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.

Philosophy Riffing | Liebe wird aus Mut gemacht – Love is made out of courage

Here is the second birthday creative gift post for myself. I’ve gotten responses from multiple people that they liked my posts of audio clips and wished I would do something more intentional or even more like a podcast. I attempted that last night with a general theme of “Liebe wird aus Mut gemacht” – “Love is made out of courage”. This almost hour-long first attempt at this kind of post is very much philosophy riffing and shared experience. I hope that people enjoy it as much as I enjoyed recording it.

NOTE: One detail I got wrong multiple times early in the recording – the dialogue I mention is Plato’s Phaedrus, not Phaedo. I tend to get those two dialogues’ titles mixed up in my mind, and it’s been years since I’ve read either.

Please give me any feedback on whether you enjoy this post or have themes you’d like me to explore in the future. Furthermore, let me know if you like the riffing style or would prefer something more structured! I’d love any feedback to consider whether to do more of this in the future and how best to go about it.

Previous post on Love and Language

Post from my other blog with some related analysis regarding experiences of love and language in relation to post-rock

Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 2 – Love as a Word and as a Concept

Disclaimer: I wrote most of this section some time ago but have found it difficult to return to and post. It’s a continuation of the previous post with the same title Part 1. This post expands in a very philosophical direction – giving a terse analysis of our understanding of words and concepts and how these influence our experiences and understanding of them. In particular, this is about our concept/experience of Love. This will likely be my longest post thus far, and I plan to post more on the topic of Love in the near future. Please read through this post and write any comments or questions. Thank you, fellow negotiators of the Way. Deepest gratitude to you all!

In my discussion of Love, I’ve tried to emphasize the sense of “I”, ego or identity, that comes into play. Yet, I would argue that identity, who we “are“, if we really “are” anything (by this, I mean being something permanent. This is precisely what is at stake with much speak of “who I am” – being an entity: identity), is a conceptual core of what we understand of Love. It is hardly an open-ended experience; rather, in being involved in our own personal narratives and expression, it is a conceptually interpreted, filtered, and compiled experience. In fact, much of philosophy would question how it could be otherwise. We have a small conundrum here related to the philosophy of language. The concept of Love is hardly as clear or concrete as something like the concept of “chair”, so our understanding and usage of it allows for a lot of variance, slippage, and ambiguity. This may seem a contrived position, but with some observation and personal experience, such hesitation doesn’t hold. In recent times, I’ve read others’ writings about Love and its significance, but in trying to read into and understand what they were saying about life and Love from their statements, it was not clear at all beyond the initial knee-jerk of perceived understanding–of a preliminary, personal interpretation. Was it speaking of acceptance? Gratitude? Emotional support? Joy? Compassion? It really was unclear. All of these ideas and more can find their place in our concept of Love. However, in speaking with friends, it seems that one person to another varies in their understanding of what Love is based on their own experiences, upbringing, and likely, education. In a sense, we could all benefit from the investigations a The Symposium of our own. To return to the philosophy of language at this juncture, I take these immediately preceding comments and follow them with these snippets from Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason. I quote them at length because of his deeper insight and mastery of this philosophical approach as well as the very human implications in his expression of these issues:

Consider an older child, one ignorant of, but ripe for a pumpkin (knows how to ask for a name, what a fruit is, etc.). When you say “That is a pumpkin,” we can comfortably say that this child learns what the word “pumpkin” means and what a pumpkin is. There may still be something different about the pumpkins in his world; they may, for example, have some unknown relation to pumps (the contrivances or the kind of shoe) and some intimate association with Mr. Popkin (who lives next door), since he obviously has the same name they do. But that probably won’t lead to trouble, and one day the person that was this child, may for some reason, remember that he believed these things had these associations when he was a child. (And does he then stop believing or having them?) And we can also say: When you say “I love my love” the child learns the meaning of the word “love” and what love is. That (what you do) will be love in the child’s world; and if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation, and when love is sought that will be sought. … To summarize what has been said about this: In “learning language” you learn not merely what the names of things are, but what a name is; not merely what the form of expression is for expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is; not merely what the word for “father” is, but what a father is; not merely the what the word for “love” is, but what love is. In learning language, you do not merely learn the pronunciation of sounds and their grammatical orders, but the “forms of life” which make those sounds the words they are, do what they do – e.g., name call, point, express a wish or affection, indicate a choice or an aversion, etc. And Wittgenstein sees the relations among these forms as “grammatical” also. Instead, then, of saying either that we tell beginners what words mean or that we teach them what objects are, I will say: We initiate them into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. pp. 176-178

This passage gives a clear background of what happens in learning a language–we learn the usage of words in a very particular way, a very human way that resonates in our lives. We learn not just the word for love, but what love is. In other words, our understanding of it as a part of the world is shaped and imprinted in us. It is a conceptual-experiential background to our engagement with our lives and world. With this in mind, compare these ideas about learning forms of life in learning language to the following passage about another imagined child’s difficulty in learning “kitty”:

But although I didn’t tell her, and she didn’t learn, either what the word “kitty” means or what a kitty is, if she keeps leaping and I keep looking and smiling, she will learn both. I have wanted to say: Kittens–what we call “kittens”–do not exist in her world yet, she has not acquired the forms of life which contain them. They do not exist in something like the way cities and mayors will not exist in her world until long after pumpkins and kittens do; or like the way God or love or responsibility or beauty do not exist in our world; we have not mastered, or we have forgotten, or we have distorted, or learned through fragmented models, the forms of life which could make utterances like “God exists” or “God is dead” or “I love you” or “I cannot do otherwise” or “Beauty is but the beginning of terror” bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us. We do not know the meaning of the words. We look away and leap around. pp. 172-173

The most complicated concepts/experiences/forms of life will always be somewhat ineffable or at least overflow the limits of our expression. We speak of Love as a self-evident word, but with a moment of pause, it is clearly anything but. We can throw out a whole barrage of related concepts such as acceptance, support, desire, compassion, concern, care, deep want, reverence, adoration, nurturing, gratitude… None of these alone, nor all of them together, exhaust the myriad complexity of Love. They clearly point the way to some shared notes, some of the core intricacy of one of the most sought and expressed human experiences. However, Love remains so familiar and powerful yet so impossible to express; it is like using words to express the most profound piece of artwork you’ve ever experienced. No matter how elaborate the expression, our concepts come up short, fragmented, and ultimately, without that pause to see this slippage or difficulty of reference in our language, we can get too wrapped up in our very words. We fall into holding on to our expression as Truth with certainty that we know precisely the full weight of our expressions, unlike the profoundly eye-opening statements of Cavell above. If we can’t see the fundamental inexpressibility of our most human, complex, what I might even call “sacred” (in a very Buddhist sense of the dynamically profound unfolding of the absolutely real in this moment) experiences, then we cling to concepts as definitions–as forms of certainty rather than as placeholders, as forms of wonder.

Such a deep word…

In overlooking this inexpressibility, we fall into the fragmentary forms of life that Cavell describes in the first quote: love as tinted with resentment and indignation due to the learning of a Word, that is: of a concept as certain. It takes little pause to realize that Love is not nearly as certain, in the sense of clearly definable, as “chair”, “rock”, or “book”. We haven’t quite learned its form of life. If you think about it, this explains a lot about the apparent oddities in others behavior and moreover reasoning related to Love. Here then, in closing a chapter, a proposition: we want to understand Love, and as such, we’re quick to use this word without hesitation, but ultimately, these expressions don’t “express all they could take from us” (Cavell). This isn’t meant to say that these words are pointless or that they refer to nothing. Rather, they refer to something that defies a ready conceptual understanding, a form of life that overflows with meaning. As such, speak carefully, and to really understand these aspects of existence, open yourself to surprise, wonder, and uncertainty. Meditate rather than declare. In order to know, be ready to learn rather than thinking that you’ve already got it in saying that “Love is X” (in this I mean that you can’t pin it down simply as one thing). So, we have another challenge to our myth of completion and identity; here we have an embrace of the hyper-abundance that can’t quite be pinned down. In returning to the premise of identity from the beginning, a challenge: what do such musings about words, concepts, and forms of life bring to bear on “I am X” or “I”?