Thursday 2/6

Love in Medieval Philosophy



Quiz Questions

  • What is Augustine's point when he says, " a consequence, just condemnation followed, and this condemnation was such that man, who wold have been spiritual even in flesh if he had observed the order, became carnal in mind as well."
  • Why does Augustine conclude that "[h]uman nature then doubtless feels shame at this lust, and rightly so"?
  • What does Heloise mean when she writes, "[w]ithout changing the ardour of our affections, let us change their object..."?


Today we turned from our study of the concept of love in ancient philosophy to its medieval philosophical development.

Recall Socrates' speech about his instruction in love by Diotima that

  • We desire the beautiful person because we desire beauty, and
  • We desire sex and procreation because we desire the eternal.

We are drawn by erotic love to sex with the beautiful as an expression in the everyday world of physical objects and their shadows as illuminated by the Sun of our being drawn by rational intuition to the perfection and eternality of the forms as illuminated by the Good. Thus love, whether we know it or not, is always leading us to that which is more permanent and more beautiful than ourselves. This is not, as we noted, to denigrate or scorn our 'ordinary' or daily loves. Rather, they are valued all the more precisely because they express more fundamental desires.

Socrates, in short, was no doubt amused by, and likely even relished, Alcibiades' speech.

My point is that for the Greeks there was no shame in romantic love per se. All that changed with Augustine. Like many early church theologian-philosophers, Augustine adapted Platonic philosophy to explain and justify Christian doctrine.

First, drawing on our discussion of Plato's Divided Line, that which illuminates is not the Good for Augustine but God. Second, we express our worship of God by perfect obedience, and our perfect obedience is found in the strict obedience of our own wills to God's supreme will.

This is no small shift. The idea that love draws us to something greater than ourselves remains from Socrates, but the view of love between persons as being therefore a great and worthy delight is completely lost. For erotic love on Augustine's view is shameful and contrary to the will. It is out of our control, and as such it competes with our love of God. We will revisit these issues when we read Simon Blackburn's essay, "Lust". Suffice it to say for now that Blackburn calls Augustine's apparent horror at erotic love the "Christian Panic".

As we discussed, the Christian Panic--whereby erotic love is shameful and naughty instead of, as the Greeks would see it, at its best, honorable and glorious--is with us to this day in social norms regarding public references to sex, public nudity, and common attitudes about the overall naughtiness and shamefulness of sex. In this way Pausanius' speech echoes, distantly, all the way down to our current attitudes about romantic love.

Perhaps no one better describes the Christian Panic better than Augustine's contemporary, Jerome. Jerome, as we saw, goes so far as to claim that a woman can be deflowered merely by looking at her lustfully, whether or not she realizes she is the object of lust. Notice also the very term 'deflower' is used in this context to disparage ones loss of virginity. Marriage is at most tolerated, and a sexless marriage is to be preferred if marriage is necessary at all. "Christian Panic" indeed.

Moreover, the profoundly important mythology of Genesis--which underwrites all the abrahamic religions (christianity, islam, and judaism)--describes an original fall from grace caused by Eve's disobedience to God. The notion that women are the source of the evils that have befallen man is not, to be sure, uncommon. Consider the Greek myth of Pandora's Box for important parallels.

Of course, we might question why the woman in these myths should be singled out for blame. Let us grant that such myths, as I think of them, are sometimes misunderstood. It does not matter. What matters is that they have traditionally been read in the way we discussed, and today we also find misogyny (hatred and fear of women) tragically common around the world.

Predictably, though, erotic love is too strong a force in human lives for the Christian Panic to stopper it for long. We briefly discussed the rise of so-called 'Courtly Love' with the famous impassioned letters of Heloise and Abelard and the 'rules' of Andreas Capellanus.

Having sketched this trajectory of the concept of romantic love through history, next time we take up the first of a series of articles reflecting contemporary conceptions of love.