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Street Philosopher

Smooching by the Seine

Seán Moran reports from the city of love.

How romantic. In my photo, a couple share an umbrella near a Parisian merry-go-round, while on the far bank of the river Seine the Eiffel tower disappears into the rain. Off camera, a forlorn accordioniste finishes playing Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose, then lights up a pungent Gitanes cigarette. The lovers are oblivious to all of this: they only have eyes, ears, and noses, for each other.

But I might be completely misreading the scene. The pair could be brother and sister, or perhaps it’s a professor from the Sorbonne talking to a PhD student about their philosophical researches.

All three scenarios involve love – but of different kinds; corresponding to the Greek words eros, philia, and agape. The first type, eros, is sexually-charged love. Partners may be drawn together romantically by eros. The second type of love, philia, has no sexual element, and corresponds approximately to ‘fondness’. Our family and friends are joined to us by bonds of philia (if we’re lucky). The third type, agape (pronounced ‘ah-gah-pay’), can be defined as ‘love for humanity’. The key idea is that agape is undeserved or unconditional love. It is a concept from theology. God’s love for us is unmerited, since we are all sinners. The implication is that we should in turn love our fellow human beings, whether or not they deserve it. These three concepts aren’t always as clear-cut as I have indicated, and I’ve left out some others, such as ludus – playful, flirtatious love. Nevertheless, eros, philia and agape together form a convenient way of analysing love. There are also good reasons why the lines between these three types should not be blurred, since eros can spoil the innocence of other types of love. When eros overpowers the brotherly love of philia, incest may shrink the gene pool in potentially harmful ways. Or when eros outsmarts agape in education, professors abuse their power by tinkering with their students’ affections, and there is always the suspicion that the relationship is exploitative or transactional (good grades in exchange for services rendered).

The scope of philia extends beyond human relationships to encompass wider types of fondness. The word ‘philo-sophia’ is of course Greek for ‘love of wisdom’. A fondness for the living world is called ‘biophilia’. Such love can be taken too far, and become an eroticised zoophilia. In Ireland, as well as the UK, Australia, and Canada, this ‘love of animals’sometimes leads to jail time. It’s also a criminal offence in most states of the USA – though strangely not in New Mexico or West Virginia.

Smooching by the Seine
Photo © Seán Moran 2022

Eros En Paris Avec Sartre

But today we are in Paris, the city of love, on Saint Valentine’s Day. Cupid – the Roman equivalent of Eros – is blindly aiming his bow in every direction.

We Morans tend not to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We remember the calamity that befell George ‘Bugs’ Moran on the snowy morning of February 14, 1929 – the notorious ‘Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre’. Al Capone’s gangsters, disguised as policemen, lined up seven of his rival, Moran’s, associates against a wall in their Chicago warehouse, and murdered them in a hail of bullets from Thompson submachine guns. (Bugs himself avoided this grisly fate because he was late for the expected delivery of bootleg alcohol and retreated when he spotted fake police raiding his premises.) Yet love, not the whiff of cordite, is in the Paris air at this time of year: Cupid’s arrows rather than Capone’s bullets.

One traditional way of expressing eros en Paris involved certain bridges over the Seine. The Pont de l'Archevêché behind Notre Dame Cathedral used to be covered in love-locks. Amorous couples had their names engraved on padlocks sold by enterprising street traders. Each couple would then attach their lock to the bridge to advertise their love, and throw the keys into the river as a gesture of permanence. But the combined weight of hundreds of thousands of padlocks threatened the bridge, so the Parisian authorities cut them all off and fixed plexiglass panels onto the structure to stop the locks being replaced. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and the panels have improved the acoustics of the bridge for street performers like me. I even managed to attach a small hook to the bridgework, where I can hang my discreet sound equipment. Every time I return to Paris, I’m happy to see that the hook is still there, undisturbed and awaiting my performance. It’s a sign of my love of music.

The last time I played on the bridge, a gallant young Frenchman shifted his attention from his lovely companion to my flute arrangement of Ed Sheeran’s hit song ‘Perfect’ (2017). He walked over to me smiling, placed a crisp €50 note in my hat, and returned to the side of his chérie. (50 euro is about 56 US dollars, or 42 pounds sterling.) Perhaps it was ‘their song’ I had just performed, or maybe his proposal had just been accepted. Love can make us do irrational things. Excessive generosity to troubadour flautists is to be encouraged, however, irrational or not.

One famous French lover was the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who could often be seen on the boulevards and bridges and in the coffee-houses of Paris in beautiful female company. The mystery was exactly how he managed this feat. His biographer, Annie Cohen-Solal, described his appearance as that of “a small, fat, aging provincial teacher. He has a physique like a stuffed tobacco pouch, a gruesome little Buddha” (Sartre: A Life, 1987). Not a great Tinder profile. Sartre also had a wandering eye literally as well as metaphorically. He had the ophthalmic condition known as strabismus, as well as a propensity to ‘seek out women’s company’, as he put it. He sought beautiful women, so he claimed, “in order to get rid of the burden of my ugliness”. This view resonates nicely with that of Socrates as reported in Plato’s dialogue Symposium: “Love is the love of something which he hasn’t got, and consequently lacks.” Moreover, to Socrates (another famously ugly philosopher), a person’s outward appearance would be no barrier to love provided their inner being was attractive: “Beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish,” he said. Sartre also claimed his motives were pure: “I certainly had an appetite for beauty, which wasn’t really sensual, but more magical.”

Sartre met his soul-mate in the feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Cohen-Solal explains that they were physically mismatched: “she tall, he small; she strikingly beautiful, he rather ugly.” She continues, “With Beauvoir, Sartre had found both beauty and dialogue… which allowed him the pleasure of identifying with her beauty… [as well as allowing him to pursue with her] his meditations, his theories, his projects.” But this was still not enough for Jean-Paul: “I’ve been surrounded by women for years, and I still want to meet new ones.” As he scribbled in Left Bank cafés, he had one eye on his notebook and the other eye on the ladies.

In his own mind, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy liberated him from any requirement to follow bourgeois norms of behaviour; but he still had to justify his shenanigans to Simone. In 1929 he suggested a pact to her: “What we have is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” They agreed to be honest about their ‘contingent’ liaisons, and doing so, they kept up their ‘essential’ relationship until Sartre’s death in 1980.

One of Simone’s contingent girlfriends was Bianca Bienenfeld, a seventeen-year-old student in the philosophy class taught by de Beauvoir at the Lycée Molière. She was later passed on to Sartre, and dropped when they became bored of her.

Bianca cast doubt on Sartre’s honesty in matters of the heart. In her Mémoires (1993) she complained that, “Just as a waiter plays the role of a waiter, Sartre played to perfection the role of a man in love” – thus accusing him of the bad faith (mauvaise foi) of which he had accused the café waiter fifty years earlier in his magnum opus Being & Nothingness.

An Education In Love

We turn finally to the general love of humanity – agape. The eminent philosopher of education, Padraig Hogan, sees authentic teaching as “a special kind of courtship, or wooing” (The Custody and Courtship of Experience, 1995). He recognises the ‘audacity’ of this claim, but advocates an educational approach that avoids the ‘indoctrination’ of the past while still allowing the teacher to present a body of knowledge to students effectively. The voice of the teacher in Hogan’s model ‘is one of invitation, not compulsion’. He makes it clear that “the courtship of sensibility must not be confused with any kind of erotic engagement”: it is an ‘honourable courtship’ which initiates a dialogue with students about a topic, rather than the older style of teaching, which was based on ‘a logic of conquest and colonisation’.

Wisely, Hogan leaves out any mention of love in his proposals. But his approach is based on a genuine concern for the intellectual development of students, not a mere obedience to the immediate needs of the job market or government directives. In their concern, teachers shows a type of love for the learners: a chaste, philanthropic caring about their educational flourishing. I would class this as agape – as teachers’ nurturing love for their students, whether they deserve it or not. Simone de Beauvoir, however, seems to have blurred the boundaries between this legitimate agape love and out-of-bounds eros. She was sacked and lost her teaching licence in 1943 for “behaviour leading to the debauching of a minor” (The Independent, October 2021). Another of her contingent relationships had crossed the line.

I trust that the couple in my photograph are both clear whether their relationship is one of eros, philia, agape, or ‘none of the above’.

© Dr Seán Moran 2022

Seán Moran teaches postgraduate students in Ireland, and is professor of philosophy at one of the oldest universities in the Punjab.

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