Posted On 08 Nov 2021
N.B.: The following post is the fifth 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
We live in the age of stars, which is waning. The rate of star formation is much lower than it was immediately after the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. It will eventually cease. When the last stars run out of fuel, the universe will go dark. Assuming cosmologists are approximately correct, light has 10 trillion years left.
There are only forms and time in Becoming. 10 trillion years or even a thousand trillion years is no closer to timelessness than 1 minute. Being is timeless as well as formless. It’s good to keep things in perspective.
In parts I and II we peeked at what some philosophers from the western tradition have said about love. That survey ended in the nineteenth century. Why?
Lack of perspective. We are too close to twentieth-century thinkers to have a good perspective on their importance. There’s even still some controversy about whether or not Nietzsche, who flourished in the late ninetieth century, is worthy of much attention. His ideas are the subject of the following post.
That controversy is partly because he doesn’t even appear to advance a coherent, comprehensive philosophical system. On the other side of the ledger, however, he’s one of the few major thinkers from the western tradition whose personal calibration was over 500. That alone makes him worthy of attention.
Nietzsche’s understanding of a loving human being is reminiscent of Aristotle’s conception of the “great-souled” or magnanimous human in his Nicomachean Ethics [Book 9], which is the most influential single book of ethics in the western tradition.
Yet Nietzsche and Aristotle had fundamentally different views about the nature of the world. It turns out to be very helpful to focus on both their similarities and differences.
For Aristotle as well as for all or nearly all of the major philosophers from the western tradition the paradigmatic kind of love is friendship [Cf. Chapter 4 of my Love and Respect]. The paradigmatic kind of friendship is between two good people who are equal in terms of their moral worth. Trust is built on that similarity. Ideally, they live together and encourage and challenge each other to live better. Each, then, is a good, an asset, for the other. Partly because life is short and they require considerable time to create, such complete friendships occur infrequently.
Friendships are deliberately created or produced. Friendship is a “reciprocated goodwill” that is a “mutual loving.” “[L]oving is like production” [1168a20. All Aristotle quotations here are from the Irwin translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.].
Although it’s true that “each person wishes goods most of all to himself” [1159a13, 1168b10, & 1168b30], a friend is another myself: “your friend . . . is another yourself.” Friendship is a giving rather than a taking: “friendship seems to consist more in loving than in being loved” [1159a28]. One friend must love another by promoting goods for the sake of the friend [1155b31 & 1156b10].
There’s a problem. Does living well require friendships?
On the one hand, we all understand that having friends is required for living well “[f]or no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods” [1155a5]. So, it would seem that a sage needs friends.
On the other hand, since “blessedly happy and self-sufficient people have no need of friends” [1169b4], it would seem that it’s false that a sage needs friends. Living well requires ‘study’ and then activity based on that study. Why does it require study? Because study is intrinsically valuable, uniquely human, enjoyable “and is self-sufficient, leisured and unwearied as far [as these are possible] for a human being” [1177b22]. It also requires at least some external prosperity such as a healthy body as well. Aristotle’s sage masters the art of study, i.e., thinks well, and then uses that improved understanding “to what we do and how we live” [1179a22].
Aristotle’s solution to that problem is to distinguish between external and internal goods. Internally, living well does not require friendship. Externally, living well does require friendship.
Since a sage is self-sufficient, he does not require friendship in the sense that he requires others to benefit him. However, from the external perspective, a sage does require friends – not to benefit himself but to benefit them: “the excellent person will need people for him to benefit” [1169b13].
Although of course it doesn’t guarantee that Aristotle’s beliefs about love are correct, they have stood the test of time for nearly 2500 years and, so, are worthy of consideration.
I argue in Love and Respect that, despite their practical usefulness, “all accounts that are fundamentally similar to Plato’s or Aristotle’s – and the implicates most accounts from the western tradition up until the time of Nietzsche – are theoretically insufficient” [p. 33.].
One reason is that the great Greek thinkers did not think that all human beings have the same moral worth. Aristotle, for example, thought that complete friendships were only available to philosophers and that many humans such as women and the uneducated were not philosophers.
Though Stoic and Christian thinkers challenged that view (at least in theory), there’s a more fundamental reason for their failure to understand love. The foundational problem is that, given their understanding of an individual, the idea that love is a certain kind of relation between two individuals makes genuine love impossible!
Aristotle was a great biologist who argued for an eternally fixed hierarchy of substantial forms [Cf. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being]. Although he himself retained the powerful idea of the great chain of being, John Locke, the first of the three great British empiricists, asked the critical question about the very intelligibility of substances.
Their starting point was simple: “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.” [An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol. II, Book iii, chapter 3.] Our understanding is confined to our ideas and our ideas are confined to our experience.
“Consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind” and it makes no sense to believe “that anything should think and not be conscious of it.” When we examine what we think, our ideas, we find that all intelligible entities are particulars.
In particular, when we examine the idea of a substance or substratum, the supposed entity that stands under an individual’s qualities and clusters them together, we find no experience of such objects.
“So that if anyone will examine himself concerning his notion of pure substance in general, he will find he has no other idea of it at all, but only a supposition of he knows not what support of such qualities . . .” [Essay, II, xxiii, 1].
The only way to save the view that individuals are substances in which qualities inhere would be to posit them a la Kant because they are demanded by our understanding. This merely presupposes that our theories are correct and provides no evidence at all for them.
An analogy may help here. James Clerk Maxwell and other 19th century physicists couldn’t understand how wave motion could propagate in empty space. They therefore posited the reality of ether, which was a medium that filled space and transmitted electromagnetic vibrations. That putative entity was dropped when physical theories improved and it was no longer needed.
Assuming that we weren’t born with the idea of substance and it doesn’t come from experience as any evern cursory phenomenological investigation reveals, what justifies it? Since there’s now available a coherent explanation for the clustering of an individual’s qualities that doesn’t posit substances, no such theoretical posit is necessary (Butchvarov provides that account in Being Qua Being; I explain it in The Fundamental Ideas.).
If so, no individual – including you! – is a substance, much less an enduring one.
Similarly, Berkeley argued that there were no general abstract ideas and that there was no distinction between primary qualities and secondary qualities. Unlike secondary qualities such as colors that depend upon our epistemic capacity, primary qualities such as frequencies were thought to be real and objective. Berkeley argued that both were subject to perceptual variation and, so, no such distinction should be made. (This is a point that most scientists have still failed to grasp.)
Similarly, Hume attacked not only the still-popular idea of substances but also analyzed the critical idea of causation itself. He argued that, except psychologically, there was no necessary connection between types of events. He subjugated reason to emotionality and made morality dependent upon emotions.
If, as others have argued and I have argued in multiple places (including Emotional Facelift and Emotional Empowerment), there are no emotions without egocentricity, then Hume’s view leads – not to morality – but to its undermining.
There’s no doubt that Hume is a great thinker. I myself have for decades thought him among the top 5 in the western tradition (along with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant). I myself am a nobody; I’m certainly not a great thinker. However, with Nietzsche’s help, I shall dare to criticize Hume’s ideas.
Hume is correct, it seems to me, in rejecting the idea of substance. (This immediately and profoundly distinguishes him from Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes and inspired Kant to his critique of pure reason.)
He also is correct when he introspects and famously fails to find a self. Using ‘perception’ where we would probably use ‘object’ or ‘form’, he writes that “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure” [Treatise, I, iv, vi]. We lack an experience of a self.
We have what may be called a self, namely, an empirical ego, which is made up of sensations and perceptions, thoughts and beliefs, emotions, and lots of different experiences. Hume’s not denying that. What he’s denying is that it’s empirically or phenomenologically impossible to find a substance that stands behind and has all those thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
Of course, we experience particular emotions. What Hume doesn’t grasp, though, is the egocentric essence of all emotions. He wants to ground morality on emotions but that’s impossible if morality is not to be reduced to mere egocentricity. Something has gone wrong.
Is genuine love possible?
Permit me to explain how by doing a brief survey of Nietzsche’s ideas Although Nietzsche agrees with the British empiricists in many respects, he mocks the tradition of British moralists.
He’ll be the last philosopher in our brief survey of the western tradition.
A sufficient reason for ending there is that Nietzsche flourished in the late 19th century and more recent philosophers are too close to us for us to have a good perspective on the value of their ideas. Singer, for example, in the third volume of The Nature of Love only focuses on two philosophers from the 20th century, namely, Sartre (and other so-called “existentialists”) and Santayana, although, to his credit, he includes others who may be more broadly classified as philosophers such as Freud, Proust, D. H. Lawrence, and G. B. Shaw.
In the 19th century, intellectuals like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche understood little about the eastern philosophic tradition. It took western scholars many decades to uncover and translate many teachings from the eastern tradition. The impact of that tradition didn’t seriously begin to be felt until the 20th century.
Arnold Toynbee said that the arrival of that tradition, in particular Buddhism, “may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century.”
Nietzsche helped prepare the soil for that fruitful planting. How? Click here for my answer [forthcoming].