Popular culture

What is love? In pop culture, love is often portrayed as a willingness to sacrifice, but ancient philosophers took a different view.

Plato’s Symposium – Anselm Feuerbach (1869)

Woven through Thor: Love and Thunder, Taika Waititi’s latest contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a sentimental, age-old commentary on mortality and love.

In this intergalactic romantic comedy, the hammer-wielding gods of thunder face off against the sleazy “butcher god” Gorr in a race to the gates of eternity. Gorr inherited his gift of slaying gods through a contract with the Necrosword, at the cost of his own near death.

Meanwhile, Thor’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Jane Foster, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Despite her best scientific efforts and the magic of Mjolnir, she too only manages to delay the inevitable.

The stage is set for a love story where the stakes are high because time is running out.

Gorr’s killing spree is fueled by revenge for the loss of his daughter, Love. Near the end of the film, Thor risks his life to spend his last moments with Jane. He lets Gorr choose between his desire for revenge and spending his last wish to revive Love. In awe of this sacrifice, Gorr chooses Love.

In the end, Thor and Gorr put love before themselves.

The film therefore seems to celebrate the romantic love of youth found in Pyramus and Thisbe, or more famously Romeo and Juliet. But it is also an opportunity to rethink this popular conception of love. Although they are pious, the central characters of this film find themselves grappling with deadly questions.

Does true love require sacrifice? This is where philosophers come in.

Read more: For the love of Thor! Why It’s So Hard For Marvel To Have Good Female Superheroes

An ancient Greek dinner

The ancient Greeks explored virtually everything: the nature of the universe, how to organize a society and achieve justice, how to teach courage, what it means to be a good friend – and, of course, the art of love. .

Greek philosophers mostly agreed that our primary goal in life was to achieve a state of being known as eudaimonia. The eudemonic life is a life well lived. But what kind of beings are we? What are the virtues conducive to a good life? At the heart of these questions is, according to the ancient Greeks, the highest virtue: knowledge.

The most famous dialogue on love, Plato’s Symposium, set in 416 BCE, consists of a series of discourses exploring different perspectives on the nature of love and desire.

The dialogue takes place in the house of Agathon, who is celebrating his victory in a tragedy writing contest. That evening, the speakers agree that, rather than getting drunk again, they will each give a speech in honor of Eros, the God of Love.

The seven speakers are the ancient equivalents of the conventional erotic wisdom authorities we have today. We meet a writer, a comedian, a philosopher, a scientist, an old lover, a young lover and a hedonist. This curated list of guests – we don’t really know if it’s by Plato’s invention or Agathon’s invitation – are the representatives of the varieties of opinions on what love is.

Read more: Classics Guide: Plato’s Republic

If Thor and Gorr had been invited to Plato’s Symposium, they might have agreed with Phaedra’s assertion that we would rather “die a thousand deaths” than be seen as cowards in the eyes of a man. lover. Bravery and courage are a gift from Eros to lovers, argues Phèdre, and these virtues are honored most highly when they belong to love.

Then there is Pausanias, who distinguishes between two kinds of love. There is the basic lover, who sees the function of love as purely instrumental and who “loves the body rather than the soul.”

And there is the richest kind: noble and eternal love. Noble lovers see their loved one in a deeper way, honoring them for their intelligence and what makes them unique.

Aristophanes, the actor present, brings comic relief and shares a myth that has become legend. To understand love, he says, you must understand our nature and development. He claims that lovers were once joined from behind and were round with four arms and four legs.

There was a head on both faces, which looked in opposite directions. The creature could walk or, if necessary, cartwheel at high speed.

One day, the creatures conspired against the gods. In retaliation, Zeus decided to diminish their strength by cutting each creature in half. Apollo then made major anatomical corrections, making sure our heads were facing forward rather than back, and pulling the skin from the edges and tying it in the middle of the belly, creating what we let’s call the navel.

“Love is born in every human being,” says Aristophanes; “it recalls together the halves of our original nature; he tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.

We are all looking for our matched half, in order to feel whole.

Aristophanes’ story has become the most romantic of all.

Eryximachus, doctor, offers a scientific approach to the subject of love. Love affects everything in the universe, he argues, including plants and animals. It is a powerful force that is the source of life satisfaction. It brings us good friends and partners and brings us closer to the gods. Love governs the beautiful music and harmony of the universe. When love is balanced within us, the result is health.

Agathon the tragedian argues that love fades with age and becomes practical love – agapē. The god of love “seeks food among the flowers” and therefore will not fixate on the body or soul “whose flower has withered”.


Socrates recounts a conversation with the philosopher Diotima who he says taught him everything he knows about love. Diotima shows Socrates that love is a kind of joint ascent to something greater. Love leads us to good and beautiful things, the highest of which is knowledge.

To love, according to Diotima, is to help each other to become better people – to live more fulfilling eudaimonic lives together. We should show those we love the “great sea of ​​beauty” that is the world and arouse a love of wisdom.

Love is therefore a passionate and joint contemplation of the wonders of the universe.

Although Socrates’ speech is the longest and most philosophically complex of the Symposium, it is not necessarily the definitive argument. Socrates gives us a richer conception of love than other more conventional romantic accounts, taken as individual views.

But what is unique about the Symposium is that, unlike Plato’s other dialogues, the speeches do not end in aporia – a state of bewilderment induced by Socrates’ methodical questioning (called elenchus). It gives credence to the idea that each of the speeches contains an element of truth and it makes love different from other topics.

There is some truth in the comic myth of Aristophanes. When you love someone, you treat their heart as if it were your own.

Eryximachus is right that love brings us good friends and partners, and perhaps Agathon is right that love changes shape as we grow older.

What the ancient Greeks are sure of is that fulfilling lives are marked by our practice of virtue – and that means that in all our relationships we should love with kindness, forgiveness, generosity and patience.

Read more: Friday Essay: 3 Ways Philosophy Can Help Us Understand Love

This article is republished from The Conversation, the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Oscar Davis, Bond University.

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Oscar Davis does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.