Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love

If anyone can teach us about love, it should be the great philosophers. But as it turns out, a lover of wisdom and a wise lover are two very different things.

JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU Putting Babies in the Corner

One of the most important figures of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that humankind's natural state had been corrupted by society. "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," the philosopher once wrote. Rousseau believed that marriage was a necessary "chain" that mankind needed to submit to, and he argued that the nuclear family -built around the core of a husband and wife- was integral to society's success.

Of course, Rousseau's personal appetites were in stark contrast to the conventional morals that he publicly championed. He enjoyed flashing women, claiming to get an "absurd pleasure" out of the practice. And while he praised the nuclear family as that necessary straightjacket that all men must wear, it wasn't cut to his own liking. In his autobiography, Rousseau recounted his many relationships with upper-class women ...and their staffs. When Madame de Warens took Rousseau into her home in 1729, the philosopher initiated a menage a trois with the noblewoman and her property manager. The three only broke up when Rousseau took a job in another city.

But the philosopher didn't restrict his philandering to high society. In fact, Rousseau's longest relationship was with Therese Lavasseur, an illiterate seamstress whom he met in March 1745. They had a sizable family -or would have, if they'd kept any of their offspring. Rousseau personally abandoned every one of their five children to a French foundling hospital (sort of a YMCA for unwanted children). These tinier chains, he argued, would have interfered with his important work.

Neither Rousseau nor Lavasseur was faithful to the other, but after abandoning their fifth and final child in 1768, they decided to marry. The ceremony wasn't legal, though, as marriages between Catholics (Rousseau) and Protestants (Lavasseur) weren't recognized in France at the time. That appeared to be fine with Rousseau, who barely acknowledged Lavasseur anyway: Instead of referring to her as his wife, he preferred to call her his "housekeeper." He kept her "services" until his death in 1778.

ARISTOTLE The Man, the Myth, the Misogynist

Aristotle has taken plenty of abuse over the years for his misogynistic views. The Greek philosopher believed that women were "monstrosities" and little more than tamed animals, views that couldn't have ingratiated him to the opposite sex. He also believed that women were inherently defective creatures, based on his erroneous observation that they have colder blood and a shorter lifespan than men.

For their part, many historians have simply ignored these little mistakes. After all, Aristotle was one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy. He had created the first formal study of logic and advanced the fields of biology, ethics, and politics. Couldn't a little misogyny be swept under the rug?

At the ripe age of 37, Aristotle decided to take a wife. He married an 18-year-old girl named Pythias, who was the adopted daughter of his mentor, Hermias. The difference in their ages didn't seem to bother Aristotle. And while the historical record seems to indicate their union was a happy one, Pythia's feelings on the marriage have been lost to history. She died at an early age, leaving Aristotle to raise their only child.

Aristotle's second wife was a former slave with the unbecoming name Herpylis. Few details of their relationship remain, but Aristotle clearly preferred monstrosity #1 to monstrosity #2; when he died, Aristotle requested that he be buried beside his first wife. He continued to treat women like tamed animals to the very end, willing Herpylis to the executors of his estate.

There was one way in which Aristotle didn't treat his women like livestock -he never bothered to inspect their teeth. In addition to his other incorrect theories, Aristotle believed that women had fewer teeth than men. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, "Although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths." Perhaps smiles were rare in the Aristotle household. Or perhaps the philosopher was simply too busy with his work to find time to check. According to Diogenes the Cynic, Aristotle would "walk up and down [a public walkway in the Lyceum] discussing philosophy with his pupils until it was time to rub themselves down with oil." Women were confined to the home and barred from public and social functions, while Greek men were free to teach, learn, and get greasy.

LOUIS ALTHUSSER World's Worst Masseur

Louis Althusser was a 30-year-old virgin when he met the 38-year-old Helene Rytman in 1946. Worldly and experienced, she introduced the French philosopher to a brave new sexual world, a world that Althusser clearly wasn't ready for: After sleeping with Helene for the first time, he fell into a deep depression, leading to hospitalization and shock treatment.

Despite this inauspicious start, Althusser eventually accepted sex as part of his life. He also married Helene. Unfortunately, she may have taught her young lover too well. Before long, Althusser was cheating on his wife with other women. That they had no close friends only compounded their marital woes. The marriage was punctuated by violent fights, and Helene frequently threatened to kill herself. Of course, none of this helped Althusser's fragile mental state. The beleaguered philosopher fell into a pattern of frequent hospitalizations and extensive psychoanalytic treatment.

Somehow, the drama didn't seem to impede his work. Althusser lectured for more than 30 years at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, influencing an entire generation of French thinkers with his radical Marxist philosophy.

But on a quiet Sunday morning in 1980, Althusser's life came crashing down. While lovingly massaging his wife's neck, Althusser "accidentally" strangled Helene to death. To the dismay of the press, he was judged mentally unfit to stand trial and spent almost three years in psychiatric hospitals before being released back into society in 1983. And while he mastered Marx, he never quite figured out the opposite sex. As he put it, "The trouble is there are bodies, and worse still, sexual organs."


Simone de Beauvoir: Adopted her lover as daughter.

Henry Ward Beecher: Called marriage "the grave of love" (strange for a clergyman!)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Revealed lust for sister in autobiography.

Leo Tolstoy: Shared lurid sex journal with fiancee right before their wedding.

Ayn Rand: Generously dedicated a book to both her spouse and her lover.


The article above, written by Andrew Shaffer, is reprinted with permission from the January-February 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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Perhaps loving a woman is not the same as love in the unconditioned sense. Philosophers sometimes distinguish between Eros and Philos. Eros is your self-absorbed kind of love that directs itself possessively toward another human being or object. I may love bacon and put a lot of effort toward procuring bacon. Or I may love a celebrity and put effort toward impressing them and making them like me. But this is all Eros. Philos is unconditioned love directed toward no particular thing. The love of wisdom (philosophia) is a love of no particular factoid or saying, it is a love of the "wisdom" in it's most abstract and non-characteristic form. It assumes in some measure that the philosopher does not know what "wisdom" is, his love for it is meant to respect it in order that it reveals itself to him.

Philosopher's generally have a very big idea of what love is, but the women (or men) they tend to meet have very shallow and selfish concepts of love.

"The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother's side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent."
Erich Fromm

Love is all, it gives all, and it takes all.
Soren Kierkegaard

No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them
? Otto Weininger, Sex and Character: An Investigation of Fundamental Principles

Sometimes these philosphers are using a terminology which is offensive to contemporary ears. Allow me to qualify Weininger's statement with another from him:

“There are transitional forms between the metals and non-metals; between chemical combinations and simple mixtures, between animals and plants, between phanerogams and cryptogams, and between mammals and birds [...]. The improbability may henceforth be taken for granted of finding in Nature a sharp cleavage between all that is masculine on the one side and all that is feminine on the other; or that any living being is so simple in this respect that it can be put wholly on one side, or wholly on the other, of the line.”
? Otto Weininger

For these philosophers; the feminine, woman principle or archetype in nature is quite incapable of love and is really only capable of psychological commodity exchange, exchanging praise and adoration - which it calls "love". And has no greater concept than this.

Thus philosophers who have thought a lot about love frequently realize that most people just don't and are basically operating on a self-absorbed basis. Fromm calls it an "egoism of two" when two such people get together.

Anyway, something to think about

A discourse on the true nature of love in the form of an excerpt from the philosophical work "Poison for the Heart" by Kevin Solway.

Those who prefer reading philosophy in text can find the book here:

IMHO. The views expressed herein are mine and do not reflect those of my employer or the organization through which the internet was accessed.
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Nah, the west has been cursed by laypeople who take everything personally and hold congeniality as the highest possible virtue. Unthinking masses whose greatest aspiration in life is to be regarded as a person of worth by their contemporaries. Thus we have a culture which reduces everything to the lowest common denominator / reduces it to something no one has to aspire to and everyone already is.

No one knows any better than anyone else. Everything is "common sense". The differences between us are ignored while we simultaneously pretend as if everything and everyone was exactly the same.

It speaks more to our unwillingness to think critically amidst all the distractions of our lascivious lifestyles. Introjection - self-worth evaluations contingent on the regard of significant others pretty much determines our every action and the upper ceiling on what we can know and still be socially accepted.

Like, if I say; I know nothing, I'm stupid. People will like me because it means they have no fear of feeling stupid around me. In-fact they are likely to feel smart and empowered as long as I maintain that I'm an idiot. The second I start speaking with conviction and betray the fact that I have a little more than common knowledge people will begin disliking me.

I say this is "modern" but it really isn't, I mean, that is why Socrates was put to death. He challenged the self-affirming nonsense beliefs of his contemporaries, thereby causing an introjective threat to their self-concept, and they punished him by death.
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