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The Subversiveness of Desire: Descartes, Hobbes, and the Suppression of the Erotic in Modern Thought

The Subversiveness Of Desire: Descartes, Hobbes, And The Suppression Of The Erotic In Modern Thought

While images of philosophers floating among the clouds, untethered from real-world concerns, or falling into wells while gazing at the stars, having allowed their abstract speculations to eclipse the concrete realities of human life, are perhaps not entirely unmerited, Plato’s dialogues suggest that an innate desire for that which is beautiful anchors the philosopher’s search for knowledge “concerning the gods … and the whole” – the highest and presumably most pulchritudinous realities – in the realm of immediate personal experience.[1]  Importantly, according to the collective testimony of poets, theologians, and philosophers across the ages, erotic longing is an essential feature of the human condition, intrinsic to man’s intermediate location between the beasts and the gods within the hierarchy of being.  As Augustine observed, “There is no one who does not love.”[2]  Yet, for reasons to be examined shortly, from the perspective of the regime and those interested in its preservation, the seemingly apolitical experience of erotic longing is a dangerous political force.  As Laurence Cooper has recently written, erotic desire constitutes a permanent and ineradicable “threat to order and justice” sown into the very nature of man.[3]

The following article is divided into three parts.  In part one, I enumerate the essential properties of human erotic longing as described in Plato’s middle dialogues.  Then, in part two, I rebut the prevailing, Freudian reading of Socrates’ teachings concerning the nature of human longing, providing evidence that the Platonic sublimation of sexual desire in the philosopher’s quest for knowledge exacerbates, rather than mitigates, the inherent subversiveness of desire.  Lastly, in part three, I argue that the political philosophers whose texts inaugurated the modern age sought to suppress the erotic dimension of human experience in order to protect the modern state from the politically subversive search for the ultimate object of human longing.  In particular, it is my contention that despite their well-known rivalry, René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes were engaged in a common project to provide a secure foundation for political life through the composition of a foundational text immune to the destabilizing force of erotic desire.

I. The Concept of the Erotic in Plato’s Middle Dialogues

Conventionally translated as “desire” or “sexual love,” erōs first acquired the status of a philosophical concept in Plato’s middle dialogues.  Plato’s explication of eros as a distinctively human longing for that which is beautiful, especially in his Symposium and Phaedrus, allowed for the subsequent conceptualization of two additional, theoretically distinct, types of love:  philia, or friendship love, in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and agapē, or God’s love, in the Pauline epistles.  In the Phaedrus, Socrates defines eros as a species of divinely inspired madness that occurs whenever someone descries something beautiful in the world and has a remembrance of the “true,” heavenly Beauty glimpsed by every human soul prior to its embodiment.[4]

So defined, eros has five essential properties.

First, eros is transitive:  to desire is always to desire something.  For Socrates, the transitivity of desire is an analytical proposition:  just as a father is always, by definition, the father of a son or a daughter, eros is always, by definition, eros of something, and in particular, of something the subject of the erotic experience lacks.  This is the first lesson concerning the nature of desire Socrates teaches those present at Agathon’s drinking party in the Symposium.  “The desiring subject,” Socrates explains, “must desire something he lacks, and if he does not lack, he does not desire.”[5]

The transitivity of erotic desire is thus its most elemental feature.[6]  In her superb exposition of the teachings of the ancient poets and philosophers concerning the nature of the erotic and its relationship to the nature of reality itself, Anne Carson observes that according to this most basic insight into the experience of desire, the erotic encounter necessarily consists of “three structural components – lover, beloved, and that which comes between them.”[7]  “A space must be maintained” between the lover and the beloved, writes Carson, “or desire ends.”[8]  Although other proposed attributes of erotic longing are revised or discarded as Socrates’ account of the nature of eros in the Symposium progresses, the initial insight that erotic desire is always directed toward something the desiring subject lacks is left unchallenged as “something essential to eros.”[9]

Second, erotic desire is ironic.  As a rhetorical trope, “irony gives the impression that [the speaker is] saying something different from (alium, aliter), not contrary (contrarium) to, what [he is] thinking.”[10]  Hence, unlike a lie, an ironic statement is not meant to deceive but is rhetorically effective only insofar as the speaker signals to his listeners that he should not be taken literally.  Nevertheless, the particular non-literal meaning intended by the speaker “is thereby left unclear.”[11]

Similarly, the irony of eros consists in the incongruity, which is not to say the absolute opposition, between the true aim of a person’s longing and its immediate object.  For Socrates, the immediate object of the erotic experience attracts the desiring subject only insofar as it participates in the true Beauty upon which the desiring subject’s soul had gazed prior to its embodiment.  That which is Beautiful in itself is always the true aim of the desiring subject’s longing regardless of the particular object of the erotic encounter.  Eros is thus deeply ironic, in that what the subject of the erotic experience “ultimately or really wants is one thing,” but what he “thinks [he] wants … may be, and in fact usually is, something else.”[12]  “Love’s ironies are many,” writes David Halperin in his definitive treatment of the ironic nature of erotic love.  “But they all come down to a single paradox:  the object of desire is not what you think it is.”[13]

The irony of eros explains its remarkable conceptual breadth.  Conceptually, eros embraces an amplitude of meaning, ranging from animalistic sexual desire to a longing for immaterial realities.  This amplitude of meaning is reflected in an important change in terminology in the Phaedrus:  whereas Socrates initially asserts that “everyone knows that eros is a desire,” he corrects this universal opinion in his palinode by repeatedly referring to eros as a “yearning” (himeros) rather than a “desire” (epithumia).[14]  In other words, as the experiential depths of erotic attraction are plumbed, physiological desire shades into existential yearning. Likewise, in the Symposium, as the desiring subject ascends Diotima’s ladder, the initial experience of eros as a desire to possess that which is beautiful is reinterpreted as a longing to behold or to contemplate that which is Beautiful in itself.[15]  As Cooper rightly surmises, “as eros ascends, not only its objects but also its character changes.”[16]  The acquisitive character of desire in the immanent stratum of human experience is necessarily shed as the desiring subject ascends to the transcendent realm of the forms, wherein the object of human longing, strictly speaking, is no longer an “object” at all.[17]

Third, insofar as Platonic eros subsumes both man’s most animalistic desires and his noblest aims under the heading of a single concept, it is eros’s anamnestic, or recollective, character that unites the basest and most sublime manifestations of human longing as aspects of a single phenomenon.  It is not simply the case that erotic desire is based on a recollection (anamnēsis) of the Beautiful – i.e., that a memory of the Beautiful inspires erotic longing – but rather that human longing is itself anamnestic and anamnesis is itself erotic.  A man desires that which is beautiful only insofar as he recollects that which is Beautiful in itself, but the recollection of the Beautiful occurs in and through the desire experienced in the erotic encounter.  Thus, according to the Socratic conception of eros, mystical anamnesis grounds and pervades human longing.  In short, for Socrates, “love is recollection.”[18]

The unipolarity of eros, its fourth essential property, is inseparable from each of the foregoing features of the erotic encounter.[19]  According to Socrates, a common aim underlies the manifold forms of human desire, the mistaken objects of which point anamnestically beyond themselves toward a single transcendent goal, namely, the contemplation of that which is wholly, perfectly, and eternally Beautiful in itself.[20]  In the sixth book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously describes the Good as the ultimate aim and final referent of every human endeavor, and although the nature of the relationship between the Beautiful and the Good in Plato’s thought is obscure, “the Beautiful itself” (auto to kalon) appears to fulfill an analogous role in the structure of human erotic longing.[21]  Santas’s insightful suggestion that Socrates may be differentiating between a “generic” desire for the Good, which subsumes every species of human desire, and “eros proper,” which refers specifically to man’s anamnestic yearning for the Beautiful, would resolve Plato’s apparent equivocations, although Santas’s solution necessarily – and perhaps erroneously – presupposes the nonidentity of the Beautiful and the Good.[22]  Alternatively, Ferrari has proposed that the Beautiful is simply that quality of the Good most amenable to sensible apprehension, such that “the ascent to the Beautiful itself is indeed also an ascent to the Good itself.”[23]  In either case, a single, transcendent aim underlies the manifold forms of human erotic longing observable in the world – a structural feature of the erotic encounter inseparable from the transitivity, irony, and anamnesticity of erotic love.  As Cooper writes, “[H]owever numerous its objects, eros … has a limited number of proper or true objects; indeed, in the deepest sense just one true object … The philosopher’s eros is directed to that toward which all eros is, but does not know itself to be, directed.”[24]

The recognition of a single aim beneath the manifold forms of human desire marks a key turning point in the analysis of eros contained in Plato’s Symposium.  As those present at Agathon’s party take turns offering encomia in honor of erotic love, a recognition of the unipolarity of desire distinguishes the final three speeches from the three, less sophisticated, speeches delivered earlier in the evening.  As Ferrari observes, the six eulogies can thus be divided “into two groups …  And the substantive issue that distinguishes them is this:  The speakers of the first group draw a fundamental distinction … between a good and a bad variety of love, while those of the second group do not.  This development comes to a head with Diotima’s teaching that love in any of its manifestations is directed toward the good.”[25]  According to the Socratic account, all forms of human longing, including the most degraded or perverse, are expressions of a single, animating desire for the Beautiful.  The irony of erotic longing generates the appearance of duality, as the desiring subject’s failure to find satisfaction in the acquisition of the immediate object of his desire can inaugurate either a stepwise ascent to ever-higher realities or a spiraling descent into the realm of carnal addictions.  Eros “can ennoble and raise us to the loftiest contemplation,” writes Octavio Paz, but it can also “lead us astray, make us fall in the swamp of concupiscence.”[26]  The two possible outcomes of the erotic encounter give rise to the appearance of a basic duality in human erotic experience (and to Pausanias’s erroneous conceptual distinction in the Symposium between a uranian eros directed toward heavenly Beauty and a pandemotic eros directed toward beautiful objects).[27]  For Socrates, however, unipolarity is one of eros’s essential properties, with the apparent duality of the erotic resulting from man’s ignorance of the irony of his desires.  According to the Socratic conception of the erotic, each and every desire “has a definite tendency in one direction:  Eros is love for the [B]eautiful.”[28]  The lover of wine (philoinos) and the lover of honor (philotimos), the addict in search of his next fix and the hero in search of immortalization in the history books – stand-ins for the two classes of men beneath that of the philosophers in Plato’s Republic – are simply mistaken in their understanding of the nature of the Beautiful, allowing the immediate objects of their desire to eclipse the ultimate aim of their longing.[29]

The fifth and final essential property of Socratic eros is its metaxical, or in-between, character.[30]  According to Socrates, eros is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither ignorant nor wise, and neither time-bound nor eternal, but in all things intermediate.[31]  The metaxical character of desire is not an accidental feature of the desiring subject’s experience but is instead intrinsic to human longing.  Indeed, eros necessarily mediates between temporality and timelessness insofar as the act of recollection essential to erotic desire unites an immediate object with a transcendent aim as two aspects of a single, seamless, though admittedly stereoscopic, experience.[32]  Eros’s metaxical character is also intrinsically related to its transitivity.  The desiring subject’s attainment of the object of his desire would collapse the tripartite structure of the erotic encounter, but the total absence of the object would equally foreclose the possibility of desire.  Hence, erotic desire exists midway betwixt the poles of absolute possession and absolute deprivation – the offspring, in Socrates’ poetic imagery, of Poverty and Plenty.[33]  It is thus clear “that the state of being neither one thing nor the other, but in between, is fundamental to [Socrates’] theory of love.”[34]  It must be emphasized, however, that eros does not occupy a spatial position between objectified contraries, but rather constitutes the very “principle of relationship” uniting the sensible and intelligible realms of being and the immanent and transcendent poles of human experience.[35]  Moreover, insofar as man himself exists midway between the beasts and the gods, simultaneously participating in the immanent and transcendent strata of being, intermediacy is not simply a property of eros, but also the distinguishing feature of the human condition.  It is, therefore, unsurprising that Socrates’ image of Eros in the Symposium as a shoeless, liminal figure bears an unmistakable resemblance to Socrates himself, the normally unshod philosopher standing transfixed beneath the lintel of an anonymous neighbor’s door.[36] “Eros,” like man himself, “is in between.”[37]

II. The Subversiveness of Desire

The “destructive power” of sexual desire was a commonplace among the ancient Greeks.[38]  In his excellent survey of the “long Greek tradition of thinking about eros” as a force capable of “overthrowing the … orders of civilization,” Bruce Thornton notes that in the ancient Greek mind sexual desire was analogous to fire:  while sexual desire and fire are equally necessary for the perpetuation of human life, they are also “equally dangerous, equally liable to rage uncontrollably and destroy household and city.”[39]  The Greeks, writes Thornton, “saw sex and violence as two sides of the same irrational coin, each interpenetrating and intensifying the other, creating a violent sex and sexual violence that exploded into profound destruction and disorder, a double chaotic energy threatening the foundations of human culture and identity.”[40]  In his more recent reflections on the nature of sexual desire, Paz reached a strikingly similar conclusion, once again drawing our attention to the continuity of human experience across the ages:  “Without sex there can be no society, since there can be no procreation; but sex also threatens society.  Like the god Pan, it is creation and destruction.  It is instinct:  tremors, panic, the explosion of life.  It is a volcano and any one of its eruptions can bury society under a violent flow of blood and semen.  Sex is subversive:  it ignores classes and hierarchies, arts and sciences, day and night – it sleeps and awakens, only to fornicate and go back to sleep again.”[41]  In sum, in the words the itinerant, second-century geographer Pausanias, “It is characteristic of eros to destroy the laws of men and to subvert the rites of the gods.”[42]

But what is the source of eros’s destructive power?  What explains the subversiveness of desire?

According to Martha Nussbaum in The Fragility of Goodness, Socrates traces the fickle nature, and destructive potential, of human desire to two features of “unregenerate” eros:  the desiring subject’s “attribution of value to an unstable external object,” which necessarily “brings internal instability of activity,” and the incommensurability of the myriad objects of unreflective desire, which inevitably generates conflict between men and a clash of competing ends in the life of the individual.[43]  Hence, according to Nussbaum, the lability and destructiveness of desire are not intrinsic to eros itself but are instead restricted to its untutored form.  Political instability can therefore be attributed to a lack of self-knowledge on the part of the desiring subject, who fails to explore the experiential depths of his longing and thus to appreciate the irony of love and the quixotic, capricious, and conflictive character of his unregenerate desires.  Without reference to that which is Beautiful in itself, there can be no common measure or standard of valuation by which to rank the diverse objects of human longing, making it impossible to order one’s pursuits rationally or to resolve peaceably the conflict of individual ends.

There can be no question that Nussbaum’s analysis is both insightful and largely correct.  Indeed, Nussbaum’s explanation of the unstable character of unregenerate desire provides the proper theoretical framework for understanding Socrates’ etiological identification of the two most extreme political pathologies analyzed in Plato’s middle dialogues as erotic phenomena.  First, the genesis of political tyranny in the union of erotic longing with the basest desires of the tyrant’s soul, a union mirrored in the polis in the alliance formed between the libido dominandi of the tyrant and the appetites of the demos, is one of the key political teachings of the Republic.[44]  Among all the various types of men, the philosopher and the tyrant, Socrates asserts, have the lustiest souls, but whereas the philosopher’s eros is self-consciously directed toward the highest realities, the tyrannical man seeks in vain to sate the longing of his soul with the food of illusions and is driven to ever greater iniquities in an increasingly depraved effort to quell his innate desire for that which is perfectly and eternally Beautiful in itself in the realm of imperfect and perishable objects.[45]  In sum, political tyranny is rooted in the tyrant’s failure to recognize the irony of his desires, the anamnestic quality of his longing, and his own metaxical existence within the hierarchy of being.

The existential discontent manifest in the erotic encounter is occasionally perverted into a dissatisfaction with the order of being itself, especially when the desiring subject fails to recognize the ironic character of his longing and grows increasingly frustrated by his inability to quiet his desire through the acquisition of its immediate object.  Such dissatisfaction gives rise to the second political pathology Socrates identifies as having an erotic origin in Plato’s middle dialogues.  In his careful examination of Plato’s Symposium, James Rhodes observes that all of the guests at Agathon’s party, with the notable exception of Socrates, are engaged in a form of political Titanism, or “metaphysical rebellion” against the gods, spurred by their discontent with the limits intrinsic to the human condition.[46]  A certain existential discontent is admittedly inseparable from the human condition as illumined in the erotic encounter.  As Cooper notes, Socrates perceived within himself and within all “human beings a discontent not only with this or that limit but also with finitude itself.”[47]  Among the symposiasts assembled at Agathon’s house, however, such discontent has gained pathological expression as an irrational quest to overturn the hierarchy of being and to transcend the very conditions of human life.

The encomium given by the comic poet Aristophanes, according to which erotic longing is experienced as the desire to be reunited with one’s missing half, calls attention to the dangerous potential for metaphysical revolt inherent in man’s dissatisfaction with the given conditions of his existence, for while eros may be experienced as the desire for union with another person, according to Aristophanes it in fact originates in a more fundamental, ontogenetically prior, desire to assault the heavens and to supplant the gods.[48]  In Aristophanes’ well-known myth, Zeus explicitly states that his purpose in dividing the ur-humans into two halves is to diminish their strength and to deter mankind from conspiring to overthrow divine rule.[49]  Each man’s consequent desire for his matching half must thus be interpreted as a salutary ruse meant to redirect and to tame man’s longing for apotheosis.[50]  Aristophanic eros, no less than Socratic eros, possesses an ironic character, but according to Aristophanes’ myth, the true aim of human longing is not the contemplation of that which is Beautiful in itself but rather the deification of man.  Given the abiding order of the hierarchy of being, however, such longing is hubristic, irrational, and perverse.  As Rhodes insightfully observes, Socrates’ attribution of his encomium to eros to the prophetess Diotima, whose name indicates that she “honors Zeus,” distinguishes Socrates’ speech from the others delivered at Agathon’s party by suggesting that it alone respects the “given order of being.”[51]

Human erotic longing is thus a wellspring for futile political projects with potentially horrific consequences.  If left untutored with regard to its true object, unregenerate eros can be perverted into a desire to transform the polity into a platform for world conquest or into an instrument of human auto-deification.  In both its tyrannical and Titanic modes – resulting, respectively, from man’s ignorance of, or rebellion against, the structure of reality itself – eros represents a threat to the stability and order of the political community.[52]  Mankind’s disastrous experiments with salvific politics in the twentieth century, moreover, leave no room for doubt concerning the danger posed to the polity by a tyrannical or Titanic soul, especially in light of the permanent reservoir of existential discontent necessarily present in every human society.

While Nussbaum’s account of the instability of unregenerate desire explains Socrates’ identification of the political pathologies described in Plato’s middle dialogues as erotic phenomena, Nussbaum errs in suggesting that Socrates believed the sublimation of erotic desire in the philosopher’s quest for knowledge would eliminate its subversive tendencies.  According to Nussbaum’s analysis, Socrates’ substitution of that which is eternally and immutably Beautiful for the inherently unstable objects of man’s untutored desires was meant to domesticate human longing by removing the source of its lability and destructive potential.  In Nussbaum’s words, Socrates sought to harness the creative energy of the libido for the sake of philosophy while “purifying it of ambivalence and excess and making it more friendly to general social aims.”[53]

Nussbaum’s anachronistic, Freudian interpretation of Plato’s middle dialogues prevails across the disciplines.  Thornton, for example, contends that the Socratic sublimation of sexual desire in the erotic quest for knowledge was “a tool for controlling nature’s force and directing it to ends beneficial for the citizen and state.”[54]  Similarly, in his exploration of the relationship between sexuality, eros, and romantic love, Paz asserts that “[o]ne of the aims of eroticism is to take sex and make a place for it in society.”[55]  Such descriptions of Socratic love, however, owe far more to postmodern psychoanalytic theory than to Socratic philosophy.  Indeed, for Socrates, the exploration of the experiential depths of the erotic encounter and the resulting recognition of the true aim of human longing exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the subversiveness of desire.

The ultimate source of eros’s subversiveness is not the instability and incommensurability of the objects of unregenerate desire, as Nussbaum suggests, but rather the essential properties of eros itself, especially its ironic character.  Due to the irony of love, the desiring subject’s acquisition of the immediate object of his desire inevitably fails to satisfy the desiring subject’s longing.  Such dissatisfaction can cause eros to degenerate into tyrannical lust or Titanic ambition in the manner described above, but it can also launch the desiring subject on a questioning search for the true object of his desire.  In other words, precisely because the desiring subject’s desire outstrips its immediate object, the irony of love can spur the desiring subject to join the philosophical quest for knowledge.[56]  In short, as a result of the frustration experienced in the erotic encounter, the desire for beauty can give birth to the search for truth.[57]  Moreover, due to the anamnesticity of desire, a path to truth is opened through the erotic encounter itself.  As Halperin writes, according to the Socratic account, eros “anchors a mode of access to the truth in the existential condition of every human being.”[58]

The sublimation of sexual desire in the philosophical desire to substitute unreflective opinion (concerning the objects of desire) for certain knowledge (concerning the true aim of human longing), however, threatens the stability of the regime.  Indeed, Socrates’ description of the opposition between the philosopher and the rhetorician in the second half of the Phaedrus, which commentators have struggled to explain, follows logically from Socrates’ explication of the experience of erotic longing in the first half of the dialogue insofar as the juxtaposition of the philosopher and the rhetorician illumines the politically destabilizing effect of the philosopher’s erotic quest for knowledge.[59]  As Socrates’ description makes clear, the rhetorician and the philosopher both depend upon the principles underlying the political order in which they live for the practice of their respective arts, but while the rhetorician builds upon the regime’s purportedly “self-evident” foundational truths when constructing the arguments by which he persuades his auditors, the philosopher’s critical examination of his interlocutors’ beliefs calls these foundational truths into question.[60]  As Socrates admits in the Phaedrus, he is dependent upon the city and its inhabitants for the practice of the art of dialectic, for just as the philosopher’s quest for a vision of that which is Beautiful in itself begins as a quest to gain possession of the immediate object of his unregenerate desire, the inadequacy of which, when obtained, spurs the erotic ascent, so too must the search for knowledge proceed through the repudiation of false opinions, such as those supplied by the philosopher’s interlocutors.[61]  Insofar as these opinions are representative of public opinion more generally, the erotic search for truth entails the repudiation of popular beliefs.  As Richard Weaver insightfully notes, the philosopher’s art of “dialectic … is subversive,” ultimately destroying “the matrix which provides the base for its operation.”[62]

The subversiveness of the philosopher’s eros is revealed most clearly in Socrates’ subsequent assertion that “no written discourse” (oudena logon), and in particular, no “political document” (politikon graphon), “is worthy of being treated seriously,” since all written texts are necessarily based on undefined terms and unacknowledged premises, and thus on unreflective opinion rather than on certain knowledge.[63]  Hence, while the art of rhetoric reinforces the regime by taking the truth of its fundamental texts for granted, the art of dialectic necessarily destabilizes the regime by exposing and challenging its enthymematic foundations.  As Leo Strauss famously observed, “Philosophy … is the attempt to replace opinion about ‘all things’ by knowledge of ‘all things’; but opinion is the element of society; philosophy … is therefore the attempt to dissolve the element in which society breathes, and thus it endangers society.”[64]

It has not escaped the notice of Plato’s readers that Socrates’ unequivocal condemnation of all written texts not only delegitimizes a nation’s laws and founding documents, but also calls into question the seriousness of Plato’s own philosophical writings, including his description of erotic desire in the Phaedrus.  As Carson notes, “The Phaedrus is a written dialogue that ends by discrediting written dialogues.  This fact does not cease to charm its readers.  Indeed, it is the fundamental erotic feature of this erōtikos logos.  Each time you read it, you are conducted to a place where something paradoxical happens:  the knowledge of Eros that Sokrates and Phaedrus have been unfolding word by word through the written text simply steps into a blind point and vanishes, pulling the logos in after it.”[65]  The radically subversive character of the erotic is illustrated in the discrediting of the very text that takes eros as its subject.  The irony of love subverts and destroys, destabilizing political life and threatening the dissolution of the community by giving rise to a search for true knowledge that inevitably calls into question the texts upon which every regime is based.[66]  It is surely not a coincidence that the Phaedrus is the only Platonic dialogue in which Socrates is depicted engaging his interlocutor outside the walls of the city:  such a change in setting, Plato suggests, was a necessary prophylactic against the subversiveness of desire.[67]

One lesson that might be drawn from Plato’s middle dialogues is that a secure political order requires a text that is somehow rendered immune to the destabilizing force of man’s erotic longing.  The composition of such a text would be the great undertaking of the political philosophers of the modern age.

III. Descartes, Hobbes, and the Suppression of the Erotic in Modern Thought

Alert to the subversive character of human longing, the political philosophers whose writings introduced the modern age sought to provide a secure foundation for political life through the composition of a text immune to the destabilizing effects of erotic desire.  In particular, a careful examination of the writings of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes reveals that both philosophers were attempting to compose a foundational text for a new age in the history of man, the adoption of which would suppress the erotic dimension of human experience and thereby protect both the modern state and the fundamental texts upon which it depends from the politically subversive search for the ultimate object of human longing.  In short, a political foundation impervious to erotic subversion required a founding text immune to the irony of man’s desires.

A. The Ego Cogitans and the Suppression of the Erotic in Descartes’ Meditations

As the medieval synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian metaphysics grew increasingly incapable of explaining human experience, signaling the failure of the scholastic project, and as the inherited feudal order collapsed beneath the weight of a growing bourgeois class, the founders of the modern age sought a secure foundation on which to rebuild both the sciences and human society itself.  As Descartes writes at the beginning of his First Meditation:  “Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.  I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.”[68]

Descartes famously discovers a secure foundation for the reconstruction of the sciences in the indubitability of his own existence as a res cogitans, or a “thinking thing.”  In Descartes’ words:

“But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies.  Does it now follow that I too do not exist?  No:  if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed.  But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me.  In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something.  So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind … But what then am I?  A thing that thinks.”[69]

With these words, Descartes supplied the modern age with a new, and seemingly incontrovertible, foundation:  the certainty of his own existence as a thinking thing.[70]  On the basis of this certainty Descartes’ successors would reestablish the sciences and construct the modern liberal democratic state.

Descartes’ founding proposition, however, was not original.[71]  Indeed, more than 1,200 years earlier, in the eleventh chapter of The City of God, Augustine had similarly declared:  “I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this.  In respect to these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived?  For if I am deceived, I am.  For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token, I am.  And since I am if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am?  for it is certain that I am if I am deceived.”[72]

While Descartes adamantly denied the charge of plagiarism, a comparison of the Cartesian and Augustinian conceptions of the ego is revealing regardless of the true extent of Descartes’ debt.[73]  For Augustine, the human ego contained an image of the Christian Trinity, uniting being, knowing, and loving as three, inextricable, and equally indubitable, features of human existence.  In Augustine’s words:  “For, as I know that I am, so I know this also, that I know.  And when I love these two things, I add to them a certain third thing, namely, my love, which is of equal moment.  For neither am I deceived in this, that I love, since in those things which I love I am not deceived.”[74]

In the construction of the Cartesian ego, on the other hand, the erotic dimension of man’s existence is suppressed:  “At last I have discovered it,” writes Descartes:  “thought; this alone is inseparable from me.  I am, I exist – this is certain.  But for how long?  For as long as I am thinking.  For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist.  At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true.  I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks.”[75]  Thinking and being define and exhaust the existence of the ego as a res cogitans.  Loving is conspicuously absent.  Indeed, Descartes’ twofold assertion that thought “alone” cannot be separated from the ego and that the ego is “in the strict sense” only a thinking thing belies his purported ignorance of Augustine’s triune conception of man and reveals his concern for the subversiveness of desire.  In the words of Jean-Luc Marion, at the dawn of the modern age, “the ego cogitans establishes itself only in opposition to and by repressing the erotic instance.”[76]

According to Marion, the “proof of this repression” is contained in Descartes’ enumeration of the essential activities of the ego.[77]  After asserting that the “proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true” at the beginning of his Second Meditation, Descartes asks rhetorically, “But what then am I?” to which he immediately responds:  “A thing that thinks.”  “What is that?”  Descartes then asks, deepening his meditative exegesis of his own existence.  “A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.”[78]  Descartes repeats this enumeration of the ego’s essential activities at the beginning of his Third Meditation:  “I am a thing that thinks:  that is, a thing that doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, is willing, is unwilling, and also which imagines and has sensory perceptions; for as I have noted before, even though the objects of my sensory experience and imagination may have no existence outside me, nonetheless the modes of thinking which I refer to as cases of sensory perception and imagination, in so far as they are simply modes of thinking, do exist within me – of that I am certain.”[79]

“Fine,” responds Marion, “except that it follows by omission that I am no longer supposed to love, nor to hate; or better:  I am of such a sort that I have neither to love, nor to hate, at least in the first instance.  To love would not belong to the first modes of thought and, therefore, would not determine the most original essence of the ego.  Man, as ego cogito, thinks, but he does not love, at least from the outset.”[80]  As Marion notes, the omission of loving from the original essence of the ego was so unprecedented at the time of the Meditations’ publication that Descartes’ first French translator, the Duc de Luynes, felt compelled to emend the text and to add “which loves, which hates,” to Descartes’ enumeration of the ego’s basic modes of thinking.[81]  Of course, in reducing “loving” to a mode of thinking, the Duc de Luynes merely affirmed the success of the Cartesian project:  the Augustinian Trinitarian conception of the human person was effaced, leaving the ego as “strict[ly]” nothing but a thing that thinks; erotic longing, as an ontological determination of man’s existence along with being and thinking, was suppressed; and the Cartesian metaphysical system was thereby secured from the subversiveness of desire.[82]

B. Hobbes’ Contracted Conception of Desire

Hobbes, no less than Descartes, sought a secure foundation for both modern science and the modern state in the wake of the dissolution of the intellectual, political, and economic world of the Middle Ages.  In the Epistle Dedicatory with which he opens The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, his first philosophical work, in 1640, Hobbes announces that the text of his treatise will provide “the true, and only foundation” for a new science of “justice and policy,” in the absence of which “government and peace” had previously “been nothing else … but mutual fear.”[83]  Hobbes would revise and tease out the implications of the ideas contained in incipient form in The Elements of Law in his subsequent works, but throughout his project remained identical to that of his French rival:  the composition of a foundational text, impervious to the subversive force of erotic desire, capable of providing a secure basis for a new age in the history of man.

In Leviathan, Hobbes reaffirms Socrates’ teaching concerning the innateness of human desire.  “For as to have no desire,” writes Hobbes, “is to be dead.”[84]  Yet, in comparison with its Socratic antecedent, the Hobbesian conception of desire is radically reductionistic, constituting a sharp contraction in the meaning, significance, and scope of the erotic.  As Haig Patapan and Jeffrey Sikkenga have recently written, “Hobbes has a consistent and comprehensive teaching on love that directly repudiates what he regards as the Platonic teaching on eros.”[85]  Whereas Socrates discovered a hidden yearning for the infinite animating every human desire, adding a mystical dimension to even the basest forms of human longing, “[w]hat Hobbes wants is to reduce the power and scope of eros in the world, returning it to the limited, private sphere of sex, pleasure, and perhaps the family.”[86]  For Hobbes, such a contraction in the Socratic conception of desire was a necessary condition, and a small price to pay, for lasting political peace and stability.

While the word “eros” appears nowhere in Leviathan – an omission that is in itself significant – in the sixteenth section of the ninth chapter of The Elements of Law, Hobbes defines eros as lust “limited ad hanc,” that is, to “one person desired.”[87]  In the preceding section, Hobbes had defined lust as “indefinite desire of the different sex, as natural as hunger.”[88]  Hence, for Hobbes, the erotic encounter is made possible when the indefinite sexual desire naturally occurring in man is directed toward, and limited by, a definite object.

Significantly, in section seventeen, Hobbes continues his analysis of the nature of erotic desire by distinguishing eros from the “passion” of charity.  At the conclusion of the preceding chapter, Hobbes had identified the pleasure or displeasure men experience “from the signs of honour or dishonour done unto them” as the source of the passions.[89]  Honor, moreover, arises from “the acknowledgement of power.”[90]  The passions are thus rooted in the pleasure a man experiences upon having his power acknowledged and in the displeasure he experiences when others either fail to acknowledge his power or recognize his infirmities.  According to Hobbes, charitable acts, which consist in assisting others in the accomplishment of their desires, bestow honor on a man, and thus provide him with pleasure, insofar as there is “no greater argument to a man of his own power” than his ability to satisfy simultaneously his own desires and those of his acquaintances.[91]  In short, acts of charity reveal the power differential between the benefactor and the beneficiary, guaranteeing the mutual recognition of the benefactor’s superiority and thereby providing the motivation for his beneficence.

After identifying “the natural affection of parents to their children” and the “affection wherewith men seek to assist those who adhere unto them” as two species of charity, Hobbes turns to a critical examination of the “honourable love” described by Socrates in the Symposium, presenting it as an alternative to his own conception of charity.[92]  It should be noted that in relating “honourable love” to “charity” and distinguishing both from sexual lust, Hobbes is dividing erotic desire, described by Socrates as single, seamless experience, into two, conceptually distinct, passions.  Collapsing that which he had just torn asunder, however, Hobbes immediately proceeds to unmask the honorable love described by Socrates as dissembled sexual lust, using Socrates’ own famed love for Alcibiades to prove his case.  Honorable love, writes Hobbes, is exemplified in the

love of Socrates wise and continent, to Alcibiades young and beautiful; in which love, is not sought the honour, but issue of his knowledge; contrary to common love, to which though issue sometimes follow, yet men seek not that, but to please, and to be pleased.  It should therefore be this charity, or desire to assist and advance others.  But why then should the wise seek the ignorant, or be more charitable to the beautiful than to others?  There is something in it savouring of the use of that time:  in which matter though Socrates be acknowledged for continent, yet continent men have the passion they contain, as much or more than they that satiate the appetite; which maketh me suspect this platonic love for merely sensual; but with an honourable pretence for the old to haunt the company of the young and the beautiful.[93]

Hobbes thus distinguishes Socratic love from natural lust only to deny the existence of the former as anything but a “pretence” for the latter’s satisfaction.

Whereas Hobbes simply exposes the true nature of erotic love as mere sexual lust in The Elements of Law, in Leviathan he systematically strips away each of the essential properties of Socratic desire, with the sole exception of its transitivity, thereby eradicating its subversive tendencies.  First, at the very beginning of Leviathan, Hobbes rejects the existence of innate ideas, denying the possibility of the mystical anamnesis upon which Socratic eros depends.  The origin of all thoughts, writes Hobbes, “is that which we call SENSE, for there is no conception in a man’s mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.”[94]  While every desire, according to the Socratic conception of erotic love, has a transcendent aim, a memory of which grounds and pervades the erotic encounter, Hobbes’ epistemological empiricism precludes the Socratic equation of recollection and desire.

Insofar as the anamnesticity of Socratic desire is inextricably intertwined with its unipolarity, its irony, and its intermediacy, each of which comprises an essential component of a single conceptual constellation, Hobbes’ repudiation of the anamnesticity of human longing necessarily destroyed the Socratic conception as a whole, reducing the erotic encounter to its basic, tripartite, elemental structure.  Without access, via mystical anamnesis, to the divine realm of the forms, no single, transcendent aim could animate the disparate activities of the desiring subject.  “[T]here is no such finis ultimus,” or “utmost aim,” asserts Hobbes, “as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.”[95]  Instead, depending on each man’s individual “constitution … and particular education,” both of which are known to vary, “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth good … there being nothing simply and absolutely so.”[96]

Once the anamnesticity and unipolarity of desire were rejected, love’s irony was also necessarily eliminated.  For Hobbes, desire has no transcendent aim beyond its immediate object, the acquisition of which fully meets the physiological lack experienced by the desiring subject.  Consequently, human happiness consists solely in the “continual progress of the desire, from one [acquired] object to another.”[97]  In this constant oscillation between lack and satisfaction, the poles of man’s tensile existence between absolute nothingness and the divine plenum, as illumined in the erotic encounter, are severed, immanentized, and assigned separate moments in a temporal sequence.  “[D]esire, and love, are the same thing,” writes Hobbes, assigning different names to the experience of human longing at these now distinct moments in time, “save that by desire, we always signify the absence of the object; by love, most commonly the presence of the same.”[98]  Immanentization brings the transcendent pole of the erotic encounter within the flux of time, dissolving the conceptual unity of erotic love, eliminating the metaxical character of human longing, and foreclosing the possibility of Socratic desire.

In order to immunize the text of Leviathan from the subversiveness of desire, Hobbes’ contracted conception of the erotic is literally contracted by means of the covenant described in the text itself.  According to Hobbesian nominalism, universal terms have no referents, existing solely as constructions of the human mind.[99]  Whereas particular trees exist in reality, the concept of a “tree” in the abstract exists only through human convention.  Moreover, for Hobbes, reasoning consists in “nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names agreed upon, for the marking and signifying of our thoughts.”[100]  Knowledge of such consequences, according to Hobbes, is the very definition of science, endowing the conclusions obtained through scientific reasoning with the certainty of a geometric proof, but also making science itself a “conventionalistic construction.”[101]  In Hobbes’ words:  “By this it appears that reason is … attained by industry; first in apt imposing of names; and secondly by getting a good and orderly method in proceeding from the elements, which are names, to assertions made by connexion of one of them to another; and to syllogisms, which are the connexions of one assertion to another, till we come to a knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand; and that is it, men call SCIENCE.”[102]  Hence, according to Hobbes’ own conception of science, the conclusion of Leviathan – namely, that a citizen is obligated to obey, and never has a duty to disobey, the commands of his sovereign – follows necessarily from the definitions contained at the beginning of the text, but these definitions are themselves nothing more than arbitrary conventions.  Indeed, as quoted above, for Hobbes reasoning consists in the reckoning “of the consequences of general names agreed upon,” i.e., established by convention, suggesting that philosophers might reach different conclusions in alternate, but no less legitimate, linguistic universes.[103]  As Hobbes plainly states in his fourth objection to Descartes’ Meditations, “the inferences in our reasoning tell us nothing at all about the nature of things, but merely tell us about the labels applied to them; that is, all we can infer is whether or not we are combining the names of things in accordance with the arbitrary conventions which we have laid down in respect of their meaning.”[104]  Thus, as Victoria Kahn notes, a more fundamental “verbal contract” necessarily precedes and underlies the “political contract” described in Leviathan.[105]

In expressing his hope that Leviathan would “fall into the hands of a sovereign, who will consider it himself … and by the exercise of entire sovereignty, in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation, into the utility of practice,” Hobbes sought to pull himself up by his bootstraps:  in establishing the definitions contained in Hobbes’ text through an exercise of sovereign authority, the sovereign would establish the source and foundation of his own sovereign authority.[106]  There is thus a certain circularity in the Hobbesian project:  the political contract at the foundation of the modern state originates in an antecedent verbal contract, the meanings of the terms of which depend upon the command of the (already existing) sovereign.  In Hobbes’ circular argument, however, can be seen an image of a closed system of thought, hermetically sealed off from the subversive force of human desire.


In order to secure the modern state, and the fundamental texts upon which it depends, from erotic subversion, the founders of the modern age sought to compose a foundational text impervious to the destabilizing force of human desire.  In his Meditations, Descartes offered the indubitability of the ego cogitans, stripped of all existential yearning and discontent, as a secure foundation for a new age in the history of man; alternatively, and perhaps more radically, in his Leviathan, Hobbes proposed a new verbal contract, the adoption of which would establish a linguistic universe in which the citizens of each state would have an absolute duty to obey their sovereign and in which Socratic desire, with all of its attendant dangers, would be left unnamed.  Today, in light of the repudiation of the Cartesian ego following the successive assaults of Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, and the uncertainties surrounding the future of the Westphalian system, the world once again appears to be entering a new age.  While the repression of the erotic at the dawn of the modern era resulted in a much-lamented, if only recently noticed, diminishment in the full amplitude of human experience, a new era may bring about a renewed understanding of the true depths of human experience and a scientific vocabulary adequate to its description.[107]  As in the past, however, as mankind traverses this new epochal break in human history, there will be nothing to guide us but our desire.[108]



[1] Aristophanes Clouds 217-234; Plato Theaetetus 174a-175b; Xenophanes DK34.  All translations, unless otherwise specified, are my own.

[2] Augustine Sermo 34.2.

[3] Laurence D. Cooper, Eros in Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche: The Politics of Infinity (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), 41.

[4] Plato Phaedrus 249e-250a.

[5] Plato Symposium 200a-b.

[6] “[L]ove,” writes Catherine Osborne, “seems necessarily to be directed toward some object, or at least toward some class of potential objects.  If I love I must love something (but not, however, ‘about’ something, as one is inclined to say with fear or sorrow).  Hence love implies relation.”  Catherine Osborne, Eros Unveiled: Plato and the God of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 48.

[7] Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998), 16.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid., 77.

[10] Alexander Nehamas, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 55.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cooper, Eros in Plato, 28.

[13] David M. Halperin, “Love’s Irony: Six Remarks on Platonic Eros,” in Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 52.

[14] Cf. 237d with 251c-e.

[15] Cf. 204d-206a with 210c-212a.  Socrates’ contention that an investigation into human desire reveals its true nature as existential longing is foreshadowed in the eulogy given by Agathon, who refers to Eros as the “father of yearning and longing.”  Ibid., 197d.

[16] Cooper, Eros in Plato, 89.  Indeed, as one ascends Diotima’s ladder, the acquisitive character of unregenerate desire gives way to the procreative character of human existential yearning – a revision in Socrates’ initial account of the nature of erotic desire overlooked by Anders Nygren in his tendentious portrayal of the differences between Socratic (i.e., pagan) eros and Pauline (i.e., Christian) agape.  Cf. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 175-177, 210; Daniel Boyarin, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Platonic Love?” in Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline, ed. Virginia Burrus and Catherine Keller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 3-22.

[17] “I feel the need,” writes Susan Mitchell with studied ambiguity, “for something that does not exist.”  Susan Mitchell, “Erotikon (A Commentary on ‘Amor and Psyche’),” in Erotikon (see note 9), 16.  Similarly, Jean-Luc Marion notes that in the erotic reduction, “nothing real, no thing, is lacking.”  Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 135.  Although there is a certain tendency among scholars to treat the sublime heights reached by the desiring subject in his exploration of the nature of his longing as a revelation of the true character of Socratic eros, it is important not to sever existential yearning from its origin in sexual lust.  Eros refers to the whole phenomenon of human longing, from its foundation in concrete, physiological desires to its most sublime expression in man’s longing to transcend the limits intrinsic to the human condition.  An emphasis on the procreative character of erotic longing at its most refined heights (in the Symposium) and the use of sexual imagery at various points in the process of the desiring subject’s self-discovery (in both the Symposium and the Phaedrus) serve to unite all stages in the sublimation of desire as moments in a single, continuous process.  This is reflected in the very syntax of Socrates’ lengthy description of the ascent up Diotima’s ladder, which forms a single, continuous sentence (cf. 210a-d; see also 211c).  Moreover, it must always be remembered that the charioteer’s sudden recollection of “the true nature of beauty” in the Phaedrus is an experience made possible by the black horse, whose efforts to drag the unwilling charioteer into the presence of the beloved for the sake of sexual pleasure first permit the erotic encounter, making animalistic lust an integral element of the erotic experience and a necessary precondition for the lover’s subsequent ascent to the divine.  Cf. Charles H. Kahn, “Plato’s Theory of Desire,” The Review of Metaphysics 41 (1967), 94-95; Octavio Paz, The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, trans. Helen Lane (Orlando: Harcourt, 1995), 253-54; James M. Rhodes, Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 510-11.

[18] Raphael Demos, “Eros,” Journal of Philosophy 31 (1934), 340 (emphasis added).  It is surely not a coincidence that the erotic teachings of the Symposium are recollected from earlier conversations, such that the dialogue itself has an anamnestic character.

[19] “The direction of love towards the super-sensible,” writes Nygren, “is constitutive of the Platonic idea of Eros.”  Nygren, Agape and Eros, 178.

[20] Plato Symposium 210e-211b.

[21] Plato Republic 505d-e; Plato Symposium 211d.

[22] Gerasimos Santas, Plato and Freud: Two Theories of Love (New York: Basil Blackwood, 1988), 40-47.

[23] G. R. F. Ferrari, “Platonic Love,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 260.

[24] Cooper, Eros in Plato, 32, 87.

[25] Ferrari, “Platonic Love,” 250.

[26] Paz, The Double Flame, 49.  Paz here echoes Augustine:  “All love,” writes Augustine, “either ascends or descends.”  Augustine Enarratio in Psalmum CXXII 1.

[27] Plato Symposium 180d-e.

[28] Nygren, Agape and Eros, 175.

[29] Plato Republic 475a.

[30] “Eros,” writes Demos, “is a metaxu – a principle of betweenness.”  Demos, “Eros,” 340; cf. Frisbee C. C. Sheffield, Plato’s Symposium: The Ethics of Desire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 41-46.

[31] Plato Symposium 201e-204c.

[32] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978), 124-34.

[33] Plato Symposium 203a-e.

[34] Osborne, Eros Unveiled, 101.

[35] Demos, “Eros,” 337; cf. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 132-33; Plato Symposium 202e.

[36] Cf. 174a and 175a with 203c-d.  The image of Socrates standing at a neighbor’s door reflects the irony of Socratic eros no less than its liminal (or metaxical) character.  For the correspondence between Plato’s depictions of Socrates and Eros, see:  Elizabeth S. Belfiore, Socrates’ Daimonic Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 187-96; Osborne, Eros Unveiled, 93-101.

[37] Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 109, 116.

[38] Bruce S. Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), 217; cf. Claude Calame, The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 1-19.

[39] Thornton, Eros, 12, 31-32.

[40] Ibid., 23.

[41] Paz, The Double Flame, 10.

[42] Pausanias Graeciae Descriptio 7.19.3.

[43] Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 195-97.

[44] Plato Republic 572e-575c.

[45] Ibid. 491d-492a, 572e-575c; cf. Plato Phaedrus 248b.

[46] Rhodes, Eros, Wisdom, and Silence, 207-99.

[47] Cooper, Eros in Plato, 4.

[48] Cf. Paul W. Ludwig, Eros & Polis: Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1-118.

[49] Plato Symposium 190c-d.

[50] According to the Aristophanic account, Zeus’s invention of human sexual intercourse following his decision to cut the ur-humans in half was a further contrivance meant to provide an outlet for human erotic longing that would temporarily provide men with the illusion of satisfaction so that they “might turn to their labors and direct their attention to other matters in their lives.”  Ibid., 191c.

[51] Rhodes, Eros, Wisdom, and Silence, 303-304.

[52] Paul Ludwig suggests that according to Aristophanes’ account of the nature of desire, it is the very formation of political communities that reawakens man’s Titanic ambitions following the implementation of Zeus’s punishment, since it is “the political unity and the strength made possible by the combined might of the city [that] permit men to think high thoughts once again.”  Ludwig, Eros & Polis, 108.

[53] Martha C. Nussbaum, “People as Fictions: Proust and the Ladder of Love,” in Erotikon (see note 9), 227.

[54] Thornton, Eros, 206.

[55] Paz, The Double Flame, 10-11, 12; see also:  Belfiore, Socrates’ Daimonic Art, 258-59, 270-71.

[56] “[L]oving,” writes Belfiore, “is a necessary condition for desiring and searching for wisdom about the objects one loves or likes.  When we love something and recognize we do not possess it, we ask questions about this object and attempt to find out how to acquire it.  That is, loving leads people to like wisdom:  philo-sophein.”  Belfiore, Socrates’ Daimonic Art, 154.

[57] Frisbee Sheffield contends that it is not the inadequacy of the objects of the desiring subject’s unregenerate desire, but rather the inadequacy of the account (logos) he is capable of giving of his desire, that propels the desiring subject toward that which is Beautiful in itself at each stage of the ascent up Diotima’s ladder.  Sheffield’s argument, however, assumes that Socrates had abandoned his theory of anamnesis, described in the Phaedrus, for a proto-Aristotelian potentiality/actuality model of human development in the Symposium.  Given the inseparability of anamnesticity from the other properties of Socratic eros, and the lack of scholarly consensus concerning the order in which the Phaedrus and the Symposium were written, the argumentum ex silentio “that anamnēsis is not mentioned in the ascent” provides a weak foundation for Sheffield’s conclusions.  While Sheffield is right to draw our attention to the desiring subject’s inability to account adequately for his longing at each stage of the erotic ascent, in the end the inadequacy of these accounts cannot be understood apart from the more fundamental inadequacy of the objects in reference to which the desiring subject attempts to make sense of his experience.  Cf. Sheffield, Plato’s Symposium, 121-33.

[58] Halperin, “Plato and Erotic Reciprocity,” 76n49.

[59] On the struggle to discover the dialogue’s unity, see:  Daniel Werner, “Plato’s Phaedrus and the Problem of Unity,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 32 (2007): 91-137.

[60] Cf. Richard M. Weaver, “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” in Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 55-72.

[61] Plato Phaedrus 230d.

[62] Weaver, “Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” 58.

[63] Plato Phaedrus 277d-e.

[64] Leo Strauss, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,” in What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 221.

[65] Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 166; cf. C. J. Rowe, “The Argument and Structure of Plato’s Phaedrus,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 32 (1986), 115-16.

[66] It is worth noting that erotic desire is especially subversive in a pluralistic society such as that which exists in the United States, wherein a shared commitment to a foundational text positing a set of self-evident truths is ultimately all that binds the members of the society together as citizens with a common civic identity.

[67] As David Levy notes, Plato also attempts to protect the city from the subversiveness of desire in the Symposium.  As they ascend the ladder of love, Diotima leads Socrates from the beauty of souls to the beauty of the city’s “practices and laws,” but she then passes from the beauty of the city’s “practices” to the superior beauty of the sciences, omitting any further reference to the city’s laws.  “This omission,” writes Levy, “is in keeping with the suggestion … that Diotima does not wish to draw too much attention to the critique of the law implied by her account.”  David Levy, Eros and Socratic Political Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 187n69; cf. Plato Symposium 210c, 211c.

[68] René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-91), 2:12 (AT VII, 17).

[69] Ibid., 2:16-17, 19 (AT VII, 25, 28).

[70] “I am certain,” declares Descartes, “that I am thinking thing.”  Ibid., 2:24 (AT VII, 35).

[71] Gareth B. Matthews, Thought’s Ego in Augustine and Descartes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 11-12.

[72] Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: The Modern Library, 1993), 370.

[73] See Descartes’ Letter to Colvius, 14 November 1640, which can be found in Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 3:159-60 (AT III, 247-48).  “Both the nature of Descartes’ Jesuit education at LaFlèche and the strong similarities between passages in Descartes and passages in both the Trinity and the City of God,” writes Gareth Matthews, “make such innocence unlikely.”  Matthews, Thought’s Ego, 13.  More generally, Stephen Menn persuasively argues that Descartes intentionally “buil[t] his new philosophy (including his physics) on the old Augustinian metaphysics.”  Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 16.

[74] Augustine, City of God, 370-71.

[75] Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 2:18 (AT VII, 27).

[76] Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 6.  Such repression is also evident in The Passions of the Soul, in which Descartes offers an Aristophanic definition of love as an “emotion of the soul … which impels the soul to join itself willingly to objects … in such a manner that we imagine a whole, of which we take ourselves to be only one part, and the thing loved to be the other.”  In contrast to Aristophanes, however, Descartes provides no hint of the irony of man’s desires.  Indeed, Descartes is careful to block any ascent up Diotima’s ladder, asserting that “[a]lthough we may see many persons of the opposite sex, yet we do not desire many at any one time, since nature does not make us imagine we need more than one other half.”  Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 1:356, 360 (AT XI, 387, 396).

[77] Such proof, however, is hardly necessary.  Among the rules contained in the provisional moral code he adopted to guide his behavior while engaged in his project of hyperbolic doubt, Descartes included the maxim that he should “change [his] desires rather than the order of the world,” as necessary “to prevent [him] from desiring in the future something [he] could not get, and so to make [him] content.”  Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 1:123-24 (AT VI, 25).  In this willful suppression of his insatiable desires, the existence of which he indirectly admits, Descartes establishes himself as the first modern man.  Insofar as Descartes’ provisional moral code remains in force throughout the Second Meditation, the construction of the Cartesian ego as a res cogitans is explicitly predicated on the repression of human existential longing.  There is thus a fundamental discontinuity between the Augustinian and Cartesian philosophical projects.  As Etienne Gilson insightfully remarks, “Augustinian empiricism discovers in the cogito something very different from what the mathematical method of Descartes discovers in it, for Descartes is committed once and for all to find in it nothing immediately but the essence of thought to be defined, whereas St. Augustine finds in it the whole of man to explore.” Etienne Gilson, “The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics,” in A Gilson Reader: Selected Writings of Etienne Gilson, ed. Anton G. Pegis (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1957), 94.

[78] Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 2:17, 19 (AT VII, 25, 28).

[79] Ibid., 2:24 (AT VII, 34-35).  Importantly, according to the seventh rule contained in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, such enumerations are exhaustive:  “[E]numeration … consists in a thorough investigation of all the points relating to a problem at hand, an investigation which is so careful and accurate that we may conclude with manifest certainty that we have not inadvertently overlooked anything.”  Ibid., 1:25-26 (AT X, 388).  One is also reminded of the canon of construction applied by jurists in the interpretation of legal texts:  expressio unius exclusio alterius est.

[80] Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 7.

[81] Ibid., 8.

[82] It remains only to note that Descartes was alert to eros’s destructive power, thus providing evidence that the suppression of the erotic dimension of human experience in the construction of the Cartesian ego was not inadvertent.  When Queen Christina of Sweden, through an intermediary, asked Descartes “whether love or hatred is worse if immoderate,” Descartes attributed greater destructive power to love than to hatred.  “My argument for this,” explained Descartes, “is that the evil arising from hatred extends only to the hated object, whereas immoderate love spares nothing but its object, which is commonly very slight in comparison with all the other things which it is ready to abandon and destroy for its immoderate passion.”  In short, whereas hatred aims at the destruction of its object, love is willing to destroy everything but its object for its object’s sake.  To illustrate his point, Descartes quotes four lines of verse from Théophile de Viau, subtly alluding to the politically subversive character of human desire:  “How fine, ye Gods, the deed of his desire / How fair his victim’s fame, / When noble Paris put all Troy to fire / To quench his own heart’s flame.”  See Descartes’ Letter to Chanut, 1 February 1647, which can be found in Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 3:305-14 (AT IV, 600-17).

[83] Thomas Hobbes, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 19-20.

[84] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 48.

[85] Haig Patapan and Jeffrey Sikkenga, “Love and the Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes’s Critique of Platonic Eros,” Political Theory 36 (2008), 803.

[86] Ibid., 805.

[87] Hobbes, Human Nature, 56.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ibid., 50.

[90] Ibid., 48.

[91] Ibid., 56.

[92] Ibid., 56-57.

[93] Ibid., 57.

[94] Hobbes, Leviathan, 9.

[95] Ibid., 65.

[96] Ibid., 8, 35.

[97] Ibid., 65.

[98] Ibid., 34.

[99] There is “nothing in the world universal but names,” writes Hobbes, “for the things named are every one of them individual and singular.”  Ibid., 22.

[100] Ibid., 28.

[101] Daniela Coli, “Hobbes’s Revolution,” in Politics and the Passions, 1500-1850, ed. Victoria Kahn, Neil Saccamano, and Daniela Coli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 78.

[102] Hobbes, Leviathan, 31.

[103] Cf. Michael Oakeshott, “Introduction to Leviathan,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 244-45.

[104] Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 2:125-26 (AT VII, 178).

[105] Victoria Kahn, “Hobbes, Romance, and the Contract of Mimesis,” Political Theory 29 (2001), 20.

[106] Hobbes, Leviathan, 244-45.

[107] Cf. Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 13-35; Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 1-10.

[108] Cf. Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 180.

Thomas Laehn

Thomas Laehn is currently the County Attorney in Greene County, Iowa, where he lives with his wife, Dr. N. Susan Laehn, and their daughter, Sophia. Dr. Laehn was formerly an assistant professor of political science at McNeese State University, where he taught courses in American politics, political philosophy, and constitutional law. He earned his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University in 2010 and his JD at the University of Iowa in 2017.

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