The love life of philosophers changed the way we think
What if we could tell the story of philosophy through the story of the love life of philosophers? Like the rest of us, philosophers are mere humans, driven by their bodies and their desires, not just their rational minds. Looking at Nietzsche’s unrequited love for Lou Salomé, Sartre’s open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, Heidegger’s affair with Hannah Arrandt, and Foucault’s homosexuality, Warren Ward shows how tracing the links between their relationships and their philosophy can help us understand the origins and fate of much of modern European philosophy.
In April 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche fell head over heels in love with Lou Salomé, a beautiful and fiercely independent young woman from St. Petersburg. Shortly after meeting her, he wrote to a friend:
Lou is the daughter of a Russian general and she is twenty years old; she is as cunning as an eagle and as brave as a lion… and[semble]surprisingly well prepared for my way of thinking and my ideas.[seems}amazinglywellpreparedformywayofthinkingandideas[seems}amazinglywellpreparedformywayofthinkingandideas
Nietzsche followed Salome all over Europe, from the Italian Alps to the German forest of Tautenburg, but he never succeeded in fulfilling her wishes. In August, she left him a note telling him that she had entered into a relationship with Nietzsche’s best friend, Paul Rée, and that she was leaving the next day to settle down with him in Berlin.
Nietzsche is devastated. He retired to the Italian town of Rapallo to lick his wounds. He scaled the tallest tower in the city several times and, in desperation, seriously considered throwing himself into the Mediterranean below. But he did not do it. Instead, he walked for ten days and ten nights in the rain, until – in a flash – the idea for his masterpiece Thus spake Zarathustra came to him. In this work, Nietzsche declares that “God is dead”. This famous proclamation revealed not only something profound that Nietzsche had observed vis-à-vis European culture, but also, I would say, about his state of mind after being cruelly abandoned by Salome.
As I seek to show in lovers of philosophy, Nietzsche was not the only one to see the intimate part of his life helping to shape his ideas. I study the philosophical (and psychoanalytical) significance of Kant’s unrequited desires, Hegel’s premarital affairs, Heidegger’s hypocrisy, Sartre’s promiscuous polyamory, Foucault’s liberation, and Derrida’s extramarital love banter.
What if we could discover other philosophers through the eyes of their lovers?
My interest in the love life of philosophers was inspired by the work of Simone de Beauvoir She came to stay, an autobiographical novel that describes his struggles with feelings of insecurity and jealousy when Sartre brings young philosophy student Olga Kosakiewicz into their open relationship. Beauvoir, a master storyteller, portrays Sartre in this novel not just as a philosopher, but as his lover, a very flawed man with all his flaws and weaknesses laid bare. Reading this novel inspired me to ask the question: what if we could learn about other philosophers through the eyes of their lovers?
The Childhood of Jean-Paul Sartre provides a fascinating case study of how childhood romantic experiences can affect the way one sees the world. Sartre was only fifteen months old when his father died, and after that the shy and clumsy youngster was thrust into a very Oedipal relationship with his mother. The two shared a room in his grandfather’s house until Sartre was twelve, when his life was turned upside down when Sartre’s mother fell in love and remarried.
Until this critical point in Sartre’s development, his mother was his only companion because of his grandfather’s strange ideas about raising children. Sartre’s grandfather forbade him from having playmates, instead insisting that he spend his days reading. The only respite Sartre had from this solitary existence was when he went on outings with his mother or spent long comforting hours in the sanctuary of their common room.
As soon as Sartre came of age, he fled to Paris, where he lost his virginity to a woman his mother’s age. He then embarked on a lifelong pattern of serial courtship, always treating Simone de Beauvoir, his partner in an open relationship, as a sort of mother-confessor. The suggestion that Sartre never really progressed psychologically beyond an Oedipal fixation with his mother is even more believable when we learn that at the age of forty-one he returned directly to his mother when her second husband died. He lived with his mom until his death sixteen years later. On the other hand, he never lived with Beauvoir, or any of his other adult lovers for that matter.
I even wonder if Sartre’s version of existentialism, which for him included an inalienable right to free love, might have been, at least in part, his unconscious way of ensuring that he would never again experience devastating pain of rejection he endured at the tender age of twelve.
Every philosophy has something that it values above all else, be it Truth, Beauty, Knowledge, Justice or Experience. Sartre’s philosophy embraced radical freedom in all aspects of life, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the cruel restrictions he endured throughout his childhood.
Taking pity on her broken-down ex-lover, Arendt set out to rehabilitate Heidegger’s reputation within the international philosophical community.
Our beliefs as human beings are shaped, of course, by a host of measurable and immeasurable factors, including when and where in history we were born. The combined effect of personal, political and historical factors is evident in the case of Martin Heidegger, who developed his philosophical ideas in Germany on the eve of World War II. In his 1927 masterpiece, being and timehe emphasized that although we are all thrown into the world at a time and place beyond our control, we have a duty to use our agency to seek authentic existence in the face of our ever-looming mortality.
One could argue, however, that Heidegger fell short of his own ideals. He was not faithful to his wife, carrying on a secret affair with the young Jewish student Hannah Arendt from 1924 to 1928. And although Heidegger himself described a key aspect of authenticity as “not running with the herd “, he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 to obtain his position as rector of the University of Freiburg.
After the war ended, Heidegger’s collusion with the Nazis led to his removal from his academic duties. His career as a philosopher remained in tatters until the 1950s, when Arendt came to visit. She was now based in the United States and by this time had established herself as one of the most renowned political thinkers in the world. Taking pity on her broken-down ex-lover, Arendt set out to rehabilitate Heidegger’s reputation within the international philosophical community. Thanks to her, Heidegger was able to publish a second wave of works which, like those of his former lover, focused on the multiple challenges of modernity.
Foucault managed to escape the clutches of the psychiatrist and instead went on to complete his thesis, a masterpiece titled Madness and Civilization.
Michel Foucault’s work has also been shaped by his sexuality – or more accurately by society’s responses to his sexuality. When he entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris in the 1950s, it was a hotbed of radicalism, teeming with Trotskyists, Maoists and anarchists. He was, however, not very tolerant of homosexuality. One night, after returning from a ‘beat’, the young Foucault succumbed to the overwhelming sense of shame he had endured in this homophobic environment, and was found lying on the floor of his dormitory covered in blood following beatings. self-inflicted razor wounds. His father, a provincial conservative surgeon, immediately organizes an urgent psychiatric consultation. The psychiatrist made a diagnosis of ‘homosexuality’ and offered a range of treatments to cure his ‘mental illness’. Foucault managed to escape the clutches of the psychiatrist and instead went on to complete his thesis, a masterpiece titled madness and civilization which described how the idea of mental illness was, in the larger scheme of things, a recent construct developed by those in power to suppress those who threatened the central Enlightenment narrative of “reason” prevailing over “unreason” .
I was heartened to discover that another mind, far greater than mine, had suggested that it might be fruitful to explore the love life of philosophers. Jacques Derrida, interviewed by a journalist in 2002, was asked what he would most like to know about the philosophers who preceded him. His answer :
Their sex lives. If you want a quick response. I would like to hear them talk about their sex life. I would like to hear them talk about it. What is Hegel’s or Heidegger’s sexual life?
Philosophers, like the rest of us, are human, and our bodies and desires have a way of infiltrating our lives and thoughts despite our “rational” intentions.
There is, of course, a danger in psychological reductionism, presenting a person’s ideas as a mere outgrowth of their private life. Some would say that you should never refer to the life of a writer when trying to analyze or understand his texts. I agree that in many, if not most, cases a philosopher’s work is not related to his experiences of love or sexuality in childhood or adulthood, but to his earnest examination of other texts and deep and diligent reflection on the issues at hand. But philosophers, like the rest of us, are human, and as Sigmund Freud helped us see, our bodies and desires have a way of seeping into our lives and thoughts despite our “rational” intentions. .
There is, however, a more prosaic and practical reason to explore the ideas of philosophers alongside their experiences of longing, desire and affection. We remember stories much better than facts, and presenting these great thinkers grappling with the mysteries and dramas of love offers an accessible – and even entertaining – route into philosophy for those who feel intimidated by the traditional texts.
By examining the ideas of great philosophers in the context of something we can all relate to – the experience of love – I hope I will inspire some to read more, just as I did after reading Beauvoir’s book She came to stayand to delve into the infinitely fascinating and revealing world of continental philosophy.