November 20, 2013
I’m about to mix philosophy, romance, and love into one post. Brace yourselves.
I’ll begin by contrasting two different schools of thought which underlie everyone’s views on love these days. Most people are some blend of the Romantic school of thought and the typical Enlightenment, empirical Western tradition. That’s very academic sounding, but I’ll explain it all now.
Romanticism focuses around the indomitable will. It’s about heroic individuals untamed by nature. You create you own values, your own goals, your own ends. What matters is your own vision of the universe, similar to how an artist creates a work of art from a blank canvas. It comes out of nothing. Imagination, creativity, belief and faith. You pull your creations out of the void. There is no copying. No adaptation. No learning the rules. There’s no external track or structure which you must conform to or stay within. That’s the first basis.
This is in direct confrontation with the Western tradition of thought which believes that virtue is knowledge. If you acquire the right knowledge, it will tell you what to do and how to fit and live within reality. It believes there is a “nature” to things, and if you know this nature, and know your own nature relative to it, then your goals and what you have to do will become clear to you. You’ll know how to fulfill yourself and be happy. There are facts to which you must submit. There’s a way it is. Science is ultimately guided by this process. It’s a form of submission. You must learn and be guided by the nature of things.
In many contradictory ways, both schools of thought run parallel in my mind and oftentimes conflict, as they do in most people. I want to illustrate these two schools of thought by discussing love. They apply to a much broader range of of thought, but love is just interesting, so that’s what I’ll discuss.
In my mind, the idea of creating things from nothing is very appealing. Have you ever sat and just thought about the origin of creativity and imagination? It’s strange. The love of God which is universal really grabs me. Always has.
Though I don’t think it’s this simple, emotionally I’m drawn to the idea that I’m a rough log, and you’re another strangely shaped log, and we’re both artists with mallets and sharp pointy carving tools, and as we interact with one another, we wack away at one another and both take on new form. We both grow by expanding one another’s horizons. You don’t have to be a physicist, or like anything that I do. You just take my hand and take me anywhere. We’ll go off dancing someplace, and I’ll just let it flow. You don’t have to be like me. That’s how a romantic views love.
Percy Shelley, the famous poet, had romantic thoughts like this. The idea of pure love. How does it play out in practice? Well, he married this young tavern girl, Harriet, who was a suicidal mess. He swooped in to save her with pure love, so this is a particularly interesting event to study. She wasn’t anywhere near his intellectual caliber, so he had a platonic, emotional affair with an unmarried school teacher for quite some time. All of it ends very tragically. Percy eventually abandons Harriet for yet another woman he meets, the much more intelligent and educated Mary Shelley, who would eventually author the novel Frankenstein. They ran off together, reading Rousseau, Shakespeare, and other great works.
So what happened to Harriet? She was pregnant when she was abandoned, and that’s pretty rough on a young woman just a tad over 18. She went into a state of shock, and then put heavy rocks in her pockets and drown herself in the river.
What’s the moral of the story? Love is a selfish business.
The other day on the Huffington Post, I read a feature article posted by an ex-military man, talking about love. He says love isn’t about your own happiness, it’s about what you can give. Like most things, take any idea too far and you’ll have trouble. I can see it now. I love you because you’re such a trainwreck and somebody’s got to love you! Who would possibly want something as disgusting as you? But don’t worry, you’re in luck. I’ll tolerate it through discipline and endurance because I have the love of God in me! In extreme cases it will lead your partner to commit suicide, so keep that in mind.
Let’s look at things from the other extreme. Whereas the Romantic school believes you must struggle to shape and mold the world as you will with passion, the Western school is more cautious and submissive, relying on cold logic and reason. It tells us we all have a nature, which you might lay out in some personality survey, like the Myers-Briggs personality test for example. I’ve taken the test and they say I’m an INTJ. The goal is to figure out your nature, and then find people who are scientifically compatible with you. So, you fill out long questionnaires, lots of data is gathered, and after intense statistical computation, a series of compatible people pop out suited to you. The choices are made scientifically.
I’m a bit skeptical of this way of doing things, though it’s not all bad. I find it limited and I personally don’t have a lot of faith in the social sciences. People aren’t as simple as atoms and other simple things we study in, say, physics. We don’t follow simple rules. It’s hard to model people with equations and logic.
Also, the belief that you have a fixed nature leaves you with this feeling that there’s an ideal, “right” person for you. People change. You can change. We all change. The human brain isn’t set in stone. It’s a very pliable thing. If you believe you have this fixed nature, you may become overly be concerned with knowing yourself, because, after all, if you don’t understand you own nature, nothing is going to work. You come to view growth as learning about yourself, but I’d argue that there is a proactive aspect to growth. There has to be a courage to venture into the unknown and unfamiliar.
I’m always wary of believing “this is who I am”. You can easily end up living a life of self-fulfilling prophecies from then on out. I look at my own life and I’m always changing. I’m a totally different person from who I was just ten years ago. It’s good to venture off and experience new horizons. Many aspects of the Western tradition place too much faith in reason. Just because ideas and emotions are flowing through your mind, that doesn’t necessarily bear any reality to your potential or who you could be if you decided to try something different. Education, new friends, new environment. You can become a new person. It doesn’t happen instantly, but it’s never impossible.
My problem isn’t so much with logic and the scientific method, but more so our own limitations. Human thought, while being a form of knowledge, is just as often a form of ignorance. We tend to believe things about ourselves and others which aren’t really true in reality. Think of a child’s drawing of a home. They draw a little square and put a triangle on top, then color it a solid shade of brown. That’s what your ideas about yourself look like in the grand scheme of things. Real homes are much more interesting. So are all of you.
In most practical affairs of life, we have to be some mix of both schools of thought.