Platonizing Alan Watts’ “Spectrum of Love”: A Listen-Through

Spotify introduced me to Hælos’ Full Circle last year — first, via a song called “Alone,” and then a transitional piece called “Intro/Spectrum.” Perhaps I had heard the piece before and had just skipped it. I know that it started appearing on playlists in November 2021, when I noticed it for its poignant words — spoken, set to music, from some kind of lecture.

I’m going to talk to you this evening on the subject of the spectrum of love. We know that, from time to time, there arise among human beings people who seem to exude love as naturally as the sun gives out heat. We would like to be like that, and, by and large, man’s religions are attempts to cultivate that same power in ordinary people.

The days had grown shorter, and many things were falling apart. The intro piece had me contemplating the ways in which we all aim — and awkwardly flail — at doing the right thing with respect to others, especially when it comes to spiritual posturing.

On the album, it turns out, the song transitions seamlessly into the next one, “Pray.”

“Pray” is one of my motivational songs. It reminds me of the uncertainties that I, and many of us, carry — whether we are heading down or up in our souls’ sinusoid journeys, what the telos of the current life will be. On a personal level, it serves as a reminder of my constant question about whether I can hold it together in a world that seems to want to split each and every one of us to pieces morally and ethically, throwing us each into extreme disharmony. The lyrics of “Pray” are very Phaedrus, but the imagery the song is using is likely not inspired by it given that there are more common (and toxic) images of the soul’s fall at play in the prevailing circumstances. How did the spoken word in the intro relate to what I ponder when I listen to “Pray”?

For many months, I wanted to Google where the words were from, but I dreaded searching — what if it was someone distasteful? So many ambient bands seem to love remixing audio clips from Dawkins lectures. It was definitely not him, but I had to overcome my desire to leave this excerpt out-of-context.

The speaker was British, and the recording had an old-timey sound to it that said “midcentury” to me. After Churchill, certainly, but before the crispness of modern recordings.

I finally Googled it and landed on Organism.Earth’s “Library.” The recording was from a lecture by Alan Watts. 1969, November. Midcentury, just as I had thought.

According to Google, Alan Watts was one of the people from that period who “distilled the wisdom of the East for Western audiences” (that’s not a specific quotation, but a general sentiment of the genre of speaker) — a new kind of spiritual teacher, for new kinds of audiences fatigued by the status quo. Google’s card for him labeled him a perennialist.

I finally listened to his lecture in March 2022, months after I saved the page in Pocket for later. I had to write The Soul’s Inner Statues before I allowed myself to do anything fun like that, and I knew I wanted to dive deep into whatever this “Spectrum of Love” lecture even was — would I take issue with it? would I like it? who even knows? After all, I am no perennialist on this blog. I am “veering→Platonism” and Platonizing, those words primarily because I don’t know how to refer to myself after reading this many Platonic commentaries in a way that shows due respect and deference to people with degrees, language skills, and/or many years of experience. Watts and I are looking to two completely different paradigms.

What I found in listening to Watts speak was definitely perennialism, but also something that reminded me a lot of what Michael Griffin discusses in his intro to Olympiodorus’ Alcibiades I commentary — some generic truths that are adapting to the common notions and habitual education of his listeners, who all happen to be (or are assumed to be) majority Christian. Olympiodorus had done this, according to Griffin, to ensure that philosophy was taught in an accessible way to his almost-totally-Christian students; Watts wants to address, for a majority-culturally-or-actually-Christian audience, the puzzle of how we exude love in the same way as holy people, where that state of being — the state of overflowing with love — is taken as an ideal. I still have no idea what perennialism means when it refers to Watts, unless I can use his tongue-in-cheek disdain for teachers and authority to figure him out. He started out as a priest, left the priesthood, and investigated the wide body of highly different faiths that were all grouped under “Asian Religions” at the time; according to the Internet, he died of a heart condition, and he also struggled with alcoholism.

The lecture “Spectrum of Love” is very similar to what one sees in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, with some deep personal reflections on what it means to try to cultivate divine love and how inept many people are at teaching it. Now, writing a blog post doesn’t mean that I wholly endorse everything in Watts’ lecture — I think he smashes types of love together overmuch, although he’s definitely onto something. The Christianized context is not something I enjoyed. However, for the purpose of having fun and rolling around in a text — and because I genuinely think that listeners can get something out of what he said as long as they still keep their wits about them — I am going to move through this lecture step-by-step through a Platonizing lens. This is what I have intended to do for some time, and I am excited that I finally get to tackle it.

May Eros and Aphrodite guide us on our way, and may Apollon help us harmonize Watts’ words to the wisdom of Plato. Eros and Aphrodite are the Gods most fitting to the scope of the essay, which is about love and the ways we can come into authentic love, and Apollon is the harmonizer of all things; he is the one who ultimately draws us back into ourselves, beautiful and connected, blazed upon with light.

I welcome you to follow along with the audio.

The lines I quoted above set the topic and frame the issue. There are people who seem blessed, who have an effect on others in a way that seems almost superhuman — the retinue of Iamblichus and Plotinus as one example. The next sentence sets out desire — the speaker affirms that we consider this effulgence to be a desired trait.

Watts doesn’t touch on the why of it here, but I will: Why do most of us want to be prosocial, alturistic, and loving towards others? I argue that it is because, deep down inside of us, we recognize that effulgence as something that imitates the divine, and since we are all turning towards the Good in whatever way we can, our admiration of people like that is a manifestation of this. Proclus, in the Platonic Theology (Book I, Chapter 24), writes that

As therefore through the first goodness all the Gods are boniform, and through intelligible wisdom they have a knowledge ineffable, and established above intellect, thus also, I think, through the summit of beauty, every thing divine is lovely. For from thence all the Gods derive beauty, and being filled with it, fill the natures posterior to themselves, exciting all things, agitating them with Bacchic fury about the love of themselves, and pouring supernally on all things the divine effluxion of beauty.

Watts posits that religions are trying to help individuals imitate this divine state in whatever way possible. As someone unfamiliar with his other works, this strikes me as a technologizing comment — over the past few years, some people I know (definitely Edward Butler, also others) have been pointing out that indigenous wisdom traditions become technologies that are severed from Gods, and a monotheistic evangelizing force aggressively asserts itself in order to monopolize the religious aspects of something.

I would replace Watts’ term religion in “and, by and large, man’s religions are attempts to cultivate that same power in ordinary people” with spiritual frameworks for two reasons: one, because the term spiritual is a bit broader than philosophical, but still preserves a many-to-one relationship between it and the religious substrate; two, because a framework points more specifically at the systematized range of practices in Platonism, Stoicism, Yoga, and so on. Watts is correct in that these frameworks are, at their most esoteric, trying to communicate what cannot be properly expressed.

What comes next is this sentence:

But unfortunately, they normally go about this task as one would attempt to make the tail wag the dog.

This is an effective and very true closing statement. Often, our attempts to transmit transcendence and connection to the Gods are fraught with difficulty; we force relationships, and we force love, and we force compassion.

Watts transitions from this statement to a childhood anecdote. I, like many bloggers, am a big fan of childhood anecdotes. Here, he discusses not being told exactly how studying works; instead, he imitated mannerisms of people whom he considers good at studying or intellectual work.

Let’s roll with this. Often, new polytheists think they need to imitate what the “seasoned” polytheists are doing — if only they could pray just like us, or have a schedule or life or set of habits like us, they would suddenly happen upon that hollow-bowl feeling, with light, love, and beauty pooling into one’s attention to be beheld, a raw feeling of sudden closeness to a God — a situation that is totalizing when it happens, but incredibly difficult to describe without feeling embarrassed by the lack of words. For every person who is helped by imitation, there is someone else who isn’t. Healthy habits, self-care tools, and prayer routines are unique to individuals, and imitating someone else is like putting on ill-fitting shoes. This is why iterating to discern what works and what doesn’t and establishing a practice of self-reflection is so important when one begins praying.

Watts continues,

But none of this revealed the secret because I was, as it were, copying the outward symptoms and knew nothing of the inner fountain of being able to work. And exactly the same thing is true in the case of people who love. When we study the behavior of people who have the power of love within them, we can catalog how they behave in various situations, and out of this catalog formulate some rules.

People without experience think that, if only we could display compassion and love and acceptance and the best of the virtues and top the entire positive trait cake with belonging-flavored whipped cream, we could each be the best of ourselves. Typically, this means not showing up for ourselves or doing proper self-care because maintaining affect can be exhausting. Real love, and real positive regard, is not forced.

I disagree with Watts beyond that general admission, as I believe that adopting a behavioral and sensemaking framework is definitely useful — such a framework forms the syntax and grammar and vocabulary that someone develops for an experience if it ever eventually arises. We are rootless, distressed, and lonely if we do not look to a paradigm.

One of the peculiar things we notice about people who have this astonishing universal love is that they are apt—but not always so—but they apt very often to play it rather cool on sexual love.

Watts first touches on one major commonality among many mystic and spiritual traditions. In Late Antique Platonism, according to Polymnia Athanassiadi’s work on Damascius’ Philosophical History/Live of Isidore and related topics, members of Platonic circles were discouraged from having nonproductive sexual relationships, even to the point of naming divorce as a reasonable option if kids were just not happening and the wife was still in her fertile years. Returning to the idea of “out of this catalog[, those studying the behavior of these holy people] formulate some rules,” we can see a model for this in Socrates, especially in the speech Plato gives Alcibiades in the Symposium about how Socrates refused to actually be seduced — he literally just slept in the bed rather. In dialogues like the Phaedrus, Plato comes out clearly against using false teachings to seduce students, as the orator Lysias is attempting to do to the young man Phaedrus, although he carves out a place for Parmenides and Zeno. In the Republic, Cephalus, an elderly man whom Socrates encounters during the dialogue setup at Polemarchus’ house, sings the praises of getting old because “the fierce tensions of the passions and desires relax” (329c).

This can seem very strange to people in the 2020s, as we live in a hyper-sexualized society where many people feel pressured to be on all the time, and the structure of our society is built to affirm that through our advertising, media, literature, and so on. Watts, writing decades ago, also recognized this. He characterizes these loving individuals as having “an erotic relationship […] between [the] world and every single nerve ending” and labels all layers of their soul, body, and mind “an erogenous zone.” I found this language to have come across a tad creepy at face value, although it is definitely in line with Platonic eros — what connects and binds us, our love directed (hopefully) upward at the Gods while their eros pronoetikos (providential love) comes chastely down into the realm of becoming. Watts concludes that Christian fixation on carnal love for the past two thousand years has primed his audience to think of love solely in carnal ways, and as eros as solely something about physical lust and fluid.

Watts does hit on something interesting, as the rules people generate around physical desire sort of … circle the point without hitting it. While I’m sure that some ascetic somewhere will argue with me, people pursue physical passions for a variety of reasons. All passions are vulnerable to act as toxic self-soothing mechanisms. “People who have this astonishing universal love” are just not toxically bypassing, regardless of whether they are coupled or not. And many find that unsettling or striking, depending on the context.

Of course, also, people who exude love are apt to give things away. They are in every way like rivers: they stream. And so when they collect possessions and things that they like, they are apt to give them to other people.

Watts gives several examples: the charitable giving that is part of many spiritual communities, the ways we are instructed to behave nicely to others, and a specific cultural missive for Christians that he has included for the benefit of his audience. He circles back to his point about attempting to be something by imitating it without instruction and how fruitless that is, even though people definitely benefit if we are kind to them and donate to causes.

There are plenty of people in this world who think that they are good people because they donate or who engage in these prosocial acts as compensation for their sense of shame and unworthiness. Non-grasping, or aparigraha in yoga, is a lot easier said than done.

There must be some way of getting the grace or getting divine charity or love—some sort of wangle, some sort of way in which we can, as it were, open ourselves so as to become conduit pipes for the flow. And so the more subtle preachers try to see if we can open ourselves, and teach methods of meditation and spiritual discipline in the hope that we can contact this power. The less subtle preachers say, “You don’t have enough faith, you don’t have enough guts, you don’t have enough willpower. If you only put your shoulder to the wheel and shoved, you would be, of course, an exemplar and a saint.” Actually, you will only be an extremely clever hypocrite.

Watts comes out against preachers using language that is reminiscent of how we discuss people who victim-blame today — some spiritual teachers say that the problems are always located with the learners, not in the impossibility of communicating the how of something. One can teach spiritual and meditative techniques, and one can go through dialogues line by line and learn about the Forms and Gods all we want, but the act of doing that is not what gets someone across the threshold. It is supporting infrastructure.

Watts groups both people who teach spiritual discipline and overtly toxic preachers together, which I would not do; perhaps this is why he is a perennialist who worked with multiple religious traditions and who never settled down with a guide. I agree that any teacher can be horrible, like when one of them sexually abuses students or engages in emotionally abusive gaslighting. They can be deceptive, like when one gets a student’s hopes up about attaining something that they can’t give (a form of lying). Subtle teachers can also be great and life-changing, like when they put everything on the table truthfully and treat their students with respect. We should also note that Watts himself is giving a lecture on how to open up to love, so it’s possible that he’s being tongue-in-cheek about how awful “subtle preachers” are.

The next few paragraphs only offer examples, so we’ll gloss over them. The big commonality is that employing the natural and habitual virtues alone to get at lovingkindness is a recipe for disaster. (You’re listening to the recording, right?)

You see, the difficulty of it is this: you cannot teach a selfish person to be unselfish by any means. That is to say, whatever a selfish person does—whether it be giving his body to be burned, or giving all that he possesses to the poor—he will still do it in a selfish way of feeling. And he will be able to do this with extreme cunning, and marvelous self-deception, and deception of others besides. But the consequences of fake love are almost invariably destructive because they build up resentment on the part of the person who does the fake loving as well as on the part of those who are its recipients.

This is related to what Damascius discusses in his Phaedo commentary:

The ‘last’ garment and the most difficult to cast off is, on the appetitive level, ambition, and on the cognitive level, imagination. §111, Damascius I, On Plato Phaedo

I would reframe Watts’ discussion of a selfish person to instead discuss each of us in our selfish mode, as selfishness is part of our appetitive faculties, and we can’t get away from it any more than we can get away from Homo sapiens’ instinctive altruism. Ambition is a form of selfishness, and it is fed by imagination in a positive feedback loop — we give to the poor and imagine ourselves praised because of it; we gain some knowledge and expertise in order to be accepted at last; or we allow ourselves to be socially destroyed while hoping that others love us enough to make it not so, all the while convincing ourselves that it is love that is getting us through that. Ambition is a craving for social sugar.

Ambition and selfishness are two qualities that we will have to deal with in our embodiment, without fail. We can kill them, or wound them, or put them to sleep — and the ambition will always grow back, for we have not stopped its potency — or burn their seeds through grueling self-discipline until nothing can grow again. What matters is to be candid with ourselves and to have the courage to be candid with others.

The transition point here is crucial. Watts is addressing the process of negation as it applies to the objects of our love. This is very Socratic.

[…] the proper thing to do is to investigate your self love to find out why you love yourself and what you mean by “yourself” when you say you love yourself. For the reason is this: love is not something that is a sort of rare commodity. Everybody has it. Existence is love. But it’s like water flowing through a hose: it depends in which direction you point it. So everybody has the force running. And maybe the way in which you find the force of love operating in you is that you have a passionate like of booze, or ice cream, or automobiles, or good-looking members of the opposite sex, or even the same sex. But there is love is operating.

We can take what is said about love here and apply it to the Gods and divine reality. Forcing devotion and piety and good behavior will not pull one up into ecstatic union, nor will it lead to a feeling of presence and connection. This distressing and dissatisfying situation is bound to cause dissatisfaction. There is a wide, frustrating gap between those of us who have grasped something experiential about Gods, Forms, the structure of reality, or what have you (and note that we can have an experience of each of these things to varying degrees, with possible gaps), and those who are trying to get there without an intuitive light to guide them.

Forcing something is an exercise in futility. Being curious about oneself, following one’s likes and dislikes, and finding the God within them, or the images of reality within them, is moving with the flow of water. It is easier to relax — which is essential for opening up — when doing something that one enjoys. Watts’ words are good advice for this situation.

Now we get to the spectrum part.

[The varieties of love] differ in rather the same way that the colors of light—of white light—divide into the spectrum when passed through through a prism.

Spectrum of love, right? Watts places all of it — lust, love, friendship, selfless lovingkindness — along the same line.

Now, it’s said that selfish people love themselves. I would say that that is really a misunderstanding of the whole thing, because “yourself” is something that is really impossible to love. There are various reasons for this, but one obvious reason is that loving one’s self is as difficult as kissing your own lips. One’s self—when you try to focus on it, to love it or to know it—is oddly elusive. It always slips away like the pursued tail of a dog who is trying to get hold of his own tail. So to pursue your own end has some difficulties about it.

Let’s bring in some Olympiodorus. Hilariously, Olympiodorus discusses the same kind of thing right after the passage I’m quoting from below, only instead of talking about kissing oneself with one’s own lips, Olympiodorus keeps it chaste by describing eyes looking at themselves.

For when Socrates was watching Alcibiades ‘dashing into civic life (ta politika)’ he realised that he would not readily tolerate questioning about knowledge of his soul (i.e. himself), unless [Socrates] also discussed his present appetite. This is what the Platonic philosophy is like, and in this it possesses a great superiority over the other [schools]: for Socrates’ admonishments are like painless purifications, or medicines drenched in honey. For [Socrates] does not heal (epanorthoun) souls by [applying] the opposites [of their current conditions], as Hippocrates prescribes for bodies when he says ‘opposites are cures for opposites’; nor in the way that Aristotle exhorts us to check spirited emotion (thumos) with appetite (epithumia), and appetite with spirited emotion, inasmuch as these are opposites; nor as the Pythagoreans do, through the ‘tasting’ of the passions, i.e. ‘with the tip of the finger’, as they put it: for one could never heal the person who is aflame with the passions, they say, without some small concession to them.

[Socrates applies medicines] that are similar [to the soul’s current condition]: if someone is a lover, by saying ‘learn what the love of beautiful things is’; if one is a lover of wealth, we say ‘learn what self-sufficiency is’; if one is a lover of pleasure, ‘learn what the easy life truly is, which the Poet even attributes to the gods by speaking of “the gods who live at ease”.’ Therefore Socrates, by also being such [a teacher] to Alcibiades, converses with him about civic self-knowledge, and incorporates [a conversation] about purificatory and contemplative [self-knowledge].

Olympiodorus, Life of Plato and On Plato: First Alcibiades 1-9, trans. Griffin. 6,1ff, all brackets &c from Griffin.

Watts’ advice is a modified version of what Olympiodorus sees in Socrates’ behavior towards Alcibiades — we cannot start from an ideal, and we all must start from where we are. If Alcibiades had a dream of becoming the best winemaker in Athens, without a doubt, Socrates would have had a very different discussion with him. Watts describes the process of that constant process of negation about what one loves, when one “follow[s] honestly your own selfishness” with the effect that “you stop deceiving people.” Knowing the self, according to Watts, and holding one’s focal point directed at love, is what finally makes us drop our pretenses and get out of our own bullshit.

In the recording, which has a live audience, you can start to hear the audience laugh uncomfortably when he starts to go into enemies and how most groups (ridiculously) define themselves by their outgroups. This is something that exists today, too, and it is extremely damaging. Everyone else is an unknowing victim of the Dunning–Kruger effect, never ourselves, am I right? Everyone else is wrong always, never us, yes?

Because at once you begin to realize how much you depend on an enemy, or an outsider, or a group of damned people as distinct from your own group of saved people. And so you begin to realize that if your collective ego, or your self, depends on your being on the in, but you can only be on the in with relation to something that is out. And since the in and the out are inseparable if there is to be any in or any out, you suddenly discover that “yourself” is bigger than you thought it was. It includes the other and you can’t do without it.

We see the elect:outsider dichotomy both in everyday life and in extreme things like cults. The way that hyper-polarization works in our current society, many are conditioned into their niche ingroups. They develop their niche vocabularies, resentment of outsiders, self-definition by the Other, and so on.

And thereupon there comes a change of attitude to other people, even if you continue with some formal opposition to them and disapproval of them.

I find us/them mentality to be irritating, even as I engage in a mild version of it — I recognize that we are each doing the best we can given the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in, and I try to make sure I keep that in mind rather than jumping into whatever my thumos decides is on the emotional menu. Just two years ago, for example, it was only a few people into the theology of the many Gods who were tweeting about Platonism and related topics; now, it’s very popular among a very different set of people, many of them young men. Engaging with discourse on Platonism on Twitter now means engaging with a quagmire of slang that originated on 4chan and similar online spaces. In addition, people use Plato to justify bizarre partisan positions and talk incessantly about the outgroup of people who are not part of their elite. It would be hilarious if I were not baffled. Like, I remember going through a healthy eating phase (I listened to Ben Greenfield and Dave Asprey’s podcasts until they got really woo, among a few others) when I was their age, but I still got my tetanus booster. They could be taking care of their souls — which Plato’s Socrates tells us to do in the Phaedo — and doing theurgy, and yet they chose to invest in ensnaring themselves deeper into confirmation bias. Months ago, I asked the God I follow to lead me to the place where opposites converge at their headwater, and I don’t know how to describe it, but I highly recommend visiting. One side effect is that I can shrug it off more and move on to do productive things, but I still get a bit sad at the situation, as is plainly obvious given that I have just briefly vented steam about it in an example. Presumably, someone filled with that kind of deep, universal love has even transcended that, which makes them very strange. Imagining what that is like and how alien it is just goes to show how alien even a daimon’s perspective would be.

Now, to trust one’s self to be capable of love, to bring up love—in other words, to function in a sociable way and in a creative way—is to take a risk. It’s a gamble. Because you may not come through with it. […] But that risk has to be taken. The alternative to taking that risk is much worse than trusting and being deceived. […] There will be disappointments and failures and disasters as a result of taking these risks, but in the long run, it’ll work out. My point is that if you don’t take them, the results will be so much worse than any kind of wild anarchy that could be conceived.

This is a similar risk to what happens when we do theurgy and when we cultivate that binding love that roots us in a God. Preparing oneself for ritual — the washing, the setting out of the cups, the pull of incense from its container, the match, the intake of breath as one begins the prayer — is always raw and vulnerable. We fear sometimes that we may not be able to get it, and we fear the closeness equally because it destabilizes ego, and we know we cannot possibly continue as we once did knowing that closeness.

You turn it—when you won’t love and you won’t let it out, the thing comes out in the form of self-destruction. The alternative to self-love, in other words, is self-destruction. Because you won’t take the risk of loving yourself properly. You will be compelled instead to destroy yourself.

This is the lecture’s climax, and one of the most important elements within it. On a human level, when we do not follow the wildness of love within, we self-sabotage and destroy ourselves, grapeshotting others with the shrapnel. In a spiritual sense, self-destruction comes in the form of anti-theistic impulses; in an emotional sense, the denial of our emotions and the inward turn of anger; in an appetitive sense, the worst outlets for our natural appetites.

Something I’ve been puzzling through for a long time is a part of Proclus’ Chaldean Oracles fragments where he advises us, after the oracles, to not quench our desires; I’ve often wondered in the translation whether quench has the sense of quenched thirst or quenched wick, as they … have the opposite sense. With what Olympiodorus says in the quoted bit about the Pythagoreans tasting the passions, it’s likely that we should not yield to the thirst. The reason it puzzles me is because I know that such things can be like a powder keg, ready to boil over in the worst way. If we leave this imagery behind, though, for the imagery of the horses in the Phaedrus, we have an easier time: we must make conscious effort to keep the unruliest parts of our vehicle moving along a useful course, following our reason. A healthy execution of this traveling requires that we investigate ourselves and come to know ourselves and what is contextually best for each of us; otherwise, we have not actually addressed the core issue — what makes us happy and fulfilled, and what is the ultimate holy expression of our love that is at once unique to us and universal to all.

Watts ends by presenting us with an ultimatum: We can either have a society that develops a healthy understanding of love, and a healthy chase, or we can be a society that destroys ourselves.

Overall, I thought that this lecture was useful and interesting to think about. Some of the elements are ones that I would set aside — the Christian references, some of the language about desire that I worry would give someone license to follow desire without checking in about whether or not it was love — but I am happy that it came up on that album, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to analyze it. I hope you enjoyed this, too.

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