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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Love

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. Tracks like George Harrison’s Taxman, written in response to a marginal tax-rate of 96 percent introduced by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the Sixties, are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

The philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) reportedly was in love with the daughter of his Latin teacher, but she married someone else. Maybe a broken heart caused the learned man to write so abstractly and reductively about love: “Love is nothing else but pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause.” (Ethics Book 3, Prop, XIII).

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) finally married the woman whom he loved and with whom he collaborated after having known her for twenty years (he had to wait for her first husband to die). She became Harriet Taylor Mill. The Victorian utilitarian was clearly smitten by his better half.

Many of us are besotted with our partners – or by those we cannot have – but few have the gift for writing that Mill possessed. He wasn’t just an eloquent essayist who could explain the meaning of freedom, political economy or abstract logic. Just consider these lines from his diary,

“What a sense of protection is given by the consciousness of being loved, and what an additional sense, over and above this, by being near the one by whom one is and wishes to be loved the best. I have experience at present of both these things; for I feel as if no really dangerous illness could actually happen to me while I have her care for me; and yet I feel as if by coming away from her I had parted with a kind of talisman, and I was more open to attacks of the enemy than while I was with her.”
(Diary, 9th January 1854).

Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill had been married three years when he wrote these lines. Surprisingly few philosophers have written about love. Perhaps it does not lend itself well to rational analysis. But there are exceptions. The letters exchanged between Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) were so full of longing, tenderness and passion that they became pure poetry. “I kiss you on the forehead and your eyes”, Arendt wrote to Heidegger, who, in many more lovestruck letters. responded by calling her meine Liebste, ‘my most beloved’ (Briefe 1925-1975, 66 and 25).

Hannah Arendt – unlike Heidegger – was a pro when it came to writing about love. Indeed, she gained a doctorate on the unlikely subject of St Augustine and the concept of love (Love and Augustine, 1998), even though the Catholic saint wrote precious little on the subject. At the time she wrote this, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) wrote his book Estudios sobre el Amor – or On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme, as it is usually translated into English. It contained sentences on this the deepest of feelings, which – frankly – makes it seem rather questionable if the Spaniard had ever been infatuated with another human being, lines like, “love is that splendid triggering of human vitality, which nature affords anyone for going out of himself” (On Love, 5).

Maybe the Spanish sage didn’t know that when you are in love even the most dull and ordinary everyday tasks become lighter, and you drift away on a breeze of joy.

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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