Love, Western Notions of

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In the West, probably more has been written about love than any other topic except the nature of God. There is, however, no consensus on what the word love or amor, agape, Liebe, eros, or hundreds of other terms signifies. It is clear, however, that it is more than a simple animal urge to procreate. Harry Harlow, for example, demonstrated that mother love was essential to the normal development of infant monkeys, and that infants deprived of love and nurturance became disturbed, unhappy adults, unfit for monkey society. But love is much more than the feelings of a mother for a child, although mother love has usually been regarded as much more intense than that of a father. Among other things the term love has been used to describe the feelings of a child toward a parent, one's feelings for friends and comrades, a religious yearning for transcendence, an entirely materialistic desire for physical sexual gratification, and the list could go on.

Love in Western History

One kind of love that might best be called romantic love has been the gift or curse to the world of Western culture. This is a phenomenon that at its simplest might be described as the practice of choosing one's mate based on personal preference, rather than societal obligations. Such a concept emerged in the Middle Ages, and the true lover as described by Andreas Capellanus in his twelfth century De Amore is continually and without interruption obsessed by the image of his beloved. Capellanus also wrote that love was an inborn suffering that proceeded from the sight of, and excessive thought on, the form of the opposite sex.

This was a different view of love than had existed previously in Western culture, although there are hints of it in earlier societies and cultures. In Judaism the closest approach to erotic love appears in the Song of Solomon:

I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine. (6:3) Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. (8:7)

Greek myths include scenes of passionate sexual attraction but for the most part, after the successful sexual liaison, the male god goes on to seek other candidates. The tale of Eurydice and Orpheus emphasizes, however, that love in the Greek world was far more complex than simple sexual conquest. The deeper meanings of love appear in discussion by the eighth-century b.c.e. Greek writer Hesiod, who held eros or love to be the essential creative urge that brought the universe into being. A somewhat different view is put forth in the fourth century b.c.e. by Plato, who has Socrates explain in the Symposium that the lover is attracted to his beloved because he sees reflected there the higher realm of eternal truth. Love in this case is the bridge between the mundane and the transcendental, the wellspring from whence all meaningful human values derive. In the same dialogue, Plato has Aristophanes explain that the search for a lover is driven by a search to find part of oneself. This is because people were originally androgynes who were split apart because of their rebellion against the Olympian gods. Thus finding one's love was no less than the recovery of an original unity of souls.

The object of this original form of Platonic love could be of the same or different sex, although Plato makes a clear distinction between the love of youths and the love of women, with the former being held much higher than the latter kind. In fact Greek literature from the poets to the playwrights was essentially misogynistic with much of the erotic literature male focused.

In Roman society, where women had a higher standing than in Greece, the general conclusion of the first century b.c.e. lyric poets Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius was that love (and women) inevitably brought misery to man. Lucretius, a contemporary of the poets, agreed that love made one miserable, and his solution was to eradicate love. He admitted that while a particular mistress might be faultless, a man could still free himself from the pangs of love by reflecting that in her physical nature his love object was no different from all other women. Ovid, another contemporary, built up the charms of sexual love in his Ars amoris (Art of Love ) but in its sequel, Re-media Amoris, he shows how to counteract the attractions of a mistress and solve the problems of love. Both the Romans and the Greeks tended to separate love from marriage.

While Christianity emphasized love, it was love of humanity or or god (agape ), not eros or sexual love. Such a love appeared in the Song of Solomon, and it is a strong theme in early Christian literature (see Bynum, 1982) and later in the surviving letters and prayers of St. Catherine of Sienna (1347?1380), who portrayed the crucified Jesus as the supreme sign and pledge of divine love and as motive for ours. As Christianity became institutionalized, sexuality, one of the base points of love in the Greek and Roman classics, was downplayed. It certainly was not necessarily involved in marriage, which was a pragmatic affair that united scions of two families and their possessions. As Caroline Walker Bynum notes in her Holy Feast, Holy Fast, medieval female saints before the twelfth century tended to be charity-giving queens who obediently married and used their influence and wealth to perform good deeds, often ending up in the cloisters. This began to change in the twelfth century with the development of what might be called romantic love, and it is this concept that came to dominate Western notions of love.

Romantic Love

Scholars have spent a good deal of time and energy in trying to trace the source of romantic love to Islamic lyric poetry, to Greek Platonism, to Ovid, to heretical Christian Catharsapparently all contributing factorsbut extremely influential in the period was the rise of the female patron of literature and arts. Literature is molded by the type of audience it has. In much of the past the audience that counted most was male. It was the men who had the money to hire poets to sing their praises and to recount the epic stories of war as well as the successful conquests of females. When prose developed it was men who were usually literate since so many obstacles were put into the path of women who wanted to be educated. During the Middle Ages, when the most literate group was the clergy, women and love had very little place in their literature. Nonetheless, women could be patrons of literature and it was this patronage that some, including the present authors, believe was a major factor in the development of romantic love.

Sidney Painter speculated in the 1940s upon a scenario in which a hungry minstrel who was wandering about the duchy of Aquitaine came to a castle where he hoped that his tales of battles and his tumbling tricks would earn him a good dinner. The lord of the castle, however, was absent, and the lady who acted as his hostess found his endless stories of battles rather tiring and boring and his tumbling unattractive. It somehow occurred to the poet that his stay in the castle would not be very long nor would his meals be particularly enjoyable unless he managed to gain her attention. Being very inventive he composed a song in praise of the lady's beauty and virtue and described their effect on him in rather glowing terms. This pleased the lady, who rewarded him with a better bed and more ample food. He and others got the message.

On this scene came William IX (10711127), count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine, who thought such romantic songs might prove a pleasant accompaniment to his numerous triumphs over feminine virtue. The duke's accounts of his amorous adventures proved as interesting to his friends as his stories of battle, and with the example of a powerful prince who ruled one-third of France to spur it on, the fashion grew and expanded. One of the great patrons of chivalric love literature was Eleanor of Aquitaine (11221204), the granddaughter and heir of the duke and later the queen of England. Her role of patroness was continued by her daughters, Marie, countess of Champagne, and Alix, countess of Blois, as well as other women. A few women contributed to the love literature on their own, as did Heloise in her love letters to Abelard in the twelfth century. Marie de France wrote more traditional chivalric love literature in the late twelfth century, but she did not differ significantly from her male poets in their description. The love literature penned by Christine de Pizan (c. 1365c. 1430), on the other hand, has led to her being described as an early feminist.

Romantic love was originally associated with knighthood and chivalry, and in poems and stories love was pictured as a despairing and tragic emotion that drove the lover to accomplish great deeds of daring to perform for his beloved as well as for the Christian God. In theory true love was unattainable love, that is, it was not to be consummated by sexual intercourse; in fact, the female object of the love was usually married to a man other than her beloved, and the theory reflected the real situation of the noble ladies who acted as patrons. Adultery probably occurred in some cases, but unattainable love was the dominant theme. The medieval romantic love espoused by the French poets spread and was profoundly embraced throughout Europe in a way that reached directly into daily life. The concept erected impassable barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental present.

As the theme of romantic love developed, modifications in the ideal took place, and sexual intercourse and ultimately marriage became an integral and sometimes necessary part of the conception of love. How often either took place in the past is debatable. Clearly until recently romantic love remained separate from marriage. Marriage was a contractual obligation while love was entirely voluntary. True love might well become adulterous but it need not end up that way. Romantic love, however, became an ideal and it became a major theme of song, poetry, and literature of Western culture.

Protestantism with its emphasis on marriage and hostility to celibacy gave companionate marriage a theological stamp of approval. Henry Smith, an English Puritan preacher, wrote in his 1591 Preparative to Marriage : "the mate must be fit: it is not enough to be virtuous, but to be suitable So shall the man be pleased which finds a wife according to his own heart, whether he be rich or poor like a pair of glove, or a pair of hose are like; so man and wife should be like, because they are a pair of friends."

Catholicism, even though it placed renewed emphasis on abstinence and celibacy, never quite lost the idea of romantic love embedded in the literary tradition. Both Catholic and Protestant countries saw an increase of love literature, especially of references to romantic love in guides to proper manners and mores, magazines and newspapers, often accompanied by warnings to young women not to be persuaded into giving up their virtue to sweet-tongued suitors.

The eighteenth century saw the popularization of love with a steady increase of love literature in the New World and the Old. Even in an arranged marriage such as that in Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 play, She Stoops to Conquer, a parental choice in mates is sold to the daughter, Kate Hardcastle, in romantic terms. By the nineteenth century in England and America, romantic writers, according to Peter Gay, saw it as their historic mission to re-enchant the world with love. Love was not only a reinvigoration of ancient and medieval traditions but the triumph of impulse over pragmatism. The Romantics, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822) and Lord Byron (17881824), lived as they wrote. By reunifying physical and spiritual love, they believed they established a harmony between the body and mind.

As arranged marriages declined, and the ability of individuals able to make their own decisions concerning a marriage partner increased, romantic love was increasingly seen as the basis for marriage. The work of English novelists such as John Galsworthy (18671933) and the real-life experience of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans; 18191880) demonstrated that despite romantic love's strong pull, reality often intervened. Still, the ideal persisted. With the twentieth century, and the world of new inventions and institutions such as the automobile, motion pictures, and public coeducational high schools, romantic love received renewed vigor. If Clara Bow could go from being a Brooklyn waif to a Hollywood starlet, and if she could play a department store clerk who marries a millionaire in the movies, then young women everywhere wanted to emulate her. Romantic love had crossed all class barriers.

Inhibiting full-blown romantic love, however, were always the consequences, namely the fear of pregnancy. With the development of the birth control pill and the widespread dissemination of contraceptive information, romantic passion could be verified or rejected by sexual experience with few qualms. Was romantic love different from simple sexual impulse? After centuries of literary and philosophical explanations, love became a major research field for the emerging social sciences.

"Scientific" Analysis of Love

In a sense Sigmund Freud (18561939) had begun this investigation. He had challenged the Christian-philosophical ideal of transcendental, universal love. For him, the urge to love came from the self, born out of base instinct. Freud's id was, in many ways, a revival of the Greek idea of love as an unreasoning furor. While his ideas were soon challenged, Freud was important for placing love more or less on the dissecting table, a subject for research and discussion. Others such as Havelock Ellis had joined the efforts to reexamine love and sex. Psychologists entered the field in the 1960s through efforts to distinguish different types of love. Elaine Hatfield, one of the pioneers, argued that people themselves distinguished several types of love and might do so at different times in their life cycle. Passion, she said, is pleasurable but the strong emotion involved creates the potential for relationship instability. Lovers want stability and often desire friendship as well as passion. Romantic love in effect remained complicated by reality.

Another psychologist, R. J. Sternberg, put forth a triangular theory of love involving intimacy, passion, and commitment, but also recognized that this did not describe all cases and that a sudden burst of passion and commitment could appear at a first meeting. Others, such as John Bowlby, developed an elaborate theory of human infant attachment as the precursor of and foundation for human love.

Not surprisingly, some researchers have found that men and women differ somewhat in their descriptions of love. They note a tendency for men to describe themselves as more involved in game-playing while women describe themselves as more friendship-oriented, practical, yet dependent. Men idealize an altruistic love more than women do, while women are more realistic. Both, however, emphasize the importance of passionate love. This phenomenon is no longer, if it ever was, confined to the Western world. According to W. R. Jankowiak and others, romantic love is everywhere.

The actual physiology of love has also been investigated. Intense love physiologically has been found to be distinct from sexual arousal, something that was often assumed in the past but is now demonstrated. Love, it now seems, evolved in tandem with two other primary neural systems: the sex drive and adult male-female attachment. The sex drive, according to this theory, evolved to motivate individuals to seek sexual union with appropriate mating partners, while the romantic attraction evolved to enable individuals to prefer and pursue a specific partner, whether male or female, since the same reaction is noted in homosexual and heterosexual individuals. In fact, as the literature of the past is reprinted without the censorship of earlier generations, homosexual love has come to play a significant role in the romantic literature of love as well. Lillian Faderman's 1981 study Surpassing the Love of Men broadly traces the literary history of romantic friendship and love between women from the Renaissance to the present. As the debate over gay and lesbian marriages in the first decade of the twentieth century would indicate, homosexual and heterosexual love are driven by the same forces.

Though love in popular fiction and accounts seem to belong to the young, love spans all of human life. Most studies have shown that friendship and passionate love are positive predictors of marital satisfaction across the life span. Love, in fact, has come to be regarded by most researchers as fundamentally important to humanity. It has a strong biological basis that is undoubtedly influenced by cultural developments. Love, it seems, is in a sense what makes the world go round.

See also Emotions ; Friendship ; Marriage and Fertility, European Views ; Sexuality .


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Vern L. Bullough

Kenneth Mondschein