More specifically, could love be radical without being irrational?
Ever since the mystical romanticism of nineteenth century western culture, it has become fashionable to regard love as an irrational human sentiment. People seem to like this notion because it gives love a special place in philosophy: love is not the sort of thing you can write a long philosophical treatise on (or can you?), but instead it is a subject for great poems and works of art. Of course, this understanding completely disregards any art that may be inherent in the genera of boring treatise writing, which is entirely surpassed, it is supposed, by the capacity of an ardent poet. Indeed, this superior position seems to be where such a notion of love is placed; it is not merely irrational but super-rational, transcending and exceeding the limits of the human intellect into some supposedly higher, metaphysical realm of unintelligible emotion.
Some readers might think this notion is less novel than I have made it out to be, and perhaps a brief look at gothic love poetry—by which the romantics were allegedly inspired—would reveal so much. But let me respond to all such objectors with the position that the culmination of that poetic school is actually the dolce stil nuovo—a highly rational understanding of love. Indeed, there is very little mystical about medieval mysticism. But enough arguing with my imaginary antagonists; let’s look at an early renaissance passage. This comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, wherein Eve has just eaten the forbidden fruit and Adam is now throwing a mild hissy-fit over the matter:
“Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no, no, I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.”
(Milton, Paradise Lost IX.911-6)
The last two lines might seem irrational. Why would Adam ever pursue a state of woe? That doesn’t make any rational sense; hence, Adam’s love must be irrational. But such a reading completely overlooks Adam’s own rationale, which he provides quite clearly: ‘I feel the Link of Nature draw me’. Milton is referring to the classical metaphor for marriage as a chain (people have been complaining about ‘the old ball and chain’ since antiquity). So entering into a state of woe is something that Adam would do by compulsion, and thus, he violates no rational principles. But Adam’s first premise is the most puzzling part of his logical argument: ‘Should God create another Eve … loss of thee / Would never from my heart’. What does that mean? If God could make another version of the same thing that Adam holds dear, why on earth would Adam pursue the broken one rather than being satisfied with a replacement?
We could easily imagine this question posed in much a more personal way. Suppose after thirty-five years of marriage, when the children are fully grown and left the cave, Eve turns to Adam in a moment of personal dissatisfaction and asks him that enduring question which has baffled the mind of every lover since the dawn of mankind: ‘why did you choose me?’ Adam would hardly have found himself in a tighter spot if she had instead asked, ‘does this sheep skin make me look fat?’ But he has an easy way out, a simple, rational answer that has been available to no man since: ‘I frankly had no other options.’ However, much to our amazement and stupefaction, Adam utterly refuses this obvious answer and favours a romantic and seemingly mystical one. He goes out of his way to create a hypothetical situation in which there are other Eves and then still decides to stick with his particular wife. Why?