Thinking without time, II

At the beginning of his speech in The Symposium, Socrates claims that we can only desire what we lack. The objection to this is immediate: wealthy men desire wealth; healthy men desire health, and in general everyone who keeps something good only keeps it because he desires to. But Socrates responds:

When you say, “I desire these present things,” we suggest you are merely saying “I wish these things now present to be present also in the future.” Would he not admit our point?” To this Agathon assented.

“And so,” continued Socrates, “a man may be said to love a thing not yet provided or possessed, when he would have the presence of certain things secured to him for ever in the future.” (Sym. 200d)

And so the desire for any good we possess is a desire to have it in the future, and we do not possess it as future. In fact, if we desire only to possess something now, the way we might desire a some tool only for the moment we need it, then we cease desiring it as soon as the moment is over.

But if love is essentially desire, then the lack of a good is part of the essence of love. Given that love seeks beauty:

“Well then, we have agreed that he loves what he lacks and has not?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“And what Love lacks and has not is beauty?”

“That needs must be,” he said.

“Well now, will you say that what lacks beauty, and in no wise possesses it, is beautiful?”

“Surely not.”

“So can you still allow Love to be beautiful, if this is the case?”

Whereupon Agathon said, “I greatly fear, Socrates, I knew nothing of what I was talking about. (Sym. 201b)”

Note that, by the terms of his argument, this lack of beauty or goodness is entirely a result of the limitation to temporal existence. The lack results only because the good we desire is separated from us in time, and because we are limited or constrained to the present. Seen from this angle, a timeless existence can be understood as the perfection of love, that is, the removal of any imperfection from love itself.

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