The Nature of Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In the late 1970’s, many cultural critics grew alarmed at the phenomenal success of paperback romances that told and retold a formulized story of attraction, struggle, and climactic union—in 1980, Harlequin Books alone was responsible for 10 percent of the paperbacks sold in North America, to say nothing of the output of a dozen other publishers of “contemporary romance.” In the late 1980’s, it has suddenly become apparent that love has also been the subject of an extraordinary number of scholarly books by psychologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, and other people of learning. Despite the apparent intellectual distance between these two phenomena, both speak to the manner in which new social patterns and shifting values have called old assumptions into question and cast doubt on the meaning of the most intimate of human relationships.

Irving Singer began his three-volume study, The Nature of Love, more than twenty years ago. Its primary focus is the history of ideas in the Western world (and thus, inevitably, of written texts by those of privileged education and social status). The first volume, Plato to Luther, was published in 1966. Volume 2, Courtly and Romantic, appeared in 1984. Volume 3, The Modern World, begins with the mid-nineteenth century writers whom Singer calls “Anti-Romantic Romantics” (Søren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche), moves to Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, D. H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, George Santayana, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and concludes with a glance at recent scientific thinking and with Singer’s attempt to articulate his own philosophy of love.

As always for a philosopher, the first problem is definition. Human love, in Singer’s view, contains at least a touch or remnant of the animal instinct, but even the erotic desires are strongly shaped by cultural values and by thoughts and ideals. This provides a justification for the historical nature of his project. In the preface to Plato to Luther, he alludes to François de La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism that many people would never have been in love had they not heard love discussed; thus, in any period attitudes about love—indeed, the very feelings that one has when “in love”—are shaped by the available vocabulary of concepts and ideas inherited from prior generations.

One drawback to this approach is unconsciously revealed in the language with which, in 1965, Singer phrased his justifying proposition: “The history of philosophy is man impregnating later generations with the ability to think by means of one concept or another.” Singer’s history of ideas, by depending almost wholly on written texts, ignores not only the mass of men and women of every historical period whose ideas of love come primarily from mass culture, song, ritual, folk thought, and the advice handed along by peers, sisters, neighbors, and grandparents but also omits any hint of the legal and social constraints which shape the meaning of individuals’ affections and feelings. Although The Modern World sometimes pays attention to the gender of pronouns—it does not always, as in earlier volumes, speak of the lover as “he” and the beloved as “she”—one still brings away a lingering suspicion that only male thinkers can be in love, and then, probably, only with an object which they have created either by social management or through projection.

Nevertheless, the interpretation of modern ideas in this volume and the summaries of earlier periods (which were analyzed in depth in the previous volumes) provide a useful overview, particularly for those who must find ways to make the classics of Western literature and thought intelligible to students who believe that certain basic things—like love—are enduring and unchanging and that therefore texts from earlier periods can be judged entirely by their own emotional responses. Singer suggests that philosophies of love in the West can be categorized, in broad terms, as either “idealist” or “realist.” The various idealist conceptions have some magic or metaphysical basis and emphasize the concept of merging. They deny that love can be explained in biological, physiological, or sociopsychological terms. The idealist tradition, Singer asserts,does not doubt that there are physiological components in sexual or even religious love, but it rejects the idea that such components define what love is. ... They are neither necessary conditions for love nor sufficient to understand its elusive essence.

The courtly love tradition of the Middle Ages idealized the sexual impulse itself. Physical contact and erotic feeling were significant—if the person who aroused them was morally and aesthetically suitable. Desire was not, however, the origin of love; it “was...

(The entire section is 1973 words.)