We are all familiar with the French Revolution’s political side, which radically changed Western beliefs about the relationship between man, society, and government. Yet the French Revolution also had a deeply personal aspect, known as the Romantic Movement, which changed the way we think about something even more fundamental: love. Before the modern era, love had an objective element inextricably bound up with various social duties. In the modern era love means the subjective, intense desire at a particular moment for some other person. Let’s explore the subject of pre-modern love, and see whether it was inherently defective and deserved to be discarded.
If we go back far enough, pre-modern love becomes primitive love, which was the same as modern love. One person had an intense desire for another person, they had sex, and when they no longer desired each other intensely they ceased to have sex. This might sound agreeable to some of us in theory, but it created serious problems when it involved a man and a woman:
1. If a woman was free to have sex with multiple men, then there was no way of determining who the father was when she became pregnant. Thus, children were born without paternal support and were abandoned.
2. A woman’s fertility and attractiveness usually decline much faster than a man’s. Men would consistently abandon women after a few years for younger partners, leaving older women and their offspring to fend for themselves for the rest of their lives.
3. When free love is permitted, it quickly becomes an obsession. Men and woman spent an inordinate amount of time pursuing sex with each other. This lead to violent conflict over mates, and emotional drama consumed so much time that nobody invested much effort in developing high culture or improving technology.
These and countless other problems meant that any society wishing to advance beyond the most primitive state had to attach a set of socially enforced rules to sex between men and women. Across the world, very similar sets of rules developed and eventually became known as the institution of marriage. What were these rules? A woman would devote her most fertile and attractive years to one man, who could be confident that any offspring were his. Consequently, he was obligated to support them materially and emotionally. In return, the man was not permitted to abandon the woman as her attractiveness declined. He was obligated to support her and their offspring. Some cultures permitted powerful men with extra resources to take on younger mistresses or even another wife, but the interests of his first wife and legitimate offspring had priority.
Considering how much men value consequence-free sex, marriage was probably a bad deal from a selfish standpoint. But if society was going to advance beyond a primitive state, it was necessary. Social evolution is every bit as ruthless as biological evolution, and cultures that had controlled sex and subordinated it to higher goals quickly conquered cultures that spent all their time infighting over sexual partners.
The bad deal for men was also turned into a good deal by the rise of the cult of domesticity. Over time women discovered a whole set of non-sexual attributes that maintained their desirability against younger women as they aged. Above all, women learned to provide constant emotional support to a man. Men can function alone, but they tend to become abstracted and anxious the longer they do. Women are much more social and grounded in the moment, and can bring a man into a richer, more social life if he has confidence in the sincerity and consistency of his wife’s support. Then of course there are all the mundane domestic acts that demonstrate emotional support, such as cooking. As the old peasant proverb goes: beauty fades, cooking does not. Furthermore, by adopting feminine mannerisms, careful selection of clothing, makeup, and so forth a woman could maintain a high level of desirability for years longer than otherwise. Gender roles may be in part an artificial construct, and they are ideologically very out of fashion, but they evolved across the world for a reason, and they evolved for the benefit of women looking to maintain long-term commitment.
People tend to look at pre-modern love as dull and mechanical, but is that necessarily true? The ancients knew about passionate desire – Paris kidnapped Helen with the help of Aphrodite – but they saw nothing particularly noble about his subjective physical and emotional desire. Indeed, Paris is seen as weak and cowardly in the Iliad. Compare him to Odysseus. When we first meet him at the beginning of the Odyssey, he has achieved everything that a worldly man could hope for; he is shipwrecked on a private island with the eternally beautiful goddess Calypso. She cherishes him and has vowed to make him her immortal lover. Yet Odysseus spends all his days sobbing for home, and eventually undertakes a journey in defiance of the god Poseidon – that will probably end in his death – for a chance to return home to his aging, mortal wife Penelope. We don’t think of the Odyssey as a romance, because Odysseus is a man of craft and action, not poetry. But isn’t it one of the finest romances? Words are cheap; an act of devotion like his can only come from a profoundly spiritual, rather than merely erotic love. It also demonstrates how much even a strong warrior like Odysseus values the emotional and domestic support of a devoted wife.
Christianity only reinforced the objective definition of love as self-sacrificing mutual support: The Church entwining the duty to support one’s spouse in a worldly sense with the duty to support one’s spouse in a spiritual sense. Christianity then strictly prohibited all other forms of romantic love. If all this sounds a bit dull to the modern mind, I have to ask what a better basis for love is? There is no reason why sharing a mutual, deep attachment to the same religion and/or culture, coupled with the adventure of struggling together to survive in an uncertain world while raising children in the face of it all is not a wonderful basis for passionate love. What else is there? Shared hobbies? Looks? Charm? Cultivating a sexy persona? After a few months or years these shallow foundations to a relationship will wash away.
If some people were unsatisfied with pre-modern love, then there was something wrong with them, or something wrong in the execution of pre-modern love. But there is nothing inherently wrong with the ideal of pre-modern love. As this blog moves forward I’ll be considering the topic of love further, particularly through the romance novels that emerged at the juncture of pre-modern and modern love like War & Peace, or Pride & Prejudice. I hope you’ll follow along.