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Reply To: Symbol(on)s of Love,” with Professor Mark C.E. Peterson”


Hi Stephen,

Great to be with you again here in COHO and looking forward to hearing from our conversational colleagues!

Wow, right?  Plato’s Symposium weaves together ideas about love, the nature of the erotic, our relationships with each other and, as you suggest here, our relationship to work we love.

I think I’d like to say more about the nature of the erotic and how it ties in to the work we love, but first, you’ve triggered another tangent. :^) This idea of doing the “work we love,” our task as a human being, the work we could characterize as the work that belongs to us almost as a foundation of our lives, is the Greek word ergon. When we think about work we love, it feels as if we are fulfilling our own deepest function as a human being, and when we do our work properly, when we fulfill our function properly, this pops up another critical term in Greek philosophy, arete.  Arete is typically translated as “virtue.”

If I turn all of this back into English, Plato would say that we can live virtuously, like a virtuoso, when we fulfill our best function — do that work most appropriate to us.   And how do we do we become virtuosos of our own lives?

We look for what’s been missing in our approach to life, and in ourselves.

That’s a real Cook’s Tour, but you can see how this loops back into our discussion of symbols.

I think it’s worthwhile having a look at how the erotic ties into this question.

The definition of “erotic” has been diminished into mere sexual experience, but that’s not what it is.  At some point in anyone’s life, after a sufficient amount of sexual experience, you come to realize that some sexual experiences are erotic but that some are not. So what’s the erotic component here?  I think the best way to describe the erotic is the edginess, that sublime anxiety, that comes from intimacy. I like thinking about this as edginess because the primary symptom of the erotic is the feeling of being dragged out to the edge of who we think we are. Anyone who’s been truly in love has had the experience of thinking to themselves – and brace yourself for the cliché – “I never knew I could be like this.”

It is terrifically windy, and anxiety producing, to be dragged out to the edge of who you think you are. The first thing you discover is that there is a lot more to you than you thought there was – a universe you have been missing.

Plenty of perfectly sensible people will immediately retreat from this experience back into the comfort of their own, less anxious and more mundane, lives but — if we’re lucky — we discover that this razor’s edge is exhilarating and satisfies a need deeper than we knew we had.  It becomes a hunt, an adventure, to find those pieces of ourselves out there beyond who we think we are now.  And so, in a serious way, our understanding of ourselves and our lives, to satisfy Plato’s understanding of virtue, must always be symbolic – in the sense that we recognize our own incompleteness, look for what’s missing, and endure the sublime anxiety required.

This wondering about things, committing ourselves to follow the things we love, out there beyond what we know, can easily lead us astray — but I think the greater danger lies in never leaving the house. :^)

That should get us started!  I’m looking forward to hearing from everyone.