In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Do Only Fools Rush In?

The myth about the incompatibility of love and wisdom

'Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you." Elvis Presley

“Love is for fools wise enough to take a chance.” Unknown

“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.” Victor Hugo

"I, for one, would rather fall flat on my face as I serenade my partner (off-key and all) in a bikini and a short little pool skirt than sit on the edge of the pool, dipping my toes in silence." Debby Herbenick

The common perception of genuine romantic love is that it involves no small measure of foolishness. Nevertheless, I will claim here that it is possible to perceive both romantic wisdom and romantic intelligence in sincere and profound love.

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We are all familiar with numerous songs and claims that imply that foolishness is essential and even constructive for romantic love to flourish. Such love, which is focused merely on the beloved, is seen as incompatible with wisdom, which involves taking a broad perspective. If "all you need is love" then those "wise" lovers who also take into account broad perspectives actually betray pure, ideal love. As Rose Franken argues, "Anyone can be passionate, but it takes real lovers to be silly."

Wisdom and foolishness

Wisdom may be characterized as the ability to make good decisions based on knowledge and experience. Wise behavior, which considers all relevant information, should have a plan for any course of action. Accordingly, wisdom entails being prudent and sensible. It includes taking into account long-term considerations and consequences, as well as postponing immediate satisfaction.

Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. It is expressed in rushed or impulsive decisions and the lack of proper careful considerations. In foolishness we do not assess all relevant information or consider broader, long-term perspectives. Foolishness is more spontaneous and this is what the prevailing romantic ideology demands: act according to the promptings of your loving heart and nothing else is of importance.

Intellectual and romantic reasoning

The association of love with foolishness is related to the general nature of emotions and the specific nature of love. The conflict between emotional reasoning and intellectual reasoning is evident in our everyday life: emotions essentially involve a personal, partial and volatile perspective; intellectual reasoning takes a more general, objective, and stable perspective.

I believe that we should neither suppress our emotions nor allow them to overwhelm us excessively; we should aim at a balance that combines thought and emotions. The popular notion of "Emotional Intelligence" refers to such a combination and recognizes its significant value in decision-making and in everyday life.

The conflict between emotional and intellectual perspectives can be clearly observed in romantic love. Love is characterized as lacking any broad intellectual consideration but rather as being obsessively focused on the beloved. The beloved is seen as irreplaceable and exclusive ("There is only one true love"). As the old song says, "Millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view— because I only have eyes for you." In contrast to the broad perspective of wisdom, love's viewpoint is very partial. As this song further indicates, "My love must be a kind of blind love; I can't see anyone but you." Once it is assumed that ideal love can overcome all other obstacles, there is no need to broaden the focused perspective and take a wider view of reality.

In contrast to the combination between emotional and intellectual perspectives, which is implicit in emotional intelligence, in the romantic realm such a combination is not welcome. Broad romantic wisdom is perceived to undermine the ideal nature of genuine love. In the popular view, love should have nothing to do with wisdom. I believe that love is more complex than this view and we can seek and achieve wisdom in love.

The complexity of love

The complex experience of romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness—that is, a focused attraction to external appearance, and (b) praiseworthiness—that is, a broader positive appraisal of personal characteristics. Romantic love consists of both sexual desire and friendship: sexual desire is focused upon attractiveness while friendship is mainly concerned with the pattern of praiseworthiness. Romantic love requires the presence of both patterns. An attractive woman may want to be loved not merely for her beauty but also for her actions and personal qualities. An unattractive woman may wish the contrary: that her beloved values her external appearance as much as he does her kindness or wisdom (see here).

The foolish part of romantic love is often the result of physical attraction, which is an instantaneous reaction that leaves no room for intellectual or wise considerations. If physical attraction is seen as the central element in romantic love, then behaving foolishly is typical of romantic love. Those who view love this way might think that if the attraction is not strong enough to make one do silly things, it is not really profound romantic love.

However, physical attraction cannot be considered as the most central element in romantic love. We know that the value of physical attraction decreases with age and with the length of the relationship. The value of personal characteristics implicit in friendship, such as caring, kindness, loyalty, and wisdom, increases with age and with the length of the relationship. In fact, Ellen Berscheid claims that companionate love, which is based on friendship, "may be the 'staff of life' for many relationships and a better basis for a satisfying marriage than romantic love."

When the physical attraction stands on its own we may call it "lust." Lust, which may be part of romantic love, is a brief attitude. Romantic love is, or is desired to be, a long-term attitude involving not merely sexual interaction with the partner but living with the partner for a long time. As lust refers to a limited, brief sexual experience, wise broad intellectual considerations are not relevant; on the contrary, they may hinder the attraction. However, if we wish to have a long-term profound romantic relationship, intellectual considerations are relevant. In this sense, we should also be wise in romantic love.

The wise head and romantic heart

I would not say that romantic behavior in itself is foolish; in many circumstances, behaving romantically is the wisest behavior. I would also not characterize any sexual, or lustful, behavior in itself as foolish. The foolishness or wisdom of these activities depends on the given context. Thus, it is risky and usually foolish to make long-term decisions, such as getting married, that are based upon merely transitory feelings, such as short-term lust. The "morning-after effect" clearly illustrates how foolish lustful decisions can be even a short time after we act upon them.

There are some actions that are seen initially as foolish, such as marrying as a result of love at first sight, but that later may be found to be very wise. Likewise someone might initially consider her partner to be a compromise because he does not score high according to certain social criteria, such as his external appearance or social status. In some cases, this compromise could turn into profound love; in other cases, the partner's lack of these characteristics could hinder the long-term love between the two. Thus, they may have the negative effect of distracting the agent from adequately considering other characteristics that are more essential, such as kindness, caring, reciprocity, and respect. For many, when the dust and lust settle down, so does the brightness of superficial short-term characteristics; the value of other characteristics begins to emerge, and what was considered to be a romantic compromise may be perceived as the love of one's life.

The conflict between the wise intellect ("head") and the spontaneous emotions ("heart") is central in the romantic realm. The heart is very personal and partial, while the head is can be more balanced and objective. The way we integrate the two is essential to our romantic well-being. Accordingly, neither the head nor the heart can be our sole guide. Romantic attraction is a great ideal but sometimes a poor guide.

However, the opposite extreme of being only wise and practical in romantic love is also harmful, as it overlooks the essential aspect of attraction. It is a mistake to marry merely because of external benefits or long-term speculations. The Jewish Ethics of the Fathers says: “Whenever love depends upon something [not constitutive of love], and then this thing passes, then the love passes away too. But if love does not depend upon something like this, then love will never pass away.” Taking these non-constitutive features into consideration in one’s romantic decisions is a kind of romantic compromise that may be necessary, but when they are given too much weight, they can be ultimately harmful.

Wise glasses usually perceive reality better than rosy romantic glasses. For those who believe in the romantic assumption that love can overcome all obstacles, wise glasses are of no worth and they therefore continue to disregard reality. Although there may be some benefits in intentionally overlooking certain difficulties, turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a foolish mind to our environment and personal limitations can hardly be advantageous. Accordingly, lovers should not foolishly disregard reality, but should wisely regard it as an obstacle to overcome or to bypass, or even one on which we should compromise. This does not involve foolishness, but rather a wise romantic faith and hope of overcoming many, but not all, of the obstacles that we encounter in reality.

Mildred's story

Contrary to prevailing ideals, we integrate the head in romantic decisions of the heart. Consider the true story of Mildred, which I described in detail in a previous post. Mildred choose to marry someone who "was not the most romantic of my loves" as he was "less athletic" than her former lovers, with whom she had tempestuous relationships. She eventually chose to marry a less handsome man who had been her (nonromantic) friend for several years. She considered her previous romantic relationships to be shallow, as passion is superficial and can only be maintained for a relatively short time. The qualities of friendship, such as caring, loyalty, and a sense of humor are of greater value in the long term. It was not easy for her to accept her choice, and consequently she had two extramarital affairs shortly after their marriage. But she then realized what was most important to her, and she stayed with her husband who became the love of her life. Mildred's choice seems to have ultimately been a very wise romantic choice despite her initial perception of it as a romantic compromise.

Conclusions

Romantic behavior takes place within a reality in which there are limitations and obstacles. The heart may point to an ideal place, but the head should examine the road leading there, taking into account the pits and falls and possible future obstacles. We should then combine the two in order to make an optimal decision. In the romantic realm, the heart should be given considerable value, as we love to please our heart; but we should not give the heart exclusive power over the head, as we also love to live well and have a stable, satisfying future. Although there are many romantic circumstances in which acting foolishly is commendable, there are other romantic circumstances in which acting wisely is essential.

The claim that love and wisdom are incompatible is a myth, but if taken with some reservations, in certain circumstances it can be a beneficial myth.

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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