Love advice from three of philosophy's deepest thinkers

A ladder to the good or a blind desire to procreate? Plato, de Beauvoir, and Schopenhauer explain what love is, and what you should do about it.

A ladder to the good or a blind desire to procreate? Plato, de Beauvoir, and Schopenhauer explain what love is

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The philosopher's vocation is to ponder the big questions, and what bigger question is there than that of love? This Valentine's day, CBC Life has scoured the annals of philosophy to bring you three of history's deepest thinkers on what love is, and how to do it. 

Simone de Beauvoir:  "The reciprocal recognition of two freedoms"

De Beauvoir was a French philosopher whose 1949 classic The Second Sex was banned by the Vatican, and canonized by feminists. For most of her life, she formed half of an existentialist power couple with Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she shared a long-term open relationship.

The defining distinction in de Beauvoir's thought on love is between authentic and inauthentic love. For her, loving inauthentically is an existential threat. When we believe that love will complete us, or when we lose ourselves in our beloved, we erase ourselves as independent beings. This is what de Beauvoir called loving in bad faith. In her society, men were encouraged much more than women to have interests and ambitions outside of their relationships, with the result that women were especially vulnerable to the dangers of inauthentic love.

Authentic love, on the other hand, involves partnerships in which both parties recognize each others' independence, and pursue aims and interests outside of their relationship. In The Second Sex, she writes that authentic love must be based on "reciprocal recognition of two freedoms". This means that neither partner is subordinate to the other, nor takes all of their meaning from their love for that partner. Instead, each is an independent whole who freely chooses the other anew with every day without trying to possess them entirely.

How can we translate this into practical advice? Love deeply, but don't quit your day job. Your own interests and independence are what make you lovable in the first place, so insist on independence and equality in your relationships. Work on shared goals so you can create meaning together while still retaining your freedom.

Plato: "The ladder of love"

Plato's Symposium is one of the first texts in the Western philosophical tradition devoted to love, and remains a steamy favourite of philosophy students and romantics around the world. A "symposium" is Greek for "after-dinner booze session". At the one Plato writes about, a group of distinguished guests while away the night by making speeches in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire.

The philosophical climax of the evening is Socrates' speech, in which he delivers a view of love that he learned from the philosopher and priestess Diotima of Manitea. According to Diotima, love begins with an attraction to a particular beautiful body. If one is loving properly, however, it doesn't end there. Soon, the lover realizes that there is something that all beautiful bodies share in common, and begins to love physical beauty in general rather than just that of a single individual. Next, he ascends to their character and moral qualities, coming to love beautiful souls. While many love stories stop here, Socrates goes on. Since the lover has come to love the virtues of a beautiful soul, he goes on to contemplate the kind of practices, institutions, and laws that are most productive of virtue. As the lover comes to admire these more general things, the particular body that he originally fell in love with comes to seem less important.

What does this mean for us? Physical attraction is a step on the ladder to a love and appreciation of all that is beautiful in the universe. When people say "Platonic love", they usually mean "I like you, but keep your hands to yourself." This isn't really what Plato was getting at. He thought that love was something that could inspire us to appreciate all that is divine and beautiful in the universe, and to try to produce beauty in the world. At the top of the ladder, sex doesn't play much of a role, but it's often what gets us on the ladder in the first place.

Schopenhauer: "The Instinct of Sex"

19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is the pessimist of the group. He believed romantic love to be the greatest force in human life. It is strong enough, he observed, to drive many people to death, and more to the asylum. Yet no matter how real and sublime this emotion might feel to us, Schopenhauer believed it was an illusion. Love boils down to the instinct of sex installed in every individual by the species in order to perpetuate itself. For the individual, love is endless torment and danger. It consumes us, and disturbs our otherwise well-regulated lives. All the while, what we experience as romantic electricity and ardent admiration is really the will to existence of unborn generations. Schopenhauer denies, however, that this is a cynical viewpoint. Why? Because producing the next generation is a far nobler and greater task than chasing the "exuberant sensations and transcendental soap-bubbles" of subjective romance.

Schopenhaurian love advice? If you are unlucky enough to experience love, it could drive you mad. We'd tell you to avoid it, but you haven't got much choice in the matter. That said, knowing that the butterflies in our stomachs are often downright liars might help us keep our wits about us while looking for love.

These three philosophers may be more or less useful for different people or different situations. For those who are looking for a partnership between two independent individuals, Simone de Beauvoir, the most modern of the three, offers the best advice. She is the only one who is particularly concerned with the equality and freedom of both partners. If you think that relationships are about drawing inspiration from your beloved, then Plato can help guide the way. However, Plato provides a somewhat one-sided model of love. Schopenhauer gives the soundest account for those whose lives have been most troubled by romance. His cynicism can help you cut through the romantic idealism that can trap people in bad relationships. What all three of them show us is that how you should conduct your romantic life depends a lot on what you think love is, and what kind of relationship you are after.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.