The Ladder of Love

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?
I saw you there one wonderful day
You took my heart and threw it away
That’s why I ask the lord in heaven above
What is this thing called love?

Cole Porter, 1929

Spring has finally sprung on Cape Cod.

Birds are frantic in their nest-weaving.

Chipmunks run madcap across the decks.

It’s the time of year when I can tell which of the goldfish in our ponds are the ladies – they’re the ones being bothered by the others.

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin's breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish'd dove;
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Lord Tennyson

As much as our notions of love seem very much a matter of flesh and bone, we lift our eyes to the divine in trying to understand the mystery of our feelings for another.

Even brilliant Socrates had to visit the priestess Diotima to ask what love is.

And 2,500 years later, brainiacs like Dion and the Belmonts were still looking to the heavens in search of the answer:

Each night I ask
The stars up above
Why must I be

A teenager in love?


This ancient image of an androgyne depicts one of the three types of human that comic playwright Aristophanes said existed at the beginning of time – man, woman, and part man and woman combined.

Each had four hands, four legs, two faces, two sets of privates. They were strong and brash -- even daring to attack the gods -- so Zeus split them in half to weaken them.

The outcome? Us. Lonely creatures ceaselessly searching for our other halves.

This desire and pursuit of the whole is what Aristophanes called love. And it went beyond sex.

A certain person is right for us not because that person has qualities we find appealing, but because that person's character is similar to ours and resembles our "other half."

“The intense yearning that each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover's intercourse, but of something else that the soul of either evidently desires.”

Aristophanes' Speech from Plato's Symposium

Aristotle agreed, citing the pursuit of our "other half" as one of humankind’s noblest aspects -- making us whole again and easing our feelings of incompleteness.

As for Socrates, he came away from his priestly oracle with the idea that love is more -- a yearning to possess the beautiful and the good, forever.

But “foreverness” is not available to mortals, he said, so the best we can do is produce creations that live on after us.

Love is the energy that drives us to ever-higher forms of creation. Socrates called it The Ladder of Love, on which we ascend from the carnal to the spiritual: from biological offspring … to heroic deeds … and finally to works of art, science, legislation, education and philosophy.

Plato introduced friendship as a constituent of love that transcends the carnal … and transforms it into the spiritual. What Saint Exupery was talking about when he said:

“Friends look not at each other but together gaze into the distance.”  

Perhaps the question for us today is, what value does love hold for us?

The misfortune of our times is that we have taken to thinking of sex as the singular manifestation of love.

British philosopher Roger Scruton says the word love has been so indiscriminately applied that it’s lost meaning, resulting in “the promiscuous use of a holy word.”

But if The L Word has been cheapened, The F Word remains protected by regulation and practice from use in newspapers, public airwaves and network television. It’s as unutterable as God’s name in the Hebrew Bible.

And today we remain as divided as Aristophanes’ first humans were – rooted in our animal urgings for sex while at the same time seeking to sacramentalize them.

Which kind of brings us back to where we started. 

In my next blog, “Time and Again”

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  • Peter Yaremko
    published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 11:16:41 -0400