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Platos Argument for Celibacy

I teach philosophy in Papua New Guinea at Good Shepherd Seminary in the Highlands.
My specialty is ancient or Greek philosophy. This paper is my attempt to use ideas from ancient
philosophy to respond to a serious problem that the Catholic Church faces today in Papua New
Guinea. All my students are young nationals discerning a call to the priesthood within the
Catholic Church. Unlike the other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church requires its
priests to be celibate, that is, to remain unmarried and to abstain from sexual relationships.
At Good Shepherd, our third year students have a comprehensive seminar, in which
students and faculty discuss both academic and practical topics in an interdisciplinary setting.
During one meeting, one seminarian claimed that priestly celibacy is unnatural. He argued that
humans naturally have sexual desire and the desire to reproduce, and therefore it was against
nature to forever frustrate these desires by agreeing to priestly celibacy. This question was no
doubt based on the fact that there is little tradition of celibacy in Papua New Guinea, especially
in the Highlands. As I understand it, traditionally, people were expected to get married and to
have children as a means of serving and preserving their community. Priestly celibacy is in fact
a difficult issue for the Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea. Many young men who enter
seminary in order to be trained to be a Catholic priest end up leaving because of inappropriate
relationships with women. Some men even go through the whole seminary formation process,
only to find wives right before their ordination; or they try to have a wife and children secretly.
Thus, many young Catholic men would seem to agree with my student that priestly celibacy is
unnatural and is a great barrier separating nationals from the priesthood.
In western culture, however, celibacy is not so strange. There is a long tradition of
intellectuals and artists not marrying in order to devote themselves wholehearted to their work.

For example, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, almost all the medieval Christian
theologians, Leonardo Da Vinci, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Frederick
Nietzsche, and Albert Camus all choose to remain single. In English society, especially, there is
the tradition of the male bachelor, who is simply not interested in family life. I myself know
several men and women who are neither married nor in religious life, but devote themselves to
their academic work and their teaching. Therefore the choice to not pursue family life is not seen
as unnatural in western culture as it is in traditional PNG culture.
Part of the reason for celibacy in western culture is no doubt due to Plato, the ancient
Greek philosopher. Though he lived over 300 before the birth of Christ, Plato laid the
foundations of western philosophy and created, in part, the intellectual background in which the
New Testament was written. Many Church Fathers found deep connections between Platos
thought and divine revelation, and that many of Platos ideas were helpful in explaining Christian
doctrine. In fact, Justin Martyr, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, and Eusebius all pointed to
Platos philosophy as confirmation of what St. Paul wrote at the beginning of Romans, that
Gods eternal power and divine nature can be seen understood by reflecting on the world that he
has made. Therefore, in this paper, I am going to present Platos own understanding of love and
of the natural desire for reproduction and show how it agrees with the Catholic teaching on
priestly celibacy. I will conclude by connecting Platos thought to the Early Churchs
understanding of Christs call that we put aside all things and come follow Him.
Platos works are mostly dialogues in which Platos teacher Socrates discusses
philosophical questions with various people in Athens. Often Platos dialogues have an
evangelical quality, because Socrates often tries to convert young men away from the pursuit of
wealth and political power and to the pursuit of virtue and wisdom. For the purpose of this

paper, I will simply treat Socrates as representing Plato himself. In the dialogue, the Symposium,
Socrates is depicted as attending a banquet in which each guest gives a speech the nature of love.
Through Socrates speech, Plato exhorts his readers to abandon the pursuit of beautiful sexual
partners and biological reproduction in order to devote themselves to the pursuit of divine beauty
and immortality.
Plato begins by reflecting on the experience of love, which is in Greek eros, the source
of our English word erotic. According to him, love is the desire for good and beautiful things.
For Plato, beauty is the radiance of goodness, it is the attractiveness of a thing to our senses or
mind, by which we recognize something as good and for which we desire it. Something is good
if it perfects our being and leads us to happiness. According to Plato, one does not desire what
one already possesses, rather one enjoys what one possesses. Therefore, to be in love is to be in
need of good and beautiful things that one does not yet enjoy.
In response to the objection that we commonly say that we love friends and family
members who are present to us, Plato says that when we say that we love what we currently
have, we actually mean that we desire to continue to enjoy in the future what we enjoy now. In
other words, we want the goodness and beauty of what we love to remain with us forever. To
possess forever the good that we love, the good that perfects our being, is happiness. For
example, a husband will often say that his wife is his better half. He would feel incomplete and
unhappy without her. According to Plato, when a husband says to wife I love you, what he
means is I want to be with you forever.
However it is impossible for a mortal to possess what it loves forever, because the mortal
himself will die and the object loved, if it be a material thing or another person, will also
eventually perish. Therefore, if happiness is possessing forever the good thing or person that we

love, it seems that it is impossible for humans to be fully happy. It does not seem that love will
make either the lover or the beloved immortal, and therefore every love story involving human
beings will have a tragic ending.
Since it is not actually possible for a mortal being to possess forever the good and
beautiful thing that he loves, Plato argues that the human lover seeks reproduction in beauty, for
reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality. Through
reproduction, something of the lover and the thing loved continue to exist in what was produced
through their union. For example, parents in some way continue to exist in their children who
carry on part of their parents beliefs, traditions, and name, as well as their parents biology.
Through what is departing and aging leaving behind something new that is such as it had been
(as when parents leave behind children), what is mortal shares in immortality. Through
biological reproduction, even plants and nonrational animals participate in immortality by
prolonging the existence of their species. Plato thus says that reproduction is an essential feature
of love. The lover and the beloved unite and through their union something new comes to be, an
offspring through which something of the union of the lover and beloved will continue, after the
lover and beloved are themselves no more.
So far this seems to be an argument for family life and not for celibacy, but Plato says
that there are different kinds of beauty that humans pursue and correspondingly different kinds of
reproduction. Some are drawn to bodily beauty. They pursue the opposite sex and through
having children, they think that they provide themselves with immortality, remembrance, and
happiness. Plato calls such people pregnant in body.
Other people, he says, are pregnant in soul. Such men give birth from the wisdom and
virtue within them. What do they give birth to? To great deeds of courage and justice such as

giving their lives for a good cause, to works of craft and art such as improve and add beauty to
human life, to works of literature that share their wisdom, and to good laws and constitutions
through which people live virtuous lives. These products of art and politics are, as it were, their
children. Those who work closely together to produce a beautiful offspring of this kind have a
firmer bond of love than is needed for physical reproduction, for their souls and minds are
engaged in the work. Insofar as the product the deed, the work, the laws are immortal
(remembered and appreciated by human society), they provide their parents with immortal
glory and remembrance. According to Plato, everyone would rather have such children than
human ones, and would rather live on through the memory of their beautiful deeds (as do Bl.
Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr), of their beautiful works (as do Michelangelo and
Dante), or of their beautiful laws (as do the American founding fathers and PNGs founders such
as John Momis and Michael Somare), than through the mere fact that their biology continues
through their blood descendants.
In other words, according to Plato, the higher pursuit of beauty and the higher
participation in immortality are found in reproducing in a non-biological manner. For example,
George Washington is remembered as the father of the United States; he had no children. The
composer J.S. Bach is remembered for the music that he wrote, not for his 13 children. Saint
Francis of Assisi continues to inspire people to become his spiritual children some 700 years
after his physical death. All living things can participate in immortality through biological
reproduction, but only humans are able to give birth spiritually in virtue and wisdom.
Plato ends his reflections on love by ranking the different kinds of beauty that humans
pursue in love. He suggests that by reflecting on the lower kinds of beauty, one can rise up to

pursue the highest kind of beauty, just as if one were climbing a stair. Hence, this passage in the
Symposium is known as Platos ladder of love.
First, Plato says that the beauty of bodies is the lowest kind of beauty and the lowest kind
of love and that biological reproduction is the lowest kind of participating in immortality. Plato
asks, what is it that causes a human to be beautiful? Is not true beauty in excellence of soul and
not in excellence of body? And if it is merely bodily beauty that a man is interested in, how will
he ever be satisfied with just one body? Therefore, a true lover must learn to appreciate bodily
beauty in general and to accept that he will not be able to possess all beautiful bodies. Rather, he
must learn to love humans not just for their physical beauty, but for their spiritual beauty. It is
possible and good to unite with many others in spirit, in friendship, whereas it is not good to
unite with many others bodily!
Above physical beauty then, is the beauty of the human soul which comes from virtue
and wisdom. One who purses beautiful souls will seek to make his own soul beautiful too, for
how can unlike things come together unharmoniously? The love of beautiful souls will thus lead
to beautiful actions, such as sacrificing oneself for the sake of those that one loves.
The pursuit of spiritual beauty, in turn, leads to a consideration of what makes souls
beautiful. How does one become virtuous and wise? Virtue, at least, seems to come from
practicing good activities and following good laws, and so the lover is lead to to gaze at the
beauty of activities and laws, which is the next highest form of beauty. This kind of love gives
birth to political activity, not in the sense of seeking government office, but in the sense of
pursing things which truly benefit ones community by leading its members to gain virtue and
wisdom. Such a lover seeks to leave behind offspring that will make the souls of others more
beautiful. Artist and lawmakers would seem to be lovers of this kind. And yet, to know how to

cause humans to become good and beautiful requires knowledge of what is truly good and
The highest beauty, therefore, according to Plato, is not the beauty of bodies, souls,
activities, or laws, but Beauty itself. He asks, what is the ultimate source of the beauty that we
experience in a limited and transient way in various mortal things? Plato suggests that there is a
transcendent Beauty, which is what we are actually seeking unknowingly in our pursuit of
beautiful things. This Beauty always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes
nor wanes. It is not beautiful in one way and not in another, but simultaneously possesses as a
complete whole the different beauties of bodies and acts and laws and ideas. Existing
completely above all mortal things that image it, Beauty itself is divine and unchanging. The
fact that love of beauty drives us to seek immortality is only another sign that divine Beauty is in
fact what all humans actually thirst after.
In other words, every beauty that we experience is a partial beauty. The beauty of a rose
is different from the beauty of a sunset, and both are quite different from the beauty of a
symphony or the beauty of a poem. And these sensible beauties are quite different from the
beauty of a virtuous man or woman, such as Mother Theresa or Abraham Lincoln, which is itself
different from the beauty of a mathematical equation or idea. Many beauties are also short-lived.
The petals fall and the flower fades. The bloom of youth runs away. The sun is obscured by
clouds; the symphony comes to an end; the saint goes to be with the Lord. Finally, beauty is not
noticed by all. What moves some to tears, puts others to sleep. What takes one persons breath
away is unremarkable to another. Plato says that these individual things are imaging in partial,
temporary, and unclear ways divine eternal Beauty itself. we Just as a mirror can only image one
side of a person, each beautiful thing only images one part of Beauty itself. If all the beauties

that we experience were joined together, without confusion or opposition or change, in a single
spiritual reality, that would Platos idea of the Beautiful. Beauty itself exists beyond the sensible
world, and can be seen only by souls that have themselves become beautiful by learning how to
love correctly.
According to Plato, the one who gazes upon Beauty itself is himself beatified. In
comparison to the experience of Beauty itself, the draw of earthly beauty fades away entirely as
does the appeal of earthly fame. For the one who sees divine Beauty partakes in immortality not
by leaving behind an image of himself or by being remembered by posterity, but as one who
steps into the light because luminous and as one who comes near a fire becomes warm. To seek
after and find divine Beauty itself, is for a human to become in his soul as divine as possible. To
see Beauty itself and not a beautiful image results in true virtue or beauty itself being born in the
lovers soul. Plato concludes: The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to
true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.
Plato thus seems to open the possibility that by uniting with Beauty itself, rather than with mortal
beautiful thing, one would partake of immortality itself, instead of imitating immortality through
reproduction. Just as human lover gives up food and drink and sleep and all kinds of lesser
goods in order to see his beloved, so too should we be willing to give up the pursuit of all lower
beauties and imitations of immortality in order to see and be filled with the Beautiful itself.
Many Church Fathers understood Plato to be discussing here, within the limits of his own
cultural context, the human search for God. They equated seeing divine Beauty with the vision
of God promised in 1 John 3:2, We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is. In
pursuing this vision of God, we, through grace, undergo theosis or divinization, for God became
man so that man might become gods.

All humans love beauty and desire immortality, and the most common expression of this
is marriage and childbirth. Plato, however, calls us to love a higher beauty, to desire a more
intimate connection with the divine, and to be productive in soul rather than in body. In the
context of the higher love, the possession of lower goods and lower beauties no longer fulfills.
Scripture makes a similar point that only right relationship with God satisfies the
yearning of the human soul and that the highest goodGodcannot be fully enjoyed if we cling
to lower things. Christ says to the rich young man that if he would be perfect he should sell all
he has and follow Christ. In the parable of the pearl and of the treasure in the field, Christ
compares the kingdom of God to someone who gives up everything to gain his hearts desire.
Furthermore, in Matthew 10:37-38 Christ says that all earthly loves must be subordinate to ones
love of Christ, that it is only by losing our lives in Christ will we find true life. In Mark 10.28
Peter says quite plainly that the disciples have left everything in order to follow Christ. Paul in
Romans 8 and Hebrews 11 also speak of worldly goods and afflictions being as nothing
compared to the glory that awaits us in Christ.
The Eastern Church Fathers connected Platos understanding of love and reproduction
with the figure of Mary. Out of her love and devotion to God, Mary carried Christ within her
and gave birth to Christ in the world. Likewise, we the body of Christ, are called to be pregnant
with Christ. Christ is present through us in this world and we give birth to fleeting realizations
of the Kingdom of God when our actions, thoughts, and words in conformity with Christ. Christ
says that the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21) and Hebrews 11 speaks of the saints of
old as giving up the things of this world for the sake of a city of God that is ever coming but
never fully realized. To make a bold synthesis of Biblical and Platonic imagery, we are called to
turn away from worldly goods and beauties to Christ, the visible image of the invisible God, the

light of the world, the beauty of the Lord (Psalm 27:4); to be transformed by grace into his
likeness, and then to go out in the world, pregnant with Christ, and to work together to give birth
through the Holy Spirit to the Kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God comes with the
violence and pain of new life (Matthew 11:12), of giving birth in beauty.
Now the Catholic Church has always affirmed that lower goods are only bad when we
love them wrongly, by sacrificing right relationship with God for the sake of possessing worldly
goods. Indeed, if we think of our families as being the most precious of the gifts that God has
given us, then, for many of us loving and serving our families is chief way that we imitate Christ
and grow in holiness. For if we cannot love and serve our spouses and our children, how can we
expect to be able to love and serve our neighbor and the stranger? And yet the higher and more
radical method of giving up all lower goods and lower loves in order to follow Christ with
passionate intensity remains open, and is in fact what the Roman Catholic Church calls all priest
and religious to. There is to be distraction, no competition, in the priests pursuit of the face of
God. His love must be focused on divine beauty alone for his goal is personally intimacy with
God. Like Moses, he enters into the divine darkness alone, seeking God face to face, so that he
might communicate God to his community.
Plato helps us to see, first, that a life devoted to God, to the pursuit of the highest good
and the highest beauty, should be the most productive of lives, and, second, that the basic human
desire to procreate can be fulfilled in non-biological ways. In fact Plato, as we have seen, argues
non-biological reproduction in fact brings greater satisfaction and unites the soul to a higher
beauty. There is no greater fruitfulness than God becoming manifest in ones soul and God
becoming manifest on earth through oneself. We are the temple through which Christ is present
in this world. A priest that is centered on God gives birth in many ways. All priests live on

through the lives that they have touched through the ministry of the word and sacraments. If the
priest does academic work, he lives on through his students, through his research and writing,
and in all the ways that he enriches his learning institution. If he does parish work, he lives on in
all the souls that God saved instrumentally through his work, and in the pastoral programs
through which he enriches his parishioners lives. For example, the parish in which Good
Shepherd seminary is located was founded by a Dutch missionary priest, Fr. Peter Van Adrikan.
He lived and worked at the parish for 50 years. He established elementary, primary, secondary,
and vocational schools, and he enriched the lives of hundreds of parishioners with a steadfast and
self-sacrificing attention to pastoral ministry. He is six years dead, but he lives on in countless
spiritual sisters and brothers, including many of our seminarians.
Therefore for a priest to give up the pursuit of physical beauty and biological
reproduction in order to pursue Beauty itself is not unnatural. For the priest who finds the face
of God will have an immeasurably deeper participation in immortality and an immeasurably
greater fruitfulness than a man who only reproduces in a bodily fashion.

Now, during our discussion time, I very happy to answer questions about my paper.
However, I also hope to learn from you, for my background is ancient philosophy, not theology
or anthropology. I have two questions of my own: Are any traditions of celibacy that are native
to PNG? How does your denomination respond to the calls to give up family life for the sake of
serving the Lord that are found in Scripture: such as Pauls recommendation in 1 Corinthians 7,
Jesus mention in Matthew 19:12 of those who have renounced marriage because of the kingdom
of heaven, and the possibility that some of the disciples themselves left family life in order to
follow Christ (Matthew 19:27-29, Luke 18:28-30).