So I’m thanking you today because of you I am now me. —John Butler Trio, Fool for You
In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles held that there are four primordial elements: air, earth, fire, and water. These elements are driven together and apart by the opposed cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Love brings the elements together, and unopposed Love leads to ‘The One’, a divine and resplendent sphere. Strife gradually degrades the sphere, returning it to the elements, and this cosmic cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. According to legend, Empedocles killed himself by leaping into the flames of Mount Etna, either to prove that he was immortal or to make people believe that he was.
Empedocles may have conceived of love as a great cosmic principle, but it is in fact Plato who transformed it into the spiritual, transcendental, and redemptory force that it has become. Before Plato, and for a long time after, some people did, of course, fall in love, but they did not believe that their love might in some sense save them. When, in Homer’s Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or elevating. The Greeks recognized several types of love: the one that most approaches our modern concept of romantic love is eros, or passionate love. Rather than celebrating eros, Greek myth sees it as a kind of madness induced by one of Cupid’s arrows. The arrow breaches us and we ‘fall’ in love, often with disastrous consequences such as, well, the Trojan War. In the Antigone of Sophocles, the chorus sings: ‘Love… whoever feels your grip is driven mad… you wrench the minds of the righteous into outrage, swerve them to their run…’ In Homer’s Odyssey, despite her many suitors, Penelope remains faithful to her husband Odysseus. But her commitment is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. In the last resort, when Odysseus returns and slaughters all the suitors, Penelope is reluctant even to recognize him.
Plato’s Symposium (4th century BC) contains a myth about the origins of human love. Once upon a time, there were three kinds of people: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and hermaphrodite, with both male and female parts, descended from the moon. These early people were completely round, each with four arms and four legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards, and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets. They were powerful and unruly, and seeking to scale the heavens. So Zeus, the father of the gods, cut them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling’, and even threatened to cut them into two again, so that they might hop on one leg. After that, people searched all over for their other half. When they finally found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go. This is the origin of our desire for others: those of us who desire members of the opposite sex used to be hermaphrodites, whereas men who desire men used to be male, and women who desire women used to be female. When we find our other half (the expression descends from Plato’s myth), we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple drive for sex, but by a desire to be whole again and restored to our original nature.
Later in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with the priestess Diotima, from whom he supposedly learnt the art of love. According to Diotima, a youth should be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth comes to understand that the beauty of the soul is superior to that of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once he has transcended the physical, he discovers that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, arriving at the summit of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue itself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods.
Although Plato’s model eventually gained the upper hand, other models of love in antiquity are the perfect friendship of Plato’s one-time student Aristotle, and the naturalism of the Roman poets Lucretius and Ovid. For Aristotle, friendships founded on advantage alone, or pleasure alone, are as nothing to those founded on virtue. To be in such a friendship, and to seek out the good of one’s friend, is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. In a virtuous friendship, our friend is as another self, and to seek out his good is also to seek out our own. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for instance, in young people, who are not wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because perfect friendship can only be formed and sustained if the pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive time investing into each other.
Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good—and goodness is an enduring thing.
A paragon of perfect friendship, albeit from a very different time and place, is that between the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and the humanist Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563). They became the closest friends from the moment they met at a feast in Bordeaux. Montaigne wrote that friendship, ‘having seized my whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in his.’ ‘Our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.’ He struggled to explain this enthrallment: ‘If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.’ The young men had much in common, including their privileged backgrounds, soaring intellects, and refined sensibilities. Perhaps more importantly, they shared a devotion to classical and Aristotelian ideals of the good life, which had prepared the ground in which their friendship could blossom into one so fine that ‘it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries’. In a sonnet, la Boétie declaimed: ‘You have been bound to me, Montaigne, both by the power of nature and by virtue, which is the sweet allurement of love.’ The married Montaigne never fully recovered from la Boétie’s premature death from the plague, and for the rest of his life felt like ‘no more than a half person’. No one, he warned, should ever be ‘joined and glued to us so strongly that they cannot be detached without tearing off our skin and some part of our flesh as well.’ Compared to the four years of friendship with la Boétie, the rest of his life seemed ‘but smoke and ashes, a night dark and dreary’. It is sobering to think that, had the Aristotelian template not been available, and socially condoned, their friendship may never have flown. Love, like madness, can only fill the models that society makes available.
Lucretius (99-55 BC) and Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD) did not idealize love, seeing it neither as a track to transcendence, like Plato, nor a vehicle of virtue, like Aristotle. Instead, they thought of it merely as thinly garbed animal instinct, a kind of insanity that could nonetheless be enjoyed if tamed by reason and sublimed into art. ‘Love,’ said Ovid, ‘is a thing ever filled with anxious fear.’ Pauperibus vates ego sum, quia pauper amavi: ‘I am the poet of the poor, for I was poor when I loved.’ The modern heirs to Lucretius and Ovid are Schopenhauer, and, later, Freud and Proust. In his masterwork, The World as Will (1819), Schopenhauer argues that beneath the world of appearances lies the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving and reproduction. Everything in the world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract objectified hunger, and so on. Even our higher faculties have evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the demands of will. The most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. The will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring draws man and woman together in a shared delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, the delusion dies and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.
On the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the Jewish and Christian models of love developed alongside the classical models. In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand: ‘now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.’ It is true that the Old Testament instructs us to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and to love our neighbours (Leviticus 19:18). However, the Binding of Isaac underlines that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience or allegiance to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love. In contrast, the New Testament elevates love into the supreme virtue and commingles it with life and death. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption: ‘He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.’ One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Jesus may have spoken Greek, and might have come under the direct or indirect influence of Platonism. Whether or not he did, over the centuries, the Church doctors sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy, especially Platonism; and Christian love, more properly called charity, and ultimately aimed at God, blurred with something much more self-oriented.
The blending of Christian love and Platonism laid the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in late 11th century Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married and unavailable lady, often of a superior social rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to a higher virtue, notably by carrying out a succession of chivalrous acts or tests. For the first time in the Judeo-Christian tradition, love, insofar as courtly love can count as love, did not ultimately aim at, or depend upon, God, and the Church duly declared it a heresy. In a significant cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve, although in this context an essentially passive and interchangeable idol, turned from devilish temptress or object of contempt to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God. The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.
Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) taught that nature is the mirror of God. Although a reforming Christian, his Canticle of the Creatures comes across as almost pagan in inspiration: ‘Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through hi. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.’ In the next period, God gradually comes down to earth, to be worshipped through his creation, and, above all, through the human body. This, in any case, served as justification for all those Renaissance nudes, first among them Michelangelo’s magisterial statue of David (1504) which the Florentines displayed at the political and historical heart of their city in the Piazza della Signoria. One could admire David, or anyone else for that matter, as the mirror of God, but, for just that reason, one could not turn him into an object of lust. God’s earthly descend ends with the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), who thought of God and nature as one and the same. More precisely, Spinoza brought nature into God, thereby, in some sense, eliminating or radically redefining him: ‘Whatsoever is, is in God… God is the indwelling, and not the transient cause of all things.’
As God retreated from love, Platonism, which had been lurking in the background, stepped forward to fill the void. Abraham had surrendered himself and his son Isaac out of devotion to God. But in the Romantic era, love became all the opposite: a means of finding and validating oneself. ‘So I’m thanking you today because of you I am now me.’ In the time of God, finding oneself—or, more accurately, losing oneself in God—had required years of patient spiritual practice, but, after the French Revolution, romantic love could save almost anyone, and with very little investment on their part. Plato’s ladder of love had been an elitist project designed to sublime sexual desire into virtue, but the Romantics, concerned with neither God nor reason, held that love with a good and beautiful person could only intensify sexual desire. The sacred seeped out of God and into love, and, with more success than reason, progress, communism, or any other -ism, love took the place of the dying religion in lending weight and meaning and texture to our lives. People had once loved God, but now they loved love: more than with their beloved, they, like the troubadours before them, fell in love with love itself.
- Sophocles, Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles.
- Plato, Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett.
- Aristotle, Nicomachen Ethics VIII. Trans. WD Ross.
- Montaigne, Michel de, On Friendship. Translated by Donald Frame.
- Boétie, Etienne de la, as quoted in Bakewell S (2011): A life of Montaigne… p92. Vintage Books.
- Ovid, The Heroines. Trans. G Showerman.
- Ovid, The Art of Love II. Trans. J Lewis May.
- Schopenhauer A (1819), The World as Will and Representation.
- Bible: Genesis 22:12 (KJV).
- Bible: John 3:14-15 (KJV).
- Bible: Matthew 5:44 (KJV).
- St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures. Trans. Franciscan Friars Third Order Regular.
- Spinoza, Baruch (1677): Ethics I, 15 & 18.