Comments on La Rochefoucauld

I will be posting short essays on each of La Rouchefoucauld's Maxims

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Maxim 638

"Love may most aptly be compared with a fever, for we have no more power over the one than the other, either in its violence or duration."

Clearly La Rochefoucauld is speaking here of eros, and not of the other forms of love: agape, philia, or motherly love. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, identifies eros with madness – so La Rochefoucauld seems in agreement with Socrates. For Socrates, there are in addition to eros, three other forms of positive madness that would also follow this formulation: the arts, represented by the Muses; prophesy, represented by Apollo; and initiation, represented by Dionysus.

Agape – this is known in Christian terms as "brotherly love," and more or less represents a generalized sort of love, or "love of mankind." It is an extended, dissipated form of love, that is useful for ethical behavior toward strangers, for inclusion of others into an ever-expanding tribe. It is impersonal, but useful in making people want to help suffering strangers, and not want to make strangers suffer. It is a term that needs to be introduced into the languages of many peoples across the globe. But we also need to be careful with this, since history has given us many men who have been so full of agape that every actual person disappointed them to no end, and they ended up having great difficulty with philia. The reverse has also been true, where those who find mankind as a whole despicable have maintained great friendships. We need agape, but we need to be careful too to avoid idealizing it, so we can feel all forms of love.

Philia – this is friendship, and is also used to indicate "object-love," resulting in terms such as philosophy, pedophilia, xenophilia, etc. Lysias and Socrates in his first speech both come down in favor of philia over eros – for reason over madness. Indeed, what happens when the fever subsides? Do you find you still like the person you were mad over? This is what one wants long-term. And it may be what people are looking for in the present day with things such as "friends with benefits," which it seems Lysias is certainly coming down in favor of. The idea of having friends with benefits undoubtedly comes about through our increasing distrust of emotions – a movement that mistakes the ability to keep one’s emotions under control (good) with the attempt to simply abolish emotions (bad). We cannot forget that emotions are important for thinking itself. And we cannot forget that philia is itself an emotion. We love our friends, as well we should.

Motherly Love – this is the love parents feel toward their children, especially the feeling mothers feel toward their children. It occurs shortly after the child is born – which is why women who want to give a child up for adoption should avoid seeing the child after giving birth. It is a feeling found in mammals, and is what prevents mothers from abandoning or eating their offspring. The extension of this feeling is what creates social bonds among social mammals, and has developed into all the forms of love listed here. Nietzsche, too, recognized that love comes out of the mother’s feelings toward her children, extended to others – he commented that "I recognize transferences everywhere." Love thus metaphorized, bifurcated to become the various forms of love we now recognize. This is why we use baby talk when speaking with our lovers.

Eros – sexual love, a form of madness, of fever. We could just look at this chemically, and talk about how what we call eros can be obtained through eating chocolate. Consider the following quote from :

"chocolate's key ingredient is its phenylethylamine (PEA) "love-chemical". . . . Phenylethylamine is itself a naturally occurring trace amine in the brain. Phenylethylamine releases dopamine in the mesolimbic pleasure-centres; it peaks during orgasm. Taken in unnaturally high doses, phenylethylamine can produce stereotyped behavior more prominently even than amphetamine. Phenylethylamine has distinct binding sites but no specific neurons. It helps mediate feelings of attraction, excitement, giddiness, apprehension and euphoria."

It is also the first chemical that washes over your brain when you first fall in love with someone. Thus, it seems especially appropriate to equate love with a fever, as both are found in the head, and surge and subside like a tide. Socrates equates eros with madness, and as coming from a god – the two are not unrelated. When we come into contact with the gods, we take on the appearance of madmen. Consider too Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The philosopher ascends into the sun, and when he comes back to tell people what he saw, people consider him mad. But these are forms of madness we should embrace – in the modern world, re-embrace.

The Arts – the form of madness represented by the Muses. How "rational" have our arts become! Rather than creating poetry that touches peoples’ souls, we have "Language Poetry," which is DOA – intellectual puzzles at best. Rather than creating music that moves our hearts, we have had atonal music, or the music of John Cage – interesting intellectually, from a musical theory point of view. The postmodern novelists forget emotions in their works, focusing instead on showing off their technical abilities, on structure. This is not to say that there is not benefits to be gained from these rational experiments – if one is an artist – but to the extent that the arts are a form of madness, we have to say that these things simply are not and can never be art.

Prophesy – in the rational form, futurism. Otherwise, we now simply recognize prophesy as madness. Anyone talking about God speaking to them, we lock away. And if they manage to avoid getting locked away, and get followers, we call them cult leaders. Yesterday’s prophets are today put away in mental hospitals.

Initiation – the madness of moving from one way of living, from one world view, to another. This is the role of tragedy, and why Nietzsche identified Dionysus with tragedy (and why the Greeks performed tragedies during the festival of Dionysus). The Renaissance was such a time, moving us from medieval Christianity to the Modern Era of capitalism. And the early 20th century was an attempt to move us from capitalism into pure communitarianism (this was the goal of the Nazis and the Communists, of socialists of various sorts, and even now of the environmentalist movements). And now we are at another transitional period – from all of these exclusive world views, into an integrated, holistic world view. 9-11 was the event that triggered this movement that was already underway among systems thinkers, chaos theorists, artists like Frederick Turner. And we do have to move in that direction, integrating the tribal, the heroic, the religious, the capitalist, and the communal into a whole, holistic world (this will be the true realization of agape).


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