A Philosophical History of Love

Wayne Cristaudo
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London, 2012


By Allan Janik, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History and Philosophy

There is scarcely a more profound or fascinating human experience than love. Yet, given the centrality of love in human life, philosophers have written remarkably little about it. Further, the relatively little that has been written on the subject by the great thinkers, with a few exceptions such as Plato, tends frustratingly to leave us cold. Indeed, the very lack of anything like an adequate treatment of the subject is reason enough for ordinary people to discount philosophy in the first place. Nevertheless, the fact that so few even remotely succeed in addressing our concerns, frequently as perplexing as they are pressing, has not entirely dissuaded philosophers to take a stab at the subject. Irving Singer of MIT, in a series of works spanning over two decades, and more recently Parisian philosophical enfant terrible Alain Badiou (In Praise of Love, 2012) have tried to cast light on the conundrums we fall into thinking about the subject. Now Wayne Cristaudo has added his efforts to edify us with respect to love’s complexity. He offers us sensible and humane, provocative and challenging reflections, largely inspired by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and René Girard, upon some nodal points in various philosophical treatments of love from Plato to C.S. Peirce and pragmatism that will surely inform and delight the uninitiated – even if more versed scholars (like this reviewer) will find the book’s title promising considerably more than its author delivers. In short, uninitiated undergraduates (for whom the book appears to have been written) are in for a feast of nourishing ideas about love, whereas their professors will tend to grumble about the book’s smorgasbord character as well as the use of both the word ‘philosophical’ and the word ‘history’ in the title.

The simplest way of obtaining an overview of the book’s themes is to consider the subjects of its eight chapters. Cristaudo rightly begins with an exposition of the concept of love as a polymorphous drive originating as earthy lust but ascending to the heights of spirituality in the pursuit of wisdom that we find in Plato’s most sublime dialogues The Symposium and Phaedrus. The latter is somewhat neglected, whereas the connection to the philosophical life, i.e. the very notion of what is involved in loving ideas, in the Theaetetus (173ff) is entirely missing. There follow two contrasting chapters, one on the New Testament’s conception of love as love of Christ (largely viewed through the eyes of contemporary philosophers) and the other on St. Augustine’s momentous, indeed revolutionary synthesis of the classical and the Christian views of love that has determined so much thinking on the subject right down to our own day. The latter discussion, for all its merits, is marred by the omission of the way in which Augustine received and transformed the idea of the relationship between divine and human love from Apuleius’ Golden Ass. A fourth chapter, ‘The Medieval Return of Venus’, relates a conventional version the story of Abélard and Heloise; a fifth the ‘heavenly Romance’ that is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Thus Cristaudo intertwines sacred and secular, erotic and religious themes in his narrative, curiously neglecting mystical conceptions of love in figures such as St. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, not to mention Meister Eckhart, the philosophical mystic par excellence. The sixth chapter, ‘Love in the Family and Its Dissolution’, contrasts the tragedy of romantic love with the realities of family life in three powerfully moving episodes: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (annoyingly misspelled as Juliette in several places), Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. A seventh chapter devoted to the Marquis De Sade reminds us that it is far from absurd to speak of the love of evil, unfortunately without making much of an effort to cast him into his eighteenth century French context by way of comparison with figures like Denis Diderot (The Nun or The Indiscreet Jewels) or Choderlos de Laclos (Dangerous Liaisons). Cristaudo endeavours to round off his narrative by presenting Peirce’s notion of love as an evolutionary principle as a kind of synthesis of Christianity and a non-mechanistic concept of science (mistakenly opposed to Enlightenment thought, which is brutally caricatured throughout the book: Cristaudo seems not to have heard of, say, Diderot, Lichtenberg, Franklin or Hamann). Curiously, there is no mention of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who represented a similar position to Peirce’s within Catholic theology. To reiterate, Cristaudo presents the neophyte with a lively, reflective introduction to selected philosophical, religious and literary sources for the discussion of a fundamental human reality. Yet there are gaps of several sorts in the presentation that provoke criticism on the part of the learned.

In the normal course of events it is churlish to criticize a presentation on the basis of the failure to discuss a particular topic or a given author. Nevertheless, in cases like these, where the topic is so wide-ranging and the literature so diffuse as to cry out for synthesis, the criticism can be justified. Put differently, the book is too unsystematic to count as philosophy and too incomplete to count as a history in the strict sense – although it is recognizable as a contribution to a genuinely philosophical history of love. What should a systematic discussion of love look like? What could Wayne Cristaudo have done better, had he taken that point into consideration? First off, there is the question of why love is so difficult to discuss in philosophy as opposed to in literary form. The short answer is that the word refers to all sorts of feelings, attitudes and actions. In fact, the multiplicity of things that can be described with the word family ‘love’ is so large as to defy definition. It is possible to save lives on the basis of love – or to take them: St. Augustine’s dictum ‘love and do what you will’ can apply among other things to what we do to our enemies in mortal combat. To speak with Wittgenstein, we have a plethora of paradigms of love, so many that members of the family of words can even refer to contradictory states of affairs. In the words of Kahlil Gibran, ‘for even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you’. Literature can offer us more insight than philosophy into a phenomenon like love, because literature can describe individual cases in all their individuality, with all of their nuances, positive and negative. Briefly, it offers us examples for reflection.

The Scholastics began their discussion of love by making a useful fourfold distinction that at least helps to get a handle on the various analogous but different senses of the term. Amor refers to passionate desire an instinctual animal need. Delectio adds the element of deliberate choice to the notion of mere attraction. Philia refers to the kind of attraction involved in friendship. Caritas is love that sacrifices itself for the beloved. In any case, as in Plato, the higher subsumes the lower in the ideal case, but it is no less possible in the less-than-ideal case that they come into conflict with one another. In any case, Cristaudo makes no such efforts at helping us systematize our views about love. At the other end of the spectrum his account of the subject can be faulted for being too Promethean. As human beings we are not in a position to study love objectively, as it were. We are not in a position to view love from without, but are in the middle of it, torn by it sometimes, euphoric from it at other times, obligated by it at still other times, etc. So the French Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel (here unmentioned) would consider love as seeped in mystery, rather than constituting the kind of objective problem that scientists confront. The difference is that we cannot get a perspective outside of ourselves when we want to investigate an essentially human phenomenon such as love. So the appropriate tone for discussing love has to be one of wonder and awe, which are not altogether lacking in Cristaudo’s book, but do not really come to the fore in a study in which the author writes sub specie aeternitatis, i.e., as all-knowing, all-seeing.

At the risk of being tedious, a few of the book’s more egregious omissions do deserve special mention. Lack of a discussion of the love that is friendship, a theme that is absolutely crucial to Aristotle with reference both to the social nature of human fulfilment and the political nature of human beings, is a central flaw in the book for both philosophical and historical reasons. It is simply amazing that Erich Fromm’s classic The Art of Loving does not even merit mention by Cristaudo. Both Fromm’s sharp demarcation between love and sentiment, the great confusions of modern times, and his insightful set of distinction between the various forms of love like erotic, motherly, brotherly and self-love, are certainly the most important effort in our time to discuss love in a sober and systematic way, as humane as it is critical. Moreover, no twentieth-century philosopher has made a more profound effort to produce a proper philosophy of love than the Jesuit Martin D’Arcy in another classic study, The Mind and Heart of Love, that also goes without mention here. Denis De Rougemont’s no less classic, if controversial, Love in the Western World, which in some ways complements Fromm’s systematic discussion with controversial but provocative accounts of how post-World War II Hollywood films incorporate a concept of romantic love, has its ultimate origins in ancient oriental mystical metaphysics as incorporated in the practices and poetry surrounding medieval courtly love, culminating hundreds of years later in Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Among the ancient authors neglected by Cristaudo, Catullus and Sappho top the list: the former for his unabashed glorification of eroticism; the latter inter alia for her paeans to homosexual love, another topic that does not merit mention in Cristaudo’s philosophical history of love – something absolutely astonishing in the twenty-first century.

The incisively witty Steve Allen once wrote that it is impossible to be funny when writing about humour. There is certainly a parallel in the idea of writing ‘lovingly’ about love; what tends to emerge is moralism. De Rougemont suggests that part of the explanation for that is that love simply transcends verbal articulation, so its primary cultural manifestations have been in music; to wit: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan. Music alone captures the emotional intensity that love involves and encapsulates archetypical experience in theatrical narratives in whose drama we can participate. Music-theater can show what philosophy cannot say, to speak with Wittgenstein. Little wonder that Wayne Cristaudo has bitten off more than he can chew.