Book Review: Wayne Cristaudo's A Philosophical History of Love
Eternally eluding analysis, philosophers have often had little to say about humanity’s greatest experience. These do.
Let's talk about Love
What could be more profound or fascinating than love? Yet, philosophers have written little about it, and with a few exceptions like Plato, what there is often leaves us cold. The very lack is enough to discount philosophy altogether. Fortunately, this has not entirely dissuaded philosophers like Irving Singer (The Nature of Love, 3 vols.) and recently Alan Badiou (In Praise of Love, 2012) from trying to shed light on love’s conundrums.
Now Wayne Cristaudo has added his efforts in A Philosophical History of Love, offering sensible and humane, provocative and challenging reflections. Largely inspired by Eugen Rosenstock Huessy and René Girard, Cristaudo takes on various philosophical treatments from Plato to Peirce and pragmatism, nodal points that will inform and delight the uninitiated – even if more versed scholars (like this reviewer) find the title promising far more than it delivers.
Feast of nourishing ideas
However, while their professors grumble, undergraduates are in for a feast of nourishing ideas about love.
Cristaudo rightly begins with the concept of love as a polymorphous drive originating as earthy lust ascending to the heights of spirituality in the pursuit of wisdom, as we find in Plato’s most sublime dialogues The Symposium and Phaedrus. Then we get two contrasting chapters on the New Testament’s conception as the love of Christ, and St. Augustine’s revolutionary, synthesis of the classical and Christian views of love that has determined so much thinking right down to our own day. A fourth chapter, "The Medieval Return of Venus" introduces the story of Abélard and Heloise, a fifth the "heavenly Romance" that is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Throughout, Cristaudo ably intertwines sacred and secular, erotic and religious themes.
The sixth chapter, "Love in the Family and Its Dissolution" contrasts the tragedy of romantic love with the realities of family life in three powerful episodes: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In a seventh chapter, on the Marquis De Sade, Cristaudo reminds us that it is far from absurd to speak of the love of evil. He concludes with a synthesis of Christianity and science, presenting C. S. Peirce’s notion of love as an evolutionary principle.
It’s a lot of ground to cover, and Cristaudo presents the neophyte with a lively, reflective introduction to selected philosophical, religious and literary sources for the discussion of a fundamental human reality.
Still, the gaps are frustrating. Where are the ancients Catullus, for his unabashed glorification of eroticism, and Sappho, for her paeans to homosexual love, so timely today? Where are the mystics St. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or Meister Eckhart, the philosophical mystic par excellence?
Among the more egregious is the omission of friendship, a theme crucial to Aristotle, given the political nature of human beings and the social nature of fulfilment, and of Erich Fromm’s classic The Art of Loving, which is not even mentioned. Both Fromm’s sharp demarcation between love and sentiment, the great confusion of modern times, and his insightful set of distinctions in the various forms of love – erotic, motherly, brotherly, self-love – are the most important efforts in our time to discuss love in a sober and systematic way, as humane as it is critical.
And Denis De Rougmont’s classic Love in the Western World, with its controversial but provocative account of how post-World War II Hollywood films incorporate a concept of romantic love originating in medieval courtly love, merits only passing reference.
So why is love so difficult to discuss in philosophy – unlike literature – where it is an eternal theme? The short answer is that the word has been used to refer to all sorts of contradictory feelings, attitudes and actions. In the words of Kahlil Gibran, "for even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you."
Literature can offer us more insight than philosophy into a phenomenon like love, because literature can describe particular cases in all their individuality, with all of their nuances – positive and negative. Literature offers us examples for reflection.
Moreover, we are not in a position to view love from without, but only in the middle of it, torn by it at times, euphoric at others, obligated by it at still others. So the French Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel (here also unmentioned) would consider love as steeped in mystery; and thus not the kind of objective problem that scientists confront.
We cannot, by definition, get a perspective outside ourselves when we want to investigate an essentially human phenomenon. So the appropriate "tone" for discussing it has to be one of wonder and awe, which are not altogether lacking in Cristaudo’s book, but yet neither do they come to the fore in a study written from an all-knowing, all-seeing point of view.
The incisively witty Steve Allen once wrote that it is impossible to be funny when writing about humour. There is certainly a parallel in the idea of writing "lovingly" about love; what tends to emerge is moralism. De Rougement suggests that love simply transcends verbal articulation, so its cultural manifestations have been in music; to wit: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Music alone captures the emotional intensity that love involves and encapsulates archetypical experience in theatrical narratives in whose drama we can participate.
To speak with Wittgenstein, it may be that what philosophy cannot say is left to music-theatre to enact. Little wonder that Wayne Cristaudo has bitten off more than he can chew.
Austro-American philosopher Allan Janik is co-author of Wittgenstein’s Vienna.
A Philosophical History of Love
by Wayne Cristaudo
Transaction Publishers, (2012)