Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong

John Armstrong, Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy (Penguin; London, 2003)

“‘What is it to love another person?’ This is to raise one of the deepest, and most puzzling, questions we can put to ourselves.” (p1)

I’ve been wading through the difficulties of defining love for what seems like a lifetime but in reality is only a few months of PhD work.  How does one write sensibly about love when love is so uncontainable by words?  It is a problem preoccupying scholarship of various kinds in the present era and no less importantly a dilemma of the everyday that we all come across: how many times can I say to my children ‘I love you’ before it loses all meaning to them?  But how else do I communicate the ache in my chest which throbs with the urge to wrap them in my arms and squeeze them till they squeal?

John Armstrong is a British philosopher, who resides in Melbourne and is currently Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice Chancellor, University of Melbourne.  His books are a delicious gourmet meal, though easily digestible, on topics of life, love, art, beauty and wisdom.  You can taste the delights of his writing on his website, where there are various articles written for a broad audience:  www.johnarmstrong.com

Twenty-two succinct chapters in this short book – each a morsel of goodness in and of itself – describe the nature and experience of intimate connection.  Love is a human experience which defies empirical definition, yet we all seem to know what we mean when we use those four letters strung together into a single word.  Armstrong invokes Wittgenstein to explain how this is not anything to be concerned about, as far as language is concerned, and I’m going to post about Wittgenstein’s word-game solution shortly, so stay tuned.  (It was exciting, gratifying and most of all a great relief, to discover the solution that I’d come up on my own is the one Armstrong suggests!)

Despite the difficulty of empirical definition when it comes to love, we can identify themes or key characteristics which we seem to assume when we use the word.  What we are referring to with the word ‘love’ is sometimes a feeling, sometimes an action, sometimes a moral principle.  Always though, there will be a seeking of positive human connection that can be described as ‘good’.

When we understand something about the ‘conditions’ under which love is produced, we discover we need not be parallelised by this defining frustration.  There are things that can be said about love.  For example, we grasp something of the nature of love through the (persuasive) evolutionary perspective about the development of love as a driver in the human species reproduction and improvement.  However, biology can’t tell us everything, as we can also observe that the human experience of love changes over time and place depending on the cultural context – expectations and judgements produce a morality within which the experience of love is shaped and shaded.  Furthermore, the individual human’s personal psychology, particularly the foundations of love laid in childhood and the creative capacity of imagination, will direct the particular manifestation of love in their experience.

There is much more in Armstrong’s book than what I pick up here.  I suspect each reader will take away some insight unique for themselves as they luxuriate in this beautiful piece of wisdom.  Apart from the book’s academic usefulness, I came away feeling encouraged in regard to my own humanity: I could see afresh my own capacity for love and the goodness of a life lived with love as its main pursuit.

Because I have enjoyed the style as much as the content of conditions of love, I’ll let Armstrong present you with his own conclusion:

“In this book I have tried to argue two things – each argument runs through the book as a whole.  Firstly, the need to love and to be loved is deeply placed in human nature.  It springs from certain inherited evolutionary characteristics but it is also bound up with much more recent developments of self-consciousness: we long to be understood, to be close to another person, to matter in another’s life.  These concerns may have had some rudimentary presence in the lives of our remotest ancestors, but they have been massively increased, and brought to the foreground of experience, only in recorded history.  And because they are aspects of culture, they vary to some degree from society to society – as these needs are variously interpreted.  It is, however, precisely the same factors – the factors which draw us into love – that constitute the roots of love’s difficulties.  We long to be understood, but it is often awkward to have another see too much of one’s inner troubles.  We try to be charitable, but we are susceptible to boredom and impatience.  Above all, we do not go through life with a strictly coherent set of desires, and anyone who charms us in one frame of mind may be annoying in another.

Secondly, love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find, if only we are lucky enough.  But although it is a creation and an achievement it is not something which can be forced simply by effort.  You can’t just sit down and decide to love someone and, through doing this, find that you do really love them.  This is unsurprising if we reflect that love is dependent upon many other achievements: kindness of interpretation, sympathy, understanding, a sense of our own needs and vulnerability.  And these kinds of capacity and awareness do not spring suddenly into being.  Each requires patient cultivation: we have to take whatever fragile presence each has in our lives and build upon that.  If this is true of loving it is also true of being loveable.  Being loveable cannot really be separated from being a good person in general.  There seem to be counter-instances in which physical attractiveness or glamour make individuals the target of love.  But it is obvious that these characteristics play a much smaller role in generating a love that lasts – one which can weather the inevitable periods of disenchantment and dissatisfaction on both sides.  In our culture have become rather disinclined to pay attention to individual responsibility in loving.  We place too much emphasis on finding the right person and not nearly enough upon the cultivation of qualities which allow us to deserve love and which enable us to give loge – even when things are difficult.”

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