Getting back to true meanings
Caution: scholarly content ahead
Here's one word that's been misused just about everywhere I've seen it: Platonic. Over and over, I hear people say something like, "Oh, my relationship with [insert name here] is strictly Platonic." When people say that, they usually mean that they are "just friends"; that there isn't a romantic relationship involved.
To see just how seriously wrong this definition is, it is important to go back to the original work from which the term derives, Plato's "Phaedrus." If you want to follow along, you can read the entire text of the work here, in a translation by Benjamin Jowett. "Phaedrus" is considered a defining document for two reasons: It is a superb description of the ideals of classical rhetoric, and it also contains an excellent explanation of the concept of Platonic love.
I'll start with the structure of the piece. "Phaedrus" is a dialogue between Socrates and his pupil Phaedrus. Phaedrus has just come from hearing a speech by Lysias, one of the more popular sophists of the day. Phaedrus is enthusiastic about the speech, and it doesn't take much persuasion to encourage him to recite it for Socrates. Lysias' main point is that, if given the choice between the attentions of a lover or a non-lover, one should choose the non-lover.
Socrates at this point facetiously comes out with his own speech in favor of that position, but then he makes another that completely refutes this idea and comes in solidly on the side of favoring the lover. We'll get more into the details of that speech later, as it contains the meat of the ideal of Platonic love.
Next, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the three speeches. Through dialogue (there is nothing else in this work, no stage directions, no "business" aside from that which is spoken of directly), Socrates leads Phaedrus through the reasoning behind the speeches and develops principles of rhetoric which we still use today. He points out that Lysias' speech is poorly organized, full of platitudes, incompletely and sometimes fallaciously reasoned, and, in general, not good rhetoric. He also points out that his own speech in favor of the non-lover has its own shortcomings, such as reasoning from false and unsound principles.
Socrates then leads Phaedrus through many of the classical concepts of rhetoric: The speaker must know the truth of the matter spoken of, must organize ideas into a head, body, and feet (reflected in the modern terms introduction, body, and conclusion), must define terms for the audience, must follow rules of correct diction (grammar and tone), must understand who the audience is and what its needs are. Not only that, while some orators begin with a natural talent, all can improve through practice, and even the best talent will not produce great rhetoric without practice. More than 2300 years later, I'm still teaching the same principles to my students. Some things just never go out of style.
Meanwhile, it's not possible to talk about rhetoric in the abstract, but rather, a discussion of rhetoric must use examples of rhetoric, and those examples have to be about something. In "Phaedrus," the subject matter is love. In Socrates' second speech, we have not only an example of a well crafted argument; we also have a thorough explanation of the virtues of love, especially the sort that is now known as Platonic.
Love, Socrates contends, is a form of madness, not caused by human weakness but rather, by the gods and, therefore, divine. The human soul, meanwhile, can be compared to a charioteer driving two winged horses, one good and one evil. Souls aspire to be like the gods, and the souls of philosophers and lovers come close – especially lovers under the influence of divine madness. However, the horses pulling the chariot can prove to be a hindrance. When the soul sees the beauty of the beloved, the good horse behaves itself in a noble fashion, but the evil horse lusts after physical pleasure and makes trouble for the good horse and for the charioteer. It is only with a great struggle that the soul can keep control of the impulses of the evil horse, but when such a struggle is successful, the relationship between the lover and the beloved becomes something of great beauty, and the pair can enjoy true joy in a way that is not possible otherwise, on a blissful path heavenward. This is certainly not the status of "just friends," but rather, a relationship that, if anything, is deeper and more rewarding than the sexual kind.
This type of relationship is demonstrated throughout "Phaedrus" by the actions of the characters. The teacher and his pupil are walking through the countryside. At one point, they wade barefoot together in a clear stream; then they settle down on the soft grass under a shade tree full of sweet-scented blossoms. Socrates often addresses Phaedrus with terms of endearment, such as "my divine darling" and "my sweet Phaedrus." This, then, is the Platonic ideal, in this case a relationship between the teacher and the student that remains lofty and divine.
Every so often, a news story comes to light, in which a teacher has crossed the line and engaged in sexual activity with an underage student. In a recent case here in the Albuquerque area, a female middle school teacher had a relationship with a 13-year-old seventh grader; when she was questioned over the issue, she said, "It was what he wanted." No, probably that was not what the kid wanted. Based on other information in the story, I can infer that this child's parents neglected him, emotionally if not physically. What this child wanted, what would have served him best, would have been a Platonic relationship with a teacher who truly loved and cared for him, who held his best interests to heart, who kept sex out of it – not one whose evil horse took over and dragged the chariot into treacherous territory.
Of course, the relationship between teacher and student isn't the only one in which Platonic love can occur. It can be a relationship between coach and athlete, or between employer and employee, or simply between very close friends of either gender. The lover and the beloved find something of the divine when they are in each other's presence, even if they don't have a name for it. These are special relationships, deep ones that go beyond merely liking each other, far beyond "just friends." If Plato is to be believed, these are the most heavenly relationships of all.