Erotic Philosophy

Last year, I wrote a 45-page academically-oriented paper, Eros, Orpheus and On the Origin of the World for the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition on the Greek god, Eros and his influence on the Orphic religion and Gnosis. Of course, in the process of actually researching and reflecting, you come across a lot of information, and some information didn’t wind up in the actual paper. However, there is some more interesting tidbits I thought was worth exploring further.

Philosophically speaking, Eros was conceived as Beauty that leads naturally to knowledge of the eternal Forms (God or the Pleroma) collectively as all eternal objects are interconnected, and recollection naturally proceeds from one object to another. This recognition of Eros meant the upward ascent or trajectory from the Cave of shadows (the world of matter) to the form of the Good. It was the realignment from the visible to the intelligible world. Diotima, the wise priestess philosopher describes all this in the Symposium (210a-212b). Diotima rhetorically asks:

[211e] But tell me, what would happen if one of you had the fortune to look upon essential beauty entire, pure and unalloyed; not infected with the flesh and color of humanity, and ever so much more of mortal trash? What if he could behold the divine beauty itself, in its unique form?

Indeed, this is the crux of all Platonic or erotic philosophy. In a way, Plato would answer this question, in the Republic (515c4-516a1).

Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled (énagkãxoito) to stand up, turn his head, walk and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before…if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled (énagkãzoi) him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss… And if someone compelled (énagkãzoi) him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown? He would.

And if someone dragged (ßlkoi) him away from there by force (b¤&), up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him out (§jelkÊseien) into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being dragged.

Socrates emphasizes that the youth of the kallipolis (the ideal city) will be surrounded by beauty, and that this will evoke in them a virtuous eros for the beautiful. Moreover, in book 6 of the Republic, his depiction of the philosopher as stargazer in the ship concludes with an affirmation that the real philosopher is driven by an eros that can only be satisfied by communion with true being, much like how a an attractive body would engage in intercourse with another beautiful body.

Zephyrus, the progenitor of Eros along with Iris, is described by Alcaeus (VII-VI centuries BCE) as “golden hair Zephyr” (Hymn to Eros, fragment V, 327).

Zephyrus, the progenitor of Eros along with Iris, is described by Alcaeus (VII-VI centuries BCE) as “golden hair Zephyr” (Hymn to Eros, fragment V, 327).

Even more interesting is how Diotima distinguishes philosophers from sages and senseless fools by also stating that Eros or Love is a daimonic spirit, half-way between immortal divinity and perishable, foolish mortality in the Symposium (203b-204d):

When Aphrodite was born, the gods made a great feast, and among the company was Resource the son of Cunning. And when they had banqueted there came Poverty abegging, as well she might in an hour of good cheer, and hung about the door. Now Resource, grown tipsy with nectar—for wine as yet there was none—went into the garden of Zeus, and there, overcome with heaviness, slept. Then Poverty, being of herself so resourceless, devised the scheme of having a child by Resource, and lying down by his side she conceived Love. Hence it is that Love from the beginning has been attendant and minister to Aphrodite, since he was begotten on the day of her birth, and is, moreover, by nature a lover bent on beauty since Aphrodite is beautiful. Now, as the son of Resource and Poverty, Love is in a peculiar case. First, he is ever poor, and far from tender or beautiful as most suppose him: rather is he hard and parched, shoeless and homeless; on the bare ground always he lies with no bedding, and takes his rest on doorsteps and waysides in the open air; true to his mother’s nature, he ever dwells with want.

And as that which is supplied to him is always gradually flowing out, Eros is never either without resources nor wealthy, but is in between wisdom and lack of understanding. For here is the way it is: No one of the gods philosophizes and desires to become wise—for he is so—nor if there is anyone else who is wise, does he philosophize. Nor, in turn, do those who lack understanding philosophize and desire to become wise; for it is precisely this that makes the lack of understanding so difficult–that is a man is not beautiful and god, nor intelligent, he has the opinion that that is sufficient for him. Consequently, he who does not believe that he is in need does not desire that which does not believe he needs. (203E-204A)

The Birth of Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1879)

Note that the sage is considered synonymous with that of a god. Diotima is saying that fools are unconscious of their lack of wisdom, even though they think they are wise and are full of hubris (i.e. delusional). On the other hand, philosophers are acutely aware of their lack of wisdom and are constantly searching after her like desert nomads thirsting after clean water. The philosopher is the intermediate stage between sages and fools. Like the philosophers, daimons were also considered to be intermediate beings, and have a share of divinity although their divine nature is conjoined with a soul and a body, capable of perceiving pleasure and pain.

For Diotima, the daimon acts as an intermediary between gods and men, existing in an intermediate state or nature. This is like Hermes, the messenger of the gods, or Thoth. This is the Christ of the Hermetic tradition essentially. Diotima was from Mantineia in the Peloponnese not far from Corinth where Paul was said to evangelize. It was apparently an ancient argument among the Greeks whether to pray to Gods or to an intercessor. The savior figure of Jesus Christ as a supernatural, docetic and otherworldly being could also be considered a daimonic being as I go into great detail on this in my much longer essay, linked above.

As explained by the Middle Platonist Plutarch in On Isis and Osiris, 360 d13-e23, consequently, the daimons, like humans, are moved by appetite, and are capable of both good and evil. In one sense, daimons bridge the gulf or distance between the earthly and the heavenly. In another, daimons were also considered to be responsible for the incarnation of souls into the enslavement into flesh, matter and Fate. The Corpus Hermeticum explicitly states that daimons are responsible for humanity’s enslavement in the cycles of birth, life and death under the authority of fate. Fate to a Gnostic, however, did not exist and was illusory like matter. The more Orthodox minded Christians however, were obsessed with Fate and the Apocalypse or the End Times.

In the above scheme, we can see the parallels between the three-fold scheme of the Sage, philosopher and the fool in comparison with the tripartite anthropology or the three natures motif that we often find in Gnostic and Valentinian writings, with the pneumatic (spiritual), the psychic (soul), and hylic (matter). The Catholic Church Father Irenaeus gives us the Valentinian doctrine of the three natures in Against Heresies, 1.7.5:

“They conceive, then, of three kinds of men, spiritual, material, and animal (soul), represented by Cain, Abel and Seth. These three natures are no longer found in one person, but constitute various kinds of men. The material goes as a matter of course into corruption. The animal, if it choose the better part, finds repose…in the intermediate place; but if [choosing] the worse, it too shall pass into destruction. …

But they assert that the spiritual principles which have been sown by [Sophia], being disciplined and nourished here from that time until now in righteous souls…at last attaining perfection, shall be given as brides… (referring to the Bridal Chamber), while the animal souls rest of necessity with the Demiurge in the intermediate place (referring to the Valentinian notion of the repentance and salvation of the Demiurge).

And again, subdividing the animal souls themselves, they say that some are by nature good, and others by nature evil. The good are those who become capable of receiving the spiritual seed; the evil by nature are those who are never able to receive the seed”

Even in the Apostle Paul, do we find this same basic three-fold structure in 1 Corinthians. 2:14–15:

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judges all things…”

And once again in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?

Here, Paul distinguishes the spiritual man from the natural man, and lastly the fleshy man, the last of which Paul expressly condemns. He points out the flesh is actually the source of all jealousy, strife and evils of humanity. Likewise, Plato in Phaedo 66b would claim that the body is the source of all “troubles”:

For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost.

“Moreover, if there is time and an inclination toward philosophy, yet the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth: and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves: then I suppose that we shall attain that which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, and that is wisdom, not while we live, but after death…”

Obviously, in Paul, Socrates and Plato, the Gnostic deprecation of the flesh and the fallen world of matter is merely the next logical development in their theology based on the foundation of the former. The Cynics, Epicurians, and Stoics also had their own philosophical variation on these anti-cosmic themes. The Gospel of Philip makes an exegetic claim in that Eros builds up, where as Knowledge “puffs up” based on Paul’s 1 Corinthians 8:1:

He who has knowledge of the truth is a free man, but the free man does not sin, for “He who sins is the slave of sin” (Jn 8:34). Truth is the mother, knowledge the father. Those who think that sinning does not apply to them are called “free” by the world. Knowledge of the truth merely makes such people arrogant, which is what the words, “it makes them free” mean. It even gives them a sense of superiority over the whole world. But “Love builds up” (1 Co 8:1). In fact, he who is really free, through knowledge, is a slave, because of love for those who have not yet been able to attain to the freedom of knowledge.

Eros, in some way is depicted like a Demiurge figure, in the way it is described as to “build up” much like how Eros is described in an Orphic Fragment:

First I sung the obscurity of ancient Chaos, How the Elements were ordered, and the Heaven reduced to bound; And the generation of the wide-bosomed Earth, and the depth of the Sea, And Eros (Love) the most ancient, self-perfecting, and of manifold design; How he generated all things, and parted them from one another. (Arg. v. 12.)

Returning to Diotima, the wise priestess equates Eros with that of a philosopher:

…Eros is—necessarily—a philosopher; and as a philosopher he is between being wise and being without understanding. His manner of birth is responsible for this, for he is of a wise and resourceful father, and an unwise and resourceless mother. Now the nature of the daemon, dear Socrates, is this; but as for the one who you believed to be Eros, it is not at all surprising that you had this impression.

In a way, Socrates is much like Eros, in that he is a mediator or “mid-wife” of souls remembering their divine origins akin to Eros’ relationship with Psyche in the satirical novel, the Golden Ass. Socrates, however, appears at the same time as someone who goes out of his way to say he has no wisdom and yet is also deeply admired by his students and others like for his guidance and discourse. In this way, Socrates himself was a daimon!

The Stoics, likewise, held that the Sage was god-like and unaffected by the cycles of Fate or any sort of difficulty that might inevitably arise nor were they dazzled by any good fortune or luck that might come their way. These kinds of people to the Stoics were indeed very rare, like fine gold and regarded non-sages as guile-less fools, slaves to vice and their misfortune (the vast majority of the human race). The Stoic philosopher Arius Didymus in the Epitome of Stoic Ethics, had this to say about the division between sage and non-sage, indicating there are two races of men:

It is the view of Zeno and his Stoic followers that there are two races of men, that of the worthwhile, and that of the worthless. The race of the worthwhile employ the virtues through all of their lives, while the race of the worthless employ the vices. Hence the worthwhile always do the right thing on which they embark, while the worthless do wrong.

Clearly, Arius minces no words about calling the non-sages a race of worthless animal men who follow only the demands of the flesh. Much later, the Gnostic Hermetic alchemist, Zosimos in On the Letter Omega (5.41-46), mixed Gnostic ideas with Stoic ones where the true philosopher is liberated from cycles of pleasure and pain:

Hermes and Zoroaster maintained that the race of philosophers is superior to Fate, because they neither rejoice in her blessings, for they are masters of pleasure; nor are they thrown by her evils, since they live an inner existence; nor again do they welcome the beautiful gifts she sends, since they focus on the end of evils.

I could add the Neoplatonist Proclus’s commentary on Eros in the mix but perhaps it would be too much to digest. Looking back on all this information, Gnosticism was never a philosophy but rather sage wisdom reserved for its unshakable, spiritual race of initiates and anyone else being beckoned by the call. The winged Eros, as a god, daimon and philosopher clearly has influenced many ideas found in both Christianity and Gnosis, and I only hope the philosopher within you will continue on the tireless trek after Sophia.

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About Aeon Eye

I am a part-time novelist and full-time philosopher/existential detective.

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