I’ll confess that I am a sappy romantic who enjoys watching teeny-bopper comedies despite their repetitive, unoriginal plots. I sometimes cave to the temptation of reading Rosamunde Pilcher and Maeve Binchy novels (but in my defense, only on summer vacation, only at the beach). So, when I recently saw an ad for John Armstrong’s Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy, I jumped at the chance to read it, thinking I could indulge my embarrassing predilections in a philosophical, academic context, thus making them perhaps a bit more justifiable. Of course I was disappointed.
But I wasn’t disappointed for the reasons I secretly expected to be.
To a point, Armstrong does do what he should in this book, what I anticipated he would do, that is, dash the fantasies of romantics like me. He dispels a number of myths in his first few chapters, for example, that all love requires is finding one’s missing half, or that the beloved teaches one to be a better person, or that romantic relationships can solve all a person’s problems. “We are in search of a mature conception of love,” he writes, the love that one finds ten years into a marriage, when expectations have lowered, when individuals have changed, when the glow of “love’s first moments” has worn off. He finds, in the end, that “the need to love and to be loved is deeply placed in human nature,” and “that love is an achievement,” something that is not found, but created. My practical side can admit this is probably what we should seek and find in any legitimate “philosophy of intimacy.” What is surprising, and what I found so disappointing, is that Armstrong’s actual thesis could be so unoriginal. Dr. Phil did a special on the difference between immature and mature love on Oprah two years ago. And even my parents, neither of them philosophers, tell me often that real love isn’t anything like the consummating kiss at the end of a film, that real love requires responsibility and work.
If the point of Armstrong’s book is a bit dog-eared and insubstantial, what makes up the bulk of Conditions of Love are the theories of love he picks up, considers, then puts down along the way. Most interesting is Armstrong’s consideration of evolutionary psychology’s take on love, which says that the capacity for strong emotional attachment is part of the genetic endowment we received from our ancestors. This inheritance, like all our traits, is the result of a complex series of genetic mutations that conferred a procreative benefit on early humans. Love, the involuntary desire to care for and be loyal to a mate, allowed humans to better care for their offspring, thus making them more likely to grow up to procreate themselves and pass along their parents’ genetic material.
What makes this conservative view satisfying is its assurance that love is “natural.” What makes it frustrating is its inflexibility, particularly in the way it assigns almost incompatible roles to either gender. From an evolutionary standpoint, “a male cannot lose by promiscuity,” so he can experience love and lust separately. He can put energy into caring for his mate’s children while at the same time lusting after other partners, the children of whom still stand a chance of surviving to pass on his genes. Females, on the other hand, can only derive procreative benefit from lust if it coincides with love, meaning that females will only mate with males who will be loyal and caring enough to help bring up their offspring.
Armstrong is quick to point out that evolutionary psychology describes only dispositions in humans, not behavior or conscious motivations. He is also quick to bring up the many examples that demonstrate the “limits of [the evolutionary theory’s] explanatory power.” The celibacy of medieval monastic life appears to have no procreative value, and yet many men and women chose just such a lifestyle. Furthermore, unconsummated loves, like the courtly love of Dante and Beatrice and the divine love St. Augustine describes in his Confessions, would appear to have no evolutionary explanation.
Love, Armstrong argues, is historical because it has existed in different forms at different times. Humans may have certain biological predispositions and urges, but we have been controlling and changing our conception of love for centuries. Armstrong refuses to subscribe completely to this liberal position, however, because he does not believe that love, in the end, is merely a social construct. After all, the sexual revolution of the 1970s may have changed the way women think and talk about love and sex, but it didn’t change the biological patterns of male and female arousal, he says. Armstrong takes the path between conservative and liberal theories of love, telling us, “we need to work with two ideas simultaneously: the experience of love is open to change, but only in some ways.”
These are the parts of Armstrong’s book that stand on firmer, more seriously learned ground. One might wish, perhaps, that he had provided a few footnotes, or at least named a source for the evolutionary psychology perspective, but all in all it seems a fine summary. Less easy to trust, however, are the frequent, and seemingly random, examples Armstrong pulls from all artistic genres to illustrate various theories of love. Ovid and Plato as well as Tolstoy, Goethe, Schiller, and St. Augustine, all of them great thinkers on love, deserve their place in Armstrong’s book. But when they’re mentioned only briefly next to some examples from Woody Allen movies, Cosmopolitan, paintings at the National Gallery, and the music of Bach and Beethoven, their presence is less effective.
The breadth of Armstrong’s references is what weakens his treatise. By relying on so many different illustrations, he fails to create a coherent structure.
The author is a researcher in philosophy of art at the University of Melbourne, which may explain why he includes the art examples he does. His particular field of scholarship makes me wonder what qualifies him to approach the subject of love as broadly as he does here, with analyses of literature, music, and pop culture. Perhaps it is his inexperience in these areas that explains why his analyses are superficial and unambitious enough to make reading the original texts seem like a better choice in the end. Conditions of Love made me want to look into American psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler’s studies on marriage (Bergler, Armstrong writes, “argued that people often fall in love with someone in order to be able to replay scenes from their childhood”). It also made me want to read those psychologists who believe that love is the product of our evolutionary history (although, once again, these sources are not cited) simply because Armstrong’s own work seemed to be merely skimming the surface.
Conditions of Love suffers most from a problem of scope. It is that great disappointment: a small book that could have been so much more. Tightly focused on Armstrong’s specialty, it might have been a powerful, short treatise on love in art. If it had been bigger and more ambitious, it could have been a consideration of love in many genres, myriad examples made acceptable by the book’s grander scale. As it stands now, Armstrong’s “philosophy of intimacy” looks more like a beefed-up set of lectures than a groundbreaking work. The book’s twenty-two chapters are so brief they make for choppy reading. Summarizing the various theses of love in this cursory a format doesn’t really seem worth the effort, especially when Armstrong takes the familiar middle-of-the-road position anyway.
Perhaps one cannot ask much more of a trade book published for a general audience than that it skims the surface and offers some direction for further reading. But for a book touted as both original and important, Conditions of Love is a disappointment. I realized along the way that the problem with choosing to read a book like John Armstrong’s is that when it does indeed fail to bring new insights to an old idea, you have no one to blame but yourself.
I should have known better, in other words, especially when I read that “never before has a book been published that illuminates and enlightens readers on an age-old subject: the enigma we call love.” That statement, issued by Armstrong’s publisher, is what lured me to read the book.
Ultimately, however, that contention is not only false, but ridiculous. All the texts from which the author chooses to draw, from Tolstoy’s Family Happiness to St. Augustine’s Confessions, have sought to consider “the enigma” of love in one form or another. The brilliance of those works is that they suggest what Armstrong does, but without summarizing, condensing, and distilling what are, and should remain, complex, multi-layered ideas. They illuminate and enlighten readers on love, but they don’t dumb themselves down. In the end, they are either scholarly, literary, scientific, romantic, light-hearted, or philosophical considerations of love. They are not trying to be all of those things at once, and I wish that Armstrong had learned from their example.