Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A young Catholic today inherits a long, long tradition of reflection on love that is unmatched in any other culture in the world, beginning with the sublime “Song of Songs” of the Jewish Testament, and the many sections of the Christian Testament dedicated to the theme. In more recent times, if I may include that great writer in the English Catholic tradition, The Allegory of Love (1936) by C.S. Lewis. In that dazzling history Lewis traces the invention of the story of romantic love—now the most standard of all loves recognized in the Western world. Romantic love is a Western invention, a near-obsession, supposedly the key to all happiness. For Lewis, the invention of romantic love in the age of the troubadours (the age of the Crusades) was far more momentous for the development of the West, and far more broadly influential than, say, the Protestant Reformation. Lewis compares the Reformation to a ripple on the vast ocean of romantic love.

As a result of this invention, we Westerners have come to think that the central fire of human happiness is romantic love, love forever and ever (love “happily ever after”). Imagination ends with the romantic couple walking hand in hand across the fields toward the sunlight. Many people spend their entire lives looking for such love, wanting to feel such love, wondering, when they are first attracted to another, if that’s what they’re now feeling. Above all, most people love being in love, love the feeling of loving, love even the mad passion of being in love.

Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World (1940) first opened my eyes to the phenomenon of romantic love. In pointing out several features of romantic love he offered a useful vocabulary for analyzing the meaning most often attached to the term “love” in literature, theatre, and cinema today. Central among these is the fact that it consists in falling in love with love, not with a concrete person. In its pure form it scorns mere bodily, erotic, sexual love. It prides itself on being “above” the biological love that is satisfied by pornography or by groping interaction with another human being. This ill-starred higher love entails

a factor having the power to make instinct turn away from its natural goal and to transform desire into limitless aspiration, into something, that is to say, which does not serve, and indeed operates against, biological ends.

Romantic love loves the higher passion, the spiritual ecstasy of love, not the body. A woman in romantic love loves being swept off her feet, longing for more, to the point of death. “I would rather die” than lose the feeling of loving him and being loved by him.

Passion means suffering, something undergone, the mastery of fate over a free and responsible person. To love love more than the object of love, to love passion for its own sake, has been to love to suffer and to court suffering, all the way from Augustine’s amabam amare down to modern romanticism.

To feel the ecstasy of passion, romantic love entails a boundless desire, a longing for the infinite, a longing to “slip the surly bonds of Time,” to escape from bodily limitations into the realm of the forever and the infinite. De Rougemont describes it as “complete Desire, luminous Aspiration, the primitive religious soaring carried to its loftiest perch . . . . a desire that never relapses, that nothing can satisfy, that even rejects and flees the temptation to obtain its fulfillment in the world.” It is a revolt against mere flesh, against the limits of the human condition. The body, it finds gross. What it loves is the rarefied spiritual passion that only romantic lovers know. It loves feeling lifted “above the herd,” into a higher sphere. Romantic love is “a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude,” purer, more spiritual, more uplifting than physical “hooking up.” It is not a sated appetite, but in fact quite the opposite. It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire. It feels a kind of murderous hostility toward rude awakenings.

This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles. If romantic love were to lead too quickly to physical consummation, it would cease being romantic. For then it would require dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and—bump!—romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. No, for the sake of romantic love, it is much better for fulfillment to be delayed, for obstacles to be put up, for a sword to be laid down between the longing couple, or a curtain drawn between them. For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another. De Rougemont comments on romantic lovers: “Their need of one another is in order to be aflame, and they do not need one another as they are. What they need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence.” This is the story of love perennially facing obstacles, never having to get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life.

If and when eros does vanquish all obstacles, it ceases to be romantic love. It now must choose between commitment to a concrete other with all the limitations of that other, or a once-and-for-all break-up. For with consummation, illusion is shattered. Flesh meets flesh. The reality of the human condition sets in. As a result, the most satisfactory ending for the tale of romantic love is not , as one would think, physical consummation or even “growing old together.” It is, actually, death, while longing still pierces the heart. For then the living member of the couple can go on loving infinitely, forever, above the ordinariness of mere earth. Or else, if that empty fate is simply unbearable, the remaining beloved can also meet a tragic death. Now that is really satisfying: when a man and a woman continue in romantic love eternally, by means of the untimely death of both. That is real tragedy, a real arrow of love to the heart, the best of all Western tales.

Do not too many of the young persons you know believe that true happiness is to be found in true romantic love? (They may not know how to distinguish true romantic love, but they seek desperately to try it out, so that at last they can become “happy.” For so many, “happiness” means romantic love.) Do not many long to be “swept off their feet”? Be honest, you almost certainly remember this wistfulness in yourself, long ago. Perhaps, still, even at your present age, you tend to think that romantic love, a true passion as the French used to call it, was once, or still is, the highest, sweetest peak in your life. We all know people who refuse to be bound by an earthly commitment to any one concrete, imperfect human being. Instead, they fall in love with love, over and over again. Until death brings them rest.

Romantic love is to be contrasted with the Christian vision of human love. Unlike romantic love, it is plain from scripture that God expected—nay, commanded—his followers to consummate their relationships: “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.” Sexuality is a crucial part of human life, both for deeply personal growth and, second, for the continuance and prospering of the human community as a whole. The Christian (and emphatically the Catholic) view of the human being is that sex is a natural expression, not only of the body, but of the soul. In fact, the Christian faith does not hold to the view that the body is separate from the soul. On the contrary, in the Christian view, the human person is one, not two: an embodied spirit, a spirited body—one. The notion that there is an errant body (like a wild steed) to be disciplined by a superior soul (the charioteer) is from Plato, not from Judaism and Christianity.

A very good recent study of love in all its many different varieties has been bequeathed to us by Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love. Von Hildebrand sees all the many varieties of human love—he distinguishes eight or nine different loves, each with its own proper name—as designed to fold into each other, all converging upwards into a rich, symphonic unity. This unity culminates in that greatest of all gifts, the caritas which is proper only and solely to the Persons of the Trinity for one another. The caritas that makes them one. This caritas is also the force which impels the Lord to overflow his identity, diffusing caritas throughout the human race, inspiriting the race, raising its sights and aspirations, transforming the world like yeast in dough, or the heat of white-hot ingots glowing in the night.

Von Hildebrand’s distinctions between agape and caritas are especially brilliant. His vision of the love of a man and woman bounded in matrimony is both very high and beautiful, and quite down to earth. Married love is not that of angels. It is that of sweating bodies, disheveled sheets, unruly hair, bad breath, scraggly beards, dirty diapers, and, outside the door, clamoring little ones hollering for their breakfast. Christian love is this worldly and realistic. Resistant to romantic illusions, feet-on-the-ground. Realism supreme. Reality is always better than illusion. And in regard to marriage, especially so.

But the love of man and wife is also very high and beautiful, precisely insofar as it may be penetrated by supernatural caritas. As Von Hildebrand writes: “It is caritas that empowers those who are animated by it to enter the kingdom of holy goodness, and it is caritas that brings about the dominion of the humble, reverent, and loving center in them over the center of pride and concupiscence.” Not a bad statement of the fulfillment of spousal love.

Michael Novak has recently retired from the George Frederick Jewett chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles