From Plato’s Bedroom to the Modern Campus

Review: David O’Connor, ‘Plato’s Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love’

Diego Velasquez "Venus at Her Mirror" / Wikimedia Commons
Diego Velasquez "Venus at Her Mirror" / Wikimedia Commons

"All's fair in love and war," proclaims the proverb. Its staying power is clearer than its meaning. Does the proverb mean that normal standards of conduct are not applicable to the circumstances of love and war—even to the point of all things becoming permissible? Or does "fair" mean instead that all things are beautiful in love and war? Yet again, is there a similarity between the conditions of war and the conditions of love? If so, contrary to appearances, do we relate to enemies and lovers in the same way? Or do lovers have equal potential to become friendly or fierce to one another?

But the adage contains a truth that is deeper than the answer to any of the questions it raises: Love unsettles us and often disrupts our lives. Ancient Greek and Roman civilization thought of this as a great power and attributed it to a god—Eros. But this god was not always benevolent; indeed, Eros often plays tricks.

Those of us trying to navigate the volatile terrain of modern love would do well to remember this, philosophy professor David O’Connor tells us in his excellent new book Plato’s Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love. Because it is dramatic and often awe-inspiring, we experience love as something sacred. "[R]omantic love, and the desire that is a part of it, have about them the scent of the sacred, some kind of breaking open of the everyday human world into something more divine."

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Our current vocabulary for love totally fails to account for this. The difference between inhabiting a world where love is understood to be intoxicating (a result of aphrodisia, the things of Aphrodite) and a world where love is understood as a biological function ("sexual intercourse") is the difference between living in a world illuminated by sunlight and one lit by a fluorescent bulb. O’Connor says about the medical term for what happens between the sheets, "[i]t isn’t a phrase that makes an activity sound like something anyone would particularly want to do: ‘Would you like to have sexual intercourse this afternoon?’ ‘No, I think I’ll go to the dentist instead.’"

O’Connor suggests that this medicalized vocabulary springs from the human wish to control love. After all, you would have to be completely out of your mind to want to be subject to a god like Aphrodite, Eros’ mother. She, like her son, plays tricks on her devotees, and laughs at them when they ask for help, not only disrupting their lives but also mocking them. It is therefore understandable that human beings would want to control this power.

But when we harden ourselves against receiving love, we imply that we are self-sufficient and without need of anything or anyone to fulfill us. Conversely, when we are overly conscious of our incompleteness as human beings and end up despairing or lonely because of it, we now find that we can no longer yearn for a kind of love in which we don’t really believe. We are thus caught between hardening ourselves and fluidly giving in, destined for a life of longing.

O’Connor illustrates these lessons by discussing Plato’s Symposium. Along the way, he uses movies to illustrate the problems that the characters from Plato’s dialogue raise. O’Connor is a master of making ancient wisdom fresh for us moderns. Plato really does have something to say to Woody Allen, and Shakespeare to the American fiction writer Andre Dubus. O’Connor is not an author who assumes the ancients are always right, either, and does not "apply" ancient wisdom so much as converse with it.

O’Connor’s book is an adaptation of lectures he has delivered to undergraduates at Notre Dame for some time. At the beginning of the volume, he says that our "right to speak for ourselves brings with it the responsibility to listen to others, and we’ll be trying to keep our ears as open as our mouths." By asserting our modern concerns about love and simultaneously listening to the wisdom of the past without a hint of antiquarianism, O’Connor has taught many undergraduates the proper proportion between speaking and listening, between rights and responsibility, and between assertion and reception. Such learning is not only a philosophic education—it is a preparation for love.