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
Existentialism is great and all, but how can you really relate to the ideas if you don't think God is dead? Luckily, we've got just the thing.
Existentialism remains one of the more popular philosophies for the layperson to read about, consider, and study. The questions that it asks and the problems it confronts, ones of free will, anxiety, and the search for meaning; are ones we all face in our daily lives. While the solutions it offers may not work for everyone, existentialism can have a particularly large blind spot when it tries to provide answers for the religious.
Think of it, Nietzsche declared that God was dead, Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir were all atheists, and the related philosophy of Nihilism also denies God’s existence. For the religious individual who seeks extra comfort from existential dread and the perspective of the existentialists on the problems of modern life, good answers can be hard to come by.
But there is an Existentialist who made Christianity one of the core principles of his thought. The founder of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher born to a wealthy family in Copenhagen in the early 19th century. He was a prolific writer who often used pseudonyms to explore alternative perspectives. His work covers all of the areas of existential thought; anxiety, absurdity, authenticity, despair, the search for meaning, and individualism. However, unlike his atheistic successors, he places his faith in the center of the solutions to the problems of human life. Just as the death of God was key for Nietzsche, the need for God was just as important to Kierkegaard. Here are some of his insights:
On finding meaning
Kierkegaard agrees that life can be absurd and that meaning could be hard to come by. As opposed to Nietzsche, who said the death of God caused this, Søren argued that, in the present age, meaning is sucked out of concepts by abstraction and a tendency to view things with too much rationality. He lamented that he lived in an age where humans were increasingly viewed as generalizations, where the passionate man was seen as intemperate, and where most people simply went along.
He cries out for us to live passionately, and worry more about the problem of living life than trying to fit the social order. His philosophy is all about living this way, even to the point where an outside viewer will be unable to understand your motivation.
Kierkegaard also discovered a point that was hammered in by latter existentialists; reason and science can tell you a lot of things, but they cannot give something value or meaning. You have to do that. Meaning, value, and purpose cannot be reduced to quantifiable elements, it is up to the individual acting on their own to decide what the meaning of their life is going to be. His favored solution for finding meaning is to look to God and make a leap of faith. That alone, he argued, could both offer us meaning and properly balance us as people.
Pictured, the building blocks of life. Not pictured, the building blocks of the meaning of life.
On living with freedom
We must face the world as individuals, so Søren tells us. However, to fully be ourselves he posits that a person must recognize the “power that constituted it”. We are given the moral imperative to discover and live as ourselves, and God is a key part of that imperative. Every day, we are presented with facts of life and possibilities, and we must make choices. To not choose is also an option, but a poor one. To avoid becoming ourselves is to be in despair, which, for Kierkegaard, is to be in sin.
He warns us also of the anxiety that comes with choosing the path of our lives. While we must choose, we can never be sure that we choose correctly, as “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In the same way, we have endless possibilities before us, except for those lives we chose not to have. He articulates the anxiety of having to choose to not live out some possibilities magnificently, “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; Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it, weep over them, you will also regret that; laugh at the world’s follies or weep over them, you will regret both….”
Kierkegaard says they will live to regret it, no matter what happens.
Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard also saw the potential use of “isms” to solve the problem of meaning in our lives. Søren focuses on the idea of an “ethical” life as an escape from deciding on meaning for yourself. By choosing a social or ethical system to latch onto we can find meaning in our relation to it; rather than by ourselves. He sees this as a possibility for many people, but not as the ideal solution to our problems.
One of his solutions to the problem of meaning was a Christian variant of the super-individualist Ubermensch; before Nietzsche had invented it. The Knight of Faith is an individual who has moved beyond relying on external rationality or “isms” for the justification of their lives and fully dedicated themselves to a higher calling. This calling is God in the case of Kierkegaard’s examples of Abraham and Mary.
They understand that the demands of God might be unethical, as the demand that Abraham kill his son was. However, they carry on past ethical concerns anyway, as to be a Knight of Faith is to be- to steal a phrase from Nietzsche- beyond good and evil.*
The benefits of Existentialism don’t have to be utterly separated from the Christian notion of God. Likewise, Kierkegaard’s insights do not require a dedication to Christianity to be used. He argued that the “passionate pagan” who prayed to a false idol was living better than the Christian who was worshiping out of mere habit. Even for those of us who are not Christians, it is possible to understand a little more about ourselves and the problems we all face as humans by considering the worldview of Søren Kierkegaard. A fantastic introduction to his ideas can be seen here.
*-To those of you who see a potential problem here, Kierkegaard notes in the book Fear and Trembling that some method must be used to determine who is a Knight of Faith and who is just a lunatic. Likewise, while the Knights could be divinely inspired to do horrible and bizarre things (like sacrificing children or inventing circumcision) by religious fervor, Søren posits that the typical Knight would be rather reserved and that we might never hear about them. Debate continues on if that answer is sufficient.
Romantic advice from some of humanity's biggest thinkers.
Romantic relationships are difficult to get right no matter how hard we try. Thankfully, philosophers and other big thinkers have weighed in and offered advice. Here's who you should trust with relationship advice — and who you should run from.