On love (1)
“That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent,” argued Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the greatest philosopher of the past century, in the closing statements of his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921).
Many have interpreted those semi-cryptic statements as to essentially mean that language has its limits in capturing reality, and that there are certain objective phenomena that escape the grasp of inherently finite human language.
After a grueling spiritual journey of self-discovery, an older Wittgenstein adopted a different approach in his final major work, “Philosophical Investigations” (1953). There, he talks about “language game,” where “the meaning of a word is its use.” In short, words have no universal meaning across time and space, but are instead highly context-specific.
Love, perhaps more than any other word, captures Wittgenstein’s linguistic dilemma. We often, with the might of our entire being, contemplate and debate about it, and yet we often mean and search for different things when we speak of “love.”
In reflections “On Life,” as he approached the winter of his life, Tolstoy spoke of love as “the confused knowledge of men,” who mistake it as a self-centered “remedy for all the miseries of life.”
For the Russian literary titan, most people simply fail to understand the true nature of love, which transcends utilitarian solutions to personal, existential crises.
Love, Tolstoy bemoaned, is casually understood by many “only as one of the thousand different eventualities of life,” and “one of the thousand varied phases through which man passes during his existence,” instead of what he saw as the “sole and legitimate manifestation of life.”
But, as his diaries show, Tolstoy himself, in his earlier years, experienced love in more “conventional” terms, despite his precociously philosophical mind, which restlessly searched for metaphysical meaning amid debauchery of youth. What’s clear is that “love” has different meaning, to different people, in different times.
The eternal confusion over the nature of love is most apparent in the canon of Western philosophy, namely Plato’s dialogues.
In “Phaedrus,” arguably the literary high point of Plato’s writings, Socrates describes love as a form of “madness” (manike), which takes hold of immortal souls and becomes the driving force of our lives.
For Socrates, love is “a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men,” one that is “superior to a sane mind (sophrosune) for the one is only of human, but the other [love] of divine origin.”
Comfortably perched under the tree by the river, seeking shelter from the scorching summer in Athens, the young Phaedrus appears shocked, wondering how the usually sober and detached Socrates is so “totally out of place.”
Instead of providing a cold, systematic exposition on the nature of reality, the philosopher instead plunged into an ecstatic rhapsody in praise of one of the most powerful human emotions ever known.
In “Symposium,” Socrates seemingly sang to a different tune. There he describes love as seeking “gloriously beautiful ideas and theories,” the unstinted, disembodied and overpowering desire for “wisdom and beauty,” which connects mortals with immortals, and provides a bridge from partial ignorance to complete knowledge.
Love, here, is the search for ultimate Truth—the return of our immortal soul to the perfect world of “forms.” Here, Plato famously writes, “He whom loves touches not walks in darkness,” for true love provides sanctuary from misery, loneliness and, above all, ignorance.
Crucially, Socrates’ metaphysical conception of love draws on the insights of a priestess, Diotima, the only intellectually engaged female character in the whole dialogue, a testament to Plato’s proto-feminist tendencies which defied the suffocating patriarchy of his time.
Two millennia later, in our late-romanticist era, the conception of love that reigns supreme is closer to Socrates’ description of madness in “Phaedrus,” though devoid of its philosophical divinity.
More accurately, our conception of love is the exact replica of Aristophanes’ notion of love in “Symposium,” namely the desire for completeness, for “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature; it tries to make one out of the two and heal the [original] wound of human nature.”
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