A Brief (Very Brief) History of Romantic Love, Which, Surprisingly, Turns out to Be a Cultural Creation, like Duct Tape and Underwear

In The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis makes the startling claim that among the ancients (which in the West, in Lewis’s time, meant the not-so-ancient ancient Greeks and Romans), there was nothing like what we would call romantic love. One plows through those books mentioned in the Western Civ classes and finds familial loyalty (Penelope for Odysseus) and lust abounding (Apollo for Daphne, Zeus for every second mortal female teenager–grrrr), but romantic love is weirdly absent. That’s because, as Lewis rightly points out, romantic love was a cultural creation. That’s not a bad thing. Really.

Long, long ago, people lived in small bands and probably mated pretty freely, like bonobos. Then came the city-state, which was all about hierarchy and controlling resources, and women became property—chattel bartered by their fathers, and monogamy (for women) became the rule, enforced upon women by extreme laws. Take a lover, if you were a woman, and you would die (all that stoning for adultery you read about in the Bible). Marriage, as conceived in the city state, was a contract between men for the lifelong servitude of some woman, still a child at the time of the contract, and she had no say in the matter.

Among the ancient Greeks, strong emotions were typically described as possession. A person is taken over by a God (Eros) and moved to act in a certain way (rape), and so isn’t responsible for what he (or, less frequently, she) did in that state. Yeah. There is a LOT of that stuff among the ancient Greeks. But Western Civ classes just wanted to tell you about how noble and rational they were, inventing democracy and geometry and all.

Flash forward. It’s the Middle Ages, and from a confluence of Plato and adoration of the Virgin and Persian love poetry brought back by Crusaders and public relations by paid poets for knights (who were actually thugs–the enforcers armed by the feudal ownership class), we got idealization of the woman as love object in Romance literature v1.0. The notions of romantic love and chivalric devotion to an impossibly idealized beloved emerged from this confluence. Such love was possible, but outside marriage, ofc, which was still seen as a sort of business relationship.

Flash forward again, and one gets, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the emergence of the vision of Romantic love one still finds in, say, stupid Romantic Comedy movies frequented by fourteen-year-old girls, who seem to wield a lot of influence over Hollywood move-makers. You, young lady, are fated to meet the ideal object of your affections, your one true and only, and that done, you will, if his wooings are successful, and if you are crafty enough, live in utter monogamous bliss, forever. Queue the music. Poets, again, cooked this stuff up. Those unacknowledged legislators of the world, as Shelley called them. That Romantic Era v2.0 constellation of ideas informs the stories that young people in our culture tell themselves when, at fourteen or sixteen or twenty-two they have infatuations. Overwhelmed by sudden intense attraction to another, they assume that this must be THE ONE that all those Romance stories are about, and so, on the basis of having met someone they know almost nothing of (and about whom they could know nothing because the person is still mostly a lump, barely formed), they choose a permanent mate at the time in their life when they are least capable of making sound judgments.

But here’s the thing: all these cultural creations can be rethought. They aren’t particularly happy or successful. And that’s just what a lot of young people are doing, right now. Sure, there have been experiments, throughout history in nonstandard (for the larger culture) ways of doing things. The gentle Cathars, in the Middle Ages, were into vegetarianism and free love and raising children communally, and ofc (!!!!) the mainline Christians, who had forgotten everything that Yeshua of Nazareth actually taught, killed them all. But those experiments don’t hold a candle to what’s going on today. Many young men and women are saying, “Guess what? I can rethink this stuff in ways that work for me. I can get schooling and a career before I start making babies. I can love more than one person (polyamory in its many forms) or a person of the same gender.” And so on. That sort of thing. And I think all that rethinking and conscious choosing is very, very healthy.

All along, ofc, people in particular times and places thought that the way they happened to be doing things because of their cultural inheritances was THE ONE WAY, and that everything else was aberration. This comes of knowing very little history. Millions of Americans think, for example, that what is supposed to happen in life is that a young person finds THE ONE and marries, and then the couple makes babies and lives in isolation in a nuclear family in a house in the suburbs, having relegated everyone else in the world to the periphery of their lives. This is a recipe for madness, really, for most who attempt it. (Ambrose Bierce wrote that “Love is a temporary insanity curable by marriage.”) But as crazy-making as the isolated nuclear family in the suburbs is for most people, few have had, until recently, enough historical perspective to understand that this is a recent cultural phenomenon (dating back to the workers’ cottages established by industrialists—mine and factory owners—in the nineteenth century); that for the most part, throughout history and prehistory, people didn’t live anything like that but rather in small bands or villages, surrounded by extended family and friends; and that when it comes to how we live our lives, we are free to make stuff up. To innovate, create, decide.

Because that’s what we do, in this and in everything. We either do a lot of unlearning and become authors of our own lives, or we swim in the cultural current, which is as sticky as molasses. Yeah, I know. All those Romantic Comedies told you that that stuff was sweet, but here you are now, swimming in it. Trying to keep your head up. Hmmm.

BTW, as of last year, only 22 percent of American adults lived in nuclear families. But most still think, bizarrely, that they are supposed to.

Copyright 2012. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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