We think we know what love is: the feeling that makes us truly human, the mysterious bit of chemistry that gives us procreation and romance and altruistic goodness all in the same warm and fuzzy package.
We say we know love when we feel it, and when we see it, and when we hear it endlessly sung about in dreamy ballads and raunchy rap numbers. But we don’t like to analyze love too much: Because, as everyone knows, to talk about love is to destroy its magic.
And so we get love completely wrong, says English philosopher Simon May. By idealizing love, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
In his new book Love: A History, Prof. May traces the evolution of a feeling that is much more diverse and mixed up than we’re willing to acknowledge. Love, in his deeply intellectual account, starts with God, the original model for our supreme (and largely unattainable) emotion.
His book veers across history on a wild ride that takes in the idealized versions of love developed by Plato and the medieval troubadours, the more carnal outlook of Ovid and Rousseau, and the self-destructive desires analyzed by Freud and Proust. Prof. May spoke to The Globe about the twists and turns love has taken as it worked its way from the Bible to The Bachelorette.
What can love’s history teach us about how we express love in the modern world?
Our conception of love is utterly unrealistic. The ideas we use don’t work, and that’s because they’re the product of a very particular historical evolution – a Christian understanding of God’s love that has its roots in Plato, Aristotle and Judaism. It’s a model that made sense within a Christian world view, because it was imbued with a modesty about what humans can actually achieve with love. We’ve lost that modesty.
So where have we gone wrong?
We think that genuine love is unconditional and selfless, that it’s benevolent and has the power to endure. And crucially, that it’s redemptive – in some way it’s a supreme value that can overcome all of life’s problems and tragedies and tedium. But the whole concept of unconditional love is related to a superhuman being from a transcendental world, and once you stop believing in that transcendental world, you should stop using the vocabulary associated with it.
But those values don’t seem so bad – where’s the problem?
I think the attainment of love is rare. But genuine love is assumed to be within everybody’s reach. We have this expectation that The One is out there, someone we whom we can achieve and enjoy these great things simply by virtue of being human. It’s an ideal that’s bound to end in dissatisfaction when we don’t achieve the bliss we’ve been taught to expect. So we either knuckle down and focus on the pragmatic part of running a relationship. Or we move on and keep looking for that right person – a quest that’s been facilitated by other social developments from contraception and divorce to Internet dating.
Does it really matter if we’re deluded about love? Surely it’s always bound to have a make-believe quality in an imperfect world.
Human life couldn’t exist without illusions, but we need illusions that go with the grain of human life, not against it. The idea that love is unconditional or necessarily eternal simply sets us up for disappointment. And I think this is becoming particularly apparent in parent-child relationships.
In what way?
Up to the last few hundred years, the object of love that really counted was God. Then we got to a point where the object of love became the romantic partner. Now the love that really counts is for one’s child. It’s taboo today to raise doubts about the love for children. I actually think there’s a tremendous inequality in how parents love their children, and yet children are being told that they are the objects of unconditional and unwavering love. Children are the most sensitive of all human creatures, so if they sense they’re being duped, it’s a recipe for resentment.
You talk about love being overloaded in the modern world – what do you mean?
Throughout the history of love, there’s been an intense debate about the ideal object of love. But now the highest objects of love have shrunk to the romantic partner or the child. This is consistent with the historical development of individualism: The individual looks for all of his or her love needs in one other individual. But there used to be a much wider range of objects to which people could feel deep attachment. There was a point in the Romantic movement, for example, when landscape or nature could be the highest object of love. By narrowing the range of objects we can love, we end up overloading physical relationships.
So we can love the planet literally?
Yes, but it’s not about looking vaguely into nature. Love for me has to do with seeing the planet as a place in which our life finds meaning. Love can have almost any object, your dog, your work, anything that has the sense of giving our existence validity.
Can a philosopher of love like you recognize that validity in speed-dating and TV’s hook-up shows?
We can very quickly recognize someone with whom we’d feel at home in the world, who’d give our life that sense of safety and security. Sure, the world we live in is highly sexualized, and there’s a mistaken connection between sex and love, so people go looking for physical attractiveness. But in principle, it’s absolutely possible to find the great love of your life this way.
So where does sex fit in, philosophically speaking?
Sex can be great gateway to love by intensifying a relationship and developing intimacy. But much of the time it’s nothing more than a delightful recreation. The obvious problem with contemporary attitudes is that if the sex is successful, we have too high an expectation that love is available. But the link isn’t that close. If you’re looking for love as I define it, then it has to come first.
This interview has been condensed and edited.