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Love: A History

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Love-unconditional, selfless, unchanging, sincere, and totally accepting-is worshipped today as the West's only universal religion. To challenge it is one of our few remaining taboos. In this pathbreaking and superbly written book, philosopher Simon May does just that, dissecting our resilient ruling ideas of love and showing how they are the product of a long and powerful cultural heritage.

    Tracing over 2,500 years of human thought and history, May shows how our ideal of love developed from its Hebraic and Greek origins alongside Christianity until, during the last two centuries, "God is love" became "love is God"-so hubristic, so escapist, so untruthful to the real nature of love, that it has booby-trapped relationships everywhere with deluded expectations. Brilliantly, May explores the very different philosophers and writers, both skeptics and believers, who dared to think differently: from Aristotle's perfect friendship and Ovid's celebration of sex and "the chase," to Rousseau's personal authenticity, Nietzsche's affirmation, Freud's concepts of loss and mourning, and boredom in Proust. Against our belief that love is an all-powerful solution to finding meaning, security, and happiness in life, May reveals with great clarity what love actually is: the intense desire for someone whom we believe can ground and affirm our very existence. The feeling that "makes the world go round" turns out to be a harbinger of home--and in that sense, of the sacred.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17723-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. Preface
    (pp. x-xiv)
  5. 1 Love plays God
    (pp. 1-13)

    ‘Almost two thousand years – and not a single new god!’ cried Nietzsche in 1888.¹

    But he was wrong. The new god was there – indeed was right under his nose. That new god was love. Human love.

    Human love, now even more than then, is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment. Not as the rarest of exceptions but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it; not as the result of its...

  6. 2 The foundation of Western love: Hebrew Scripture
    (pp. 14-37)

    If love in the Western world has a founding text, that text is Hebrew. Before Plato and Aristotle – the other dominant sources of Western concepts of love – and well before Jesus,¹ Hebrew Scripture provides, in two pithy sentences, ideas that have guided the course of love ever since:

    You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.²


    You shall love your neighbour as yourself.³

    The first idea, love for God, is characterised by intense devotion; absolute trust; fear of his power and presence; and rapturous,...

  7. 3 From physical desire to paradise: Plato
    (pp. 38-55)

    Plato conceived love for a beautiful body as the beginning of a long path that ends in paradise. He is responsible for one of the defining obsessions of the Western mind: that Eros can storm the heavens, ascending from physical desire to spiritual understanding, from the finite to the infinite, from the contingent to the absolute.

    At the core of this obsession is an excruciating demand: spiritual love must overcome the very desires for bodily gratification in which it originates, and ultimately overcome the very conditions of life itself – time, space, and suffering. It is to overcome them not...

  8. 4 Love as perfect friendship: Aristotle
    (pp. 56-68)

    Aristotle (384–322 bce) reclaims love for this world: for nature, time, and human character.

    He sees it as a bond between individuals for the sake of their flourishing,¹ rather than, as we read in Plato’sSymposium, a way of looking beyond individuals to a timeless reality of absolute beauty. He believes that humans are by nature social animals, so that living our lives in intimacy with select others is part of one’s full flourishing – unlike Diotima’s vision of human attachments as at best a stepping stone to a love that reaches for the heavens. Aristotle recognises, indeed celebrates,...

  9. 5 Love as sexual desire: Lucretius and Ovid
    (pp. 69-80)

    In love, as in politics and engineering, Rome is home to pragmatists of genius. Among them we find two of the greatest exponents of love as a purely natural drive that is corrupted by being expected to redeem suffering and evil and death. They give love, and especially friendship, a central place in the flourishing life; but they refuse to deify passion, instead seeing it, as do many ancients, as a type of slavery and unhappy fate. They examine with unsparing precision the machinations of sexual desire and its overwhelming urge for procreation and pleasure, in the hope that we...

  10. 6 Love as the supreme virtue: Christianity
    (pp. 81-94)

    The immensely diverse and adaptable group of related Churches that we call ‘Christianity’ brings about two innovations with which the Western world and many who have been influenced by it live to this day. It turns love into life’s supreme virtue and moral principle; so that to the question ‘Can we do anything better than to love and be loved?’ the answer is clearly no.

    And Christianity makes love a divine power that, if infused by God into the receptive human being, ordinary people can express. With the aid of this power and the relationships that celebrate it we can...

  11. 7 Why Christian love isn’t unconditional
    (pp. 95-118)

    Christianity didn’t make love the Western world’s supreme virtue just by proclaiming it so. At the same time as reminding human beings of how inadequately they could love without divine grace, it had to make that greatest good seem genuinely accessible to ordinary mortals who are open to it. Otherwise the exhortations to love of Paul, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and their followers, far from being the basis for a world-conquering morality, would have become demoralising and eventually lost their power to guide human lives.

    To make love of this order appear accessible is no easy matter. We are...

  12. 8 Women as ideals: love and the troubadours
    (pp. 119-128)

    For all the argument within medieval Christianity about the extent to which human beings could love without divine grace, or about the scope of the command to love one’s neighbour, or about the nature of love within marriage, or about the value of desire for earthly goods, certain things were not in dispute. One of them was that genuine love for another human being is necessarily love for the sake of God and experienced as such; another was that adulterous desire, never mind consummation, is taboo. It therefore seems scarcely conceivable that there could be a corner of medieval Europe...

  13. 9 How human nature became loveable: from the high Middle Ages to the Renaissance
    (pp. 129-142)

    After the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Western love is left with a revolutionary thought: a single human being might be worthy of the sort of love that was formerly reserved for God. She might be seen as embodying the greatest good and so evoke reverence fitting for a divine being. Though the universe is still conceived as an order of love leading up to God, and all love as ultimately subordinate to love for God, devotion to another person – or indeed to nature in general – is freer to take on a life of its own.

    This chapter will...

  14. 10 Love as joyful understanding of the whole: Spinoza
    (pp. 143-151)

    Montaigne had translated human beings back into nature through ceaseless study of what they – beginning with himself – actually do, in times of peace, war, crisis, triumph, banality, health and sickness. To vault beyond our own nature and use love as a springboard to the divine was, for him, hubristic and contemptible. Yet through it all he preserved the absolute distinction between human nature and God. God, as the creator, is a transcendent being, beyond nature and not bound by it.

    It took the genius of Baruch Spinoza to place man so indissolubly in nature that thevery idea...

  15. 11 Love as Enlightened Romanticism: Rousseau
    (pp. 152-164)

    In concluding his final book,The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) remembers his love as a young man for an older (married) woman, Mme de Warens, whom he called ‘Mama’:

    I recall with joy and tenderness this unique and brief time of my life when I was myself, fully, without admixture and without obstacle, and when I can genuinely say that I lived…. Without this short but precious time I would perhaps have remained uncertain about myself … I would have difficulty unraveling what there is of my own in my own conduct.¹...

  16. 12 Love as religion: Schlegel and Novalis
    (pp. 165-175)

    By the turn of the nineteenth century the Western spirit is beset by upheavals in its world view of perhaps unprecedented speed and cumulative scope. Within a mere three hundred years, from 1500 to 1800, people begin conceiving the earth as going round the sun rather than as the centre of the universe; human beings as self-determining rather than as bound by fixed social roles and the religious diktat of a single church; and politics as the pursuit of liberty, equality, and other individual rights, rather than as the government of absolute monarchy. In addition the basis is laid for...

  17. 13 Love as the urge to procreate: Schopenhauer
    (pp. 176-187)

    In idolising erotic love between human beings and seeing in their union the salvation and eternity that were once to be found exclusively in coming to God, late German Romanticism had thrown down a powerful challenge to its own Christian origins at the same time as it remained powerfully tethered to them. ‘For the sake of God’ had been forgotten or sidelined. Love of neighbour was irrelevant to the passion between two people, even if it was otherwise to be commended. Likewise sympathy for suffering humanity. The Good Samaritan would have been a joker at the court of Tristan and...

  18. 14 Love as affirmation of life: Nietzsche
    (pp. 188-198)

    A deep dilemma cuts through the history of Western love from its earliest sources in Hebrew Scripture and Greek philosophy: Is it nobler for the highest love to affirm the worldly or to repudiate it? Should love seek its perfections in the desiring and striving of this world – or beyond it? The world, that is, in which suffering and loss are inevitable. In which nothing timeless can exist. In which, as Schopenhauer noted, ambitions will, in the end, be in vain and peace will never be secured. This is the world into which we are born and the only...

  19. 15 Love as a history of loss: Freud
    (pp. 199-214)

    Nietzsche had enthroned psychology as ‘the queen of the sciences’ and ‘the path to the fundamental problems’.¹ By this he meant that the key to discovering who we moderns are, and what the best life is for the type of person that each of us is fated to be, is to uncover our deepest – often unconscious – drives, instincts, and desires. And, above all, to harness their complex urges for power in a way that affirms life and fate.

    Only in these psychological depths can we determine what ends, what values, what virtues will enable us to flourish. Only...

  20. 16 Love as terror and tedium: Proust
    (pp. 215-234)

    In Marcel Proust (1871–1922) we find a vivisection of love’s protracted struggles to secure the ungraspable but fervently desired being of another, which is without parallel in the Western tradition. Beset by and forged out of a myriad illusions, associations and memories, love is revealed as a remorseless dialectic of anxiety and disappointment, hope and tedium, delight and dread – a dialectic resolved into some sort of stable attachment only by the final loss of the loved one, if at all.

    Fear of isolation and helplessness structures love and gives it its tremendous urgency. Born in fear, living in...

  21. 17 Love reconsidered
    (pp. 235-256)

    For much of its history love has been captive to an obsession with opposites. It is either self-seeking or self-giving; either possessive or submissive; either illusion-creating or truth-seeking; either conditional or unconditional; either inconstant or enduring; either mired in fantasy or a privileged window onto reality. And in every case it is taken to be the apogee, the paradigm, of the quality in question.

    For the majority, especially since Luther, genuine love is to the right of each of these divisions: self-giving, truth-seeking, submissive, unconditional, enduring. While lesser love (if one can call it love at all) is to the...

  22. Notes
    (pp. 257-278)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-284)
  24. Index
    (pp. 285-298)