By Kalev Pehme
I dedicate this piece of Tawnya Gunn, Will Kolodzie, and Laurie Berry
The early Christians knew the obvious: An erotic man is a man who wants to be a god, not worship the god. So instead of eros, they substituted god’s love, both for man and man for god, as philia, a weaker form of friendship that doesn’t have the desires of the body, for example, or the desire to be a god. They made this love cosmic. Moreover, Eros is at the very least a demigod, and therefore has no place in the Christian scheme of things. Thus, the war against Eros started.
Eros begins with the beautiful body and its attraction and it ladders up to an overwhelming philosophic desire to possess the Good, the whole, As we find in Plato, eros combines the desire to behold at a distance with the desire to join with the object of that love. That desire is a realization that the beloved is complete and with the realization that the lover is radically inadequate. That forces the lover to realize that to be completed, he has to find a way to get the beloved to reciprocate. But the beloved, as being complete, has no need for the lover. The beloved would have to admit that she or he is inadequate to reciprocate. Why do that? It’s a problem.
In Plato, love, true eros, is both a metaphysical as well as human passion. Only human beings have eros and that human eros defines what man is. There is no cosmic or a god who is love. There is no love outside of man. Although eros begins with the beautiful body, it is not simply sexuality. Animals have sexuality, but man has something more in his love. There is the love of truth, for example, and the truth is something that is not mere body or material. In Shakespeare, the most erotic of poets, people die for the truth as Emilia does in Othello. Cleopatra doesn’t just kill herself; her suicide is her greatest reciprocation of Antony’s love. Many of the ancient poets and the great Christian poet, Dante, saw love as the universal law of attraction moving the stars, but Plato did not. By making eros man’s core, man’s passion for all good and beautiful things is the center of his life.
In Plato, the heart of social life, however, is justice and in the dialogues, Socrates works very hard to find what the connections between the erotic mind and justice is. But that is not my concern here. My interest is the state of eros in our lives.
Allan Bloom, in his book Love and Friendship, notes that eros and language are closely connected. A man in love wants to persuade and impress the beloved with a rich vocabulary and rhythms of the most beautiful words he can put together. Love wants to be articulate. One thinks of the language Shakespeare’s lovers use (“happy, happy, the horse that carries Antony,” Cleopatra says). The best poetry is the most erotic poetry. Think of the extremity of the outstanding language used by Humbert Humbert in his love of Lolita.
But let us think of our day. The American language is declining severely. Emotions are expressed in small set of vulgar expletives. I think of the sweetness of rock lyrics in the 1960s and I shudder when I think of the illiterate and harshness of so much of contemporary music. A lot of it is about sex, but there is no love in this sex. The 1960s experienced a burst of Rousseauian love that drove the songs of the Beatles, for example. The hippies and other counter-culture movements have been destroyed by the sanity of today’s moralists who have always hated any form of eros. That has come about because modern times, although rejecting Christianity, nevertheless rejects eros as well. Modernity is essentially atheistic and totally materialistic. Modernity in most of its forms does not recognize that there is anything beyond man’s materiality. Hence, there is no metaphysical realm beyond our senses, and there is no eros, only sexuality. And because modernity basically adopted Christian morality without Jesus or god, that horrible atheistic morality is directed against the erotic with even greater force than that of Christianity.
The erotic lover is lawless, and modernity stands by the law. Eros recognizes no limits, and we good Hobbesians must have great limits on our lives, because our passions are dangerous. They may lead to war or the kind of anarchy that may lead to untimely death. And we good Hobbesians live in constant fear of death. The erotic man will give his life for his beloved without hesitation because he is not fearful because he lives in a state of heightened risk all the time. If that were a social virtue, then there might be many who would not recognize legal boundaries and would overturn modern morality. Think of how ridiculously against eros our contemporary social conservatives are or how politically correct we have to be about so many things.
Moreover, our modern economics is highly against eros as well. Capitalism, for example, is based on the notion that collective selfishness as embodied in a “free market” is the only way for man to live. Eros is selfish, yes, but that selfishness is transcendent and for transcendence, i.e., paradoxically it is selfless. Eros wants the beloved, but in the end that love is not materially based. That we love is the proof that capitalism is wrong and against man’s basic nature. In the capitalist world, eros, love, must suppressed because if there is selfless action, then the total materiality of capitalism is not universal and true for man. The infinite joyless quest for joy, as Leo Strauss calls it, is remedied by eros which is at the heart of man’s nature.
Capitalism is actually the socialized version of the will to power and the will to power is not erotic. It is at best lustful or greedy. The entire basis for our economic system is the desire for domination of others for our own selfish ends. Is it any wonder when this principle is then associated with all human relations that we squeeze out the sweetness out of life? In this world, this will to power there is only domination and necessity. There is no insouciant moments of freedom , because eros and freedom are essentially linked. To reduce eros to sexuality and polymorphously perverse sex is to make of man an animal who simply has a greater range of bodily pleasures. Capitalism and modern economics is a paid dominatrix with a real whip that enjoys torture rather than love and whose clients in completely slavery all the time.
The will to power and its manifestations in modernity, from modern tyrannies to its economics, give rise to the conservatives like the Tea Baggers in our country. These people hate and cannot love. But it also gives rise to very strange politicians. Let us think about Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln fought a civil war to unite this country. He didn’t do it because he wanted to dominate the world, but he thought very deeply about what justice is, what the just solution was in his day, and Lincoln from his eloquence we know cared deeply for other people, from his own children to the soldiers in the field that he was responsible for killing. The Gettysburg Address is an erotic statement about this country and what makes it great. Think of any contemporary politician and compare that politician to Lincoln. Think of the way the Republicans conduct their will to power. They are not Lincoln Republicans. I think about how Washington, this country’s first millionaire, gave of himself to this country. Washington, the erotic man, wanted eternal fame, in the best sense of glory. To have that could only occur if he dedicated himself selflessly to the Revolutionary War and the just governance of this country in its founding. He could have become a king; instead, Washington asked to be called Mr. President, because he wanted something more than a title. To found a nation, especially a nation that has gone as far as this one has, is quite much better than being a temporary king.
The passion for justice, justice writ large, is a passion against selfishness and a dedication to social life where concern for others replaces the anti-social selfishness that we find in thinkers from Hayak to Marx, not to mention the highly unerotic Heidegger, who, after all, became a Nazi and praised Hitler.
The connection between justice and eros is really in the way that eros purifies the individual lover who is willing to give all of himself to the beloved. That erotic man desire when manifested politically manifests itself against the will to power, in favor of compassion and justice. Justice does more good for any country than the will to power, and the remedy to the will to power is eros.
Love is mutual caring and it is not harsh; it is also very soft and sweet. Eros refines the human being in all ways, especially in its highest forms. What disturbs me a great deal is how little effort there is no in the world to create what is beautiful. For example, “the new brutalism” was an architectural fad for a while, the will to power as a building that is essentially unhuman and ugly. When what is extolled is simply the cleverness or technical accomplishment of the maker and not its esthetic goodness, we get building after building that is simply ugly and polluting of the country. Consider the difference between the building that houses our Congress and the local federal office building. In Manhattan, the State Supreme Court and the Surrogates Court are models of good architecture of their day and are still great buildings today, while here in California our courthouses have no dignity and give no architectural support to the law and its nearly sacred state.
Our ability to enjoy the ugly has infected all our popular entertainments, especially the music of the young. The erotic person loves what is beautiful, because eros must desire something that will complete him. Goodness and beauty are the ends of eros. Popular love today has been reduced in many quarters simply a power play. But the real experience of eros, of love, is the speeding up of the heart, the sweetness of the desire, the desire to be good to someone, and the highly charged emotions that dominate the lover; to love is to be possessed by the god Eros. Eros, moreover, is also not contractual. There is no love when one partner does a set of obligations and other does as well. There may be contractual obligations in a marriage, but marriage is an institution. It is not a vehicle of love as Rousseau attempted to make it.
In my previous posting here, I noted that young women today are very disappointed with the young men in their lives. That is bound to happen when eros is on the edge of death or imprisoned. Today’s young have not had an erotic education. They take business courses to learn the will to power; they don’t read Proust, Austen, or Shakespeare and forget about Plato. Yet, the young women especially want a great love in their lives, and they have to settle for a man with a puny soul whose goals in life are very small.
Eros, although natural to man, manifests itself in great men, and we don’t have great men today. Eros thrives in a world where there are great ambitions that not strictly speaking material. There is quite a difference between a man who wants to be a billionaire and a man like Washington who wanted to found a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. The young are not educated to moderation and justice; they are taught to be selfish and self-serving. I also noted in my last posting here on my anti-blog that today people have relationships instead of loves, marriages, and so on. That is the final destruction of eros, when one says, “I’m in a relationship.” To make the most emotional commitment and risk in human life and attempt to reduce it to the neutrality of the pseudo-scientific term “relationship” is to deny love thoroughly.
It’s a sad world when there is no eros in it as there is no freedom and there is no true pleasure. It is a world where there is no greatness. It is a world that cannot survive.