolution and becoming a social factor of importance in the raising of the race to higher spiritual power, assumes the aspect of philosophy, and connects itself with the effort of the intellect to reach the Beatific Vision. Dante, conducted by Beatrice into the circle of the Celestial Rose, proclaims the same creed as Plato when he asserts that the love of a single person, leading the soul upon the way to truth, becomes the means whereby man may ascend to the contemplation of the divine under one of its eternal aspects.

What is really remarkable in the parallel I have attempted to establish is, that the metaphysical transformation of Greek "mania" and mediaeval "joy," which was effected severally at Athens and in Tuscany, took place in each case by a natural and independent process of development. We have no reason to suppose that feudal chivalry owed anything to Platonic influences, even in this its latest manifestation. It is certain, for instance, that Dante never read the Phaedrus and the Symposium in the originals; and nothing shows that he was even remotely acquainted with their true substance in scholastic compendiums. The same exalted psychological condition followed similar lines of development, and reached the same result a result which in each case is almost unintelligible to us who study it. We find the greatest difficult in believing that Socrates was sincere, and that Dante was sincere. We turn, like Gibbon, in our perplexity about Greek love to the hypothesis of "a thin device of friendship and virtue," masking gross immorality. We turn, like the elder Rossetti and his school, in our perplexity about Dante's idealisation of beatrice, to the hypothesis of a political or a theological allegory. But sound criticism rejects both of these hypotheses. Frankly admitting that Greek love was tainted with a vice obnoxious to modern notions, and that mediaeval love was involved with adultery, the true critic will declare that, strange and incomprehensible as this must always seem, there were two brief moments, once at Athens and once at Florence, when amorous enthusiasms of an abnormal type presented themselves to natures of the noblest stamp as indispensable conditions of the progress of the soul upon the pathway toward perfection.


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