Britain has become gripped by Royal Wedding fever, but are the notions of perfect love we aspire to realistic? The philosophor Simon May, author of Love: A History discusses how love, or the idea of love, has achieved an almost sacred status in modern culture, and how this relates to the wider debate surrounding religion.
Article by Simon May
For many years, in fact since my childhood, I have been amazed by the swashbuckling claims that people routinely make on behalf of love – and on behalf of their own capacity to love. It seems that, if only we work at it, love can be a cocoon of perfection: it can make us feel totally secure, wanted, and respected in all our individuality; it can redeem the brevity and imperfections of life; it can give meaning and purpose where nothing else can; it can protect us from every abyss. The Royal wedding in Britain is likely to be a showcase of such sentiments – and of their almost unquestioned status.
Moreover and no less remarkably, it is widely believed that love is within almost everyone’s power, unless they actively ‘resist’ it, or ‘close’ themselves to it, or are otherwise hampered by some pathology. Few seem to doubt that they can, given the necessary commitment, unconditionally love their children, fall in love with ‘the one’, marry because of love, love another entirely for that person’s own sake, and love everything about him or her.
Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artist or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is a democracy of salvation open to all.
It took me many years to decide to write about this; the Emperor, I told myself, couldn’t possibly be naked…
Love is indeed the greatest of great things, to paraphrase St Paul– and is in no way reducible to the reproductive or sexual drive, or to the mere desire to possess another. But it isn’t what it is generally taken to be – a sort of divinity in its own right, a divinity that can somehow make us humans into gods (as Martin Luther once put it).
In my book – Love: A History – I attempt to trace how love came to be the new god. And not any old god – say, one of those self-seeking, lustful, capricious and frankly evil Greek gods – but rather the spitting image of the Christian God. In other words, love – genuine love – has come to be seen as all-good, unconditioned, unchanging, selfless in showing concern for the wellbeing of loved ones, and our chief bulwark against suffering and loss. Today love has arguably become the only truly universal religion in the West – including in the United States.
But, one might reply, what’s the problem with seeing love in this way? Even if it is an illusion, surely we need illusions in order to live?
The problem is that, though we indeed couldn’t flourish without illusions, they need to work with the grain of human nature and not against it. The reality, I argue, is that love is a thoroughly conditional desire – a desire for one whom we experience as indestructibly grounding our life, as a harbinger of ‘home’; so that to see it as the opposite – as entirely unconditional – is to infuse our relationships with false expectations and so to sabotage them from the start. In other words, when partners or spouses begin a reproach with the words ‘If you loved me unconditionally, you wouldn’t have…’, the smallest details of their behaviour are being governed by a misconception. When parents take it for granted that they love their children unconditionally and equally – though their children, with their less ideologically governed sensibilities intuitively feel that this isn’t the case – promises are being made that cannot necessarily be kept.
It is fascinating to discover that Jesus is much more modest in his talk of love than we tend to be these days – or than much of the Christian tradition that speaks in his name. As he is quoted in the gospels, he never presents love as an all-purpose solution to life’s problems or suggests that human beings can become gods through love. Indeed, it came as a surprise to me to discover that in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke he seldom talks about love at all, and almost never mentions sex. Other things concern him far more – not least pride and greed for money.
Which led me to one of the main themes of my book: love became god only in modern times – that is, roughly since the mid 18th Century. This can’t be a coincidence, for since the 18th century belief in the Judeo-Christian God has drastically declined, and it seems that the religion of love has rushed to fill the vacuum. Indeed I see the divinization of love as the latest attempt by human beings to steal the powers of gods – attempts portrayed in the earliest myths, such as Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or Prometheus’s theft of divine fire. Such hubris, like every attempt to arrogate divine power to humans, is doomed to end badly.
In a sense, therefore, we are waging the wrong ‘God Wars’ today. Dawkins, Hitchens and Co are still fighting the last war: many if not most of their arguments against the ‘delusion’ of believing in an all-good, all-powerful, saving, creator God have been around for at least a century or two. Both sides of the argument have well-rehearsed positions, to which little of any novelty has been added in recent years.
As importantly, the war itself is regarded as legitimate by all parties to it. It is acceptable, even honourable, to fight about whether God exists and whether belief in him is good or bad for human flourishing.
But is it yet acceptable to debate publicly whether parents love their children unconditionally? Have we yet asked how much damage love as religion is doing to human flourishing – and whether there isn’t a more realistic and successful way of conceiving this greatest of emotions? My book is an attempt to find out.
Simon May is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, University of London. His other books include Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on ‘Morality’ and Thinking Aloud, a collection of his own aphorisms that was named a Financial Times ‘Book of the Year’ in 2009. Love: A History is out now from Yale University Press.