The Man in Black

(Alternative title: Third and Final Very Long Musing on the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Paul, and Love.) 

In my last two posts, I’ve been chasing the irony of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” etc. In particular, I’ve been trying to make sense of the paradoxical statement that comes and goes, bewilderingly, at the end of that poem’s second line: “love is not love.” 

This has led me, first, to Plato’s Symposium, in the fourth century BC; and then to St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 (1. Cor. 13), in the first century AD. Thereafter, I’ve discussed the paradox that Paul himself embodies. The leader of the new faith, Christianity, was in the first place the defender of the old: Judaism. At the same time, Saul is supposed to have been “really” Paul all along, his true or inner being merely getting revealed in the famous moment of his conversion. Ultimately, Saul is Paul; and yet Paul is not Saul. This doubled person, this redoubled paradox, gives us 1. Cor. 13: one of the greatest love-poems in all literature. 

And that, too, is paradoxical. For Paul, generally speaking, is no love-poet. 

He famously advises that “it is better to marry than to burn” (1. Cor. 7: 9)—by which he seems to mean “in desire,” but seemingly also “in Hell,” for the sin of fornication. Paul himself is proudly celibate, and lays much of the theological foundation for the later Catholic demonization of sexuality. In the book of Acts, while he zips around the eastern Mediterranean organizing the early church, Paul has many followers and co-workers; but none we would really call a friend. He has no children of his own (obviously), but we never meet any Pauline parents or siblings, either. (We will come back to this.) The representation of this powerful man in art, which reaches back to very early times, makes him consistently vinegary: tall and gaunt, trim dark beard, widow’s peak. St. Peter, with whom our man is frequently depicted, is hale and hearty. He looks like he could give you a nice bear hug. But St. Paul? A curt handshake, and an icy stare. His apostolic symbol is a drawn sword. 

In the stories of Acts, Paul is dedicated, indefatigable—and ruthless. At Acts 21, for example, he causes an uproar in Jerusalem by preaching Christianity in the Jewish Temple. Seized by an enraged crowd, Paul is saved from lynching by the city’s Roman garrison—only to rile the mob up even more, with a gleefully incendiary oration (in 22). Brought before the Temple authorities, the apostle perceives that they are divided between Sadduccees and Pharisees—competing sects of Jewish fundamentalists at this time. Having himself been raised a Pharisee, he cries out shrewdly: “Of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question!” (Acts 23: 6) As the scripture patiently explains (23: 8), this was one of the main doctrinal points dividing the two sects. And so there arises “a great cry,” and “a great dissension” (23: 9-10), as the opponents of the new faith fall upon each other. Paul is litigator, tactician, logistician, gaslighter. But lover? 

To be sure, when he calls upon “faith, hope and love”—and says that “of these, the greatest is love” (1. Cor. 13: 13)—Paul is talking about heavenly or spiritual or “higher” love: agapē in Greek, caritas in Latin (as indicated by the translation “charity” in the King James Version). But presumably, higher love is still love. Not not-love. 

All of which is to say that when Paul tells the Corinthians that all they need is love, somebody might well object: What the heck do you know about it?

Now, as I was saying last time, Paul is the only person by that name in the entirety of the Bible (if we discount the “Sergius Paulus” who appears in Acts 13, seemingly just to introduce the name itself). This matters, because the scriptures re-use names very carefully. It is not by accident, to cite the most obvious example, that Jesus (or Yeshua), who is supposed to lead humanity into the Promised Land of eternal life, bears the same name as the Old Testament figure who led the Israelites into their promised land of Canaan: Joshua. Neither is it by accident that Jesus’s earthly Dad, Joseph, is advised in a dream to find refuge for his family in Egypt; just as his Old Testament namesake, he of the technicolour dreamcoat, found refuge there for his. Name-games of this kind are one aspect of an extremely rich system of analogies, binding together the two great parts of the Bible, that scholars call typology. Old Testament originals find New Testament reiterations that are supposed to constitute their explanation and fulfillment. The almost comical reycycling of names in Acts, which I discussed last time, is like a New Testament mini-golf version of this procedure.

Against all of that typological background, “Paul” stands alone. But not “Saul.” There is another very important person by that name, in the Old Testament; and he, like the one in the New, is a champion of the Jewish (or Hebrew) people. Old Testament Saul, like his New Testament avatar, undergoes an ecstatic conversion—into himself. The two Sauls, we are carefully told, are even from the same part of the overall Hebrew family: both are members of the tribe of Benjamin, descendants of the youngest son of Jacob/Israel (see Phillipians 3.5). The mirroring of Saul and Saul is no mystical effect, but a brilliantly and carefully literary—typological—one. In other words, the author of Acts (by tradition St. Luke) knows exactly what he is doing. I want to suggest now that if we turn the New Testament image of Paul back toward its Old Testament countenance, we gain an interpretative advantage on 1. Cor. 13.

We meet the Old Testament Saul in the First Book of Samuel. This describes the end of an historical period during which the Hebrew people were led by a series of warrior-prophets, called Judges. The eponymous Samuel, in a sense, is the last of these—but purely as a spiritual, rather than military, leader. Which leads into our story: because the Hebrew tribes are clamoring for a King. A proper, powerful, right royal commander-in-chief, to lead them into battle against the non-Hebrew peoples that surround and beset them. God, for a long time, declines their request. (He seems to think that He is the only King they need.) Until sending them Saul.

He looks the part. As we are repeatedly told, Saul is physically imposing, standing head and shoulders above everybody else. In other ways, though, Saul is an unikely candidate for the purple. His tribe, the Benjaminites, is the smallest of the 12 tribes that make up the Hebrews. Among the Benjaminites, Saul’s is no great family. And Saul himself is just a young nobody. We first see him on a long and frustrating search for his father’s “asses” (donkeys), which have gone on a self-guided tour of the Holy Land. “And he passed through mount Ephraim, and passed through the land of Shalisha, but they found them not: then they passed through the land of Shalim, and there they were not: and he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they found them not.” Eventually, in a kind of folkloric desperation, Saul and his companions decide to ask the prophet, or “seer”—Samuel, the great Judge of Israel himself—about the wayfaring quadrupeds. 

Coming to the town where Samuel is lodging, Saul asks directions to his house. The very person he asks turns out to be the seer himself. Who tells him that the donkeys have been found. And takes Saul and his fellow-seekers home. And gives them a big dinner. And beds for the night. And sees them on their way in the morning. “And as they were going down to the end of the city, Samuel said to Saul … stand thou still a while, that I may shew thee the word of God” (1.Sam. 9:27):

Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the LORD hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?

When thou art departed from me to day, then thou shalt find two men by Rachel’s sepulchre in the border of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say unto thee, The asses which thou wentest to seek are found: and, lo, thy father hath left the care of the asses, and sorroweth for you, saying, What shall I do for my son?

Then shalt thou go on forward from thence, and thou shalt come to the plain of Tabor, and there shall meet thee three men going up to God to Bethel, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine:

And they will salute thee, and give thee two loaves of bread; which thou shalt receive of their hands.

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy:

And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.

… And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart: and all those signs came to pass that day. (1 Sam 10: 1-9.)

It is spine-tingling. Flat on his back, out of his mind on YHWH, the kid becomes the king. Saul, Saul. Just as his later namesake, Paul.

Turns out Saul’s pretty good at being his new Him. Especially the fighting-our-enemies part. In between sessions of smiting, Saul acquires a wife, “Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz” (1. Sam. 14:50). They have three sons: “Jonathan, and Ishui, and Melchishua.” And two daughters, “the name of the firstborn Merab, and the name of the younger Michal” (1. Sam. 14:49). 

Unfortunately, Saul displeases God. (He fails, after a specific conquest, to annihilate every single living thing down to the children and livestock. It is one of those indigestible moments of the Old Testament.) And so God directs Samuel to find a new, replacement King, among the sons of a man called Jesse:

And it came to pass, when they were come, that [Samuel] looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him.

But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth …

Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Then Jesse made Shammah to pass by. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Again, Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these.

And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.

And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he. (1 Sam. 16: 6-12)

David. 

Little by little, Saul loses his kingdom to the upstart. And not his kingdom only. Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son, loves David “as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18: 4). So does Michal, Saul’s younger daughter. David himself, at first, is like an adoptive son to the King: living in the royal household, accompanying Saul into battle, playing music (in a famous and beautiful story) that brings the old man peace. When David first challenges the Philistine giant Goliath, Saul dresses the boy in his own armour: “an helmet of brass upon his head,” and “a coat of mail” on his back. But young David “cannot go [walk]” with them; so he goes without them (1 Sam. 17: 38-39). It is a perfect little episode of quasi-paternal doting. 

But then—through anger, envy, paranoia, drink—Saul alienates his symbolic heir. David wages a guerilla campaign against his erstwhile King, his second father. He marries Michal, even though Saul tries to take her away from him. Eventually, both Saul and Jonathan die at the hands of the Philistines. David goes on to become the great King of Israel that Saul—it seems—was never truly meant to be.

And David has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And the King favours some of them, rejects others. Fasts for a week, praying on the ground, while one of his babies lies ill. Gets up and washes and eats when the kid dies; because, as he brusquely tells his servants, he can’t do anything more for him now. With the gorgeous Bath-sheba—whom David stole from his loyal and virtuous general Uriah, causing him to be killed, for exactly this purpose—David has another son right away: Solomon. And he becomes King. And has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And it goes on like that.

What runs through this long story, from its origins to its aftermath? From Saul’s Dad pining for his son, in the First Book of Samuel; to Solomon worrying over his, in the First Book of the Kings?

It seems to me the answer is obvious. These are stories of love. Not so much eros, although there is certainly some of that. Nor, exactly, agapē—although God himself certainly showers his love down very capriciously, redirecting it from Saul (who scarcely deserves this treatment) to David (who scarcely deserves this treatment). And that’s a clue, I think. God behaves in this part of the Bible like a father who plays favourites. Saul is like the older son who can’t do anything right; David, the younger one who can’t do anything wrong. Learning from Him, the fathers in this part of the Bible play favourites, too. With everything that results from that sad yet organic tendency. The love that dominates the Saul-David-Solomon stories, shapes them and makes them, isn’t primarily erotic, or heavenly, but something else. Unlike eros and agapē, Greek doesn’t give us a tidy term for this other kind of love (there are philia and storge, but neither of them really captures it). But we know what we are talking about: it’s love filial, and parental. The love of family.

For most of us, obviously, this is the first love we ever know; recalled in adulthood, if we can do that, like drops from a precious vial. As for those tragic people who never get to drink—well, they will struggle to love, anybody or in any way, throughout their lives. If erotic love makes us, as infants, family love re-makes us, as children. And if we don’t get re-made in that way, we can never be made right. 

Saul, in the Old Testament, mirrors Paul in the New. Saul’s story is full of love, and lovers; Paul’s, not so much. And yet he is the Saul who sings a hymn to love. Paul may be unfamiliar with the erotic kind; he may not be able to explain the heavenly. But Paul knows family love, if he knows any love at all. This is what the story of Saul, Paul’s Old Testament Other, reminds us.

And yet: where is Paul’s family?

Look how carefully, in the books of Samuel and Kings, the members of Saul’s and David’s and Solomon’s families are introduced and named: Ahinoam, Jonathan, Ishui, Melchishua, Merab, Michal, Eliab, Abinadab, Jesse, Bath-Sheba—and many, many more. The contrast with Acts—with Saul-Paul’s family background—is stark. We are told that he’s from Tarsus. That he’s a Roman citizen by birth. A tent-maker by trade. But that’s about all we are told. No siblings, parents, or even surrogates are so much as mentioned in his story.

With one exception. 

In Acts 22, as I have mentioned, Paul makes a speech to his own would-be lynch mob. He is being led into detention by the Roman soldiers who have just saved him from being torn apart. Requesting and receiving permission to address his tormentors, Paul pauses “on the stairs” of the citadel and beckons to them (Acts 21: 40). It is a moment of astonishing drama. “And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,”

Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you. …

I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.

As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.

And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there,

Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight.

And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. …

And [the listening crowd] gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. (Acts 22: 1-22).

Paul’s “defense” is the best offense. Not an apology for, but a reiteration of, the very faith he has been preaching; and centred on the story of his own conversion. This we have read before, in Acts 9. Here, let us note, Paul tropes his Damascus experience very much as a choice of loved ones. He turns his face toward the Christian Ananias, who speaks for “our fathers,” and welcomes Saul-Paul as “brother.” He turns his back on the Jewish “elders” and “brethren,” on whose behalf he has formerly breathed such fire. And among them—the only figure of Saul’s entire family of origin, broadly construed, to be named in Acts—is the man who brought him up: Gamaliel.

The name, as Johnny Cash notes in his rollicking gospel rendition of this story (“The Man in White”), means “the beauty of the Lord.” And that certainly is very beautiful. But more important, I think, is the kind of person who bears this name—or rather, whose name Paul bears, so casually and yet so purposefully, into his speech on the steps of the castle. Gamaliel was Saul’s master and teacher, his father in the faith. We are reminded here that Saul was not just any Jew, but a Pharisee: a passionate fundamentalist, “taught according to the perfect manner of the law.” In contemporary Jewish terms, we can perhaps think of him as ultra-orthodox. Indeed, Saul of Tarsus, as we have seen, was a virtuoso, a superstar student of Pharisiacal fundamentalism, leading the charge to stamp out the Nazarene heresy. In that sense, he had already made the free choice to re-affirm the family into which he had been born. How he must have made old Gamaliel’s heart swell with pride and joy! Until he made it burst, with pain and despair. When he came out, so to speak, as himself.

Paul is a rebel. A runaway. A traitor. He makes a mockery of the family, and the love, that made him what he is; erasing them almost totally, retaining and displaying only the token of his old teacher’s name, like a sign of his destruction. Paul claims to be doing this, of course, on behalf of a higher and newer love; which, moreover, he claims to be the true expression of the lower, older kind. Saul becomes Paul, Judaism Christianity. Love, love. But the meaning at the end differs radically from the beginning. 

How, then are we to understand 1. Cor. 13?

It seems to me the text still stands out. Sticks out, even, and more than it did before, as a result of the analysis we have attempted. Paul’s transition from Judaism to Christianity, from his old self to his new, is experienced and understood by him as a movement out of love: the only love he will ever know, the love of his family, whom he has erased, save for that single name of Gamaliel, carried in his pocket like a tired souvenir. A remembrancer. And indeed, in 1. Cor. 13, Paul remembers. As all runaways do, from time to time. If only to reconfirm, over and over again, the glory of their flight. From the other side, having reached Damascus, Saul-Paul looks back. And asks: 

Can’t I be both there and here?

Aren’t you patient enough?

Kind enough? Forbearing enough? 

Long-suffering enough?

Isn’t love just love?

The answer, I guess, is “no.” And this I think is what Shakespeare is teaching us, in sonnet 116. Love is not-love. Because love is always of the not. Whether it alters “when it alteration finds.” “Bends with the remover”—that flash bastard—“to remove.” Comes in reach of Time’s bending sickle. And that doesn’t only cut down rosy lips and cheeks. At the very core of our experience of love–and I think we learn this from Paul, and from Shakespeare, and from Plato– is an absence, a lack, that cannot not be there. As we reach to give the hug. Bend to kiss on the head. Ponder the words that will make our beloved, we hope, love us back. Paul, precisely because he is outside love, knows love, now. It is what he has lost, in between Gamaliel and Ananias.

But the gap is what he gains: Freedom.

Is

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.”

Wait—what? 

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.”

What?–wait.

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.