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Desire for Love as Desire for Truth

Upon waking today, it occurred to me that I wanted to write a post about how what makes romantic love so often irresistible is that it entails the feeling of love of truth; then I received the perfect fodder for this post in an article that just came out - "Agnes Callard's Marriage of Minds" - about a philosophy professor at my alma mater who famously (while I was still there, actually) left her husband, who had allegedly been hired at the university mainly on her account, for a graduate student who was studying with her. She had given a public lecture at the time on Plato's Symposium dialogue, in which she claimed that her newfound experience of romantic love had illuminated a central passage of the dialogue (as the article points out, it helped her realize that "love of ideals" does not actually replace loving people, as Socrates is thought to suggest, but rather is the manner in which people, especially romantically, love each other: romantic love is love of a flawed person who is aspiring toward something more ideal and consists in the recognition, support, and further illumination each partner offers the other one). Today's article contains an update from several years down the road of Callard's romantic-philosophical escapade, indicating that, though she and her young partner have married and had a child, neither of them is sure that the relationship has fulfilled its promise. Perhaps strangest of all is that Callard has moved, with her new husband and child, back into the house with her former husband and two other children, so that in the current arrangement each parent has three children and each child three parents.

While Callard had been shocked to discover in herself a person capable of breaking her children's first home for the sake of an incipient romance, it was hard to question this instinct because the romance seemed to spring from what was best or most wholesome in her. It appealed to her philosophical inclination. I do not think she needed to be a philosophy professor for this to happen - it would happen to anyone. Being a philosophy professor simply allowed her to put words to it.

The feeling of romantic love is connected to the experience of a creating a shared understanding with someone - and of being desirous of holding a world in common with them. It is perhaps metaphorically a bit like one eye joining with a second eye in order to finally gain a satisfying sense of perspective on things. The two eyes behold similar phenomena but are situated somewhat differently. Romantic love heralds the possible merging of two very partial perspectives into a more sound, complete one. Our desire for love is connected to our desire for truth - truth, of course, not just about the external world, but about who we are seeking and struggling to be in the world. To ignore our love for someone because it is inconvenient is counterintuitive because it seems to us a dishonoring of truth - not any truth, for that matter, but truth as it is connected to our most existential wonderings. To deny such love seems a denial of who we are at our core. This is why Agnes Callard felt she had to make a choice against her children's interests; if she didn't, she would be giving up on the idea of life as an "aspiration" towards something.

At the same time, even a failed relationship produces its own kind of truths. These truths seem ugly at first, but there is something about facing any truth whatsoever, honestly, that is ennobling, and this can create its own kind of meaning. The unglamorous parts of a relationship - while they push the individuals in it apart - at the same time make possible a new kind of shared understanding (as long as there is at least some openness and honesty between them!) that cannot be shared to the same degree with anyone else - and a part of us wants to revere and respect these truths, too. This is why Agnes Callard, after confronting her former husband honestly on the lovelessness of their marriage - found she no longer wanted to be without him, either. She was unable to deny the new relationship while also unable to cancel the previous one.

Toward the end of the article the question is raised regarding whether marriage is after all only "preparation for divorce" (just as, in Plato's words, "philosophy is preparation for death"). In other words, the question is whether the most significant thing we learn in marriage is that we don't really need the other person in order to be complete - perhaps because, as Callard's new husband proffers, "self-sufficiency" is the answer - or perhaps, as Callard would have it, because there are always new possible partners whose worlds we will wish to explore and assimilate.

Is to be self-sufficient in the understanding one seeks of the world akin to choosing to be one-eyed rather than two-eyed (or multiple-eyed)? Maybe so. But it is also possible that insisting on some level of separation and independence helps each eye learn to see just a little bit better than if it rested in co-dependence. It may, at any rate, be important to unite the love of truth-seeking with the realistic acknowledgement that one's vision and understanding will always, in any case, be partial, and be satisfied that the process is still worthwhile.




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