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On the Nature and Perfection of Erotic Love - PPS

Erotic love consists of three elements: the fall, the art, and the consummation. These three elements are unique to erotic love and can help us understand its nature and how it should progress towards perfect erotic love. An erotic love defined by the closest union a pair of lovers may find, a spiritual union.

The Fall

The initial phase of erotic love is commonly called falling in love. Falling in love is similar to falling asleep; it may be intended or desired, but the moment it happens comes out of nowhere. It also leads us to a change in our state of mind. Dante gives a three-fold description of the effects of this fall for each part of the soul, the conquering of the intellect, the sensitive soul being excited, and the vegetative soul being anguished.[1]

The way the mind is conquered comes from how the mind is ordered. The intellect apprehends what is good and moves the will towards those goods.[2] Love has the good as its object and the will as its subject; it is thus teleologically ordered towards union with what is good.[3] This ordering makes the object of love an end that man orientates his actions towards obtaining. This orientation is thus a kind of servitude towards that end, and the object of love can be said to be what conquers the mind in the same way a master conquers the freedom of a slave. This explains why Virgil writes, ‘love conquers all. Let us yield to love’, and Aquinas writes, ‘every agent […] does every action from love’. [4] [5]

The sensitive soul is excited because the emotion of love causes stimulating effects. Aquinas gives four effects to love being: union, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal.[6] Aristophanes best describes the effect of union in Plato’s Symposium. He discusses the origins of man as coming from people who had two heads, four arms and legs, two sets of genitals, and two torsos attached at the chest. Zeus split these people who attempted to attack the gods as punishment. This split led humans to try and seek their other half to become whole.[7] ‘When a lover [...] meets that very person who is their other half [...] the two don’t want to spend anytime apart from each other [...] but still couldn’t say what it is they want from each other. I mean, no one can think that it’s just sexual intercourse they want, and that this is the reason why they find such joy in each other’s company and attach such importance to it’.[8] However, this sense of union is not the same for men and women. Women see this union as a total surrender of their body and soul to the other. In contrast, men see union as not being a total surrender but containing a form of possession.[9]

Mutual indwelling is the sharing of affections. It is not unique to erotic love as it can affect other forms of love, such as brotherly love and love between friends. Aristotle describes this mutual indwelling as the sharing of the delight and pain of the other.[10] However, this sharing of affections can also refer to the pleasure one receives when in the presence of the beloved and the longing when the beloved is absent. These affections are properly said to be unique to erotic love. This ‘presencing’ effect of the beloved on the lover’s affections is how they are said to be present or dwell in the other. This presence of the beloved doesn’t need to be physical either, as simple reminders may spark the beloved’s scopophilic gaze.[11]

Ecstasy is an experience of transcendence in love or a movement outside of one’s own body. This transcendence contrasts with immanence in love which is mutilating and repressed. Transcendence is a liberation from any constraints to subjectivity. However, this dichotomy creates a problem for women who cannot move outside their bodies as a subject in a physiological way but are instead a moved-into body. This physical constraint also creates psychological constraints because the passivity of sex manifests as an immanence of love or the focus on a revealing of oneself as an object in loving. Yet, it would be remiss to say that women don’t also desire transcendence in love as they desire that movement out of their body as a subject towards the beloved, ‘I will rise, and will go about the city: in the streets and the broad ways will I seek him whom my soul loveth’.[12] Beauvoir explains that a woman moves out from herself in love through an active passivity.[13] We can better understand this active passivity in the difference between the clitoral orgasm and the vaginal. The vaginal orgasm requires a phallus which creates a sense of passive dependency on the Other for climax, constraining oneself as a mere passive object rather than a proper subject. Clitoral orgasms do not need the phallus and can be achieved actively, allowing women to love as an active subject. Thus, this active passivity allows women to experience transcendence in both the moving out and in-moving of the body or being both subject and object in the jouissance. Not just physiologically but extending to all aspects of love.

Zeal is the removal of any opposition between the lover and their beloved. Zeal can arise from both envy and love. This distinction is crucial as not all forms of zeal can be strictly said to arise from love. Zeal that arises from envy is pathological, such as the examples of the jealous husbands in both Aquinas and Lacan’s examples.[14] [15] The zeal that comes from love is not said to be unique to erotic love but can be a love of friendship as it entails wanting to remove obstacles between the beloved and their good.

Dante says the vegetative soul is anguished because it has been replaced and thus neglected. ‘From that night forth, the natural functions of my body began to be vexed and impeded, for I was given up wholly to thinking of this most gracious creature: whereby in short space I became so weak and so reduced that it was irksome to many of my friends to look upon me [...] (I) told them how it was Love himself who had thus dealt with me’.[16] Ruhleder argues that here Dante is describing an elevation of the states of the soul with the rational, sensitive, and vegetative faculties being risen to the divine, rational, and sensitive faculties.[17] This elevation leads to the vegetative soul being left behind in this elevation and is thus said to be anguished in its neglect.

These effects then leave us wondering what we are supposed to do after we have experienced the fall.

The Art

While the fall is certainly an important part of erotic love, a flame without proper cultivation will soon burn out. This cultivation is what turns love from states of arousal into an art to be mastered. Here love ought to be properly understood as a faculty that requires discipline and effort to grow and mature. It can’t be cultivated passively but requires an active effort on the part of the artist to truly be called a discipline. The problem of mastery in this art is that it is often confused with the passivity of experience. ‘the assumption that there is nothing to be learned about love lies in the confusion between the initial experience of falling in love, and the permanent state of being in love, or […] standing in love’.[18] This art is how we learn to take love as something unstable or falling and make it stable or standing. Since this love is something active, then it requires the formation of a habit of love, and this habit of love is friendship.[19] Friendship comes in three different forms; pleasurable friendships, useful friendships, and virtuous friendships.[20]

Erotic relationships contain both pleasure and utility as pleasure can be found in sexual relations and utility found in familial living.[21] However, a relationship based on pleasure, utility, or both will not be long-lasting because once the pleasure or utility of that friendship has finished, so will the relationship. We see, therefore, that for a friendship to be long-lasting, the locus of what is loved must be in the friend qua beloved and not in the friend’s utility or the pleasure one receives from that friend. What can be said to be loved about the beloved is the excellence of their character or their virtuousness. Within the context of the erotic relationship, this allows the relationship to be made stable as what is loved about the beloved is the beloved themselves. This virtuous love is further enhanced by the erotic relationship as it produces three goals within the art of love that can be worked towards: knowing, nurturing, and growing.

The continuous act of getting to know the beloved more deeply is a fundamental aspect of love. We can’t love what we don’t know, so the more we know something, the more we are able to love it.[22] This is especially true in erotic love, where the intimacy of the lovers allows them to get to know each other in deep and personal ways. This knowing is a discipline as it takes effort to learn more about the other person, and there is a certain mastery in all of the ways one can know about their beloved.

Nurturing is the effort used to help the beloved grow in virtue. Now the love of friendship is to will the good of the other, and virtue is what makes someone good.[23] Therefore, love entails that you wish that the beloved grows in virtue, as what was once loved for being good can be later loved more for being better. As love is something that is active, this wish necessitates that the lover act towards what will make the beloved better, and this is the goal of nurturing.

Growing is the effort we put into developing virtue in ourselves. This logically follows from the goal of nurturing as since we will the good of the other, and love is a form of union, then we become a good of the other by the fact of this union. Since it is a greater good for the beloved to have better things than worse things, we must ourselves become better for the good of the beloved. This creates the goal of growing in virtue ourselves.

The development of these goals of erotic love brings us to the mastery of these disciplines or erotic love’s perfection. The perfection of erotic love is called its consummation.

The Consummation

The perfection of love is also the perfection of man. The consummation of love is the culmination of three perfections: the perfection of the mind, the perfection of the body, and the perfection of the beloved. However, it seems that the perfection of one’s own love has no dependence on the perfection of the beloved. If love is an active force, wouldn’t the perfection of that force not come from the loving agent rather than the object being loved? How could the object qua beloved diminish the perfection of love from the lover?

The answer to these questions is that love requires an object to be loved. The lover must love what is lovable within the beloved. As such, the lover is limited in their love by what is lovable or what is good within the beloved. Therefore, the perfection of love does depend on the perfection of the beloved, as a more lovable object will have a greater capacity to be loved. However, this seems to create another problem about whether erotic love can ever be called a perfect love, as the beloved could never be said to be perfectly loveable. This leads us to understand in what way someone can be said to be perfect.

There are three forms of perfection; absolute perfection, a perfection of nature, and perfection of detachment.[24] Absolute perfection is unique to God as He is perfect love without any potentiality. There is nothing lovable that can be added to Him, as He contains love wholly. Perfection according to nature, is when the lover loves totally in so far as their nature allows them to love. This is said to be only available to those in heaven. Finally, the perfection of detachment is when the lover has removed all obstacles possible between them and their ability to love. Erotic love is chiefly concerned with this third definition of perfection as it is the only form achievable for us, and it relates to the perfection of the mind and body in its capacities.

The perfection of the mind consists chiefly in the detachment of the will from lesser goods towards higher goods.[25] [26] Lesser goods become hindrances to greater love as the love for something is proportionate to what is lovable about the beloved. Forming an attachment to a lesser good creates a limitation in the mind in its capacity for love and is, therefore, an obstacle. The detachment from this lesser good is, therefore, a removal of this obstacle that allows the mind to pursue higher goods/loves more freely.

The perfection of the body is the well-ordering of the initial excitements that arose from the fall. The art and consummation shouldn’t be seen as replacements for those experiences one felt during the fall, but rather as a way of perfecting them through re-learning. The conquering of the mind is perfected by detaching our mind from being conquered by lesser goods. The excitement of the passions is perfected when we don’t view them as the source of our love and use them as ways to grow in the art of love through knowing, nurturing and growing. The languishment of the vegetative soul is perfected through mortification, where the body gives up certain desires to encourage the perfection of the rest of the soul.

When a lover and their beloved achieve these perfections, their love can properly be said to be perfect. This consummation marks both the completion of love but also love’s truest beginning. This beginning is not of a physical marriage but of a spiritual union.


Primary Sources

Alighieri, Dante, Vita Nuova (Milan: Gabriele Mazzotta, 1985).

Aquinas, Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993).

———, Summa Theologiae (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012).

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Augustine, On the Trinity (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1887).

Avila, Theresa of, ‘The Way of Perfection’ in, The Collected Works of Saint Teresa of Avila: Volume Two, (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1980).

Haydock, Rev. George Leo, Douay Rheims Edition of The Holy Catholic Bible with a Comprehensive Catholic Commentary (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2014).

Plato, The Symposium (London: Penguin Classics, 1999).

Virgil, The Eclogues (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952).

Secondary Sources

Aumann, Jordan, Spiritual Theology (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019).

de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex (London: Vintage Books, 2009).

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Loving (London: Thorsons, 1995).

Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998).

———, The Psychoses (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

Ruhleder, Karl. 1970. 'Dante’s Nobiltà: The Soteriological Identity of Vita Nuova II-IV and Convivio IV XX-XII', Zeitschrift für Religions und Geistesgeschichte, 22, 131-42.

[1] Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova, trans. by Dante Rossetti (Milan: Gabriele Mazzotta, 1985), p. 38. [2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. by Fr. Laurence Shapcote, O.P. (Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012) I, Q.82 A.3–4. [3] ST II–II, Q.24 A.1. [4] Virgil, The Eclogues, trans. by James Rhoades (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), X. 69. [5] ST I–II, Q.28 A.6. [6] ST I–II, Q.28 A.1–4. [7] Plato, The Symposium, trans. by Christopher Gill (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), 189e–191d. [8] Ibid. 192c–d. [9] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Vintage Books, 2009) pp. 699–700. [10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) 1165b24–31. [11] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978) pp. 194–95. The term scopophilic gaze is a term for the erotic pleasure one gains from seeing something as an object which reflects an awareness of one’s own subjectivity. This self-awareness of one’s subjectivity is then what causes the object to form an association with the view of ‘the Other’ (l’Autre). The scopophilic nature is then how this view of the Other comes to represent the beloved and to spark the presencing effect. [12] Song of Songs 3. 2. [13] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp. 401–02. [14] ST I–II, Q.28 A.4. [15] Jacques Lacan, The Psychoses, trans. by Russell Grigg (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), p. 42. [16] Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova, p. 44. [17] Karl Ruhleder, ‘Dante's Nobiltà: The Soteriological Identity of Vita Nuova II-IV and Convivio IV XX-XII’, Zeitschrift für Religions und Geistesgeschichte, 22 (1970), 131–42. [18] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (London: Thorsons, 1995), p. 3. [19] ST II–II, Q.23 A.1. [20] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1156a10–19. [21] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by C. I. Litzinger, O.P. (Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993) para. 1723. [22] St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, trans. by Arther West Haddan (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887) X. 2. [23] ST I–II, Q.26 A.4; Q.55 A.3. [24] ST II–II, Q.184 A.2. [25] Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, (London: Continuum, 1980) pp.191–92. [26] St. Theresa of Avila, ‘The Way of Perfection’, in The Collected Works of Saint Teresa of Avila: Volume Two, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980) pp. 71–73.

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