The term amor platonicus was coined as early as the 15th century by the Florentine scholar Marsilio Ficino. Platonic love in this original sense of the term is examined in Plato's dialogue the Symposium, which has as its topic the subject of love or Eros generally. Of particular importance there are the ideas attributed to the prophetess Diotima, which present love as a means of ascent to contemplation of the divine. For Diotima, and for Plato generally, the most correct use of love of other human beings is to direct one's mind to love of divinity. In short, with genuine platonic love, the beautiful or lovely other person inspires the mind and the soul and directs one's attention to spiritual things. One proceeds from recognition of the beauty of another to appreciation of beauty as it exists apart from any individual, to consideration of divinity, the source of beauty, to love of divinity. The spiritual ideas of platonic love—as well as the fundamental spiritual emphasis of all of Plato's writings—have been de-emphasized over the last two centuries.
The English term dates back as far as Sir William Davenant's Platonic Lovers (1636). It is derived from the concept in Plato's Symposium of the love of the idea of good which lies at the root of all virtue and truth. For a brief period, Platonic love was a fashionable subject at the English royal court, especially in the circle around Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. Platonic love was the theme of some of the courtly masques performed in the Caroline era—though the fashion soon waned under pressures of social and political change.
Barbara Graziosi, professor of Classics at Durham University, described Platonic love as the "Christian apology" of Greek love.