Is love just a beautiful lie?
Neuroscientists link erotic desire with high dopamine levels in the brain, yet tell us relationships are more likely to be sustained by oxytocin, the commitment-inducing hormone. Are passion and commitment fundamentally so distinct? Is it futile to seek a love that’s both immediate, physical, particular and immutable, meaningful, ideal? If scientific findings have initiated a crisis of confidence, philosophy offers a different perspective. Let’s talk about the philosophy of love…
Plato described erotic love as the passion that connects the fleeting and physical with the eternal and meaningful. Eros mediated between a physical, sensory, response to a particular body and an intellectual apprehension of beauty or goodness itself. The lover wants the beloved in respect of fine, admirable, or beautiful features. By internal logic, his or her gaze ascends naturally to ‘that which is beautiful by itself alone’.
Beauty itself (the archetype of all beautifuls) turns out to be the ultimate object of desire. This is a strange and transformative account.
First, there’s the idea that the proper object of erotic desire is not a person at all, just the (collection of) repeatable qualities they exhibit.
This means you love a person for the qualities they fleetingly instantiate; not for who they are ‘in themselves’.
Second, there is Plato’s confidence in the absolute value of the objects of erotic desire. When we love someone, he seems to say, we’re in love with what is beautiful and fine about them.
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(So it doesn’t matter who or what you fall for! If your attention is clear, beauty and goodness will be revealed.)
Third, the account plays havoc with conventional notions of beauty and reality. We ordinarily think of our physical environment as a paradigm of the real, but he invites us to think it the opposite – as nothing in itself but a location for glimpses of qualities that are immutable and abstract. Beauty exists on the cusp between the sensuous and the intellectual. (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ writes Keats.)
Fourth, the beloved is depicted as of only incidental value: a stage on the way to something purer and higher.
You thought you loved the angle of your lover’s cheek, the colour of her lips; but what you loved was – strictly – an angle, a colour! If the ultimate objects of love are immutable and abstract, each particular beloved is replaceable by one who exhibits valuable qualities to a higher degree.
Fifth, true love is always unfulfilled and unrequited. Beauty itself, what all the beautifuls have in common, cannot be known by a finite, physical, being. Plato sometimes wondered how we could recognise glimpses of beauty or goodness at all. We must have encountered them directly once, he speculated, outside space and time; so the glimpses we get in erotic desire must be a kind of ‘recollection’.
Perhaps this ancient story of erotic love is only interestingly wrong. Perhaps those who relate it to us – Socrates and Plato – intended it that way.
It reminds us, however, to think about romantic love as (in part) a passion towards meaning. That’s something unlikely to be found in dopamine or oxytocin alone.
Naomi Goulder is head of philosophy and senior lecturer in philosophy at New College of the Humanities.