‘Love: A History’ criticizes of modern view of love

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“Almost two thousand years — and not a single new god!” wrote Nietzsche in 1888. But he was wrong, argues philosopher Simon May. There was a new god, just then emerging, and the new god was human love.

The Western tradition’s concept of love has undergone a dramatic and important shift, according to May’s book “Love: A History.” Tracing love’s history from its roots in the Hebraic and Platonic traditions through to love’s greatest critics, Freud, Proust and Schopenhauer, May shows us the origins of the modern attitude toward love, an attitude which he takes to be unrealistic and hubristic. May argues that the modern conception of human love is one that has come to be modeled on the Christian God’s love for humans. The new human love is eternal, unconditioned, disinterested, a haven of peace and even a fount of redemption which can deliver us from any ill. All of these commonplace attitudes are ridiculous, writes May, and are all the more so in a secular age in which human love is no longer undergirded by the perfect wellspring that is divine grace. In our age, human love assumes the role of God as we mortals presume to dole out perfect, eternal, salvific love and expect to receive it in return, unaided by any theological apparatus.

The book intends to correct this erroneous attitude, but May insists it is not an attack on love. In fact, its purpose is to preserve it as a noble passion against the impending disillusionment and despair which those who treat human love as divine love are bound to encounter and to help us to understand its proper place in the well-lived life.

What May suggests is that human love, far from being disinterested and unconditional, is in fact very interested: we love not because of any innate benevolence in ourselves or because of any recognition of beauty or goodness in the object of love, but because the object with which we seek to unite provides us “ontological groundedness.” In other words, the object of love provides for us a home in this world which affirms our existence and value. For May, love is not absolute, eternal and salvific, but the grasping of a contingent being onto something which grounds its existence and makes this world a place which it is possible to call home.

May’s book is elegant and erudite without being stuffy. More importantly, most of what he says is true. It takes but a little reflection to realize that May is correct about one thing in particular: secular society is full of misplaced theological ideas about love. It is at the same time incredibly optimistic and deeply cynical about the whole phenomenon. To turn on a pop radio station is to take a ride on the Wheel of Cupid: one song warbles pleasantly about the promise of newfound love, the next glories in the delights promised in the last, another chronicles the pain and disillusionment of break ups and betrayals, and yet another shows us the aftermath, in which the singer takes a break from the whole cycle and “just has fun” with Bacchus, Venus, & Co. in an attempted flight from meaningful human relationships, especially Cupid-involving ones.

“Love: A History” has a few flaws. First, it seems odd to me that May believes we do not love because we see the beloved as a good. Even on May’s account, it seems that if I love Paul because he makes the world a bit more like home, then I love him because there is something good about him. Second, his treatment of love in the New Testament is quite off track. He claims that Christ said little about love explicitly and didn’t seem to particularly care for it. I don’t believe comment is necessary. Third, the book seems to be divided between its historical purpose and its theoretical purpose. Only a few of the historical chapters are necessary to understand his theoretical points, and as a history the book leaves out too much, ignoring capitally important figures such as Dante and Kierkegaard (but oddly giving a chapter to Spinoza). It sometimes seems like two separate books uncomfortably sharing the same covers. These quibbles aside, the book is engaging, entertaining, and is a powerful indictment of an unwarranted deification.