How is the Love of Socrates, the Gadfly? An Interpretation

Jacques-Louis David, La Mort de Socrate

Jacques-Louis David, La Mort de Socrate

This little post is what Germans would call a “Denkansatz,” a first attempt to think about a larger subject.

I will try to explain my interpretation of the above question by contrasting two possible ways of understanding the transformation that occurs in the subject-in-love.

Before I present this comparison, I might have to note that the basis for this interpretation is an intrinsically asymmetrical notion of love, as we find it in Ancient homoerotic love, and not in modern Romantic love. Whether this interpretation can be applied to a modern understanding of love, is a different question altogether, not treated in this post.

The basic contrast I would like to discuss is the one between a lack and a void. We first need to critique the more problematic, but commonplace, and to some extent modern notion of the lack, in order to get to the figure of love as a void, which, I claim, can become an essential contribution to a complex understanding of the ethical subject.

So, what is love as a lack? When someone is in love, they may feel like “part of them” is missing, when their beloved one is not present. They crave for this missing part to return and to complete them. This is by no means exclusively a modern notion. In Plato’s Symposium, the speech of the comic poet Aristophanes basically gives us such an understanding, although he is perhaps not taken very serious in this dialogue. The basic idea is that we are a incomplete form, which can be completed by adding the perfectly fitting incomplete other form, which is our lover.

This notion of love may describe an experience recognizable for most of us, and therefore perhaps should have a proper place within our discourse about love and the subject. The problem, I claim, occurs when we limit our understanding of love to a description of this state of “lack.”

Staying on this plane will not satisfy the subject in love in the least. As many philosophers have pointed out, the distinct problem here is that there is a difference between the person we idealize and that person as empirically existing entity. Therefore, that person can never fill up this gap we have. If taken too serious, that person can end up being forced into a Procrustean bed. Finally, one can say that an analogy to this impossibility can be found in Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. One could say that the obsessive lover is Achilles trying to ACQUIRE his beloved, and upon every moving closer to him, it becomes ever more clear that he can never achieve a true union of two subjects and fill his lack.1

In fact, the experience of lack shows us that the very shape of our lack changes, when we succeed in moving closer to “acquiring” our object of desire, to filling up the lack.

By now it should be clear that thinking of love purely as a lack in the subject does not lead to self-transformation; instead, it risks leading to the unethical. Essentially, this type of love is egoistic.

It is only from the horizon of this deadlock of the lack that we can start to understand the perhaps much more philosophical type of love that Socrates invites his students into, which I propose to call, for lack of a better term, love as “void”.

Let us list a few characteristics of Socrates, some of which are taken from Pierre Hadot.2 Socrates does not have any positive knowledge, he is a dissimulator who deceives people into the truth. He opens up a dialogic space for others to get rid of their ungrounded opinions, to get rid of those “unexamined bits,” so to speak. If you think about it, only people we really love can change our deepest opinions and convictions. Socrates is unique, because he only exposes false opinions but does not seek to replace them with his own, since he hasn’t any. He invites people to rethink their world in a most radical way.

One could say that the invitation or even demand to radically alter one’s way of life is always a part of a intense love relationship. To look into the abyss of the other’s eyes is to leave part of oneself behind.

Socrates is so significant because he represents this specific ethical moment of love in a very pure way. Just like “love as lack”, “love as void” is also something, I expect, we can all recognize as part of love. However, I claim that Socrates as a figure does not simply demonstrate or speak about this ethical love, he embodies it. This is the reason that, according to an interpretation by Hadot, Socrates stands for Eros in the Symposium. There are many references to this on the narrative level of the texts, which Hadot expounds. If we go along with his reading, the understanding of Socrates as a representation of “love as void” becomes very plausible.

First of all, Socrates is repeatedly called “atopia”, “atopos”, pointing to the fact that he, as a figure, does not so much represent a spatial stability, but rather, a disturbance of space: a disturbance of the referent. Applied to the Ancient Greek idea that all humans are forms being shaped by life, one could say that he is a disturber of those forms. More precisely, a place, where the “bad bits” can be thrown away into, to be forgotten. A void, or a portal towards self-improvement.

Secondly, the parents of Eros give a valuable clue towards this interpretation. Eros is the son of Penia (which stands for lack or poverty) and Porus (which stands for wealth or plenitude). Dialectically speaking, one could propose that Eros is what love becomes, when poverty and plenitude meet. It is the transposition of the intercourse of intersubjectivity from the material level to the level of form, of soul, of intellect. Once more, this IS what Socrates is about.

The ethical aspects of the discovery of this dimension of love cannot be underestimated. Rethinking ourselves and reconsidering our convictions are constitutive parts of the care of the self. These delicate matters, however, succeed best in the environment of love, and seem impossible in the public space. The moments that we can see public figures rethink their deepest convictions are indeed very rare. Love is therefore possible in a realm of trust, where we can be sure that the old ideas or convictions that we are trying to transcend will not come back to haunt us in the future. Love, care for the self, and rethinking oneself, can ultimately only be achieved in relation to others, and therefore require trust, and the possibility of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness: this is exactly why we call Socratic love “love as void”. Nietzsche very much understood the necessity of forgetfulness as an ingredient for the PRESENT of the subject:

“To close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time, … that is the purpose of active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no PRESENT, without forgetfulness.” (Genealogy of Morals)

An ethical transformation of the subject presupposes such an active forgetfulness. The paradox, and this is where we depart from Nietzsche, is that exactly such a forgetfulness requires the type of intersubjectivity we have dared to call “love as void” and have identified as Socrates’ project.


1 The analogy between Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise and a theory of the subject is addressed on several occasions by Slavoj Zizek, in reference to some text by Jacques-Alain Miller.

2 Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

One thought on “How is the Love of Socrates, the Gadfly? An Interpretation

  1. Roland! This is such an excellent and clearly-written piece on love. I had never thought about how the love relationship creates a space where we allow ourselves to forget our past and also to forgive ourselves for it, but this is very true. Perhaps we need to see that another person can forgive our past for us to be able to really forget it.

    Your piece also made me think again about the limits of any mere self-determination by suggesting that it is only through our relationship to the other that we become what we are. In other words, there is no realization of our potential outside a community of other potential-actual being– which is why the community cannot just be treated like a space where opinions are negotiated or social projects are brought to fruition, but must be looked at as an essential element (existentiel) of being itself that, if neglected, amounts to collapse, contraction, closure, and evil. Again, it is as if we needed other people to see our own potential in order for us to start to believe in it ourselves…

    Lastly, specifically on the notion of “love as void” and of Socrates as an “atopos,” I was reminded of Rilke’s famous comments on love in his Letters to a Young Poet. There he emphasizes how love is not at first a merging or a fusion of beings or of essences (which would follow a model of “love as lack” which is then filled up by the other person). He tells us about a more difficult love which is essentially space-making: “the love that consist in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet one another.” Once again it is essential to insist on this notion of “love as void” (I might say, “love as spacing”) which does not destroy the distance between beings but in fact accentuates and augments it. In the love relationship, I don’t exactly bring my beloved closer to me, or closer to herself; on the contrary, I make it possible for her to distance herself from herself, and from me, from the past, from the world. In love, this distance is not threatening, but welcoming. It creates the space in which a being can be. This is not to “escape” through distance, but to bring to the forefront of attention one’s own possibilities as a singularity. Such a love between beings helps both become a world in and of themselves. They share those worlds and they never become one, they are never “completed.” It is only through that difference and distance that a true love between them becomes possible.

    Thanks again for your reflections. I look forward to reading more of your writings in the future.


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