“Love is a passion to be chosen and mastered, not sacrificed to.”
By Maria Popova
“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” philosopher Erich Fromm asserted in his 1956 masterwork on the art of loving and what is keeping us from mastering it. The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn went as far as admonishing that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” “The many vexations and perturbations that torture the soul of the passionate lover,” cautioned a 17th-century treatise on lovesickness, “bring about greater harms to men than all the other affections of the mind.” Keats, once afflicted by love, was ready to die for it.
But if the mystery of love is so impenetrable and the gauntlet through it so rife with peril, how is it that we saunter into it so blindly and so clumsily yet so irrepressibly full of hope? Why, if the risks are so great and the rewards so uncertain, do we love at all?
That’s what philosopher Skye Cleary, author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (public library), explores in this wonderful animated inquiry into how thinkers as wide-ranging as the Buddha, Plato, Bertrand Russell, and Simone de Beauvoir shaped the modern ideal of romantic love, how its fundamental flaws render us exasperated by falling perpetually short of that ideal, and what we might be able to do about revising this model.
Cleary writes in the introduction to her book:
Expectations about romantic loving are grand, but there seems to be an issue with the way we understand it because reality often falls short of the ideal. Romantic loving suggests images of perfect happiness, harmony, understanding, and intimacy that make the lovers feel as if they are made for each other. The ideal is alluring but flawed, because romantic loving often involves conflicts and disappointments.
But although the tension between frustration and satisfaction vitalizes romance, too much can vitiate it. Cleary argues that existential philosophies — that is, philosophies concerned with discerning the meaning of life but investigating it through the act of living rather than through abstract and detached contemplation — offer a useful critical lens on the lacuna between the ideals of romantic love and the disappointments of having to compromise ourselves in order to attain those ideals in reality. She writes:
Existential philosophies reveal to us the notion that once lovers free themselves from preconceived ideals about how romantic lovers ought to behave, and free themselves from being slaves to their passions, they will be free to create relationships that complement and enhance their personal, authentic endeavors. Love is a passion to be chosen and mastered, not sacrificed to. One argument is that although romantic lovers lose certain freedoms, the love they acquire compensates. However, I argue that one of the key contributions of the existential approach to romantic loving is its criticism of such an assumption. After all, it is by no means given that the benefits of romantic love necessarily outweigh the costs.
Existential philosophers acknowledge that we are born into webs of relationships, and they explore how relations with others infuse our world with meaning and modify our possibilities. Existential thinking brings to light complexities, knowledge, and expressions of romantic loving because it provides a language to understand and reflect on our being in the world and being with others, and it expands our knowledge about possibilities and dynamics of relationships.
In the remainder of Existentialism and Romantic Love, Cleary goes on to explore how existential philosophy illuminates love through the ideas of five particularly influential philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Complement it with contemporary philosopher Alain de Badiou on how we fall and stay in love, Iris Murdoch on how love gives meaning to human existence, and Mary Oliver on how differences bring couples closer together.