Love: A History

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Love—unconditional, selfless, unchanging, sincere, and totally accepting—is worshipped today as the West's only universal religion. To challenge it is one of our few remaining taboos. In this pathbreaking and superbly written book, philosopher Simon May does just that, dissecting our resilient ruling ideas of love and showing how they are the product of a long and powerful cultural heritage.

Tracing over 2,500 years of human thought and history, May shows how our ideal of love developed from its Hebraic and Greek origins alongside Christianity until, during the last two centuries, "God is love" became "love is God"—so hubristic, so escapist, so untruthful to the real nature of love, that it has booby-trapped relationships everywhere with deluded expectations. Brilliantly, May explores the very different philosophers and writers, both skeptics and believers, who dared to think differently: from Aristotle's perfect friendship and Ovid's celebration of sex and "the chase," to Rousseau's personal authenticity, Nietzsche's affirmation, Freud's concepts of loss and mourning, and boredom in Proust. Against our belief that love is an all-powerful solution to finding meaning, security, and happiness in life, May reveals with great clarity what love actually is: the intense desire for someone whom we believe can ground and affirm our very existence. The feeling that "makes the world go round" turns out to be a harbinger of home--and in that sense, of the sacred.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Philosopher May (Atomic Sushi) reexamines the Western notion of love arguing against the illusions-not to be confused with characteristics-of love, namely unconditionality, eternity, and selflessness. May begins his argument by deconstructing the root of these ideas; starting with the Hebrew Bible, he reviews stories such as God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son, and concludes that "we should model human love not on how God is said to love us but on how we are commanded to love God." Delving through the New Testament, May provides numerous examples of conditional love. With detailed excerpts and discussion, he explores a wide range of the philosophies about love, including those of Plato and Socrates; Spinoza, Schlegel, and Novalis; Nietzsche, Freud, and Proust-and how the concept of human love changed over time. May finds that our expectations of love are out of line with reality-that unconditional, eternal, and selfless love may be an ideal that is impossible or extremely rare. However, people continue to seek love because they need "ontological rootedness," which brings "a rapture that sets us off on-and sustains-the long search for a secure relationship between our being and theirs." May's argument is not groundbreaking but his discussion of the philosophies provides a coherent narrative that is aided by his illustrative writing.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Financial Times

"May could just have achieved the seemingly impossible and produced a truly original philosophy of love... May is able to draw out what is true in each age’s perception of love, discard what is misleading, and synthesise the result into the most persuasive account of love’s nature I have ever read."—Financial Times
Times Higher Education - Jane O'Grady

"Rich, provocative and illuminating."—Jane O’Grady, Times Higher Education
Choice - R. White

"Well written and provocative, this book challenges tradition."—R. White, Choice
The Wall Street Journal - Charlotte Allen

“Intellectually engaging. . . Provocative.”—Charlotte Allen, The Wall Street Journal
Library Journal
May (Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; Nietzsche's Ethics and His War on "Morality") finds the key to love in "ontological rootedness." People want to feel at home in the world, and intense rapture for a particular person can help us achieve this. Though love is thus of vital significance, May warns against exalting love to quasidivine status, a process he argues has taken place since the 18th century, as belief in God has declined in Western societies. Placing love in God's stead has led to distortions about it. Love, contrary to common opinion, is not in essence unconditional, selfless, and eternal. May traces the idea of love as ontological rootedness to its beginning in the Hebrew scriptures. He goes on to consider transformations of the idea through Plato, Aristotle, New Testament Christianity, the Middle Ages, Rousseau and the romantics, Nietzsche, Freud, and Proust. VERDICT This book deserves to rank with Denis de Rougemont's classic Love in the Western World. Readers interested in the history of ideas, philosophy, and religion, as well as the proverbial general reader, will gain much from May's well-crafted study.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH
The Wall Street Journal
Intellectually engaging. . . Provocative.—Charlotte Allen, The Wall Street Journal

— Charlotte Allen

Times Higher Education
… rich, provocative and illuminating.—Jane O’Grady, Times Higher Education

— Jane O'Grady

John Gray
'Philosophers, theologians and intellectual historians have all talked about love, but until now there has not been a history of love - the idea and the emotion - in its bewilderingly many varieties. Simon May has given us such a history. Ranging from its ancient sources in the Hebrew Bible to the modern analysis of Proust, May shows how the contemporary ideal of love as the supreme human experience has developed from the twin influences of religion and Romanticism. He offers us more than a history of one of our most cherished values, however. For this is also a powerfully demystifying critique, a challenging and ambitious theory of love that aims to show what it can and cannot mean in our lives.' - John Gray
Roger Scruton
'A beautifully written and fascinating account of the cultural history of love. Simon May gives a vindication of love that is both deeply insightful and inspiring, and, whether you believe that God is love or that Love is god, you will find your portrait in this book and rejoice in it.' - Roger Scruton
A.C. Grayling
'May's enquiry into the nature of love is an amazing tour de force: surprising, provocative, refreshing and instructive by turns, it surpasses everything hitherto written on this subject in its scope and ambition.' - A.C. Grayling
Sunday Telegraph - Holly Kyte
"It’s a big question: what is love? May plunders Western poetry, philosophy and psychology to find answers, tracing our understanding from religious to romantic to ossified. Thought-provoking stuff."—Holly Kyte, Sunday Telegraph
Sunday Herald (Glasgow) - Lesley McDowell
"Almost intimidatingly erudite and wide-ranging… May asks why attitudes to love haven’t changed over the centuries when those things associated with it, like sex and marriage, have changed enormously. We still expect too much from it, a hangover from Romanticism, and must abandon the old opposites (love as self-sacrificing, love as self-pleasing) for a new theory of love."—Lesley McDowell, Sunday Herald
Wendy Steiner
'Simon May's Love is that rarest of achievements: scholarship as inspired illumination. Fluent, witty, humane, May explores Western concepts of love from the Torah to Romanticism and on to the “fascinating paradox” that the liberation of sex and marriage in our day coexists with retrograde, and at times destructive, notions of love. May offers a corrective, and the reasoning that takes us there is an utterly riveting adventure.' -Wendy Steiner, author of The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art
Well written and provocative, this book challenges tradition.—R. White, Choice

— R. White

Zocalo Public Square
Shortlisted for the 2011 Zócalo Public Square Prize

— Zócalo Public Square Prize Shortlist

The Good Book Guide
"a challenging and thought-provoking study" — Good Book Guide
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300118308
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2011
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon May is visiting professor of philosophy at King's College London, and Birkbeck, University of London.
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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2011 Simon May
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11830-8

Chapter One

Love plays God

'Almost two thousand years – and not a single new god!' cried Nietzsche in 1888.

But he was wrong. The new god was there – indeed was right under his nose. That new god was love. Human love.

Human love, now even more than then, is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment. Not as the rarest of exceptions but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it; not as the result of its being infused into us by a creator-God or after long and disciplined training, but as a spontaneous and intuitive power with which, to some degree, we are all endowed.

Though this faith in love as the one democratic, even universal, form of salvation open to us moderns is the result of a long religious history that saw divine love as the origin of human love and as the model to be imitated, it has paradoxically come into its own because of a decline in religious faith. It has been possible only because, since the end of the eighteenth century, love has increasingly filled the vacuum left by the retreat of Christianity. Around that time the formula 'God is love' became inverted into 'love is God', so that it is now the West's undeclared religion – and perhaps its only generally accepted religion.

What does this really mean? It means that in cultures formed by the Christian tradition genuine love tends to get modelled on a certain picture of divine love, whether or not we are Christians. This picture has less to do with what Jesus is reported to have said – indeed, as we will see, he seldom mentions love (and almost never speaks of sex) – than with much later beliefs and practices. The key beliefs are these:

Love is unconditional: it is neither aroused nor diminished by the other's value or qualities; it is a spontaneous gift that seeks nothing for the giver. (Paradigm case: parents' love for their children.)

Love relates to and affirms the loved one in their full particularity, the 'bad' as well as the 'good'.

Love is fundamentally selfless: a disinterested concern for the flourishing of loved ones for their own sake.

Love is benevolent and harmonious – a haven of peace.

Love is eternal: it – or its blessings – will never die.

Love transports us beyond the messy imperfections of the everyday world into a superior state of purity and perfection.

Love redeems life's losses and sufferings: it delivers us from them; gives them meaning; overwhelms them with its own value; and reconciles us with that highest good from which they express our separation.

These sorts of ideas saturate the popular culture. They are also repeated by otherwise bold thinkers, who promulgate clichés such as love as 'disinterested concern for the well-being' of the loved one 'for their own sake', or love as the spontaneous 'bestowal of value', or love as directed at the loved one's 'full particularity' – and who are quick to chide great forebears like Plato and Proust for failing to subscribe to such worthy commonplaces. Above all, these ideals fuel our expectations of romantic love and of parents' love for their children. To its immense cost, human love has usurped a role that only God's love used to play.

* * *

This divinisation of human love becomes most obvious when we are personally confronted with severe loss – the sort that can abruptly drain our lives of meaning and security. Faced by the fragility of our achievements, possessions, health, jobs; by the helpless suffering of illness, poverty, bereavement, terrorism, or unemployment, love is enlisted as the one measure of value to which most Westerners, whether they are religious believers or not, can cling. Why me? Why the innocent child? To what end such calamity? Only love seems undefeated by such questions. Only love seems to have the all-conquering force to flood horrors with meaning – 'he didn't die in vain' – or, where even it cannot do that because he obviously did die in vain, then to give his life unquestionable value – 'he loved and was loved, and this vindicates his life, and this vindication of his life obliterates the meaninglessness of his death'.

The religion of love is no less attractive to the diehard atheist than to the agnostic or the believer. Many atheists find in love a taste of the absolute and the eternal that they rigorously deny to any other realm of life. There is hardly a humanist funeral that, having begun with a defiant statement that it is a godless celebration, doesn't seek comfort in the love that 'survives' the deceased person and thus gives him a measure of immortality: survives in his acts of loving and in his being loved; survives in the memories that the still-living have of that love.

If you then ask an atheist whether love, or its consequences, somehow lives on when even those touched by it have themselves died, he will, in many – perhaps most – cases, wish to say 'yes', as if love were a moral energy that, once expressed, can never be extinguished. For the inheritors and successors of Christianity, this belief is their last defence against despair. They would agree with St Paul that 'Love never ends' (1 Corinthians 13:8). The final line of Philip Larkin's poem of disenchantment, 'An Arundel Tomb', speaks for a whole civilisation: 'What will survive of us is love.'

* * *

By contrast, since the West started losing its faith in God in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all his substitutes – all those objects of worship that have, at one time or another, been seen as harbingers of human exaltation and redemption; as imbuing with value and meaning anything they structure – have, one by one, been found wanting. Reason, Progress, the Nation, the State, Communism, and the bevy of other idols and 'isms' that were, and in one or two cases – like nationalism and art – still sporadically are, elevated to religions of salvation to fill the void left by the slow 'death' of God, all failed to deliver the ultimate contentment or limitless promise expected of them. For all the spiritual and moral significance attached to them, none could sustain that vision to which the Western imagination is still so addicted and for the sake of which it continually erects its idols: the vision of some final state of perfection where all good things harmoniously coexist. None could successfully serve as the master ideal or experience that gives meaning to life as a whole and, in the process, redeems, explains, justifies, washes away, or otherwise defeats suffering and injustice.

Freedom – the only other perennial candidate for a mass religion – will not do the trick, if only because it cannot be, even theoretically, unlimited in either extent or value. Though almost universally acclaimed in the contemporary world as a great good, including by its enemies (always a sign of how powerful a value has become), it cannot lend value to anything genuinely done in its name in the way that love can. Nor is every increase in freedom necessarily good in the sense that we think every increase in love is.

Art is better than freedom at meeting man's religious needs – but only for the few (and, as creators of art, for even fewer), quite apart from the fact that contemporary art has become too determinedly ironic, too intentionally everyday in tone, too scornful of the idea of salvation or ultimate meanings or the unconditional or the enduring, to be in a position to do the job reliably. Yet other ideals, such as racial and gender equality, or protection of the environment and animal rights, have sprung up; but, no matter how noble and vital and revolutionary they are, none provides the final justification of life's aim and meaning that the Western mind still craves. The more individualistic our societies become, the more we can expect the value of love, as the ultimate source of belonging and redemption, to keep rising. In the wasteland of Western idols, only love survives intact.

The Perils Of Hubris

To give any human ideal a divine character does it no favours. For the reality – of which so many ancient myths speak, from Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to Prometheus's theft of divine fire, to the Babylonians' ambition to build a tower that would reach the heavens – is that any attempt to appropriate the powers of a god or to divinise the human ends in disaster.

Love is no exception. By imputing to human love features properly reserved for divine love, such as the unconditional and the eternal, we falsify the nature of this most conditional and time-bound and earthy emotion, and force it to labour under intolerable expectations. This divinisation of human love is the latest chapter in humanity's impulsive quest to steal the powers of its gods, and the longest-running such attempt to reach beyond our humanity. Like the others it must fail; for the moral of these stories is that the limits of the human can be ignored only at terrible cost.

But, one might object, the world is also full of scepticism about love as religion – or even as a story of Hollywood optimism in which, after the inevitable trials, soulmates find and cherish a perfect happiness for the rest of their lives. After all, there are many today – as there were in previous times – who do reject the divine model I sketched earlier; and who echo long traditions that see love in naturalistic terms, traditions which we will also consider in this book.

For example, there are hedonists like Ovid who advise us to enjoy the delights of courtship, sex and the amorous imagination for as long as they last; to cultivate them as a refined sport or art; to be cautious about the madness of 'falling in love'; and to be unmoved by the mirage of a higher meaning to love. There are deflationists like Schopenhauer who see passionate love, with all its ideals and illusions, as the machinations of a reproductive drive aimed at getting two people obsessed with each other for long enough to produce and raise the next generation. There are advocates of friendship-love, such as Aristotle or Montaigne, for whom devotion to the welfare of another whom we experience as our 'second self' is more conducive to our flourishing than love that strives to storm the heavens – and, for Montaigne at least, every bit as intense. There are, more recently, psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud, who depict love as a primal and often regressive search for physical gratification and protective union – and love's maturation as liberation from its infantile patterns. And there are those, like Proust, who regard most love between humans as a ruthless, fickle and often deluded mission to escape from ourselves into the security and novelty of someone else.

In the end, though, love plays too important a role in fulfilling our inescapable religious needs – today widely unsatisfied – to dislodge the divine model. And yet there is another way of thinking about love that, I hope to show, does justice to the powerful and universal needs behind it, while avoiding both the divine and the deflationary accounts of it. On this view love is neither an unconditional commitment to the welfare of others for their own sake, nor can it be reduced to drives for recognition, intimacy, procreation or sexual gratification.

So what, then, is it?

A theory of love: first outlines

Love, I will argue, is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life. It is a rapture that sets us off on – and sustains – the long search for a secure relationship between our being and theirs.

If we all have a need to love, it is because we all need to feel at home in the world: to root our life in the here and now; to give our existence solidity and validity; to deepen the sensation of being; to enable us to experience the reality of our life as indestructible (even if we also accept that our life is temporary and will end in death).

This is the feeling that I call 'ontological rootedness' – ontology being that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and experience of existence. My suggestion is that we will love only those (very rare) people or things or ideas or disciplines or landscapes that can inspire in us a promise of ontological rootedness. If they can, we will love them regardless of their other qualities: regardless of how beautiful or good they are; of how (in the case of people we love) generous or altruistic or compassionate; of how interested in our life and projects. And regardless, even, of whether they value us. For love's overriding concern is to find a home for our life and being.

* * *

At first, home is our mother and father; gradually its possibilities become larger and more complex: they might include our work, our friends, our children, nature, God. Or places, ideas, and ideals. Or – contrary to common prejudice – money or status and the people who offer us access to it. For these can also powerfully root, even if they are less noble and more obviously instrumental than other objects of love.

It is hardly surprising, then, that love can be so confusing. Its aim – groundedness, rootedness, at-homeness – is hard to define, and we can never be sure that we have attained it, let alone that we have stably attained it. It can be satisfied by different sorts of objects. Its faith in the loved one as the agent of this groundedness can never be 'deluded', though we can be deluded about their character and constancy, and how far they requite our love. It involves seemingly contradictory attitudes: submission and possessiveness; generosity and selfishness; intense gratitude and – not least – the disrespect that is easily fostered by need when it becomes overwhelming and even violent.

But one thing should already be clear: far from being unconditional, love is inescapably conditional on this promise of ontological rootedness. It might seem unconditional, if only because once we encounter people (or things) that can inspire in us this sense of grounding we will submit to them so unreservedly, desire to possess them so securely, wish to give to them so completely, ascribe to them such overwhelming goodness (even if we also think them morally bad in certain ways), delight so intensely in their presence, feel such gratitude and responsibility for their existence, and find their absence so unbearable that we will easily lose sight of the reality that all these feelings for them, which are traditionally associated with 'love', are entirely dependent on their power to hold out such a promise of making us feel at home in the world.

Indeed, as long as this sole condition for the existence of love is satisfied, it won't have any further conditions: it will, from that point on, be unconditional. The lover will affirm and rejoice in the existence of the loved one regardless of her other qualities: her powers, her looks, her intelligence, her status. Regardless, too, of complications in the lover's feelings and commitments to her. And to such a degree that he might be willing to die for her, for without her his life would be emptied of its ultimate 'meaning': the discovery of a home that gives validity and solidity to his existence. No destructiveness, betrayal, mean-spiritedness, or decline on her part could then kill his love for her. Unless – and this is the only circumstance in which love can be killed – she no longer inspires in him the hope of ontological rootedness.

This hope is the 'something about her' that is decisive in all love. With it we will love her even if everything else is wrong about her or our relationship. Without it everything can be right but we will never love her.

* * *

Everyone needs love; many find it; but few live it. Not because of a shortage of appropriate beings to love, which as I just suggested can be of many kinds. Rather because of the difficulty of attending to them in a manner that enables them to play this role in grounding our life. Without attentiveness of the right sort we will not recognise them in the first place, and even if we do we will fail to develop the dialogue between our two beings which turns that initial recognition into a home that can be the ground of our life. The difficulty of attending (and the many distractions from it, of which lust can be merely one – and perhaps an overrated one) is why most of our loves are false starts.


Excerpted from LOVE by SIMON MAY Copyright © 2011 by Simon May. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

Preface x

1 Love plays God 1

2 The foundation of Western love: Hebrew Scripture 14

3 From physical desire to paradise: Plato 38

4 Love as perfect friendship: Aristotle 56

5 Love as sexual desire: Lucretius and Ovid 69

6 Love as the supreme virtue: Christianity 81

7 Why Christian love isn't unconditional 95

8 Women as ideals: love and the troubadours 119

9 How human nature became loveable: from the high Middle Ages to the Renaissance 129

10 Love as joyful understanding of the whole: Spinoza 143

11 Love as Enlightened Romanticism: Rousseau 152

12 Love as religion: Schlegel and Novalis 165

13 Love as the urge to procreate: Schopenhauer 176

14 Love as affirmation of life: Nietzsche 188

15 Love as a history of loss: Freud 199

16 Love as terror and tedium: Proust 215

17 Love reconsidered 235

Notes 257

Bibliography 279

Index 285

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  • Posted March 15, 2012

    more from this reviewer

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    This is Professor May’s scholarly but clear review of a va

    This is Professor May’s scholarly but clear review of a vast literature on love from ancient to modern. I have a good personal library of such literature. This work is both a summary and critique of thinking about love in its many manifestations. I will reread this work from time to time.

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