Friday, 1 May 2015

The Meaning of Love

‘Love’ is perhaps the most diluted word in any language. Whenever most of us resort to this word, it is typically in an offhand manner, almost as if we were afraid of dwelling on it. What has always intrigued me upon some reflection is that men will openly speak of their sexual conquests, whereas love is a matter that would make them cringe. The main reason for this appears to be as follows: a sexual conquest entails a power relation in which man is the stronger party, whereas in the case of love man will have to contend with parity or be willing to undergo submission. According to Plato, a man madly in love readily subjects himself to the kind of humiliation that would make even his enemies feel embarrassed on his behalf. Few amongst us would be willing to assume such a self-effacing posture, whether in words or in deeds, let alone allowing the world to witness it.

All the great philosophers have written extensively on love. Aristotle views love as one of the primary human instincts, or concupiscence as it was called by the scholastics. Concupiscence it is that impels man to obtain what he desires, and if any impediments were to prevent our advance towards the desired object, our other primary instinct comes into play: irascibility. The latter instinct is our inclination to anger, which gives us the strength to do away with that which impedes our advance towards the desired object. Rendered into an idiom to which all of us are accustomed, our primary instincts are love and hatred. Furthermore, our capacity for hatred will be proportionate with our capacity for love. Or to quote a famous German philosopher, ‘what does he know of love, he who has never hated?’

Thomas Aquinas elevates the Aristotelian principle of love as instinct to an all-pervading universal force. Love, according to Aquinas, is a movement towards. From falling bodies to the orbit of the planets to the growth of the plants to the man on the verge of madness owing to the splendour of a lady: it is all love.

This is all very beautiful, but the pinnacle of all theorisation on love is reached with Spinoza. What Spinoza has to say regarding love is so chillingly profound that it merits verbatim quotation:

“He who conceives, that the object of his love is affected pleasurably or painfully, will himself be affected pleasurably or painfully; and the one or the other emotion will be greater or less in the lover according as it is greater or less in the thing loved.”

With Spinoza love assumes a cognitive character heretofore not formulated philosophically, viz., he conceives of love as a kind of parity that extends from being a purely external relation to a meeting of minds. Often portrayed as one of the driest amongst the philosophers, it does not require of us that we delve far below the surface in order to encounter a man of tremendous passion. The German Romantics discerned this passion with ease and termed Spinoza ‘a man intoxicated with divine [love].’ The imprint of Spinoza is all too apparent in the case of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers; the protagonist in the mentioned novel is so enthralled by the object of his love that he sees her countenance in all things, and this to the point that he loses his mind. Let us return to Spinoza in this regard:

“In proportion as a mental image or emotion is referred to more objects, so are there more causes whereby it can be aroused or fostered, all of which […] the mind contemplates simultaneously in association with the given emotion; therefore the emotion is more frequent, or more often in full vigour, and […] occupies the mind more.”

Thus far have we have treated of love as instinct, as a universal force, and as cognition. But there is another aspect to love that tends to rob it of all its romantic zeal: love as a social phenomenon. There is every reason to believe that love has undergone manifold conceptual-evolutionary mutations, and it is plausible to think that our primitive ancestors knew nothing of love as we know it. What we call love was no more than a crude act of sexual gratification amongst our primitive ancestors, and insights into the sexual habits of ancestors can be gained by observing simians: parents will copulate with their children and brothers with their sisters.

Love as we know it saw its first beginnings as men set out to order their social relations in accordance with the dictates of reason rather than let nature run her course. Henceforth, sexuality would become regulated, possibly because of the socially disruptive consequences unfettered copulation, and once the factor of property came into play, the institution of matrimony became a necessity. Kant, at his pithiest, gave us the following definition of matrimony:

“Geschlechtsgemeinschaft […] ist der wechselseitige Gebrauch, den ein Mensch von eines anderen Geschlechtsorganen und Vermoegen macht […]. Die natuerliche Geschlechtsgemeinschaft ist nun entweder die nach der blossen tierischen Natur oder nach dem Gesetz. […] Die leztere ist die Ehe [.]”

As we can clearly see, Kant’s definition is in perfect conformity with what was stated in the preceding paragraph. Alas, with Kant love has lost all its allure. And just when you thought matters could not get any worse, Marx demolished love completely. In his Communist Manifesto, Marx hit back at those representatives of the bourgeoisie who accused the communists of wanting to erode the institution of matrimony:

‘Die Bourgeoisie hat dem Familienverhaeltnis seinen ruehrend-sentimentalen Schleier abgerissen und es auf ein reines Geldverhaeltnis zureuckgefuehrt. […] Worauf beruht die gegenwaertige, die buergerliche Familie? Auf dem Kapital, auf dem Privaterwerb.’

Implicit in Marx’s spectacular counter-attack is the following retort:

‘You accuse us communists of wanting to erode the institution of matrimony? Forget not that this not-so-holy matrimony of yours is no more than a sophisticated form of prostitution.’

What Marx is likely to have had in mind were the marriages of convenience commonly practised by the European aristocracies and the bourgeoisie. Marriages between cousins, and at times even between uncles and nieces, served the purpose of shielding one’s property. Werner Sombart, the brilliantly unorthodox thinker that he was, saw in the bourgeois rationalisation of love another sign of the insidious spirit of capitalism. The stored up eros of the uncle, who is likely to have had qualms about going to bed with his niece, was channeled towards the accumulation of wealth instead.

If Kant, Marx, and Sombart are right, what is it that remains of love? Is love a sham? Does love not really exist? Are the sublime thoughts of Aquinas and Spinoza nothing but futile invocations of chimerae?

Kant the destroyer will enable us to rebuild at least some of the edifice of love that came tumbling down with the demolition work that he and Marx had carried out. According to Kant, there are two ways of perceiving the world: (i) the world as beholden to the irreversible laws of causality and (ii) the world as ordered by the regulative principles issuing forth from our own minds. It is to the latter category that love must be assigned. Love has now become a command, in adherence to the teachings of Christ, according to which we ought to love all.

But is it possible to love all? According to Hegel, unabashed bias is in the very nature of love. Love is all about making an exception for another human being. Love does therefore not admit of being universalised.

Perhaps the most intriguing attempt at unravelling the mystery of love was made by Schopenhauer. The most extreme cases of reciprocal love, according to Schopenhauer, are triggered by what he calls 'the genius of the species', viz., when two human beings are so strongly attracted to one another that they are willing to destroy any force that might prevent their coming together, it is in fact nature herself qua metaphysical entity that wills their union. The motives of the two lovers are confined to the level of individuality, whereas the intentions of nature of a universal order: to create a superior offspring for the benefit of the whole species.

According to the Arabs, God has 99 attributes and the 100th is known to God only. Something similar could well be said of love: the farther you delve into the matter, the more do you become convinced that there are dimensions to love that shall remain forever unknown.

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