In order to more fully appreciate Mann's Death in Venice, the reader must understand the philosophical underpinnings of the text. Like Mann himself, von Aschenbach is a very well-read, well-educated man. The reader is privy to his thoughts, which often contain allusions to Ancient Greek philosophy the author is familiar with. As soon as von Aschenbach sees the boy, he begins to think of him in terms of a Greek ideal. The primary use of Greek philosophy in this text is von Aschenbach's effort to use Platonic philosophy to explain and justify his attraction to Tadzio, thus attempting to seperate his feelings from pure lust.
In Plato's philosophy, everything has a true form, a perfect representation of an idea. Earthly versions of this perfect form are imperfect reflections of the idea. For example, a horse can never exemplify the idea of "horseness" at its most perfect. The object of life and learning is to realize that the objects that we see around us are imperfect, and to transcend to a higher view of the world that is less material (i.e. to perceive "horseness" as a concept, rather than as a physical horse).
Therefore, by claiming that Tadzio is a representation of an ideal (von Aschenbach calls him "form as the thought of God"), the writer can view his attraction to the boy as a noble pursuit. By watching the boy, whom he supposedly perceives as the concept of perfect boyhood, rather than an attractive flesh and blood creature, von Aschenbach thinks he will be able to ascend to a higher level of Platonic understanding.
The specific text that von Aschenbach refers to is a dialogue (philosophical treatise) by Plato entitled Phaedrus. In the dialogue, Plato imagines Socrates and a beautiful boy named Phaedrus sitting under a tree discussing what the most ideal form of love. They conclude that love is necessary for mankind, and the most pure love can only exist between a man and a boy.
This idealization of male-male love was common in Ancient Greek society. In fact, it was not until the Middle Ages that Christians began to romanticize male-female relationships. Most men carried on heterosexual relationships and had families, but were also involved in less permanent homosexual relationships. The men were not defined as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual at that time, because the full spectrum of sexuality was more normalized and accepted than it has been for most of modern history. One reason male-male relationships were idealized is that they held no practical reproductive purpose; thus the men could focus on true love rather than the practical matters of reproduction.