Posted On 28 Oct 2021
N.B.: The following post is the first of a 7-post sequence on love. Since I wrote them, I’ve revised them and put them together into Interpersonal Love, Falling in Love, and Being in Love. Instead of reading the sequence here, I encourage you, if possible, to download it for free with no strings attached at: https://endfearfast.com/love/ If you do and are able to print it out, it’ll be easier to read on paper and you’ll be reading the final revisions. I hope you’ll find it very helpful and I welcome your feedback. Be well, Dennis
How should we think about interpersonal love, falling in love, and being in love? How should we evaluate them?
About a decade ago in a post entitled “Sexual Desire” I wrote:
“Everyone except romantically deluded teenagers understands the brevity, instability, and insanity in ‘falling in love.’”
I enjoy corresponding by email with various friends. Recently, 5 women who all happen to be in their 30s have told me that they’ve fallen in love. That occasioned this post and the next.
[Background: None of those 5 are married. 2 of them have a single child, whereas the other 3 are not mothers. They live on 3 different continents. I’ve never met any of them in person or even talked on the phone with any of them. Since 3 don’t have English as their native language and the other 2 may not have been using the phrase as it’s usually used, no criticism of any of them should be inferred from either post.]
Permit me a very fast review of some of the major ideas about love and its associated emotions and desires. Assuming that they are not already familiar to you, my goal here is that you find them stimulating and consider them more intently yourself.
The best work on the idea of love in the western tradition is Singer’s 3 volume The Nature of Love. I recommend it. According to him, every human being hopes that “Power and value reside together within an infinite and eternal source of love” [vol. 1, p. 310 – hereafter cited as ‘1, 310’]. At least in terms of its western intellectual background, that’s correct.
As background, permit me here only to mention two background ideas.
One is the distinction from ancient Greek thinkers of love into three kinds, namely, philos or the love of a friend, eros or erotic love, and agape, love of the divine.
The other is an idea that comes from the Platonic (and Neo-Platonic) tradition that everything emanates from Being [Oneness], which is the supreme union of Reality, Goodness, and Love.
This connects the idea of (an impersonal) God [Being] with love and suggests that not all love may be delusional. That becomes an ideal for later western thinkers: “More than any prior doctrine, medieval Christianity recognizes the love of persons as the highest ideal” [1, 360]. It’s critical to note that, here, a “person” is not an empirical self but an abstraction, namely, a transcendental soul.
Already, then, we have a conceptual framework for distinguishing real (genuine, true) love1 from falling in love2. Love1 can be real, valuable, and noncorporeal, whereas falling in love2 may be delusional and corporeal.
What about sexual love? Singer identifies two traditions, namely, the idealist that gets codified as courtly love in the Middle Ages and romantic love in the 19th century and the realist tradition of everyday and scientific experience.
Importantly, both traditions have the same starting point. “There is one point on which realist and idealist accounts of love tend to agree. They usually begin with the loneliness of man” [2, 4]. Love is an attempt to overcome separateness, an attempt to merge 2 human beings.
Love is union. This idea goes back at least as far as Plato’s Symposium. To love is to attempt to merge with another. Wanting love is wanting completion, fulfillment, enduring satisfaction.
Idealists would like this to merge with sexual reality, but realists don’t think it does.
Notice the danger that comes from egocentricity, namely, using another for one’s own selfish purpose of feeling union.
Thinkers who promoted courtly love tended to agree that, by itself, sexual love is valuable and ennobles the lovers. When it’s passionate or emotionally intense, which is different from being merely sensuous, it creates a holy union. Previously in the tradition, the idea of passionate oneness had been reserved for Christian love (agape) rather than eros. Furthermore, it’s not merely reducible to libidinal impulses and it’s not necessarily related to marriage.
“The tradition of courtly love is Western man’s first great effort to demonstrate that the noble aspirations of idealism need not be incompatible with a joyful acceptance of sexual reality” [2, 35].
Although they liked the idea of love as two people searching for mutual goodness, some thinkers (e.g., Andreas Capellanus), however, found that incompatible with the idea that such a search should be dependent upon transitory emotions such as jealousy or fear. Besides, isn’t sexual union outside marriage nothing but sin?
Isn’t there a difference between love1 and lust (love2)?
Love1 may be other-worldly, but certainly love2 isn’t. Isn’t there an obvious experiential difference between loving God or Being and loving another human being? It’s not clear how courtly love and religious love can be harmonized.
In fact, many medieval romances clearly delineate conflicts that cannot be harmonized (such as the split between thwarted lovers and the rest of society [2, 111]).
For Cavalcanti the erotic love that results from absorbed attention is doomed; in fact, life cannot give us what we desire. The idea of religious love was a powerful idea that affected the thinking of such transitional Renaissance authors as Petrarch and Dante.
Shakespeare is different. He “presupposes that extensive enjoyment, here, now, and however long nature allows, is what everyone really wills as the outcome of sexual love” [2, 209]. There are, for him, two problems and both reflect his realism. The first problem is time. It ravages us. (Just read some of his great sonnets.) Unlike the Neoplatonic tradition, goodness and beauty for him are two and not necessarily one. The second problem is overvaluing the beloved. Love is consummated in human experience by marriage, which requires constancy even after the beauty of the beloved fades.
Marriage as the embodiment of sexual friendship was the Puritan ideal. It wasn’t “a passionate or extravagantly emotional oneness but rather a constant, enduring fellowship” [2, 242].
For Descartes, if he can be taken at his word, although the paradigmatic example of love is our love of God, friendship and affectionate love are important elements of a well-lived life.
Like most philosophers since Plato, Descartes thought that intellectual pleasures were superior to sensory ones. After all, the objects of sensory pleasures are transitory and fleeting. They do not and cannot last. How could they possibly compare to union with a timeless, omnipotent God? Many philosophers have shared Pascal’s skepticism about all love for human beings, namely, that it’s too transitory to be very valuable.
For Spinoza, it’s false that union is the essence of love, although he thinks it a property of love. What is love? “Love is pleasure, accompanied by the idea of an external cause.” In other words, love is the ability to enjoy something while being aware of our enjoyment. What is good is what is desirable, pleasurable. The ideal outcome would occur when all human beings become something like “one single mind and one single body.” Ultimately, for him, every apparently different object is one and the same substance; he’s a monist. Nevertheless, Goodness is not the same as Beauty because, Beauty, unlike Goodness, is stained by its dependence on sense perception.
For Hume, it’s impossible to define ‘love’ [A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part II, Section 1 – hereafter cited as ‘II, II, 1’.] because there’s no “simple impression” that renders the word itself intelligible. Hume argued that reason was impotent to address our most vital concerns:
“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me” [I, IV, VII].
He’s skeptical that anything including reason can help him: “When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance” [I, IV, VII]. In fact, he doesn’t even know what he is: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other . . . I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception” [I, VI]. He means by the word ‘perception’ what we mean by ‘object’ or ‘form’; because objects or forms are limited, they can be singled out.
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” [II, III, III].
Since experience and not reason is the only reliable guide, Hume in effect elevates the emotions (passions, feelings) higher than reason. He wasn’t just skeptical about his own personal identity, but also about reason when it comes to such topics as God, causation, individuals, and traditional morality. He rejected the emphasis on reason advocated by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz and was sympathetic to the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley.
Still, Hume isn’t big on passionate love. The object of love is always another person. Friendship is important and it should be the basis of marriage. Unlike friendship, love is restless, impatient, variable, and unstable.
By de-emphasizing reason, Hume opened the door to the so-called Romantic period of poets like Blake and Coleridge. Nearly all Romantics accepted the craving for love as the desire for union and overcoming separateness. As a mystical process, merging can be painful and frightening as well as pleasurable.
Following Spinoza, everything – not just other humans — could be loved. Their emphasis was on the experience of loving rather than on the beloved object. The Romantics worshipped the experience of loving itself as divine.
“For medieval Christians, God is love; for the Romantics ideology, love is God” (The Nature of Love, II, 294).
Critics, of course, pounced. Isn’t this just egoistic self-delusion? Isn’t trying to use another being to satisfy one’s own emotional needs mere selfishness and not love at all?
Some Romantics replied that, whatever its object, love embodies holiness. Love is infinitely valuable. “[T]he concept of Romantic love . . . implies that sexual love . . . is an ideal worth striving for, that love ennobles . . . that love is a spiritual attainment that cannot be reduced to sex alone, that it pertains to courtship . . . and that it is passion creating a special oneness” (II, 300-301).
Some Romantics echoed Rousseau who thinks of “true or ultimate love as a transcending of both marriage and sexual love, and in general of all moral possibilities that people encounter in their natural relations to one another” (II, 310). That idea itself, of course, echoes Neo-Platonism. Rousseau minimizes the value of sexual satisfaction and ultimately admits that true love is a delusion. Sexuality is bad. Even though emotions both kill us as well as make us feel alive, he believes that emotions themselves are essential parts of a good life.
The Marquis de Sade thinks that usually what is natural is evil. Since emotions undermine the quest for pleasure, “passionate is always a form of madness” (II, 345). Unlike Rousseau, Sade finds no redeeming social value in love. Individual human beings are constant in their desire for pleasure and that typically requires other people. Since nature teaches us that the greatest pleasures are intimately associated with the greatest pains, when we engage in cruel or even criminal sexual practices, we are just being natural. Whether we are giving or receiving pain, that’s what stimulates the most intense sexual pleasures.
Like Rousseau, Kant thought that sexuality is bad; it’s a degradation of human nature. The only exception that renders sexual desire moral is when one person is married to another and, so, has rights to that other person as a whole, including to that other’s sexuality. Marriage is a contract between two people in which they grant each other reciprocal rights. He assumes that “in itself sexuality is nothing but an appetite for some other person” (II, 382). However, as Singer points out, sexuality also involves interpersonal sensitivity so that one is able to relate to another person’s qualities that include nonphysical ones.
Schlegel creates what amounts to a religion of love. The primordial form of human nature is bisexual and Schelling extends this to the Romantic ideal that “love enables a human being to attain oneness with all nature” (II, 387). In interpersonal terms, this seems to be something like a blending of sexual desire, passionate longing, and friendship.
There are some very interesting ideas here, aren’t there? The discussion continues in the following post here.