Featured image: Comedian colleagues demonstrate jealousy, Japan
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 August 2016
What is History? Has love influenced history? Has history influenced love?
I had thought I’d get onto the meat of this series, but I’ve been diverted again by a charming topic reminiscent of What is history 2: Sleep patterns. This article is about love and how as with sleep patterns, which were modified by gas and then electric lighting, love has been derailed in modern times by a maladaptive and impossible dream.
What follows is my summary and commentary on Chapter 1: Love in a book by Roman Krznaric called The Wonder Box: Curious histories of how to live 2011.
The publisher’s blurb says:
Roman Krznaric is a cultural historian and founding faculty member of The School of Life in London. He is an adviser to organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations, and previously taught at Cambridge and City University. He has been described by The Observer as one of Britain’s leading lifestyle philosophers.
He has also been associated with Alain de Botton. Krznaric is an Australian although he has studied and worked mostly in the UK.
I came across his book at my favourite second-hand bookstore in Canberra, Canty’s Bookshop. I decided to buy it despite the title, because when I checked on my iPhone Goodreads rated very highly at 3.93. Most of the reviews gave it 4 or 5 stars, which is unusual. Some were gushingly complimentary.
The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind. Later posts are 5 EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6 Religion and 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress,9 Guns, Germs & Steel Overview, 10 Polynesia a Natural Experiment of History and 11 World Economic History.
A brief review
My views on the book are equivocal. Some sections are really original and some superficial.
I think my problem is that the book falls between two stools. This is revealed in the British and US titles, both of which don’t do justice to the book and are off-putting.
The idea of The Wonder Box comes from the cabinet of curiosities developed from the Renaissance, and the title probably comes from the German Wunderkammer. The Curiosity Box or Cabinet of Curiosities would have been better titles in English, but perhaps they were unavailable. The author is often not responsible for the title. The publisher has the power. The subtitle: Curious histories of how to live hints at another purpose.
The US Title gives it away: How should we live? — Great ideas from the past for everyday life.
There are obviously two themes:
The first is histories of curious elements of how people lived in the past (close to my heart in this series of articles on What is History), and the second is lessons from history that tell us: How we ought to live now.
Hence the book is a mixture of history and self-help. I expected a history lesson on oddities of how people lived in the past. The idea of the curiosity box hinted that these histories may be incomplete but I was still disappointed when they were, whereas the chapter on Love at least covered Goethe’s three thousand years (below).
On the positive side, the didactic element of self-help was muted and generally hit the right note for me. It was more about how certain problems that we face as societies could be ameliorated, if we behaved differently. General self-help ideas are presented with reticence, rather than with the usual fierce self-actualisation that is common to the genre.
In defense of Krznaric I am well aware that it is unfair to critique an author on what they should have written. I believe the book is well-worth reading. The best sections and some short pieces are really excellent and remind me of Alain de Botton’s writings.
One reviewer compared Krznaric favourably with Malcolm Gladwell. I disagree. Although both are direct and easy to read, Gladwell is quite a different writer and much more focused on the analysis of unusual issues.
My favourite section was on love, but the book was full of odd and fascinating stuff.
Roman Krznaric begins his book with a wonderful epigraph by Goethe:
He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.
Krznaric demonstrates this strongly with his history of love.
He begins with the Ancient Greeks, whose view of love was much broader than the sniggering definition of Greek love today. The Ancient Greeks were amazing! They discovered things about government, society, mathematics, science, psychology, art, beauty and the physical world that were truly ahead of their time in our development as a naked ape. Some of these things (e.g. good government) we haven’t fully come to terms with today.
I didn’t know anything about the Ancient Greek ideas of love that Krznaric explains brilliantly. I’d highly recommend the original, when you get time.
The Ancient Greeks divided love into six categories some of which figured prominently in their dramas, whereas we only have one category into which are bundled all the emotions, potential meanings and confusions of today. Love means different things at different stages of our life. Krznaric uses the difference between what a sixteen year-old boy and a sixty year-old man might mean when they talk about love as a counterpoint. The Ancient Greek categories, which the Greeks discussed relatively openly, are:
Eros is self-explanatory as are some of the others. It is erotic love, the idea of sexual passion and desire, but it was thought of in those days as dangerous, fiery and irrational. It frightened the Greeks because it involved a loss of control. I suspect I was consumed by eros when I was a teenager, but it was mostly unrequited. Male homosexuality and lesbianism were not unknown to the ancient Greeks. Though when we say the topic of love was discussed, it was mostly amongst men. Women were relatively oppressed in Ancient Greece.
Philia is usually translated as friendship and was considered more virtuous than the base sexuality of eros. It extended much deeper than our concept of friendship. The most prized element being philia developed by those who had fought side by side in combat.
The Greek phalanx was famous in combat as a dense formation of hoplites (warriors armed with long spears and interlocking shields). The hoplites often took ceremonial drugs to prevent faltering. The strength of the phalanx depended on all of the participants moving as one. Any faltering could destroy the phalanx and make everyone vulnerable. There was no ‘official training’ and each man supplied his own weapons. Hence the seriousness of friendship derived from the shared combat experience.
Loyalty without expectation springs to mind as part of a philia friendship, but philia also includes friendship based on utility and mutual respect between colleagues and friendships within the family or kinship group.
Ludus another type of love valued by the Greeks was playful, affectionate love. Ludus is the light kind of love experienced between siblings, children or casual lovers. Flirting, teasing and light-hearted joking are ritualised aspects. But courtship is also involved, as are playful sexualised encounters.
Marriages in Ancient Greece were rarely ludic. They were arranged. The wife was subordinate and expected to remain confined indoors. Pragma (the genesis of the word pragmatic) was mature love, about making a relationship work over time. It is love that compromises when necessary, requires patience and tolerance, and being realistic. It involves mutual support, nurture and commitment.
Agape or self-less love is love without obligation. This was a type of love defined by a lack of exclusiveness. It was to be extended towards all human beings, whether part of the community or a stranger — a transcendent love based on human solidarity. Agape became a central concept of Christian thought. Agape was later translated into the Latin caritas, the basis of our word charity.
Philautea or self-love at first appears as the opposite of Agape. However, it has positive and negative aspects. The negative is epitomised by the story of Narcissus and our word narcissism. The positive side of Philautea was summarised by Aristotle as:
All friendly feelings for others are an extension of man’s feelings for himself.
When you are secure in yourself, you will have plenty of love to give. If you are happy in yourself you will be in a stronger position to extend that happiness to those around you. Alternatively, if you are full of self-loathing, it is unlikely that you will have much love to spare for those who are around you.
These understandings of love by the Ancient Greeks are rich in content, emotions and social and psychological understanding. We have much to learn from them.
The Myth of Romantic Love
The idea of passionate romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because its main aspiration — the discovery of a soulmate is virtually impossible to achieve in reality.
You may remember in J.B.S Haldane The Origin of Life 1929 that JBS Haldane says: [U]nfortunately for Christianity, the Church was captured by a group of very inferior Greek philosophers in the third and fourth centuries AD. I suspect that Krznaric has something similar in mind for love.
Before examining Krznaric’s fairly bold statement, let’s look briefly at the history of the last 1000 years beginning at the end of the first millennium. The first millennium was covered in What is History 3: The Medieval Mind.
Romantic love in Persia
Krznaric says that the idea of romantic love was born towards the end of the first millennium in early medieval Persia, and is exemplified by The Arabian Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. He also describes a Cordoban philosopher Ibn Hazm who in 1022 published his treatise on love The Ring of the Dove. In this book Ibn Hazm describes a bewildering case of love at first sight that still makes perfect sense to us today.
A poet catches sight of a young girl who ‘entirely captured my heart‘. She says to him when he follows her: go away you will shame me. He never sees or finds her again but his heart smoulders. This is an archetypal example of the fire of unrequited love, which is never quenched except by consummation. One hopes the girl forgot him immediately!
Courtly love in Europe
These ideas spread to Europe, possibly via the Crusades and became entrenched as courtly love. This is the second stage of the evolution of romantic love as argued by Krznaric. I know considerably more about this because in my early twenties my girlfriend in Canada was studying for a Masters in French medieval literature precisely on the topic of courtly love and the Arthurian legends. Courtly love or chivalry was huge amongst the feudal aristocracy.
The originality of courtly love was not so much that it was a bold reaction against Church disapproval of the bodily passions, but that it elevated heterosexual romantic love into an ideal of life.
Courtly love embodied two of the Greek loves: eros and agape. Courtly love was often depicted as chaste and honourable because the lady was either unattainable (from a higher class) or to be admired only from a distance. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere put the lie to the chasteness, because it was precisely the barriers to sexual consummation that heightened the passion and the eroticism. It was unrequited love again; but in our cynicism we know that unrequited love is not always unrequited.
Courtly love survived precisely because it was interdependent with chivalry. You may remember in What is History 3: The Medieval Mind the quotation from William Manchester:
The level of everyday violence—deaths in alehouse brawls, during bouts with staves, or even in playing football or wrestling — was shocking. Tournaments were very different from the romantic descriptions in Malory, Scott, and Conan Doyle. They were vicious sham battles by large bands of armed knights, ostensibly gatherings for enjoyment and exercise but really occasions for abduction and mayhem. As late as the year 1240, in a tourney near Düsseldorf, sixty knights were hacked to death.
Despite their bloodthirstiness — a taste which may have been acquired from the Huns, Goths, Franks, and Saxons — all were devout Christians.
Courtly love and chivalry was the opposing force that ameliorated senseless violence and with the church made medieval feudalism work. They were all tied together into a system of ideas — or social project — that held everything together in medieval Europe.
Companionate Marriage in Holland
Krznaric argues that the third stage of romantic love, companionate marriage, arose in the Golden Age of the wealthy middle class in the Netherlands in the 17th century. This was the age of Vermeer and Rembrandt and a time of fabulous wealth in Dutch society, generated by global trading. Krznaric says that: its greatest legacy may have been to transform marriage from a largely utilitarian contract into a passionate union of genuine companionship, or what was known as gemeenschap.
Simon Schama the historian says that the Dutch were pioneers of friendly, loving marriages, as opposed to the dominant practice in Europe of arranged marriage for contractual purposes that were utilitarian or financial in nature (as described brilliantly by Jane Austen for England in the late 17th century).
Krznaric says that though Dutch Calvinism has a pious image, Dutch marriage manuals of the time were quite explicit in recommending eros or the pleasures of fleshly conversation. Dutch marriages were expected to embody eros but also pragma. However, more importantly for the development of the companionate marriage, married life should also embody philia, the companionate friendship that was completely alien to medieval concepts of marriage.
The development of modern romantic love
The above is certainly an oversimplification. The fourth stage that Krznaric explores is the explosion of the Romantic movement, which drew the emerging conception of Western love into the vortex of perilous passion dominated by the pursuit of eros. Krznaric means the literary and artistic developments of romance by Goethe, Jane Austen and even Tolstoy. He especially mentions Goethe’s introduction of the concept of contemplating suicide, when love remains unrequited, in the semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book introduced a phenomenon known as Werther Fever, that is, young blades copying the style of Werther in every detail, and also reputedly led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. In parallel with the Romantic Movement, but not mentioned by Krznaric, was the increasing development of porn in the West.
Krznaric also mentions the rise of consumerism and advertising in the twentieth century, typified by De Beer’s developing the concept of ‘the diamond is forever’ and of diamonds as ‘a girl’s best friend’ (after Marilyn Monroe). He talks of the free love movement of the 1960s, The Joy of Sex 1972 and the development of anxiety — performance anxiety in males and body type or beauty anxiety in females.
The real problem, however, is the search for the ‘soul mate’ or the perfect partner who will amalgamate all the aspects of Ancient Greek love in the one person, which is clearly impossible. His solution is that we diminish our expectations and extend our love needs into our wider community. (He doesn’t mean extramarital affairs here.)
I’m not sure that I am entirely sold on this story, but it is a quick leap from the Ancient Greeks to the present day, and it is a marvellous digression in my attempt to show the difficulty of understanding history, unless we can comprehend how people thought, how people lived and how they were different from us. Love is perhaps more a key to understanding mainstream history than sleep patterns, but it is not conventionally understood to be so. Yet, if we examine our own lives, it may well have influenced history more than anyone has suspected.
The key lesson, which justifies my digression, is a reinforcement of the statement in the article on bi-modal sleep patterns that:
We always believe that what we do is normal and in our arrogance that what people did in the past is amusing, or unusual even weird and strange. They behaved as they did out of ignorance and uncouthness. We are more civilised and progressive. History is progress and civilisation must necessarily mean improvement.
Regarding love, we are much poorer societally than the Ancient Greeks were. There is hope but it seems distant at present and is impossible without massive societal change. Something Krznaric would probably agree with.
How has love affected me? (You can’t expect a complete answer!) I cringe to remember my beliefs as a teenager and some, which extended into my twenties.
I was especially stupid because I took on some impossible ideals at a young age, only to have them thrashed out of me both literally and metaphorically, because they were impossible. Yet, I also took on some of the cruel and contradictory views of my peer group, especially views about women that were culturally in vogue at the time. I did grow out of them later.
In my late teens and early twenties, I truly believed the impossible concept of finding my ‘soul mate’ for life, despite often being diverted. I fortunately grew out of this myth too, at least intellectually, I think.
I’d wish I’d known about the concepts of love of the Ancient Greeks and been able to discuss them freely with others as I was growing up. It may not have helped as much as I’d like to think it would, but it may have helped me to rationalise the ups and downs of relationships and may have stopped me destroying some of them, when I was too young to know better.
I remember when I was in my early thirties and I first went to India, I couldn’t believe that the Indians were still embedded in a culture of arranged marriages, whereas love marriages were in the minority, even amongst the wealthy middle class. Nowadays, I’m no longer so sure about the superiority of love marriages.
I also used to think that wiping one’s bottom with toilet paper was civilised, whereas washing one’s bum with a running water spray was not. I certainly no longer hold that view. (My Indian friends who used to extol the virtues of squat toilets are no longer so sure as their knees give way.)
We are a product of our society, of our culture and our belief patterns. Unless we can somehow stand outside them, they impede our knowledge and understanding of history. Our type of love, our institutions, our society and our culture aren’t above those who differ from us, now or in the past. The nineteenth century British idea that history was the onward progress of the white race, raised in temperate climes, wasn’t merely racist: It was wrong!
I am still grappling with the idea of love as more than a trivial distraction in the course of history, until I think of something very close to home in Australia. Currently, marriage in Australia is defined legally as a union between a man and a woman (a recent legal change). Yet, amongst gay people, as elsewhere, there is a strong push to change the legal definition so that they can also marry and have it recognised as exactly the same under the law. This is not about property or other financial rights, which are already recognised. It is about love!
Over three-quarters of the population in Australia have no problems with gay marriage. Even more so, the bulk of those who support it and most of those who oppose it aren’t passionate about the topic.
Yet, there is a tiny minority in the population with an unrepresentative influence, conservative politicians, some churches and Christians and others, who believe that changing the definition that marriage is a union between a man and a woman is tantamount to tearing down the fabric of society and of civilisation itself.
They have been undertaking a solid delaying action to this legal change. They will lose in the end. But, in other circumstances and in other times such firmly held beliefs about love (and the control of the behaviour of others) have changed the course of history.
Celibacy (initially meaning marriage), for example, has a long and murky history in Christianity and the Catholic Church. Decrees that priests should not marry were first introduced in the 4th century. St Augustine was concerned about his own carnal desires in the 5th century. Yet, in the 15th century 50 per cent of priests were still married, and this was accepted by society. The Council of Trent in the 16th century re-affirmed the superiority of celibacy. Probably the Inquisition and The Reformation helped firm up celibacy in the Catholic Church, but the situation was not clear-cut. How much did this influence history?
(The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind. Later posts are 5 EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6 Religion and 7 EH Carr Causation in History and 8 EH Carr History as Progress.)
Key Words: Love, Soulmate, perfect partner, Roman Krznaric, Wonder Box, How to live, Cabinet of Curiosities, Ancient Greeks, Eros, Philia, Ludus, Pragma, Agape, Philautea, friendship, Courtly Love, Chivalry, Companionate marriage, Romantic love, Romantic Movement, History, History of love, charitable love, consumerism, diamonds, advertising,
Brief biography on The School of Life, UK site (No longer available)
The Greek Phalanx
Ancient History Encyclopedia on the Greek Phalanx
Celibacy in the Church
This is outside the topic but paedophilia and the abuse of children by Catholic institutions is partly due to the Catholic Church’s policy on celibacy and is probably not just a modern aberration.