Love is everywhere the theme of popular culture, but only rarely a subject for serious contemporary philosophy. Irving Singer, professor of philosophy at MIT, attempts to remedy this imbalance with these two volumes, the first two parts of a trilogy. Laudable in breadth and clarity, his work nonetheless reveals only too well why most modern philosophers are embarrassed by love.
When once defined within Plato’s search for the Good or the Christian’s pilgrimage to God, love was a thing of intellectual and moral substance. It dictated normative patterns of loyalty and order and so distinguished itself from groundless emotionalism. But as a creature of the 20th century. Singer repudiates Plato’s Good as “a dubious abstraction” and proclaims himself “not partisan to any variety of religious faith.” Not for him is the love subordinated to a philosophic quest or proffered as an incomplete representation of God’s love for man. Hardly a rare personal decision. Singer’s rejection of Platonic and Christian love seems the natural outcome of cultural trends he traces in these two books. Even in the Middle Ages, the older traditions suffered from unresolved internal tensions separating sanctified marriage from celibate monasticism. The Reformation challenge to the scholastic understanding of caritas rendered love yet more problematic. But religious disputes over love were simply left behind when a new, this-worldly understanding of sexual love gained ascendance through the Provencal troubadours, the Renaissance humanists, and the Romantics. Romantic poets occasionally quoted Plato or Christ, but it was their own autonomous imaginations—not God or the Good—which gave the new vision of love its shape and content.
Singer casts his lot with the Romantics. Disdainful of the “realists” who regard love as a mere mask for selfish appetites. Singer champions a love ennobled by the “amorous imagination.” Such love is a creative act, a spontaneous “bestowal” endowing the beloved with “value that would not exist otherwise.” Because “bestowal generates a new society by the sheer force of emotional attachment,” it undermines established “conventions” and is “always a threat to the status quo.” The lofty imagination of a Shelley, for instance, must not be restrained by “taboos about divorce or extramarital experimentation.”
Defining love as an “imaginative artifact,” however, creates irreconcilable contradictions. Confronted by the Marquis de Sade’s idealization of brutal self-assertion in sex, how does Singer respond? He will not quote Scripture. Tradition and history he finds suggestive, but he denies them ontological roots: “In itself human experience is a flux of largely chaotic and sporadic adventures.” What’s left for a philosopher at one of America’s leading universities? Nothing but personal preference: he opposes de Sade with only “my own moral orientation, and my own intuitive sense of what is real and important in human nature.” Such bald subjectivism is disconcerting, but even more troubling is Singer’s cheerful acquiescence in the collapse of all the standards previously guiding love. “Our own age is one in which previous idealizations linger without being meaningful as once they were. A long tradition may be coming to an end.” And so from the bathhouses of San Francisco to the porn shops of Brooklyn to the philosophy departments of Massachusetts, “love” now means whatever the imaginative say it means.
[The Nature of Love; Volume 1: Plato to Luther (Second Edition); Volume 2: Courtly and Romantic; by Irving Singer; Chicago: University of Chicago]