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What can ancient philosophers teach us about love today?

16th Sep 2020

What do the philosophers say about love? Quite a bit. Philosophy lecturer Alissa MacMillan says we can learn a lot above love and relationships from the greatest minds of all time.

Like many of the love-struck, when I met the man I would eventually marry, there were moments when I was tempted to tell him, “You complete me!” Not that I’d felt incomplete before, or that I’d been looking too hard for love, but it just sounded kind of, well, romantic. And it seemed like the sort of thing you’re supposed to say.

The good news is, I’d learned from studying philosophy that there was something fishy about this idea of romantic love completing me. If that were the case, single people would be partial people, and that couldn’t be. What’s more, the rest of us wouldn’t be able to add anything else to each other – my friends, my family, my colleagues, my teammates. Of course, a little romance is always good, but love, it seems, is more than just a matter of finding your other half.

Philosophers have much more to say on romantic love – it changes our perspective, it brings us to life, it makes us virtuous – but even more, they push us to go beyond the surface of questions, refusing to be satisfied with quick answers, engaging our brains in a different way, asking us to reflect, and giving us new conversation partners.

You wouldn’t think a long-dead German philosopher like Immanuel Kant could have words of wisdom for my good friend in New York, going through a divorce at the moment. She was tempted to stay with her husband for the sake of her two kids. The relationship was over, she said, but the kids needed them. Surely, a stable household would be best, she thought. But Kant’s advice would have her sign the divorce papers: If you stay together for the children, he’d say, you are using yourself as a means to another’s end, treating yourself like an object for use instead of like a human being, with your own unique dignity and value. It’s a point that’s made well in the strangely Kantian movie Bad Moms, where a few mothers have lost themselves and their individuality, having become servants to everyone else in their lives. They break out in the most outrageous fashion, including wreaking late-night havoc in a supermarket. As silly as it sounds, they come to see the intrinsic value in themselves, and it ends up being better for everyone, including the kids.

They also find friends. Friendships, as many philosophers agree, are some of the most important relationships in our lives, Aristotle counting them as nearly everything. But philosophy pushes us to ask what friendship really entails, an enquiry that can make friendships even stronger.

If a relationship is equal, mutual, and both of you see each other as valued in yourselves, this is a true friendship. If I keep you in my life because you walk my dog for me when I’m away, it’s a relationship where we’re using each other as means to an end, treating each other like objects, not human beings. Even more, good friendships, like love, are the kinds of relationship that make us who we are. Asa former New York city girl living in the Irish countryside, I could use more of a social life, perhaps a few more friends. It sounds simple enough– just go on out there and meet new people! But the philosopher Martin Buber, in his book I and Thou, suggests that my complaint is more serious than it sounds. We need others, he says, because others are the source of our very existence. When we meet people face to face, with a mutual compassion and recognition of our equality, these interactions bring us to life.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir also points out that there are social forces at play, both subtle and obvious, shaping many of our interactions, especially between men and women. Philosophy pushes us to think about these structures and forces; how, for example, the very idea of a woman being completed by a man might not be what I want.

In case you’re worried that philosophy means stuffy lecture halls and armchair thought experiments, don’t be. Philosophy in Ireland has been dusted off and brought to life, focusing on debate and conversation, a philosophy that flourishes in everyday relationships, meant to help us solve real problems, in our real lives. The subject is currently making its way into the school curriculum across Ireland, added as a Junior Cert short course a few years ago and now part of increased hours for “wellbeing”. The method being used, P4C, or philosophy for children, focuses on group discussion, reflection, creativity, and critical, collaborative thinking. It’s already successful in places like Cork Educate Together Secondary, and an oversubscribed option for some transition years, and teachers can’t help but notice the change in their students. Philosophy is also no longer the preserve of men. A thriving little group, the Society of Women in Philosophy Ireland is a place for women philosophers to share events, ideas, and news, and it’s one I’ve been lucky to find since moving here. In the schools and among scholars, the aim is to raise a generation of critical thinkers who are able to analyse and reflect, be more imaginative, and become better citizens – another concern of the great thinkers.

Our roles in society, from sibling to fellow citizen, are the focus of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who sees the varied and changing roles we play in life as the core of what gives our existence and lives meaning. I might be an ocean away from my family, but I feel a responsibility as a daughter, sister, aunt; these roles, which remain real, make me who I am. In fact, for Confucius, every role we play is crucial, from sister to stranger, from customer in the coffee shop to fellow train passenger. In each new encounter, we have a responsibility. We all fill out our social tapestry, from the student acting like I can’t see him at the back of the lecture hall (I can see you!) to the driver who forgets to use her turn signal, changing the flow of traffic, and perhaps someone’s view of humanity. I might be the very worst player on my local GAA team– yes, I joined the team– but I still matter. Philosophy now has me thinking that my husband does complete me. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been the worst if I’d used the phrase. But my parents in New York also complete me, just as my brother, my old friends and new, my football team, my colleagues, and my neighbours do; a network of relationships, making us who we are, a network seen more clearly, in some of its complexity and subtlety, with a bit of philosophy.

Digital illustration by Laura Kenny.

This article originally appeared in Volume 2 of IMAGE Magazine.

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