Love | Ecstasis

Note: I had originally meant to write this as a post on my post-rock blog about a beautiful song regarding love, but as I started writing about the philosophical concept of ecstasy, I had a lot more to say about it than I realized, so I’m going to make two separate posts on my two blogs and link them together. This post will line out the ecstatic aspect of love in Western philosophy and how that has spiritual aspects. The other post will resonate with these ideas by focusing more on Buber’s I-You relationship and associating that to a spiritual path and a post-rock song.


The Greek word ἔκστασις (ecstasis – the root for our word, ecstasy) etymologically breaks down to meaning standing outside oneself. What do we make of this? It’s maybe not immediately obvious because like so many words, the fullness of meaning of a term is watered down in everyday usage. In it’s fullest – being in the trance of ecstasy is a unique experience of consciousness where our consciousness isn’t merely intensive positive stimulation and joy, like it’s usually used, rather a rapture that pulls us outside and beyond ourselves. It’s both a peak experience and a limit experience because in it our consciousness expands to being greater than ourselves. In a very real sense, ecstasy offers a transcendental opportunity to have new and greater insight – a perspective that sees the big picture and our place in it by stepping outside of the bounds of our subjectivity.

Although everything I’m saying resonates well with the understandings of absolute truth, interdependent origination, and the insight thereof in an experience of kensho from all the various threads of Buddhist thought, this resonance speaks more, perhaps, to true insight into human experience and epistemology that overarches both of these different traditions rather than some sort of conceptual relationship between the two. I emphasize this to point to how much this concept of ecstasy is rooted in the philosophical and spiritual structures of the Western tradition.

The concept I’m bringing forward is delineated poetically and strikingly in Plato’s Symposium. In a way, this dialogue may be taken as an archetype for the purpose of philosophy in the Western tradition, and it’s nothing short of transcendent realization of truth beyond bodily subjectivity that changes the philosopher’s understanding of and relationship to existence; to compare it to another Platonic dialogue, The Republic, getting sight of the Good, of Wisdom, changes one’s understanding of everything enough to see that the basic objects and experiences of perception are but like shadows on the wall of a cave where one has been shackled, unquestioningly. Ecstatically rising to the realm of seeing the Good is a liberation from said shackles (now riffing just a bit on the Phaedrus as well, but it’s worth noting here that the Phaedrus‘s charioteer also has an idea of rising to see the Good, and this tells us something about this conceptual framework and the way it is expressed a la Metaphors We Live By). Such an experience leads to the only conclusion of seeking a life out in the sunshine, walking unfettered, rather than sitting in subjugation to the unexamined life. Socrates explains how one climbs from one’s bodily experience of beauty to a love of beauty as a love of the Good – thereby climbing to the love of wisdom that is philo (love) sophia (wisdom). He learns this all from a midwife named Diotima, and the philosopher is supposed to act as a midwife, helping others give birth to the experience of seeing Wisdom, as she does for him, and which acts as an explanation of the Socratic method throughout the Platonic dialogues. It’s worthy of note that the experience of Truth/Wisdom/the Good is an aesthetic experience in Plato – it’s an apprehension of something beyond us that is the true, pleasing form of all that is. It is Beauty, and in a way, it’s beyond Logos – it’s immediate and not perceived as “a piece of reasoning or knowledge”.

“Try as hard as you can to pay attention now,” she said, “because anyone who has been guided and trained in the ways of love up to this point, who has viewed things of beauty in the proper order and manner, will now approach the culmination of love’s ways and will suddenly catch sight of something of unbelievable beauty–something, Socrates, which in fact gives meaning to all his previous efforts. What he’ll see is, in the first place, eternal; it doesn’t come to be or cease to be, and it doesn’t increase or diminish. In the second place, it isn’t attractive in one respect and repulsive in another, or attractive at one time but not at another, or attractive in one setting but repulsive in another, or attractive here and repulsive elsewhere, depending on how people find it. Then again, he won’t perceive beauty as a face or hands or any other physical feature, or as a piece of reasoning or knowledge, and he won’t perceive it as being anywhere else either–in something like a creature or the earth or the heavens. No, he’ll perceive it in itself and by itself, constant and eternal, and he’ll see that every other beautiful object somehow partakes of it, but in such a way that their coming to be and ceasing to be don’t increase or diminish it at all and it remains entirely unaffected.”

“So the right kind of love for a boy can help you ascend from the things of this world until you begin to catch sight of that beauty, and then you’re almost within striking distance of the goal. The proper way to go about or be guided through the ways of love is to start with beautiful things in this world and always make the beauty I’ve been talking about the reason for your ascent. You should use the things of this world as rungs in a ladder. You start by loving one attractive body and step up to two; from there you move on to physical beauty in general, from there to the beauty of people’s activities, from there to the beauty of intellectual endeavors, and from there you ascend to that final intellectual endeavour, which is no more and no less than the study of that beauty, so that you finally recognize true beauty.”

Plato, The Symposium, trans. Robin Waterfield (pp. 55, 56)

We can see, then, that the philosopher’s journey to the “final intellectual endeavour” is climbing a ladder to greater, more abstract understandings of Beauty that move farther and farther beyond his bodily subjectivity. In other words, this is an ecstasy that is provoked by relating to the beautiful with love. In a very real sense in this dialogue, the idea that “philosophy begins with a sense of wonder” (this is an idea that Socrates propounds in Plato’s Theaetetus) resonates here because our curiosity and desire for further understanding of the form of what is is that which propels us to take further steps on the ladder, one by one, and furthermore, that wonder is charged with love – love for understanding, love for experiencing the hidden wonders of further beauty. We are propelled outward from ourselves by love, an initial seed of love that pushes us to a love of all. Such a love clearly takes a particular stance, propensity, effort, and vulnerability, perhaps even the right mentorship, as nurturance to open and blossom into its fullest form. Foucault, building on Hadot’s analyses of ancient philosophy, is very right in my opinion to take elements like this as his point of departure in The Hermeneutics of the Subject and thereby tie ancient philosophy to spiritual practices that focus on how one then works to open oneself up to the truth, to enable oneself to climb the ladder to the greater ecstasy (further and further expansion beyond one’s bodily self) of access to Truth.

Plato’s works are always literary drama that presents concepts. It makes it difficult to fully understand and deconstruct what is being presented. It should be pointed out that Socrates’ coda in terms of the progression of the concepts of love presented in The Symposium (he is at the top of Diotima’s ladder) comes right after Aristophanes’ much more influential depiction of love. Aristophanes presents us with a myth in which human beings previously were the odd beasts of two bodies fused together at the back with two heads, sets of arms and legs, etc. We were whole with our other half in this myth, and the gods eventually split us apart. Thus, the concept of romantic love as being a finding your missing piece and thereby reaching completion through your other half into a unified we is at least 2300 years old in Western literature. This granddaddy version of romantic love resonates throughout our current age in the concepts of “soulmates” and “my person”. Socrates’ much drier dialogue with the midwife describing a metaphysical structure to truth and love as the impetus of the pursuit towards it stands in stark distinction not only as a counter-concept but also as something more sobering, rather than the intoxicating, dramatic words of the playwright.

Recent posts have returned to Stanley Cavell and Wittgenstein, to the idea that there are concepts which overflow beyond our usage, demand more in meaning than we have mastery of, and love is one of those concepts. With this and the preceding discussion of Plato’s ecstatic love of wisdom in mind, I would like to posit one aspect to a fuller movement towards a relationship with “Love” in our world in a way that such concepts would “bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us.” (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 173). A fuller weight-bearing concept of Love should be one that draws us beyond ourselves to a greater perspective: just like I’ve previously argued in my recordings that it’s a fairly basic understanding of ethics and concepts of good and evil that evil tends to be a selfish, zero-sum perspective where things are done at the expense of others. Love is generally presented as a concept in line with the aspects of the greatest goods in human existence. As such, it shouldn’t be something about me vs. others, selfishness, and zero-sum competition. Rather, it should be about something that sees greater patterns, connections, and breaks down boundaries in sharing and caring (in my last recording, I spoke in part about the etymology of care being about taking on others’ pain and problems as your own). From a set of contrasting Greek perspectives in Aristotle which I have written about before (virtue ethics and an inspired metaphysics), we would end up in the same place: love should be something that inspires us to grow into more excellent versions of ourselves, and this includes more excellent ways of behaving in the world towards the variety of people we deal with – it should make us more patient, kinder, and more giving. In this way, we can nod again towards Buddhism and point to the fact that in the Mahayana compassion and wisdom are one, intertwined endless knot.***

In summary, the ecstatic concept of love is at the core of the Western philosophical tradition. It is precisely what launches the philosopher, the greatest of lovers, on the way (the desire in philo is that which pushes the seeker towards sophia), and we can see aspects of this that should inform us to fuller and healthier concepts of love in general and fitting connections with the two guiding aims of the bodhisattva in Buddhism: wisdom and compassion.


*** I was quite dismayed when reading about the Tibetan lojong slogans last night that a variety of Western philosophical and spiritual thinkers basically balk at the concept that compassion can be enhanced or even necessary if we take emptiness and no-self as legitimate. To put it simply, they could not comprehend how we could have any incentive to be kind to each other unless we have souls and the potential for eternal reward or punishment as well as a permanent benefactor of said deeds. This seems lacking in intellectual and existential courage, not in line with our experiences (do you really hold on and recall your deeds with these motivations at all in your daily life? I doubt it.), and the least mature form of morality in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. I’ll probably have to write further about this in the near future.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Love | The Ecstasy of Your Hand in Mine – The Post-Rock Way

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