The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
Romantic love has had a fascinating history in our intellectual tradition.
Now we come to the third of the four loves, έρως (erōs), a general favorite. This has perhaps the most interesting history of the four, in that its value and respectability have changed far more dramatically than any of the others—friendship has been somewhat eclipsed in the last century or two, and familial affection is one of the universal pillars of human life, but the weight and worth of romance have practically boxed the compass.
Let us begin in ancient Greece. The worship of deities like Ishtar or Venus was very ancient, but this was primarily associated with fertility and marriage, which in many societies have not been specially connected with romantic love. This was not because this love was not known to exist; on the contrary, it was sometimes spoken of as a form of “divine madness,” with more emphasis on the madness than the divinity. In the very first book of the Histories, after discussing the Trojan War (itself precipitated by foolish desire), Herodotus relates the legend of King Candaules, who brought himself to ruin and death by falling in love with his own wife. Marriage was a respectable, socially necessary institution that established a household and lineage, and thus an affair that needed to be arranged quite practically, usually between the families of the prospective spouses; there was no time for any nonsense about whether either one felt as if the other were the center of the universe—indeed, such silly (and invariably short-lived) emotions could cause immense disruption.
Where romantic love was accepted, or at any rate tolerated, was outside of marriage. Women would be strictly punished for adultery, but men were held to a much lower standard of conduct, and a husband might pursue a love affair without (automatic) disgrace. This convention was inherited by the Romans, who displayed a similar mixture of indulgence and contempt for eros; Ovid wrote one of his most famous works, the Ars Amatoria, as a savage satire of the moon-eyed man who had fallen head over heels for some woman and now lived entirely at her beckon call. There were outliers who regarded romantic love as a profound experience—Plato attributes views along these lines to Socrates—but these were very much the exception, not the rule.
The advent of Christianity brought some change to this state of affairs, partly by the immense admiration of the ancient Church for celibacy on the part of both sexes, and partly by applying the same stern prohibition against adultery to husbands as well as wives. But, despite legends surrounding the historical St. Valentine, there was no greater friendliness to romantic love after the conversion of the Roman Empire than there had been before it. Indeed, under the influence of St. Augustine and his Confessions, there was probably less: an indulgence, even a contemptible one, is just an indulgence, but a temptation is a dangerous enemy. This remained the received wisdom of Christendom for hundreds of years, even as the Empire itself fragmented and decayed.
And then, as if out of nowhere, in eleventh-century France, the troubadours appeared, celebrating eros as one of the chief ennobling elements of human life. This was the beginning of the tradition of courtly love, one of the most significant and lasting influences on western culture, especially literature, in recorded history. Courtly love involved a devotion on the part of the male poet to a lady (i.e., a female member of the aristocracy), a devotion that seems sometimes erotic and sometimes worshipful. Like earlier versions of romantic love, it was presumed to be adulterous; it was innovative both in its approbation of love, and in the quasi-religious character of the attitudes and expressions enjoined upon the lover in his adoration of his lady. The Ars Amatoria itself—either because its Medieval readers did not realize it was meant as a satire, or because they knew but did not care—was adopted as a textbook of proper conduct for the enamored. All these qualities provoked more than a little suspicion on the part of the Church, and the poets themselves might frame romantic love as either a defiant rival cult, or a kind of temporary, sub-Christian dawdling on the road to holiness.
There was, however, a disagreement among the “schools” of the troubadours that proved key to their influence. Courtly love prescribed both amorousness and abject service towards one’s lady; but which was the primary? Some poets considered union with the beloved lady, even if it were adulterous, as the pinnacle of love (a tradition we see embodied in the tradition of Lancelot and Guinevere). But some argued that serving and adoring the beloved, as such, were the real heart of love. It was this second doctrine that allowed for the fusion of romantic love with Catholic orthodoxy in the Divine Comedy. Dante clearly understood how eros could lead a person astray, and illustrated some of them graphically in the Comedy. But he does not blame eros as such, and in his own case maintains that it was a means of grace to him to adore Beatrice; his response to her was, for him, a foretaste of the Beatific Vision. As Charles Williams put it, “The superstitions make heaven and earth in the form of the beloved,” whereas “the theology declares that the beloved is the first preparatory form of heaven and earth.”
It was largely in this “baptized” form that courtly love shaped European ideas about eros, and probably for this reason that the concepts of romance and marriage eventually came to be linked in our minds today. However, this linking is very recent—as late as writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, conventional notions of marriage were still much more practical than sentimental. The idea that people should only marry if and because they are in love would have been laughed at even by some of the Romantics. It is a little surprising that marriage and eros have been so completely identified in our culture when this is so foreign to so many centuries of precedent.
There remains, however, one more love to discuss.
Guillaume de Lorris, The Romance of the Rose
Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
If you’d like to read more from the Journal, try these “Great Conversation” pieces on hospitality and law, or these author profiles of Claudius Ptolemy and Louisa May Alcott. And be sure to check out our podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.