Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mortimer Adler on the disorderedness of romantic love

I'm sure there is someone out there who will call me, at the very least, a killjoy, and maybe worse; but I have had this unresolved question in the back of my mind for some years. The question is this: What exactly is "romantic love"? It's not that I haven't experienced the emotional high involved in the phenomenon. I still remember this little Japanese girl in kindergarten in Hokkaido where we lived another lifetime ago. I'm utterly certain it was what people call "true (romantic) love." Then on a school field trip, we were all shown how to make origami objects out of bamboo leaves, and I made an origami canoo, which I gave to the love of my life, and she flung it over her shoulder with a look of utter disdain; and I've never been the same since.

No, the question is not one of experience, but of conceptual classification; which may, in fact, help people to know how to regard and treat the experience. The puzzle deepened when I finished reading C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves, decades ago, which analyzed brilliantly the differences between four classical types of love distinguished by the Greek philosophers:
  1. Agape (charity), which is a self-giving love animated by concern for the beloved (this is the word used in the New Testament for Jesus Christ's love for us);
  2. Eros (sex), which Lewis describes as the "face-to-face" kind of love that two people have for one another when they desire one another (this is primarily a self-serving kind of love, in that I desire the other for my own sake, pleasure, fulfillment, etc.);
  3. Philia (friendship), which Lewis calls the "shoulder-to-shoulder" kind of love that two people have for one another who discover that they have a common interest; but the Greek word for "philosophy" (love [philos] of wisdom [sophia]) shows that this kind of love can be for other things than persons, as when a person says "I love chemistry," perhaps;
  4. Storge (affection), which Lewis calls a very biological love, in that it involves the kind of love between a parent and child, with the typical caresses and hugs that accompany it (and I suppose it extends to pets as well).
But my question, of course, was this: Where does "romantic love" fit in this typology? In some ways it seemed like it edged close to "Eros," but that didn't seem quite right either; because "romantic love" is something far more "spiritual" than mere erotic attraction.

Well, I just happened across this short, short interview with Mortimer J. Adler (whose works I greatly admire), and I think he has provided for me the beginning of a resolution. Here is the interview [Be sure to click on the "Read more" link to read the whole thing -- it's short):
On Romantic Love

A Conversation Between Max Weismann and Dr. Mortimer Adler

WEISMANN: Could you help us and begin by naming the three bad loves and explaining why they are bad as love--in Christian terms?

ADLER: You may be shocked at first to see what they are--love of money, pride, and romantic love. At first they don't seem to go together, they seem like such different things. But what they have in common (the principle they all violate) is that they are either loves of the wrong subject, or loves of the right objects but in the wrong way. All three violate the precepts of charity. All three consist in displacing God, in deifying something other than God--in loving Mammon rather than God; in loving oneself as if God, the sin of Lucifer; in loving a man or woman as if divine, worshipping or adoring another human being.

WEISMANN: I know it was I who raised the question about the Christian law of love--the precepts of charity, and you have now answered it. That answer may do for many of us, but it may not satisfy all our readers, some of whom may want to know if, apart from the Christian religion, there is any morality of love--any way to distinguish good and bad loves?

ADLER: I am glad you asked that question, because I am sure there are many who will want an answer to it. You ask whether, without reference to God or Divine law, and in purely naturalistic terms, we can distinguish between good and bad loves. The answer is certainly yes. We can. And when we do, we will find exactly the same three loves which are bad as love--only they will be called by different names.

To show you this let me go to a psychologist like Freud, who is deeply concerned with love, not just sex. First let me translate from Christian into Freudian terms. The three bad loves are the same, though they are differently named and described. In Christian terms, they are love of money = love of the wrong object; pride and romantic love = love of the right object but in the wrong way. In Freudian terms, they are love of money = neurotic object fixation; pride = narcissistic attachment to ego; romantic love = adolescent overestimation or idealization of sexual object.

According to Freud, each of these bad loves either is, or is symptomatic of, a neurotic disorder. None is a healthy or wholesome love. To be a healthy person, to be an adult, to be well integrated, one must get over such loves or be cured of them.

WEISMANN: Most of us can see that Freud is right about the love of money, or narcissism (the excessive love of one's self). But I think most people may be puzzled about romantic love, or what Freud calls adolescent love. What, in psychological terms, is wrong with romantic love?

ADLER: Here is what Freud has to say on the subject: The adolescent tries to combine unsensual, heavenly love with sensual earthly love, but is usually defeated by the phenomenon of over-estimation or idealization of the object. As this over-estimation or idealization increases, "the tendencies whose trend is towards direct sexual satisfaction may now be pushed back entirely, as regularly happens with the adolescent's sentimental passion. The ego becomes more and more unassuming and modest, and the object more and more sublime and precious, until at last it gets possession of the entire self-love of the ego, whose self-sacrifice thus follows as a natural consequence. The object has, so to speak, consumed the ego."

This happens, Freud points out, with greatest intensity when erotic love is not consummated sexually, as it is in marriage. Freud compares such adolescent or romantic love with being hypnotized. "The hypnotic relation," he says, involves "the devotion of someone in love to an unlimited degree," with the object loved completely replacing all ego-love, and "with all sexual satisfaction excluded."

This explains, psychologically, what is wrong with romantic love--why it is adolescent rather than adult--in terms that have a striking resemblance to the theological criticism of romantic love as the over-estimation or idealization of a human being, as if divine. Now, on the naturalistic plane, and without reference to God, the proper object of human love is another human person.

WEISMANN: Then these three bad loves are bad as loves because each in its own way defeats the good love that enriches human life.

ADLER: Precisely. Let me summarize. The love of money distorts the love of persons; narcissism (or pride) prevents loving another and being loved by another, and so ends in lovelessness and loneliness; romantic or adolescent love destroys amour-propre or--proper self-respect, and so ends in destroying itself, since love cannot long endure without self respect.

WEISMANN: You can turn on any television talk-show today, and you will see the results of bad (romantic) love and the loss of self-respect. People suffering the worst lives imaginable, filled with pain and hatred. And yet they always blame the other person (whom they originally wrongly idolized) almost never recognizing what really lies in fault for their misery. We could do a whole discussion on this aspect alone.

However, we are just about out of time. In closing how would you briefly summarize the morality of love?

ADLER: The morality of love can be summarized in two simple statements. The first is: love only that which is truly lovable--God or persons, not things. The second is: love whatever is lovable in proportion to its goodness, neither more nor less.

In a sense, the morality of love is the whole of morality or at least its essence, for morality consists in having a right sense of values, in putting goods in the right order, and loving them accordingly. It might almost be said that a man whose loves are in the right order can do no wrong.

WEISMANN: St. Augustine said precisely that. If I remember correctly, he said: "Love, and do what you will." Doesn't that mean you can't go wrong if you act in the light of love?

ADLER: Yes, it does mean that, but one qualification may have to be added. The love St. Augustine is speaking of is the perfect love, the love of God. Hence he does not need to qualify his statement. But if other less perfect loves are considered, then it is necessary to say: Love that which is better more than that which is less good. Then you can't go wrong.

The poets have said this, too, in their own way. You know the famous lines of Sir John Suckling, "I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more."
So there it is. Romantic love, according to Adler, is a disordered deification of another human creature -- right up there in the catalogue of the Seven Deadly Sins alongside greed and pride.

Put this together with another observation by C.S. Lewis -- namely, the comparative historical novelty of the Western cult of Romantic love -- and you have the recipe for the disaster that marriage has become in modern times.

By the very words we use to describe our experience of Romantic love -- "madly in love," "head-over-heels in love," "falling in love," "crazy over so-and-so," "love is blind," "hopelessly in love," "I can't help myself," etc. -- we attest to its irrationality, a sense of being off-balance, out-of-control.

Was there a reason why marriages in the Bible and the marriages of our ancestors and so many marriages in other parts of the world even today (many Asian and Islamic countries) have been arranged marriages? If those of our grandparents' generation married for "love," they generally still did so in the context of level-headed inter-family appraisals of their proposed unions.

I remember a Pakistani young lady in one of my classes at Lenoir-Rhyne University in which we were discussing this question. At one point she stated that she was getting married to a young man she had only met once previously in India -- at an event arranged by his and her parents with the intent that they seriously consider the prospect of marriage. My other students listed in stunned silence while she admitted her lack of any "Romantic feelings for him" since she really hardly knew the young man. In answer to their predictable questions later, like "How can you possibly marry someone you don't LOVE?" she responded matter-of-factly, "We will learn to love each other." Asked whether she had any worries, she replied, with a smile, "He seemed awfully shy and quiet. I'm curious whether I will ever get a word out of him." Everyone laughed.

About half a year later I had the opportunity to meet the young Pakistani woman again, and asked about her marriage. Their wedding was the second time they had ever met one another. I asked her about her previous concern about his shyness and reticence. She replied: "Now I can't shut him up; but he's really very nice."

Food for thought.

[Hat tip to Max Weismann and]


Dark Horse said...


Anonymous Bosch said...

Very interesting, PP. I must admit that I've had a few similar moments of perplexity about how to classify "romantic love." My usual thought, though, was that it made most sense to see it as a subset of "erotic love," since it seemed to be motivated, like the latter, primarily by desire.

There is the fact, of course, that the desire found in romantic love isn't "erotic" in the vulgar sense of the word, even if physical desire may be part of it. It seems to transcend mere lust. It seems, at times, even to include elements of altruism that echo genuine charity.

Still, it seems that the dominant note, so to speak, of romantic love is a sort of yearning and desire to be united soul-to-soul with the beloved.

The part of Adler's discussion I have some question about is whether romantic love necessarily has to always be this disordered form of idolatry that he sees as its essential form.

In the Canticle of Canticles attributed to Solomon, for instance, there is certainly this sort of yearning for the beloved one finds in romantic love. Of course, the church historically has identified the work as an allegory of love between Christ and the church, which would free it of any stain of idolatry. But apart from that allegorical interpretation, could there not be a proper and proportionate form of love for the beloved that avoids idolatry but preserves its soaring desire to be united "soul-to-soul," as you put it, with the beloved?

I'm also wondering about Lewis' alleged claim that the cult of romantic love is something relatively novel in Western history. What about Jacob and Rachel in the Bible, or Tristan and Isolde in Nordic mythology, etc., and is Western (and in fact World) literature full of examples of this phenomenon?

Max Weismann said...

Thanks for posting that!

Max Weismann

Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann
Home Page: http:/
A not-for-profit 501 (c)3 educational organization

Pertinacious Papist said...

Mr. Weismann,

It was a delight to run across this interview (or conversation) with Dr. Adler. As I mentioned in the post, the subject was one that has conceptually bedevilled me for some time, and I found your conversation on the subject particularly illuminating.

Best wishes,

Max Weismann said...


We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann

Pertinacious Papist said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. Weismann. Very much appreciated.

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