Love must be a lover of wisdom [philosophos, “philosopher”], and, as such, in between being wise and being without understanding.
lato, Symposium 204b
In recent years, with astonishing rapidity, widespread social opposition to same-sex marriage has evaporated in many parts of the world. Reliable and effective birth control has become increasingly available to individuals around the globe. Millions of women, in the past century, have gained the ability to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy at will. New reproductive technologies, along with new kinship formations, make the propagation of life and the raising of children seem less and less the result of sexual reproduction. At the same time, in many places, we are living through one of the most profound social transformations in human history: the erosion of a gender-based division of labor. The tidal waves of political and philosophical feminism, and the critiques to which entrenched institutions of sexual domination are subjected, are being felt throughout society. Behind this lies the expanded social authority of lovemaking and ‘love-based’ commitments, in our laws governing everything from marriage and domestic economic life, to the adoption of children, to our schools and medical practices. Virtually no social, civic or political institution is being left untouched by these vast changes. In the face of ongoing violence, naked prejudice, social crisis, regressive politics and institutionalized oppression around the world—much of which arises in response to the developments just mentioned—we may hesitate to trumpet this list of achievements too loudly. But these transformations are nevertheless real and vast.
At same time, the sheer pace of the change often outstrips our explanations for it. Indeed, what would even count as an explanation for such immense transformations? This book is an attempt to answer this question, and to get into focus the kind of account we need to give to better explain these realities.
While love can seem a perennial topic for poets, philosophers, or theologians, the large social changes just mentioned belie any ahistorical visions of love. Indeed, they compel us to think anew about love as a historical practice, comprised of concrete ways of treating one another that change over time.
How, then, to account for the historical transformations just mentioned? How to reckon with their vast implications? And how might these changes themselves help us to explain anything else? These are some of the questions to which the following pages will try to respond.
Consider a well-known reality, no less astonishing for being common knowledge: for generations upon generations, in many societies around the world, even today, men possessed of the requisite social standing have sexually enslaved women and girls, as well as boys, hermaphrodites, eunuchs and others. And they have done so, not merely in circumstances of sheer brutality, or where might makes right, but as a prerogative bestowed upon them by their civilization. Sexual domination, in fact, has long been endemic in human cultures—a core element of the way many peoples around the world have conceived of themselves for millennia. And although there have been mighty attempts to explain the reasons for this persistence of sexual domination—especially the prevalence of what we sometimes still call patriarchy—we lack a full understanding of how such institutions could have come into the world with such staying power. As Simone de Beauvoir’s indispensable The Second Sex notes: “The world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient” (73).1
Given the manifestly equal intelligence and capabilities of women, how could there have been so many centuries upon centuries of sexual domination? And what ends were being served by such gender-based divisions—between men and women, men and boys, matriarchs and girls, and other similarly enforced social-gendered roles? The answers to such questions have seemed obvious to many, as self-evident as the privileges of power in any other form of social domination. But, I think, the available explanations are still insufficient and impoverished. In their place, then, I will outline a historical dialectic that claims—and here I must be careful, lest the claim sound exculpatory—that such institutions of domination were inevitable, however wrong.
At the same time, we lack a convincing account of how anything that might deserve the name of love—a love-affair, or a loving relationship—between a man and a woman, say, or between an older man and a younger man, or any other gender configuration, could have plausibly come into the world out of such a painful, hierarchically determined history. How after all, did human beings ever come to conceive of themselves as lovers? How did we come to see ourselves as capable not just of sexually dominating another, or of being dominated by another, but of making love to another, given the enormity of the painful history just described? And how did our view of ourselves as lovers come to be so authoritative for who we think we are, to the point of becoming central to broad forms of social organization? Is our conception of ourselves as lovers a mirage, or a poetical fantasy, or a delusion induced by dominant ideologies?
Although my answers to these questions will not come into focus until much later in the book, in Part III, I want to mark the questions here—so that the trajectory of what follows is clear from the start. My aim will be to arrive at a provisional comprehension of our contemporary situation. But to get ‘here,’ we have to start ‘there’—much further back. The second and third parts of this book, then, offer an account of love as a historical transforming practice, one with its own internal dynamic over time. I present love as a fundamental form of human self-education, a set of practices through which we have cumulatively taught ourselves that we are rational and free—even if such lessons can never be learned once and for all.
1. The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovanz-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2011); all citations are to this edition. I have been inspired by Beauvoir in more ways than I can acknowledge—as will hopefully be apparent in what follows. Nevertheless, my answers to these questions differ fundamentally from hers. Beauvoir posits a “will to dominate women,” and a struggle between men and women modelled on the life-and-death struggle described by Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit. She writes: “We have already posited that when two human categories find themselves face-to-face, each one wants to impose its sovereignty on the other. . . . It is thus understandable that man might have had the will to dominate woman” (ibid., 73).