A Short History of Love
How love became the new religion.
Posted June 23, 2017
[Article revised on 25 April 2020.]
The Greek philosopher Empedocles (d. 435 BCE) held that there are four primordial elements: air, earth, fire, and water.
These elements are driven together and apart by the opposed cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Love brings the elements together, and unopposed Love leads to ‘The One’, a divine and resplendent sphere.
But strife gradually degrades this sphere, returning it to the elements, and this cosmic cycle repeats itself ad infinitum.
According to legend, Empedocles killed himself by leaping into the flames of Mount Etna, either to prove that he was immortal or have people believe that he was.
Empedocles may have conceived of love as a great cosmic principle, but it was Plato (d. 348/7 BCE) who first imagined it as the transcendental, redemptory force that it has become.
Before Plato, and for a long time after, people did of course fall in love, but they did not believe that this love might in some sense save them, as we tend to today.
When, in Homer’s Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or exalting.
In Homer’s Odyssey, despite her many suitors, Penelope remained faithful to her husband Odysseus, but her commitment is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. When Odysseus finally returned and slaughtered all her suitors, Penelope was unable so much as to recognize him.
Plato’s Symposium contains a myth about the origins of human love, the Myth of Aristophanes.
Once upon a time, there were three kinds of people: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and hermaphrodite, with both male and female parts, descended from the moon.
These early people were completely round, each with four arms and four legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards, and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets. They were wild and unruly and threatened to scale the heavens. So Zeus, the father of the gods, cut each one of them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling’. After that, people searched all over for their other half. When they finally found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go.
This is the origin of our desire for others: those of us who desire members of the opposite sex used to be hermaphrodites, whereas men who desire men used to be male, and women who desire women used to be female.
When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by mere lust, but by the need to be whole again, to be restored to our original nature.
Later in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, from whom he learnt the art of love.
According to Diotima, a youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, he learns to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to that of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once he has transcended the physical, the youth gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various branches of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, the youth is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. In so doing, he exchanges the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue itself, gaining immortality and the love of the gods.
Although Plato’s ‘ladder of love’ eventually gained the upper hand, other models of love in antiquity are the ‘perfect friendship’ of Plato’s one-time student Aristotle (d. 322 BCE), and the naturalism of the Roman poets Lucretius (d. 55 BCE) and Ovid (d. 17/18 CE).
For Aristotle, friendships founded on goodness and virtue are far superior to those founded on advantage alone or pleasure alone.
Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good—and goodness is an enduring thing.
Compared to other forms of association, perfect friendship leads to a high degree of mutual benefit, including rare and precious commodities such as companionship, dependability, and trust.
More important still, to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and judgement, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and, therefore, amounts to happiness.
Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if a pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive quality time together.
A paradigm of perfect friendship, albeit from a very different time and place, is that between the essayist Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592) and the humanist Etienne de la Boétie (d. 1563), who became the closest friends from the moment they met at a feast in Bordeaux.
Friendship, wrote Montaigne, ‘seized my whole will’ and ‘led it to plunge and lose itself in his’. ‘Our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.’
Montaigne struggled to account for his enthusiasm: ‘If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.’
The young men had much in common, including their privileged backgrounds, soaring intellects, and refined sensibilities.
More importantly, they shared a devotion to classical and Aristotelian ideals of the good life, which had prepared the ground in which their friendship could blossom into one so fine that ‘it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries’.
In a sonnet, la Boétie declaimed: ‘You have been bound to me, Montaigne, both by the power of nature and by virtue, which is the sweet allurement of love.’
The married Montaigne never fully recovered from la Boétie’s premature death from the plague, and for the rest of his life felt like ‘no more than a half person’. No one, he lamented, should ever be ‘joined and glued to us so strongly that they cannot be detached without tearing off our skin and some part of our flesh as well.’
Compared to the four years of friendship with la Boétie, the rest of his life seemed ‘but smoke and ashes, a night dark and dreary’.
It is sobering to think that, had the Aristotelian template not been available, and socially condoned, their friendship may never have flown.
Love, like madness, can only fill the models that society makes available.
Lucretius and Ovid did not idealize love, seeing it neither as a track to transcendence, like Plato, nor a vehicle of virtue, like Aristotle.
On the contrary, they thought of love as nothing more than a thinly garbed animal instinct, a kind of insanity that could nonetheless be enjoyed if tamed by reason and sublimed into art.
The modern heirs to Lucretius and Ovid are Schopenhauer, and, later, Freud and Proust.
In The World as Will (1819), Schopenhauer argues that beneath the world of appearances lies the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving and reproduction.
Everything in the universe is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract objectified hunger, and so on.
Even our cognitive faculties evolved for no purpose other than to meet the exigencies of will. Although able to perceive and reason, our intellect is not designed or equipped to pierce through the veil of mâyâ (illusion) and apprehend the true nature of reality.
There is, therefore, nothing in us that is able to oppose the demands and dictates of will, which drive us unwittingly into a life of inevitable struggle and strife.
The most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. The will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring draws man and woman together in a shared delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, the delusion dies and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.
On the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the Jewish and Christian models of love developed alongside the classical ones.
In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand: ‘now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.’
True, the Old Testament instructs us to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and to love our neighbours (Leviticus 19:18). But the Binding of Isaac underlines that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience and allegiance to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love.
The New Testament, in contrast to the Old, elevates love into the supreme virtue.
More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption: ‘He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.’
One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’
It is a far cry from the lex talionis (law of retaliation) contained in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus: ‘…thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.’
Jesus may have spoken Greek, and might have come under the direct or indirect influence of Platonism.
But even if his mind had not been imbued with Platonic ideals, over the centuries, the Church itself sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy, especially Platonism; and Christian love, more properly called charity, and ultimately aimed at God, began to blur with something much more individualistic.
The blending of Christian love with Platonism prepared the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in late eleventh century Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France).
A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married or otherwise unavailable lady, often of a superior social rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to a higher virtue, notably by carrying out a succession of chivalrous acts or tests.
The significance is this, that for the first time in the Judeo-Christian tradition, love, in so far as courtly love can be counted as love, did not ultimately aim at, or depend upon, God—and the Church duly declared it a heresy.
In a radical cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve, although in this context an essentially passive and interchangeable idol, turned from devilish temptress or object of contempt to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God.
The troubadour tradition, which in any case had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.
Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) taught that nature is the mirror of God.
Although a reforming Christian, his Canticle of the Creatures comes across as pagan in inspiration: ‘Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.’
In the next period, God gradually comes back down to earth, to be worshipped through his creation, and, above all, through the human body.
This, in any case, served as justification for all those Renaissance nudes, first among which Michelangelo’s magisterial statue of David (1504) which the Florentines displayed at the heart of their city in the Piazza della Signoria. One could admire David as the mirror of God, but, for just that reason, one could not turn him into an object of lust.
God’s earthly descent ends with the ‘heretic’ philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (d. 1677), who thought of God and nature as one and the same. More precisely, Spinoza brought nature into God, thereby, in some sense, eliminating or radically redefining Him: ‘Whatsoever is, is in God… God is the indwelling, and not the transient cause of all things.’
As God retreated from love, Platonism, which for centuries had been lurking in the background, stepped in to fill the void.
Abraham had surrendered himself and his son Isaac out of devotion to God. But in the Romantic era, love became all the opposite: a means of finding and validating oneself, of lending weight and texture and solidity to one’s life—as encapsulated by Sylvester’s 1978 hit, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), the final kissing scene in Cinema Paradiso, and countless other popular songs and films.
In the time of God, ‘finding oneself’—or, more accurately, losing oneself in God—had demanded years of patient spiritual practice. But after the French Revolution, romantic love could come to the rescue of almost anyone, with very little effort or sacrifice on anyone’s part. Being saved became simply a matter of luck.
Plato’s ladder of love had been an elitist project designed to sublime sexual desire into wisdom and virtue, but the Romantics, concerned with neither God nor reason, held that love with a good and beautiful person could only intensify sexual desire.
The sacred seeped out of God and into love, and, with more success than reason, progress, communism, or any other -ism, love took the place of the dying religion in lending substance and meaning to our lives.
People had once loved God, but now they loved love: more than with their beloved, they, like the troubadours before them, fell in love with love itself.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
Plato, Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett.
Aristotle, Nicomachen Ethics VIII. Trans. WD Ross.
Montaigne M, On Friendship. Trans. Donald Frame.
Boétie E, as quoted in Bakewell S (2011): A life of Montaigne… p92. Vintage Books.
Ovid, The Heroines. Trans. G Showerman.
Ovid, The Art of Love II. Trans. J Lewis May.
Schopenhauer A (1819), The World as Will and Representation.
Bible: Genesis 22:12 (KJV).
Bible: John 3:14-15 (KJV).
Bible: Matthew 5:44 (KJV).
St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures. Trans. Franciscan Friars Third Order Regular.
Spinoza, Baruch (1677): Ethics I, 15 & 18.