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Erogonic succession in Platonic love

The term "Platonic love" has come into common usage within the English language, particularly within North America in the decades following the "Sexual Revolution" and the corresponding movements for women's rights. The correlation, if there is one, might be said to originate with the necessity to redefine the boundaries of female-male relationships in an epoch when sexual relations - or the potential of sexual relations - and a society's cultural institutions and norms are no longer the defining lens through which inter-sex dialogues are analyzed and projected.

In the contemporary era of North American culture, friendships between sexually mature human beings of varying genders are no longer considered as rarities or oddities to be scrutinized by the community. Whereas, in other contexts, relations between men and women of marriagable age may be percieved through the lens of the politics and laws of sexuality, these contemporary relationships exist within a setting in which the spectrum of inter-sex relations is no longer clearly refracted by the crystalline boundaries of the cultural prism. Ones legitimate friends, therefor, may no longer be restricted to those with whom one shares one's a commonality of sex, age, and sexuality; a heterosexual, twenty-year-old woman may just as easily be friends with a thirty-year-old heterosexual man as with another woman of her own age. The trick, though, is not that such friendships have now been invented - friendships between men and women can be readily proven to have occured throughout a range of cultural and historical eras - but rather that such friendships are no longer examined by the watchful eye of a society with the suspicion that illegitamite sexual relationships may necessarily be taking place; such friendships are no longer "policed" by the community at large.

While society's eye may have largely retreated from the scene of not-overtly erotic relations between sexes, there still exists the complication of a dearth of language through which individuals may define, to themselves and each-other, the nature of this new interplay. In particular, how does one define, for instance, a paricularly close yet not physically erotic relationship between a man and woman - particularly when the nature of human relationships is not static, but rather subject to redefinition - contractions and expansions in its scope - throughout its time?

Indeed, what is the limiting boundary of erotic versus the non-erotic? The sexual dialogue in North American cultures is tinted to a remarkable extent with an unconcious discussion of the nature of the erotic and the extent of its bounds between friends. As a result of this intimately political debate, one might observe the rise of wholely new "classifications" that attempt to place the ordering bounds upon relationships that have developed, ad hoc, from the interactions that have transpired between individuals whose relations with each-other are no longer wholely directed by the laws of society. For proof of this ad hoc process, one need look no further than the language of the debate itself; the English language has not lacked for nouns and adjectives which define the extent of friendships, but the new dialogue has forced the old words to be stretched and adapted in novel new fashions, and it has occasionaly forced the creation of neologisms when existing words have proven unequal to the task of defining a particular "type" of relationship.

Thus, starting from the word "friend", one may now add "pal", "chum", and "buddy" - three nouns traditionally used by males to describe relationships with other males (or occasionally females) that were of limited depth or bredth, and wholly non-erotic in character; in addition, all three words imply a relationship between equals. Furthermore while a "pal" may someone with whom one shares sympathetic qualities or whom one empathizes with in a broad sense, only a "buddy" would be regarded as someone whom one would feel comfortable approaching for the favour of moving one's furniture to a new apartment; a wealth of terms exist describing an entire range of potential relationships and their accepted limits. In more elaborate cases of purely political relationships, one might further add words such as "compatatriot" or "comrade".

Progressing in the opposite direction - from greater trust or sympathetic candour to less - one might use the gender-neutral words "aquaintance" and "well-wisher" to describe persons with whom has only a very mildly empathetic regard, and whom one wouldn't likely ask for non-trivial favours in anything but extreme circumstances.

Finally, in the case of highly sympathetic friendships, we are presented with words such as "bro", "brother", "sis", "sister", "best friend", "oldest friend", and so on. In these cases, its interesting to note that the nature of the friendship and its boundaries are described by grasping onto words implying familial ties, or else by qualifying the term "friend" with an adjective that clearly states that the friendship has superceeded the boundaries of simple comraderie.

Where does this wealth of terms leave one when describing contemporary relationships between the sexes (or between potential sexual partners)? If the majority of these traditional terms share anything, it is certainly the implication of non-erotic relations or their very possibility. For a man to describe a woman as a "buddy" is certainly to imply his almost gender-neutral position in regards to her. The term "sister", implies even greater restrictions upon the erotic nature of the relationship, by raising the spector of incest to guard the gates of physical intimacey. "Best friend" and "oldest friend", however, are much more ambiguous terms, subject to considerable interpretation; they neither imply the abscence of eroticism, the abscence of great physical intimacy, or the potential for either. Only the terms "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" can be said to imply that a relationship that is both sympathetic and sexual in character, and they in turn are subject to a great deal of qualification.

In retrospect, it sees clear that the wealth of traditional terms of friendship within the English language were not up to the challenge of defining or classifying the abundance of new types of relationships that were made socially acceptable in the wake of the "Sexual Revolution" and the women's rights movements of the 1960s. The colloquial terms "friend-with-benefits" and "fuck-buddy" are certainly indicative of a need for new words to describe very specific modes of human interaction; both imply the low to mid-level cordiality expressed by the root words "friend" or "buddy", while adding to them an explicitly sexual dimension.

But how erotic is a "friend-with-benefits" relationship really? If one assumes the position that the term erotic is referential to the act of physical copulation to the point of personal, physical release, then one might argue that such a friendship reaches the very heights of eroticism. To assume such a position however, would be to limit oneself to very mean heights indeed - it would lower the peak to that of the termite mound, rather than the mountain. With that said, "friend-with-benefits" is arguably a word that describes a relationship that is publically cordial, privately sexual, and also only mildly erotic.

To understand why this would be understood to be the case would require a lengthy investigation into the term "erotic", and specifically to the original Greek word eros. It perhaps suffices to say that, even in a less sophisticated understanding, the word eros implies an impassioned love directed towards an external being, with all the attendant spiritual, emotional, and physical connotations that such a passion necessarily contains. Eros or empassioned love that contains little or no spiritual or emotional entanglement is thus understood to be a very poor alloy of eroticism at best; a relationship that is defined by self-motivated partners attempting to achieve physical release is only barely erotic when the word is undertood its true sense.

What is clear though, is that the English language - and English-language speakers - lack the words needed to describe relationships that have only recently become socially acceptable. There is no proper word to describe a relationship that, for instance, is erotic in the true sense of the word while not being characteristically sexual in the physical sense. Eros, after all, may be used to describe a relationship that is both spiritual and emotional to a transcending degree, but physical in only a benign, flirtacious sense - or else physically "unfullfilled".

Furthermore, there is no unambiguous word in the language to descibe the emotion between an unrelated man and woman who are spiritually and emotionally linked but whom have no particular or focused physical passion for one another. "Love", when used in these circumstances, cannot be easily used to describe such a relationship to an outsider. To illuminate the essence of such relationships to outside observors, English-speakers have resorted to creating sophisticated expressions that qualify the highly ambiguous word - and thus we say "I love him like a brother" or "I love her like a sister" even though, in the strictest honesty, the love one experiences for him or her may only resemble sorietal or fraternal love in the sense that the relationship is non-sexual in nature. For that reason, such expressions may feel less that satisfactory due to its inability to illuminate the true nature of a bond.

To cope with this another expression has been developed which is more interesting - for through its use one is attempting to distinguish a love for another from a love for a sibling, while still clarifying its nature as non-sexual; that expression is "Platonic love". The expression "I love her Platonically" or "My friendship with him is Platonic" is curious for the fact that it is perhaps the lone expression in the English language that implies non-sexual yet highly spiritual or emotional love, and also for the fact that - by its nature - it grasps at philosophical and linguistic roots that preceed modernity by as much as a millenium - to the time of Plato and his friend and teacher Socrates.

To understand what it means to love someone Platonically - in the contemprary sense of the phrase - it is first necessary to grasp that the Greeks were possessed of four words which came to refer to four different types of love: strogé, philia, eros, and agapé, which may be roughly translated as familial love, brotherly love, erotic love, and selfless love though these translations are somewhat simplified of meaning. To be more accurate, and to draw upon Platonic ideals, one would describe strogé as the simple affection that one might have for either a family member or a longtime companion, while philia might describe a feeling of warm affection, loyalty and respect. Eros in turn might be better described as a passionate yearning which might be directed either towards a human beloved or a divine one, while agapé would be an altrustic or compassionate love devoid of selfishness or expectation of gratification.

The question then becomes one of determining which of these Platonic loves that the modern phrase attempts to draw upon. Given the context of the expression - one which attempts to disabuse the audience of any notion that the love expressed involves a sexual dimension - it is unlikely that the intent is to express one's eros, but hypothetically speaking, the speaker could still just as easily be refering to any of the three remaining loves - strogé, philia, or agapé.

(To be continued...)

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