Love has been the subject of debate by philosophers and scientists for centuries. Here's what the leading philosophers have had to say about it over time
Love. It's been the focal point of philosophers and scientists for centuries. Although we may understand some of the biological urges of love and sex, it still manages to take us by surprise, our impulses baffling us. Here's what the philosophers have had to say about it over time.
Plato: The other half
Why should it be that those looking for love feel a lack, while those in love feel complete?
In Plato's The Symposium, a group of men are sat around, merrily drinking and exchanging wisdom on the topic of love. The group take it in turns to deliver speeches in praise of Eros (love). One such fellow, Aristophanes addresses this matter during his rather curious speech.
Herm representing Plato © Vatican Museums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Aristophanes suggests that nature as we know it is somewhat different to how it once was, in particular, the make up of the human body.
"The shape of each human being was a rounded whole, with back and sides forming a circle. Each one had four hands and the same number of legs, and two identical faces on a circular neck. They had one head for both of the faces, which were turned in opposite directions, four ears, two sets of genitals, and everything else was as you would imagine from what I've said so far."
Also different were the sexes, of which there were three. The sphere with two male bodies (child of the Sun), the sphere with two female bodies (child of the Earth), and the third one of each (child of the Moon).
"Love itself comes from human imperfection, lack and need"
They were happy, but as is the case with human nature, they strived for more and attempted to ascend Olympus to take on the gods. Of course, Zeus was having none of it and as a punishment he chopped them in two. Humans were destined to roam the Earth desperately seeking their other half.
This myth is very progressive as the three sexes created three sexualities:
- The children of the Sun became homosexuals
- The children of the Earth became lesbians
- The children of the Moon became straight
When the halves find each other, they fall in love and become whole. Love itself comes from human imperfection, lack and need.
Socrates: Platonic love
The great philosopher and orator Socrates didn't believe in the written word. His message has endured through his pupils, such as Plato. Plato places Socrates at the very same symposium where Aristophanes discussed those oddly shaped humans.
Socrates, being the wisest at the party, gets to speak last. He agrees with Aristophanes that love does come from a human lack, but he disagrees that humans require the "other" to fill this lack. He insists instead that what we really seek is the beautiful and good.
Socrates Address © Louis Joseph Lebrun, 1867, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Love is a desire to possess the good forever, but us humans are mere mortals so how can we possess something forever? The solution is to produce creations that live on after us, inspired by the divine beloved. There are three methods available to us:
- The least important would be biological offspring
- The next, heroic deeds and lasting fame
- Finally came the things that indeed make us human: art, education, science, politics, culture and so on
Indeed all of these can be inspired by erotic love of a human being, but the best creations will come when our love is diverted away from lust and human desire and placed on the beautiful itself. This thought gave way to the idea "Platonic love", a love which Plato places at the top of the hierarchy in The Symposium, although modern usage of this term has skewed slightly.
The evolution of love
Believe it or not, love as we know it now, was very different a long time ago.
St Augustine: Love and shame
Augustine believed love was a temporary madness. His ideas on sex and love helped shape modern day Christianity.
Augustine tells us in St Augustine's Confessions that he was no angel. As a young man he regularly gave into sexual impulses, stating he was a slave to his desires. It seems a point of particular anguish and shame for Augustine, particularly in comparison to his contemporaries. His mentions of sexuality are all negative, associated with disease and corruption.
He believes that love is irrational where sex is involved—it leads to weakness.
"St Augustine has probably had more impact on the way the modern world feels about sex than any other man"
"What is not loved in its own right is not loved." For him, the material physical pursuit of love was impure. The ultimate act of love then was to sacrifice his pleasure and dedicate himself to God, leave behind a seedy lifestyle in order to strive for enduring love: eternal.
St Augustine has probably had more impact on the way the modern world feels about sex than any other man.
Mary Wollstonecraft: Love outside of marriage
In the 18th century Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer who mused on women's rights and the expectations of a woman in comparison to a man when it came to love and marriage. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she states: "The reputation of chastity is prized by women, it is despised by men: and the two extremes are equally destructive to morality"
Wollstonecraft was concerned by this double standard, that a woman might be judged unfavourably on her sexual freedom, whereas men were expected to have a busy sex life. It was clear to her that this decision that males should be one way and females another was a social construct, and that women, like men, should be judged not on sexual freedom but on their own merit.
Wollstonecraft questioned the institution of marriage, she felt it was a social construct; a means to control the female body, and a double standard for men. Instead, she was an advocate of free love, that is, the freedom love outside of marriage.
Mary Wollstonecraft © John Opie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
At the time once married, women were perceived as nothing more than wife and mother. At the time there was legislation in place preventing wives and mothers from pursuing occupations.
Her novels tend to follow tragic female characters, whose downfall is brought about by marriage. Mary: A Fiction (1788), sees the heroine enter into a loveless marriage, and consequently seek satisfaction elsewhere.
Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), is an unfinished novel that sees its heroine also engaging in extramarital affairs, but also winds up being placed in a mental asylum by her husband.
Upon Wollstonecraft's death, her husband William Godwin (yes, she did marry, but the pair lived separately to maintain independence), wrote his memoirs which revealed a very different Wollstonecraft—full of compassion and love. Its revelations came as a shock to many readers, hearing for the first time of her illegitimate children, suicide attempts. He painted a picture of a woman led very much by her feelings and grounded through Godwin's own reason.
Many contemporaries criticised Godwin for unravelling the hard work she had achieved. The romantic poet Robert Southey wrote "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked".
Years on we now see that men and women alike can be led by both reason and passion, and all might be appreciated in their own right as equals, with or without marriage.
Freud: Oedipus complex
The father of psychoanalysis has unfortunately had most of his theories dampened by science, but this is not to say his ideas don't still have a place. Although discredited as a scientist, Freud has been granted the status of philosophers which keeps many of his ideas relevant and in discussion today.
His most famous theory is that of Oedipus. A developmental phase in a young boy's (or girl's, aka Electra complex) life, where his love for is mother is lustful and he perceives his father as competition. It's something most of us will successfully pass without engaging in any form of incest. For those who remain in this phase, issues are afoot and Dr Freud would sit you on his sofa.
Evolutionists have discredited this theory, but it has left a lasting impression. Freudian psychoanalysts still discuss this phase as having implications on relationships to the opposite sex as well as how you develop as an individual away from your parents. After all, your parents are your first experience of both love and how you relate to other people. In this sense Oedipus is more about how you are socialised rather than how you lust.
Sartre: Love and freedom
Jean-Paul Sartre belongs to the existentialists. For him, ultimately humans are "condemned to be free". There is no divine creator and therefore there is no plan for human beings. But what does this mean for love, which is so entwined with ideas of fate and destiny?
Love must come from freedom, it must be blissful and mutual and a merging of freedom. But for Sartre, it isn't: love implies conflict.
The problem occurs in the seeking of the lover's approval, one wants to be loved, wants the lover to see them as their best possible self. But in doing so one risks transforming into an object under the gaze of the lover, removing subjectivity and the ability to choose, becoming a "loved one".
Jean-Paul Sartre © Unknown author, via Wikimedia Commons
As if that wasn't negative enough, Sartre takes it further. You see, the loved one desires to be loved endlessly and doesn't want the lover to find love elsewhere, but that isn't something a free person can do, as it removes choice.
To Sartre then love is either sadism or masochism. Masochism: the loved one is tied to the lover's ideal and reduced to an object denying their own freedom. Sadism: The loved one denies the lover freedom, as they are not permitted to exit the relation. Either way, freedoms are denied.
But Sartre did indeed love, and his solutions came through his female equal, Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone de Beauvoir: Dare to love differently
Existentialist, the mother of feminist theory, and wife and contemporary to Sartre. Beauvoir's relationship with love was complicated because the female experience of love was different to that of the male, particularly during her era.
The problem was that females were subjugated by their male lovers, meaning that women would tolerate a lot through fear of abandonment and low self-esteem. The only solution to this is for lovers to be deemed equal.
Together Beauvoir and Sartre strived for absolute equality in their love life and did so by entering into an open relationship. The two would maintain their freedom and autonomy by entering into affairs, and they would conquer jealousy by being completely honest about them.
For Beauvoir, the male would always play away, particularly someone like Sartre who saw that as a part of his own freedom. Unlike the tragic heroines of her fiction—who were always used and abused as a moral warning—Beauvoir would also play the field, and the two would be open about their encounters.
"The only solution to this is for lovers to be deemed equal"
“There has been one undoubted success in my life,” she wrote in Force of Circumstances (La Force des choses), “my relationship with Sartre. In more than 30 years we have only once gone to sleep at night disunited.” But there was one issue with her femininity she couldn't overcome.
As Beauvoir grew older, her looks began to fade and her affairs dwindled. Sartre continued as ever—after all there is nothing taboo about an older man and a younger woman. With this, she became jealous but was it of Sartre's lovers or her inability to remain equal in her open relationship?
Alain Badiou: In praise of love
"We know how people get carried away by love stories! A philosopher must ask why that happens. Why are there so many films, so many novels, and songs that are given over entirely to love? There must be something universal about love for these stories to interest such an enormous audience. What is universal is that all love suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be two and not one. That we can encounter experience the world other than through a solitary consciousness: any love whatsoever gives us new evidence of this."
Read more: 10 Romantic celebrity love quotes
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