How many weddings have we attended where we “oohed” and “aahed” about how beautiful the bride was, how handsome the groom, and heard declarations of love eternal that were blessed by the Divine? Then, all too frequently, we read that this same couple has divorced—sometimes sooner than later, sometimes after years. Oh, not all. Many people who commit to one another do manage to keep it together, but the number of people who don’t should make us wonder whether our expectations and our understanding of what love is might be unrealistic.
And where do we get these ideas about love? How is it that we over-idealize and set ourselves up for disappointment? According to Simon May, author of Love: A History (Yale University Press, 2011), our attitudes and understanding about what love is has been passed down through the millennia by such people as Plato, Augustine, Ovid, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and a host of others that we may have never heard of but whose notions nonetheless impact our lives in ways we don’t understand.
But what, you may ask, can these dead philosophers possibly have to say about love that is of any importance to me? The answer is—quite a lot.
May is a professor of philosophy at King’s College, University of London, and he assures us that, yes; philosophy has a lot to say about love. And sex. According to May, love is the search for “ontological rootedness.” That’s a mouthful. But what it means is clearly understood by every newborn infant who ever moves her head towards a mother’s breast. It is the intense and primal need to feel loved; to feel that their existence has another’s to bond with. It is a force that has led to happiness—but also to unbridled lust, murder, wars, and countless unhappy marriages.
The primary template for this need to belong can be traced to Plato, who believed that our loves here were merely entryways to a deeper understanding of eternal love—in fact they are merely a way of finding our way to the eternal through the temporal. We hunger for this beautiful person, but in reality for Beauty itself: a physical attraction can lead me to eternal satisfaction. This idea is further developed in the Old Testament—in fact the love of God for the Hebrews is frequently explained in terms of a romantic love (as in The Song of Solomon). We live in a world that is changing, dangerous, and frightening: we seek security and stability through a relationship with someone who has power to control it all. As such, love and fear sometimes get all mixed up.
Something of this can be seen in the astounding success of a recent novel, Fifty Shades of Gray: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, by E. L. James (Vintage, 2012), which tells of a woman’s desire to be taken care of by someone who can offer security and affection—even if the price for that is to be tied up and blindfolded now and then. She even comes to enjoy the submission. This has apparently resonated with millions the world over, judging by sales of the book. Why? When we find someone to whom we are willing to submit ourselves, May says, we do so unflinchingly and unquestioningly—just as Abraham did when God, who had promised him the world, asked for the sacrifice of Abraham’s only son. He did not hesitate. Such is the need we have for “ontological rootedness.”
One is reminded of the Baltimore Catechism, which taught us “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, with thy whole soul, with thy whole strength, and with thy whole mind.” That’s a pretty tough thing to ask, but then God is thought of as the source and sustenance of our existence. When you love someone like that, however, you do whatever that love demands.
But what happens when God is removed from the picture, as it has for many in the modern world? When we translate this love to mere humans? Do we experience human love in the same way? Is our love unconditional, eternal, selfless, and everlasting?
The answer, May says, is no. We are not Gods. There is nothing unconditional about human love. After all, we are seeking something from those we love—that sense of “ontological rootedness.” And when you mix sex up in the mix, it gets even more problematic. Yet, we still idealize love, still harboring unrealistic expectations, and thus we are rife for exploitation, disappointment, and unhappiness. This fairy-tale anticipation of “happily ever after” can result in sometimes ill-advised relationships albeit with the highest of ideals.
May traces attitudes towards love—and sex—from their genesis in Greek philosophy and Western religious thought through to the modern world where God, after the Enlightenment, is gradually further removed from the picture. In fact, he posits the notion that love, which at one time was a by-product of a spiritual relationship with the divine, replaces the divine. No longer do we say “God is love,” but rather, “Love is God.”
…the lover becomes the focus of love to such an extent that…the loved one is in danger of dropping out of the picture. At the limit, love falls in love with itself—and so, as the ultimate good, comes to hold the position once occupied by God.
The last part of that question from the Baltimore Catechism also reminds us to love “our neighbor as ourselves.” Our society clearly shows us that sexual ecstasy has replaced religious ecstasy on the altar of our lives, and one’s love is dangerously close to becoming an object, and love much less of a relationship: instead we encounter “f___ buddies.” “The Big ‘O’ has replaced the “Big Guy in the Sky”.
This book raises some troubling questions about our sexual and emotional relationships, even questioning the extent to which we are capable of loving our own children—when our idealized notions demand that such love is “unconditional.” It frequently isn’t.
In reality, it is as with all love: the parent will love those children most who give him the greatest of ontological rootedness—those with whom he feels most grounded and at home; perhaps because they poignantly echo the qualities that, for him, define his life and its origins; perhaps for more mysterious reasons. They might be unreliable, feckless, and a cause for great sadness to him; but he will love them regardless.
This is not a book to be read once. In fact, having finished it, I only realize that I will have to acquire it for my library and read it several times more before I fully comprehend its implications. It is a course in philosophy in its own right—but that shouldn’t put off the average reader. If you ever wondered what philosophy was, or how it can address our lives in a meaningful way, you need to give this a try. It’s not an impossible read and is, ultimately, well worth the time.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris