This chapter presents an overview of the book's argument and methodology, situating it within broad spheres of inquiry in the human sciences—such as gender studies and anthropology—and in relation to key figures, like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. It pursues the following questions: (1) How can seeing love as a special kind of practice that changes over time—one that helps us make sense of fundamental puzzles of existence—also help explain immense social-historical transformations, such as the rise of pederasty in the ancient world or the erosion of a gender-based division of labor in our own era? and (2) What methodology is required in order to adequately deal with these questions? The Prologue outlines the kind of account the book seeks to provide, as well as a sketch of the account itself.
There is one temporal change from which no living creature is exempt: death. Thinking about who we really are makes considering individual mortality unavoidable, and hence a necessary place to begin thinking about love as a practice. This chapter argues that love of the dead or 'family love' is one of the earliest forms that loving treatment takes in human cultures, a ritual whereby individuals attain membership in a human community. Transformations in such rituals lead to a crisis in their ability to fully account for how the individual dead one is 'loved,' and that amor in Virgil, Ovid and Shakespeare takes shape as a response to this problem. Romantic love forms as an improvised response to the inability of funerary rites to adequately make sense of the passage from life to death. It offers new interpretations of Orpheus and Eurydice, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Romeo and Juliet.
Whereas the previous chapter focuses on death, this final chapter considers the puzzle of human reproduction. It offers a philosophical-anthropological reconstruction of how our ancient ancestors must have made sense of sexual reproduction, through an interpretation of Genesis, Aristotle and other texts. It then shows, through a reading of Plato and others, how this 'sexual self-education' produced gender-based divisions and institutionalized sexual practices: a gender-based division of labor and regimes of sexual domination. Through a reading of courtly love and Shakespeare's Othello, this chapter shows how this regime of domination came into a crisis—one which led directly to some of the most significant socio-historical transformations of the modern era: birth control for individuals, abortion rights, feminism, and the erosion of a gender-based division of labor, among others. It offers new interpretations of classics by Richardson, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Annie Proulx and others.