In this video, philosopher Skye Cleary introduces her new book, Existentialism and Romantic Love. If you skip past the rather awkward acting of Simone de Beauvoir’s play Who Shall Die, from about the sixth minute onward things become interesting. In a style that has become her own—treading lightly (and gracefully) between scholarly analysis and a lighter, more popular interpretation of philosophy—Cleary walks us through the work of five existentialist thinkers: Stirner, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Beauvoir.
Often considered a nihilistic egoist, Stirner has a somewhat radical view on love. He discards everything from religion and moral values to intellect and rationality as nothing more than "obstructions" getting in the way of self-mastery—and love might be one of these obstructions. Stirner has two main issues with love: one is that all too often it becomes burdened with a sense of duty. What makes love blind and crazy is how overly preoccupied we are with what we should do and what it should feel like. Love is just like any other obstruction and we shouldn’t elevate it on a pedestal or subordinate ourselves to it. Secondly, we are not to fool ourselves thinking love is selfless—it is quite the opposite, a supremely egoistic act. Stirner’s antidote to all of this is self-love, and self-love is based on three cornerstones: self-acceptance, self-interest (in the sense of getting the most value out of life), and self-governance. Being oneself means being master of oneself, and love might even pose a threat to self-governance, to what Stirner calls our "ownness," as we are not to let anyone, not even our loved one, be our master. Love shouldn’t have anything to do with hierarchies or domination, and the best relationships are free associations between people who pursue mutual goals, goals that would have been a lot harder to attain individually. From the appreciation of unique qualities in our lover, to accepting that he or she no longer has those qualities, Stirner seems to stress that love is conditional, and we shouldn’t cling to what is socially expected of the concept.
Watch the rest of the video see what Kierkegaard has to say about marriage, anxiety, and religion, and to learn more about his three spheres of existence and how they relate to different kinds of love. Nietzsche has a lot in common with Stirner—he stresses the importance of self-mastery and largely sees love as an impediment in our way to reaching the Ubermensch ideal. He also views love as a "deadly war between the sexes," a conflict between men's and women’s different manifestations of their will to power. Cleary does well in leaving power couple Sartre and Beauvoir until the end, saving the best for last: Sartre has fascinating things to say about sadism, masochism, and the difficulties of reconciling love with our own desire for freedom as well as acknowledging the freedom of our loved one. Beauvoir thinks freedom from oppression is a necessary condition for being able to love authentically, which is particularly challenging for women, who are used to being in a subordinate position.
If you’ve watched the whole video and still want to know more about existentialists and their views on love, Cleary’s book is worth the read. If you want to dig deeper into philosophers’ views on love and see where it all started, listen to our episodes on Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.