Philosophers aren't known for their love lives, but a few have managed to be tragic romantics anyway.
Philosophers aren't particularly renowned for having successful love lives, but some have become hopeless romantics — and others misanthropes. Here we have 10 philosophers who have written on or been heavily influenced by love in both their work and their personal lives.
The third Earl Russell was an analytic philosopher whose ideas on modern love, such as his support for gay rights, were so scandalous that when he explained them in his book Marriage and Morals (1929) he found himself unemployable. He was married four times and carried on numerous affairs during his separation from his first wife. He found marriage to be an excellent institution, but one that should not be bound by Victorian norms. He continued to advocate for gay rights, free love, and new ways of thinking until his death.
“To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead." — Marriage and Morals
An American author and feminist philosopher, hooks realized after breaking up with a few boyfriends that there was no proper text on love that she could have given them to help save those relationships. Like any good writer, she then set out to write it.
In All About Love: New Visions (2000) , she argues that our modern definition of love is too watered down by overuse of the word. Working from the idea that love is a verb, she then suggests ways to improve our modern concept of love and prevent what hinders it. She notes with a fervor that power discrepancies and the differences in how men and women are expected to approach love are a particular problem.
"The fear of being alone, or of being unloved, had caused women of all races to passively accept sexism and sexist oppression." — Ain't I a Woman? (1981)
Alfred Jules Ayer was a British logical positivist who held the Wykeham Professorship in Logic at Oxford University. He was married four times to three different women. Heartbroken by the death of his third wife he remarried his second wife, Alberta Wells, again a year before his death. He also had several affairs and at least one daughter out of wedlock.
Despite his affairs, he maintained standards for romantic conduct. At age 77, he saw then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson harassing a woman at a party he confronted the much younger boxer and allowed the woman to slip away.
Even logical positivists are capable of love.— as quoted in Profiles by Kenneth Tynan, 1989 edition.
Sartre was a French existentialist and the life partner of Simone de Beauvoir. In line with their modern lives and her second wave feminism, they had an open relationship which waxed and waned over 50 years. He, rather infamously, carried on affairs with proteges who were much younger than him. Despite never marrying, his love for Simone was evident, and he remarked at the end of his life on how wonderful it was to have known her for so long.
"You know, it's quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice: if you think about it you don't do it." — Nausea (1938)
The longtime partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was a romantic in her own right. She carried out nearly as many affairs as he did, and offered a feminist critique of the idea that what she was doing was in any way unacceptable. She did lose her teaching license for seducing her students, however. She found many aspects of love, romance, and marriage to be demeaning to women, and carried out her life in such a way as to correct the problem.
She is interned with Jean-Paul Sartre, wearing a ring given to her by her lover Nelson Algren.
"It was said that I refused to grant any value to the maternal instinct and to love. This was not so. I simply asked that women should experience them truthfully and freely, whereas they often use them as excuses and take refuge in them, only to find themselves imprisoned in that refuge when those emotions have dried up in their hearts. I was accused of preaching sexual promiscuity; but at no point did I ever advise anyone to sleep with just anyone at just any time." — Force of Circumstances Vol. III (1963)
Perhaps the most tragic romantic on this list. Kierkegaard fell madly in love with a young woman named Regine Olsen, who was also madly in love with him. He proposed marriage, but broke it off a month later, returning his engagement ring to her by mail. They were both devastated by his actions; she threatened suicide over it and he cried himself to sleep over his decision.
It is hypothesized that he feared he could not be a husband, writer, and Christian to the extent he wanted to be all at the same time. Knowing this, he chose to be the latter two. This anxiety over the lives we cannot live was a major part of this thinking. The romance would influence his writings for the rest of his life and, as he must have, he regretted it always.
"If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both..." — Either/Or (1843)
Happy Hallowee--I mean, Valentine's Day.
Despite his praise for the life of asceticism, Schopenhauer tried his hardest to have a decent social and love life. While his connections allowed for some success in the former case, he was rather luckless in the later. He viewed love itself positively, seeing it as one of the key motivations for human activity. His writings on the “will to life" foreshadowed Freudian notions of the id. Despite this attitude towards love, he still found a way to be pessimistic about it. He argued that most people would pick horrible spouses, have too many children, and end up miserable anyway.
“The final aim of all love intrigues, be they comic or tragic, is really of more importance than all other ends in human life." — Schopenhauer
An Indian guru who attracted no small amount of controversy during his life. Contrary to most gurus who favor celibacy, Rajneesh favored a more liberal attitude towards sexuality as part of a path to overcoming sexual desire. He pointed out, as did Bertrand Russell before him, that sexual repression will only create a society obsessed with sex. Once a person is past that desire, they can truly focus on devolving universal love.
“Nobody can teach you love. Love you have to find yourself, within your being, by raising your consciousness to higher levels. And when love comes, there is no question of responsibility. You do things because you enjoy doing them for the person you love." — Sat-chit-anand (1988)
Friedrich Nietzsche is a philosopher we have spoken of many times before. However, his unsuccessful love life has escaped our observation before now. He proposed thrice to the same woman, Lou Salome. Her rejections crushed him, and other than the occasional expression of affection for Wagner's wife he ended his romantic pursuits after Lou Salome refused him. He later pointed out, however, that the only significant philosopher who was married was Socrates; as powerful rebuttal of marriage for the intellectual as he could give.
Nietzsche lived alone for most of his sane life, did think marriage was a decent idea for most people but questioned their way of going about it. In Human, All too Human (1878) he proposed that serial marriage would be beneficial for men. His (alarmingly sexist) stances on women seem to suggest he favored marriage and domestic life for them.
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages." —Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
While remaining a celibate monk, the Dalai Lama has lots to say about love. Although he sings the praises of avoiding sex and marriage, he does understand the attraction to the institution and uses the problems it has to help us understand his position. For him, the greatest use of love is to love the world and everyone in it, no matter how many difficulties life tosses at you. Despite the hardships of his life, he still strives to love everyone and encourages us to expand the circle of who we love.
"Love and compassion are necessities, not — Lhamo Dondrub, 14th Dalai Lama
Some philosophers have tried to base morality on human nature, but what does biology say about that?
In his 1945 public lecture 'Existentialism is a Humanism' Jean-Paul Sartre made a bold claim: for human beings, existence precedes essence. We exist, then we choose how to be. This is as opposed to a chair, for example, which is designed to fit a particular purpose and then brought into existence to fulfill that purpose. The chair has an essence that precedes it; it has a "chair nature" that it is created to conform to.
Sartre rejects the idea that human nature is a guide on how we should live and further denies that there is any such human nature at all. This was a radical departure from most of the philosophy that came before him. Thinkers going back to ancient Greece and China have tried to use human nature as a guide to living a proper life.
Each of those philosophers, including Aristotle, Mencius, John Calvin and Xun Kuang, made an insight into what they saw as human nature and then tried to determine what we ought to do from there. In doing so, they made a horrible mistake.
David Hume demonstrated their error with his is-ought gap. In his work A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume shows us that we cannot determine what we ought to do from observing a mere fact. Just because we evolved to eat all the salt and sugar we can get doesn’t mean we ought to, for example. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is good.
This is often referred to as the appeal to nature, which is a closely related fallacy. Even with this problem, many thinkers would still reject Sartre’s claim of there not being a human nature to work with.
However, Sartre might have an unlikely supporter in his belief that there is no human nature: the naturalist Charles Darwin.
Darwin, here to ruin the day of people who think humans are special.
Evolution shows us that any human nature we have is an accident, retained to promote reproductive success, and is not likely to exist over the long run in any fixed form. Any determination of what human nature would be if it exists is only applicable in particular circumstances for a relatively short time.
Evolution can only happen when there are variations from the norm. Mutations that promote survival thrive, ones that are detrimental to survival are weeded out, and the neutral ones remain. Any attempt to find human nature among all of the variations would have to include altruism and psychopathy, openness to experience and caution, athletic ability and the lack thereof.
Darwin teaches us that there is no “normal”, and fundamental changes are happening all the time. Biologically speaking, human nature doesn’t exist in the way many philosophers need it to.
But, if we can’t base our ethics on human nature, what can we base it on?
The problem of how to ground morality without the appeal to nature is a big one and one that many people have tried to tackle. Immanuel Kant attempted to solve the problem by finding morality in pure reason, formulating the categorical imperative this way. Sartre borrows it from Kant in his lecture, arguing that we must make our choices on how to live as though we were choosing for all of humanity.
Sometimes, that isn't so easy.
Others have found ethical ideas in looking to the human condition, rather than at human nature. In her essay 'Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach', Martha Nussbaum argues that certain problems of human life are inevitable and virtues can be found by determining how to handle these problems. As an example, how we deal with the fact we will someday face danger to life and limb is covered by the virtue of courage. The exact details are to be worked out later, but the need for an answer is clear.
Just because human nature might be one thing or another is not a reason to chart the course of your life in a particular direction. If Sartre is right, there is no human nature to start from anyway. As evolutionary theory advances, we discover that all of humanity shares a hodgepodge of traits that happened to get passed on. It seems strange that we should base what we value and how we act on those traits alone.
We are then left in the predicament of the existentialists: we must decide on what we value, say, do, and dream to be without guideposts. This is a great freedom and a great responsibility.
The “Philosopher-King” of comedy is Louis C.K. You may know his work, but you might not realize there is some serious philosophy behind some of the best jokes.
Remember a great comedian who made you both laugh and think? George Carlin perhaps? Richard Pryor? Or maybe Bill Hicks? Only the best comedians can do that, and when you manage to find one that can do both, it is a moment to always recall with a smile. If only there was someone today whose comedy matched the philosophical edge of the old comedy gods.
Allow us to suggest for you a new Clown Prince of Philosophy.
On his hit television broadcast Louie, Louis C.K plays a slightly fictional version of himself, who is overweight, aging, depressive, bald, and divorced. Basicly he plays himself, but a more depressing version. In the show, despite meeting a series of hilariously absurd roadblocks to happiness, Louie basically enjoys life, despite it all, including his tendency to be a bit depressed.
“Oh no, I know the darkness,” Louie says in one episode. At the same time, he demands that we understand how good life is. Replying to his daughter, who says she's "bored," Louie responds:
“‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”
Louis’ character, and to some extent the real man, are manifestations of what is often called “The Absurd Hero”, first described by Albert Camus. Who is this hero? The man who understands that life is absurd and meaningless, but who finds joy in it anyway. Louie, in encouraging us to laugh at such horrible topics as death, meaninglessness, and the problems of doing the right thing, is a kind of hero in this way.
Death is, indeed, a favorite topic of his. Covered brilliantly in many of his best stand up routines. Louis’ system of stand up writing is perfectionistic, and only the best jokes which appeal to all of us make it to his standard line up; only to be removed after one year’s use. Since death comes for us all, this subject often makes the cut.
As was explained by Martin Heidegger, death is the one thing we all move towards at all times. Louis, similarly, hardly goes a minute into a routine based around death before reminding the audience a few times about that fact. The subject of death was a major one for the existentialist philosophers, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Heidegger among them, who saw the end of life as the major problem in understanding it, and a focus of all of their work.
Louis takes this and runs, showing us how death can be hysterically funny, especially when we know it is inevitable but try to avoid it or ignore it anyway. He points out the pointlessness of this attitude, and makes death as mundane an issue as playing hide and seek with a child. Not to belittle either event, but to show us that both are inevitable, relatable, and unintentionally hilarious.
A great comedian can make you laugh until you cry. The best comedians can make you laugh until you think. As the above jokes show you, Louis is one of the best. In the course of giving us what Time magazine called “reflections on what it means to be human” he makes us laugh, forget our troubles for a bit, and then return to our lives better able to face the problems he just made fun of so well.