A sociology of love

It is perhaps symbolic of the perennial tension between the natural forces of life and the attempts to regulate life in the world that a day set aside for erotic love should be named after a Christian saint.  The coincidence is not exceptional.  Many holidays in the Christian calendar have pagan origins.  Sometimes the pagan aspects outlive the religious meanings, as in the case of February 14, which, since 1969, is no longer marked as a feast day in honor of St. Valentine.

The martyred priest whose name has become synonymous with love is supposed to have lived in the time of Claudius II.  For refusing to renounce his faith, Valentine was jailed and executed on Feb. 14 in the year 270 AD.  He was accused of secretly marrying Christian couples, thus making them unsuitable for war. The story goes that in prison, he befriended and healed the blind daughter of his jailer.  And on the day of his execution, he sent her a farewell note, signed “your Valentine.”

Valentine’s affections were hardly erotic, and this was precisely the point.  The Church sought to substitute brotherly love for sexual love. In those times, the 15th of February was celebrated as the day of the goddess Februata Juno, when young men and women were paired as couples through the mechanism of a love lottery. The names of the women were drawn by the men on Feb. 14.  It is obvious that naming the day after a saint did not succeed in masking the orgiastic origins of Valentine’s Day.

The brilliant German sociologist Max Weber called sexual love “the greatest irrational force of life.”  He expected the erotic sphere to resist and survive the growing rationalization of everyday life.  For him there is no way anyone can institutionalize love.

Of love, he writes: “This boundless giving of oneself is as radical as possible in its opposition to all functionality, rationality, and generality….The lover realizes himself to be rooted in the kernel of the truly living, which is eternally inaccessible to any rational endeavor.  He knows himself to be freed from the cold skeleton hands of rational orders, just as completely as from the banality of everyday routine.”  Weber thought of love as a creative elemental force that, in the modern world, might serve as our last link “with the natural fountain of all life.”

Society has tried to regulate this creative force through the institution of marriage, whose own origins lay in the need for economic security for the wife and inheritance for the children.  In the modern period, this led to the equation of love with marriage.  Couples marry for love, and so when love is gone, they think the right thing to do is to dissolve the marriage.  This, no doubt, accounts for the crisis of modern marriages.  Couples could hang on to nothing else but the promise of love’s passions.  From the standpoint of society’s needs, nothing could be more foolish than to anchor an institution on a fickle and elusive force as love, says Nietzsche.  This crazy philosopher’s radical insights were developed and woven by Max Weber into his own modern sociology.

While preparing for a lecture on postmodern love and intimacy, I stumbled upon Nietzsche’s thoughts on marriage and family and was surprised to learn how much Weber drew from him.  These two German thinkers were interested in the fate of social institutions under the impact of modernity.  Modernity rationalizes means and ends, and introduces consistency in the practice of everyday life, but it also tends to dissolve everything it touches.

“Witness modern marriage,” Nietzsche writes.  “Modern marriage has patently lost all its rationality: and yet this is no objection to marriage, rather to modernity.  The rationality of marriage lay in the sole legal responsibility of the husband: this is what gave marriage its centre of gravity; whereas nowadays it has a limp on both legs.  The rationality of marriage lay in the principle of its indissolubility; this gave it an accent which, set against the contingencies of feeling, passion, and the moment, could make itself heard.  Likewise it lay in the responsibility of families for the choice of husband and wife.  The increasing indulgence shown towards love-matches has practically eliminated the basis for marriage, the thing which makes it an institution in the first place.  An institution can never be founded on an idiosyncrasy; marriage, as I have already said, can not be founded on love…. Marriage as an institution already encompasses the affirmation of the greatest, most enduring organizational form: if society itself cannot guarantee itself as a whole unto the most distant generations, then there is no sense in marriage at all.”

It is never easy to agree with Nietzsche’s typically contrarian views, and I certainly warn against accepting them uncritically.  They go against what we normally understand to be the ethos of freedom, which is at the core of the modern spirit.  But the dilemmas he poses cannot be ignored.  His discussion of love and marriage in the modern age is provocative.  Institutions are the tools that link generations to one another, he says.  Their survival cannot be made to depend on the accidents of fleeting sentiments.

I do not think Nietzsche was arguing against love.  Though he himself remained unmarried for the rest of his life, he had a profound respect for marriage.  I think in his view it was wrong to have used marriage to tame love.  Lucky are those who can keep love and marriage under the same roof, but because it is an intrinsically irrational force, love will always defy institutions.  Prince Charles knows that only too well by now.

Happy Valentine’s to my wife Karina!

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