Somehow or other, in the course of my life, I’ve become an English professor. I’m never quite sure how to feel about this. When I look at my kids, when I look at the state of the world–when I look at the whole question of knowledge–it seems like there are far more important jobs I could be doing. Yet I’m always brought back to the study of literature, by texts that make it seem more important than anything else. 

Here’s one:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;
Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth’s unknown, athough his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare’s sonnet number 116 (out of 154, which, let’s face it, is a lotta sonnets). I call it a coffee mug poem. That means you can buy it on coffee mugs. Also on posters, tea towels, Valentine’s cards, etc. It’s last year’s wedding song, if this year is 1610.

Evidently, sonnet 116 is a hymn to eternal love, and to love as eternal. Love doesn’t change, this poem says. No matter what. It’s like a transcendent landmark, or a star beaming out over the storm. Love doesn’t come down to the beauty of youth—rosy lips, and cheeks, and all that stuff. It isn’t even subject to time. There can’t be any “impediments” (obstacles) to this incredible force, insofar as it makes a “marriage of true minds.”


Do minds get married?

I mean, we shouldn’t get married without them. But we don’t get married with them. Bodies, not minds, are what take us to the altar. Or wherever else we hope to find love.

Erotic love, anyway. But even if we consider that other love—what Leonard Cohen calls “that brother love”—the point holds. Our buddies, our siblings, our parents—our children—we don’t just want them in our thoughts. We want them in our arms. Wanting them there is loving them; and loving them is wanting them there. Foolish? Maybe. Since we can only have them in time, and only for a time. But that, it seems, is love. 

Sure, says sonnet 116. But—if we think about it—what is that “wanting”? 

It’s a force. Beyond us, and before us. It sweeps through us; transforms us. We belong to it, not the other way around. 

Because we are physical beings, the love that moves us is physical. But the Love that does the moving is something else altogether. Don’t we feel this—don’t we know this—every time we love?

This is also why love can take so many different expressions. (I’m still ventriloquizing the poem.) It’s like a seal, or stamp, pressed into multiple inks. Love even takes different kinds of expression—two main kinds, as we’ve already noticed. One kind, erotic; the other, not. Indeed these two kinds of love are so different—so utterly antithetical—that if we see the one from the position of the other we may have to say, with Shakespeare, that that “love is not love.”


That enigmatic, tantalizing, entirely illogical phrase. Hanging off the end of Shakespare’s second line, like a car dangling over a cliff. Sonnet 116 rushes on to its complex qualifications: it isn’t love if it changes, if it’s fleshly, superficial, etc. But for a moment, Shakespeare has advanced a definition in the form of a contradiction. Love is not love. 

The insight, the paradox, he’s wrestling with is an ancient one. In the Western tradition, it’s primarily associated with Platonic philosophy. Its classic statement, certainly known to Shakespeare, is Plato’s dialogue the Symposium (ca. 385 B.C.).

Like all Plato’s major works, the Symposium presents an imaginary conversation between real historical figures: prominent members of ancient Athenian society, from the generation just before Plato’s own. The star of the show, as usual, is Socrates—put to death in 399 for, allegedly, corrupting the youth of the city. Plato’s whole philosophical career, in text after text, dialogue after dialogue, shows Socrates, instead, teaching them: about language (the Phaedrus), cognition (the Meno), justice (the Republic), and so on. 

In the Symposium, the topic of the lesson is love.

Now, the ancient Greeks took bodies very seriously. All those rosy lips and cheeks (and stuff). When they saw a beautiful young man—and it is always men, in Plato—they didn’t tend to assume, as we might, that his physical gifts were just one item in a range of potential attributes. That is to say, the Greeks didn’t tend to think that a good-looking person might also, or even as a kind of compensation, be dumb, or cheap, or mean. Rather, they tended to assume that he would also be sweet and generous and brilliant. The Greeks saw physical form as reflecting the whole self. A beautiful body, to them, was a window on a beautiful soul. 

Plato’s Socrates is a carefully-constructed travesty of this assumption. Physically, he is ugly: shambling, misshapen, old. But he has such a radiant mind, and expresses such beautiful ideas, that he is thronged with admirers from the top echelon of the Athenian dating scene.

In the Symposium—the title means “drinking-party,” which is the scenario—Socrates has attracted a bona fide stalker in the person of Alcibiades. This person was a notorious celebrity of classical Athens. He was a super-handsome, super-macho, super-sexy military commander. An up-match beyond the wildest dreams of smelly old Socrates. But Alcibiades, arriving late at the party, and already quite drunk, has a surprising complaint. The shabby philosopher has rejected his advances. 

The superhunk tells a long tale of trying to close with Socrates sexually. He has sat, dewy-eyed, at his teacher’s feet, but no advantage taken. He has wrestled with his crush at the gymnasium—naked, and oiled, is how the Greeks did this—but no dice. Finally, the frustrated lover invites Socrates to dinner, plies him with wine, and talks until it is too late to send his guest home. They lie down to sleep—and the handsome host pours his heart out. In so many words: take me, I’m yours.

“Alcibiades,” Socrates answers him, “truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you.” “Whereupon,” Alcibiades relates, 

I fancied that he was smitten, and that the words which I had uttered like arrows had wounded him, and so without waiting to hear more I got up, and throwing my coat about him crept under his threadbare cloak, as the time of year was winter, and there I lay during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms. … And yet, notwithstanding all, he was so superior to my solicitations, so contemptuous and derisive and disdainful of my beauty [that] nothing more happened, but in the morning when I awoke—let all the gods and goddesses be my witnesses!—I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.

 All night, the he-man cuddles the man-monster. But all night, cuddling is as far as it goes. 

What has happened here (or, I guess, what has not) has nothing to do with Socrates’s sexual preferences. Rather, it has to do with his sexual philosophy. This he claims to have learned (intriguingly) from a wise old woman, named Diotima. 

The argument is very famous. According to Diotima, it’s natural to love what is beautiful. Natural, and good; you shouldn’t try fight it. But if you really think about what you’re loving, in a beautiful person, you will realize that it is actually and more accurately beauty, as a phenomenon, in that person. 

If that is so, the love can’t stop at the beloved—even though it has to start there. Love for a beautiful person has to be treated as the first step in a journey toward an encounter with love as it is; love in the abstract, love itself. 

“He who would proceed aright in this matter,” Socrates (quoting Diotima) tells his companions, “should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms”:

And soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! … In the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. 

In the end, the student of love, in the school of Diotima, will come to perceive

a nature of wondrous beauty … absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. …  And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty.

This argument, this vision, is known as the Platonic “ladder of love.” It is certainly one of the most influential ideas in the history of the world. It means that loving another person is good—but that converting or (in Freud’s version) sublimating that love, redirecting it “upwards,” is better, much better. And this not as a matter of discipline or denial, but precisely as an attempt to honour and follow the impulse of love itself. From earthly, sexual, “lower” love—what the Greeks called eros— we are supposed to turn to “higher,” spiritual, celestial love: agapē. Love itself teaches us that it is not love. Agapē not eros.

The Platonic idea, 500 years after Socrates, fit seamlessly with the rise of Christianity. God is love, says St. John—but not in the way that Alcibiades would have meant, eros. Rather, the Christian deity, evidently another student of Diotima, is agapē. Or, in Latin: caritas.

The most beautiful Christian statement of this vision comes from St. Paul, in the thirteenth chapter of his first epistle to the faithful in the ancient Greek city of Corinth (for short, 1st Corinthians, 13). 

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” Paul writes, “and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …

And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The famous King James Version of this passage has the word “charity” in place of “love.” That’s because it’s very directly translating the Latin caritas; which translates the Greek agapē; which is love, as heavenly, and eternal. And that’s what love really is—how it really is—says Paul. His Christian restatement of the Platonic idea, even more than Shakespeare’s, is stunning, searing, thrilling.

And false. 

Love always fails. 

Doesn’t it?

Even if it is patient; even if it is kind; devoted to the truth, generous, all-enduring, greater than hope, greater even than faith—an astonishing position for a man of God, like Paul, to take!–love dies. Because we do. And this point is completely unaffected by the Christian belief, to which Paul is trying to persuade us, in eternal life. Proved by it, actually! For we precisely have to lose our loves in this life, if we are to regain them in the next.

Shakespeare knows this, you see. Sonnet 116 sounds great, in a Céline Dion, I-know-that-my-heart-will-go-oooon kind of way. But under just a little pressure, that treacly assertion starts to ooze. Love “alters not when it alteration finds.” It doesn’t change when it changes? What can this possibly mean? Love doesn’t “bend with the remover to remove”? What’s a “remover”? Nobody knows. As has often been noted, Shakespeare’s opening language about “impediments” is lifted straight from the Elizabethan marriage service. It’s from the part of the ceremony where the priest asks the congregation if they approve of the union. And what might they say, if they didn’t? Maybe something like “Oh no!”—which is what sonnet 116, at the beginning of its fifth line, exclaims.

In his concluding couplet, with a poker face, Shakespeare shows how absurdly high his poem has sets its stakes. If the neoPlatonic argument of sonnet 116 is wrong—“if this be error, and upon me proved”—then “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” In other words, nobody has ever loved anybody—not really, they’ve all been doing it wrong—and, for good measure, the poet never wrote anything, including the poem we have just been reading. Now it is pretty clear, as we have just been noticing, that the argument of sonnet 116 is wrong. The agapē it describes, eternal and cosmic and abstract, is not love, as we experience it. And that means that Shakespeare has constructed a no-win situation. If we accept sonnet 116, then we have to accept that love (as we really experience it) is not love (in its true Platonic being). On the other hand, if we deny sonnet 116, then the poem cancels itself out—Shakespeare “never writ” it. And that means that the very statement we are wrestling with—“love is not love” never gets made.

And that means, remarkably, that we lose the opportunity for talking about the topic we thought we were talking about. “Love is not love”–the Platonic formula–is what invited us into this classroom.

Can we take it any farther? I’m not sure.

But I’m pretty sure that asking this kind of question is being an English professor.

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