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?
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Tagged alcibiades, formerly Mr Dean, love, lust, lysis, manipulation, negging, persuasion, Philosophy, pick-up artists, plato, romance, seducer, seduction, seduction community, socrates, symposium, virtue
By Toru Watanabe
“Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just and temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.”
– Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b5.
Aristotle here offers a definition of both moral character and moral action: an action is moral if it is what the virtuous person would do; a person is moral if they perform actions as the virtuous person performs them. Anyone can perform a virtuous action. It is possible to do ‘that which is virtuous’ by accident, for personal profit, or even for the sake of justice. A person cannot be deemed virtuous without consistently performing virtuous acts but “the measure of an agent’s moral character is not exhausted by or even always dependent on the value of the acts that he performs.” (Robert Louden).
What does it mean to perform actions “as just and temperate men do them”? When actions lead to bad consequences, we often refer to the agent’s motives in order to see what they were trying to achieve. If they were acting ‘for the right reasons’ then we can say there is something virtuous about their actions even when the results are bad. So it seems plausible that an agent cannot be said to have acted virtuously unless his reason or motive for performing that action is also good. It must be ‘the right action’ performed for ‘the right reasons’.
However, being someone who consistently performs the right actions for the right reasons is not adequate for the possession of moral character. Moral character involves both action and motive, but Aristotle argues that on top these, moral character also importantly involves method (the right way). “Pleasure in doing virtuous acts is a sign that the virtuous disposition has been acquired.” A person of virtuous character does not just act well; he acts well instinctively, almost unconsciously. John Hersey tells the tale of a man who jumped in a swollen river to save a drowning boy: “His action, which could not have been mulled over in his mind, showed a deep instinctive love [and] compassion…” A man who first mulled over the decision to jump into the torrent still acts compassionately (providing that his motivation is to save the boy and not ‘to appear brave’) but he himself (his character) is not compassionate in the way that the man in the story is.
Now this is indeed a strange claim; we seem to be saying that the possession of virtuous character typically involves not thinking in moral situations. The reason why this odd claim seems to be right is that ‘doing the right thing for the right reasons’ is often not enough. The portrait of a moral agent reasoning about the right course of action then acting effectively on the conclusions for good motives is inadequate. Being a good moral agent cannot be simply involve being able to reason well ‘when the time comes’ (then act effectively on your conclusions) because often reasoning itself is the wrong thing to do. “[T]here are wrong times for reflecting on the moral status of various forms of conduct… [one of which is] the period immediately prior to action…” (Marcia Baron) Many moral situations require that we act not reflect – often that we act immediately. In Hersey’s example, there is something deficient about the person who pauses to reason whether or not he should save the drowning child, something praiseworthy about the person who does not think but simply dives in.
There are, of course, many situations in which it is perfectly acceptable for us to reason about how we should act. However, the claim here is that it is better not to reason, that it is better to react well rather than to have to resort to reasoning. Not only is it straightforwardly more efficient to react than to reason – reacting does not involve the additional exertion that reasoning does – but also there are many, many situations in which we typically do not reason but simply react to circumstances. In which case, it is the refinement of our reactions that ensures we act well – and in this reasoning and critical scrutiny clearly play vital roles – but not the quality of our reasoning.