Love A History — Simon May

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Love is a famously ineffable concept. Although, we, as a society, might agree to its importance, we struggle endlessly to corroborate a working definition for it. Fortunately for us, Simon May comes to our rescue in this philosophical history of love. He offers us a definition: love is conditioned on the promise of 'ontological rootedness.’

ontological rootedness: the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life... a rapture that sets us off on — and sustains — the long search for a secure relationship between our being and theirs.

Though it barely makes love more effable, this definition serves as a useful starting point as May unpacks how our views regarding love have changed (and they’ve changed a lot) over time. He outlines several paradigms: (1) Hebrew Bible-Augustine (~500AD) when love was made the supreme value/virtue, a love that existed exclusively between God and man, (2) Augustine-Luther (~1600) human beings were given — courtesy of God — the power to love one another, (3) 1100-1700, a human being/nature could embody divine love, (4) Rousseau/Romanticism (~1700), an individual becomes authentic only through love. 

While tracing this chronology, May summarizes the contributions of the many philosophers who’ve tried to unravel the mysteries of love. Socrates is one of the most influential, and he tells us that love is the key to becoming a flourishing individual. But it originates in lack; it is an insatiable desire to possess an absolute goodness and beauty that one does not already possess. Possessing a beautiful object, however, is not enough, Socrates wants us to be united with the essence of beauty itself… and this requires us to ascend to a (unreachable) divine realm of perfection. No other idea is as sticky in the Western conception of love as this, and some of its consequences are:

  1. Love is made the supreme value of the Western world, life’s ultimate virtue and meaning

  2. Sex is liberated, since it can now lie at the beginning of the path towards this supreme virtue

  3. Love can offer us a glimpse into the immortal, and through it, we can, ourselves, become ”if ever a man can, immortal” 

But it’s also problematic as it strips our partners of their individuality, instead positioning them as merely stepping stones in our own ascent to life’s ultimate meaning. It changes love “from the personal to the impersonal, from the individual to the general, and from the human to the — literally — inhuman.”

Aristotle’s thoughts on the subject are also influential. Through him, we learn that love is conditional: friendship-love (philia), he tells us, is conditioned on the excellences of character we perceive and are evidenced (by action) in another person. That is to say, we love others not just for what we see in them, but since character is realized through action, we come to love them for how their qualities are revealed. (Oscar Wilde: “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”)

A conditional love isn’t necessarily eternal, and, in fact, Aristotle makes that explicit: a relationship should be broken off even if one party has “remained the same while the other became better and far outstripped him in excellence.”

if one friend remained a child in intellect while the other became a fully developed man, how could they be friends when they neither approved of the same things nor delighted in and were pained by the same things? For not even with regard to each other will their tastes agree, and without this…  they cannot be friends…

If Aristotle’s love (philia) requires the similar goodness/virtue in one’s partner, a second condition is implied: we must ourselves possess a developed sense of virtue. As May puts it: “only lovers who are themselves virtuous are able, and motivated, to love the good in another.”  (Maybe this is where all those Thought Catalog headlines of ‘loving yourself before loving others’ comes from). 

Erotic relationships stand in stark contrast with this idea of love since they depend on expectations of sexual pleasure, which are either unfulfilled or do not last. Sex can even stand in the way of philia by inducing an extensive sense of possessiveness, narcissism, or spontaneity at the cost of constancy. For those couples that seek both philia and Eros, Aristotle’s philosophy does not offer any advice. We are therefore left to conclude that there will always be tension between these two different forms of love.

We learn from Aristotle that (1) love leads to self-love since loving others inspires us to strive towards our own flourishing. We are more motivated to sustaining our own self-development if we share our life with a loved one, whose virtue, by definition, is also developing along a similar trajectory. And (2) love leads to self-knowledge: we come to understand ourselves better through the aid of our loved ones who act as mirrors; “we learn about ourselves from a loved one not so much because of what he tells us, but rather by observing our reflections in him.” These lead to a consequential conclusion: individuality is fundamentally relational, i.e. we come to develop our sense of self through our interactions with others.

Other philosophers:

  • Lucretius and Ovid, naturalists who don’t see love as redemption, describe love as an “impossible craving to merge,” and offer 3 remedies for sexual love: contemplation, marriage, and promiscuity

  • Christian love distinguishes between caritas (selfless love for the sake of God) and cupiditas (love without reference to love)… in a secular society, therefore, the ability to define, recognize, and find love without this God-centered dichotomy makes love “the rarest of all talents,” and one that demands “a long and meticulous apprenticeship,” TL;DR: love is difficult; the idea of a universal Christian love (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is taken out of context of the localist/specific love that is featured in John/Paul, and the two are never reconciled

    • Divine/Christian love also speaks to other hard truths of all genuine love: (1) it cannot be reliably earned; (2) it reflects the deepest purposes of the lover in relation the world he faces; (3) the loved can ‘merit’ love to a degree, by conforming to the laws of the lover; (4) we cannot predict whom we will love or who will love us

  • 12/13th century troubadours write ballads that conceptualize women as worth repositories of love that was previously reserved for God

  • Through Spinoza we can begin to love the natural world and God, not nature for the sake of God

  • Montaigne writes about his soul-friendship with another man, Etienne, a bond so strong that it makes no sense for Etienne to be grateful for Montaigne’s good acts and services because he performs them to thank himself for actions that benefit his own life… “Soul friends not only refuse to calculate the costs and benefits of friendship, they cease even to be aware of them.”

    • He warns against the intoxicating extremes of exalting oneself unrealistically or debasing oneself unnecessarily; May:

The stakes are so high in love… that we readily seek qualities that our loved one doesn’t have because we can’t assimilate those she does. Instead of understanding and enjoying her as she is we falsely set her up as the savior who can banish all our insecurity and incompleteness, magically replacing them with safety and wholeness. Instead of the vulnerability of relating in the here-and-now to her as an individual whose life we cannot control, we delude ourselves that an ideal union exists in which we can posses her perfectly.

  • Schopenhauer, writes that sexual love is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort, and shifts the debate surrounding love’s desire for intimacy with a virtuous somebody to a search for a mate with strict adherence to biological/psychological criteria

    • The genius/contribution here is to reconcile envisioning romantic love as having a purely biological purpose without reducing the actual experience of being in love

    • But he concludes that our existence can only have value if we deny the will-to-life from which sexual desire springs, thereby denying the striving of the ego to procreate

  • Nietzsche poses significant challenges to the Western/Christian concept of love which he argues sets us against ourselves/our true nature, since we are incited to hate what is real (the physical world of change) and love what is unreal (the permanent fictitious state free of pain/loss)

  • Freud, writes that we become individuals through the constant struggle to secure loved ones… and more importantly underwrites today’s ubiquitous concept that childhood experiences form patterns that are repeated later in life

    • But Freud’s vision of love is ultimately tragic, through his lens of love, lovers crave union with another who they set up to disappoint themselves, by projecting ideas derived from the internalization of their parents

  • Proust: the sort of love we seek is determined by our fixed temperament which seeks out either those who are opposite or complementary to ourselves, but the twin masters of love are ultimately elusiveness and boredom: we seek what we don’t have and when we get it we quickly become inured

The arc of love that May traces is not a smooth one. The thinkers he includes often disagree either categorically or in specific parts with those who came before and after them. May himself does not suggest that any one thinker is right or wrong, but summarizes in his conclusion a few ‘facts’ about love.

Love is conditional. It’s earned and never guaranteed.

Love is ephemeral. It only lasts for as long as a lover can sustain the attentiveness towards his partner and development of his own virtue that are the preconditions for love. Don’t confuse the conditional relationship that defines love for habit, a superficial guarantee. Habit deceives us into thinking we might have found “an intimate and easy-going harmony in our relationship; we support and participate in each other’s projects; [when we have only] merely maneuvered ourselves into a limbo of dependence.”

Love is selfish. Genuine love requires self-possession, a self-interest in our own flourishing, and therefore a “self-hood of the most developed kind.”


  • the importance of prior models (parents/society/peers) of love is addressed

  • finding beauty is a consequence of love, not the cause (Plato)

  • love has multiple modes… we can say that Eros is the desire for a loved one, which triggers agape (selfless love), a passionate surrender to her presence; and this develops a mode of attention that has the characteristics of philia

  • to avoid vulnerability, love can lead to fear, hate, manipulation, and ultimately relentless scheming

  • hate is a kind of attentiveness, a dimension of love, and therefore isn’t the opposite of love; disgust is the opposite of love, it does the opposite of inspiring ontological rootedness

and May’s concluding sentence:

The command to love God is a way of saying that our flourishing is founded upon a lifelong search for a powerful relationship to the ground of our being — and that, whether it takes religious or secular form, such as search is the ultimate purpose of a well-lived life.