Love is inspired madness

A short reflection on love, relationships, and our need for inspired madness, via Plato’s Phaedrus.


  1. If you are playing the short game, go with the non-lover.
  2. If you are playing the long game, go with the lover. The alternative to a medieval or orthodox view of marriage and love does not have to be meaningless swiping left and right on an iPhone.
  3. Noble deeds often spring from an inspired madness. Love can be best described as an inspired madness.

Plato’s Phaedrus

Today I was reading Phaedrus, which is one of Plato’s Dialogues. In it, the two speakers (Phaedrus and Socrates), discuss the nature of love, particularly as a desirability-contest between the lover and the non-lover.

Phaedrus reads a discourse he had just heard from Lysias, which makes the argument against the lover and for the non-lover. I summarize the argument as such:

  • Lovers are bound to an obligation towards kindness and service to another, whereas the non-lover has no cause to neglect their own affairs. (why would you want someone who doesn’t attend to their own affairs in your life?)
  • There are more “non-lovers” in the world, thus, a bigger marketplace equals more options.
  • The lover is threatened by any outsider who is their better, therefore, you are restricted with a lover. (read: jealousy)
  • The lover spoils and will reward without merit, whereas the non-lover tells truths.

This is not an argument to love indiscriminately, however. Simply to not be bound to a lover, and to be allowed (if not, encouraged) to leave and join another when it better suits you.

An old position that we treat as new today?

I suppose this could be compared to what is described as the Nordic model today, or the meaning many have (though not all) when using the word “partner.”

We live together and have children together and a house together (or something), but we certainly aren’t “lovers” e.g. married – we can leave whenever.

I also recently heard the term “conscientious uncoupling” to describe what was, effectively, a separation or divorce.

Phaedrus, from the text:

“… for the indiscriminate favour is less esteemed by the rational recipient, and less easily hidden by him who would escape the censure of the world. Now love ought to be for the advantage of both parties, and for the injury of neither.”

But advantage requires perspective, as we can all, rightly, define success in our own terms.

I agree, completely

The character of Socrates turns the argument on its head, not by refuting it, but by agreeing with it – on the grounds of advantage’s perspective.

For someone who seeks momentary pleasure, and not good; only their own subjectivity, and not cooperation; an equality of poverty to eliminate competition, and not longterm, shared, differentiated growth.

The non-lover is advantageous to the former; the lover is advantageous to the latter.

Much like the concept of “The Simpsons already did it” – long dead philosophers have already thought of it. The argument of Phaedrus is not living in the past, but in the present.

The Tinder mindset, 2500 years ago

It’s easy to imagine Phaedrus as an early investor in Tinder.

All the while Socrates (or rather, Plato), attempting to facilitate an appreciation beyond big data, beyond mere facts, and towards external truths that require a portion of inspired madness (dare I say, faith) to ascend.

“I might tell of many other noble deeds which have sprung from inspired madness.”

Inspired Madness

It takes a degree of inspired madness to build a kingdom where the strong are just and the weak are protected. It takes a degree of inspired madness to build a temple or work of art that will bring and uplift people from around the world for thousands of years. It takes a degree of madness to decide to grow with another (or others in general) under a covenant that lasts a lifetime.

This framework will undergo many points of challenge – of non-advantage. But name a mountain that has been climbed without challenge.

But, as logic (and Phaedrus) dictates, why would one risk their own pleasure through your growth if that puts them at a disadvantage? If our cooperation is bounded to a transaction of moments, the gain for one can only be the loss for another.

If, however, our cooperation (our love?) is bounded to a transaction of many moments – a game within infinite games, if you will – the gain for one can very well be the gain for many.

Thus great are the heavenly blessings which the friendship of a lover will confer upon you, my youth. Whereas the attachment of the non-lover, which is alloyed with a worldly prudence and has worldly and niggardly ways of doling out benefits, will breed in your soul those vulgar qualities which the populace applaud, will send you bowling round the earth during a period of nine thousand years, and leave you a fool in the world below.

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