Ladder of Love
Illustrated by Natasha Couturier-McCluskey
The idea that we can see “a World in a Grain of Sand,” as the Romantic poet William Blake writes––that the universal can be glimpsed through the particular––echoes an idea in ancient philosophy called the Ladder of Love. The idea, established by Plato, posits that by learning how to love specific things around us, we can eventually learn how to love the higher idea of Goodness. For Plato, humans are naturally attracted to the Good, which is the highest form of knowledge you can have. Reaching the Good means reaching the first principle and cause of all reality––the basic composition behind all our concepts such as love, beauty, justice, etc. The Good is the ultimate definition of all these concepts combined and all humans are naturally drawn to it. Our only hope of reaching this form of enlightenment is through love, through the love of the particulars to the general. Love is not a thing; it is a force, a spirit in itself, the “spiritual messenger” between us and the good, as my first semester ancient philosophy teacher put it so gracefully. Love creates our attraction towards the Good; we just have to follow it there.
The Ladder of Love is basically a how-to guide for reaching the Good. First, you start by loving a single physical form, the beauty of person. Then, you learn to love the beauty in all physical forms. Second, you learn to love the beautiful mind and soul of a person, their intellect. Then, you learn to love the beauty in the intellect of all people. Third, you learn to love the laws and institutions that come from these beautiful minds and eventually the virtues that form them. Fourth, we learn to love beautiful science and eventually learn to love the general, natural sciences. We finally arrive to the top of the ladder and are able to contemplate beauty as a whole and in that sudden enlightenment, we find the essence of beauty. We find the element in nature of beauty, what makes beautiful things beautiful, be it a person, a flower, or a building. We learn what true, raw beauty is.
Why do I like this idea so much? I don’t know! It’s hard to put into words. But then, abstract things often are, just as they are challenging to visualize––hence our need, in Plato’s theory, to approach them through the particular. I do love how general and open the idea is to everyone, as though anyone can reach full enlightenment by following the ladder of love. It’s a kind of universal guide to all humans on earth. And it makes the mystical world seem so accessible. The divide between the spiritual realm and the physical realm seems to shrink; the otherworldly seems just on the other side of your fingertips. It’s very refreshing, makes you feel so much more powerful in your reach than regular life often seems to allow. The idea that I could have access to the knowledge of the functioning of the universe is a very inspiring feeling. Obviously, disclaimer, Plato does say no human can reach full enlightenment, but that our life goal is to strive towards it and get as close as possible. While some in our class viewed this disclaimer as depressing––i.e. working towards something you can never achieve––I thought the idea was still awe inspiring, because even if you can never get there, you can always get closer.