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The History of Love

The History Of Love

A Philosophical History of Love. Wayne Cristaudo. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers 2012.


Tina Turner once asked us, “What’s love got to do with it?”  Wayne Cristaudo’s A Philosophical History of Love provides the best answer to that question that this reviewer has ever rear or heard.  This thoughtful, thought-provoking, and scholarly work challenges us to take the fullness of love seriously, to understand its creative and redemptive power, and to embed it into the fabric of our lives and institutions.  For Cristaudo, the contemporary world misunderstands life’s task.  Our task is not to develop sovereign selves; our task is the thoroughly mimetic one of emulating the right way to love and following the Platonic dictum to turn the soul to the Good.

The underlying premise of Cristaudo’s work is that the mechanistic picture of reality generated by modernity has produced an understanding of love that attempts to render it predictable, concrete, and one-dimensional by reducing it to mere pleasure.  For modernity love is a chemical reaction and evil has no genuine meaning.  For Cristaudo, on the other hand, love and evil are substances; they are real existents.  They partake of the spirit and spirit infuses all relationships with itself.  Love is not an object.  It is a subject that attempts to realize itself in the world.  His book awakens us to the story of love as told by philosophy, theology, and poetry. As he suggests, not all of love’s chapters have been well written.  If the wrong object of love is chosen, then the spirit of love becomes degraded into something evil.

But a new vision is always just around the corner.  Just as political philosophy often arises in response to some crisis, so too have understandings of love developed in response to human catastrophe.  In effect, Cristaudo suggests that love is the true ground of being, but that what begins as love can turn into its opposite unless institutions “evolve to keep pace with love’s transformative demands” (xiii).  At that point human beings must creatively open to one another in order to find new ways to love, or what was love will quickly turn into evil.

In developing his argument, Cristaudo takes us on a fascinating journey from Plato to the American Pragmatist Charles Saunders Peirce.  Cristaudo’s first stop is Plato and the love of wisdom.  Plato, he says, reacted against the earlier Greek view of love as a blind urge, which he believed was the real cause of the disintegration and violence of the Greek city-states.  Only philosophy, Socrates believed, could redeem Greece because philosophy was the love of something stronger and higher than satisfaction of the appetites – wisdom.

The first part of this chapter is somewhat scattered and needs the reader’s close attention in order to follow the thread.  However, the reward is Cristaudo’s insightful treatment of love in Symposium and Phaedrus and his ability to point out the weaknesses as well as the strengths of Plato’s argument.  Plato demonstrates that love demands “expansion” beyond the lover and not the satisfaction of appetites. Expansion leads to union with others and the truest love to union with the Good – a union capable of bringing “forth the beautiful both in body and in soul.” Yet in the end, Cristaudo shows us that Plato does not tell us all there is to know about love.  Plato speaks of love’s beauties and joy.  Platonic philosophy could not speak to peoples such as the Jews whose civilizational crisis was quite different from that of the Greek city-states.

It is to the Christian vision of love with its roots in the Jewish tradition that Cristaudo next takes his readers.  For the Jews, and then for the Christians, philosophy could never take the place of God’s love.  It was the hope in God’s love that supported the Jews and Christians through centuries of oppression. For Cristaudo the positive contribution of Christianity to the world was its understanding of what love is and how human beings should respond to it.  In this chapter he emphasizes the soteriological power of love.  Sacrificial love is redemptive and can change the world, as in fact Christ’s sacrifice changed the world. As in chapter one, Cristaudo’s story begins without clear focus and without much comment on the nature of the crisis faced by the Jewish nation.  Still the overall message is clear.  Love “trumps everything” (55). However, this is not an easy sort of love based purely on feelings or chemical reactions.  This love is agape – thoughtful, intentional love that requires sacrifice and tending. Love of God, he argues, generates love of each other and in turn feeds our love of God. The promise of Christianity is illumination of the supreme power of love and identification of those things in life that can stand in the way of that supreme power.

The twin catastrophes facing Augustine were the collapse of the Roman Empire and the proliferation of doctrines considered heretical by the Roman church. In the most beautiful chapter in his book, Cristaudo offers fresh insight into the process that resulted in love of the church becoming synonymous with love of God.  The church was God incarnate in the world and offered a place of union for all believers.  Human beings exist in God and thus in the midst of love. We are the product of what we love and of God’s love for us. The question facing each human being is the choice of what to love, for we will serve what we love.  The difference between the City of God and the City of Man is that the City of Man serves power while the City of God serves love through sacrifice.

Yet as wonderfully as Augustine speaks of love, his uncompromising and negative view of sexual love generates the next of the catastrophes Cristaudo believes love had to face.  To make his point, Cristaudo begins the chapter with an extended discussion of the story of Abelard and Heloise.  In the story, both parties engage in sacrificial love that is misunderstood as mere sexual exploitation or gratification and the result is tragedy.  From there the focus becomes the reaction of the courtly love tradition to Augustine’s lack of sympathy for bodily love. Courtly love celebrated romantic love and, at its best, contained a strongly spiritual element. The positive aspect of courtly love, Cristaudo argues, was its recognition of the feminine as something of importance in a way that the church could not ignore. The negative aspect was the blurring of the distinction between love of transcendence and love of one’s romantic interest. In the author’s eyes, courtly love reminded us that a completely loveless, sacrificial, and patriarchal God of love cannot fulfill all that love encompasses.

In the next chapter, Cristaudo argues that the genius of Dante’s Divine Comedy was its ability to join love of a particular woman with love of wisdom, love of poetry and love of God. In so doing, Dante belongs partly to the Christian tradition and partly to the tradition of courtly love that introduced us to romantic love as a spiritual concept. Two things make this brief chapter particularly interesting. One is its opening question: Is the church necessary after him?  The second is Dante’s reliance on Joachim of Flore’s announcement of a new age of the Spirit. Dante places Joachim in heaven, which implies a different assessment of his achievement than the one offered by Voegelin in his study of Gnosticism.  Dante did not see the Christian and pagan as enemies. Instead, the Christian and classical virtues walked hand in hand. For Dante, love truly was everywhere and in everything.   Instead of life happening in the theatre of God as Mann wrote in Joseph the Provider, life happened in the theatre of love. Still, Dante’s theatre of love was thoroughly permeated with God.

From the sublime Dante, Cristaudo moves to the mundane Luther.  Luther’s gospel proclaimed that meaningful service to the word of God required participation in the community through the family. Luther, thus, sets the stage for the idea of the ethical primacy of the family. By doing so, Cristaudo suggests that Luther commits an error similar to that of Aristotle – he confuses the substance of something with its accident.   Dysfunctional families are accidents; functional families are true to the idea of the family.  For Cristaudo, familial integrity is an oxymoron in totally dysfunctional families. Further, as Cristaudo points out, modernity made sexual desire the basis of family life. Once romance is the key to marriage and the family, then the virtues most required for marriage (patience and obligation) become irrelevant. He uses Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert well to support the argument that romantic love is incomplete and can become a destructive force as easily as a creative one.

Certainly the pinnacle of the destructive power of eros can be found in his chapter describing de Sade’s love of evil. Cristaudo argues that Sade produced the very negation of Augustine’s notion that love was stronger than death. For Sade, it is natural and rational to pursue the freedom to torture and kill. Only this individual is a sovereign self. Cristaudo invokes here Girard’s scapegoat – the sacrificial victim. Only for de Sade a crucial step is omitted. In Sade there is no sacralization of the victim as a gift to prevent violence. Rather, the goal is to intensify pleasure through an increase in violence. For Cristaudo, Sade’s vision is a perverse response to modernity’s materialism, faith in the sovereignty of the self, freedom, and commitment to violence against those of whom it disapproves. What Sade misses, in Cristaudo’s view, is the “deliverance from evil that the gift of love provides” (136).

Cristaudo’s final chapter contains his strongest and most direct statement of his thesis that the mechanistic view of the universe denies the reality and genuine nature of love. This time he looks to Charles Saunders Peirce’s Scientific Metaphysics for support. Peirce examined three evolutionary principles (evolution by accident, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution through creative love) and found each of them partial. Neither accident nor fixed laws of nature can explain all the heterogeneity in the world. Peirce (and Cristaudo supports him) finds evolution through creative love to be the most inclusive explanation because it is capable of reconciling accident and necessity. Both chance and necessity are part of evolution, but some other principle is required in order to account for them and reintegrate them. That principle is creative love, which requires the extension of love beyond the self to others and to the world as a whole.

The contemporary world indeed has turned love into a “second hand emotion.” Wayne Cristaudo set himself the difficult task of swimming upstream in that world. His efforts have produced an excellent book. His scholarship is careful and relies on thinkers ranging from the ancients to the deconstructionists. His theme is an important one that deserves careful consideration. I would recommend this book to anyone who seriously is interested in seeking positive alternatives to the mechanistic interpretation of the world.

Margaret Hrezo

Margaret Seyford Hrezo is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Radford University in Virginia. She is author of Damned If You Do: Dilemmas of Action in Literature and Popular Culture (Lexington Books, 2010).

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