By Nick Hayward.
Plato and Socrates were clear on love. There is common (pandemotic) love and there is heavenly (ouranian) love – carnal desire versus desire for the transcendental. The former, says the Symposium, is the kind of end to which seduction should not be directed. Seducers pursuing nothing but sex are the deceptive ones, manipulative, base and trapped in the cave. Love is not of a particular body or a particular thing, but rather it is the Idea of love that so many lovely things partake in. It is more virtuous to pursue this Idea (and forsake the pursuit of sexual gratification) or to inspire others (through seduction) to pursue the Idea in your step.
And Plato and Socrates also had some very practical advice for the seducer. In the Lysis, Socrates savages Hippothales, who does nothing but flatter his beloved with songs and poetry. Flattery only sets you up for a fall, he says. What you really need to do is humble your lover, take the wind out of their sails – bring them down a notch. Then they’re all yours. Socrates’ humbling of Lysis, the object of Hippothales’ affection, takes the form of a questioning, an elenctic examination. Socrates doesn’t just want Lysis to feel humbled, he wants him to feel like he knows nothing – he wants to start him on the path to philosophy and the pursuit of Ideas.
I argue that this advice – to humble your beloved instead of flattering them – has been twisted and taken to an extreme by the modern ‘seduction community’, the ‘pick-up artists’ who apparently live for little other than seduction and sex. One of the techniques advocated by this fraternity, called ‘negging’, is a subtle humbling intended to take a woman down a notch (‘great nails…are they real?’) The seduction community freely trades insults and one-liners of this sort, and sees their success as vindication of a cynical, misogynistic attitude towards the opposite sex. But they miss the point. It is never right to put someone down in order to satisfy your own (sexual) desires. Socrates, however, suggests that it might be right to put someone down in order to have them realize how little they know.
And there is more advice to be found in Plato. Towards the end of the Symposium, Alcibiades bursts into the dinner-party, drunk and belligerent. He tells the other symposiasts of the time he failed to seduce Socrates: his entreaties, his wining and dining, his embarrassment. Alcibiades talks about the nature of his desire to partake in Socrates’ virtue by seducing and having sex with him. We find, however, that this desire is perhaps not so genuine. Alcibiades finds it easy to revert to the apathetic mean and fall in with the masses when he cannot acquire virtue simply by gratifying a virtuous man. The lesson here is that the conflation of lust and love is misleading. The only way to become a better person or to pursue the Idea of love is to examine yourself, to commit to the path of philosophy. Sex and seduction are not and cannot be ends in themselves. Again, the seduction community misses the point.
Of course, all the contentions above can be vigorously challenged. Is it really virtuous to manipulate someone towards an end of your choosing? (Such as the pursuit of a Platonic Idea.) Can you ever escape carnal desire? Maybe all conversation is persuasion. If so, where do you draw the line between persuasion and manipulation? Just what is manipulation, and what is seduction? Socrates was perhaps a tad overmodest. How can a man who claims to know nothing know that it is right to humble others? (…for the sake of philosophy?) The seduction community began as a rarefied meat-market. Was it so bad then? Is there a problem with people enjoying the seduction game? What is the nature of the power relation between seducer and seductee?